CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — In one of the most harrowing spacewalks in decades, an astronaut had to rush back into the International Space Station on Tuesday after a mysterious water leak inside his helmet robbed him of the ability to speak or hear at times and could have caused him to choke or even drown.
Italian Luca Parmitano was reported to be fine after the dangerous episode, which might have been caused by an unprecedented leak in the cooling system of his suit. His spacewalking partner, American Christopher Cassidy, had to help him head inside after NASA quickly aborted the spacewalk.
No one — neither the astronauts in orbit nor flight controllers in Houston — breathed easier until Parmitano was back inside and his helmet was yanked off.
"He looks miserable. But OK," Cassidy assured everyone.
It was the first time in years that a spacewalk came to such an abrupt halt and the first time since NASA's Gemini program in the mid-1960s that a spacewalker became so incapacitated. Spacewalking always carries high risk; a puncture by a micrometeorite or sharp edge, if big enough, could result in instant death.
In a late afternoon news conference, NASA acknowledged the perilous situation that Parmitano had found himself in, and space station operations manager Kenneth Todd promised to "turn over every rock" to make sure it never happens again.
Spacewalking is dangerous already, noted flight director David Korth. Then on top of that, "go stick your head in a fishbowl and try to walk around. That's not anything that you take lightly," he said. "He did a great job of just keeping calm and cool" as the amount of water ominously increased.
"Grace under pressure," Korth said.
The two astronauts were outside barely an hour, performing routine cable work on their second spacewalk in eight days, when Parmitano reported the leak. It progressively worsened as the minutes ticked by, drenching the back of his head, then his eyes, nose and, finally, mouth by the time he was in the air lock, the pressure chamber. He could have choked or drowned on the floating globs of water, NASA officials said.