NASA has had to resign itself to suspending all routine excursions for its astronauts until further notice while waiting to learn more about a new liquid leak that occurred during a full excursion last March.
It’s official: NASA was reluctantly forced to announce the suspension of routine spacewalks for all of its astronauts for at least a few months. The reason: She could no longer trust her suits after several critical incidents, some of which put the lives of astronauts in danger.
In the short term, this means that all non-essential spacewalks (EVA) will be postponed indefinitely. American astronauts will therefore only eject when the International Space Station is in urgent need of repairs; Unless it is a priority order, leaving the station is out of the question until further notice.
“Until we better understand what happened in the last EVA, we won’t be dating again.” confirms Dana Weigel, one of those in charge participating in the management of the station quoted by Space.com. This break should last at least until next July. On that date, the defective or suspect combinations will be returned to Earth for analysis. From this date it will probably take a few weeks before the cause of the breakdown can be determined with certainty.
A new fluid leak that awakens an old trauma
This decision is directly related to a series of malfunctions that caused cold sweats for NASA teams, starting with the affected astronauts. The last such incident occurred on March 23, and German ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer paid the price.
During his exit, the temperature regulation system of his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) suit broke down. The sufferer therefore found himself with a water leak in his sealed helmet; an obviously critical situation in the vacuum of space. This poses direct danger to the astronaut, left to his own devices and confined in a flooded jar in the midst of the space vacuum. This liquid can also penetrate into other subsystems; This can lead to a dramatic loss of communications or the oxygen return system, for example.
And unfortunately this is not an isolated case. In 2013 it was the Italian Luca Parmitano who found himself in the same situation, caught on video by the way. “My head is very wet and I feel like it’s getting worse“, he first explained to the control team 400 kilometers below, obviously not reassured.
A chilling testimony that surprised NASA; after a few checks and looks that were as concerned as they were perplexed, the officials were forced to call off the operation. Well, it took her. Fortunately, the astronaut was able to remain calm, because the situation could easily have ended dramatically.
“The liquid completely covered my eyes and nose. It was very difficult to see. I have not heard anything. It was very difficult to communicate. I came out of the memory and groped back until I found the airlock‘ says the astronaut. A frightening testimony.
A poll next July
“Of all the problems we’ve encountered in EVA so far, this is probably the most serious‘ confirmed Chris Hansen, in charge of the investigative cell that managed the Parmitano case. “I am not aware of any other malfunction that would pose such a hazard“.
At that time, NASA also decided to pause the excursions until investigators could shed light on the case. At the end of their investigation, they determined that the leak was connected to a Filter clogged with silica. After a malfunction at a water treatment center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, that contaminant would have made its way into the coolant that circulates throughout the suit to keep the astronaut from getting sun-roasted.
The analysis planned for next July will clarify whether this was also the case with Matthias Maurer’s mishap. “We will look for obvious signs of contamination, tampering, or anything else‘ explains Dana Weigel, Program Director at JSC. Until then, NASA is sending a shipment of absorbent panels to limit risk on critical missions. But that’s like putting a band-aid on a big open wound; this countermeasure will not solve the root of the problemand NASA is well aware of this.
Antiques it’s high time to put away
The concern is that these combinations are real antiques. The overall design of these EMUs dates back to 1983, almost 50 years ago! These combinations were certainly updated in 2002, but the conclusion remains the same. NASA is in dire need of a wardrobe refresh. And when you factor these dysfunctions into the equation, it even looks like an absolute emergency. “The deployment of these EMUs is planned until 2028; but it is becoming increasingly clear that their effective lifetime is limited‘ conceded a NASA report released in January.
NASA has been working on this for several years. She has already presented her plans for this new generation of wetsuits, called xEMU. She has even more impressive long-term plans. For example, the agency unveiled a scanner project that would make it possible to 3D print bespoke and on-demand suits (see our article).
But it’s one thing to present compelling concepts, another to get to the point. And for now, those next-gen suits still seem to be far from seeing the light of day. And with good reason: the design of such technological gems is an engineering challenge.
Huge puzzle and tight timing
Because basically such a combination is neither more nor less than a real spaceship in human size and shape. But unlike a structure like the ISS, EMUs need to be flexible and lightweight. Otherwise, they will not allow the astronauts to move properly. However, it is extremely difficult to ensure the tightness and thermal insulation of the astronauts while maintaining the mobility of these skillfully articulated parts.
These technical limitations put considerable pressure on NASA. After all, she can hardly imagine sending astronauts back to conquer the moon with the same tools as back then; these combinations are not just not mobile and well equipped enough for Artemis 3. It will be a far more complex mission than those attributed to Armstrong and others.
However, the deadline is fast approaching. Unlike the xEMU program, which seems to be faltering when it has already swallowed nearly $500 million. For this reason alone, NASA announced a first postponement of Artemis 3 from 2024 to 2025 (see our article). NASA is currently planning to have its xEMUs ready for 2025.”as soon as possible“. A deadline that, given the program’s track record, already seems too ambitious to meet. The curve promises to be tight…
So it is not ruled out that the agency will be forced to postpone the appointment again. Keep in mind that NASA is now betting on a 2026 departure. A new shift that follows the delays caused by Blue Origin’s legal strikes; Jeff Bezos’ company had the program with its claims under the famous “HLS affair“. (see our article)
Too fair for Artemis 3?
To avoid another delay, the agency needs to significantly accelerate the development of these suits. Otherwise it won’t even have time to test them upstream. She has already made an important decision in this direction. Last year it launched a call for tenders aimed at the private sector. (see our article). The goal: to find partners who can develop the subsystems of the suit. These include, for example, temperature and pressure control systems, oxygen recycling, etc.
But once the program is actually on-site, one might be tempted to subcontract the entire combination. An approach that Elon Musk seems to like, unsurprisingly. The billionaire had hinted on Twitter that SpaceX could take care of it. The idea isn’t that far-fetched either, since SpaceX is already an integral part of the program. In fact, it is she who will be responsible for building the human landing system. This is the lander that will land the Artemis 3 astronauts on our satellite.
SpaceX could do it if need be
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) August 10, 2021
But whether NASA outsources production or not, the conclusion remains the same. There is now an urgent need to put the current EMUs in the closet once and for all. And whatever path is taken, it is important that the agency gets there as quickly as possible. It will therefore be interesting to follow the conclusions of the commission of inquiry this summer. Because even if no astronaut has been injured so far, it is obviously a possibility that must be ruled out at all costs. For the safety of the astronauts of Artmis 3, but also of those who are risking their lives on board the ISS today.
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