There are a lot of things to like about walking in space—except for the fact that you can’t scratch your nose. A spacesuit, after all, is really more of a space vehicle, with its own sealed environmental system that must remain sealed if it’s going to keep you alive. You could no more open your helmet to relieve an itch or clear a fogged visor than you could open the window of your spacecraft itself.
That’s generally a tolerable thing—until one day in July of 2013 when it became a terrifying thing. It was on that day that Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano stepped outside the International Space Station for what was supposed to be an uneventful six-hour spacewalk. He soon learned a deadly lesson: while a spacesuit is good at automatically purging any number of unwanted things, such as carbon dioxide and excess heat, it is terrible at dumping liquid water.
Of course, spacesuits are not supposed to fill with water in the first place. But what if one did — what if the impossible thing did happen? The choice then would be between death by drowning in the fish bowl of your helmet or death by instant suffocation in the vacuum outside. Surviving to breathe Earthly air once again is not among the options.
That, at least, is how it seemed to Parmitano on that summer day when his spacesuit went murderously awry. That’s how it seemed too to his fellow spacewalker Chris Cassidy, who watched in horror, helpless to assist him, and to the joint mission controls in Moscow and Houston, as Parmitano fought to survive as no astronaut or cosmonaut ever had before.
Listen to Episode 7 of the podcast “Countdown,” as Luca Parmitano’s harrowing and unlikely tale is told.
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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at firstname.lastname@example.org