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In May 2020, as the world grappled with life in lockdown and a deadly virus (COVID-19), things couldn’t have looked bleaker for humankind. However, out of the chaos came a glimmer of hope for the future, the first crewed spaceflight flown from US soil in almost a decade.

It is a well-known fact that to survive as a species, humans will eventually have to step away from the planet that spawned them. However, the journey to the stars will be fraught with dangers. Chief among them will be humanity’s oldest and deadliest tool, fire.

Spacecrafts history with fire

Earth is the only natural environment in the known universe where fire can happen. And that is because there is oxygen in the air, fuel for combustion and heat for ignition, each of which is essential for fire. Remove any of these elements and there’s no chance of fire.

Spacecrafts are closed ecosystems that do their best to emulate the home environment, allowing humans to survive in space. They carry oxygen for crew members to breathe and provide heat to keep their bodies at optimal temperature. Spacecrafts are also loaded with highly combustible propellants for movement, giving them everything they need to support not only life, but also fire. And there are no fire escapes in space.

Mir space station fire incident

In February of 1997, the ageing space station, Mir suffered a damaging fire that almost led to disaster

In February of 1997, the ageing space station, Mir suffered a damaging fire that almost led to disaster. The tiny compartments where the crew lived and worked were almost overwhelmed when a fuel cartridge erupted into flame.

With no exits, ventilation or way to avoid the rapidly increasing heat, the crew had to act fast to bring the fire under control. Eventually, the fire was tackled and fire safety in space was brought back into the spotlight for the first time since the Apollo 1 disaster.

The Apollo 1 disaster

The cabin of Apollo 1 burned during a test of the electrical system, killing all three astronauts on board. The 100% oxygen atmosphere of Apollo 1, poor hatch design, use of highly flammable materials and the lack of emergency preparedness all contributed to the fatal fire. It was a spaceflight tragedy that wouldn’t be matched until the Challenger disaster in 1986.

The fire led to complete redesigns and new fire safety protocols. It paved the way for understanding how fire is tackled in small, pressurized space vehicles and when humans leave Earth, the same principles will be established for fire safety off-planet.

Martian fires

Mars is the next moonshot. It is still not known when a human mission to Mars will happen in the future, but one thing is for sure that if it is attempted, it will be extremely risky and dangerous. The outward journey will take around nine months of travel at the least.

In order to return to Earth, astronauts will need to wait on Mars for 500 days for the planets to align favorably enough for a low energy, nine month return trip back home. That means the only solution is in building habitats on Mars.

It is known that fire can only burn naturally on Earth and Mars doesn’t have a dense atmosphere or enough oxygen to allow flames to burn. However, space station and spacecraft fires are a very real danger, and with crews living and working in close proximity, these space fires would be disastrous.

Compartmentalization and zone pressurization in space

A Martian habitat would need to be heated and pressurized to support life

The windy, cold and hostile extraterrestrial environment of Mars would not allow fire escapes to be built into a habitat, but what about ‘lifeboats’?

Experts talk about compartmentalization and zone pressurization when designing fire safety into buildings, but imagine these in an extraterrestrial application. A Martian habitat would need to be heated and pressurized to support life.

If a fire broke out, the simplest way to stop it would be to use compartmentalization to seal off the affected area and then, use the pressure to ‘blow out’ the room with the fire, exposing the fire to the elements of Mars, where fire cannot burn.

Modular building design in Mars habitats

Areas of the habitat would need to be designed as lifeboats of sorts, sealed from all other areas, with the sole function of surviving a fire on the planet. This would take a modular building design.

Getting a complex modular building to Mars in the first place will be an incredible challenge and when the day comes, fire safety experts would need to be consulted to ensure the safety of the spaceflight crew that makes that risky jump to Mars. Coopers Fire is always developing, testing and improving their fire safety products to stay at the cutting edge of fire safety.

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