NASA suspends spacewalks for a very disturbing reason

NASA suspends spacewalks for a very disturbing reason

NASA has had to resign itself to suspending all routine outings for its astronauts until further notice, while waiting to learn more about a new liquid leak that occurred during a full outing last March.

It’s official: reluctantly, NASA has been forced to announce the suspension of routine spacewalks for all of its astronauts for at least several months. The reason given: she can no longer trust her suits, after several critical incidents, some of which have put the lives of astronauts in danger.

In the immediate term, this means that all spacewalks (EVA) that are not considered absolutely essential will be postponed indefinitely. American astronauts will therefore only go out if the International Space Station is in urgent need of repair; unless there is a priority mission, there is no longer any question of setting foot outside the station until further notice.

Until we better understand what happened in the last EVA, we won’t be dating anymore.“, affirms Dana Weigel, one of the persons in charge who take part in the management of the station quoted by Space.com. This break should last at least until next July. It is on this date that the defective or suspect combinations will be repatriated to Earth to be analyzed. From there, it will probably take a few weeks to determine with certainty the origin of the failure.

A new fluid leak that awakens an old trauma

This decision is directly linked to a series of malfunctions that gave NASA teams cold sweats, starting with the astronauts concerned. The last incident of this type occurred on March 23, and it was the German ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer who paid the price.

During his exit, the temperature regulation system of his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) suit broke down. The person concerned therefore found himself with a water leak in his sealed helmet; an obviously critical situation in the vacuum of space. This represents a direct danger for the astronaut, left to his own devices and locked in a jar which was gradually filling up. This fluid could also have leaked into other subsystems; a situation that could cause a dramatic failure of communications or of the oxygen recycling system, with all the consequences that entails.

And unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. In 2013, it was the Italian Luca Parmitano who found himself in the same situation, incidentally captured on video. “My head is very wet, and I feel like it’s getting worse”, he began by declaring to the control team 400 kilometers below, visibly not reassured.

A chilling testimony that caught NASA off guard; after a few checks and exchanges of glances as worried as perplexed, the officials ended up interrupting the mission in emergency. Well it took them. Fortunately, the astronaut was able to keep calm, because the situation could easily have had a dramatic outcome.

The liquid completely covered my eyes and nose. It was very difficult to see. I heard nothing. It was very difficult to communicate. I came back the other way from memory, groping back until I found the airlock”, related the astronaut after the incident.

A survey next July

Even if the problem remains rare, it is still a major concern for NASA because of the ruthless environment in which astronauts evolve. “Of all the problems we have encountered in EVA so far, this is probably the most serious”, affirmed Chris Hansen, person in charge of the cell of investigation which managed the case of Parmitano at the time. “I am not aware of any other malfunction that would represent such a danger”.

At the time, NASA also decided to interrupt the outings until investigators could shed light on this case. At the end of their investigation, they determined that the leak was associated with a filter clogged with silica. Following a malfunction in a water treatment center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, this contaminant is believed to have entered the cooling fluid that circulates throughout the suit to prevent the astronaut from finishing roasted by the sun.

The analysis scheduled for next July will determine whether this was again the case for the misadventure of Matthias Maurer. “We will look for any obvious signs of contamination, tampering, or anything else”, explains Dana Weigel, program manager at the JSC. Until then, NASA will send a shipment of absorbent plates to limit the risk during essential missions. But that’s like treating a big open wound with a sticky plaster; this countermeasure will not solve the root of the problemand NASA is well aware of this.

Most of the current design of the suits is still based on concepts inherited from the very first Apollo missions… © NASA

Antiques that it is 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 desperately needs a wardrobe refresh. And when you factor these dysfunctions into the equation, it even starts to look like an absolute emergency. “The plan is to continue using these EMUs until 2028; but it is becoming more and more evident that their effective lifespan is limited“, conceded a NASA report published in January.

NASA has already been working on this for several years. She has already presented her plans for the new generation of wetsuits, dubbed xEMU. She has even more impressive long-term plans. For example, the agency unveiled a scanner project that would make it possible to produce made-to-measure and on-demand suits using 3D printing (see our article).

But it’s one thing to present enticing concepts, it’s another to get down to business. And for now, these next-gen suits still seem far from seeing the light of day. And for good reason: the design of such technological gems is quite an engineering challenge.

Huge puzzle and tight timing

For in essence a combination of this kind is neither more nor less than a real spaceship in human size and shape. But unlike a structure like the ISS, EMUs must be flexible and light. Otherwise, they will not allow astronauts to move properly. However, ensuring the tightness and thermal insulation of the astronauts while maintaining the mobility of these skilfully articulated parts is extremely difficult.

These technical constraints put considerable pressure on NASA. After all, she can hardly imagine sending astronauts back to conquer the Moon in the same paraphernalia as he did then; these combinations are not simply not mobile and well-equipped enough for Artemis 3. It will be a much more complex mission than those attributed to Armstrong and others.

©NASA

However, the deadline is fast approaching. Unlike the xEMU program which seems to be stalling when it has already swallowed nearly 500 million dollars. It is already for this reason that NASA had announced a first postponement of Artemis 3 from 2024 to 2025 (see our article). As it stands NASA plans to finalize its xEMUs for 2025”as soon as possible”. A date that already seems too ambitious to be met based on the program’s track record. The bend promises to be tight…

It is therefore is not excluded that the agency will be forced to postpone the deadline once again. Remember that NASA is now banking on a departure in 2026. A new postponement which follows the delays generated by the legal blows of Blue Origin; the firm of Jeff Bezos had crippled the program for several weeks with its claims under the famous “HLS affair”. (see our article)

Too fair for Artemis 3?

To avoid another delay, the agency will have to speed up the development of these suits considerably. Otherwise, it will not even have time to test them upstream. She has already taken an important decision in this direction. Last year, it launched a call for tenders aimed at the private sector. (see our article). The objective: to find partners likely to develop the subsystems of the combination. These will include, for example, temperature and pressure regulation systems, oxygen recycling, etc.

To ensure the success of Artemis 3, the xEMU suits should already see the light of day. ©NASA

But if the program is indeed on site, it could also be tempted to subcontract the entire combination. An approach that in any case seems to please Elon Musk, unsurprisingly. The billionaire had suggested on Twitter that SpaceX could take care of it. The idea is also not so absurd since SpaceX is already an integral part of the program. Indeed, 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.

But whether NASA outsources the 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 essential for the agency to get 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 risk their lives today on board the ISS.