Communion Of Dreams

“you die; she dies… everybody dies!”*
September 3, 2010, 11:04 am
Filed under: BoingBoing, Mars, movies, NASA, Predictions, Preparedness, Science, Science Fiction, Space, Survival, tech

How many times have you seen someone die in space? I mean in science fiction movies. Ignore the mass deaths from some huge battle. Think instead of individual deaths of a crew member on some kind of ship.

OK, and what usually happens with such an individual, post-mortem?

Right, it’s some variation on “burial at sea”. Unless there’s a specific reason why the body is kept for scientific purposes. This just makes sense – there’s a long tradition in many human cultures of burial at sea, for all kinds of practical and superstitious reasons. And while we’re still very much at the beginning of humankind’s ventures in space, we do think of it as akin to traveling the ocean.

So, how do you think NASA is planning on dealing with such an eventuality? Well, Mary Roach has a brief, but very interesting piece up at BoingBoing about a proposal for how to cope with a death on a trip to Mars. Here’s the intro:

The U.S. has plans for a manned visit to Mars by the mid-2030s. The ESA and Russia have sketched out a similar joint mission, and it is claimed that China’s space program has the same objective. Apart from their destination, all these plans share something in common: extraordinary danger for the explorers. What happens if someone dies out there, months away from Earth?

Swedish ecologists Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and Peter Mäsak are the inventors of an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation and burial, called Promession. The technique entails freezing a body, vibrating it into tiny pieces, and then freeze-drying the pieces, which can then be used as compost to grow a memorial shrub or tree. The pair recently collaborated with NASA and design students in Denmark and Sweden to adapt Promession for use on a Mars mission.

Roach’s article contains illustrations and explanations from the proposal, showing how the system could be adapted for use on a long-term mission to Mars. Technically, it seems very straight-forward. Interestingly, it uses a ‘body bag’ type system similar to what I have in Communion of Dreams .

But I think that the article, and the proposal, show a curious mindset from NASA: they are still very much thinking in terms of being Earth-bound, and doing Earth-bound science, rather than exploration. Because exploration involves inherent risk, whereas in doing science one tries to eliminate risk in order to get dependable, testable data.

A couple of years ago I wrote about a proposal for a “one way” trip to Mars – where the astronaut(s) would accept that they would die on the planet rather than try and return. This hugely simplifies such a trip, since you don’t have to carry all the equipment and fuel needed to get back. Here’s a quote from that original newspaper item:

“When we eliminate the need to launch off Mars, we remove the mission’s most daunting obstacle,” said McLane. And because of a small crew size, the spacecraft could be smaller and the need for consumables and supplies would be decreased, making the mission cheaper and less complicated.

While some might classify this as a suicide mission, McLane feels the concept is completely logical.

“There would be tremendous risk, yes,” said McLane, “but I don’t think that’s guaranteed any more than you would say climbing a mountain alone is a suicide mission. People do dangerous things all the time, and this would be something really unique, to go to Mars. I don’t think there would be any shortage of people willing to volunteer for the mission. Lindbergh was someone who was willing to risk everything because it was worth it. I don’t think it will be hard to find another Lindbergh to go to Mars. That will be the easiest part of this whole program.”

As I said in that previous post, we’re all gonna die – only the manner and timing of our deaths are unknown. I think that McLane is right – there would be a huge number of people willing to volunteer for a ‘one-way’ trip to Mars. But even beyond that, if we’re dedicated to the idea of a return-trip (and there are plenty of good reasons to want to do so) mission, there are still plenty of people who would accept the personal risk and want to be “buried at sea” should they die during such a trip. Why bother with additional specialized equipment and supplies to cope with returning the body of a deceased crew member? Hauling all that extra weight to Mars and back makes no sense at all.

Perhaps, when we have advanced the technology of spaceflight sufficiently, to the point where it is akin to transportation here on Earth now, it’ll make sense to have mechanisms in place to return the bodies of explorers and scientists and military troops. But we have a very long way to go before we get to that point.

Jim Downey

*Heavy Metal


3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

If jettisoned in space, would a body still decompose?

Comment by patty gibbs

Given the extreme cold, I would image it would, but slowly. Of course, that would depend on the location of the body – how much radiation it was getting, and so forth.

Comment by James Downey

I’ve heard that the sudden change in pressure would cause the body to explode. Then I guess the bits would freeze-dry or something. Given the decomposition requires bacteria or other creatures, not just the action of the body’s own enzymes etc., and they may not be living in the empty parts of space (or may have frozen in the extremely low temperatures before getting a chance to do much), I think that any decomposition of an intact body in space would be very limited.

Comment by ML

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