December 19, 2018
NASA Could Leave Dead Astronauts To 'Orbit Earth Like Space Junk’
NASA has never told the public what it plans to do if an astronaut dies in outer space — leaving the macabre situation a mystery.
BY Sofie Jackson News Reporter
17:55, 2 NOV 2019
Even astronauts have claimed they don’t know what the death protocol is in space. In his book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, Colonel Chris Hadfield recalls a NASA training exercise called a "death sim”.
Col. Hadfield had the bizarre experience of listening to his colleagues argue about what to do with his corpse. He wrote: “There are no body bags on Station, so should we shove it in a spacesuit and stick it in a locker?
“But what about the smell? Should we send it back to Earth on a resupply ship and let it burn up with the rest of the garbage on re-entry?
NASA had kept a lid on its protocol for if an astronaut died while in space
or let it float away into space?” Luckily, so far, no astronauts have died while working on the International Space Station (ISS) with all space-related fatalities happening during launch or landing. But as traveling through space becomes commonplace and we head out on three-month trips to colonize Mars, death in space becomes inevitable.
World-famous mortician Caitlin Doughty — who has made a career out of promoting death acceptance — reckons there are three options for dealing with a space corpse which she outlines in her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?
The ISS is pretty small and stowing a dead body would be logistically tricky
Bring the body back to Earth
Caitlin pointed out that if an astronaut’s body is being returned to Earth, it will have to wait for a return shuttle, so the priority is keeping it cool. Unfortunately, the ISS is small and there is definitely no room for a space mortuary.
“On the International Space Station, astronauts keep trash and food waste in the coldest part of the station,” Caitlin wrote, and noted this is probably the best option. However, stuffing a “fallen space hero” in with the rubbish is “not the best public relations move”, she added.
When we start embarking on long trips to Mars death in space will become more likely
Build an onboard eco-cremation system
Caitlin said that, in 2005, NASA collaborated with Swedish company Promessa to design a “Body Back” prototype system. In the system, the body would be “thrust into the shuttle’s airlock” which is almost Absolute Zero at -270C.
After an hour, the frozen corpse would be vibrated by a robot arm for 15 minutes, turning it into chunks which would then be dehydrated — turning the astronaut’s body to a lightweight powder.
Caitlin said this powder could then be given to the grieving family “just like you would a very heavy urn of cremated remains”.
Astronauts on the ISS are incredibly fit and healthy and have frequent medical checks
Leave the body in space
It could be simpler to leave the body outside the space shuttle. “After all, burial at sea has always been a respectful way to put sailors and explorers at rest, plopped over the side of the ship into the waves below,” Caitlin wrote. Unfortunately, space corpses don’t vanish into a void like in Hollywood movies.
'Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs', by best-selling author Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin said the corpse would “most likely just follow the same orbit as the shuttle”. “This perversely would turn her into a form of space trash,” she added. Even worse, Caitlin said that astronauts would have to “pass the orbiting corpse on every trip”, like mountain climbers walking past frozen bodies on the way up to Everest.
On the plus side, Caitlin said that if the gravity of a planet eventually pulled a dead astronaut in, they’d get a “free cremation”. What if the body was ejected in a capsule?
There would be the “smallest small possibilities”, Caitlin wrote, that the pod would land on some distant exoplanet where it “cracked open on impact”, leaving the microbes in the dead body to “create life on a new planet”.
Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? by Caitlin Doughty is published by W&N, out now.
W. O. Belfield, Jr.