This is an excerpt from the new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs, published by W. W. Norton & Company.
Like the vast reaches of space, the fate of an astronaut corpse is uncharted territory. So far, no individual has died of natural causes in space. There have been eighteen astronaut deaths, but all were caused by a bona fide space disaster. Space shuttle Columbia (seven deaths, broken apart due to structural failure), space shuttle Challenger (seven deaths, disintegrated during launch), Soyuz 11 (three deaths, air vent ripped open during descent, and the only deaths to have technically happened in space), Soyuz 1 (one death, capsule parachute failure during reentry).
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death
These were all large-scale calamities, with bodies recovered on Earth in various states of intactness. But we dont know what would happen if an astronaut had a sudden heart attack, or an accident during a space walk, or choked on some of that freeze-dried ice cream on the way to Mars. Umm, Houston, should we float him over to the maintenance closet or . . . ?
Before we talk about what would be done with a space corpse, lets lay out what we suspect might happen if death occurred in a place with no gravity and no atmospheric pressure.
An astronaut, lets call her Dr. Lisa, is outside the space station, puttering away on some routine repair. (Do astronauts ever putter? I assume everything they do has a specific, highly technical purpose. But do they ever spacewalk just to make sure everything looks tidy around the ol station?) All of a sudden, Lisas puffy white space suit is struck by a tiny meteorite, ripping a sizable hole.
Unlike what you may have seen or read in science fiction, Lisas eyes wont bulge out of her skull until she finally shatters in a blast of blood and icicles. Nothing so dramatic will occur. But Lisa will have to act quickly after her suit is breached, as she will lose consciousness in nine to eleven seconds. This is a weirdly specific, kind of creepy time frame. Lets call it 10 seconds. She has 10 seconds to get herself back into a pressurized environment. But such a rapid decompression will likely send her into shock. Death will come to our poor putterer before she even knows what is happening.
In theory, you could store Lisa in her powdered form for years before returning her to Earth .
Most of the conditions that will kill Lisa come from the lack of air pressure in space. The human body is used to operating under the weight of the Earths atmosphere, which cradles us at all times like a planet-sized anti-anxiety blanket. From the moment that pressure disappears, the gases in Lisas body will begin to expand and the liquids will turn into gas. Water in her muscles will convert into vapor, which will collect under Lisas skin, distending areas of her body to twice their normal size. This will lead to a freaky Violet Beauregarde situation, but will not actually be her main issue in terms of survival. The lack of pressure will also cause nitrogen in her blood to form gas bubbles, causing her enormous pain, similar to what deep- water divers experience when they get the bends. When Dr. Lisa passes out in nine to eleven seconds, it will bring her merciful relief. She will continue floating and bloating, unaware of what is happening.
As we pass the minute and a half mark, Lisas heart rate and blood pressure will plummet (to the point where her blood may begin to boil). The pressure inside and outside her lungs will be so different that her lungs will be torn, ruptured, and bleeding. Without immediate help, Dr. Lisa will asphyxiate, and well have a space corpse on our hands. Remember, this what we think will happen. What little information we have comes from studies done in altitude chambers on unfortunate humans and even more unfortunate animals.
The crew pulls Lisa back inside, but its too late to save her. RIP Dr. Lisa.
Space programs like NASA have been pondering this inevitability, although they wont talk about it publicly. (Why are you hiding your space corpse protocol, NASA?) So, let me pose the question to you: should Lisas body come back to Earth or not? Heres what would happen, based on what you decide.
Decomposition can be slowed down in cold temperatures, so if Lisa is coming back to Earth (and the crew doesnt want the effluents of a decomposing body escaping into the living area of the ship), they need to keep her as cool as possible. On the International Space Station, astronauts keep trash and food waste in the coldest part of the station. This puts the brakes on the bacteria that cause decay, which decreases food rot and helps the astronauts avoid unpleasant smells. So maybe this is where Lisa would hang out until a shuttle returned her to Earth. Keeping fallen space hero Dr. Lisa with the trash is not the best public relations move, but the station has limited room, and the trash area already has a cooling system in place, so it makes logistical sense to put her there.
What if Dr. Lisa dies of a heart attack on a long journey to Mars? In 2005, NASA collaborated with a small Swedish company called Promessa on a design prototype for a system that would process and contain space corpses. The prototype was called the Body Back. (Im bringing body back, returning corpses but theyre not intact.)
If Lisas crew had a Body Back system on board, heres how it would work. Her body would be placed in an airtight bag made of GoreTex and thrust into the shuttles airlock. In the airlock, the temperature of space (270C) would freeze Lisas body. After about an hour, a robotic arm would bring the bag back inside the shuttle and vibrate for fifteen minutes, shattering frozen Lisa into chunks. The chunks would be dehydrated, leaving about fifty pounds of dried Lisa-powder in the Body Back. In theory, you could store Lisa in her powdered form for years before returning her to Earth and presenting her to her family just like you would a very heavy urn of cremated remains.
Who says Lisas body needs to come back to Earth at all? People are already paying $12,000 or more to have tiny, symbolic portions of their cremated remains or DNA launched into Earths orbit, to the surface of the moon, or out into deep space. How psyched do you think space nerds would be if they had the chance to float their whole dead body through space?
After all, burial at sea has always been a respectful way to put sailors and explorers to rest, plopped over the side of the ship into the waves below. We continue the practice these days despite advances in onboard refrigeration and preservation technology. So, while we do have the technology to build robot arms to shatter and freeze-dry space corpses, perhaps we could employ the simpler option of wrapping Dr. Lisa in a body bag, space-walking her past the solar array, and letting her float away?
Space seems vast and uncontrolled. We like to imagine that Dr. Lisa will drift forever into the void (like George Clooney in that space movie I watched on the plane that one time), but more likely she would just follow the same orbit as the shuttle. This would, perversely, turn her into a form of space trash. The United Nations has regulations against littering in space. But I doubt anyone would apply those regulations to Dr. Lisa. Again, no one wants to call our noble Lisa trash!
Humans have struggled with this challenge before, with grim results. There are only a few climbable routes to climb to the top of Mount Everests 29,029-foot peak. If you die at that altitude (which almost three hundred people have done), it is dangerous for the living to attempt to bring your body down for burial or cremation. Today, dead bodies litter the climbing paths, and each year new climbers have to step over the puffy orange snowsuits and skeletonized faces of fellow climbers. This same thing could happen in space, where shuttles to Mars have to pass the orbiting corpse every trip. Oh geez, there goes Lisa again.
Its possible the gravity of a planet could eventually pull Lisa in. If that happens, Lisa would get a free cremation in the atmosphere. Friction from the atmospheric gas would super-heat her bodys tissues, incinerating her. Theres the smallest of small possibilities that if Lisas body was sent out into space in a small, self-propelled craft like an escape pod, which then departed our solar system, traveled across the empty expanse to some exoplanet, survived its descent through whatever atmosphere might exist there, and cracked open on impact, Lisas microbes and bacterial spores could create life on a new planet. Good for Lisa! How do we know that alien Lisa wasnt how life on Earth started, huh? Maybe the primordial goo from which Earths first living creatures emerged was just Lisa decomposition? Thanks, Dr. Lisa.
Caitlin Doughty is a licensed mortician and the New York Times best-selling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and From Here to Eternity. Her new book is WILL MY CAT EAT MY EYEBALLS? She created the Ask a Mortician web series and owns a funeral home in Los Angeles, California.
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