The barest details of Luca Parmitano’s near-drowning in space are harrowing enough: The Italian astronaut’s spacesuit helmet began filling with water as he floated outside the International Space Station. Now, Parmitano has published a first-person account on the European Space Agency website that brings the chilling ordeal to life.
In an unprecedented malfunction, Parmitano’s suit and helmet began to fill with about 1 to 1.5 liters of leaked water, officials said at the time. The floating liquid soon blocked the astronaut’s ears, nose and sight, forcing officials to cut the spacewalk from roughly six hours to 1 hour and 32 minutes, the shortest in space station history.
If that doesn’t sound bad enough, Parmitano, who became Italy’s first spacewalker last month, now lays out key details of what happened leading up to the July 16 leak.
“As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing," Parmitano wrote. "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.”
Then it goes from bad to very bad.
"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," the astronaut recounted. "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."
And yes, very bad quickly transitions to worse.
"To make matters worse, I realise that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock," he continued. "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."
Almost entirely blinded, Parmitano comes up with the idea to use the tug of recoil from his safety cable to guide him back to the hatch. At one point, he even considers a crazy-sounding idea: making a hole in his suit as he hung in the vacuum of space.
"The only idea I can think of is to open the safety valve by my left ear: if I create controlled depressurisation, I should manage to let out some of the water.... But making a 'hole' in my spacesuit really would be a last resort."
In the days following Parmitano’s close shave, his American spacewalk partner Chris Cassidy described how the leaking water must have poured into Parmitano’s helmet from a ventilation slit inside the suit’s neck hole. "Scary situation," Cassidy said in a video.
Meanwhile, NASA officials said they’d be looking at what caused the leak, pointing to water from the suit’s cooling system as the potential source.
Messages from readers wishing Parmitano well poured in, many in Italian. The investigation appeared to be ongoing, based on comments that the astronaut apparently left for readers.
"We know now it was the cooling loop - but we don't know the exact source," Parmitano wrote to a commenter.
As for whether they’ll try another spacewalk during this go-round, perhaps to complete the unfinished tasks from the aborted spacewalk, Parmitano said it was unlikely.
"It is not expected ... but the hope remains until the last day," he wrote.
And, of course, the astronaut also had to respond to skeptics.
"Could he not just drink any water that went in his mouth?" one reader asked.
"You need to be able to breathe in order to drink," Parmitano replied.
Read his riveting account here.