Sending humans to space has always been a challenging endeavour, with the risks involved. While the number of fatalities remains relatively low, the growing frequency of space missions brings to light an essential and sombre question: What happens if someone dies in space?
As space agencies and private companies like NASA gear up for missions to the Moon and Mars, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health is diligently working to ensure astronauts’ well-being during extended space travel.
If a fatality were to occur on a low-Earth-orbit mission like the International Space Station, protocols are in place for a quick return to Earth within hours. Similarly, a lunar crew could bring back the body within a few days. In these cases, the priority is the safe return of the remaining crew members.
However, a Mars mission, taking up to a couple of years, poses unique challenges. If death were to occur during the 300-million-mile journey, the body would likely be preserved in a specialized chamber or body bag until the mission’s end. The controlled environment inside the spacecraft would theoretically assist in preserving the body.
Should a fatality occur on the Martian surface, cremation would be unfeasible due to energy constraints. Burial is equally undesirable to avoid contamination of the Martian environment. Instead, the crew would likely preserve the body in a specialized body bag until its eventual return to Earth.
Yet, handling the physical remains is just one aspect. Equally vital is supporting the crew in coping with loss and helping grieving families on Earth. As humanity ventures towards colonizing other planets, comprehensive planning and protocols must be in place to address this grim but inevitable scenario.
While uncertainties remain, preparations for such tragic events will be essential to ensure the success of future space missions. As we aim to conquer new frontiers beyond our solar system, addressing these challenges is critical for the advancement of human space exploration.