Physical Science Blog

Mishaps in space

Unexpected and dangerous events can occur during spacewalks

December 21, 2012

When astronauts leave for missions, they do so understanding the difficulties of space travel. They must live in confined spaces for extended periods without much human contact and eat food that was packaged months before. But beyond these anticipated difficulties, space travel can also throw them a few curve balls every now and then — and they often occur during spacewalks.

The first spacewalking mishap occurred in 1965 when Alexey Leonov’s inflated suit wouldn’t let him re-enter the capsule. Since then astronauts have gained experience and technology has improved, but unexpected events continue to occur.

Here are some terrifying spacewalking incidents.

The inflated spacesuit

On March 18, 1965, Alexey Leonov, a Russian cosmonaut, made history when he exited the Vokshod 2 spacecraft and became the first person to “spacewalk” (astronauts do more floating than walking, actually). He remained outside the vehicle for 12 minutes and all was well — until he tried to re-enter the spacecraft. His spacesuit had inflated in the vacuum and he couldn’t fit back in. But Leonov didn’t panic. He didn’t even notify the other crewmember onboard or the ground staff. Instead, he opened a safety valve on his suit to let out some of the pressure, which gave him the flexibility he needed to re-enter the spacecraft.

Leonov returned safely back to Earth and went on to command a Soyuz mission.

The ammonia-man 

Thomas Jones and Robert Curbeam brush off the ammonia on their suits. [Credit:ESAtv]

During a 2001 Atlantis Shuttle mission, astronaut Robert Curbeam was connecting cooling lines to the electrical system on the International Space Station (ISS) when one of the lines began to leak ammonia. In seconds, five percent of the total ammonia in the system had gushed out and condensed on Curbeam before he frantically closed the valve. Due to the sub-zero temperatures in space, the toxic ammonia formed an inch-deep layer on his spacesuit.  The only way to get the ammonia off him was to wait it out. Mission control instructed him to wait a half-hour while the space station orbited the Earth and the sun’s rays evaporated the ammonia. Since then minor but continual ammonia contamination issues have plagued the ISS.

The dropped tool bag of 2008

“Oh, great,” says Stefanyshyn-Piper as the tool kit floats away from her reach [Credit:Associated Press]

The $100,000 tool bag drop was more of an embarrassment than a moment of terror for astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. She was working on cleaning the joints of the solar panels on the ISS when she noticed her grease gun had exploded in her tool bag. As she worked on cleaning it up, the bag slipped away from her hand and became space litter. The spacewalk continued as planned and she shared her crew-member’s tools for the remaining tasks. NASA continued to track the bag and announced that it had burned during re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2009.

About the Author

Naveena Sadasivam

Naveena Sadasivam recently graduated from the American University of Sharjah with a B.S. in chemical engineering and a minor in English literature. She has spent the last four years designing processes and modeling equations on simulation software, working at a natural gas refinery, freelancing for Climate Control ME, and tutoring students. Having always loved science and writing equally, she hopes that SHERP will help her unite both her passions. Follow her on Twitter @NaveenaSivam and check out her blog, The Fugacity Coefficient.


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