Is a space walk dangerous?

06 February 2017

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Astronaut on spacecraft

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Question

Loyiso - Why is a space walk such a big deal? Is it difficult and dangerous to walk in space - Why?

Answer

Chris Smith put Loyiso's question to space expert Richard Hollingham.

Richard - It is difficult and dangerous to walk in space. The first astronauts to walk in space were Alexei Leonov for the Soviet Union and Edward White for the US. Alexei Leonov, at the time, they painted it as this great heroic space walk all went perfectly. Well, he barely got into his spacecraft; he was almost left outside in orbit around the Earth. Ed White had a great time pinging around with this little jet pack thing and this little rocket gun he had and he made it look so easy.

It turned out to be really difficult. Because people imagined it being like swimming. I’ve done the NASA virtual reality training where they train astronauts at Houston. They set me down in this virtual reality headset. They sit you on a chair and they press the button and then suddenly you’re in space. Wow! Right above the Earth. The temptation is, when you leave the International Space Station, you’re looking down, you pull yourself out of the space station on these railings. And then if you let go, you move away and then the temptation is to swim back towards the space station, and you can’t because you’re not pushing against anything. There’s nothing going on, so it becomes very difficult.

During the 60’s they figured this out with lots of handrails, lots of things to grab onto, things to anchor yourself to. And what they found was, they hadn’t thought about this. This is what I found incredible. They’d have a spanner so they’d have to turn a bolt on the spacecraft. Of course, you turn a spanner and you turn as well. So they had to work out we’ve got to anchor ourselves, then we can turn the spanner.

Then you think about the other problems with a spacewalk. You’re in your little spacecraft, essentially; a spacesuit is a spacecraft. You’re connected by an umbilical and you certainly have a backup life support system on you. So there’s all the things that can go wrong with your personal spacecraft. Luca Parmitano, a European astronaut, a couple of years ago now his spacesuit started filling up with water. So he was the only astronaut who almost drowned in space because there was a leak inside his spacesuit.

Chris - don’t those spacesuits cost an exorbitant amount of money - literally millions?

Richard - Yes and they’re all individually made. Some you can adapt to fit different astronauts. But if you look at the size of astronauts and usually the Americans are really quite tall. Tim Peake, the British European Space Agency astronaut is relatively short so they have different space suits. There’s a Russian space suit and the American Space suits - slightly different.

Chris - Tim Peake’s said he’s going back into space.

Richard - He is, yes. We don’t know when yet but he is going back into space, yeah.

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