Monday, September 18, 2006

To Breathe, Or Not To Breathe

How would you like to live in an enclosed environment, dependant on elaborate mechanical systems to produce oxygen for you to breathe? I'm not talking about air filters, or pumps to bring in air from the outside, but something like the Elektron oxygen generator in use on the Russian side of the International Space Station, which actually splits water molecules to produce oxygen for the nauts to breathe (astronauts, cosmonauts, whatever they are up there, let's just call them nauts.) As much as I would love to be a naut myself some day, learn what it's like to be weightless, and see the Earth from somewhere out in space, or at the very least, orbit, it is a rather sobering concept, being enclosed in a vehicle with a totally artificial atmosphere. It's kind of like being a guppy in a fishbowl, except there's a little machine in there that has to keep making water, or the guppy will run out.

Most of us have been in planes, where there is bottled oxygen available in case of an emergency, but almost none of us have ever known what it's like to live in space, where the chosen few are completely dependant on that Elektron oxygen generator, or its equivalent, doing its job so that they can keep breathing freely. Of course, there are filter systems for the space station; if someone burns toast, or spills bleach, it's not like they can run outside for a breath of fresh air, but what if it were a major problem they were facing? What if the system broke down, and toxic chemicals were released into their very limited air supply? Well, naturally, they'd clean it up. According to Kelly Young, at New Scientist Space, three nauts spent Monday morning cleaning up a small toxic spill of potassium hydroxide, a chemical which can, when breathed, cause various nasty symptoms like "a burning sensation, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath."

It looks like the chemical came from the very system designed to provide the nauts with air to breathe, the Elektron oxygen generator. (It's like the poor guppy's water maker started producing ketchup.) So, the nauts turned off the ventilation system throughout the station, put on masks and gloves, turned up the air filters, and got to work fixing the problem. There is back-up oxygen, stored in tanks and canisters, on the space station, of course, and it looks like the problem has been repaired, although from the sound of it, the system is not completely reliable. According to Young, it has had repeated problems, and required previous repair, and they'll probably have to fix it again the next time their air supply is threatened. It's a good thing that NASA and its foreign counterparts have extensive repair manuals.

It makes me realize how much I take it for granted that God provided us with a system down here on Earth that naturally replenishes its own supply of oxygen, without help from the Maytag repairman. Can you imagine what would happen if the plants we rely on to change carbon dioxide back into oxygen suddenly started putting out potassium hydroxide instead? I don't have a spare oxygen tank lying around in case of system malfunction, do you? It's a good thing they do on the ISS, though. The station has a visitor coming on Wednesday--the first woman tourist to buy herself the experience. I'm glad for her sake that this little incident didn't happen while she was on board. It might put a damper on her vacation.