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NASA spacewalks prep space station for future commercial crew missions, but spacesuit issues remain a concern

NASA TV footage of spacewalk begins at 6am EST

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, February 20, 2015, 11:30 PM - The first of three spacewalks to prep the ISS for the upcoming Commercial Crew program is taking place this morning, but lingering issues with the spacesuits have had engineers on the ground concerned.

As of 7:45 a.m. EST, Saturday, Feb. 21, NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts have ventured outside the International Space Station, on the first of three spacewalks that are important to the future of the NASA's part in the station's mission. During these three EVAs, each over six-and-a-half hours long, Wilmore and Virts will be installing new hardware that will prepare the station for new docking ports. These will support spacecraft from SpaceX and Boeing, as part of the upcoming Commercial Crew program.

NASA astronauts Barry Wilmore and Terry Virts, outside the Harmony module of the International Space Station, Sat. Feb 21, 2015. Credit: NASA TV

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Although long, these spacewalks are expected to be fairly routine, but there is one problem that the astronauts may need to deal with - the lingering issue with one of the spacesuit's temperature control system.

"That is the same area of concern we had back in 2013 when we had the issue of the water in the helmet," Kenneth Todd, the ISS Operations and Integration manager, said during a briefing on Wednesday.

The issue in 2013 involved water leaking into the helmet worn by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano during his first and second spacewalks. On the second instance, so much water leaked into his helmet that, with the surface tension of the water causing it to cling to his head, it crept around to cover his nose, mouth and eyes, forcing NASA to abort the EVA so that he could return to the station before he drowned.

Luca Parmitano works on spacesuit. Credit: NASA TV

The problem was traced to the suit's cooling system, specifically a part of the system called the fan/pump/separator - the fan that circulates air and oxygen through the suit, the pump that circulates the cooling water, and the water separator that draws moisture from the air and stores it in the suit's cooling loop.

According to what Todd said during the briefing, that issue's root cause was clogged port holes in the water separator, due to the chemistry of the water.

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"That is not an issue here," he stated. "What we are talking about is a failure of the pump to start up. That in itself is not a water-type of event."

Terry Virts preps one of the spacesuits for Friday's EVA.
Credit: NASA TV

This new issue was reported by Wilmore in late January, while he was prepping one of the spacesuits for these upcoming EVAs.

The part was apparently replaced with a spare, and this suit will be worn by Virts during the spacewalks. Wilmore will be wearing a new suit that was recently delivered to the station, while the other suit experiencing the problem is now back on Earth, having been packed away in the Dragon spacecraft before it detached on February 10.

Update: Due to additional analysis of the spacesuits needed before the spacewalks begin, NASA managers decided to push back the first two EVAs from Friday, Feb 20 and Tuesday, Feb 24 to Saturday, Feb 21 and Wednesday, Feb 25. The third EVA is still scheduled for Sunday, March 1.

Coverage of Saturday's spacewalk (and the following EVAs) will begin at 6 am EST, on NASA TV, and will run the full 6.5 hours of the EVA.

EXTENDED COVERAGE: Return for more updates as this story evolves, along with live video coverage via NASA TV during the three spacewalks.

Sources: NASA | NASA TVSpace Station blog | Universe Today

RELATED VIDEO: Dr. Sandra Moore, a spacewalk specialist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston discusses the upcoming astronaut EVAs.

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