Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the first human extravehicular activity EVA or simply spacewalk in 1965 during the Soviet Union’s Voskhod 2 orbital mission. In the ensuing half-century since, there have been more than 200 successful EVAs. Nonetheless, when simply anchored and tethered to a tin can, there is plenty of room for error and only a few protocols in place if an astronaut were to become more or less “lost in space.” Thankfully, an engineering team is creating a fail-safe “return home” feature to automatically transport untethered astronauts back to the spacecraft.
NASA tries its damnedest to mitigate and manage Murphy’s Law — nonetheless as the saying goes: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. While astronauts undergo thousands of hours of training to prepare for potentially deadly malfunctions that could arise during launch and orbit, all bets are off in the unforgiving vacuum of space. In 2013, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned when his helmet began to inexplicably fill with water during a routine spacewalk. Per the report, Parmitano’s eyes, ears, nose, and mouth began to slowly fill with water inhibiting his vision and ability to breathe. Fortunately, Parmitano remained calm and resorted to his training, tracking back to the airlock using only touch and memory.
However, training can only go so far and current U.S. spacesuits are equipped with a small jetpack, SAFER, for such a potentially deadly scenario. This “lifejacket” relies on a very limited amount of fuel and if the astronaut has lost consciousness, there is no way to remotely control this system. Researchers at the engineering firm Draper recently applied for a patent on a space suit with a “self-return feature” to automatically taxi an adrift astronaut back to the station. (Fun Fact: NASA actually uses the term “overboard” for such an event.) But how does it work exactly?
Seeing as GPS isn’t an option for such a situation, the suits could use a suite of sensors and a star-tracking program to determine an astronauts location and proximity to the spacecraft. Based on the theoretical design, a series of built-in thrusters would then autonomously navigate the spacefarer to a specific location on the ship. Ideally, this system could have both a direct manual system in place as well a remote system, allowing other members of the crew (in orbit or on at mission command here on Earth) to retrieve team members. This spacesuit could also provide directional cues inside the helmet and even relay step-by-step directional audio instructions if vision is impaired. Draper has plans for a more advanced entirely autonomous system with triggers in place to instinctively initiate this “return home” sequence.
Again, this is just a patent for the time being and while research and development are underway, our stalwart spacefarers won’t be donning such space swag anytime soon. Currently, if an astronaut were to become untethered, the once-in-a-lifetime views would be pretty spectacular prior to the whole potential death by re-entry portion of events. The astronaut would have roughly eight hours or so of breathable oxygen in tow, allowing them to take in roughly five sunrises and sunsets while drifting above our Pale Blue Dot as an artificial human satellite of sorts.