Practical and Ethical Concerns of Death in Space

The possibility that we will mount a manned expedition to Mars in the coming decades has forced NASA to return to a question which it has not had to grapple with in quite some time: what happens if someone dies in space, or if – either for medical or mechanical reasons – they are put in a position where there is no hope of returning them to Earth alive? The ethical and practical concerns of death in space are, understandably, both immense and something of a taboo.

There are essentially two problems that fall under the same category of “death in space.” The first, while tragic, is perhaps the easiest to deal with: what happens when, for either medical or mechanical reasons, someone dies? All measures are taken to prevent this, of course, but in an activity as hazardous as space travel, accidents do happen. Two American Space Shuttles, Columbia and Challenger, have been destroyed with all their crew onboard, while the crew of Apollo 1 died on the launchpad in a fire. Early in the Soyuz program, the Soviet Union suffered tragic losses as well.

All of those accidents, however, actually occurred in or while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, not in space itself. There is a real possibility that, sooner or later, an astronaut or astronauts will die while in space. What should be the procedure in such a disaster? If it is (the worst-case scenario) an entire spacecraft that is lost, should we send up a mission to recover the bodies so that they can be buried with proper respects? If it’s a long-term, multi-crew space mission (say, to Mars), should the mission automatically be scrubbed if someone dies en route to the red planet, so that the ship can hurry back? What happens if a critically ill crew member is surviving on life support but using up needed oxygen and food supplies while doing so? The easy and humane answer to both questions, of course, is that a ship should return as quickly as possible and keep everyone alive where at all possible, but in the vacuum of outer space, a crippled spacecraft may leave its surviving crew with few easy options.

Perhaps the worst scenario, however, involves crew who are put in a probably or certainly fatal position with very little hope of rescue. In today’s space flight, this is an unlikely scenario. A sick astronaut on a Space Shuttle can be quickly returned to the surface through an early, unscheduled re-entry, while the International Space Station always maintains a Soyuz escape craft at the ready to make an instant return to Earth. Moreover, a damaged shuttle would usually have the option of diverting to the International Space Station rather than face a life-threatening re-entry with damaged components (provided, of course, that the crew were aware of the extent of the damage, which the crew of the Columbia were not).

Once we leave the comfort of low orbit, however, the risks increase immensely. In 1970, Americans watched in horror as the crew of Apollo 13 desperately jury-rigged their stricken spacecraft to get back to Earth alive. That time, the frantic improvising by the crew on the spacecraft as well as by ground personnel paid off, and the command module splashed down safely in the Pacific. However, the next time, we might not be so lucky. A ship on its way to Mars which suffered a similarly devastating malfunction might have no easy escape option, for example – and its crew could be faced with a long, slow wait for the inevitable, as a grief-stricken population on Earth looked on.

People generally agree today that the risk of such tragedies is not worth setting aside the manned space program altogether. However, it does illustrate just how important it is to build in all possible safety features – and, because tragic accidents may still happen, to begin making plans for what to do in the event of a worst-case scenario: death in space.