Bodies in space

By Phil Plait | June 25, 2012 10:22 am

The door to the airlock closes behind you before you can stop it. You turn slowly to face the outer doors, and with growing dread you realize you are face to face with the worst fear of every astronaut since the dawn of the space age: when the outer doors open, you’ll experience explosive decompression. You’re about to be introduced to the hard vacuum of space.

What would that be like? If you watch movies, you might get a somewhat confused view of this. Your head will explode like a balloon full of pizza ("Outland"), your eyes and tongue will bug out as you choke to death ("Total Recall"), you’ll freeze instantly ("Mission to Mars").

The problem is that none of these things is right.

Artist Nathan Hoste got as tired as I was of Hollywood’s depiction of getting tossed out the airlock, so he decided to draw a series of comic book-like panels showing the fact and fiction of breathing vacuum. He’s calling the series Bodies in Space, and the drawings are really cool.

This one is called "Radiation". I love the retro feel to it, and his caption is great: "Another thing that happens in space, away from an atmosphere or space ship, is being bombarded by cosmic rays. Many many years after he dies of oxygen deprivation, he will die of cancer." Ha!

The other drawings are equally excellent (though some are arguably NSFW). His science is good, and he plans on doing several more in the near future. I can’t wait! I love stuff like this, and it’s great that he’s using this medium of comic art to show real science… which in this case is both scarier and more interesting than fiction.

If you want to know more, I’ve written on this topic several times, including my reviews of Mission to Mars and Star Trek (the reboot), and twice on my old website: in a short article as well as answering a reader’s question.

I also talked about this in an episode of Q&BA:

So there you go. The bottom line: stay out in the vacuum of space and you’ll die, in a horribly unpleasant way. Just not in the horribly unpleasant way shown in movies!

Tip o’ the space suit visor to the good folks at io9. Art by Nathan Hoste, used by permission.

Comments (29)

Links to this Post

  1. Nathan Hoste on retaining one’s panties in space | July 19, 2012
  1. Blaise Pascal

    Can I pick option D: David Bowman in 2001?

  2. Georg Trimborn

    I could swear Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story in which he had unsuited astronauts cross from one (disabled) spaceship to another. His point was that short-term exposure to a vacuum was survivable. You’re telling me he was wrong on that? Bummer…

  3. Jesse

    Phil, if it helps any, once the TV show Farscape did it right — the scenario was one guy who needs a suit, and one who can survive for 15 minutes without one (basically the second character was a species that was tougher than humans). But the guy in the suit had ice crystals forming on his face plate (inside) as he didn’t have an entire life support system, and the second character was just floating there with him and OK for a while (presumably he had let the air out of his lungs, or equivalent).

    Anyhow, the only thing they got wrong was part of the “look” of zero-G– there’s a scene where something floats away and it looks more like it is being picked up by wind — but the decompression was OK.

    Event Horizon got part of it right — in decompression they yelled at a guy to close his eyes tightly and the blood vessels closer to the surface were the ones swelling up.

    And if nothing else, the old Space:1999 series did at least get right what happens when you break a window on the moon.

    In any case what you describe — foaming at the mouth whilst you asphyxiate, and getting the massive bends (with the associated hemorrhaging and stroke) sounds pretty awful. The pain would be excruciating.

  4. Wzrd1

    @1, I’ll go with the decompression of STS-37. The astronaut on EVA never even noticed part of his hand was exposed to the hard vacuum of space. ;)
    Mostly because, hypoxia isn’t any fun.

  5. Chris

    I’m sure NASA or the Russians must have done some studies on this back in the early days of the space age. They must have put monkeys or dogs in an explosive decompression to see what would happen. Any reports available on this?

    @2 Jesse
    Actually I think the Farscape episode “Look at the Princess Part 2 – I Do, I Think” pretty accurately represented what Phil said. Even had no sound in space most of the time. Around the 3 minute mark
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yFoqbgRBUSE

  6. mike burkhart

    I alredy saw Phils video on this, well done Phil. In the Star Wars novels one methoid of excution the Empire dose is called “spaceing” in witch it shoots prisoners out of airlocks without spacesuits. Maybe it’s better then being force choked by Darth Vader or fried by force lighting by the Empireor.

  7. jeremy greenwood

    I guess the bends and foaming at the mouth would be nasty, but is not the pain of asphyxia due to build up of carbon dioxide? This would presumably not be an issue. So perhaps the death wouldn’t be too bad, a minute or so of cramps and foaming at the mouth before oblivion. It may well compare favourably (from the victims point of view) with current methods of capital punishment.

  8. Love the art! As well as the artist’s comments. :)

  9. Jesse

    @Chris — hadn’t thought of that one. You are right, they seem to have done a pretty decent job.

    As to studying explosive decomp — there was actually a certain amount of data IIRC from accidents in jets (not passenger jets, I mean in the military). So it wasn’t like nobody had any idea I would think.

    @jeremy greenwood — the bends hurt. Like, really badly. Just ask a diver. Or the workers on the Brooklyn Bridge.

  10. carbonUnit

    In 2001, Bowman made a short hop in vacuum, Poole was freeze dried for a long time…

    The story Georg (#2) is remembering is “Earthlight”. I remember it too…
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthlight

    Interesting drawings, strange how space suits keep falling off…

  11. artbot

    Nice artwork! Though I think this entry should be titled “Sexy Death in Space.”

  12. @5 and 7, click the link in my name for an article on vacuum exposure of humans and its effects. It’s well sourced.

    The short version is, the victim of vacuum exposure doesn’t get to experience any significant symptoms while conscious. The oxygen rapidly leaves the blood stream. That causes loss of consciousness within 10-15 seconds. By 90 seconds, ventricular fibrillation begins and has been experimentally shown that THAT is unrecoverable in vacuum exposure cases after 90 seconds.
    But, symptoms of the bends only occur AFTER the victim is back under survivable pressure and is breathing on his/her own. The singular prolonged case (about 60 seconds of vacuum exposure) was quickly placed into a hyperbaric chamber at 6 ATM, then slowly brought back to ambient pressure over time, as THAT singular victim suffered from the bends after being repressurized.
    The other two cases, one was a matter of 15 seconds of near vacuum before breathable pressure was restored to the chamber. The other was on STS-37, where one glove pressure bladder was pierced, but the hole in the glove that was exposing the hand to space was sealed by blood from a small cut from the metal plate in the glove that caused the glove damage. Said astronaut on EVA had noted some irritation to the web of the thumb, but continued working. It was after returning to the cabin and removing his space suit that it was noticed that the glove had been pierced.

    A final case was a high altitude jump from 102000 feet. HE lost pressurization to his right hand, but continued the balloon ascent and jump. His hand was substantially larger than normal for a short time (under an hour) upon return to Earth and no ill effects were suffered later.

    Of ALL cases of human exposure to vacuum, all US victims survived with no ill effects noted. The only other cases we’re aware of were three cosmonauts, who lost pressure during reentry preparation. None survived, due to many minutes of vacuum exposure.

  13. carbonUnit

    re #11: Yeah, it’s actually a combination of two worst nightmares, being (almost) naked AND going out an airlock!

  14. ceramicfundamentalist

    i always thought dumping a body in space was not very realistic or economical. wouldn’t it be a little more thrifty to harvest it for nutrients and volatiles?

  15. @14, I’d go for recycling as fertilizer for the hydroponics. ;)

  16. Kurt Silsby

    If I remember right, the movie Sunshine actually was pretty spot on with what would happen. Essentially a guy is minus a suit and needs to get over to another space ship and the only way is jettison himself (with the help of friends with space suits haha) to the other ship and hope he makes it in time before 15-30 seconds of being in space. It’s actually a pretty good movie I think, but perhaps a little less well know.

  17. garyb

    ceramicfundamentalist, I agree. Also, dumping bodies out the air lock is essentially creating new asteroids – large hard objects that would be very bad to run into at high relative velocities. So I would think that this would be considered a bad thing – if within any kind of political jurisdiction, I imagine it would be illegal.

    Besides, we all know that Darth Vader was an environmentalist – he would not have wanted to pollute the orbital space around the planet!

  18. VinceRN

    Neat are, though the whole eroticized dead people thing is a little creepy.

    I would think the pressure you started at and the gas you were breathing would make a huge difference. Mostly in space I think they are are a small fraction of 1 ATM and breathing pure oxygen.

    Rapid decompression from an third or so of an atmosphere seems likely cause a lot less trauma than if you started at 1 ATM. In the past I have worked in a hyperbaric chamber and in our training we saw pictures and read reports of when thing had gone wrong, and they can be pretty nasty. A liter of air at 1 ATM in your lungs and gut would expand a lot more than a liter that starts at some small fraction of 1 ATM and if it can’t get out fast enough that pressure is going to damage the lung tissue and that can get messy. It would just be gas coming out of those tow orifices, it could also be blood and bits, and the gut part would seriously hurt.

    Also the gas you are breathing would relate to whether or not you would experience DCS (the bends). I just looked it up and the ISS is pressurized with air to 1 ATM and the space suits they use are pressurized with pure oxygen to 0.29 ATM. Astronauts breath pure oxygen for a time before an EVA so they can off gas nitrogen or they will get DCS just from getting in the suit. Once in the suit they will continue to off gas nitrogen too. So likely no DCS would occur.

    Seems that walking from the ISS directly into space would kill you a lot more terribly than if you had a suit failure. Though of course you’d only get to enjoy maybe 15 seconds of it either way.

    Also, I think he may have understated the bruising thing a little a little. I’d guess it wouldn’t take two long before you whole body was a giant hickey. And of course here on earth we get post mortum lividity in the lower parts, it space it’s be all over.

    @#7 Jeremy – With the current method of lethal injection, if done properly, the last thing you would experience would be a barbiturate overdose, which is widely held to be a rather pleasant experience. If it’s done properly you would never notice the paralytic or the pain of the potassium injection. The part that would suck is the the time leading up to it. I think the worst movie version of death by vacuum would be far preferable to that last walk from the cell to the death chamber.

  19. @#18, VinceRN, the typical pressure in a space suit is 5 PSI, as I recall.
    (Correction. “EVA Modification Currently-used Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMU’s) operate at 4.3 psi; Russian Orlan-M suits are pressurized to 5.7 psi. As mentioned earlier, one determinant of the severity of ebullism is absolute change in pressure. A space suit pressurized to a lower pressure would impose a lower pressure differential on its occupant, and thus a lower severity of decompression. Research is currently underway to produce a suit pressurized to 3.5 psi, using ARGOX (62% argon — 38% oxygen) gas (39).”)
    From memory, the space capsule is about 7 PSI or so, it has to be depressurized partially before an EVA, due to the difference in suit pressure vs normal cabin pressure.
    Still, the expansion of the lung tissue is still limited by the chest cavity, whereas there IS an escape route through the trachea for the air.
    The rapid decompression accidents you are thinking of are of deep diving decompression. I recall one incident where the decompression chamber (a large one, with multiple rooms) had the diving bell released while still under full deep sea pressure. The ugliest parts were those near the exit, on BOTH sides, as the hatch was a bit small. One man’s body hit the hatch edges and parts of him were found in the superstructure. Others who were near, smashed badly by the bell and debris, as what happened was closer to an explosion than decompression due to barotrauma and blast cavitation effects from the air flow.
    Click the link on my name for a detailed physical effect description, as well as the treatment for the longer exposed human. ALL made a full recovery, with no significant effects (though ONE had HIGHER neurological function, but I’m dubious as to causation, probably more of normal variation in baseline function).
    The human body is amazingly tolerant to short term (as in under a half minute) exposure to hard vacuum. If one protects the trunk, abdomen, neck and head, the extremities can recover from much longer exposure with no ill effect. Indeed, there was a space suit that had NO pressure bladders or inflated sections, it was essentially, a spandex suit with padding in pressure areas (groin and armpits in particular) and some reinforcement to assist abdominal movement to facilitate respiration. The skin proper was FULLY exposed to vacuum, as long as the total exposed areas were a millimeter before fabric restrained it, ebullism did not occur at all.
    I was shocked that dehydration didn’t occur with that suit, but none was noted. Apparently, the body was able to prevent fluid sublimation from the pores. There is a nice write-up on Wikipedia on that model that is linked from the main space suit article.

    Frankly, the best “death by spacing” I saw was in the revisioned Battlestar Galactica. No instant bloating, no instant freezing or vaporization, no explosion of bodies. Simply drifting off into space and movement stopping after a few seconds.
    Though, the WORST waste in “spacing” someone is wasting precious oxygen. Blow that much air out of the airlock, you have to replace it with limited onboard supplies.

  20. Peter Davey

    In Arthur C Clarke’s novel “Earthlight”, you have the crew of a damaged spaceship crossing to another without benefit of spacesuits, losing only one man in the process.

    This idea was then, of course, used in “2001″, as mentioned above.

    Clarke, during his time living in Sri Lanka, took an interest in scuba diving, and so may well have been aware of the information mentioned above.

    Actually, you do not have to go underwater to risk the bends. We read a book at school by Jaques Cousteau, in which he refers to the opening of a road tunned going under the bay in a French town on the Riviera. The guests at the opening, drank the usual glass or two of champagne, which they considered rather flat, went back up to surface, and promptly collapsed, due to the change in atmospheric pressure causing the champagne bubbles to emerge in their bloodstream.

  21. @20 Peter – Having been both an avid recreational diver, and briefly a professional diver I consider Jacques Cousteau a dirty. However I’m a bit skeptical about that story. The CO2 bubbles from the Champaign might expand a bit, but only in the GI tract, which could cause some discomfort. I can’t see how they’re get into the blood stream. They certainly might get DCS from nitrogen bubbles under the right circumstances, though even that would only happen if the air was compressed to hold back the weight of the water like in a caisson.

    As an example thousands travel through the tunnel under the English Channel every day without DCS.

    I myself have several times had a soda inside the hyperbaric chamber at 3 ATM pressure with no ill effects except maybe some delayed flatulance.

  22. Peter Davey

    According to the book, the increased pressure at the lowest point of the tunnel caused the CO2 bubbles to dissolve in the champagne, which was then, of course, drunk. When the guests returned to the surface, the decreased air pressure supposedly caused the bubbles to re-emerge in the bloodstream of the various drinkers.

    I’m afraid that no-one in my class had sufficient knowledge of diving or biology to question the anecdote, though I don’t suppose that they would have been very popular with the teacher if they had.

  23. Gary Ansorge

    I’ve been into scuba diving and what I recall is that a 2 psi difference between the inside of the chest cavity and the outside is all the body can tolerate. That’s equivalent to rising four feet in water w/o expelling air. 2 psi is about the partial pressure of O2 on top of Mt Everest, which many climbers have done. I wonder how the natives around Everest would do in a hard vacuum, if they could breath pure O2 from a simple mask. Might not be comfortable but they could well survive, w/o embolisms,etc.

    Gary 7

  24. @Peter, if the CO2 from the champagne were to become gas bubbles in the blood stream, so would the natural CO2 from their bodies. Hence, ALL present, drinking or not would have had that problem.
    That said, I have zero cases I can find of CO2 embolism. Plenty of nitrogen embolism cases though. Which what the bends is, nitrogen bubbles forming in blood vessels, joints and tissues.

    @Gary, #23, those natives would fare no better than anyone else. The oxygen is rapidly depleted through the lungs and outgassed into the vacuum. Embolism would still occur, as their blood stream would still have nitrogen in it, like everyone else on the planet. Ebullism would still occur, as they are still mammals. In short, they’d last as long as everyone else, as their additional red blood cells would not help.

  25. Kurt Silsby

    I wonder now what would happen on Mars. Would the CO2 affect you more than the vacuum since it would be a poison? I only skimmed all the posts so someone might have brought it up.

  26. C-man

    …this is such a good website. Your video on the effects of space on the human body was really interesting as well. I think I’ll have to tell my friends!

  27. Geekoid

    The boiling point of a substance is the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid equals the pressure surrounding the liquid and the liquid changes into a vapor. I included that because some people confusing boiling with ‘hot’.

    That means all the moisture on the body, in the digestive system, and the lungs would boil off, pretty quickly.
    The blood in the venous system would begin to boil and leave through the lungs. While the cardiovascular system is considered closed, lets not forget there are organs transferring chemicals into and out of the blood. If those regions fail, the system is exposed. It would seem to me the lungs would fail pretty critically as the moisture boils off.

  28. Didn’t three early cosmonauts lose pressure during reentry? What happened to them?

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