What happens when someone dies in space?

Credit: SpaceX / Unsplash.

Commercial space airlines such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin now offer unique opportunities for celebrities and civilians to travel into space.

Astronauts have traditionally been subjected to rigorous training and medical scrutiny before going into space, and the risk of death from natural causes was considered remote.

But in this new age of space tourism, it may seem that medical screening may not be taking place, and very little pre-flight training is provided.

With a wide variety of people now taking to space, and the prospects in the coming years of humans establishing bases on the Moon and beyond, it raises an important question: what happens if someone die in space?

Under international space law, individual countries are responsible for authorizing and overseeing all national space activities, whether governmental or private.

In the United States, a license is required for a launch by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial tourism space flights.

Should someone die on a commercial tourism mission, a decision as to the cause of death would be required.

Should the death of a space flight participant result from a mechanical fault in the spacecraft, the Federal Aviation Administration would look to prevent further launches by the company while awaiting investigation.

If a mechanical failure is ruled out, the commercial provider would need to consider the general duty of care to all passengers and an assessment of whether he did everything possible to prevent the person’s death.

Uncomfortable but inevitable

Time spent in space on these tourist trips currently ranges from a few minutes to a few days. This means that the risk of death in space due to natural causes is very low, though not impossible.

The question of what to do if someone dies in space becomes far more relevant – and complex – when humans embark on longer journeys deeper into space, and even one day at permanently embedded in outer space.

Essentially, some sort of investigative process will need to be put in place to establish the cause of human death in outer space.

There have been inquests before, such as the investigation into the 2003 Columbia Shuttle disaster, in which a Nasa Columbia space shuttle crashed on its return to Earth, killing the seven astronauts aboard.

But these have been specialized investigations into high-profile crashes and relate only to U.S. space flights. As opportunities for space travel expand, it is inevitable, either due to accidents, illness, or age, that death in space or on another heavenly body occurs.

Long-haul flights and space settlements will require a formal procedure for investigating deaths to ensure there is clear information about who died, the causes of death, and so that lessons can be learned and possible patterns identified.

Many of the procedures related to inquests and investigations could be imported from the Earth. International space law provides the default position where a spacecraft registered country has jurisdiction over that space object and any personnel.

A country with such jurisdiction would probably be the natural authority to initiate an inquest and determine the procedures for dealing with death in space.

Although this is a useful starting point, an agreement tailored to the specific settlement or mission would probably be better. Space mission planning involves considering factors such as power, food, radiation protection and waste disposal.

Establishing processes about what to do in the event of death, and incorporating these processes into any plan, will make the traumatic event somewhat less so.

Having an agreement in place at the start of a mission is even more important if multiple countries are involved.

Practical considerations

In addition to the legal dimension, missions that send humans further into the Solar System will need to consider the physical disposal of human remains. Here it is important to take into account that different cultures treat their dead in very different ways.

On short trips, it is likely that the body would come back to Earth. The body would need to be stored and stored to avoid contaminating the surviving crew.

On a round trip to Mars, which would last for years and could be a possibility in the coming decades, it is possible that the body could be frozen in the cold of space to reduce its weight and make it easier to store on its way back to Earth. .

But if we begin to colonize outer space, bodies may need to be disposed of rather than stored.

While Star Trek fans may remember the way Spock’s body was dropped into space, this probably wouldn’t be pleasant in real life.

Countries can oppose having a human body float in space, while the body itself can contribute to the growing problems created by space debris. The family of the deceased may want their loved one’s body to return to them.

Disposal of human remains on a colony is equally limited. A settler body buried on another planet can biologically contaminate that planet. Cremation is also likely to be contaminated, and may be resource intensive.

In time, there will undoubtedly be technical solutions to the storage and disposal of human remains in space. But the ethical issues surrounding death in space cut across anthropological, legal and cultural boundaries.

The idea may be uncomfortable to contemplate, but it is one of many conversations we will need to have as humans become space-traveling species.

Written by Christopher Newman, Nick Caplan, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

Source: The Conversation.

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