Excerpted from How into Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide into Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts (Workman). © 2020.
For each of the emergency training I went through as an astronaut, I never expected to be holed up at the Russian section of the ISS, the hatch into the US section sealed, together with my team wondering and waiting –will the space station be ruined? Was the ending? As we jumped there and pondered our plight, I felt somewhat like the man in the Alanis Morissette tune “Ironic,” who had been going down in a plane accident, thinking to himself, “Now isn’t this ironic?” This is how we ended up in that circumstance.
Every space station team trains for all sorts of crises –pc failures, electrical tops, equipment malfunctions, and much more critical flame and air leak situations. However, about the International Space Station, the most dangerous of all is the ammonia leak. In reality, our NASA coaches used to inform us“If you smell ammonia, don’t worry about running the procedure, because you’re going to die anyway.” That sure instilled confidence.
A couple of months after coming in distance, we were using a normal day. My crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti and I were all within our own team quarters, heading through email and catching up with administrative work, once the alarm went away. The noise of this ISS alarm is precisely what you’d believe a correct space alert should sound like–a cross between a Star Trek alarm along with a sci-fi B-movie klaxon. When it goes away, there’s absolutely no doubt that something important is happening. Sam and I popped our heads from our various quarters and glanced at the alarm .
When I watched that the ATM alert lit up, my initial idea was, “Atmosphere— there must be an atmosphere leak.” The ISS had sometimes had an air leak false alert over its fifteen-year background, and I believed it has to be one of them. However, that isn’t what ATM means–it stands to get poisonous atmosphere, most likely from an ammonia leak. Significantly, that this alarm was going off for the first time in ISS history. My brain could not believe it, so I explained to Samantha, “This is an air leak, right?” To that she promptly responded “NO—ammonia leak!”
Jolted back to reality, we jumped into actions. Gas masks . Account for everyone; we did not need anyone left behind. Float down to the Russian section ASAP and shut to the hatch between the united states and Russian segments. The US section uses ammonia as a coolant, but the Russian segment does not, so the atmosphere ought to be protected there. Remove all clothing if they are polluted. Nobody smelled ammonia, so we skipped this step! Close another hatch to
maintain any remaining ammonia vapors on the American section ) Get the ammonia out “sniffer” apparatus to be certain that there is not some of the deadly compound in the air over the Russian section ) All apparent. Then, expect word from Houston…
Fifteen lengthy, suspense-filled minutes later, we’ve got the information –it was a false alert. We let out a collective sigh of relief; the channel would not be dying now! Whew. Similar to regular fire alarms and infrequent air leaks, ammonia leak has been only added to the assortment of ISS false alerts. We put the ammonia sensor, floated back into the US section, and began to clean the mess up which we had abandoned floating in midair when that alarm went away.
Then we obtained a call. “Station, Houston, execute ammonia leak emergency response, I say again, execute emergency response, ammonia leak, this is not a drill!” Pretty unambiguous. Only this time that the warning had come using a radio call, not through digital alarm. After the false alarm I understood that a military of NASA engineers had been in control, poring over every bit of information they had, attempting to establish if this had been a false alarm or the real thing. Now that assignment control had affirmed that it had been a real leak, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that this item was real. No manner those NASA engineers obtained this call incorrect. Having worked in mission control for nearly a decade , I had absolute confidence in our flight manager and flight management team. When they stated, “Execute ammonia response,” that I place the mask on, closed the hatch, and asked questions later.
It was just like a scene from European Vacation–“Look kids! Big Ben!”–or possibly Groundhog Day. Oxygen masks triggered –check. US segment stinks with nobody left behind–assess. Hatch between US and Russian segments sealed and closed –check. Get naked–nope. No ammonia at the Russian air –check.
By this stage, we had conducted the ISS ammonia leak processes twice in one hour of one another. We had a quick debrief for a team to talk about how we managed the crisis, what record steps have been missed, what might have been done better, and what we had to report to Houston. By this stage, it was really evident that there are a great deal of meetings occurring in Houston and Moscow and everybody in the NASA series of command will know about our plight.
Very fast the gravity (pun intended) of the situation hit us. Using ammonia as the coolant for its American half the ISS had functioned well for decades, but we had been acutely conscious of its own danger. Thankfully, the engineers that made the channel did a fantastic job building a leak extremely improbable, but the chance was always there. On the flip side, the Russian glycol-based coolant isn’t dangerous, and that’s the reason why the entire station team would secure haven there at the case of an ammonia leak.
Besides the threat of this team breathing in poisonous fumes, there was a threat to gear. The ISS includes two ammonia loops, a set of pipes and tanks which take heat from the channel’s internal water loops into the outside radiators. If one leaked out to distance, there would be a 2nd accessible to cool gear. It could be a critical reduction of redundancy for the channel, particularly given that there’s not any more a space shuttle to restock the channel together with the huge ammonia tanks necessary to meet with a loop. It are awful, but survivable.
What isn’t survivable, however, is getting this ammonia leak to the interior of this American section ) First of if the whole contents of an ammonia loop arrived within the channel, it’d likely overpressurize and pop up the aluminum construction of one or more of those modules, like a balloon being overfilled with atmosphere. Mission control may stop this issue by putting the ammonia into area –we’d shed the cooling , but it might stop the channel from popping. Months after returning Earth, I discovered Houston had been seriously considering that option during our crisis, and it was only avoided due to a rough –and finally right –call our flight manager. That’s why these guys get paid the big bucks–that they are some of the brightest and most capable people I’ve ever worked with. However, even if you prevented a devastating “popping” of construction, there could still be the issue of ammonia in america section.
If a little bit of ammonia were within the air, it could be hard, maybe impossible, to eliminate. The just scrubber we had was our ammonia sprays, so theoretically you might get an astronaut sit at a polluted module, breathing the contaminant from the atmosphere and to the mask filter, and above time of the scrubbing could diminish the ammonia concentration, however since the bad astronaut sat there cleaning the atmosphere he’d likewise be coated in ammonia, and compelling his fellow crewmates on the Russian section to let him back for their sterile atmosphere would be debatable, to say the very least. There would have to be some type of washing and shower system to fully wash up him, which naturally does not exist in space. It are a similar scenario to soldiers at a chemical warfare environment, or even the Soviet soldiers at the current miniseries Chernobyl. Dealing having a hazardous surroundings on Earth is tough enough, but in space it’d be nearly impossible. The reality is an actual leak to the American section would earn a substantial part of the ISS uninhabitable, and when there were not any team there whenever the gear broke down, then there could be no one to repair it.
A real ammonia leak would finally lead to the slow passing of the US half of the ISS, which could subsequently lead into the conclusion of the whole station. We understood this and spent afternoon staring at one another, wondering out loud how much time it would be until they shipped us home, leaving the space channel uninhabited and anticipating an untimely passing.
Later that day, we received a call from Houston. “Just kidding, it was a false alarm.” That was a massive false alert. It proven that a cosmic radiation had struck on a computer, causing it to kick out bad information concerning the cooling system, also it required Houston hours to sort out what was really occurring. Because that call from Houston had informed me it was a real leak, most of us thought it–we understood that the people in mission control were among their greatest engineers on the planet and they would be 100 percent sure before making a call like this. So we’re really thrilled to find this call.