Astronauts prepare for first spacewalk since helmet leak problem

Astronauts prepare for first spacewalk since helmet leak problem

CAPE CANAVERAL - Astronauts aboard the International Space Station prepared for an unexpected series of spacewalks by fabricating spacesuit snorkels they can use for breathing in case of another helmet water leak, NASA officials said on Wednesday.

The spacewalks, the first of which is slated to begin at 7:10 a.m. EST (1210 GMT) on Saturday, are needed to replace one of two cooling pumps outside the US$100 billion (S$126 billion) complex, which flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

US spacewalks have been suspended since July after a spacesuit helmet worn by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano filled with water, causing him to nearly drown.

The underlying cause of the leak remains under investigation but engineers have learned enough to make modifications so the problem will not happen again, NASA managers told reporters during a conference call.

"I would be surprised if we have a problem with the suits,"said space station programme manager Mike Suffredini.

As a contingency, the spacewalkers' helmets will be outfitted with absorbent pads and home-made snorkels to funnel air from the body of the water-cooled suits into an astronaut's mouth, if needed.

The snorkels, which were fabricated by the crew on Sunday, are made from plastic water line vent tubes used in the spacesuits.

"This is your last resort," said Allison Bolinger, lead spacewalk officer. "If water is encroaching your face, similar to what happened to Luca, the crewmember can lean down and use this (the snorkel) to breathe."

First-time spacewalker Michael Hopkins will wear Parmitano's spacesuit, but it has been outfitted with a new fan pump separator, a device that circulates water and air and removes moisture from air.

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