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Drowning in space!

by Gordon Lamont

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)

Aims

To reflect on keeping calm in a crisis.

Preparation and materials

  • Have available the short NASA video link in a BBC news report and the means to show it during the assembly (available at: www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23777804). It lasts 1.26 minutes.
  • The text of the BBC report accompanying the video contains additional detail and more of Luca’s reflections on the event.
  • Have available any suitable music that has a ‘space’ feel to it, such as Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre, or part of The Hebrides overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, by Mendelssohn, which is about the flow of water, and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.

Assembly

  1. Introduce the story of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who discovered water in his helmet during a spacewalk. Cover the basic facts (see below) and show the short video.

  2. The basic facts of the story are that, on 16 July 2013, Luca was on a routine repair and maintenance spacewalk and something happened that meant he only just made it back to the International Space Station.

    About one hour into the planned six-hour spacewalk, Luca started to feel wetness on the back of his head.

    Before long, water was getting into his eyes and ears, making it difficult for him to see and hear his fellow spacewalker, Christopher Cassidy.

    The decision was made to get Luca back to the airlock quickly.

    He made it back to the air lock and the crew used an emergency routine to quickly get him inside the space station and out of his suit.

    NASA later discovered that the water had leaked from the suit’s cooling system and the same suit had had a similar but less dangerous problem before that was not properly investigated.

  3.  Point out that the basic facts don’t begin to reveal the true drama of the situation. First, we have to think about how water behaves in the micro gravity environment that exists when orbiting Earth. It doesn’t flow down because there is no ‘down’ in space. Instead, the water forms globules, like soap bubbles, that attach themselves to anything they land on – including an astronaut’s face.

    Not being able to see clearly in space means that you can become completely disorientated. With no gravity to tell you which way up you are, you can quickly become, literally, ‘lost in space’.

    Imagine the horror of having a glass dome over your head that is slowly filling with water that is covering your face. It sounds like torture or a nightmare.

    Recalling the incident, Luca said:

    By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can't even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid.

    To make matters worse, I realize that I can't even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can't see more than a few centimetres in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the station.

    Show the video.

  4. Say that perhaps the most amazing part of this story is Luca’s reaction. He didn’t panic, even though he was in a life-threatening situation that no one had faced before and had not been planned for. Instead, he considered what he could do and how he could get out of this terrible situation. His solution was to feel for his safety cable and follow that to the air lock, still unable to see or hear properly. Luca said of this: 

    I move for what seems like an eternity (but I know it's just a few minutes). Finally, with a huge sense of relief, I peer through the curtain of water before my eyes and make out the thermal cover of the air lock: just a little further and I'll be safe.

    You could point out how calm the mission controller Capcom (person who talks to the astronauts from the ground) sounds in the video; he doesn’t let any panic enter his voice. Everyone is focused on ‘working the problem’ – finding a solution that will keep Luca alive.

  5. Explain that, after the incident, NASA created new procedures and modified their spacesuits to help deal with any such emergencies in the future. The spacesuit that Luca wore has since been used again successfully.

Time for reflection

The story of Luca Parmitano inspires and challenges us to think about how we cope in times of crisis and emergency situations.

Do we panic and make matters worse or can we learn to keep calm and ‘work the problem’ to find a solution?

Luca needed his fellow astronauts and mission control. Are we good at involving other people, using their skills and judgement to help us?

Music

Chosen suitable music, such as Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre or part of The Hebrides overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, by Mendelssohn

Publication date: June 2014   (Vol.16 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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