HOUSTON (AP) – An oxygen generator on the international space station overheated and spilled a toxic irritant yesterday, forcing the three-man crew to don masks and gloves in the first emergency ever declared aboard the 8-year-old orbiting outpost.
NASA said the crew members’ lives were never in any danger. They cleaned up the spill with towels. A charcoal filter scrubbed the irritant out of the air. And within a couple of hours, life aboard the station 220 miles above Earth was nearly back to normal.
But it was the biggest scare this smooth-running space station has had.
Although it paled in comparison to two fires and a collision on two previous Russian space stations and the nearly fatal explosion on Apollo 13, the incident served as a reminder of how life-and-death emergencies can come out of nowhere. It is why an emergency space capsule is always parked at the outpost in case of a sudden order to abandon ship.
NASA never came close to ordering the crew to leave the station, space station program manager Mike Suffredini said. But astronauts did reveal they were worried.
About three hours after the emergency, station commander Pavel Vinogradov tried to explain what happened to Moscow Mission Control, saying “different thoughts came to my mind.” Russian flight controllers interrupted, telling him: “We were kind of nervous here, too.”
NASA and the Russian space agency were investigating what caused the problem.
“We don’t exactly know the nature of the spill . but the crew is doing well,” Suffredini. “It’s not a life-threatening material.”
The astronauts sounded an alarm after the equipment began smoking and turned off the ventilation system to avoid spreading any fumes from leaking drops of potassium hydroxide, which is used to power batteries.
Monitors showed that the cabin air was safe. “It was just an irritant issue,” NASA spokesman James Hartsfield said. “The crew did exactly the right things they were trained to do.”