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Mon, Sep 18, 2006

Chemical Leak Causes Tense Moments On ISS

Problem Generator Powered Down; Should Not Affect Expedition 14 Docking

A big scare in space Monday... as NASA flight controllers declared an emergency aboard the International Space Station, when the three-member crew noticed what they first described as smoke, and smelled a foul odor.

Shortly before 7:30 am EDT, the Expedition 13 crew reported the odor in the Russian Zvezda Service Module, and manually activated an alarm to begin emergency procedures. The source of the odor was quickly determined to be an apparent leak of potassium hydroxide in the station's Elektron oxygen generation system.

Potassium hydroxide, or caustic potash, can be an irritant to crew members, but is not classified as a life-threatening toxin.

The crew donned surgical masks, goggles and gloves for protection from the apparently small leak. Continual measurements of the station atmosphere have indicated levels of any contaminants are very low. The crew also has begun a standard procedure to scrub the air onboard to ensure no potassium hydroxide vapors remain.

Expedition 13 Commander Pavel Vinogradov reported to Russian flight controllers at about 7:45 am that the situation had stabilized, and that he cleaned up a chemical near the Elektron oxygen generation system.

International Space Station Program Manager Mike Suffredini said the incident will have no impact on the upcoming arrival of the Expedition 14 crew on Wednesday. For the moment, however, Elektra remains cold, and there is some question whether the module can -- or should be -- powered back up.

Fortunately, there are plenty of spare parts for the Elektron, and NASA officials say they have plenty of oxygen candles and bottled O-2 on board. But if the Elektron can't be fixed... that could cause even bigger problems down the road.

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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