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Weekly Update - February 28, 1997
Reported by NASA Shuttle-Mir Program Director Frank Culbertson
At about 10:35 p.m. Moscow time the crew was changing out the solid oxygen generating canister which they use when they have extra crewmembers onboard to generate enough oxygen to maintain the minimum level required in the Mir. It's a standard unit they've been using for years. When they installed this one for some reason the lithium perchlorate - which is the chemical inside that they heat and which generates a chemical reaction in the oxygen - for some reason it escaped from the canister and started a fire around the device that normally contains it. The crew saw it immediately. It also generated a lot of flame and smoke and started the alarms on the station. They responded very quickly, attempted to put it out by smothering it initially and then started using fire extinguishers. At the same time they put on gas masks that provided them with breathing oxygen.
I think almost the entire crew was involved in one way or another in fighting the fire. It lasted for about a minute and a half and was quite exciting during that time, I'm sure. A lot of smoke was generated and visibility was reduced quite a bit for several minutes, between five and 20, we're not sure exactly. Jerry Linenger, being the only physician onboard, took air samples and examined all the crewmembers following the fire and during the cleanup, and did a good job making sure everybody remained healthy throughout the whole episode. There was some damage in the vicinity of the oxygen-generating device, some insulation, some panels were burned, some supporting brackets and things like that. Because it was a fairly hot fire, being an oxygen-generating chemical, it had its own air source, so it got pretty hot in that vicinity.
The smoke has cleared up, and Mir has a pretty good atmospheric cleaning system with a number of filters in it. The crew thinks everything is pretty much back to normal in that regard. In the area in Kvant-1 where the fire occurred there is some damage on the bulkhead, and they are not using that oxygen-generating system at all any more. They have a backup system that they can use, if they decide to, in the core module. The equipment in the vicinity, such as the CO2 removal system did have some insulation damage to its wiring. However, it is still operating normally and none of the Mir systems as far as we can tell have been impacted by the fire and are continuing to operate normally.
The day after the fire they spent the entire day cleaning up the residue from the fire extinguishers and the smoke, wiping down the bulkheads and cleaning up the general area, and putting the damaged equipment into bags, so they did not conduct any research on that day. But about a day or so later Jerry picked up [his science program] again and he's back on track. All of that is proceeding normally. He says that things are as they were before in that regard.
There are a number of lessons we have learned [from this experience]. The number one lesson is that the critical people in a situation like this are the crew onboard. In this case, I think all of the crewmembers responded in an outstanding fashion. They obviously were well-trained, they responded quickly and confidently and did all the right things very fast in order to control the situation on the Mir and the cleanup afterwards. I think we are learning some facts that we need to get into our hopper on what do we do if we have a situation like this on a station, and we're not abandoning it.
On the shuttle if we have a major problem like this we bring the shuttle home and repair it on the ground, but with a station you may or may not want to send the crew home, and if it's not something that you would abandon the station for but want to continue operations, you need to know how you're going to clean up after that and continue to do the operations down the road. We're looking at that, among other things, including what kind of equipment they used for breathing during the smoky period and how they put the fire out.
The Fire: News Release
Risk and Safety
Video: Mir-22/23 (Linenger/fire)
Video: Linenger Fire Description
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Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty