OUT FRONT: Fire aboard Mir space station revealed as worse than reported
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ NASA and Russian space officials insisted it was no big deal, just a nuisance really, a minor fire aboard space station Mir that was extinguished in 90 seconds.
Only now, with astronaut Jerry Linenger’s recent return from Mir, is another, terrifying story emerging about the fire last February.
The fire raged for 14 minutes, Linenger says. Flames shot out 2 feet, smoke choked passageways and chunks of molten metal spewed from a burning canister, blocking one of two routes to Soyuz escape ships.
Six men and one lifeboat capable of evacuating no more than three _ the situation had seemed too farfetched for flight controllers to consider seriously. Until it happened Feb. 23 on the world’s only space station, 250 miles above the Earth.
The fire is receiving new scrutiny in light of Wednesday’s collision between Mir and a docking cargo ship. Both incidents highlight the increasingly precarious condition of the 11-year-old space station, designed to last only five.
Linenger, a doctor and two-time space flier, told The Associated Press he considers the Mir blaze the worst spacecraft fire since the Apollo 1 inferno killed three astronauts on the launch pad in 1967.
``Apollo 1 is the worst fire because of the consequences,″ he said in the interview last Friday. ``In flight, there’s nothing approaching that fire (on Mir). For an in-flight fire, that was the worst. You don’t want to be any more severe.″
In Wednesday’s accident, the cargo ship missed its docking port and crashed into a solar panel then punctured or tore a hole in one space station module, which rapidly lost pressure and was sealed off by the crew.
``Serious stuff again,″ Linenger said Wednesday as U.S. and Russian officials sorted options. ``Decompression and fire are big things you have to worry about, and we’ve had both of them.″
Linenger suggested that poor communications between ground controllers and Mir _ rather than any desire to obscure the truth _ led to confusion over the fire’s duration and severity.
``Yes, we think now that it lasted much longer than 90 seconds,″ Jim Van Laak, deputy director of NASA’s shuttle-Mir program, said Wednesday.
It’s possible, Van Laak said, that the crew may have reported a 15-minute fire to Russian Mission Control and that a decimal point was later inserted, making it 1.5 minutes, or 90 seconds. No transcripts exist of the space-to-ground conversations, he said.
In addition, new and pressing problems aboard Mir in subsequent weeks _ failures of oxygen generators, malfunction of the carbon dioxide removal system, the near-miss of another cargo ship _ pushed concern about the fire into the background.
Details of the fire weren’t known until Linenger returned to Earth on May 24 and began a series of NASA debriefings, Van Laak said.
Here is Linenger’s chilling account of what happened:
Late that Sunday evening, Linenger was working at the computer when the master alarm sounded. He’d heard countless alarms during his month aboard Mir, most set off by minor equipment failures.
Then came the cry, ``Seryozny!″
In the central passageway Linenger saw dense smoke pouring from the Kvant 1 module, where the solid-fuel, oxygen-generating canister was ablaze. Smoke began filling the station. The four Russians, one German and Linenger swiftly donned oxygen masks.
Linenger and two cosmonauts fought the fire; the three others prepared a Soyuz for evacuation. The second Soyuz was out of reach, beyond the fire.
``The flame was maybe 2 feet flying out of this thing. It looked like sparklers going off and molten metal flying,″ Linenger said. ``It almost looked like SRBs (solid-fuel rocket boosters on the space shuttle) _ you almost can’t look at them they’re so bright. It was a hot fire.″
Mir’s fire extinguishers were useless against the burning lithium perchlorate; the crew could only let the fuel burn itself out. They turned the extinguishers on the module’s walls instead; they knew if Mir’s aluminum hull ignited and burned through, the station would decompress, ``a quick-get-into-your-Soyuz-vehicle″ situation _ at best.
Mir was out of contact with Russian Mission Control when the fire erupted, and Linenger was ready to use a ham radio to alert the Russians through the Johnson Space Center in Houston that ``an evacuation is a possibility and be ready for it.″
He never made the call. He had no time.
``We needed another fire extinguisher and I went for it,″ he said.
The flames finally died down, but 10 more minutes passed before the smoke began to clear. Vapor from the fire extinguishers had condensed on pipes. Ash was everywhere. Miraculously, damage was minimal, and the crew suffered no serious injuries.
Forty-five minutes after the fire erupted, Mir flew over Moscow and the cosmonauts contacted Russian flight control.
It was an eerily flat conversation, Linenger recalled.
``They said, `Oh, what happened? Is everyone OK?′ ″
``Yeah, we’re doing OK.″
``Is it out?″
``Yes, it’s out.″
Linenger, 42, who left a pregnant wife and 1-year-old son when he rocketed to Mir in January, says he prefers not to dwell on all the what-ifs:
What if the fire had kept burning? What if it had spread?
What if the crew had needed to evacuate? Would three have fled and left three to die?
``I think we would have kept fighting the fire as best we could,″ Linenger said. ``We would have stayed fighting the fire, until the thing went out _ or until we were unsuccessful.″