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Friday, July 19, 2024

Death in Space: What Happens to the Body and What Does NASA Do?

Since human space exploration began just over 60 years ago, 20 people have died: 14 in the NASA space shuttle tragedies of 1986 and 2003, three cosmonauts during the 1971 Soyuz 11 mission, and three astronauts in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967. As we talk about extending human exploration to other planets, planning for all scenarios — including those that do not end well is essential.

When an astronaut dies in space, the body must be preserved so it does not decompose too quickly. That is why there are airlocks in every spacecraft and station. An astronaut could be stored in one of those and then returned to Earth on the return trip of a re-supply shuttle. There is also the option of jettisoning the body into space, but that would likely be littering in space and a violation of a United Nations charter that forbids it.

However, the more realistic choice is to take advantage of a collaboration between green burial company Promessa and NASA called “Body Back.” Under this scheme, an astronaut is zipped into an airtight sleeping bag, then frozen. Then the bag is hauled back on board and put through a system that intensely vibrates the frozen corpse until it shatters into fine dust. This is then stored in a bag hanging outside the spacecraft, to be retrieved when the craft arrives at its destination.

This is a good option for missions that only last a few days, like the next space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. Better solutions exist for longer journeys, such as the 300 million-mile voyage to Mars. The astronaut would not be able to return to Earth, so preserving the body is not as necessary. Instead, the spacecraft’s crew might continue on their mission and then return to Earth with their dead colleague at the end, when they would have plenty of time for that.

As a space medical doctor who works to find new ways to keep astronauts healthy, I and my team at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health want to ensure space explorers are as healthy as possible for their missions. However, even with the best training, there are things that no preparation can prepare you for. Whether it is an accident on the launchpad or a death in orbit, these are decisions no astronaut is prepared to make. Moreover, if the answer to what happens to an astronaut’s body in space is left up to the individual mission, it will be a difficult decision no matter what.

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