Spacewalks outside the International Space Station are no joke. When an astronaut straps on their suit and ventures out into space, the work being done is often a crucial repair or maintenance that simply cannot go undone. There are, of course, some very important safety features in place to prevent these brave men and women from drifting out into the nothingness of space. On Friday, NASA astronaut Joe Acaba completed his spacewalk and returned safely to the craft, but he did so with one of those vital safety features broken, and the other in need of repair.
Two of the most important safety measures for a spacewalking astronaut — the tether holding them in place and the jetpack that would allow them to get back to safety if they were to accidentally fall off — had to be addressed during the course of the excursion. While NASA says Acaba was never in danger, failed safety features are absolutely a cause for concern, not to mention sweaty palms.
The trouble started when Acaba’s safety tether appeared damaged after he left the air lock. Hanging out in space for hours on end with a frayed safety tether is obviously not something anyone wants to do, so he returned to the ship to have it replaced.
Then, after resuming his duties outside the space station, Mission Control spotted a problem with Acaba’s jet pack, with a handle that wouldn’t stay in position. After some consulting amongst themselves, NASA’s flight controllers decided that the jetpack was unreliable and forced Acaba to head back into the ship yet again. Acaba managed to finish most of the maintenance that was planned for the spacewalk, but a number of things had to be left for later.
In this case, the walk was safe insofar as no unforeseen events forced Acaba to rely on his backup safety features, but since both of them were broken at different points during the spacewalk, it’s a bit frightening to wonder how things might have gone if he had been.