What NASA’s Chief Astronaut Learned from Near Disaster

International Space Station

NASA Chief Astronaut Chris Cassidy has lived for months on the International Space Station and has performed six spacewalks. “Imagine hanging out with a glass bubble on your head, one hand on a hunk of metal, Earth going beneath your feet at five miles a second, and the whole world listening to everything that comes out of your mouth on the microphone,” he said at a recent Wharton Leadership Conference.

Before joining NASA, Cassidy served 10 years as a Navy SEAL in the Mediterranean and Afghanistan and earned two Bronze Stars. His SEAL team was the first to go into Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He said his favorite leadership story comes from that time, and he recounted it to the audience.

Cassidy told how as a platoon commander, he had to quickly pull together and present a mission plan to his then-superior Bob Harward, whom he described as a “gruff old Navy captain … with this GI Joe scar. And he doesn’t really smile. Ever.” (Harward, now a retired vice admiral, was in the news last February for turning down the position of national security adviser to Donald Trump.) The plan contained — in addition to military intelligence — logistical details involving helicopters, ammunition, food and water, and several layers of contingency planning.

Cassidy was nervous about briefing the captain, but it went well: Harward said he had no questions and muttered his approval. Then, with the meeting over, Cassidy realized, “I look at my watch, oh man, 38 minutes until I’ve got to be on the helicopter.  And I need to probably eat, and go to the bathroom.”

In Afghanistan at that time, living arrangements for the U.S. military were fairly minimal, Cassidy said. “Some tents and some power lines, like maybe one line strung with a light on it, and a chow hall … and a rudimentary place to sleep.” And the bathroom — which he described making his way to — consisted of three sheets of plywood with the open side facing the runway in Kandahar. The “toilet seats” were three tires laid on slats suspended over a hole.

It was nighttime, and Cassidy entered the bathroom wearing a headlamp. “And it illuminates Bob Harward sitting on the middle freaking tire.” Cassidy had little choice but to join him.

“We’re both staring off into the blackness of the night … it seemed like an eternity,” said Cassidy. “And then all of a sudden he says, ‘Hey. You know what I expect you to do?’” Cassidy answered that he did, thinking of the details of his plan. But Harward said simply, “‘I expect you to make the right decisions and bring the guys home safely.’”

“Imagine hanging out with a glass bubble on your head, one hand on a hunk of metal, Earth going beneath your feet at five miles a second.”

Cassidy said it “hit him like a lightning bolt” that this was what all the preparation and training was really about: to lead the team, make good decisions, and get them home. “It didn’t matter if I could run fast or shoot straight bullets or jump out of helicopters … it was all about leadership. So that was like the most poignant moment in my life for leadership. And it happened on a shitter in Kandahar, Afghanistan.”

A Problem That Couldn’t Possibly Have Happened

Cassidy said that of his six spacewalks, five went “just by the plan.” The sixth did not. Some may recall the incident: an ABC News headline for July 16, 2013, announced, “Astronaut Nearly Drowns on Spacewalk.”

Recounting that event, Cassidy said there were leadership lessons to be learned in the teamwork dynamic between the ground crew and the two astronauts, Cassidy and his Italian colleague Luca Parmitano. Cassidy was the lead spacewalker, but the “real person in charge” was the flight director in Houston, he said.

The first sign of trouble happened about a half hour into the spacewalk. Parmitano started getting an unusually high reading on his CO2 sensor. Too much CO2 can cause health problems. But, said Cassidy, it’s a known issue that if you are working hard and sweating in the spacesuit, moisture can get on the sensors and “they can get kind of finicky.” The accepted mission protocol was that if the CO2 sensor starts reading an unrealistic number, continue the spacewalk and pay attention to how you’re feeling instead.

“In a way, the suit is starting to talk to us, but we’re still relatively comfortable — kind of complacent — because we’ve all seen this happen before,” Cassidy said.

The next sign of trouble came a few minutes later, when Parmitano started feeling water collecting on his head. Cassidy noted that Parmitano had actually had a little water in his helmet after his first-ever spacewalk the week before. The water was only noticed once the spacewalk was complete, and neither the astronauts nor the ground personnel had thought much of it. They assumed it was either sweat or a minor drip from the spout of Parmitano’s water drinking bag.

But after about 45 minutes, Parmitano was feeling about as much water on his head as he had felt after his previous six-hour spacewalk. He reported the sensation to ground control. Cassidy said both he and Parmitano knew that once the problem was stated out loud, it would start a decision-making process about what action to take, and they hoped the spacewalk would not be cut short. But the general consensus, as with the week before, was that it was either sweat or the drink bag.

Meanwhile, Cassidy approached the other astronaut and noticed a half-grapefruit-sized pile of water jiggling on his head, and tiny beads of water floating near his face. (In space, water floats around in globs and sticks to things.) Parmitano was able to grab one of the beads with his mouth, and reported that the water was ice cold.

A Harrowing Experience

“That’s when I knew, OK this is not good,” said Cassidy. He explained that all the sources of water in the spacesuit — sweat, urine, the drink bag which was belly-mounted — would have been body temperature. Only one source would be ice cold, and that was the suit’s cooling system. Astronauts wear long underwear woven with water lines which acts like an air conditioner, with the mechanism located in the astronaut’s backpack.

“Never before had we envisioned that water could somehow get from the cooling system into the spacesuit. This was thought to be not possible based on how the engineering was done.” But apparently, it was possible.

Houston decided to terminate the spacewalk. The situation, however, was still not considered an emergency. Cassidy explained that in NASA’s lingo, “terminate” means to finish up in an orderly way and move briskly toward the ship. This is in contrast to “abort” which means to drop everything and get back as fast as you can. Cassidy said that at the time he agreed with the “terminate” call.

“In the military, I would joke around that problems happen at the fold of the map, at the intersection of grid squares, at night. And this was all kind of coming to that very same situation.”

The ship was just about to be enveloped in darkness, Cassidy noted. When orbiting Earth, you circle it every 90 minutes, experiencing 45 minutes of sunlight and 45 minutes of night. He said, “In the military I would joke around that problems happen at the fold of the map, at the intersection of grid squares, at night. And this was all kind of coming to that very same situation.”

When the decision was made to terminate, Cassidy had some things to clean up and told Parmitano to go ahead to the ship. “I got all this stuff,” he assured him. Parmitano started to make his way back. But this movement through space, unbeknownst to Cassidy or the ground crew, caused a large amount of water to flood into Parmitano’s helmet. It clogged his ears, eyes, nose, and communication microphone so that, essentially deaf and blind, he could only grope his way back and finally made it through the airlock.

Even then he could not remove his helmet immediately. Cassidy described how Parmitano had to wait the 20 minutes required to safely re-pressurize the airlock. Cassidy, now by his side, kept looking at his fellow astronaut’s mouth to make sure it wasn’t clogged with water and he could breathe. “He couldn’t hear, but we were squeezing hands and he knew where we were, he could kind of tell that pressure was coming back on.” Fortunately, Parmitano survived the incident uninjured.

Avoiding ‘Groupthink’

“That was quite something for all of us at NASA as a community…. We didn’t have procedures for water in the helmet. Are you kidding me, [we thought,] that’s not going to happen. And it did.” The cause was determined to be contaminants and particulates in the cooling water, which had accumulated over time despite regular flushing-out of the system, and caused some valves to stick. Cassidy noted that the spacesuits being used today are “pretty old,” having been built in the 1970s.

“We didn’t have procedures for water in the helmet. Are you kidding me, [we thought,] that’s not going to happen. And it did.”

Although Cassidy said that NASA has changed its cleaning methods, and absorbent pads have been added to the helmets, the media has reported two similar (but minor) incidents. In February 2015 and January 2016, spacewalkers Terry Virts and Tim Kopra each found a small blob of water inside their helmets, and both mishaps were attributed to the cooling system.

Of his own experience, Cassidy commented, “The big take-home for all of us was [avoiding] ‘groupthink.’ It’s so easy to glom onto, ‘It has to be the water bag.’ Well, it wasn’t the water bag.”

Above all, Cassidy felt he should have trusted his instincts after he told Parmitano to return to the airlock. He remembers watching the other astronaut’s silhouette disappear around the corner of the space station and suddenly feeling a pit in his stomach. “Damn, it’s the very nature of ‘buddy,’” he recalls thinking. “That’s why we do things in pairs, is to be with him right now.” If he could do one thing differently, Cassidy said, it would have been to vocalize this feeling to Houston and join Parmitano as he made his way back to the ship.

He also talked about the importance of clear communication. He noted that Parmitano later regretted downplaying the amount of water he felt, and when he felt it, in the interest of not jeopardizing the mission. Cassidy commented that neither of them had said exactly what they were experiencing to give the ground “the same picture painted that we did.”

An audience member asked Cassidy if he thought NASA had suffered from “mission-itis” during the spacewalk, using an aviation industry term that indicates more emphasis on accomplishing the goal than on safety.

Cassidy said no, and expressed that he thought Houston had handled the incident “pretty well … and we’re even more prepared for future contingencies now.” But where the ground team — as well as the astronauts — could have performed better was to have paid more attention to the excessive amount of water on Parmitano’s head after the earlier spacewalk a week before. “We just sort of brushed it off…. We’re all guilty, we all had a hand in it.”

Photo Credit: NASA

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