Spacewalk cut short by spacesuit CO2 buildup

A problem with the carbon dioxide removal system in astronaut Chris Cassidy's spacesuit forces flight controllers to terminate a space station battery replacement spacewalk.

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Houston--NASA managers terminated a spacewalk Wednesday when carbon dioxide levels in astronaut Chris Cassidy's spacesuit began climbing due to a malfunction in its CO2 removal system. NASA managers said later the CO2 levels never exceeded normal limits for crews inside the space station or the shuttle and that calling off the spacewalk early was simply a precaution.

"A spacesuit is a very small spacecraft and there's really not very much margin for error," said space station Flight Director Holly Ridings.

Dave Wolf's helmet cam view, showing crewmate Chris Cassidy just outside the space station's Quest airlock module before ending a five-hour 59-minute spacewalk. NASA TV

She said Cassidy, a former Navy SEAL making his first spacewalk, experienced no symptoms of hypercapnia, which include headaches, confusion and lethargy, and that his spacesuit will be equipped with a fresh canister of CO2-removing lithium hydroxide for a planned spacewalk Friday.

Cassidy and astronaut David Wolf were attempting to replace four of six batteries in the space station's oldest set of solar arrays when flight controllers became concerned about elevated CO2 levels in Cassidy's suit.

"Hey, like I said, we were looking at the LIOH (lithium hydroxide) trend in Chris's suit," Aki Hoshide radioed from mission control around 2:52 p.m. CDT. "We do see it trending up. This is probably not by working hard, but it seems like the canister itself is experiencing some problems. So at this point, we would like to start cleaning up. How copy so far?"

"I think I copied, the canister may be having problems, it's not a metabolism-related issue?" Wolf asked.

"And that is correct."

"Interesting," Cassidy said.

"Um hm," Wolf agreed. "Do you see the possibility of an imminent canister failure? We're cleaning up, by the way."

"And yeah, it's not an imminent failure," Hoshide said. "We do still have some time, we just wanted to make sure that you guys are back in the airlock.

"OK."

At the time the spacewalk was called off, the astronauts had replaced two of the four batteries and were preparing to attach a third original battery to a storage pallet. Instead, they left the third battery attached to a temporary fixture and returned to the Quest airlock module.

Normal CO2 levels in an astronaut's spacesuit are between 0.3 and 0.5 millimeters of Mercury. At its highest point Wednesday, Cassidy's suit had readings of 3 mm Hg. The shuttle and space station atmospheres are maintained about 5 mm Hg.

Spacewalk officer Kieth Johnson said a spacesuit's internal sensors will alert an astronaut if CO2 readings climb above 8 mm Hg and that symptoms of hypercapnia don't typically show up until CO2 concentrations reach 15 mm Hg.

Even so, "it became important that we move back to the airlock and put the crew in a configuration we understood based on that CO2 signature," Ridings said. "At no time was the crew in danger. The CO2 levels we saw inside the spacesuit were below what we manage to on the International Space Station and the space shuttle.

"I just came from talking to the flight surgeon and from talking to the crew and the shuttle commander, Mark Polansky. The crew is doing just great and they are ready to go out on the next EVA where we will (do) our four remaining battery R&Rs and complete this task."

Because one of the old 375-pound battery packs was left mounted on a flexible temporary stowage fixture, flight controllers told the shuttle-station crews not to use any exercise equipment that is not isolated from the station to avoid unwanted vibrations.

Johnson said flight controllers are re-assessing the crew's flight plan to re-prioritize the two remaining spacewalks. Cassidy and Thomas Marshburn will attempt to install the final four solar array batteries during a spacewalk Friday. Other high priority items include television cameras needed for the September approach of a new Japanese cargo ship.

Deployment of one or more payload storage mechanisms may be deferred to a future mission.

UPDATED at 10 p.m. CDT: Adding details from post-spacewalk news conference; actual CO2 levels; mission replanning.

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About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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