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What Really Happens to Your Body if You Die in Space

ON JULY 21, 1969, when the Apollo 11 crew was due to depart the lunar surface after a 22-hour visit, two speeches were placed on President Richard Nixon’s desk. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” read the contingency speech. Would Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong live out the rest of their days staring at the blue glow of Earth from 250,000 miles away?

We’ve lost only 18 people in space—including 14 NASA astronauts—since humankind first took to strapping ourselves to rockets. That’s relatively low, considering our history of blasting folks into space without quite knowing what would happen. When there have been fatalities, the entire crew has died, leaving no one left to rescue. But as we move closer to a human mission to Mars, there’s a higher likelihood that individuals will die—whether that’s on the way, while living in harsh environments, or some other reason. And any problems that arise on Mars—technical issues or lack of food, for example—could leave an entire crew or colony stranded and fending for themselves.

No settlement plans are being discussed at NASA (leave those to pie-in-the-sky private groups like Mars One for now), but a crewed mission has been on the docket for some time, and could touch down as early as the 2040s. NASA’s “Journey to Mars” quotes an estimated three-year round-trip, leaving plenty of time for any number of things to go wrong.

“The real interesting question is, what happens on a mission to Mars or on the lunar space station if there were [a death],” says Emory University bioethicist Paul Wolpe. “What happens when it may be months or years before a body can get back to Earth—or where it’s impractical to bring the body back at all?”

Today’s astronauts travel to space by way of the Russian Soyuz, then spend a few months on the International Space Station. Because astronauts are in impeccable health at the time of launch, a death in the ISS crew would likely result from an accident during a spacewalk.

“In the worst case scenario, something happens during a spacewalk,” says Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and former commander of the ISS. “You could suddenly be struck by a micro-meteorite, and there’s nothing you can do about that. It could puncture a hole in your suit, and within a few seconds you’re incapacitated.”

This hypothetical astronaut would only have about 15 seconds before they lost consciousness. Before they froze, they would most likely die from asphyxiation or decompression. 10 seconds of exposure to the vacuum of space would force the water in their skin and blood to vaporize, while their body expanded outward like a balloon being filled with air. Their lungs would collapse, and after 30 seconds they would be paralyzed—if they weren’t already dead by this point.

The likelihood of death on the ISS is low, and it’s never happened before. But what would surviving astronauts do if it did?

If you die in space, there is no coming home. But does your body immediately freezes and erupts into a thousand tiny particles? What does science have to say about this topic? Today we’re going to explore what would actually happen to your body if you died in space.

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