ABC News' Gina Sunseri reports:
When Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastrachhio float out of the airlock Saturday for their first of three spacewalks, their spacesuits will have two unusual modifications: a snorkel and a liquid absorption pad.
These quirky items are low-tech solutions engineers hope will prevent a repeat of the July 16 spacewalk when Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano almost drowned while orbiting Earth. It was a scenario engineers in Mission Control never even imagined. International Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini shook his head when asked about it. " We always thought a leak would shut the suit down, it would go on backup power, and we would have 30 minutes to get the astronaut back inside the space station."
First-time astronaut Mike Hopkins will wear the suit that Parmitano wore. The space agency doesn't have that many space suits, and the ones they have are 35 years old, so this one has been refurbished. Engineer Allison Bollinger says her team worked with parts the astronauts already had on the space station to come up with the solution. " They basically used tubing they already had and will Velcro it inside the spacesuit." Voila! A snorkel!
It's a real-life flashback to the scene in "Apollo 13," when engineers dumped a box of parts on the table and went to work.
The liquid absorbing pads, which serve as early warning system if water leaks into the spacesuit, will attach to the helmet in back of the astronauts' head - they are under orders to report to Mission Control if the pads get squishy. That's right: squishy. That would be the early warning sign that water is leaking into the suit.
A quiet holiday week will be anything but for Mission Control - with three if not four spacewalks on the calendar for Saturday, Monday, potentially Christmas Day, and a Russian spacewalk on Friday.
Spacewalks are dangerous. While the movie "Gravity" brought the perils home in vivid 3D, the dangers for real-life astronauts are more subtle. Spacesuit malfunctions and physical wear-and-tear on astronauts who are outside in the harsh environment of space for at least six hours. No food, no breaks, not even much time to admire the view. Mission managers debated commissioning the upcoming spacewalks, working on the cooling system problem from Mission Control for days before finally giving the go-ahead to three repair spacewalks.
Astronaut Doug Wheelock is a veteran space walker who installed the same pump that now needs to be replaced during three daring spacewalks in 2010. He summed up the wonder and peril of spacewalks in an eloquent tweet: "The intensity of a spacewalk … darkness; silence; loneliness; fear; every breath and heartbeat seem eerily 'borrowed'."