Chemical leak causes scare on space station

September 19, 2006|By Michael Cabbage | Michael Cabbage,ORLANDO SENTINEL

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- An overheated Russian oxygen generator caused a momentary fire scare aboard the International Space Station yesterday.

Flight controllers briefly declared an emergency and told the station's three crew members to trip a smoke alarm after the astronauts smelled fumes from a melted rubber gasket. The crew donned surgical masks, goggles and gloves as a precaution against the possible release of chemicals from the oxygen unit.

A small amount of potassium hydroxide, a mildly toxic substance that can irritate the skin and eyes, is suspected of having leaked from a vent on the generator. The crew cleaned up the clear liquid and sealed it in an airtight bag.

Mission managers said later that the crew was never in any danger.

"There was never any smoke," said Jeff Williams, a NASA astronaut who is the space station's flight engineer. "There was a smell, and it was perhaps wrongly assumed to be a fire initially."

The Russian Elektron oxygen generation unit has a history of problems on this station as well as a prior Russian outpost. The Elektron apparently overheated yesterday morning about a half-hour after it was activated.

The station is stocked with oxygen candles, which are backup canisters of lithium perchlorate that produce breathable air when ignited. More than enough of the candles are available to support the station's three current residents along with a trio of astronauts who are on the way there.

A Russian Soyuz rocket carrying NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Turin and American space tourist Anousheh Ansari lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Central Asia yesterday. Turin and Lopez-Alegria will replace Williams and cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, who have lived on the station since March 30.

The new crew's Soyuz capsule is scheduled to dock with the outpost tomorrow. Ansari, the first woman to pay for a flight to orbit, will return to Earth with Williams and Vinogradov on Sept. 28.

Six visitors who recently departed the station, the crew of Atlantis, inspected the space shuttle's heat shield with a sensor-laden boom yesterday.

The routine survey found no evidence of micrometeorite damage, and NASA managers cleared the heat shield for a planned landing at the Kennedy Space Center tomorrow afternoon. The shuttle's crew is scheduled to spend today packing up Atlantis and checking out the ship's systems in preparation for the return home.

Michael Cabbage writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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