Q: What happens if someone dies in space? Has NASA made any plans?
Jan Ferris, of O’Fallon
A: In 2001, fellow journalist Virginia Morris published a self-help book entitled “Talking About Death Won’t Kill You.”
Maybe I should send my promotional copy to NASA.
In researching this question, I found countless astronauts grilled by writers as curious as you are. Almost all said the subject did not come up during training.
At least one, however, talked about taking part in a “death-sim” (simulation) exercise in which participants brainstormed over what they might do if a death occurred. The result seemed to be that it would be handled case by case as it arose. It was a thoughtful discussion, but no definitive protocol was developed.
Why? Probably largely for the same reason young marathoners may not worry about keeling over with a heart attack in their 20s or 30s. Given their training and medical care, astronauts are generally in top shape and unlikely to die of natural causes during their few months in space. Their biggest threat probably is a catastrophic mechanical malfunction, which might preclude the retrieval of their bodies anyway.
So far, this kind of whistling-past-the-graveyard policy has worked. In the 56 years since Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in his Vostok capsule, technically only three humans — a trio of Russians in 1971 — died in space when their Soyuz 11 depressurized after undocking from the Salyut 1 space station. Yet even their capsule was en route home so their remains were recovered easily after it landed in Kazakhstan.
Both U.S. space shuttle tragedies, which killed 14, occurred while the vehicles were in the atmosphere. Had attempts to save Apollo 13 failed, new computer simulations show that the capsule likely would have eventually incinerated on its collision course with Earth.
Thus, the only real “policy” ever set forth came in July 1969 when Apollo 11 made the first lunar landing. Had a crash or malfunction killed or marooned Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, President Richard Nixon was ready with a second speech, which read, in part, “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.” It was part of a memo entitled “In Event of Moon Disaster.”
Otherwise, plans remain nebulous.
“NASA does not prepare contingency plans for all remote risks,” NASA said in replying to a Popular Science inquiry earlier this year. “NASA’s response to any unplanned on-orbit situation will be determined in a real time collaborative process between the Flight Operations Directorate, Human Health and Performance Directorate, NASA leadership, and our International Partners.”
Most astronauts say it tends to be an out-of-sight, out-of-mind subject.
“In my 16 years as an astronaut I don’t remember talking with another astronaut about the possibility of dying,” International Space Station astronaut Terry Virts told Popular Science. “I did quite a bit of medical training to save people, but not for this.”
“It could happen, but you know out of all the training I had, we never went over that one,” astronaut Mike Massimino told “StarTalk Radio.”
In his book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth,” Chris Hadfield did write about those death-sims, which present a group of astronauts with the scenario that an astronaut has died. Now what? Store the body? Let it burn up on re-entry with the other refuse? Jettison it into space (which may or may not be legal under international space littering laws)? Currently Hadfield sees the following if an astronaut would die, say, of a puncture to his suit during a spacewalk.
“I would bring them inside the airlock first. I would probably keep them inside their pressurized suit; bodies actually decompose faster in a spacesuit, and we don’t want the smell of rotting meat or off-gassing; it’s not sanitary. So we would keep them in their suit and store it somewhere cold on the station.”
But there have been other ideas. In 2005, NASA commissioned a study from Promessa, a Swedish eco-burial company. Although yet to be tested, the study produced a design called “The Body Back,” in which a body is freeze-dried and then shattered into a zillion pieces of icy tissue which would be stored in a bag outside the space station until returned to Earth.
And with trips to Mars being discussed, the questions become trickier. If an astronaut dies on the Red Planet, should his or her body simply be buried or perhaps used as fertilizer or, in an emergency, as food?
Much to consider as we head deeper into that final frontier.
Who may have been the first space-travel-related fatality?
Answer to Monday’s trivia: If you’re looking to buy all of Mozart’s 41 symphonies, you probably won’t find No. 37. In 1907, it was determined that what was thought to be his 37th actually was Michael Haydn’s Symphony No. 25 with an introduction and other minor changes by Mozart. Even so, Mozart’s final four symphonies were not renumbered.