These days, Joe Nowetner is an operations manager at UTC Aerospace Systems, the contractor responsible for NASA's fleet of spacesuits. Early in his career, Joe worked as an electrical technician at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) supporting the testing regimen of a new spacesuit design, the EMU (Extravehicular Mobility Unit). One particular test served as a startling reminder that exploring space is a dangerous business…even for those who never leave the ground. Joe has never forgotten the lessons he learned that day. Neither has NASA.
The EMU Fire
The EMU design would persevere to become the spacesuit worn by spacewalking astronauts throughout the Space Shuttle Program and even today on the International Space Station. In the nearly 40-year history of the suit, truly scary moments have been so infrequent that they are still referenced in generic terms, with no distinction needed…i.e. "the water leak", "the chamber incident", "the bellows failure". In that lingo, the events of April 18, 1980 are summarized as "the EMU fire".
At that time, the space shuttle was still ramping up for its inaugural flight and the EMU was an unproven system. Nowetner was part of a JSC team tasked to execute functional tests on an EMU unit. This task was a critical step in preparation for the first manned test of the suit, an event where space-like conditions would be simulated in a large vacuum chamber.
Although the EMU was unmanned for the April test, the suit's life support system was exercised. Ironically, it was the life support system that caused a flash fire which burned two technicians (one severely), destroyed the EMU, and reawakened a culture of safety throughout NASA. Here's what happened.