Excerpted from How you can Astronaut: An Insider’s Information to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts (Workman). © 2020.
For all of the emergency coaching I went via as an astronaut, I by no means anticipated to be holed up within the Russian phase of the ISS, the hatch to the US phase sealed, with my crew ready and questioning—would the area station be destroyed? Was this the top? As we floated there and contemplated our predicament, I felt a bit just like the man within the Alanis Morissette music “Ironic,” who was happening in an airplane crash, pondering to himself, “Now isn’t this ironic?” That is how we ended up in that scenario.
Each area station crew trains for every type of emergencies—pc failures, electrical shorts, tools malfunctions, and extra severe fireplace and air leak eventualities. Nonetheless, on the Worldwide Area Station, essentially the most harmful of all is an ammonia leak. In truth, our NASA trainers used to inform us, “For those who scent ammonia, don’t fear about operating the process, since you’re going to die anyway.” That positive instilled confidence.
Just a few months after arriving in area, we had been having a typical day. My crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti and I had been every in our personal crew quarters, going via electronic mail and catching up with administrative work, when the alarm went off. The sound of the ISS alarm is strictly what you’ll suppose a correct area alarm ought to sound like—a cross between a Star Trek alarm and a sci-fi B-movie klaxon. When it goes off, there isn’t any doubt that one thing important is occurring. Sam and I each popped our heads out of our respective quarters and glanced on the alarm panel.
Once I noticed the ATM alarm lit up, my first thought was, “Environment— there should be an environment leak.” The ISS had sometimes had an air leak false alarm over its fifteen-year historical past, and I assumed it should be a type of. Nonetheless, that’s not what ATM means—it stands for poisonous environment, likely from an ammonia leak. Considerably, this alarm was going off for the primary time in ISS historical past. My mind couldn’t consider it, so I mentioned to Samantha, “That is an air leak, proper?” To which she instantly responded “NO—ammonia leak!”
Jolted again to actuality, we jumped into motion. Gasoline masks on. Account for everybody; we didn’t need anybody left behind. Float right down to the Russian phase ASAP and shut the hatch between the US and Russian segments. The US phase makes use of ammonia as a coolant, however the Russian phase doesn’t, so the air must be secure there. Take away all garments in case they’re contaminated. No one smelled ammonia, so we skipped this step! Shut a second hatch to
hold any residual ammonia vapors on the American phase. Get out the ammonia “sniffer” system to verify there isn’t any of that lethal chemical within the environment on the Russian phase. All clear. Then, await phrase from Houston. . . .
Fifteen lengthy, suspense-filled minutes later, we acquired the information—it was a false alarm. We set free a collective sigh of reduction; the station wouldn’t be dying at the moment! Whew. Much like frequent fireplace alarms and uncommon air leaks, ammonia leak was simply added to the gathering of ISS false alarms. We put away the ammonia detector, floated again to the US phase, and began to wash up the mess that we had left floating in midair when that alarm went off.
Then we acquired an pressing name. “Station, Houston, execute ammonia leak emergency response, I say once more, execute emergency response, ammonia leak, this isn’t a drill!” Fairly unambiguous. Solely this time the warning had come through a radio name, not through digital alarm. After the false alarm I knew that a military of NASA engineers had been in mission management, poring over each piece of knowledge that they had, making an attempt to find out if this had been a false alarm or the actual factor. Now that mission management had confirmed that it was an precise leak, there was little question in my thoughts that this factor was actual. No means all these NASA engineers acquired this name flawed. Having labored in mission management for almost a decade myself, I had full confidence in our flight director and flight management group. After they mentioned, “Execute ammonia response,” I put the masks on, shut the hatch, and requested questions later.
It was like a scene out of European Trip—“Look children! Large Ben!”—or possibly Groundhog Day. Oxygen masks activated—examine. US phase evacuated with no person left behind—examine. Hatch between US and Russian segments closed and sealed—examine. Get bare—nope. No ammonia within the Russian environment—examine.
By this level, we had run the ISS ammonia leak procedures twice inside an hour of one another. We had a fast debrief as a crew to debate how we dealt with the emergency, what guidelines steps had been missed, what might have been carried out higher, and what we wanted to report back to Houston. By this level, it was very apparent that there can be a whole lot of conferences taking place in Houston and Moscow and that everyone within the NASA chain of command would concentrate on our predicament.
In a short time the gravity (pun supposed) of the scenario hit us. Utilizing ammonia because the coolant for the American half of the ISS had labored properly for many years, however we had been aware of its hazard. Fortunately, the engineers who designed the station did an incredible job making a leak extraordinarily unlikely, however the risk was at all times there. However, the Russian glycol-based coolant just isn’t harmful, which is why the entire station crew would secure haven there within the occasion of an ammonia leak.
Moreover the hazard of the crew inhaling poisonous fumes, there was a danger to tools. The ISS has two ammonia loops, a collection of tanks and pipes that carry warmth from the station’s inside water loops to the exterior radiators. If one leaked out to area, there would nonetheless be a second accessible to chill tools. It will be a severe lack of redundancy for the station, particularly on condition that there isn’t any longer an area shuttle to restock the station with the large ammonia tanks wanted to fill a loop. It will be ugly, however survivable.
What just isn’t survivable, nevertheless, is having that ammonia leak to the within of the American phase. Initially, if your complete contents of an ammonia loop got here contained in the station, it could in all probability overpressurize and pop the aluminum construction of a number of of the modules, like a balloon being overfilled with air. Mission management might avert this downside by venting the ammonia to area—we might lose the cooling loop, however it could forestall the station from popping. Months after returning to Earth, I realized that Houston had been severely contemplating that choice throughout our emergency, and it was solely averted due to a tricky—and finally appropriate—name by our flight director. That’s why these guys receives a commission the massive bucks—they’re among the smartest and most competent folks I’ve ever labored with. Nonetheless, even if you happen to averted a catastrophic “popping” of construction, there would nonetheless be the issue of ammonia within the US phase.
If even a small quantity of ammonia had been current within the environment, it could be troublesome, if not inconceivable, to take away. The one scrubber we had was our ammonia masks, so theoretically you would have an astronaut sit in a contaminated module, respiration the contaminant out of the air and into the masks filter, and over time sufficient of this scrubbing would decrease the ammonia focus, however because the poor astronaut sat there cleansing the air he would even be coated in ammonia, and convincing his fellow crewmates on the Russian phase to permit him again to their clear air can be problematic, to say the least. There would have to be some kind of bathe and cleansing system to utterly clear him up, which after all doesn’t exist in area. It will be an identical scenario to troopers in a chemical warfare setting, or the Soviet troopers within the latest miniseries Chernobyl. Coping with a poisonous setting on Earth is troublesome sufficient, however in area it could be almost inconceivable. The fact is that an precise leak into the American phase would make a good portion of the ISS uninhabitable, and if there have been no crew there when the tools broke down, there can be no person to repair it.
An actual ammonia leak would ultimately result in the sluggish dying of the US half of the ISS, which might then result in the top of your complete station. We knew this and spent our afternoon watching one another, questioning out loud how lengthy it could be earlier than they despatched us dwelling, leaving the area station uninhabited and awaiting an premature dying.
Later that night, we acquired a name from Houston. “Simply kidding, it was a false alarm.” That was an enormous false alarm. It turned out that some cosmic radiation had hit a pc, inflicting it to kick out unhealthy information relating to the cooling system, and it took Houston hours to type out what was actually taking place. As a result of that decision from Houston had informed us that it was an actual leak, all of us believed it—we knew that the oldsters in mission management had been among the greatest engineers on the earth and that they’d be 100 % positive earlier than making a name like that. So we had been very relieved to get that decision.
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