As space travel and habitation become more common, we must confront the possibility of human death occurring outside of Earth’s atmosphere and orbit. While a somber subject, it is responsible to have clear guidelines on how to respectfully handle human remains in space.
To date, no human deaths have actually occurred in, or beyond, low Earth orbit. However, as missions reach farther into space and consideration is given to settlements on the Moon and Mars, universal protocols for handling death need to be established. This article provides an overview of current practices and procedures from space agencies like NASA.
Storing and Returning Bodies to Earth
For deaths on the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit, the deceased can be stored inside the spacecraft at low temperatures to preserve the body. For example, SpaceX’s Dragon Cargo spacecapsule delivers cargo to and from the ISS and provides a way to transport remains.
The same would apply for deaths on future commercial space stations in orbit. The body could be stored and then transferred back to Earth on a returning spacecraft.
When the spacecraft returns to Earth, the remains can then be removed and handled according to the wishes of the deceased and their family. This allows for the body to receive proper burial or cremation rites back on Earth.
Death During Spacewalks
A more complex scenario is if an astronaut were to die during a spacewalk while outside their spacecraft or space station. If they became disconnected or experienced a catastrophic equipment failure, the body would simply float away into space eventually succumbing to the harsh environment of vacuum and radiation.
NASA has established emergency procedures where the Canadarm robotic arm may be utilized to try to grab and recover the body before it drifts too far. However, its reach and maneuverability are limited. All attempts would be made to recover the remains, but the living crew must also avoid putting themselves in danger during the process.
Deep Space Burial or Cremation
For deaths on missions deeper in space like on the Moon or Mars, returning the body to Earth may be impossible or pose too much risk for current technology. In this case, burial or cremation on the surface of the celestial body would need to take place. This honors the remains while also protecting the living crew from bacteria and microbes from decay.
On the Moon, burial could occur by covering the body with lunar soil and rocks. Cremation could be done with a high temperature device brought from Earth specifically for this purpose. On Mars, a burial could also utilize local regolith or rocks. The thin atmosphere allows for cremation with lower heat than on Earth.
Advance Planning is Crucial
In all cases, following predetermined procedures decided on by space agencies, private companies and the astronauts themselves is crucial. Leaving human remains adrift in space should be avoided if at all possible. But quick decisions may be required based on the specific situation.
Psychological counsel and support for surviving crew members who may witness the death must also be part of formal protocols. The isolation and loneliness of space can accentuate grief, depression and post-traumatic stress.
Honoring the deceased’s wishes also brings comfort and closure. Having contingencies to handle death with dignity shows respect for those braving the great unknown. As humans expand their civilization into space, facing mortality beyond Earth is inevitable. With forethought and compassion, we can ensure those that perish in space rest in peace.