How Astronauts Cope When Things Go Wrong in Space


When things go wrong in space, they go very, very wrong. A loose bolt, a jammed button, or a tiny piece of flying debris can easily spell the end for human beings in orbit. NASA and its international counterparts train their astronauts as best they can to handle every possible scenario, but space doesn’t always cooperate. If the thought of near-death encounters in the black appeals to you, you might want to check out the Science Channel show Secret Space Escapes, which invites astronauts and their colleagues to recount their most harrowing space disasters. 

Scott Parazynski is no stranger to dangerous situations and extreme environments. The astronaut/doctor/inventor/pilot has summited Mount Everest and gone SCUBA diving in a volcano. But it’s his last spacewalk that sticks in his mind. Parazynski was up on the International Space Station in 2007 when a hole appeared in one of the station’s electrified solar panels. “As this thing was being unfurled, it began to rip apart,” he tells mental_floss. “So we had to go and physically repair a live, fully energized solar panel.” It was a dangerous mission, but the crew didn’t really have a choice.

“If we weren’t able to repair the solar panel,” Parazynski says, “we would have had to [throw] away a billion-dollar national asset. It would have limited the work that could have been done aboard the International Space Station. It certainly was a huge amount of pressure on my shoulders and on the rest of the team.”

Scott Parazynski in space. Image Credit: NASA 

So Parazynski donned a suit and stepped out into space to try to fix something he couldn’t touch. “The threat to my life was very real,” he says. “It was farther away from the safety of the airlock that we had [ever worked] before.”

Was he worried? Not especially. “There are lots of things that could happen out there," he says. "You could have a suit malfunction. On a recent spacewalk, Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano basically came close to drowning in his suit. The water separator failed and his helmet bubble started to fill up with water. There are all sorts of things that could reach out and grab you and make it a very bad day for you. But the things you tend to focus on are the threats you are able to control.”

“It’s a profound life experience just to go into space,” Parazynski says, “but when you throw on top of that a life-or-death situation or a seemingly insurmountable challenge … it brings out the very best in people.”  

Soyeon Yi, Yuri Malenchenko, and Peggy Whitson aboard the International Space Station in 2008. Image Credit: NASA

Soyeon Yi has the distinction of being South Korea’s first—and, to date, only—astronaut. The engineer participated in a 10-day flight in 2008, during which she conducted experiments aboard the International Space Station. Yi was set to return to earth with seasoned space travelers Yuri Malenchenko and Peggy Whitson. Just before re-entry into the atmosphere, their vessel malfunctioned and sent them hurtling toward the planet’s surface. Yi and her colleagues had only moments to figure out what to do, even as gravity compressed their bodies like grapes in a wine press.

There was no time to panic, Yi tells mental_floss: “I could feel the high pressure on my chest because of the G force, and I could feel the shock and vibration, but there was nothing I could do except [focus] on my own job and protocol.”

Needless to say, Yi made it out alive. She remains thankful for the opportunity to go into space, and tells mental_floss that the journey taught her a lot. “The most important thing I want to share is that whatever happens, we can handle it,” she says. Leaving the planet also inspired Yi to feel grateful for her life on Earth. “It’s easy to complain about a low signal on your phone or weak Internet on your computer, or power outages, or traffic, or bad air, or crowds, or noise. But all those things [exist] because you live on the most comfortable planet in space,” she says. “Be glad you have a phone.”

To find out how Parazynski, Yi, and their colleagues faced these challenges, watch the season finale of Secret Space Escapes tomorrow at 10 p.m. on the Science Channel. 

Want to talk to Scott Parazynski? He'll be answering space questions in a special Facebook chat at 2:30 ET today (January 12).