Table of Contents
Jerry Linenger’s long duration mission on Mir was so action-packed that I had to break it up into two parts! Even with two parts, this is a pretty long episode, so enjoy!
Episode Audio #
Linenger’s Book #
If you’d like to hear about the mission in more detail, straight from Jerry Linenger himself, check out his book! I tried to find a bookshop.org link but they apparently don’t have it, so Amazon it is: Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard the Space Station Mir
NOTE: This transcript was made by me just copying and pasting the script that I read to make the podcast. I often tweak the phrasing on the fly and then forget to update the script, so this is not guaranteed to align perfectly with the episode audio, but it should be pretty close. Also, since these are really only intended to be read by myself, I might use some funky punctuation to help remind myself how I want a sentence to flow, so don’t look to these as a grammar reference. If you notice any egregious transcription errors or notes to myself that I neglected to remove, feel free to let me know and I’ll fix it.
Hello, and welcome to The Space Above Us. Episode 162, Long Duration Mir Flight NASA-4, part one: A Candle-lit Dinner
Before we begin, two quick things. First, yes, this episode is a two-parter. I’m generally reluctant to make two-part episodes these days since I know that two weeks is a long time to wait for a single mission, let alone half a mission. But the mission we’ll be discussing today is wall to wall bonkers and there’s just too much stuff to cover. So two-parter it is.
Second, since I brought it up last time, I think I owe you all a quick book review. As usual, I pulled from a number of sources for this episode, but for much of the firsthand account, I relied on Jerry Linenger’s book “Off the Planet: Surviving Five Perilous Months Aboard The Space Station Mir” I’ll caveat this by saying that I haven’t had a chance to fully read the book, but what I did read I enjoyed. There is an unusual amount of haze surrounding the events that took place on Mir, especially on this mission, so it can be tough to be sure exactly what is true. So I think it’s good to treat any source talking about this mission with a small bit of healthy skepticism, this podcast episode included. That said, Linenger’s account rings true to me, while also being thrilling and surprisingly funny, and it’s nice to have stories from someone who was there and who was on the NASA team. So I’d say it’s worth checking out.
Last time, we talked about the logistics-oriented flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-81. While NASA always finds ways to squeeze in some extra science, this flight was primarily dedicated to retrieving NASA-3 crew member John Blaha, along with the results of his months of work, and deliver NASA-4 crew member Jerry Linenger. Atlantis departed Mir after five days of docked operations, and Linenger watched it fade into a bright spot on the horizon before disappearing from sight entirely. There was nothing left to do but turn his attention from the window, look around at his home for the next 18 weeks, and get to work.
The previous five days had been the usual flurry of activity that accompanies any crew handover on Mir. Thousands of pounds of equipment were moved in both directions, and John Blaha moved out while Jerry Linenger moved in.
Linenger would also be dealing with the shock that seems to affect everybody who enters Mir for the first time. And this wasn’t even something that only affected the American crews. Mir commander Valery Korzun said that even for the Russians it was quite a surprise to discover how different the real thing was from their training. Linenger was leaving the gleaming and neatly organized Space Shuttle Atlantis for a space station that was well past its shelf life, with darkened modules stuffed full of random equipment and garbage. I know it sounds like I’m kind of dunking on Mir here, but it’s not really my intent, it’s just a fact. The station was a technological marvel and a real achievement, but it was also on the decline, and it showed.
Hoping to ease that shock and ensure that Linenger remained happy, healthy, and productive during his four month stay, John Blaha took great pains to pull Linenger aside and tell him how things really worked on the station. Some of the warnings were pretty funny, like a heads up that one of the two treadmills had a malfunctioning speed selector and it only worked at a full sprint. So Linenger better be ready to go all out or risk being thrown across the station. But most of Blaha’s advice was much more serious. In an example of a practical lesson, Blaha showed him where the oxygen respirators were and insisted that Linenger physically put one on and demonstrate that he knew how it worked.
But the lessons also applied to mental health. In Linenger’s account of Blaha’s warnings, he told him to expect to be treated as a second-class citizen by the ground, with limited communication windows which they will unapologetically cancel. Not mincing his words, Blaha said of the Russian ground controllers “You are an inconvenience, a nuisance to them; your work deemed unimportant.” He also warned that the isolation would be the biggest challenge of the entire flight and to not count on the ground to make anything better.
This may sound like a pretty grim way to start out a long duration mission, but Linenger called Blaha’s lessons out as incredibly useful. Blaha had spent his entire mission feeling betrayed by what the experience was actually like, while also fruitlessly trying to improve it on the fly. But thanks to Blaha’s warnings, Linenger was able to go into his mission with realistic expectations. If you already know something is going to be a difficult slog, you can mentally prepare yourself and not be ground down by the constant surprise and frustration.
Of course, John Blaha’s intense five-day course about living on Mir wasn’t the only training that Linenger had gone through for this mission. Like Norm Thagard, Shannon Lucid, and John Blaha before him, Jerry Linenger had moved out to Star City in Russia for month after month of training in the Russian language and spacecraft systems. Two moments in Linenger’s training experience stood out to me as both pretty funny, as well as pretty telling about the differences between the Russian and American approaches to life.
The Russians had learned early on just how important it was that a long duration crew work well together. Because it wasn’t just work. A space station crew had to live together, prepare meals together, go on spacewalks together, and in general trust each other with their lives. So the Russian space program wisely took the psychology of long duration spaceflight very seriously. ..but maybe a little too seriously. Linenger noted the that the psychologist assigned to keep an eye on their crew was weirdly.. omnipresent. The dude was just always there, right in the middle of everything, preventing the natural crew dynamics that he was supposedly trying to observe and encourage.
The psychologist would often pull Linenger away from his crewmates and present him with a stack of ten cards of different colors. He would then ask him to arrange the colors based on how he felt. Linenger was perplexed but played along, only to discover that the routine wore pretty thin by the sixth or seventh time. He also admitted to occasionally sorting them in a random order just to mess with the psychologist and keep him guessing. Though he was always careful to never lead the deck off with the nebulous, but still dreaded, black card.
On another day, Linenger and the cosmonaut crew were training for a possible water egress of the Soyuz. Under nominal conditions, the Soyuz lands on the wide open steppes of Kazakhstan, which was plenty dry. But since a crew could theoretically be forced to evacuate and perform an emergency deorbit at any time and since Mir was in a 51 degree inclination orbit, that meant that a Soyuz could theoretically return to Earth anywhere as far north as Canada, to as far south as Australia, along with all the water in between. So basically they could land anywhere, and they had better be ready to survive a water landing.
Shannon Lucid and John Blaha had already discovered just how unpleasant this training could be, pulling on cold weather survival gear in a bobbing spacecraft that was not at all cold, but rather swelteringly hot. Lucid distinctly remembered the little rivers of sweat from the crew, sloshing back and forth on the backs of their seats. And Linenger’s experience was similarly uncomfortable.
Once he wriggled free of the spacecraft and got into his life raft, he activated the standard safety equipment: which included flares, colored dye, and shark repellent among other things. Curious, he asked the Russian safety diver if the shark repellent actually worked. The diver said “No, it does not do a bit of good. In fact, the sharks might even be attracted to the color for all we know.” This was already pretty unnerving. But in an even weirder, and very Russian, twist, the diver continued, explaining that the shark repellent’s goal wasn’t really to repel sharks. It was to prevent stranded cosmonauts from becoming anxious that they might be attacked by sharks. The anxiety about the shark attack was more dangerous than the chances of actually encountering a shark. Linenger wrote in his book quote “I wished that I had not asked the question. I wished that he had not replied truthfully. I decided to forget his answer immediately.”
But the days of training and maybe-or-maybe-not repelling sharks were in the rear view mirror. Jerry Linenger was on Mir and would be there for the next four months, so it was time to make the most of it. With John Blaha’s stern warnings still ringing in his ears, he began to settle in to a daily routine. The day would start at 8 in the morning, but in another eyebrow-raising detail of life board Mir, the alarm clock was just Mir’s master alarm. Because what better way to start the day than with the thought that you might be in mortal peril. After 20 minutes of morning hygiene and using the waste collection facilities, Linenger would get to work. What that exactly entailed would change throughout the mission, but would be listed in the daily schedule. Russia tended to schedule every minute of the day and expected the crew to stick to it, but Linenger preferred to follow the lead of Mir commander Korzun and use the schedule more like a checklist of stuff to get done that day. It’s interesting that despite Skylab being 20 years in the past, the Russians still seemingly hadn’t learned the lesson that micromanaging from the ground was not the way to ensure a happy and productive crew.
One everyday constant was exercise. In order to keep the crew healthy, particularly their now-underused muscles and bones, the crew would work out for two hours a day, often broken up into two sessions. Linenger said that he found the treadmill to be much more difficult than he expected at first but he eventually built up to it. Even when he wasn’t exercising himself, it was a part of daily life. He said that from several modules away he could not only tell that someone was running, he could tell who was running by the particular rhythm pulsing through the structure.
Another constant was photography. Linenger arrived on Mir with enough film to shoot 10,000 photos of life onboard the station and the view from his lofty home away from home. Linenger actually put a fair amount of work into learning how to really become a solid photographer, as well as learning to recognize particular landmarks and features from space. A personal goal of his was to help grow the list of places that had been photographed from space, since crews often focused on the United States or familiar territories like the Mediterranean Sea.
With this dedicated photo training and with his goals of expanding the envelope of on-orbit photography, Linenger shot roll after roll of film. He tried to strike a balance between not squandering film, but also making sure he would end the flight with every last roll used up. In fact, when he returned to earth he confused the NASA film specialists because he somehow came back with more film than he left with. Apparently he occasionally found a spare roll tucked away in the floating piles of equipment, presumably lost by the astronauts who flew before him.
Between operating science experiments, exercising, taking photos out the window, preparing meals, planning for the days ahead, and so on, Linenger kept himself pretty busy. He would typically only have an hour or two free on any given day, including weekends. In fact, he liked to joke that he actually worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, thanks to the electrode-laden cap that he would wear to bed as part of a sleep study. The days ticked by.
We sort of did a miniature version of this on the previous episode, but in order to discuss the events of NASA-4, it’s going to be important to have at least a somewhat workable mental map of the layout of Mir. So we’re going to do a quick tour here, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you of the key points later when they’re important.
Let’s start with the base block. This is the core module that everything else is built off of. It’s where the command and control equipment lies, as well as more mundane but equally important stuff like the crew’s dinner table. And again, while it’s not perfect, Linenger’s mental shortcut as imagining each module as about the same size and general shape as a school bus is pretty helpful. If we were to go out the front of this base-block-slash-school-bus, along the +X direction, we’d enter the Kvant-1 module. This is a shorter module that houses some science equipment, some life support equipment, and on the outside has some science instruments and solar panels. If we were to keep going in the same direction, we’d find a docking port which can accommodate either a Soyuz crew vehicle or a Progress cargo vehicle.
Let’s turn around and go back into the base block and exit the back of the school bus. This is a pretty weird school bus because out the back is a sort of round cube with a bunch of other school buses all attached to the sides. This cube is the Node, and it’s where everything else connects to Mir. If I’ve got my interior orientations right, as you exit the base block, the natural “up” direction would lead you into the Kvant-2 module, left would lead you into Priroda, right would go to Kristall and the Docking Module so this is where the shuttle astronauts came from, and then down would get you into the Spektr module. If you continued straight along the long axis of the station, you’d find a second docking port dedicated to another Soyuz or Progress.
So again, the long axis, from front to back are: Progress or Soyuz, Kvant-1, Base Block, Node, Progress or Soyuz. And then connected to the Node at right angles were Kristall, Kvant-2, Priroda, and Spektr, with Spektr sort of being Jerry Linenger’s home base.
When Linenger arrived, the Kvant-1 docking port was occupied by the Progress M-33 cargo vehicle, and the Node docking port was occupied by the Soyuz TM-24, which is the same Soyuz that arrived during Shannon Lucid’s stay, delivering Korzun, Kaleri, and Haigneré. For nitpicky reasons that we don’t care about, there was a preference to park long-term spacecraft at the Node, rather than Kvant-1. Since Soyuz TM-25 would soon be arriving for a six month stint, it was desirable to clear the Node port for it, which meant that Soyuz TM-24 was going to have to go for a little Sunday drive. I mean, it was a Monday, but you get the idea.
On February 6th, 1997, Progress M-33 departed the station. The next day, Korzun, Kaleri, and Linenger wriggled into their pressure suits and began powering down non-essential systems. Linenger’s spine had stretched out a bit in weightlessness making the suit donning a greater struggle than expected, but with a little elbow grease from his Russian colleagues, he was soon stuffed into it. Non-essential systems were powered down because there was always a chance that they wouldn’t be able to re-dock and would be forced to go home. By powering down Mir as much as possible, the crew improved the chances that the aging station would survive long enough to be rescued by the next crew.
Once shoehorned into the Soyuz TM-24 spacecraft, the crew prepared to undock. I was surprised to note that they needed to wait for approval from the ground, since the ground could see certain things in telemetry that the crew themselves couldn’t see from onboard the spacecraft, which made me wonder what the plan would be for an emergency evacuation. But this wasn’t an emergency, so the crew got permission, separated, backed away, and puttered around to the other end of the station before successfully re-docking on the Kvant-1 module around half an hour later. Linenger said that it was amazing how much bigger Mir seemed after being crammed into the tiny Soyuz.
Just a few days later, the Node docking port was once again occupied when Soyuz TM-25 arrived carrying the next Mir crew. Time for more crew biographies!
Commanding Soyuz TM-25, and soon the Mir EO-23 mission, was Vasily Tsibliyev. After spending an unreasonable amount of time trying to find a source for Commander Tsibliyev’s birth date and road to becoming a cosmonaut, I’m just using the low-on-citations Wikipedia article, so please take that for what it is. Vasily Tsibliyev was born on February 20th, 1954 in the Soviet Union, making him 32 years older than Mir to the day. He was selected as a cosmonaut on March 26th, 1987, flying in space for the first time as commander Mir EO-14 in the back half of 1993. It was on this flight that Tsibliyev gained the dubious honor of becoming the first person to crash one spacecraft into another. It’s possible I’m missing another example, particularly in Russian history, so I’d welcome a correction, but it’s the first crash I know about. Thanks to a misconfigured and/or malfunctioning set of controls on the Soyuz, when performing the flyaround of Mir at the end of the mission, the Soyuz made gentle but jarring contact with the station, bouncing off. The collision was minor and caused no damage, but was a collision nonetheless. This is his second and final flight.
Joining Tsibliyev was Flight Engineer 1, Sasha Lazutkin. Aleksandr Lazutkin was born on October 30th, 1957 in Moscow in the Soviet Union. He attended the Moscow Aviation Institute, earning a degree in mechanical engineering, before heading off to work as a research scientist, and then as an engineer for Energia, the state-run corporation which runs the Russian space program. He was selected as a cosmonaut on March 3rd, 1992, and had served as the backup crew for the last few flights. This is his first and only spaceflight.
One quick note.. something that it took me too long to pick up on is that “Sasha” is apparently a common nickname for “Aleksandr”, and in fact, Aleksandr Kaleri also went by Sasha. But he’s leaving soon so it’s too late for nicknames.
Rounding out the Soyuz crew was an ESA crew member flying as a Research Cosmonaut, Reinhold Ewald. Reinhold Ewald was born on December 18th, 1956 in Impossible-To-Pronounce-Town-Name, Germany. I’m gonna go with “Mohn-chen-glad-bach”. This isn’t completely fair to Dr. Ewald, but he’s only going to be here for a short time, so I’m going to completely ignore his research and just say that he was selected to join the German astronaut team in 1990 and this is his first and only flight.
When the new crew arrived in their Soyuz spacecraft on February 12th, the automated system was making the final approach with a slight error in its alignment, so Commander Tsibliyev took over manual control. He backed up lined up for a second run, and successfully docked with the Base Block Node. As always, the new crew brought the favorite gift of all long duration space-flyers: fresh fruit. Linenger said that somehow, even better than the taste of the fresh fruit was the smell. After a month or so in the same closed environment, a whiff of citrus apparently really grabs the attention.
In order to help transition the new crew into life onboard Mir, as well as creating a useful overlap for use by short-term researchers like Reinhold Ewald, the EO-22 crew wouldn’t depart until 20 days after the EO-23 crew arrived, and in fact, Valery Korzun was still the commander of the station. So for a few weeks, Mir was a bustling hive of activity with six crew members on board instead of the usual three.
On February 24th, 12 days after the new crew arrived, all six men had gathered around the dinner table in the base block and were enjoying an evening meal and each other’s company. And like any good fancy dinner on Earth, this was a candle-lit dinner. No, they weren’t lighting literal wax candles. Instead, the crew were using canisters of lithium perchlorate informally known as “candles”. When activated, the candles kicked off a slow chemical reaction which would generate oxygen and release it into the crew cabin. With double the usual crew size, the life support systems on Mir simply could not keep up with the amount of oxygen required. So with each candle providing enough oxygen for one crew member for one day, several candles a day had to be activated.
Similar candle designs had been used for years in the Russian space program mostly without trouble, and it’s actually the same type of device that airplanes would use when providing emergency oxygen to passengers in the event of a cabin depressurization. So they’re a pretty known quantity.
As dinner wrapped up, Jerry Linenger excused himself and returned to the Spektr module to get some work done. New flight engineer Sasha Lazutkin moved the few feet from the dinner table in the Base Block over to the Kvant-1 module, where the machinery that used the candles was located.
Lazutkin later said that he made sure the reaction had started, smelled oxygen coming from the candle, and felt the warmth generated by the chemical reaction. He turned to go back to dinner when he heard a strange sound. Turning back to the candle he saw the one sight that all space-farers dread: fire. The oxygen-producing canister was burning, flaring up into a large fire. Not wanting to start a panic, Lazutkin quietly and calmly said “fire” but no one heard him over the typical background noise of the station. Instead, a few seconds later, they all heard the station’s smoke detectors kick in and everybody scrambled into action. Nobody knew it at the time, but the metal casing of the canister itself was burning, fueled on by the pure oxygen produced by the chemical reaction.
Needless to say, this was.. very bad!
I think it says something about life on Mir that when Jerry Linenger, over in Spektr, heard the master alarm kick in his immediate reaction was to simply reach for some earplugs and to save the work on his laptop in case they lost power again. Ears plugged and work saved, he drifted out of Spektr into the Node and was about to head into the Base Block to see what was going on when he bumped into Vasily Tsibliyev. In Russian, Linenger asked “Serious?” and Tsibliyev responded “Very! Fire!”
Linenger poked his head into the Base Block and the sight that greeted him was horrific. The caution and warning panel was fully lit up with all the various alerts and alarms being triggered. And at the far end of the module, through the passageway, he could see a blowtorch-like spout of flame spewing across Kvant-1. Linenger said that the flame was around 3 or 4 feet in length, around a meter, and looked like 100 firework sparklers all lit at once, with sparks shooting all over. In addition to the flames and sparks, Linenger could also make out what looked like big globs of wax being propelled across the Kvant-1 module and splattering on the walls. Only it wasn’t wax, it was molten metal.
In addition to the large jet of flame, Linenger also saw a cloud of smoke emerge that was far denser and spread far more quickly than he had ever anticipated. Almost immediately the entire station was filled with an acrid cloud of dense and toxic smoke.
It’s times like these that all the endless hours of astronaut training really pay off. This fire was clearly a critical emergency that needed to be dealt with immediately. But the correct course of action is what Linenger did next: he rushed back to the Spektr module. The fire needed to be extinguished, but without a proper source of oxygen, Linenger would soon lose consciousness, and unconscious people are terrible fire fighters. Trying his best not to breathe the toxic smoke, Linenger made his way to a respirator, yanked it over his head, flipped the switch and breathed deep.. only to discover that it was producing no oxygen. It was a dud. He tried breathing again and was again greeted with nothing.
Linenger later talked about the clarity of mind he experienced throughout this crisis. Time seemed to slow to a fraction of its actual speed, and he can clearly remember moment by moment beats. At this particular moment, he talks about several thoughts that flitted through his mind. When the respirator didn’t work he calmly realized that he was going to die, and reflected on what a strange place this was for his life to end. He thought about his pregnant wife and his young son, and how he was sorry that he had let them down. But just a moment later, another voice kicked in: find. another. respirator. He pulled the bad respirator off, and made his way through the smoke to the location of a second one. With his peripheral vision getting fuzzy from lack of oxygen he pulled the new mask onto to his face, flipped the switch, and breathed in a stream of pure oxygen. The first immediate crisis was resolved, he could breathe. It was time to address the next crisis up the chain.
With the fire still raging, the crew met in the node, and Commander Korzun began issuing orders. Struggling to be understood through the thick mask of his respirator, he told the new crew to head into their Soyuz and begin to prepare for immediate evacuation. He told Kaleri to begin shutting down equipment, especially the air circulation fans. Normally these fans were critical to maintaining a breathable atmosphere, but now they were just spreading the toxic smoke throughout the station. Then Korzun entered the base block to begin to fight the fire directly.
Now, you might be wondering why Korzun only asked for one Soyuz to be prepared. Clearly this was a life-threatening crisis and everyone should be prepared to evacuate the station, right? Well, a couple things. First, there was a very strong incentive to not abandon the station. Without a crew on board, Mir would likely fail within only a few weeks and it would be difficult and likely impossible to recover. Without Mir, the Russian space program, along with the jobs of all the cosmonauts, mission controllers, and engineers, would all potentially evaporate. So while I don’t know if this was something that they actively considered in the midst of an inferno, the Russian crew had a strong built-in bias in favor of not evacuating unless it was literally the only option.
Second.. do you recall the layout of the station from the earlier description? The new Soyuz was at the quote-unquote back, attached to the node. Moving forward we have the Node, the Base Block, Kvant-1, and then the other Soyuz. See the problem? The fire was in between the crew and the other Soyuz. They were cut off and escape was simply not an option.
Linenger followed Korzun to help support him, and as he was grabbing a fire extinguisher he happened to catch a glimpse of a realtime map, placing them over Boston. This meant that they would not have a communication pass with the ground for at least another 20 minutes or so. Linenger briefly considered using the ham radio to put out a general distress call so that the Russian and American mission controls could be aware of what was happening and begin preparations to support an emergency evacuation. But at that moment, the fire extinguisher was more important. If they did evacuate it would be critically important that the ground be in the loop to help support them. But it would only be critically important in around 20 minutes. The fire was critically important now.
Korzun moved into the Kvant-1 module and began spraying the fire down with a foam fire extinguisher. But when he found that the foam was more likely to splatter than to stick, he switched to a water-based extinguisher. It seemed to work better, but now the cabin was also filled with thick steam. Linenger assisted Korzun by bracing his body in the passageway between the Base Block and Kvant-1, and then holding Korzun around the waist and giving him fresh fire extinguishers. Periodically he would give Korzun a sort of shake and Korzun would shake back to indicate that he was still conscious. The smoke and steam was so thick that Linenger literally couldn’t see the man in front of him.
As Korzun battled the flame, Linenger was struck by the sight of Aleksandr Kaleri calmly using the laptop in the base block, printing out emergency deorbit navigation information for both Soyuz spacecraft. I was also impressed by the move. Having the presence of mind to remember something like printing your directions home, and simply getting it done with no fuss in the middle of the worst spacecraft fire in history is pretty remarkable. Kaleri was clearly a steely-eyed missile Russki.
After fully depleting three fire extinguishers, the blaze finally burnt itself out. It had raged for fourteen minutes.
The acute phase of the emergency was over, but the crew were still in a precarious situation. The fire was out, but the air was not breathable. One cosmonauts said his first instinct was to open a window to clear out the smoke, but when he of course caught himself and realized that that was impossible, it was the first time that he was really scared. Right away, everyone tried to move as little as possible so that they could get more time from the oxygen in their respirator packs. At the same time, they began sealing any burned and smoke-contaminated equipment and clothing into airtight bags so that the toxins wouldn’t get stirred up again. They also wiped down the soot lining the walls. Then it was just a matter of waiting and hoping that the onboard life support systems could filter out the toxic air before they ran out of oxygen bottles.
They found that gathering in the airlock helped, since the walls of the airlock got unusually cold, leading to condensation, and the moisture helped to collect smoke particles, resulting in a cleaner atmosphere. When Korzun’s respirator ran out he tried taking a breath of the air and found it to be acceptable. Another crisis resolved. They could now move into long term recovery.
Linenger, a medical doctor, performed evaluations of the crew, while preparing to treat anyone who fell into respiratory distress due to smoke inhalation. Other than some relatively minor burns and some contusions from scrambling around in the smoke, the crew were healthy. Korzun asked Linenger to not report the minor injuries to the ground because he didn’t trust them to not overreact. The old crew wanted to go home and the new crew wanted to stay. Their injuries weren’t serious enough to warrant changing any plans. Linenger agreed. It was not the first time that the true story of the fire would be altered.
The crew seemed to be safe for now. The fire itself hadn’t killed them, it hadn’t melted a hole in the hull and vented all their air into space, and the worst of the toxic fumes were gone. But with an eye towards long term consequences, Linenger took several air samples at 30 minute intervals around the station. This was done by using little balls that had a vacuum pulled on them. By activating them they would suck in whatever air was around and safely store it for later analysis. This way if there were any specific long term health hazards to worry about, they would know what they were up against. Plus, as easily the largest fire ever to break out on a spacecraft, seeing how the atmosphere evolved over time would be incredibly helpful when planning emergency procedures for any future fires. If engineers had a better idea of what the onboard environment after a fire was like then they could design better safety equipment.
The station itself held up surprisingly well. The candle and the machine it was inserted into was completely destroyed, along with some nearby equipment. Additionally, the radiant heat melted and burned off insulation from bundles of wires in Kvant-1. But that was actually the extent of the physical damage to the station. It seems that Mir had dodged one heck of a bullet.
What happened next is pretty illustrative of the challenges NASA faced when working with the Russians. First, NASA was simply not informed about this emergency until the next day. NASA employees working in Russia found out when they came to work in the morning. Second, when NASA was informed, it turns out that “informed” was a strong word. Simply put, Russia completely downplayed the severity of the fire, describing it as a small blaze that was quickly extinguished. This is reflected in a February 24th, 1997 press release from the Johnson Space Center titled “Small Fire Extinguished on Mir”. It begins with the sentence “A problem with an oxygen-generating device on the Mir space station last night set off fire alarms and caused minor damage to some hardware on the station.” The press release goes on to say how the fire burned for 90 seconds. A far cry from the crew consensus of 14 minutes.
The Russian ground controllers also began to push the narrative that the reason the candle malfunctioned was that Sasha Lazutkin must have opened the cartridge and then left it sitting around for a while in the damp Kvant-1 module before finally activating it. But based on the account of everyone there, that is just simply not true.
I think what’s going on here shares a root cause with the crew’s reluctance to abandon Mir. Let’s say that we were to accept that the fire was caused by the candle malfunctioning all on its own. What are the consequences? Well, there are hundreds of other candles on the station that are all basically the exact same thing. If the candles aren’t safe then they can’t be used. If the candles can’t be used then the crew can’t stay on Mir. And if the crew can’t stay on Mir, Mir dies, and probably takes the Russian space program with it. Now as an alternative, let’s imagine a world where Lazutkin simply screwed up the procedure. In that world, Lazutkin gets admonished for causing a crisis, but it wasn’t the fault of the equipment. Which means that in this alternate reality, Mir is just as safe as it always was and things can continue on. So you can imagine which story the ground preferred to latch onto.
Since the candles were required to keep the station going, the ground did make one concession in order to declare them safe. Not a new design, not a new apparatus for operating them, no, they would simply required a crew member to stand by with a fire extinguisher whenever one was activated. The crew had an especially dim opinion of this plan since in their view the fire extinguishers aren’t even what put out the big fire. Since it was feeding itself oxygen, the extinguishers made no impact. It seems to have simply consumed the candle, run out of fuel and oxygen, and gone out all on its own. But OK fine, we’ll keep a fire extinguisher nearby.
In the days after the fire life onboard the station returned to its usual routine, because what was the alternative? Somewhat counter-intuitively, Linenger seems to have come through this near-catastrophe stronger than ever. And I guess I can see that. A major fire is just about the worst imaginable problem on a space station that’s still possible to survive. Linenger had made it through an event that confirmed that his crew were up to the challenge, his training had served him well, and that when it was really really important, he was personally able to keep a clear head and act rationally in order to save himself and his crewmates. On the night after the fire, Jerry Linenger slept soundly.
Next time.. it’s good that Linenger is sleeping soundly because he’s going to need to be fully rested for what comes next. Next time on The Space Above Us we’ll cover Part 2 of NASA-4. We’ve got systems failures, toxic leaks, a historical EVA, and a sight out the window that is sure to make anyone’s heart race. Sometimes progress in space is slower than we would like.. and sometimes it sneaks up on you way too quickly for comfort!
Ad Astra, catch you on the next pass.