Wednesday’s Russian spacewalk didn’t exactly go as planned, as one cosmonaut’s spacesuit malfunctioned, forcing him to head back inside the International Space Station (ISS) due to an unexpected drop in voltage.
About two hours into the spacewalk scheduled to install a giant robotic arm, cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev reported that the voltage of his spacesuit battery was low. Mission control ordered Artemyev to return to the airlock and connect to the station’s power, while reassuring him, “Don’t worry, everything is fine. You are okay.” As Artemyev continued to fiddle with the crew lock bag before making his way back to the airlock, mission control forcefully told him to “drop everything and go back.”
Cosmonaut Artemyev made his way back into the ISS, leaving his spacewalk partner Denis Matveev behind to wrap things up before mission control officially terminated the rest of the spacewalk. If the voltage of the spacesuit power had continued to drop, Artemyev would have lost contact with mission control, as well as cosmonaut Matveev, and the spacesuit’s fan would’ve no longer been circulating air, making it difficult to breathe. Although mission control stated that the cosmonaut was not in danger, Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics disagreed. “If you are working outside in a vacuum in a malfunctioning spacesuit, anyone who says you’re in no danger doesn’t understand the problem,” McDowell told Gizmodo in an email. “If the electrical power failed, the suit would quickly get to a very uncomfortable temperature.”
The two cosmonauts began their microgravity handiwork at about 9:53 a.m. ET and were scheduled to spend about six and a half hours outside the station’s space-facing Poisk module. Artemyev and Matveev successfully installed cameras on the European robotic arm outside the ISS and were in the process of removing launch restraints from the so-called “hands” of the mechanical arm when the voltage started to drop. The cosmonauts were also supposed to relocate an external control panel and test a mechanism designed to grasp payloads as they arrive to the ISS, but that will probably be rescheduled for another spacewalk.
The 37-foot-long arm was designed for the European Space Agency (ESA) and launched to space in July 2021. The ongoing tension between ESA and its Russian counterpart had put Wednesday’s spacewalk in limbo, as Russia’s space agency retaliated against imposed sanctions due to the war on Ukraine. Roscosmos former head Dmitry Rogozin recently threatened to withhold access to the robotic arm, even commanding the cosmonauts to discontinue their work on the European robotic arm and instead have ESA’s Director General Josef Aschbacher “fly to space” and do it himself.
Despite the slight glitch in the microgravity environment, both cosmonauts are safe back inside the ISS, and the Russian space agency is looking to reschedule the rest of the robotic arm’s tasks so that it can begin operating outside the ISS.