Wednesday, January 28, 2015

MARS Habitation Fire ends GreenHab mission

Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) GreenHab following a fire on Dec. 29, 201

Credit: Nick Orenstein

Four crewmembers simulating a mission on Mars dealt with a real-life emergency late last month, a greenhouse fire so strong that flames reached at least 10 feet (3 meters) high.

On Dec. 29, the first day of their mission, the crew noticed an unusual power surge in their habitat at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), in the Utah desert near the small town of Hanksville.

A few minutes later, somebody spotted smoke coming from the greenhouse.

Crew commander Nick Orenstein, an experienced camper who has built bonfires in the past, ran outside to take a look.

He said he figured the group could take on the fire, because the smoke was blowing away from the habitat, and only one shelf inside the greenhouse was aflame.

At that time, the fire was about the size of three overstuffed chairs.

"This is a moment where instinct took over, the instinct of fight or flight, and we had fight," Orenstein told reporters. "There really wasn't a question at the moment."

It took the crew about half an hour to bring the fire under control.

Orenstein and crew engineer Dmitry Smirnov used all available fire extinguishers on site, but even after the extinguishers were exhausted and the power cut, the fire was still not out.

"We put out the rest by putting water on the flames," Orenstein recalled.

The four-person crew was barely able to deal with the emergency, he added.

"Six or seven [people], to me, seems realistic as the adequate number of people to handle a situation like this most effectively."

The middle of the greenhouse, which was called the GreenHab, was destroyed. An investigation by the fire marshal determined two days later that an electrical heater caused the fire, which was ruled an accident.

The heater was set up close to some wooden shelves that had likely dried out over more than 10 years of use, said Orenstein, who is also the volunteer MDRS GreenHab coordinator.

Damage inside the Mars Desert Research Station GreenHab following a fire on Dec. 29, 2014. 

Credit: Nick Orenstein

In response to a 911 call, the Lane County sheriff came to MDRS later on Dec. 29, after the crew had successfully fought the fire.

NB: The isolated location of the facility means it usually takes some time for emergency services to arrive.

The sheriff did a preliminary investigation and confirmed that nobody was hurt, Orenstein said.

Orenstein's crew, the 146th one to use the habitat, decided it was best to stay in Hanksville temporarily, for two reasons, there were no fire extinguishers left at the research station, and there was some concern about chemical contamination in the habitat from the fire.

"My responsibilities for the next few days were to look after the crew and to make sure that they were OK," Orenstein said.

"Essentially, it was a post-tramautic stress therapy session there. We were making sure we were all OK, and looking out for each other."

MDRS director Shannon Rupert and a few other MDRS officials did extra cleanup before the next crew arrived, and Orenstein went back to the facility briefly for the Crew 147 handover later in January.

A temporary tentlike greenhouse is now available for experiments to go forward this season, Rupert added.

"It's devastating because it's a loss of a functional component of the campus," Rupert told reporters.

"But it could have been so much worse. Everyone was safe. That was the main thing. Everybody got out."

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