What If You Die In Space? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
What happens if tragedy strikes in space? What if the worst happens? As humans look set to travel to the moon, Mars and even further out into the solar system, are there contingency plans in place for if / when somebody dies?? In this video, Unveiled discovers what would happen in the worst case scenario... including a look at what would have happened if Apollo 11 had failed!

What if You Die in Space?

Becoming an astronaut is an extremely difficult thing to do. What with the incredibly selective hiring process and the famously gruelling training period, only a few ever make it. But that’s because space is one of the most dangerous places there is, where even a tiny problem can spell certain doom.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if you die in space?

Space itself has no shortage of ways to kill you. It’s a near-perfect vacuum, it’s got no oxygen, it’s full of radiation, and is (in parts) as low as minus-455 degrees Fahrenheit. If you were to somehow find yourself in space without a spacesuit, well, you’d only have around fifteen seconds until you lost consciousness… and mere minutes later you’d be dead and gone. Of course, there’s also always the risk of a catastrophic malfunction on your way into space, and we’ve seen in the past how launches can go terribly and tragically wrong. And, then, even if you go to space and survive, as the majority of astronauts do, it’s not as though the risks lessen. Thanks to the radiation, you’re still increasing your chances of developing cancer in your lifetime, and there are also the negative effects of microgravity over long periods, including the weakening of muscles and bones.

But, all of that said and although humankind has now been going into space for decades, only three people have ever unfortunately died while actually in space itself. There have been many more spaceflight-related accidents and fatalities, of course, but all of the others happened when a craft was either on the ground or within Earth’s atmosphere. Those in-space fatalities, though, were the crew on the Russian rocket, the Soyuz 11; Georgy Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov. They died shortly after disengaging from the Salyut 1 space station in 1971, when a valve defect meant they were exposed to the vacuum of space. Soyuz 11 remarkably landed safely apart from this, and it wasn’t until autopsies were conducted that scientists realized just how the cosmonauts inside had died.

Six years earlier, and another cosmonaut, Alexei Leonov, came extremely close to becoming an outer space casualty, too. In 1965, Leonov conducted the world’s first spacewalk, but a fault in his spacesuit meant the suit inflated while he was outside, meaning he couldn’t get back inside through the airlock. Ultimately, Leonov was forced to open a valve in his malfunctioning suit, and he just barely survived, suffering only decompression sickness in the end.

Clearly, the deaths that have already happened in space are tragedies. And the near misses are major concerns. But, despite such a scenario often featuring in sci-fi films, we’ve thankfully never had an astronaut become stranded in space, cast off into the abyss with no way home. Still, with more and more manned space missions planned for the future, and with long-haul journeys to Mars reportedly coming in just a few years’ time, it seems inevitable that one day someone will die in space… so, what happens then?

NASA has had contingencies in place for this, in the past. In the 1990s, a speech written for President Nixon re-emerged called “In the Event of Moon Disaster” – it’s the speech he would have given in 1969 had the Apollo 11 astronauts died during the moon landing mission. In it, Nixon explains to the American public that the bodies of those brave souls would have remained on the moon indefinitely. The astronauts themselves understood that this was a possibility before embarking on the mission, too. And, though the idea that we’d have just left them there might seem a little heartless, it’s perhaps understandable, as well. In that unfortunate event, NASA wouldn’t have wanted to risk more lives trying to retrieve the bodies.

As for what would physically happen in this scenario, bodies on the moon would eventually freeze, preserved, perhaps forever. Something similar actually happens in some of the most dangerous and inhospitable parts of Earth, like along routes to the top of Mount Everest. The ascent of Everest is so dangerous already that going up to bring dead bodies back down isn’t often done. In fact, many of the bodies of those unfortunately perished eventually double up as grisly trail markers… and as hard-hitting warnings about what lies ahead. It may be unsettling to imagine that someone might never be properly lain to rest, but it’s sometimes also the safest option - and, at least for Nixon in the sixties, that was the case for astronauts on the moon.

Now, though, we have more of a presence in space than ever before. So, while thankfully this scenario has never come to pass, what would happen if you died on the International Space Station? Well, now, your body wouldn’t just be left where it fell. Because most astronauts only stay on the ISS for about six months, it wouldn’t be long before anyone recently deceased could be brought back. The ISS is significantly closer to Earth than the moon is, too, at just 240 miles away on average, so the logistics of the journey are much more manageable. On the ISS, then, a body could feasibly be put in a spacesuit and left in an airlock, until such time as it could be returned home.

But what about in the future? What if you were to die at any moment during one of the proposed long-haul journeys to Mars, for example? After all, it’s not as though this would be an especially unlikely prospect… It’s expected that it will take around nine months to get to the Red Planet from Earth. Say someone on board died just a month into the journey, then… the remaining crewmembers would have eight more months to deal with not only the loss, but also the fact that there’d now be a corpse onboard the ship - a psychological nightmare, but also, potentially, a major health hazard.

In sci-fi, the chosen course of action is usually to just jettison the body out into space… but, in real life, there are rules against this kind of thing. The UN has the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, which forbid human missions from just generally leaving stuff in space. And then there are various planetary protection rules to consider, where the deliberate spreading of biological material is also banned. There’s no official line on exactly how a corpse would be recognised within these regulations, but something like a frozen body would certainly represent a deadly obstacle if it were to ever cross paths with another ship. So, for space agencies, it all amounts to a pretty big problem… both practically and morally.

Because, what’s the next best solution? For our hypothetical, long-haul journey to Mars that’s been struck by tragedy, should they carry the corpse all the way to the Red Planet, and then bury it there? Well, no, because the same planetary protection / cross-contamination issues would apply… with the burial again serving to introduce Earth microbes and bacteria to the alien world. Sure, after a few years or decades of Mars exploration, something like this could be an option - once we know more about the planet. But, until then, would those on Mars just have to somehow store a corpse until they could fly it back to Earth on a return mission?

It’s a question that doesn’t actually have a solid answer yet, as the protocols are still being written up. But NASA has looked into ways to dispose of and transport a corpse in the past. In the mid-2000s, it worked with the Swedish company Promessa Organic to develop a method that would work in space. Promessa specialised in Promession, which is a way to process a body in a more eco-friendly manner than cremation. On Earth, it involves freeze-drying a corpse, vibrating it until it shatters, and then collecting the powdered remains. The proposed space alternative was called a “Body Back” system, where a deceased astronaut would be placed inside an airtight bag, held outside of the ship for long enough for them to freeze solid, and then shattered by a robotic arm. The remains could then be easily transported on the ship, in an urn, without causing distress to the crew. Promession, in general, has had many critics in the past, though, and Promessa the company still doesn’t have a working facility. All of which means that NASA has never actually implemented the “Body Back” system, or even come close to installing it onto missions. Perhaps something like it could make a return, however, when Mars plans pickup speed.

For now, thankfully, death in space is not a situation we’ve ever had to deal with. But, if the worst did happen, clearly so much would depend on the precise circumstances surrounding it… and the high-pressure decisions that the rest of your crew would have to make.