So we recounted a fuel cell failure on STS-83 in 1997 that led to a shortened mission for that crew (and an eventual re-flight).
A similar but more harrowing failure of a fuel cell occurred, long before, on the second Space Shuttle mission, STS-2, in November 1981.
This mission had a few firsts, which weren’t surprising given the nature of the new vehicle. It was the first reflight of a Space Shuttle. Sally Ride, part of the support crew, became the first female CAPCOM. STS-2 was also the first and only “all-rookie” crew of a Space Shuttle mission.
Well, technically, Joe Engle already had astronaut’s wings, earned during his work during his sixteen flights aboard a predecessor of the Shuttle, the X-15 rocket plane.
But Engle hadn’t earned those wings as a NASA astronaut, thus the quibbling.
NASA later changed the flight rules after this mission that prohibited future all-rookie crews without an experienced commander: A weird move on NASA’s part since there weren’t a lot of Apollo-era pilots left. Most of the Apollo astronauts were retired by 1981, leaving Bob Crippen, John Young, Vance Brand, Ken Mattingly, Paul Weitz, and Jack Lousma to command more than one mission in the early days of the Shuttle program so that their co-pilots aboard would qualify as commanders for later Shuttle missions. It wouldn’t be until STS-51-A , the 14th Shuttle mission, that a mission flew without a commander that also wasn’t a veteran or member of Project Apollo, Skylab, or the Air Force’s cancelled Manned Orbiting Laboratory project. That first goes to astronaut Frederick Hauck.
Back to the fuel cell problem. While STS-83’s issue was a slow anomaly that Mission Control had time to troubleshoot, STS-2’s fuel cell began a very rapid degradation that substituted very well to wake up flight controllers than the usual coffee in Mission Control, as Wayne Hale noted. The fuel cell was immediately shut down, leaving Columbia working on its two other cells. A “minimum duration flight” mode was declared–NASA lingo for scrubbed mission and early return to earth.
A curious side-effect happened from this anomaly. Excess hydrogen gas was released into the crew’s drinking water, created as a by-product of the fuel cells. While a little fizziness in water might useful as a mixer for your beverage on terra firma, in space, it’s a big problem.
While standing on Earth and drinking your favorite carbonated drink, the liquid enters your stomach and settles on the bottom, with the gases naturally rising to the top. Eventually, enough of those gases will build up and make their way back up your esophagus, past your larynx to broadcast a stentorian blast that’s sometimes so incredible that people enjoy trying to talk as a belch powers their voice box. (My favorite is reciting as much of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as you can.)
In micro-gravity, however, any gases in liquid simply float about within the contents of the drink and other stomach contents, unable to separate since the absence of (significant) gravity means nothing separates. So, if said gases want to leave a weightless astronaut, they’re taking the liquid and anything else in the tummy out with it.
An astronaut that belches in space is going to have, euphemistically, a “wet burp”: Floating particles of food and liquid emitted with the gases into the spacecraft cabin. If a belch is powerful enough, it’s effectively the same as throwing up because of the mixed gas and foodstuffs.
This problem shines a significant light on food preparation for space crews. Food and drink cannot cause excessive gases in the astronaut gut. A worst-case scenario would be a spacewalker that belches. Since belches equal vomit, this could lead to aspiration of vomit floating inside an EVA helmet, a deadly situation.
The sensation of vomiting while burping was, as you might guess, quite unpleasant for Engle and Truly on STS-2. They drank as little as possible as a result, which caused them to become mildly dehydrated.
Things got worse for the astronaut’s reluctance to drink. In microgravity, all the fluids in your body redistribute, giving astronaut’s faces that puffy, cherubic appearance and, in the long term, can cause detrimental changes in vision. Before their hasty return to earth, the astronauts were supposed to drink a bit more water to compensate for the shift.
Yeah, Engle and Truly didn’t want to do that, which could’ve caused them to become light-headed or even faint as gravity took hold again. Thankfully, the crew returned home safe and sound despite their dehydration.
You might think, then, that having a Coke and a Smile in zero gravity would be off the menu for space missions.
On the contrary, the Coca-Cola Company tested a specially-developed can with both Shuttle and Russia’s Mir space station crews over the years. Aboard one Discovery mission, a crew had a prototype drink dispenser to try out.
Such drinks would obviously have much lower carbonation than their earthly counterparts. And let’s not go down the road of whether the astronauts drank “New Coke” or the original. The Cola Wars of the 80’s were a dark, dark time.
One astronaut figured out a handy trick to belch without the ugliness. Astronaut Jim Newman would push off a wall in the Orbiter, causing a little artificial gravity that separated the liquid from the gases in his stomach, enough to dry-belch without harshly repainting the mid-deck interior of an Orbiter with gastric contents.