Thanks to movies like “Interstellar” and “Gravity,” most people have some idea of how dangerous space travel can be. The threat of being lost to the void of space or left stranded in a malfunctioning space station is terrifying, a fact that demonstrates how brave many of the people who choose to pursue this feat truly are. Fortunately, with the exception of a few well-known tragedies, modern astronauts actually face few of these scares. However, a recent incident at the International Space Station reminded those in and out of the industry just how important proper care and testing can be.
On Wednesday, January 14 at 4 a.m. EST, an alarm indicated a possible toxic leak of ammonia on the International Space Station, causing astronauts to flee the American side. However, NASA later reported that there was no leak and the astronauts were safe. The organization believes a computer problem likely set off the false alarm.
The crew was reportedly well into their regular workday when the alarm sounded, causing the astronauts to don oxygen masks and take cover in the Russian quarters after sealing the hatches to the U.S. side. Flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX also turned off non-essential equipment. Mission Control gave an all-clear within minutes, but the astronauts were soon sent back to the Russian quarters when more evidence of a possible leak was found. Around 11 hours after the ammonia system sounded the alarm, the hatch to the U.S. side was reopened, and tests run by the astronauts did not find evidence of the substance. By Wednesday afternoon, the crew was back in American quarters.
Ammonia, a highly toxic liquid, flows outside the space station to cool its electronics. When the alarm sounded, flight controllers feared it had leaked into the indoor water system. Fortunately, after much consideration, NASA believes that a failed card in a computer-relay box set off the alarm.
Before being launched into space, all tools and systems are subjected to rigorous testing to ensure their safety. Any leak, especially of a coolant like ammonia, could potentially cause serious problems for the crew, so helium leak detection equipment and other implements are used to assure each item’s quality. Once in space, the station is also monitored carefully to identify and fix problems.
Located 260 miles above earth, the International Space Station has never had to be abandoned during its more than 14-year occupation. However, astronauts have occasionally had to seek shelter in Soyuz capsule “lifeboats,” due to close proximity to orbiting junk and other problems. In this incident, the astronauts went into the Russian modules, as they had been trained to do in an emergency.
Currently, the complex’s crew consists of three Russians, Elena Serova, Alexander Samokutyaev and Anton Shkaplerov; Americans Butch Wilmore and Terry Virts; and Italian Samantha Cristoforetti. When the alarm first sounded, they had been working on supplies and experiments from the newly arrived SpaceX capsule. Reports say that none of the research appears to be in jeopardy.
Russian space officials first claimed that the incident involved an actual leak, but quickly retracted the statement. Concerned individuals around the world were calmed by reports from Cristoforetti, who tweeted her thanks from the Russian segment.