Good News And Bad News On Human Exposure To The Vacuum Of Space

If you exist in the later half of the 20th century or in the 21st century, chances are you’ve seen (or heard of) a motion picture about space exploration. And perhaps, have heard about people dying in space … either by accident or as a form of capital punishment.


Like in the screen capture above from the CBS hit series “Star Trek Discovery” episode “The Wolf Inside“, three unfortunate crewmen — in an alternate universe (in their actual universe, Star Fleet abolished capital punishment) — were sentenced to death for having bad thoughts about their supreme leader. They were executed by beaming them into space, and within seconds they died. Though, not very graphic compared to other early portrayals, you might wonder, how accurate this is in real life.

You may be disappointed because it’s not as dramatic in real life. According to an article at CNET, and with scientific facts from NASA, the Soviet Union — yes, Russia, they’re not just into espionage and election interference, they’re also into other stuff too… like space exploration, photography and fitness modeling — and lessons learned from tragedies related to space exploration, death is a result from the “absence of atmospheric pressure” and “cosmic radiation.” It’s not instantaneous, you’ll perish anywhere between fifteen seconds to two minutes.

“You wouldn’t lose consciousness straight away; it might take up to 15 seconds as your body uses up the remaining oxygen reserves from your bloodstream, and — if you don’t hold your breath — you could perhaps survive for as long as two minutes…” — Michael Starr\CNET

Don’t even think about holding your breath, space is not a swimming pool, it’ll only make it worst. “If you do hold your breath,” which is unfortunately maybe your first instinct, “the loss of external pressure would cause the gas inside your lungs to expand, which will rupture the lungs and release air into the circulatory system.” So instead, you have to exhale to live longer, which is a bad thing because it’s the opposite of what you would likely normally do.

There are other things that will happen too, like “your skin and the tissue underneath will begin to swell as the water in your body starts to vaporize.” But, since your circulatory system will still work, your blood pressure will still be fine. However, your tongue will start to bubble. And if you’re not wearing any protective suit, you’ll be exposed to cosmic radiation, which will give you a really really bad sunburn.

NASA’s experiments on dogs on the effects of a near vacuum environment reported a 15% to 80% casualty, if exposed to more than two minutes. It takes only nine seconds before loss of consciousness, flaccid paralysis, and apnea sets in (read NASA’s full report here /PDF).

And if you’re lucky enough to be pulled away from the vacuum of space and go into full decompression, it’s not pretty either;

“.. they began to show marked evidence of gas expansion and water vapor evolvement.  This was manifested by a high degree of subcutaneous emphysema and expulsion of gas from the stomach and lower bowel, often with simultaneous projectile vomiting, defecation, and urination similar to that previously reported by others. The water vapor effect and gas expansion were of such magnitude that the animals became completely immobilized with the extremities, neck, and body in an extended position, similar in appearance to an inflated goat-skin bag. Oddly enough, the external ears and the eyeballs did not seem to show the effects of this phenomenon and remained essentially normal in appearance, although the soft tissue around the eyes and face…” — NASA

Decompression is nasty. You’ll look fat. You’ll involuntarily vomit, poop and piss … at once, while you’re still immobilized. It’s not a pretty sight. But at least, your eyes won’t bulge out and your ears will still look normal. All you can do is hope that no one around have their mobile phone with them to take a photo of you in this ghastly embarrassing moment. Might as well die and be done with it, right? You wouldn’t want that photo in your Instagram feed, trust me.

star-trek-discovery_space_exposureOn June 30, 1971, three Russian astronauts perished before re-entry while on board the Soyuz 11 spacecraft due to a ruptured ventilation valve, causing them to be exposed to the vacuum of space. Their autopsy report says;

 “…the cause of death proper for the cosmonauts was hemorrhaging of the blood vessels in the brain, with lesser amounts of bleeding under their skin, in the inner ear, and in the nasal cavity, all of which occurred as exposure to a vacuum environment caused the oxygen and nitrogen in their bloodstreams to bubble and rupture vessels. Their blood was also found to contain heavy concentrations of lactic acid, a sign of extreme physiologic stress. Although they could have remained conscious for almost a minute after decompression began, less than 20 seconds would have passed before the effects of oxygen starvation made it impossible for them to function.”—Wikipedia

On the bright side, since there’s no oxygen in space, your corpse will not decompose. It will float in space for eternity — unless your body is mined by aliens and reanimated, see “Star Trek Voyager” episode “Ashes to Ashes“. And if you wore a space suit after you perished in space, “it would decompose, but only for as long as the oxygen lasted,” CNET wrote. Which means, you’ll be an instant eternal mummy in less than fifteen seconds.

So if somehow you’re exposed to the vacuum of space, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, you’ll not suffer a long agonizing grotesque death as portrayed in the movies. The bad news is, you’ll still die. But, if you manage to be pulled away from it in less than five seconds, if you survive the decompression process, you may not with the embarrassing ordeal. So, whatever you do, stay away from the vacuum of space. I’m serious.


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