Here's How NASA Plans to Dispose of Dead Bodies in Space

Friday, 29 April 2016 - 12:22PM
Space
Weird Science
Friday, 29 April 2016 - 12:22PM
Here's How NASA Plans to Dispose of Dead Bodies in Space
Currently, disposal of corpses is not a major concern for space travelers, since missions are so short and relatively safe that death during spaceflight is not a particularly strong possibility. But if humans are going to undergo long-term spaceflight to visit Mars and other deep space locations, death in space will become an inevitability, and NASA has a fascinating--if slightly disturbing--idea for disposing of the bodies.

As of now, there's no defined protocol for dealing with death on board a spaceship, whether for disposing of the corpse or notifying loved ones. Astronauts still do simulations of on-board deaths as part of their training, however, just in case the situation ever does arise. Chris Hadfield described these extremely morbid "death sims" in his book, An Astronaut's Guide to Earth:

Opening quote
"We've just received word from the Station: Chris is dead." Immediately, people start working the problem. Okay, what are we going to do with his corpse? 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? Jettison it during a spacewalk and let it float away into space?
Closing quote

But if trips to Mars, the Moon, or even interstellar travel become a reality, then we'll need a set protocol for dealing with dead bodies on spaceships. The most elegant solution would be to just send the body into space through the airlock and let it float away. But a UN charter forbids this, as it technically counts as "littering." The body could collide with other spacecrafts, or, even more worryingly, could contaminate extraterrestrial bodies with human germs.m But it isn't feasible to keep the body on board for an extended period of time, either, as it could jeopardize the mental and physical health of the other astronauts.

So we need an alternate solution, which is where NASA's "Body Back" program comes in, one of several research projects funded by NASA to propose solutions to this problem. Since the body would need to be isolated within 24 hours to avoid contamination, it would be immediately placed into a GoreTex bag that would be inflated into a type of sarcophagus. Funeral rites would be performed very quickly, in a location on the ship where the astronauts could contact Earth.

Opening quote
"A funeral in space would be an unprecedented event, which might well involve the involvement of government figures, media and the public at large," Body Back researcher Wiigh-Masak said at an Explore Mars workshop (via Vice). "Speeches from the home nation, family members and the captain may be followed by last goodbyes from crew members, writing on the Body Back, celebrations, songs and so forth. It will be possible to transfer data to the Body Back from Earth, delivering any final messages to the decedent that his or her family or friends may wish to deliver."
Closing quote

After the funeral, the bag would be placed in the airlock, but instead of releasing it into space, the crew would expose it to space until the cold temperatures froze it solid. Then, in a slightly gruesome ending, a robotic arm would vibrate the body until it disintegrated into a powder, like Harvey's shattered arm in Sunshine. Water evaporates through a vent in the bag, and the vapor goes into space, so in a certain sense, part of the body stays there.

Opening quote
"In this way," Wiigh-Masak explained, "the astronauts – who often say that, if they die up there, they'd like to stay in space – also get their wish, and the ship does not carry any extra weight."
Closing quote

Then, finally, the bag containing the remaining powder folds itself up into a neat square, and the remains are returned to the family. This is a little bit disturbing on its face, and I'm sure we'd all rather just float away, like Dr. Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But a space-friendly and cost-effective alternative is nothing to sneeze at, so this may very well be our method of body disposal once we begin living and dying in space.
Science
NASA
Space
Weird Science

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