13 March 2021

Safety precautions for astronauts following ammonia scare

13 March 2021

Spacewalking astronauts have been forced to take extra safety precautions after possibly getting toxic ammonia on their suits from the International Space Station’s external cooling system.

Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins had no trouble removing and venting a couple of old jumper cables to remove any ammonia still lingering as part of a number of maintenance tasks they were carrying out on the space station.

But so much ammonia spewed out of the first hose that Nasa’s Mission Control was worried some of the frozen white flakes might have gotten on their suits.

Mr Hopkins was surprised at the amount of ammonia unleashed into the vacuum of space. “Oh yeah, look at that go. Did you see that?” he asked flight controllers. “There’s more than I thought.”

Even though the stream of ammonia was directed away from the astronauts and the space station, Mr Hopkins said some icy crystals may have touched his helmet.

As a result, Mission Control said it was going to “be conservative” and require inspections.

The astronauts’ first suit check found nothing amiss. “Looks clean,” Mr Hopkins called down.

Nasa did not want any ammonia getting inside the space station and contaminating the cabin atmosphere.

The astronauts used long tools to vent the hoses and stayed clear of the nozzles, to reduce the risk of ammonia contact.

Four hours into the planned six-hour spacewalk, Mission Control said the astronauts had already spent enough time in the sunlight to bake off any ammonia residue from their suits, and that everything should be in order when they went back inside.

An unrelated issue popped up soon afterwards, however, when Mr Glover complained of eye irritation. He said his right eye was watering, but quickly assured Mission Control that blinking seemed to help.

Once the ammonia hoses were emptied, the astronauts moved one of them to a more central location near the Nasa hatch, in case it was needed on the opposite end of the station. The ammonia jumper cables were added years ago following a cooling system leak.

The hose work should have been completed during a spacewalk a week ago, but was put off along with other odd jobs when power upgrades took longer than expected.

Saturday’s other chores included replacing an antenna for helmet cameras, rerouting ethernet cables, tightening connections on a European experiment platform, and installing a metal ring on the hatch thermal cover.

Eager to get these station improvements done before the astronauts head home this spring, Mission Control ordered up the bonus spacewalk for Mr Glover and Mr Hopkins, who blasted off last November on a SpaceX craft.

They originally teamed up for back-to-back spacewalks one and a half months ago, and were happy to chalk up another.

Saturday’s spacewalk got started almost an hour late.

Before going out, the astronauts had to replace the communication caps beneath their helmets in order to hear properly. “I’ve got you loud and clear,” Mr Hopkins said once the new cap was on his head.

It was the sixth spacewalk – and, barring an emergency, the last – for this US-Russian-Japanese crew of seven. All but one was led by Nasa.

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