A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in Space
When it comes to our knowledge about safe space-travel, NASA and unfortunately Hollywood have been mankind’s biggest teachers. The facts and fiction which pool together our collective knowledge of the inky void have been painted by each institution as either an exciting and challenging venture or the ultimate threat to people (excluding ourselves of course). Hollywood has given us ruthless alien attacks, distant and hostile planets, intergalactic gang warfare and the sheer destructive power of physics itself in lofty post enlightened science fiction settings, but have completely ignored most of the immediate threats facing the ambitious space-faring wannabes of our time. We have many bridges to cross before we can leave the comfortable womb of our planet and go sailing amongst the stars. So here’s how a sci-fi plot could be written if it were set to our current abilities to handle the universe.
The natural process of decay.
The protagonist of our story sets off to neighbouring Alpha Centari on Earth’s most powerful craft. For some reason, she doesn’t realize that she needs to travel 93 million miles (148 million 800 thousand km) away.
So, she shoots off to visit our tri-star neighbor at a speed equal to the top speed of NASA’s New Horizons craft which is 58536km per hour. Her shuttle takes a little over 16968 years to get there.
Even if something like cryo-sleep were invented to preserve her life over this epic amount of time, the trip there and back would see Earth and its people change so much that the survival of the astronaut would be more depressing than celebratory.
It’s a little like a gnat trying to circumvent the Earth in the hopes of exploring the whole thing before dying, so he can come back and tell his buddies about it.
Fed up with damages incurred to her craft by small fast moving objects in the vacuum, our character runs into the air lock, fills her lungs and slams the decompression button. She waits to be jettisoned into the void with the hopes that she can survive long enough to quickly fix her craft and get on with her game of Super Meat Boy.
As soon as the pressure drops, the lung-full of air she hoped would get her by, turns her insides to broth.
Luckily for the bacteria in her stomach and anyone around to witness her death, she doesn’t explode as predicted, thanks to the skin’s surprising resilience. So like a piñata filled with human stew, she drifts.
Assuming she hadn’t held her breath, our character is suddenly exposed to the raw radiation emitted by nearby or far away solar flares. Luckily, she’s got an hour to go before she receives a lethal dose of radiation, although her chances of getting cancer were bumped up by 5% as soon as she left Earth’s atmosphere.
The extreme temperatures she is exposed to are a problem, but if she can make it back into the safety of her craft within a minute, she’ll suffer some mild hypothermia and sunburn but she is still likely to survive.
Unluckily, she immediately falls victim to a process called ebullism. Her body’s boiling point is drastically reduced by the pressure drop and subsequently, her blood sort of….evaporates. She suffers paralysis as a result and slowly, her lungs collapse.
Why it’s okay to die in space
Silently and motionless, our character’s frozen but charred body drifts through space. It somehow avoids countless small rocks and debris and as a result remains intact, until it comes to a violent rest on an uninhabited, alien world.
As one would expect, her body is torn open from the impact. But the bacteria in her stomach has survived in the perfect conditions of her un-decaying corpse, and stands a chance of adapting to its new environment.
She has, thanks to her carelessness at the airlock and a process called panspermia, colonized a brand new planet.
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