In one scene in my all-time favorite movie, Apollo 13, astronaut Jim Lovell’s wife Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan) and kids arrive at Mission Control to watch the astronauts’ live broadcast from the Apollo spacecraft. Once the broadcast begins, Marilyn realizes that none of the networks are carrying what she calls “Jim’s show.” She asks press man Henry Hurt (Xander Berkeley) why, and he tells her that space travel has become routine. “We’ve made going to the moon about as interesting as a trip to Pittsburgh.” Of course the fateful explosion aboard Apollo 13’s Service Module reminded the public that space travel is a dangerous thing.
We received another reminder earlier this month when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned in his spacesuit during a seemingly routine spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Parmitano and American astronaut Chris Cassidy were working to repair cables outside the ISS when Parmitano began to feel condensation in the back of his helmet. He wrote about his experience on his blog — in present tense, adding a true urgency to the story.
The unexpected sensation of water at the back of my neck surprises me — and I’m in a place where I’d rather not be surprised. I move my head from side to side, confirming my first impression, and with superhuman effort I force myself to inform Houston of what I can feel, knowing that it could signal the end of this EVA.
The seven-hour EVA (spacewalk) did end early at NASA’s behest as Parmitano tried to maneuver his way back to the airlock. He describes the harrowing next moments:
As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realise that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see – already compromised by the water – completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose – a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can’t even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.
Thankfully, Parmitano made his way back and ended his spacewalk safely. His frightening experience reminds us that no matter how routine space travel may seem, outer space is still a dangerous place. I’m sure Luca Parmitano will never forget that fact.