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Q & A: Hole in the space shuttle

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
Q:
If you are on a space shuttle and the hull got a fairly big hole in it, would everything be pulled out, would the water inside freeze? Why?
- Tunde Ogunmefun (age 16)
Barrie Central Colegiate, Barrie, Ontario, Canada
A:
Well, holes in space shuttles got a good deal of press coverage about a year ago when the Columbia fell apart on re-entry. That was a special case in which the hole was in the leading edge of one of the wings. The wings were not pressurized, and the hole went undetected during the flight. On re-entry, air heated by friction and pressure forced its way into the hole and the hot gases damaged components on the inside of the wing, causing the wing to fail.

If a hole were made in the hull during the mission and opened the astronaut's pressurized living space to the vacuum outside, the air would rush out and the pressure would drop inside the shuttle cabin. If the hole is not very big, big items would not get sucked out because they'd not fit through the hole. Anything held down securely would also not fly out with the air. Nearly everything in the space shuttle's pressurized compartment is held down with some kind of fastener so as not to float around and bump into the astronauts. Little things like water droplets and crumbs and dust particles will go out with the air.

Water inside, if it is open to the ambient pressure in the cabin would start to boil when the ambient pressure gets lower than the vapor pressure of the water. It takes 540 calories/gram to vaporize water, and in the absence of an external heating source, the water would cool down as it boils, and eventually some of it will freeze. It is also unlikely that any water would be left in open containers on the shuttle for long, as it would float around in spherical droplets, getting in the way of the astronauts's duties.

Tom

(published on 10/22/2007)

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