Science

What happens if you die in space, on Moon, Mars


What’s the story

Over the past six decades, human space exploration has seen 20 astronaut fatalities, notably 14 in NASA’s shuttle disasters (1986, 2003), three during Soyuz 11 (1971), and three in the Apollo 1 fire (1967).

As NASA plans lunar missions by 2025 and Mars voyages soon after, discussions on handling potential fatalities intensify.

Current protocols aim to return bodies to Earth swiftly, within hours for low-Earth-orbit missions and days for lunar missions, ensuring respectful handling and analysis.

Death outside pressurized environments

Death outside a pressurized environment, such as a spacecraft or space station, presents unique challenges.

If an astronaut were exposed to open space without a spacesuit, death would occur almost instantly due to loss of pressure and exposure to vacuum conditions causing suffocation and boiling blood.

The Moon has virtually no atmosphere, while Mars has a very thin atmosphere with minimal oxygen.

Exposure to either would lead to similar effects as in open space: suffocation and the boiling of blood.

Hazards of spacewalk accidents

During a spacewalk, if an astronaut is accidentally struck by a micro-meteorite that punctures their spacesuit, they could become incapacitated within seconds.

With approximately 15 seconds before losing consciousness, the astronaut would face asphyxiation or decompression before freezing, as the body struggles to cope with the vacuum of space.

Rapid water vaporization from skin and blood, bodily expansion, lung collapse, and eventual paralysis or death could occur within moments, highlighting the extreme hazards of such an event.

The unanswered questions of dealing with death in space

Despite existing protocols and plans, there are still many uncertainties about how explorers would handle a death in space.

These unknowns include not only the management of the remains but also providing support for the crew dealing with their loss and assisting grieving families back on Earth.

As we progress toward colonizing other worlds, these grim scenarios will necessitate further planning and protocols.

If death occured on the Moon

Temperatures on the Moon can vary from 120°C to -170°C. Thus, bodies may exhibit changes brought on by heat or freezing damage.

The crew could get the body back to Earth in a few days in the event of a death on the Moon. NASA already has comprehensive procedures in place.

The swift return suggests that NASA’s first priority would probably be ensuring the safe return of the surviving crew members to Earth, rather than the preservation of the body.

What does the space smell like?

According to astronaut Thomas Jones, space faintly smells like a mix of sulphur, rum, seared steak and gunpowder. Tony Antonelli describes the odor as completely different than anything you’ve ever smelled while other astronauts describe it as similar to raspberries.

The complexities of dealing with death on Mars missions

The protocols for handling death during a Mars mission, a journey spanning over 300 million miles, are significantly different due to the impossibility of turning back

In such cases, the deceased astronaut’s body would likely remain onboard until the end of the mission, potentially years later.

The body would likely be stored in a separate chamber or specialized body bag within the spacecraft during this time.

The controlled temperature and humidity inside the vehicle would aid in preserving the body.

The dilemma of body disposal on Mars

In the event of a death on Mars, both cremation and burial present significant challenges.

Cremation would require too much energy, which is needed for other purposes by the surviving crew.

On the other hand, burial could risk contaminating the Martian surface with bacteria and other organisms from the body.

Consequently, it is likely that the body would be preserved in a specialized body bag until it could be returned to Earth.


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