The fire onboard Mir

Reader .5mt asked for more about the fire on Mir.

At that time, there were six people on Mir – American Jerry Linenger, the Mir-22 crew of Valeri Korzun and Alexander Kaleri, the Mir-23 crew of Vasily Tsibliev and Aleksandr Lazutkin, and German astronaut Reinhold Ewald. This was a transition time between crews. The Mir-22 expedition would end soon, and the Soyuz capsule would bring home Korzun, Kaleri, and Ewald. The normal oxygen generation system, called Elektron, was built for three people, so the standard procedure was to light a oxygen generation canister that contained lithium perchlorate. (Yeah, my brain had to bend in a funny way to understand setting something on fire to create oxygen.) The Elektron system was kind of finicky anyway, so there were always plenty of these canisters on board. They are used as backup oxygen generators on the ISS as well.

The crew on Mir had just finished dinner, and Lazutkin lit another canister, when, instead of the usual slow burn, it turned into something like a sparkler bomb. The fan system onboard was designed to move air really well so you didn’t suffocate in your own exhalation. This meant the space station filled with smoke quickly. Everyone put on oxygen masks. Lazutkin and Linenger fought the fire, but, if I understand what happened, all they could really do is let the canister burn itself out and use the fire extinguishers on board to keep anything else from catching fire. Linenger braced Lazutkin because the action/reaction of the fire extinguisher meant he was being pushed backwards. The other crew members prepared the Soyuz capsules in case they had to bail out.

The panel holding the canister melted, as did some nearby cables, and there was smoke damage to nearby equipment. Because everyone put on oxygen masks quickly, they didn’t have much smoke inhalation or resulting health problems. They stopped using canisters from that particular batch, but I don’t know if they ever found out why that particular one had such runaway combustion.

I can’t find my copy of Dragonfly, or I’d pull a couple of quotes from it. Dragonfly was written by Bryan Burrough, and it’s an unnerving account of the Shuttle-Mir days. I’ll keep looking for it.

5 thoughts on “The fire onboard Mir”

  1. I’m guessing the oxygen generators are similar to those in airplanes that are supposed to fall from the overhead in event of depressurization, or the OBA device used on Navy ships.

    1. Similar ones, but the commercial airlines usually use sodium chlorate instead of lithium perchlorate. Something possibly similar happened on the Trafalgar-class sub HMS Tireless where the oxygen canister was contaminated with hydraulic oil and exploded, killing two crewmen and injuring a third.

    2. As a demonstration of “what not to do” when I was at a Navy firefighting school, the instructors tossed an expended oxygen canister in a barrel of oily water. The explosion was pretty damn impressive.

    3. Oh god yeah, Brad – you drop any one of the alkaline metals in water, and you’ll get a nice kaboom. Loads of fun, when you’re not in an enclosed space like a space station or a submarine …

      I’m so glad that OBA’s finally went away.

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