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Astronaut's helmet leaks, halts spacewalk

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- In one of the most harrowing spacewalks in decades, an Italian astronaut had to rush back into the International Space Station yesterday after a mysterious water leak in his helmet robbed him of the ability to speak or hear and could have caused him to choke, or even drown.

Luca Parmitano, 36, was reported to be fine after the dangerous episode, which might have been caused by a leak in the cooling system of his suit. His spacewalking partner, Christopher Cassidy, an American, had to help him get inside. "He looks miserable. But OK," Cassidy said.

It was the first time in years that a spacewalk came to such an abrupt halt and the first time since NASA's Gemini program in the mid-1960s that a spacewalker became so incapacitated.

In a late afternoon news conference, NASA acknowledged the perilous situation, and space station operations manager Kenneth Todd promised to "turn over every rock" to make sure it never happens again.

The two astronauts were outside barely an hour, performing routine cable work on their second spacewalk in eight days. The leak progressively worsened, drenching the back of Parmitano's head, then his eyes, nose and, finally, mouth.

Afterward, Cassidy told mission control: "To him, the water clearly did not taste like our normal drinking water."

A smiling Parmitano then chimed in: "Just so you know, I'm alive and I can answer those questions, too." He later tweeted: "Thanks for all the positive thoughts!" -- AP

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