Guest Post - What's The Future of Death & Space Exploration?

By Benjamin Stotter

What's The Future of Death & Space Exploration?

Funeral cover has been fairly standard for quite some time. While many cultures have different rituals for mourning a loved one, these practices and the costs involved are familiar to funeral insurers. But with technology advancing at a compounding rate, what we know funeral cover to be could change drastically in the next hundred years.

On 24 July 1969 humankind made its first step on the moon and in August 2012 NASA successfully landed Curiosity Rover on Mars. SpaceX, run by CEO Elon Musk, has recently sent two rockets into orbit with them both returning to earth and landing on their own. And now Elon Musk is aiming to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars.

It sounds like something from science fiction, but if you look at Elon Musk’s track record of accomplishments you’ll be inclined to believe he can make it happen. He’s been labelled as the real life Tony Stark. With his vision and determination, Elon Musk might be the person to integrate space travel into our daily lives.

What would happen if you die in space?

NASA currently have plans for a crewed mission to Mars and estimate a touchdown date as early as 2040, saying that it could take roughly one and a half years to travel to Mars. With ambitious goals such as the aforementioned, there’s a high chance of death occurring. Paul Wolpe, a bioethicist from Emory University, says “The real interesting question is, what happens on a mission to Mars or on the lunar space station if there were a death. What happens when it may be months or years before a body can get back to Earth...or where it’s impractical to bring the body back at all?”

Today’s astronauts spend months at a time on the International Space Station. NASA make sure all astronauts are in impeccable health before launch, which means the only time a death would occur is because of something happening during a spacewalk.

According to the former commander of the ISS, Chris Hadfield, the worst case scenario during a spacewalk would be a micro-meteorite puncturing a hole in your spacesuit. Within 10 seconds of exposure to the vacuum of space, the water and blood in your body would vaporise. Within fifteen seconds you’d be incapacitated. You would die from asphyxiation or decompression before freezing. Within 30 seconds you’d be paralysed if you weren’t dead already, and your lungs would collapse.

However, it’s unlikely a civilian would be doing spacewalks when space travel becomes more common. So what are the chances of something fatal happening on a spacecraft? NASA say they haven’t had a death on the ISS and the chances of it happening are low. But let’s say a death does happen. What does someone do? To answer that question we have to look at how today’s astronauts might handle the death of a crew member.

Astronaut Terry Virts has clocked 213 days in space and he says he’s never been trained to handle a dead body. He’s been through a fair bit of medical training to save people but nothing on the death of a crew member. “In my 16 years as an astronaut, I don’t remember talking with another astronaut about the possibility of dying. We all understand it’s a possibility, but the elephant in the room was just not discussed.” Says Virts.

How will death be dealt with in space?

Even though NASA doesn’t have any specific contingency plan for a sudden death, they have been working on implementing one. Eco-burial company Promessa was commission by NASA in 2005 to devise a solution.

As a result, Promessa came up with a design called “The Body Back”. This involves a technique called promession in which the dead body is placed in a specialised bag and suspended from a robotic arm outside the spaceship where it freeze-dries the body until it becomes brittle. The robotic arm then vibrates causing the body to fracture into ash-like remains. The technique hasn’t been tested, but theoretically, it could turn a 90kg astronaut into a 22kg lump, which could be stored on a spacecraft for years.

If this technique isn’t viable there’s always the option to jettison the body, though this may go against the UN regulations on littering in space. Rest assured that a technique for dealing with dead bodies will arise by the time space travel becomes the norm.

This, however, raises a lot of unanswered questions. Will space agencies and governments deem it fit to have funerals in space? Will there be a need for space stations like the ISS that deal exclusively with the deceased? With the real possibility of overpopulation on Earth, will funerals in space be a more pragmatic option? These are just some of the questions that are going to need answers.

Keep in mind that this is a small aspect of what may be our future. So much will change and we will have to do our best to keep up with it.

Guest Post by Benjamin Stotter

Benjamin Stotter is a photographer, web developer and writing enthusiast born and bred in Cape Town, South Africa. He spends his time in the bustle of coffee shops and watching Table Mountain grow.