Fight Fires…IN SPACE!

Welcome aboard the International Space Station!  You’ve already spent two and a half years getting ready for this moment and now you’re living the dream.  Every day, you spend your time running science experiments, doing routine maintenance on equipment, fixing things that break, and doing anything else you can to advance human exploration of space.

Then one day, something terrible happens.

It starts with a smell, a burning electrical odor, and then the next thing you know, the air around you looks hazy, like some mid-summer Houston smog has settled into the air.  Thanks to your excellent training, you know just what to do.  Instincts take over and you react swiftly.

The first thing you do is push a button that lets the entire crew and all the mission control centers around the world know that there is a fire aboard the space station.  Major news agencies will pick up on this within minutes.  Soon, the entire world will know that there’s an emergency on the station; the lives of the six crewmembers on board are now at risk.  You’ve now got everyone’s undivided attention.

With any luck, this is not like the solid fuel oxygen generator fire that occurred aboard MIR.  That was a fire that could not be put out with an extinguisher and was hot enough to melt metal.  You’re also hoping it has nothing to do with the 100% oxygen system that provides oxygen to experiments and emergency gas masks across the US segment.  Either of those situations could be catastrophic.

So you’re ready to face the worst, ready to charge in and be the hero, to save the day and ultimately grace the cover of the New York Times and Washington Post.  You’ll also be able to line up a pretty good book deal.  You look to the module to your left.   It’s full of smoke.  You need to save the lives of the crew and preserve this multi-billion dollar investment.  You charge in ready to save the day.

And you’ve killed yourself.  You just suffocated yourself with carbon monoxide or hydrogen cyanide.

You apparently didn’t build up enough of a survival instinct in your training to know that you shouldn’t go charging blindly in to save the day.

So let’s back up.  Once you’ve sounded the alarm, the first thing you do is get the whole crew together.  Make sure everyone is safe, accounted for, and you’re all on the same page with respect to what you need to do.  Since you see smoke, you know you’ll need a gas mask of some sort, there’s a couple of different varieties and you grab whatever is handy.  Time is of the essence here, you don’t want whatever small fire is burning to blossom into something that’ll destroy the station and kill everyone on-board.

Now, you’ve made sure everyone know what’s going on, everyone is safe, and you have a plan of attack.  You go back to where you think the problem is, with a friend of course since you’re not going about this alone.  The buddy system once again has its uses.  You see plenty of smoke, but thankfully or not,  no ball of fire.  Now, you realize you are in the middle of a module filled with dozens upon dozens of electronic components that could be the source of the fire.

Most of those components have been built with materials that are fire resistant, but in microgravity things get in unintended places, wires can rub against other things, a piece of flotsam can jam a motor, or any other series of unfortunate events could have happened to lead to this point.  But you’re still in the middle of this module, ready to do the hero’s work.  You just need to know where to do that work.

At last word comes from another crew member elsewhere on the station, he or she’s got some places for you to look.  She’s sitting at a laptop, in relative security, looking over station telemetry to try and find some clues to the fire’s location.  She tells you.  You grab your extinguisher, you fire it off, you’re the hero!

Except you just wasted the extinguisher because that’s not where the fire was.  And you went shooting across the module and damn near knocked yourself out because in microgravity discharging a fire extinguisher is like firing off a jetpack.  Next time remember to secure your feet.


See, just because a piece of equipment is in a certain spot on the station, that doesn’t mean that its power source is in the same spot.  Imagine you’re at home and you’ve got a light plugged in on one end of a long room.  You have it plugged into an extension cord to reach an outlet on the other side of the room.  Now, say there’s a fire at the electrical outlet.  You’re first sign that something is wrong may be that the light goes out, but you’re not doing much good by using a fire extinguisher on the lamp.

Now, imagine there were a hundred such lamps in the room and one of them catches fire.  What’s the first thing you want to do?  If a toaster, radio, or something else starts to smoke, what’s the first thing you do?  You turn it off.  The same thing is true on the ISS; if you know what’s burning, you turn it off.  Now, with a hundred lamps connected to, say, twenty-five extension cords, it could take awhile to figure out the right one to turn off.  Just to be safe, we’ll shut off the power to the entire room.

The same philosophy applies to the space station and that is what you’re ready to do.  At this point, your helpful companion in the other module knows what piece of equipment might be on fire and where it’s plugged in.  You turn it off and if that doesn’t put out the fire, you’re finally ready to use the extinguisher.  You remember to secure your feet and you’re wearing a gas mask so that when you use the extinguisher you don’t kill yourself by surrounding yourself in a cloud of carbon dioxide.

U.S. fire extinguishers aboard the ISS don’t use water.  Instead, they release carbon dioxide.  Just removing oxygen that the fire needs to burn is good enough to put out the fire and maybe you’ve preserved some other expensive, delicate equipment that wouldn’t be able to handle being doused with water.  Russian fire extinguishers use a soapy foamy substance.  Those are not supposed to be used in U.S. modules.

Finally, the fire is out.  You are the hero you knew you could be.  Now you can close off the module and take a break while you and mission control put together a plan to clean up this mess.

Well done.


This post was inspired by a picture that future crew member and commander of ISS Chris Hadfield posted which provided a behind-the-scenes look at ISS fire response training.

Training astronauts - our instructors found a way to make a s... on Twitpic
We acquired that smoke machine about a decade ago in an attempt to create a more realistic environment for our fire response training while still meeting all of NASA’s stringent safety guidelines.  The smoke is harmless, but is realistic enough to create a sense of urgency in this training.  This is an approach we stole from the airline industry.  I spent five years as an Environmental Control and Life Support (ECLSS) instructor for ISS.  Fire response was one of the few things we trained the crew on that we hope they will never use.

Diplomacy Through Space Station Construction

This past weekend, Shuttle Commander Mark Kelly declared International Space Station assembly to be complete.  With that, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my experiences working on the ISS for the past 12 years.

One thing that I would love for more people to understand is how international in nature this project has been.  This is truly a global achievement!  Just from my little arena in spaceflight training, we’ve worked intensively with the Japanese, Russians, Europeans, and Canadians.

We at NASA are considered the integrators for the space station program.  From a training perspective, that means we review and approve all astronaut training requirements and make sure that everyone has the opportunity to fulfill those requirements.

This amount of collaboration requires painstaking attention to detail, thorough documentation, and, given that we all speak different languages, lots and lots of communication.  Lots.

When I was 25, I took my first trip to the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia.  At that point, I had never traveled outside of the country with the exception of a couple of quick trips to Canada.  But there I was with all of two years experience, meeting with my life support system counterparts.  These were men who had 30 to 40 years of experience in their field.  They had been teaching longer than I was alive and they were hosting me as an equal.

Now, I didn’t go into these discussions alone.  I was there with a couple of other colleagues, but none of us had the same experience they did.  We were there to start building a relationship, to learn how they trained things, and, most importantly, to learn something about their systems.

In the early days of the program, getting technical information from our Russian counterparts was notoriously difficult.  There was a lot of ingrained mistrust between the United States and Russia that needed to be overcome.  To overcome that, we had to get beyond stereotypes, language barriers, and cultural differences in order to do the job we needed to do.  It also helped to share a shot of vodka on occasion as a celebration of a day’s hard work.

Over the years, the relationships at the working level have improved greatly.  As we show that we’re willing to listen and discuss and not just posture and entrench, we’ve made progress.  Over that time, GCTC has also changed from a government institution to a privately run organization.

This change has also been accompanied by some military retirements and a wave of new, younger engineers on the Russian side. These younger engineers don’t carry the same ingrained mistrusts as their older compatriots do and as a result, the ability to collaborate with them has improved.

Just a couple of years after this first meeting, I was put in a leadership position on a project that required us to review detailed training requirements for all space station systems: electrical, computer, guidance, thermal, life support, communications, etc.  The intent of the project was to eliminate as much unnecessary training content as possible.  Essentially, we had to identify where we were being inefficient or rather, where their training was wrong.

We were told by many of our US coworkers, that we would never be successful, that the Europeans and Japanese had invested too much into their training to make changes, and that the Russians just wouldn’t do it.

So we gathered our first meeting, with several of us from NASA, a couple of Germans representing ESA, a couple of Japanese representatives, and a handful of Russians.

Communication was our first concern.  English and Russian are the two languages used by the program.  The Germans spoke eloquent British English and spoke with a mastery of the language that many Americans don’t have.  The Japanese had been small players in the program to this point and hadn’t had as much language training.  Communication between us was challenging.  We and the Russians had members with varying levels of understanding of each of our languages, but we would be supported by interpreters to assist there.

If you’ve ever had experience with interpretation, you know that words and terms in different languages don’t always mean the same thing.  Misunderstandings develop easily.  We had to spend some time in each meeting just coming to agreement on the definitions of certain words and picking the specific words we would use to describe things, just so we could learn to talk to each other.

The Japanese were at a greater disadvantage.  They were expected to know English and they largely did it without interpretation.  Culturally, they also had an ingrained tendency to nod yes.  To many of us that gesture meant ‘they understood and agreed’, when to them, it meant ‘they heard us’.  Extra time had to be taken to make sure that our counterparts there not only heard us but also understood.

Eventually though, we’ve been able to move beyond language and cultural barriers and have completed one of the most challenging engineering projects in history.  In so doing, we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way of how to communicate and work together.  My hope is that this will not be the last opportunity for us to do this.

For future exploration missions, I hope we can not only work with our friends at ESA, JAXA, CSA, and RSA, but also with other space agencies around the globe.  It will make things take longer and will ultimately make the project more expensive, but it would be something people around the world could take pride in.

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts

Become an Astronaut; see the world (the hard way)

One more space post before I get the ball rolling on some other topics…

Open the pod bay doors, Hal.

Let’s say for a minute that your life’s goal is to become an Astronaut.  You work your entire life to put yourself in a position to be selected.  You have multiple degrees in math, science, engineering, medicine, or other related disciplines.  You establish yourself as elite in your field of study.  You’ve kept yourself in peak physical condition.  You’ve had the good fortune to stay in perfect health.  You’ve also have the combination of charisma, talent, determination, and luck to make it through the entire Astronaut selection process.  You’ve been selected; you’ve achieved your life’s goal!


Now the hard work really begins.  After you complete roughly two years of basic training, you work through some office duties, biding your time until you’re selected to be on an International Space Station crew.  For the next ten years, given present NASA goals, the ISS will be the only game in town when it comes to a manned outpost in space.  This is our penultimate destination at the moment.  That’s no slight on ISS either as it’s easily one of the most complex engineering projects humankind has ever produced.

So, you’re slated to be an Expedition crewmember.  What are you in for?  Two and a half years of training in preparation for six months on orbit.  You’re going to go around the world, literally, to train for this endeavor.  Roughly half of that time will be spent in the US learning how to operate the US modules of the station, learning how to perform a spacewalk, and being poked and prodded as you’re not only conducting but the subject of multiple science experiments.

You’ll also travel to Star City, Russia, roughly every other month.  For the next three to five years, the Russian Soyuz will be the only means of reaching Earth orbit.  So you’ll spend roughly eleven months over there learning to be a co-pilot or maybe you’ll be lucky and spend only six months or so there because you’re only a passenger.  You also have to learn how to safely operate some Russian ISS equipment too, like fire extinguishers, gas masks, and other safety critical equipment.

In addition to that, you’ll spend just under two months in Cologne, Germany, but you’ll only go for roughly two weeks at a time.  There you’ll learn to operate the Columbus module or perhaps how to safely dock the European Space Agency’s cargo vehicle, the ATV, in addition to learning about more potential experiments.

We won’t stop there though as you’ll also make your way to Tsukuba, Japan.  In the two months you spend there, one week at a time, you’ll learn to operate the Japanese Exploration and Aerospace Agency’s Kibo module as well as their cargo vessel, the HTV, and the Japanese robotic arm.

Speaking of the robotic arm, you’ll also spend a couple of weeks in Montreal, Canada, learning how to operate the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS).  This is the giant robotic arm that has been a part of almost every ISS assembly mission for the last ten years.

You’ll do all that plus travel to different sites in the US, possibly visiting SpaceX or Orbital facilities to learn to operate their Dragon and Cygnnus vehicles.

In two and a half years, you’ll learn to live in the ISS, fly on a Soyuz, rendezvous with an ATV, HTV, Dragon, or Cygnus vehicle, perform an EVA, and on top of that, you’ll need to learn how to converse in Russian.  After all, your crew will include at least three Cosmonauts among the six person complement.

So be prepared.  The next two and a half years will be scripted down to the minute.  You’ll be able to take some vacation, but even that will need to be negotiated among a panel of schedule integrators representing space agencies around the globe. Your time is no longer your own.

Why do we do it this way?  Wouldn’t it be easier to do all in one country?  Well, imagine you are the president of a space agency in this program.  You’re agency sinks millions of dollars and millions of hours into developing a vital component for the station.  Don’t you think for all that time and effort you would like to have the reward, the morale boost, the good PR, of having the crew visit your installation?  Don’t you think the President of your country would also expect that small return on investment for all of the taxpayer dollars that are funneled into the program?

There’s other practical reasons for this, too.  It would be very expensive for the international partners to replicate high or even medium fidelity trainers at Johnson Space Center in Houston.  It would also cost quite a bit to either continuously fly personnel to Houston to provide training or to continuously train instructors resident at JSC to provide that training.

For these reasons, it’s a lot easier to fly you, the Astronaut, the public face of space exploration, around the world to each of these installations.  Your ultimate reward in all this is six months in the heavens, getting to experience what so few have.  I have no doubt it’s worth it, but recognize the toll it takes, not only on you but also your family.

I wrote this to give some small bit of insight into the long, winding journey that is Astronaut training.  Much of this is what my office manages on a day-to-day basis, something that I am very proud to play a small part in.