BY ERIC RUSSELL

Portland Press Herald

NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano were about an hour into their 6.5-hour spacewalk Tuesday when something went wrong.

Cassidy, a Maine native, and Parmitano, who is from Italy, were assigned a series of routine maintenance tasks and infrastructure improvements, working on the cables outside the International Space Station to prepare the station for a Russian research laboratory arriving later this year. It was their second spacewalk, or extra-vehicular activity, in eight days.

Parmitano was setting up an Internet cable when he noticed water accumulating in the helmet of his space suit. At first he thought it was sweat, but the water kept accumulating. It threatened his hearing and his sight — two things you don’t want to lose when you’re walking in space.

On the ground, NASA personnel were alerted to the problem. Astronauts are subjected to countless simulations and what-if scenarios long before they ever leave Earth’s atmosphere and are trained to handle just about anything, but this was something NASA hadn’t seen before. The mission was aborted about 25 minutes after Parmitano first reported the leak.

Cassidy calmly assisted Parmitano back to the safety of the space station so his helmet could be removed before the liquid suffocated him. The Maine astronaut then cleaned up any work materials left behind before ducking back inside the space station himself.

It was the first time since NASA’s Gemini program in the 1960s that a spacewalker became so incapacitated.

Cassidy, who was born in Salem, Mass., but grew up in Bath and then York, is no stranger to spacewalks — Tuesday was his sixth — or to stressful situations. Prior to becoming an astronaut, the 43-year-old was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who spent 10 years as a Navy SEAL, including four six-month deployments, two of which took him to Afghanistan.

“Chris always tells people he’s an ordinary guy, but clearly he’s more than just ordinary,” said York High School Principal Robert Stevens, who knows Cassidy well. “(Astronauts) either have no nerves or nerves of steel. I’m not sure which fits Chris.”

Cassidy has been at the International Space Station since April and recently dealt with another situation on the space station in which he and fellow astronaut Tom Marshburn undertook a hastily planned spacewalk to fix an ammonia leak. NASA officials described the problem as a serious situation, but not a critical one.

NASA still is trying to figure out how water leaked into Parmitano’s helmet, but the most likely scenario is that it came from his space suit’s cooling system.

“The team had a good plan going in; sometimes you have to adjust. This is one of those times,” Kenneth Todd, chairman of the mission management team, said Tuesday during a news media briefing. “The number one objective is to get crew back safely … so from that standpoint, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

“Clearly we have a problem at this point that we don’t understand.”

Spacesuits are thoroughly inspected both before a spacewalk and immediately after.

“There is no time clock,” Todd said, referring to NASA’s probe of the incident. “We want to make sure we turn over every rock.”

Joshua Byerly, public affairs officer for NASA, said Wednesday that Tuesday’s incident demonstrated exactly why NASA always deploys two-person teams on its spacewalks.

“It’s the buddy system,” he said.

Cassidy and Parmitano survived the scare unscathed, but NASA officials said it was a reminder that all spacewalks carry some inherent risks for astronauts. Cassidy previously had to cut short a spacewalk in 2009 because of a potentially dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide in his suit.

The Maine native is in the middle of a six-month stay at the International Space Station. He is due to return in mid-September.

Cassidy no longer lives in Maine, but his mother still lives in York and he returns periodically. He spoke at the York High School graduation a few years ago, the same school where he was a football star in the late 1980s. Two weeks ago, Cassidy even participated in the local Four on the 4th race in York, although he did it from space, not in person.

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