Human Space Exploration: Contemplating the Perilous and the Necessary

As human space exploration expands, the challenges and perils grow proportionately. The difficulty of sending human beings into space cannot be understated, and the inevitability of accidents prompts uncomfortable but necessary questions regarding potential fatalities and their handling. This article delves into the history, current plans, and sobering scenarios that space agencies like NASA have to prepare for.

60 Years of Exploration: Tragedies and Triumphs

Since human space exploration commenced just over six decades ago, there have been remarkable achievements along with painful losses. Tragically, 20 people have lost their lives:

  • 14 in the NASA space shuttle tragedies of 1986 and 2003
  • Three cosmonauts during the 1971 Soyuz 11 mission
  • Three astronauts in the Apollo 1 launch pad fire in 1967

Considering the complexity of human spaceflight, the relatively low number of fatalities is noteworthy. However, with planned missions to the Moon in 2025 and to Mars within the next decade, as well as the rise of commercial spaceflight, the possibility of more fatalities looms.

Death in Space: A Grim Reality to Prepare For

Death on Low-Earth Orbit Missions

There are already set rules to deal with someone dying in space. If someone dies on a mission close to Earth, like on the International Space Station, the team could bring the body back to Earth in a small spaceship pretty quickly. In this situation, keeping the body safe wouldn’t be NASA’s main worry; they would focus more on bringing everyone else back safely.

Death on the Moon and Mars

If the death happened on the Moon, the body could be returned to Earth in just a few days. On the 300 million-mile trip to Mars, however, the situation would be more complex. The body would likely return to Earth with the crew at the end of the mission, possibly years later, and would presumably be preserved in a separate chamber or specialized body bag.

Death Outside a Pressurized Environment

If an astronaut stepped into space or onto the Moon or Mars without a spacesuit, death would occur almost instantly due to lack of pressure and oxygen, resulting in suffocation and boiling blood.

Burial Considerations

Options for handling a deceased astronaut on the surface of Mars include neither cremation, due to energy requirements, nor burial, to prevent contamination. The likely course of action would be preservation in a specialized body bag until return to Earth.

Psychological Considerations and Future Planning

Handling a death in space involves more than just managing the dead person’s body. It’s also vital to look after the remaining astronauts and the mourning families back home. As we step forward to make other places like the Moon, Mars, or even planets beyond our solar system our home, we need to carefully think about and plan for such sad situations. Specialists at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health are entirely devoted to ensuring that those who venture into space are as fit as they can be, ready for whatever uncommon hurdles may arise.


The expansion of human space exploration brings excitement and possibilities but also demands confrontation with sobering realities. The delicate topic of handling death in space highlights the multifaceted challenges that must be addressed. Through continuous research, collaboration, and forward thinking, space agencies are working to ensure that humanity’s reach into the cosmos is conducted with the utmost care and consideration for those brave enough to venture into the unknown.