Does this sound like a good idea? NASA plans to release a cargo ship filled with flammable materials from the International Space Station and intentionally set it on fire. It sounds more like something that happens right after an astronaut says, “Hold my dehydrated beer and watch this!”
This is actually a real NASA experiment called Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire-I). Since fire is obviously one of the most dangerous things that could happen in a spacecraft, you would think the NASA already has some data on this. However, outside of a few small centimeter-sized controlled fires, this is the first one conducted a large scale in an unmanned spacecraft rigged for observations.
The craft is the Cygnus cargo vehicle which is scheduled to be launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 22nd. Once its payload has been transferred to the ISS, Cygnus will be loaded with flammable materials such as pizza boxes, old magazines and Scott Kelly’s dirty socks that he left behind. Just kidding. The new payload is a 16 by 37-inch piece of SIBAL cloth, which is a blend of fiberglass and cotton. Once Cygnus is released and has drifted away for a few hours, the SIBAL will be remotely ignited so as to burn from the bottom to the top to see how the flames spread.
The “seeing” will be done by onboard cameras and other conditions will be measured by temperature, oxygen and carbon dioxide sensors. If the fire goes out before the SIBAL is completely burned, it will be remotely ignited again from the top to see how the flames travel in that direction. The whole process is expected to last 20 minutes. The data will be analyzed by NASA engineers to develop new experiments for Saffire missions II through VI. Once the data is downloaded, Cygnus will catch fire once again as it plunges back into the Earth’s atmosphere.
No astronauts on the ISS will be in any danger during the fire on Cygnus. However, there could be some injuries while watching it caused by giving each other high-fives in zero gravity.