Having a fire in space was one of the last things any astronaut would want to encounter.
After the Apollo 1 accident, NASA took a number of drastic measures to improve fire safety. They reoptimized and refitted the spacecraft’s interior by replacing all flammable materials with self-extinguishing ones, insulating the piping and wires, correcting wiring problems, and changing the atmospheric pressure in the cabin-the gas in the cabin was converted from pure oxygen to an oxygen-nitrogen mix. The combustible nylon spacesuit was also exchanged for a safer fiberglass model. To top it all off, NASA fortified the astronauts with intensive firefighting training.
Fires in the spacecraft were very different from the ones on earth. Without gravity, the hot air generated by the burning flames wouldn’t rise, but instead, wrap itself around the fire, forming a low oxygen, high-temperature layer.
Because of the lack of oxygen, the flames would spread very slowly, forming a ball as it went along. The temperature of the fire would be lower than it would be back on earth.
Generally, many alarms would start sounding the instant a fire was detected in the spacecraft. The astronaut would then need to put on an oxygen mask, determine the source of the fire as quickly as possible, and cut off any nearby power supply. Meanwhile, the other crew would put out the flames using a fire extinguisher. In a case where the fire was uncontrollable, they would isolate the burning compartment and retreat to another part of the ship. Then, they would have to turn off the air circulation fan.
All that was followed by the infamous explosion on Apollo 13 on the second day after its launch. Fortunately, the seven astronauts on board remained extraordinarily calm and reacted expediently as they moved to the lunar module. Amid the tireless support from mission control, the moon landing plan was aborted. The crew orbited it instead, managing to ‘slingshot’ themselves back to earth safely. It was the greatest miracle in the history of human spaceflight.
Of course, that was something to talk about in the future.
NASA’s firefighting simulations were carried out in the closed environment of a mock spacecraft, a simulator of sorts. Of course, no actual fires were lit. Instead, it was replaced by a red warning light. Participants in the training were required to follow a set of procedures, and in theory, the trainees shouldn’t face any real danger.
Based on the order on the list, it was Livingston’s turn to take the lead. He glanced at the highschool student standing next to him, and both of them entered the spacecraft.
There were two parts to the simulator, each corresponding to the service module and the lunar module, respectively. The two moved to the innermost cabin, ready to begin the first part of the training.
When the alarm sounded, however, they did not retrieve the oxygen mask as required by the manual. Instead, the student quickly took off his clothes to reveal a row of bags tied to his body.
The bags did not contain water, but a pale, yellow liquid – gasoline he had stolen from the storeroom.
He quickly tore them up and poured the fuel on the cotton bag that was used to simulate combustibles. “Perhaps you can tell us now how we are supposed to hide the smell of this thing. Do we lock the door, then complete the remote detonation?”
Livingston did not answer until the student finished emptying out the gasoline. Instead, he retreated quietly to the side of the door, took out a match, and said, “I told you about my two childhood friends who were also players in my last single-player quest. To compete for the final spot, one had to kill the other. It was a tough choice… very, very tough…” Livingston paused for a moment. “What I didn’t tell you is, I was the one who did it.”
“What?” Sensing something wasn’t right, the student turned around and saw Livingston standing at the junction between the service module and the lunar module.
Then, he threw the match he was holding to the ground. It landed on a gasoline-soaked cotton bag. With a mighty cackle, a raging fire quickly broke out. The high schooler reacted instinctively and ran for the door, but Livingston had already shut the entrance to the service module. The schoolkid was now trapped in a raging inferno.
The fire alarms in the service module began blaring wildly, but in the backdrop of a growing fire, it sounded more like an insult. Realizing the gravity of the situation, the student frantically pushed the door as hard as he could. It budged slightly, but just as there was a glimmer of hope, Livingston drowned it out again. Through the gap, the student saw him taking out a lighter, aiming it at the lower half of the hatch.
The lock on the hatch melted quickly when the flames of Livingston’s lighter touched it. In a few seconds, he turned it off, and once the temperature cooled, the melted hatch and floor, creating a hardened seal.
Confident that his victim was now welded in, Livingston stopped what he was doing. This time, there was no way the student could muscle the hatch open, no matter how hard he tried.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you the truth. I don’t know how to mask the smell of the gasoline, then complete the detonation remotely. I just don’t have that kind of tech on me.”
“Have you gone insane?! How would killing me benefit you in any way? You plan to compete with those two?” yelled the student, beads of sweat dripping down his face. With the assistance of the bags of gasoline, the flames were growing fast, already licking his back and scalding his suit. The fear on his face intensified as his face scrunched in agony. He even cried and begged for Livingston to open the hatch up.
The latter was, however, unmoved. “Who says I’m fighting two people?” Livingston cocked an eyebrow. “I have allies, but too bad it ain’t you. Oh, by the way, you can scream all you want, but these two simulation chambers are sealed tight. Those people outside won’t hear a thing.”
“How are you going to explain my death to NASA? Are you only thinking about going to the moon, or are you doing this to help someone? You’re not that kind of person, are you?” the high schooler cried, his eyes wet and nose dripping with snot.
Livingston took a few steps away from the spreading flames. He could feel the heat from the other side of the hatch. “You brought the gasoline into the simulator yourself. From the moment I got out of bed until now, I haven’t been out of sight. You are the only one who disappeared for some time after lunch, so they’d all think that you set off the fire on your own accord. As for a reason, I don’t know. Perhaps the recent training was too intensive, stressed you out and all. Those accidents finally pushed you to your limit, and perhaps… you just snapped? I simply proceeded to the lunar module for the second part of evacuation training as required. By the time I found out, it was too late; you’d already shut the middle hatch.”
“Do you think NASA won’t suspect you?”
“I don’t care. As long as there’s no clear evidence, they’ll still need us to the moon for them.” Livingston covered his mouth and nose with his hand to keep himself from inhaling the thick, noxious fumes. Looking at the watch on his wrist, he calculated how much time the schoolkid had left. The smoke in the lunar module was getting thicker, now too thick for him to stay any longer.
Livingston cleared his throat, straightened his face, and ran to the exit as he put on a panicked expression.