How to Put Out a Fire in Space

Astronaut Andreas Mogensen and cosmonaut Sergei Volkov survive a simulated space fire.

May 18 2015, 3:40pm

This morning, the European Space Agency posted a short film with the alarming title "Fire in the Soyuz!", referring to the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which is currently the only vessel to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Given the spate of recent Russian launch failures, my heart skipped a beat for a second. But fortunately, this Soyuz fire was just a simulation.

The short provides an inside look at the Soyuz simulator in Star City, Russia, where astronaut Andreas Mogensen and cosmonaut Sergei Volkov are undergoing training for an upcoming mission to the ISS this September.

"We are less than four months from launch [and] three months until our final exams, so we have got a lot of practical training in the spacesuits in the Soyuz simulator behind us," said Mogensen. "We can expect maybe a fire today, maybe a depressurization, it depends on how tricky our instructor wants to be."

As it turned out, their instructor asked the memeable question "why not both?" by throwing Mogensen and Volkov a fire that could only be extinguished by depressurizing the capsule. According to Mogensen, there is no fire extinguishing or firefighting equipment aboard the Soyuz.

No extinguishers on board the Soyuz. Image: NASA

Astronauts can mitigate the spread of fire by switching off the cabin fans and electronic systems, but if that doesn't work, they are pretty much left with no option but to use the vacuum of space to snuff out the flames. After that, they will need to chart an emergency landing within 125 minutes, or they will die of heat exhaustion.

It's a terrifying scenario, but Mogensen and Volkov faced it with aplomb in ESA's brief documentary, and they aced the test. It's an interesting look inside the process of preparing for the kind of extreme situations that astronauts hope to never actually face in space.