What’s The Fastest Way To Die In Space?

by Fraser Cain on March 27, 2014

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Space is a hostile environment for human beings. No part of it will permit you to survive longer than a minute. But what’s the fastest way to die in space?

Just in case you were planning to jump out into the vacuum of space without a spacesuit, I urge you to reconsider. There’s nothing but painful suffocation and death. Do not do it.

You probably wouldn’t be here if you weren’t wondering, just how lethal is space? What are all the ways space is trying to kill you? Space has a Swiss army knife of methods to do you in. You won’t be surprised to learn that classic sci-fi usually had it wrong. If you jumped out into the cold deep void without a protective suit, you wouldn’t pop like a giant pressurized juicy meat pimple. Your blood doesn’t boil, and you don’t flash freeze.

Ed White did the first American spacewalk in 1965. Obviously, he wore a spacesuit. Credit: NASA

Ed White did the first American spacewalk in 1965. Obviously, he wore a spacesuit. Credit: NASA

The good news is even though there is a pressure difference, human skin is strong enough to keep your body together. The bad news is you just plain old asphyxiate, almost instantaneously. The human body has about 15 seconds of usable oxygen in the blood. Once you run through that oxygen, you’ll take a quick space nap and then die a few minutes later.

On Earth, you can hold your breath for a few minutes but this gets much harder in space, as the low pressure forces the air out of your lungs. In fact, it would probably be wise to breathe every last bit of air out before you stepped out, since it’s coming out violently, one way or another.

Here’s the amazing thing. If you jumped out into space and could get back into a pressurized environment within a minute or so, you probably wouldn’t suffer any permanent damage, aside from a little bruising, some hypothermia and a really nasty sunburn. Stay out for any longer, though, and the damage will get worse. Beyond a few minutes and you’ll be done.Which is just fine, as you weren’t planning on going out into space without a spacesuit anyway.

An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.

An illustration showing the natural barrier Earth gives us against solar radiation. Credit: NASA.

Unfortunately, even tucked safely in your spacecraft, there are tremendous risks to being away from the comfort of Earth. You’ve got to be worried about radiation. Once a spacecraft leaves the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, it’s exposed to the high levels constantly streaming through space. A trip from Earth to Mars and back again might increase your overall risk developing a fatal cancer by about 5%, and that’s a risk most astronauts are willing to take. But there are solar storms blasting out from the Sun that could deliver a lethal dose of radiation in just a few hours. Astronauts would need a safe, radiation-shielded location during these solar storms or they’d expire from acute radiation poisoning.

There are many, many other risks from traveling in space. Fire is one of the worst, failure of your oxygen system, access to clean water and food become an obvious problem. Even things we usually don’t think about, like mold building up in the damp environment of a spaceship becomes a problem.

Survive all these immediate hazards, just like here on Earth, and the long term hazards will get you. We have no idea if it’s even possible for the human body to exist in microgravity for longer than a few years. Your bones dissolve, your muscles waste away, and there might be other consequences.

A view of the damaged P6 4B solar panel on the ISS. Image credit: NASA

A view of the damaged P6 4B solar panel on the ISS. Image credit: NASA

So far, nobody is willing to run the experiment long enough to find out. And finally, the fastest way space can kill you is likely impact with debris. Even though space is mostly empty, there’s all kinds of material whizzing around. Every spacecraft is pockmarked with micrometeorite impacts. There are holes punched through the International Space Station’s solar panels. These tiny pieces of rock can be traveling at 10 kilometers per second when they impact the spacecraft.

Spacecraft have layers of protection to absorb smaller particles, but there’s no way to prevent larger objects from causing catastrophic damage. If those layers weren’t there you’d be a short hop skip and a jump from becoming a heavily perforated spongebob spacepants. The solution? You just have to hope they never hit.

There certainly a many ways to quickly die in space, but what’s really amazing to me is how we can actually overcome many of these risks, certainly long enough to reach other worlds in the Solar System. Traveling in space is dangerous and difficult, but the exciting thing is it’s still possible. And one day, we’ll do it.

So, even knowing the risks, would you travel in space?


Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

FarAwayLongAgo March 27, 2014 at 1:05 PM

The solar panels of the ISS are pretty large. And they’ve been hit once or twice. Without consequences. And this in LEO where space debris lives. While deep space probes like Voyager live for almost 40 years. So my impression is that this problem is quite over rated. Technical failure from launch to landing is certainly the dominating risk. Like if the electricity turns off or everything suddenly just explodes, stuff like that. Mistakes we make, not the hostility of space. Haven’t all astronauts and cosmonauts who’ve died on the job, died in the atmosphere, but none in space?

Radiation, 5% risk of getting cancer sometime in the rest of your life, from going to and from Mars? That’s probably entirely compensated by the healthy diet onboard the trip. There’s a solar flare about once a year, astronauts just need to stay behind the water or fuel tank for a few hours or a few days to deal with that. Radiation is not an issue for trips to Mars (however, living there for decades without an atmosphere could be even as dangerous as smoking).

Microgravity, well yes that seems nasty at least after a few months. Because it hits us in so many different ways. But just spin it around! With a long tether to a counter balance. The body will love it as it loves gravity. Things aren’t too bad for us out there, if we only dress for the occasion.

Aqua4U March 27, 2014 at 1:24 PM

We have been EXTREMELY fortunate that only a small percentage of those who have gone into space have perished. Lets hope it stays that way!

An old folk saying/idiom comes to mind here: “Speak not of the Devil, least the Devil speak of Thee!” (Crosses fingers and eyes and tosses salt over his shoulder as he leaves the room… NOT! ~@; )

Jim E March 27, 2014 at 2:52 PM

The ISS needs boosting from time to time to stay in orbit, so I’m guessing it’s flying lower than most of the space debris. Anything that low soon re-enters.
As for surviving in a vacuum, there was a scene in 2001 where Dave Bowman outwits HAL by going into space for about 20 seconds without his helmet. So science fiction occasionally gets it right.

FarAwayLongAgo March 27, 2014 at 3:02 PM

Yup, that’s my understanding too. The ISS orbits in the upper parts of Earth’s atmosphere, not really in space actually. It and space debris decelerate by the air and fall down pretty quickly. It’s probably more dangerous to be a bit higher up where the projectiles live longer.

Crazy Fins (the people living in Finland) have as a custom to saw a hole in the lake ice in the winter, jump into it naked, and then climb up of it and run across the snow into a burning hot sauna. That’s about 100 degrees Celsius difference within a minute. And they do it just for “fun”.

I think we can do space. I think it’s better than its reputation.

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