NASA’s Use of Cadavers to Test the Orion Capsule

NASA is debating whether the new Orion capsule should land in the water, like Apollo, or on land, similar to how the Russian Soyuz capsule returns to Earth. To help them determine the potential for human injuries with each possible landing scenario, NASA has used human cadavers during their tests. At first, this revelation may seem quite morbid or even gruesome. But as Keith Cowing said in his expose article on Space Ref and NASA Watch on this subject, “Given the potentially hazardous nature of the tests required, cadavers must be used in the place of living persons.” Sometimes, crash-test dummies or computer simulations don’t provide the crucial information needed, such as the forces on the spinal cord or internal organs. If NASA doesn’t have that information, they can’t get accurate test results. Living test subjects could possibly be killed during the landing tests. Imagine the headlines if that happened. So they have used cadavers. The cadavers NASA used were donated to science to be used for exactly this type of purpose, and NASA, of course, went through the proper channels to obtain the cadavers and treats them in an ethical manner. So while this may seem a little grisly, NASA is doing the right thing.

Marc Carreau from the Houston Chronicle also wrote an article on this subject, and he interviewed David Steitz, a spokesman for NASA’s medical division. “It’s a socially awkward topic,” Steitz said. “The bodies are all carefully handled through all of the tests. We follow ethical medical procedures with these bodies that have been donated for science.”

Three human bodies were used during testing last year, said NASA seat engineer Dustin Gohmert, to help determine the potential for serious human injury during descent and landing. “The interface between the spacesuit and the seats is relatively complex, much more so than in an automobile, even one from the racing industry,” Gohmert said. “The (forces) we anticipate have never been studied before. We are using this research to help define and refine the suits and the seats.”

Tests using human bodies has been done for previous spacecraft, as well.

Cowing received this statement from NASA on the use of cadavers:

“In limited cases, postmortem human subject tests may be performed when insufficient data are available from simulations that use dummies or from mathematical modeling of the human body responses. This is particularly critical where the dynamic responses of internal organs and soft tissue must be evaluated. Using a combination of test methods, the engineering and scientific teams at NASA are able to enhance astronaut safety by designing landing attenuation systems that will minimize accelerations imparted to the crew and significantly reduce the potential for injuries.”

Personally, I could imagine donating my body for this type of research. Even if I never get to fly to space when I’m alive, I’d be proud to help the rest of the human race get there and return safely by giving my body for tests such as this.

News Sources: NASA Watch, Space Ref, Houston Chronicle

13 Replies to “NASA’s Use of Cadavers to Test the Orion Capsule”

  1. Probably the only chance I’ll ever get to go. Sign up my dead corpse for a flight!

    “Bring out yer dead!”
    “I’m not dead….”


  2. I agree. Beats the heck out of throwing my body into a hole in the ground. Where do I sign up?

  3. I would offer my body in a heartbeat… I mean without a heartbeat…

    Come to think of it; I would join this test while alive! Yes, where’s the sign up ?

  4. I thought crash dummies as used for car crash testing are exceptionally complicated and instrumented. So are the car companies and Federal testing organizations just pulling our legs about how well they work?

  5. Awesome.

    And @ Cynthia, I think this extract from the article partially answers your question: “…The interface between the spacesuit and the seats is relatively complex, much more so than in an automobile รขโ‚ฌโ€ even one from the racing industry,” Gohmert said. “The (forces) we anticipate have never been studied before. We are using this research to help define and refine the suits and the seats.”

    I’d say crash test dummies are great at what they are designed to do – experience car crashes. But they have been designed with the benefit of almost unlimited experience with such crashes – you can always crash another car to refine your dummy or your measurements, which is not the case with these systems – they are worth too much. So rather than model with a dummy which may prove inaccurate in this situation, they’ve gone straight for the dead bodies. And I think we can all agree that that is awesome.

  6. Its a bit worrisome that airbags are not enough to break the ships fall. Other landing systems involve retrorockets and its still a rough landing.

    I hope they do work out a method for land retrieval tho. Dropping capsules in the sea is not very safe in itself and, considering the cost of ships and helicopters, can be an expensive way to do things.

    For real savings, one can only hope for a landing so accurate that you need only drive a few hundred feet from base with a flatbed to bring it all back.

  7. Given that the forces reached 11 g (11 times the force of gravity) in the Apollo reentry, and given that this is perilously close to the blackout point for advanced fighter pilots, what exactly are they planning for reentry forces on Orion?

    It would be better to use fuel to decelerate during return – especially if NASA has forgotten how to make the ablative honeycomb heat shields.

    I’d still volunteer if they offered.

  8. Just what in the world is accomplished by sending a corpse into space ? More wasted money.

    Why doesn’t the person with this idea go him/herself instead and make it a real worthwhile deal ? ?

  9. I think its about time ‘Nasa’ fessed up to all the
    ‘Black Triangle’ sightings reported by Pilots, Policemen & common folk around the east coast area as to what they’re testing that doesn’t seem to use any conventional propulsion yet disclosed and put the space program back where it should be. Instead we’re using relic technology from the 50’s.

  10. NASA might be wasting time and tax money using cadvers to determine astronaut response to any kind of impact. Why? Because it is known that a drunken person falling down, for example, generally isn’t injured as badly as a sober person. The reason for this is the drunk is in a relaxed state where the sober individual tenses-up resulting in more severe injuries. In a high energy landing, it is logical to expect the occupants will be tensed-up due to shock anticipation. I believe the automotive industry has archived more than enough useful crash data then NASA will ever need for design purposes.

  11. Sounds ikky, but in reality, if NASA followedcorrect protocols & people donated their bodies to research, then it’s probably the best way to go about this type of work.

  12. I have to agree with Chuck. Oh dear the cadaver broke its neck. what does that tell us. Absolutely nothing. A crash test dummy is loaded with sensors measuring every aspect of forces (snap crackle and pop – ref to Pamela’s article). A formula 1 driver can get out of car that has cart-wheeled down 500m of tarmac, kick the tyres and walk away in disgust.

    No matter how safe you make the capsule a cadaver is never going to walk away. (joke). My thoughts are that cadavers are cheap (relatively) but apart from that a pile of human mush after a bad crash is not going to tell us a whole lot. A crash test dummy sampling thousands of sensors every microsecond is going to be far more indicative of fatal types of forces. Interaction of the spacesuit with seat ?? What are they testing wedgie-effect of sudden stops?

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