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NASA oversight led to spacewalker's near drowning, panel finds

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Irene Klotz

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NASA footage shows astronaut Karen Nyberg (right) helping astronaut Luca Parmitano (left) remove his space suit after the aborted spacewalk on July 16, 2013.

NASA footage shows astronaut Karen Nyberg (right) helping astronaut Luca Parmitano (left) remove his space suit after the aborted spacewalk on July 16, 2013.

Cape Canaveral, Florida: A panel investigating an astronaut's near drowning during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station in July found that his spacesuit leaked during an earlier outing, officials said on Wednesday.

NASA misdiagnosed the earlier leak, believing the water found in the helmet of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano on July 9 was due to a ruptured drink bag, said space station chief engineer Chris Hansen, who chaired an investigation panel appointed by the US space agency.

"Had the issue been discussed in more detail ... the team likely would have realised that the water experienced in (Major Parmitano's) helmet was 'out of family' and needed to be investigated further," Mr Hansen wrote in a report released on Wednesday.

Astronaut: Luca Parmitano nearly drowned as a result of a spacesuit fault.

Astronaut: Luca Parmitano nearly drowned as a result of a spacesuit fault.

Instead, a week later on July 16, Major Parmitano and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy put on their spacesuits to continue work outside the space station, a $US100 billion research complex that flies about 418 kilometres above Earth.

About 45 minutes into the spacewalk, Major Parmitano radioed to ground controllers that water was leaking into his helmet.

Investigators said NASA did not immediately recognise the possibility that Major Parmitano's suit was failing.

Engineers mistakenly believed a water leak would trip a fan to shut down, signalling a suit problem. Instead, the fan remained operational despite water seeping its way around a valve and ultimately inside the spacewalker's helmet.

By the time flight controllers aborted the spacewalk, water obscured Major Parmitano's vision and impaired his breathing.

About 1.5 litres of water ended up inside the helmet.

"This was a really subtle problem. It took us weeks before we started getting to the conclusion that this had happened earlier," Mr Hansen said.

Ultimately, engineers figured out that the leak was due to contamination in a pump that is part of the spacesuit's cooling system. The source of the contamination remains under investigation.

The 220-page report includes 49 recommendations to beef up safety protocols, training and communication. NASA says it will implement the findings before scheduling its next series of spacewalks, targeted for this northern summer.

NASA has twice before been surprised by unknown technical implications of hardware problems, with disastrous results. In 2003, foam insulation falling off the space shuttle's fuel tank during launch caused wing damage that destroyed the Columbia as it glided through the atmosphere for landing, killing seven astronauts.

The 1986 Challenger accident, which also killed seven astronauts, was later blamed on a booster rocket seal that failed during its launch in cold weather.

"The message to all of us is to be really vigilant and to really communicate," said NASA spaceflight chief William Gerstenmaier.

Reuters

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