Drowning isn’t a hazard I’ve ever considered when the thought of going into the great black beyond springs to mind, but it is possible. We know about this thanks to Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano, who recently posted a terrifying blog entry about how he nearly did just that.
“Space is a harsh, inhospitable frontier and we are explorers, not colonisers,” he warns and oh how right he is.
The story begins, with him exiting the International Space Station (ISS) in order to secure some cabling, doing so with small metal wires. Fiddly tasks are not easy in space, due to the bulky nature of the pressurised suit. According to Parmitano, it was incredibly tiring, but hand cramps soon became the least of his worries.
While over 40 minutes ahead of schedule and feeling quite good about himself, Parmitano suddenly feels a strange sensation: the back of his neck is wet. It’s not sweat sticking to him, but moving, liquid water. The initial thought is a leakage of drinking water, but he observes nothing coming from his straw. After a brief exchange with Houston, it’s decided that he should terminate the mission and head back to the airlock – leaving his partner to secure his tools and cabling.
Gradually making his way back, things go from bad to worse as the volume of water in his helmet increases to the point where he can’t hear instructions from Houston or his partner any more. The water has soaked his earphones and has begun entering his ears. On top of that, his vision is starting to go as the water covers his visor in a cloudy waterfall.
All of this, just before he has to invert himself to make it over one of the ISS’ antennae. When he does so, he loses the ability to see as the “sun sets,” reducing his vision to mere centimetres – not even enough to see the handholds on the ISS sides.
With the water levels continuing to rise, Parmitano resorts to the cable recoil mechanism to gradually pull himself back to the airlock. It’s not much, but it’s all he’s got.
During the slow return to the safety of the station, he even begins to contemplate what should happen if the water, now rising to deadly levels, should cover his mouth and nose. Plan B was apparently to use the safety vale by his ear, essentially creating a “hole in [his] suite,” as part of a controlled depressurisation. This would likely freeze the liquid, but could be lethal if not done with extreme care.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, as after a few agonising minutes of near-blind fumbling in the vacuous, freezing, nothingness of space, he makes it back to the airlock. As his partner Chris follows him in and they begin to depressurise, he feels relief, as “I know that if the water does overwhelm me I can always open the helmet. I’ll probably lose consciousness, but in any case that would be better than drowning inside the helmet.”
Minutes later and his team rush in and remove his helmet, but it is a little while before the water fully leaves his ears and he is able to hear again.
It turned out after the ordeal, to be coolant that had leaked out of his suit, though Parmitano has said that they’re still unsure how or why.
Kitguru Says: That story gave me the willies. Drowning is bad enough, but drowning in space? Eurgh. I just got goose bumps.[Thanks Wired]