A fire on board a spacecraft is typically not a good thing. Just ask any of the six members of the Mir team in February of 1997 when a fire broke out on the Russian space station, nearly destroying it and killing all the astronauts/cosmonauts on board. A chemical oxygen tank necessary to support the extra personnel present was the culprit, igniting a conflagration that lasted nearly 15 minutes. Jerry Linenger was a US astronaut who was on the station during the incident. “The flame ate up the chemical, melted the canister, melted insulation — our wires for example — around that area. It was a hot, hot, hot fire burning out of control.”
Vehicle fires on Earth are bad. Usually the vehicle is a total loss. All sorts of toxic materials burn, spewing noxious fumes into the air, making it hard to breath if you’re too close before they blow away on the wind. On a spacecraft, however, there is no wind – no place for the fumes to go. They concentrate inside the confines of the craft while the fire uses up critical oxygen as it burns. It can quickly become unsuitable to support breathing even as the fire threatens to destroy the craft itself.
A couple years ago, an experiment on the International Space Station (ISS) took a look at how fires burn in zero gravity.
But that experiment was very small and in a controlled environment. Now NASA has plans to repeat that experiment – sort of – and in a big way. The Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I – or Saffire-I – will take an unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft into orbit and set it on fire – just to see what happens.
The test isn’t just about seeing how fire burns, but also about testing how different materials burn in zero gravity. The second of the three planned experiments will test things like the ISS plexiglass windows and astronauts’ space suits.
The experimenters also hope to garner all sorts of knowledge about fire safety, not only for use in space, but for other small, pressurized areas such as on board aircraft and submarines.