Mold forces Cygnus launch delay

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The discovery of mold in two clothing bags being packed for a Cygnus freighter launch to ISS has caused NASA to delay the launch by at least two weeks.

The source of the mold, a common fungal growth in humid climates like Florida’s, is under investigation by NASA and Lockheed Martin, which prepares NASA cargo for launch aboard two commercial carriers, Orbital ATK and privately owned SpaceX. An Orbital Cygnus cargo ship was more than halfway packed for the launch, scheduled for March 10, when the mold was found during routine inspections and microbial sampling, NASA spokesman Daniel Huot said.

The mold did not present any serious health threat should it have arrived at ISS, but it is definitely preferred to not fly it there if possible.


  • pzatchok

    Two weeks to dump out a bag of cloths. Wash them and pack them into a new bag?

    I have a laundry service that could pick them up wash them however you want, pack them back up and deliver them in under24 hours.

    Please don’t tell me they take samples as they are loading the ship then wait a week for the results and then they get a positive test now have to unload the whole thing and clean everything.

    They don’t have a temp and humidity controlled room to store all this cargo in before they load it?
    Vacuum sealed bags? With moister or oxygen absorbent?

    I have three year old beef jerky that doesn’t have mold on it and they can’t keep it off of new skivvies in a sealed bag.

  • Gealon

    That’s government in action pzatchok.

  • Edward

    At the risk, pzatchok, that you are actually being sarcastic:

    I once made a pouch for camera filters to fly aboard the Space Shuttle. The fabric was Nomex(TM), the same material as the flight suits (used for its flame resistance). I also had to soak it in a solution that would add an additional flame retardant to the fabric. My conclusion is that spaceflight clothing is not washed in the same way as our everyday clothing, as the additional flame retardant would have to be re-applied.

    As the article mentioned, there is a lot of angst going on at NASA as to how and why the bags became contaminated. There are contamination control people assigned to these kinds of programs, and their entire job is to make sure that this (and several other) form of contamination (or other kinds of damage) does not occur. Yes, there are temperature and humidity controlled facilities to store such items as these bags, and they try hard to choose materials that avoid such contamination(s). When I left my last job, the contamination control engineer I was working with was trying to find a new plastic film to replace one that had gone out of production; it was not easy, as it had to meet several requirements. Saran Wrap(TM) may be OK for our kitchens, but it did not meet the needs of any of the space-hardware packaging I have ever done.

    Pzatchok wrote: “Please don’t tell me they take samples as they are loading the ship”
    They take samples at several steps, and this is their last chance to sample. I would not be surprised if they were taking samples at this stage, and since they had not been finding problems, it is probably a relatively routing analysis, not a rush. They would not have packed the items if earlier samples and tests had indicated a problem, and we would not have heard of the problem, either, if that had been the case. However, it is better to find the problem before flight than to deal with it after launch.

    Vacuum packaging is most likely, perhaps after a nitrogen purge, although a nitrogen purge without vacuum packing is another possibility. Desiccant is also typical in packing space hardware. Humidity can condense during storage or transport, and it can cause problems other than just mold.

    Beef jerky is heavily salted to preserve it, as salt is very good for this purpose. On the other hand, I would not be so sure that yours is as mold-free as you think, pzatchok. NASA is not just looking for visible signs of mold or other contamination, the contamination control people take samples in order to find levels that are not visible to the unaided eye. If your jerky has been out of its packaging, then the level of dust on it may raise red flags from contamination control.

  • pzatchok

    I was being a bit sarcastic.
    Thats just me.

    I remember the Soviets problem with mold on their space station. Pretty bad.

    And I understand NASA’s fear. But this problem just happened a little while ago. You would think they would have an all new attitude about it and have everyone watching for problems and solutions.

    I work in small plant that manufactures circuit boards for the aerospace industry. I understand all about clean rooms and environmental control. We get checked constantly for humidity and temp. If we notice any change in our rooms we have to report it immediately. Physical contaminates FOD are possible cause for discharge.

    I also understand that their sampling methods and levels for contamination are very stringent. Higher than hospital standards.

    But this is something they have been doing for years and should have it pretty much perfected. They should easily be able to nitrogen purge and vacuum seal any cargo sized to fit through a hatch. Then just sterilize the outside just before loading.
    They could even nitrogen fill the cargo capsule. It would also reduce the chance of a fire and reduce any possible moisture problems. Plus kill any stowaways before they get to space.

  • PeterF

    Commercial space will have to come up with with a system that is less prone to failure due to the influence of fools. (foolproof is a goal, not possible in true real world)
    Nitrogen purge, vacuum seal, and then irradiate (with a brief exposure to cesium 137) would sterilize all the supplies sent to orbit. Oh wait, radiation is bad and must be avoided at all times…
    Eventually new paradigms will have to be adopted for permanent habitats in space. Things like exterior storage of supplies, Vacuum clothing (not “space suits” that take hours to don and then drown you), zero-G food production, 3D printing of spare parts, true recycling of materials, etc. etc. etc.
    The downward pressure on cost of commercialization will make it possible to bypass the inertia of high cost processes and practices; (we spent a million dollars developing a zero-gravity pen, why would we use a pencil instead?)

  • pzatchok

    NASA still has pathological aversion to any type of contamination in space. Damn close to OCD.

    They need to get over it and learn how to decontaminate while in space. They need to learn how to clean a space station while in orbit instead of spending billions keeping it from getting dirty in the first place.

    Hospitals don’t go through as much as NASA does.

    Look inside the ISS. Its impossible to clean it. And its getting worse as they add more junk. Wires and hoses hanging everyplace. Inadequate air circulation.

  • Edward

    Pzatchok wrote: “They need to get over it and learn how to decontaminate while in space. They need to learn how to clean a space station while in orbit instead of spending billions keeping it from getting dirty in the first place.”

    I like to compare a space station with a nuclear submarine. There are similar problems, such as no access to fresh air, sealed for months at a time, no easy escape in case of fire, hull breaches can be fatal, etc. One would expect that there could and would be similar solutions. In one of the scenes of “Das Boot” a sailor is cutting the mold off of a loaf of bread, and at the beginning of the voyage, food is stored pretty much everywhere.

    Unfortunately, the crew of ISS is limited to six, and we want them to spend more time on experiments and productive tasks than on maintenance, cleaning, decontamination, mold and mildew relief, etc. There is an additional danger that molds or other undesirable life forms could contaminate some of the growth experiments.

    Amortizing the cost of the ISS program across the number of experiments already performed, each experiment costs in the tens of millions of dollars, and that per-experiment cost will decrease as more experiments are performed. Not only do we need the ISS to remain operational for as long as possible, we also need the crew to be able to focus on performing experiments rather than cleaning and decontaminating. It may be worth the extra cost for an OCD NASA to keep the station contamination-free.

    As you noted, pzatchok, keeping it clean is already a difficult task without adding more to it. I would hate for us to have to abandon the station because all the astronauts’ time was spent on cleaning and maintenance and none on the purpose of the station.

    Pzatchok wrote: “But this problem just happened a little while ago. You would think they would have an all new attitude about it and have everyone watching for problems and solutions.”

    That the problem happened just a little while ago, shows that they have been having success for a long time. This is an unusual event, and you should place your bet on them watching very closely as well as studying records to figure out why it happened now and not before now. That they found it suggests that they *are* watching for problems but thought they already had solutions.

    Learning how to clean a space station will undoubtedly help us when we travel around the solar system, as cleaning may be one way to keep the astronauts from becoming completely bored during transit — unless we have other (scientific?) projects for them to work on.

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