Death in Space

by MARY ROACH

The U.S. has plans for a manned visit to Mars by the mid-2030s. The ESA and Russia have sketched out a similar joint mission, and it is claimed that China's space program has the same objective. Apart from their destination, all these plans share something in common: extraordinary danger for the explorers. What happens if someone dies out there, months away from Earth?

Swedish ecologists Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and Peter Mäsak are the inventors of an environmentally friendly alternative to cremation and burial, called Promession. The technique entails freezing a body, vibrating it into tiny pieces, and then freeze-drying the pieces, which can then be used as compost to grow a memorial shrub or tree. The pair recently collaborated with NASA and design students in Denmark and Sweden to adapt Promession for use on a Mars mission.

The dead crew member's body would be placed in a container, called the Body Back, and moved into the airlock. Exposed to space, the body freezes in about an hour. A robotic arm then pulls the Body Back container out of the airlock, dangles it on a tether, and activates a vibration system. (The tether prevents vibration damage to the spacecraft's instrumentation.) After 15 minutes of vibration, the frozen corpse is reduced to small pieces. Water is evaporated from the remains using microwaves, leaving about 25 kilograms of dry powder inside the Body Back. The container is left outside the spacecraft until it's time to reenter the Earth's atmosphere, at which point the robotic arm pulls it back inside to keep it from burning up during reentry. The Body Back folds into a smaller shape that "will not unveil that there is a corpus inside."

The following notes and illustrations are taken from an original presentation by Karin Tjerrild Lund and Mikael Ploustrup, describing how Promession could be used to help a long-term space mission withstand the death of an crew member -- and offer dignified services for the departed and their family at home.

Death in Space

In which way is it possible to have a ceremony and to store a dead body -- a friend -- with dignity, during a mission to Mars?

How is it possible to unite science and religion with a design that will not affect space, or the environment on Mars or other planets?  

A mission to Mars would certainly brings great risks to the crew. Beyond the obvious ones, there is no knowledge yet of how dangerous it actually will be with regards to radiation exposure. Then there are the psychological aspects -- what is it like to be isolated from Earth for such a long period of time?

In the event of a crew member's death, what could the mission do with the body? How do you store the corpse? How is storage possible with the crew having to remain in close proximity to the body? How will the crew stay psychologically and physically strong? Beyond that, there are ethical considerations: Do you bring back the dead body to the relatives on Earth?

It would take 7 months to travel to or from Mars, and communication delays may be as long as 20 seconds. The temperature of space is -272 C, and on Mars itself, between -40 to -120 C. Space has no pressure and Mars less than 1 percent; gravity there is just a third that of Earth's.

There would be strong radiation present throughout the whole mission, which could last almost three years if the mission is structured for a long stay. Putrefaction starts as soon as someone dies, and bacteria begins to effect the environment.

Psychlogical Aspects

Nobody knows how the crew might react under the circumstances. Anticipated reaction patterns could involve fear, loss, sorrow, responsibility and guilt. Individuals may take the blame, or be blamed for a crewmember's death. Death is a difficult situation which causes big problems in small groups: if the raw emotions are not enough to threaten a mission, the mistrust and isolation that may follow a death certainly will be.

A testament or funeral is therefore very important, and must be trained for on Earth.

The best place to keep a body is where others do not see it.

Why bring the dead home?

Relatives' sorrow, security reasons, respectful care, ethical correctness and political responsibilities may count among the many reasons a body would have to return with the mission. Even in war, the dead are returned to their relatives. It is important for friends and family that they have concrete and physical remains in order to deal with their sorrow.

Why hold a ceremony?

A ceremony provides guidance during a very difficult situation. It's a tool to handle the enormous sadness that follows death. In order to create an appropriate setting in a chaotic situation, the ceremony must be reminiscent of those held at home, incorporating familiar traditional elements.

It takes time to accept that a person is dead, and in an isolated environment where there may be a small, tightly-knit team coping with the death of on of their number, there will an element of shock.

Preferably, the ceremony would be flexible enough to become personal to those affected. It is important for the surviving crew members to arrange an opportunity to express feelings and thoughts about the situation / dead person to prevent disturbance of the further mission.

After Death

During the course of the mission, something goes wrong and a crewmember dies. Though normally there would be days or weeks to prepare the ceremony, in a spacecraft's closed environment it must be completed after 24 hours to prevent infection. Using formalin and other chemicals will make the environment worse.

Preparation

A "Body Back" -- the capsule used for promession -- is removed from storage and folded out.

Powered by batteries, sticks made of an "intelligent alloy" stretch out the fabric into a form similar to a sarcophagus. Tests are run by the crew, and the body dressed in the indoor NASA space suit. Once in the Body Back, it is zipped and filled with air.

The Body Back is fixed in the medical area, and may be allowed to enter zero gravity conditions if in space. If on Mars itself, it would remain on the medical table.

A report would be completed on the circumstances of the crewmember's death. Any instructions from Earth would be received, and the victim's personal belongings stored in a safe, locked place. Only what is necessary would be kept. Some belongings must be stored as trash, and burned up in the atmosphere, as would otherwise have taken place during normal waste-disposal procedures.   

Survivors must hold a debriefing, where all thoughts and feelings relative to their colleagu'es death must be discussed. If there is any question of guilt, it is important that the person responsible for psychological matters deal with it promptly and be assigned the authority to lead that process.

Ceremony

A funeral in space would be an unprecedented event, which might well involve the involvement of government figures, media and the public at large. Bearing in mind communication delays of up to 20 minutes, speeches from the home nation, family members and the captain may be followed by last goodbyes from crewmembers, writing on the Body Back, celebrations, sonds and so forth.

It will be possible to transfer data to the Body Back from Earth, delivering any final messages to the decedent that his or her family and friends may wish to deliver. Accordingly, the ceremony is held in an area able to maintain contact with Earth.

Promession

The crew leads the Body Back to the air lock, where it is safely held to a 'robonaut,' who carefully lifts it out from the air lock and into space. Held there, it is frozen solid in an hour by the nitrogen.

The back's vibrations begin, insulated from sensitive space instruments by the robot. Within 15 minutes, the body is reduced to powder. The robot then moves the Body Back to a final fixed point, on the exterior surface of the spacecraft, where it will remain. Microwaves are used to evaporate frozen water in the powder, prevented from escaping the body back by aluminum foil.

A few days later, the batteries in the Body Back turn off and the 'intelligent alloy' frame begins to relax, folding up the Body Back into a smaller form. Before entering the Earth's atmosphere, the Body Back is returned into the space capsule.

On Earth

 

The Body Back may be carried by two persons using the handles underneath; the form will be clean and will not reveal the remains inside or any part of the process.

CREDITS: Text by Mary Roach, Karin Tjerrild Lund and Mikael Ploustrup. Layout and edits by Rob Beschizza. "Launch" illustration by Rob Beschizza based on NASA/JPL/Cornell image. Promession illustrations by Promessa.