Astronaut says helmet leak like being in fishbowl

Making his way back to the safety of the International Space Station's Quest airlock, Italian spacewalker Luca Parmitano was unable to see or hear as water from a leak in his spacesuit slowly but surely filled his helmet with a floating blob of liquid that covered his eyes and ears.

"For a couple of minutes there, maybe more than a couple of minutes, I experienced what it's like to be a goldfish in a fishbowl from the point of view of the goldfish," he told KGO-TV in San Francisco Thursday.

"I was miserable, but OK," he said in a crew interview carried on NASA's satellite TV channel. "It was just a very uncomfortable feeling to be with your face underwater for all that time. But the reaction of the crew was outstanding, I think, the crew on the ground and the crew on board, (fellow spacewalker) Chris (Cassidy) really supported me, and I was just lucky to be back inside in no time."

Parmitano and Cassidy began their second spacewalk in seven days Tuesday morning, venturing outside the International Space Station to carry out a variety of assembly and maintenance tasks.

After the spacewalkers completed the initial two tasks on their to-do list, Parmitano noticed an unusual feeling of water on the back of his neck.

Within minutes, the amount of water increased, and began creeping around to the front of his helmet. Worried about the possibility of choking or worse, flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center quickly aborted the spacewalk and told Parmitano to head for the safety of the airlock.

"About half an hour into the EVA, 45 minutes maybe, Chris and I were ahead on our tasks and we were starting our third task and I felt some water on the back of my head and I realized that it was cold water, it was not a normal feeling, so I told the ground," Parmitano said Thursday.

"Chris came by to give it a look (and) he couldn't see anything. He took some pictures of it, but it wasn't until a couple of minutes later that we actually saw the water trickling in front of the helmet and then I felt it covering my ears. At that point, we called a terminate for the EVA."

Cassidy said there was no doubt the spacewalk had to end as quickly as possible.

"My own gut feeling, I knew it was time to end it when I saw the water creeping around his communications cap kind of right by his eyelids, and I know that was a significant amount of water to be in a helmet and it was time to go in," he told WDAY-TV in Fargo, N.D. "And that all happened in just a few moments, it was maybe four to six minutes that we were discussing it and quickly the plan developed.

"As all incidents happen, it's right when the sun was setting and right as it made things harder. So all those things sort of came together in a perfect storm, so to speak, for us to deal with."

As Parmitano made his way back to the airlock, "the water kept trickling until it completely covered my eyes and my nose, it was really hard to see," he said. "I couldn't hear anything, it was really hard to communicate. I went back just using memory, basically, going back to the airlock until I found it."

Within minutes, Cassidy joined him, the hatch was closed and the compartment was repressurized. As soon as the inner hatch was opened, Karen Nyberg and cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Fyodor Yurchikhin removed Parmitano's helmet and soaked up the loose water with towels.

"They took off my helmet, wiped my face of all the water, about three pounds of water, I would say, and that was the end of it," Parmitano said. "For me, the worst part, as Chris mentioned, I was miserable but OK. He mentioned walking around with your eyes closed in a fishbowl. Really, that's what was going on at that moment."

Since then, the astronauts and engineers in Houston have been testing Parmitano's spacesuit to locate the source of the leak. So far, no obvious problem has been found.

"At this specific moment, we know where it did not come from," Parmitano said. "We know it did not come from the water bag that we use to drink and we know it didn't come from my LCVG, the liquid cooling garment that we wear under the suit.

"But the NASA specialists and engineers are still working really hard to find out exactly what happened, and I'm sure they will find both the problem and the solution."

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."