And the Space Station Will Be Saved by a Snorkel

An out-of-this-world emergency, solved by a mixture of "MacGyver" and "The Snorks."
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Shutterstock/Dudarev Mikhail

Houston, the International Space Station has a problem. Earlier this month, NASA shared some scary news: The orbiting laboratory—home, currently, to six astronauts—suffered a malfunction in its cooling line, critical for dispelling the heat generated by the equipment aboard the Station. In response to the malfunction, the crew was forced to shut down all of the ISS's nonessential equipment, including, sadly, some of its science experiments. Repairing the line will require the astronauts to conduct as many as four spacewalks—"urgent spacewalks," as NASA puts it. 

In a press conference, the space agency announced that it would be sending two American astronauts out on the initial repair mission, which will take place this Saturday. The duo will be looking to replace the Station's malfunctioning pump.

Here, though, is Houston's other problem: The spacesuits the astronauts will be relying on to keep them both safe and work-ready as they venture out of the Station have been known to malfunction. In July, during the course of a similarly repair-focused EVA, the Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano found himself with a sudden leak in his suit. More than a gallon of water began seeping into his helmet—and, of course, without gravity to force it down, the liquid was left simply to float around his helmet, into his eyes, his nose, and his mouth. He could have drowned. 

And you know which suit is going to be re-used for the upcoming spacewalk? Yep: Parmitano's. The American astronaut Mike Hopkins will be wearing the leak-prone hand-me-down on Saturday, Fox News reports. NASA has scrubbed that suit, as well as the one that will be worn by astronaut Rick Mastracchio. It has also added new parts—in particular, a fan pump separator—to each suit, and believes, it says, that the suits will function without a Parmitano-like problem. 

But the agency, of course, can't risk another near-drowning in open space. So its engineers have added another layer of caution—one that has taken advantage of the supplies already available on the ISS. It's Apollo 13 for 2013: an ad hoc solution to an unexpected problem. Engineered on Earth, executed in space.

Oh, except that the 2013 version involves: snorkels. And Velcro. And diapers. 

The NASA engineers' solution started with the realization—anticipated by Parmitano himself—that a water-line vent tube on the Station resembled ... a snorkel. (As Allison Bolinger, NASA's lead U.S. spacewalk officer, explained in a press conference: "Some smart engineers on the ground said, hey, this looks like a snorkel you’d use for scuba diving.") The further realization? That the space-mission standby, Velcro, is water-resistant. So you could essentially take a sliced section of a water-line vent tube and Velcro it to the inside of the spacesuit. Which would, should a water leak occur, offer the astronaut a direct line to oxygen that would allow him the time to get safely back to the Station.

Astronauts Rick Mastracchio (left) and Mike Hopkins check one of their spacesuits inside the Quest airlock of the ISS. (NASA TV)

The final precaution in this "MacGyver"-meets-"The Snorks" bit of spacewear? Absorptive pads. Which, though they are not technically the "maximum absorption garments" that astronauts actually use for their bathroom needs (those, Bollinger explained, cause too much mess), are sleeker versions of the same idea. The pads have been installed in the backs of each helmet to soak up any water that seeps up from elsewhere in the suit. And the spacewalkers have been trained, Fox notes, "to tilt their heads back periodically to test the pad"; if it absorbs more than 6.5 or so ounces of water, it will feel "squishy"—which will alert the astronaut to a leak. And indicate to the astronaut, Bollinger put it, that "it’s time to come inside."

Crew members successfully fabricated the be-snorkeled suits on Sunday. As of this week, they look like this. Godspeed. And may the snorkels stay unused.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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