NASA has suspended spacewalks for a frightening reason

NASA will have to resign itself to suspend all routine outings for its astronauts until further notice, while waiting to find out more about a new liquid leak that has occurred. on a full outing in March.

It’s official: reluctantly, NASA has been forced to announce the suspension of regular spacewalk for all its astronauts for at least a few months. The reason given: he can no longer trust his lawsuits, after so many critical incidents, some of which put the lives of astronauts in danger.

In immediate terms, this means that all spacewalks (EVA) that are not considered absolutely necessary will be postponed indefinitely. So American astronauts will only come out if the International Space Station needs to be repaired; unless there is a priority mission, there is no question of stepping outside the station until further notice.

Until we better understand what happened in the previous EVA, we won’t be dating anymore.“, confirmed Dana Weigel, one of the people in charge involved in the management of the station quoted by Space.com. This break should last at least until next July. On this date the defects or suspected combinations will be returned to Earth for analysis.From there, it will likely take a few weeks to determine for sure the source of the failure.

A new fluid drip that evokes an old trauma

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

During his discharge, the temperature regulation system in his EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit) suit broke down. The man concerned therefore found himself with a drop of liquid on his sealed helmet; a clear critical state of space vacuum. This represents a direct danger for the astronaut, left with his own tools and locked in a jar that is gradually being filled. This fluid can also leak into other subsystems; a situation that could result in a serious failure of communication or the oxygen recycling system, with all the associated consequences.

And sadly this was not an isolated incident. In 2013, Italian Luca Parmitano found himself in a similar situation, captured on video. “My head was very wet, and I felt it get worse”, He began by declaring the control team 400 kilometers below, clearly uncertain.

A chilling testimony that restrained NASA; after several checks and exchanges of views as concerned as confused, the officers stopped short of the emergency mission. Well they took it. Fortunately, the astronaut was able to stay calm, as the situation quickly had a dramatic consequence.

The liquid completely covered my eyes and nose. Very hard to look at. I haven’t heard anything. It is very difficult to communicate. I went back the other way from memory, groping back until I found the airlock.”, The astronaut said 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 thrive. “Of all the problems we’ve encountered with EVA so far, this is probably the worst”, Confirmed Chris Hansen, person in charge of the cell of investigation that was in charge of Parmitano’s case at the time. “I am not aware of any other malfunction that would represent such a risk”.

At the time, NASA also decided to suspend the outings until investigators were given an explanation about the case. At the conclusion of their investigation, they found that the leak was related to a filter clogged with silica. Following a malfunction at a water treatment center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, this contaminant is believed to have entered the cooling fluid that surrounds the entire suit to prevent the astronaut from being completely sunburned.

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

Much of today’s suit design is still based on concepts inherited from the early Apollo missions… © NASA

Antiques are time to hide

The concern is that these combinations are actually antiques. The overall design of these EMUs began in 1983, almost 40 years ago! These combinations were definitely updated in 2002, but the conclusion remains the same. NASA really needs a wardrobe refreshment. And if you include these dysfunctions in the equation, it still starts to seem like a complete emergency. “The plan is to continue using these EMUs until 2028; but it has become more and more apparent that their effective life is limited“, agreed in a NASA report published in January.

NASA has been working on this for several years. He has already presented his plans for new generation of wetsuits, called xEMU. He has more impressive long-term plans. For example, the agency has opened a scanner project that will make it possible to create made-to-measure and on-demand suits using 3D printing (see our article).

But one thing is to present compelling concepts, another is to downplay the business. And so far, these series of suits are still the same away from seeing the sunlight. And for good reason: the design of such technological gems is an engineering challenge.

Great puzzle and tight timing

For in essence a combination of this kind is neither more nor less than one real spaceship in human size and shape. But unlike structures like the ISS, EMUs need to be flexible and lightweight. Otherwise, they will not allow the astronauts to act properly. However, ensuring tightness and thermal insulation of astronauts while maintaining the movement of these expertly expressed features is very difficult.

These technical restraints put a lot of pressure on NASA. After all, he could hardly imagine sending astronauts back to cover the Moon with the same equipment as he had done before; these combinations are not not only mobile and adequately equipped for Artemis 3. This could be a much more complex mission than that dedicated to Armstrong and others.

© NASA

However, the deadline is approaching. Unlike the xEMU program that seems to have stalled once it has swallowed nearly 500 million dollars. It is for this reason that NASA has announced the first postponement of Artemis 3 from 2024 to 2025 (see our article). As it stands NASA’s plan to end xEMUs for 2025 ”as soon as possible”. A date that seems very, if not very ambitious to be respected based on the program’s track record. The bend promises tight…

So it is excluding that the agency will be forced to postpone the deadline once more. Note that NASA is now banking on a retreat in 2026. A new postponement follows the delays caused by the legal explosion of Blue Origin; Jeff Bezos ’company has been ruining the program for weeks with its claims under the famous“HLS case”. (see our article)

Too tall for Artemis 3?

To avoid another delay, the agency should expedite the processing of these cases. Otherwise, there is no time to try them on the top of the creek. He has already made an important decision in this direction. Last year, it launched a call for tenders targeted at the private sector. (see our article). The purpose: to find partners who are likely to improve the subsystems of the suit. These will include, for example, temperature and pressure regulation systems, oxygen recycling, and so on.

To ensure the success of Artemis 3, the xEMU suit must see the light of day. © NASA

But if the program is actually on site, it can also be tempting to subcontract the entire combination. A technique that in any case seems to please Elon Musk, is not surprising. The billionaire suggested to Twitter that SpaceX could take care of it. The idea is also not crazy because SpaceX is already part of the program. In fact, he was responsible for building the Human Landing System. This is the lander that will land Artemis 3 astronauts on our satellite.

But whether NASA outsourced production or not, the conclusion remains the same. There is now an urgent need to put existing EMUs in the closet once and for all. And whatever path is taken, it is standard for the agency to get there as quickly as possible. So it will be interesting to follow the conclusions of the commission of inquiry this summer. Because even if no astronauts have been injured so far, this is clearly a possibility that should be ruled out at all costs. For the safety of the astronauts of Artmis 3, but also of those who risk their lives now aboard the ISS.

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