NASA Has No Protocol for What to Do With a Dead Body in Space

It's not hard to die in space. (Seriously, it's brutal out there.) Though we haven't seen many fatalities out in the ether, luckily, we'd be in an interesting predicament if/when it occurs in the future. It's time to address the astro-elephant corpse in the room...

Houston, We Have a Body

Only 18 people (14 NASA astronauts) have lost their lives in the history of spaceflight. That's not a lot, considering how many huge unknowns are part of space exploration. In each of these deadly instances, there were no survivors. But...what if there had been? NASA has no official protocol on what to do with a corpse in space. "I did quite a bit of medical training to save people, but not for this," ISS and shuttle astronaut Terry Virts told Popular Science. "In my 16 years as an astronaut, I don't remember talking with another astronaut about the possibility of dying."

If it does happen, NASA told Popular Science that they'll cross that bridge when they get there: "NASA does not prepare contingency plans for all remote risks. 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."

One reason there isn't a standard in place for how surviving astronauts would handle the death of a crewmate is that, well, it's a tricky problem. As NASA gears up for an unprecedented manned mission to Mars in the 2040s, it's something we should be thinking about now. It'll take about three years for us to get to Mars; that's a lot of time for something to go terribly wrong. Here are some ideas that probably aren't going to work:

  • Keep the body in a corner until it can be sent back down to Earth. The smell of decomposition is one thing. But, um, can you say biohazard? C'mon, you knew this couldn't be a good idea...
  • Okay, create a special compartment to store it in before sending it back to Earth? Right now, it costs about $10,000 for each pound a space agency puts into orbit around Earth. Storing one or more coffins on board a spacecraft could end up a multimillion-dollar proposal. Not to mention, this could cause some weird psychological issues for surviving astronauts.

  • Just, um, push it out into space... First of all, the UN forbids littering in space. Second of all, some very morbid physics. Unless we strapped a rocket onto the corpse, the body would just — oh, god — tag along in the spacecraft's trajectory. This rogue corpse could also end up damaging spacecraft or contaminating other worlds, which planetary protection officers would tell you is a no-no.
  • We're on Mars! Bury it here? The concept of using a decomposing person as fertilizer for growing crops on Mars is a little, uh, unsettling, but at least it's resourceful. Problem is, we have no idea how that would work. "I'm not sure human bodies make particularly good fertilizer. I mean, no society has done that on Earth that I know of," Paul Root Wolpe, a professor at Emory University and senior bioethicist at NASA, told Slate. "There are societies that desperately need fertilizer, and even they don't use their dead bodies for the purpose. There's always been an extremely strong taboo for using dead bodies for instrumental purposes." Even if we did make good fertilizer, introducing human microbes into Martian soil would totally screw up our search for organisms there.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

NASA's strongest plan yet is something called the Body Back, from the Swedish company Promessa. NASA and a group of science and design students from Sweden and Denmark took Promessa's concept of promession and sought to adapt it to space. For reference, promession is basically the process of freeze-drying a corpse with liquid nitrogen until brittle, at which point it's then shaken into dust.

The Body Back would inflate into a coffin-like shape and contain the corpse. After any funerary rituals, the airtight Body Back would be sent to the airlock, where the body would freeze in the cold temps of space. After totally frozen, the Body Back will be brought back inside the craft where its contains would be vibrated until it turned into dust. Then the dust is dehydrated, leaving behind about 50 pounds of dust. The dust will then be put into an urn that attaches to the outside of the craft until re-entry. Voila, the ashes of the deceased astronaut will safely return to Earth.

Though this might become the standard, it's still all very much up in the air. "It was [NASA's] task to come up with suggestions for adopting [promession for space], and they never went that deep into details," Promess founder Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak told Slate. "If and when it becomes a reality, we will have to go into the details together with a team of engineers. There will be a number of challenges to solve, I am sure."

There's a lot that goes into a mission to Mars that you may not have thought about. For a hilarious dive into the details, check out Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Joanie Faletto August 25, 2017

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