NASA’s reduced-gravity combustion research program has had a number of broad objectives, ranging from increasing the fundamental understanding of the basic physical processes to preventing and controlling fires on spacecraft. A better understanding of combustion itself has evolved as NASA reduced-gravity facilities have been used to eliminate buoyancy effects, which often dominate terrestrial combustion, and to compare measurements with theory and numerical simulations. In addition, the program has tried to relate fundamental combustion principles to applications such as the simulation of fire growth in spacecraft and the assessment of actual fire risks. In this area, the understanding of combustion has provided underpinning information that enables a better understanding of material flammability and fire prevention measures that can improve fire safety in the future.72,73

NASA’s reduced-gravity combustion research has led to enabling technologies for space exploration, and it has provided new insights into fundamental combustion processes. Both areas are addressed further in the recommendations.

Research in Support of NASA’s Exploration Missions

Combustion research in support of NASA’s exploration missions is addressed in Chapter 10, “Translation to Space Exploration Systems.”

Fundamental Combustion Research

This section focuses on gravity-related combustion research issues of most crucial importance to NASA’s future crewed and uncrewed missions. In particular, NASA should support fundamental combustion research in fire safety and combustion processes. Research in both of these areas would be facilitated by more capable numerical simulations of combustion. Because fire safety is so important both as a topic of fundamental combustion research and as an operational element of human space exploration missions, fire safety is addressed below and in Chapter 10.

Fire Safety

Fire safety includes fire prevention, detection, and suppression (all of which are discussed here and in Chapter 10) and post-fire recovery (which is discussed only in Chapter 10). Wherever a fuel and an oxidizer appear in reasonable proximity, there could be a scenario in which they meet by accident in the vicinity of an ignition source. To minimize the likelihood and impact of accidental fires in spacecraft, combustion needs to be better understood in all relevant environments (that is, on Earth and in the reduced-gravity environments of the space shuttle [and replacement vehicles], the ISS, the Moon, and Mars).

Dealing with accidental fires in reduced gravity is different from dealing with them on Earth in several important aspects. On Earth, buildings are designed to allow inhabitants to escape to a safe outside location. Spacecraft and habitats in reduced gravity, such as on the Moon or Mars, are enclosed by pressurized vessels with hostile outside environments, and so outside escape is generally not a viable option. Thus, every aspect of fire prevention, detection, and suppression is more critical in reduced gravity than in terrestrial scenarios.

Several fires have occurred in spacecraft on the ground or in space. As a result, new approaches to high-pressure oxygen atmospheres, design standards, flammability of materials, flammability testing, operational emergency procedures, quality control, and suppression strategies have been developed.74,75

From a fundamental science perspective, fluid transport in normal gravity is controlled by buoyancy. As a result, terrestrial systems are designed to deal with aspects of the combustion process that behave very differently in space, and an improved knowledge of combustion in reduced gravity is essential in order to adapt fire safety concepts and systems to the more stringent conditions of the space environment.

Fire Prevention

A major part of NASA’s strategy for fire prevention is to improve the design and selection processes for materials used on spacecraft. This improvement involves determining acceptable materials, techniques to reduce material flammability, and ways to monitor and control ignition sources. Material screening for flammability is now based on empirical procedures that use standard tests performed in normal gravity.76 For example, one test used for many solid materials considers upward ignition and flame growth. If the flame spreads more than six



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement