When fire broke out aboard the Russian space station Mir, the smoke was so thick that NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger could barely see his fingers. The first emergency oxygen mask he put on didn't work _ he had to grab another.
"We need to fight this fire, we need to get this fire out, we at least need to contain this fire," Linenger kept telling himself.
In an exclusive interview last week with the Associated Press, Linenger relived the 90 harrowing seconds that the fire burned late last month and the long, anxious minutes that smoke filled the station. He also discussed Mir's dwindling oxygen supply and other recent problems.
"I feel safe up here," said Linenger, 42, who is halfway through his four-month mission. "It's not like I stay up at night thinking what might go wrong. I'm very relaxed and very busy doing science."
Linenger, the fourth American to live on Mir, was working at a computer in a nearby module when a solid-fuel oxygen-generating canister burst into flames Feb. 23.
Alarms went off, and smoke immediately began filling the station. Some of the cosmonauts grabbed fire extinguishers.
"Basically, you had to react to the situation. You had to keep your head about you. I guess it was just a matter somewhat of survival," Linenger said.
The fire, unfortunately, blocked access to one of the two Soyuz capsules docked at the time to the station _ the crew's sole means of escape. Each Soyuz can hold only three people, and six men were on Mir: four Russians, one American and one German.
"Without getting that fire out, there was no way to get to one of the Soyuz capsules . . . and we were planning an evacuation if needed. We were definitely prepared to do that," Linenger said.
It was one of the worst fires ever in space.
Once the flames were extinguished and the smoke dissipated somewhat, Linenger, a doctor, examined his five crewmates. No one had suffered any serious smoke inhalation.
Less than two weeks later, after three of the men had returned to Earth on one of the two Soyuz capsules, Mir's main oxygen-generating system broke. And just Wednesday, Mir's motion-control system ran into trouble and the station experienced a partial power outage.
Since the failure of the two primary oxygen generators earlier this month, Linenger and his two Russian crewmates have been forced to use lithium-perchlorate canisters similar to the one that sparked the blaze. One cosmonaut stands guard with a fire extinguisher while the other cosmonaut activates the oxygen-generating canister. Linenger anxiously watches them both.
The crew goes through three canisters a day _ one per man.
Space officials estimate 180 usable canisters are on board, enough for 60 days. There are other canisters, too, but officials fear those may be too old or may not have been stored properly.
A Russian supply ship scheduled for launch April 6 _ already weeks late because of the country's economic problems _ will carry up parts for the two broken oxygen generators.
If the generators cannot be fixed and the oxygen supply cannot last until space shuttle Atlantis' arrival in mid-May to pick up Linenger, then there's always the one remaining Soyuz capsule.
"I'm prepared for that. I'm trained for that," Linenger said.