Death in space: The ethics of astronauts’ bodies


US – It’s raining in Washington on July 24, 1969. The weather seems appropriate, given the tragic events that have just transpired that evening. Richard Nixon stands before a tense press corps gathered at the White House, and a silence envelops the room.

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” he begins. “These brave men know there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

So goes the speech commemorating the deaths of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin following the first moon landing. Written earlier in the year by William Safire, this requiem was created as something of a contingency plan in the highly probable event that the brave souls aboard Apollo 11 became stranded on the moon, left for dead in the Sea of Tranquility. Happily, this speech was never read publicly and only resurfaced in 1999 as an interesting historical footnote. Now that there is a serious push for manned space expeditions beyond Earth’s orbit for the first time since the end of the Apollo era, space agencies and private ventures are increasingly forced to grapple with all the novel potential disasters that exploring new frontiers entails.

Astronauts already spend extended periods of time on the International Space Station—the record is almost 438 days, set by a Russian cosmonaut in the mid-’90s, and U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly just embarked on a yearlong stay in space —but a trip to and from Mars would take about 14 months (not including time spent on the planet), and there wouldn’t be other visiting spacecraft that could bring an ailing astronaut (or dead body) back to Earth. While we probably won’t see boots on Mars for at least another 15-20 years, those concerned with planning the early missions are already beginning to consider the host of unique methodological and ethical questions that such a journey will surely entail.

How should crew members deal with a colleague’s death on long duration missions? At what point do mission prerogatives outweigh considerations of an individual astronaut’s safety? Is it OK to use the bodies of Martian settlers’ corpses for composting? If NASA learns that a mission is on the precipice of disaster, should it inform the crew members? These are just a few of the questions that must be dealt with prior to launch and keep people like Paul Root Wolpe awake at night.

Wolpe, a professor at Emory University and senior bioethicist at NASA, deals with all kinds of unexpected issues pertaining to manned space travel, including the challenges posed by death and dying in microgravity. In theory, dealing with extraterrestrial fatalities shouldn’t differ much from handling deaths in some of the more remote regions of Earth, such as Antarctica or Chile’s Atacama Desert, both of which have been used as space-analog research environments. According to Wolpe, however, deaths in the void boast one fundamental complication not found on Earth-based analogs: the nature of the living crew members’ responsibility to the deceased. For instance, if someone dies six months into a multiyear mission to Mars, are the astronauts expected to store the body for burial back on Earth?

While it would be simple to suggest that we start incorporating some sort of mausoleum into spacecraft design, the costs would be rather prohibitive. At the moment, it costs about $10,000 for each pound a space agency puts into orbit around Earth, which means that something as simple as storing some coffins on board a spacecraft could amount to a multimillion-dollar proposal. Then there’s the psychological impact that such a morbid use of cabin space might have on the surviving astronauts.

Nonetheless, NASA has attempted to address the problem of storing bodies in space. In a conceptual study in 2005, the agency commissioned Promessa, a Swedish company that specializes in organic burial solutions, to advise on engineering spatially economic astro-coffins. The result was the Body Back, which is essentially a vibrating Gore-Tex sleeping bag for the deceased.

The Body Back makes use of a process called promession, an ecologically friendly method of burial developed by biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, who founded Promessa in 2001 to capitalize on her idea. The promession process was slightly modified for the Body Back to meet the requirements of space travel, but the core ideas remain the same: First, a body is placed in an airtight bag and exposed to the freezing temperatures of space. (On Earth, this freezing is accomplished by placing the body in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of about minus 200 degrees Celsius.) After about an hour, the now-frozen body is brought back into the cabin from the airlock and vibrated at a high frequency, effectively shattering it and reducing it to a fine powder. Subsequently the powder is dehydrated, resulting in roughly 50 pounds of body dust. This dust is then stored in a container outside the craft until it is time to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, at which point it would be retrieved and stored in the cabin for the few minutes it takes to descend to the Earth’s surface from space.

Wiigh-Mäsak says she believes the Body Back could conceivably be aboard missions for Mars in the next few decades, although there is quite a bit of fine-tuning to be done before it goes orbital. “It was [NASA’s] task to come up with suggestions for adopting [promession for space], and they never went that deep into details,” she told me. “If and when it becomes a reality, we will have to go into the details together with a team of engineers. There will be a number of challenges to solve, I am sure.”

As macabre as this process may sound, it is really the only realistic method for organically dealing with bodies in space. Nonetheless, promession still seems like a lot of effort when one might simply strap the body to the craft and call it a day. According to Wiigh-Mäsak, however, that would raise a host of other issues—chiefly that there would not be much of a body left after re-entry.

The more frequent suggestion for the disposal of bodies is to simply open the airlock and send them off into the cosmos, à la Dr. Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The problem here is that, as Body Back designers Karin Tjerrild Lund and Mikael Ploustrup found out, a U.N. charter forbids littering in space. This includes corpses, even if the astronaut’s expressed wish is to have his or her body launched into open space. This is probably for the better, Wiigh-Mäsak told me, given that these bodies could potentially become hazardous impactors for other spacecraft or end up contaminating pristine extraterrestrial environments—also like Dr. Poole who, following his death in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, “became the first of all men to reach Saturn.”


Photo: George Clooney in Gravity, photo courtesy Warner Bros Pictures

Originally published by Slate, author Daniel Oberhaus.