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.

 

98 Responses to “Death in Space”

  1. Anonymous says:

    All people saying they should just jettison the body or bury it on Mars, part of the concern is not affecting the environment. We don’t want to come back ten years later and say “holy shit, life on Ma- oh wait, it’s Dave’s gut bacteria. Or is it?”. This is why this method would even be considered.

  2. ChipH says:

    What happens if they squander TEN TRILLION DOLLARS

    of our precious last life savings, and while their

    ‘Right Stuff’ crew is clawing each other’s eyes out

    over the petty day-to-day of 550 days lost in space,

    they get a final message from Houston that Earth is

    in global war because that TEN TRILLION DOLLARS was

    necessary to feed the human population instead of

    shooting blood money into space, and the poor crew

    still has orbital maneuvers, landing maneuvers,

    re-ascension maneuvers and 250 day interplanetary

    flight left, before they orbit above a dead Earth.

    Would the guy getting that last transmission go

    out of his mind before s(he) could find words to

    tell the crew? What a great sci-fi story, how one

    by one the crew goes mad because some devious

    hacker plants a trojan that activates after 200

    days and creates a simulated broadcast from an

    Earth convulsing in its final death throes, which

    it undoubtedly will if we don’t find the sack to

    cut off these nutbirds at NA$A before they smoke

    TEN TRILLION of our precious last life savings!!

  3. Anonymous says:

    1) Put my body in the airlock
    2) Put a Roman Candle in my ass
    3) Point body in direction of center of universe.
    4) Apply Match to Roman Candle.
    5) Enjoy!

  4. travtastic says:

    Just open up an airlock and vector the body out of the back. With reduced weight and the marginal added thrust of pushing the body out, you’d even get there faster!

  5. rocketplumber says:

    These ecologists have never actually handled a dead body, or freeze-dried a chunk of meat. Exposure to vacuum will not simply freeze a body, the corpse will also vent liquid and semisold contents of the digestive tract from both ends, making a very very nasty mess in the body bag. As soon as the lungs freeze internally and sublimation slows to solid diffusion rates, the heat transfer drops very low- the bag has to be sheltered from sunlight or else the body will cook, not freeze. Once the body has frozen (probably taking 10-20 hours by purely radiative cooling), it will NOT be fragile, and mere shaking will not break it up. If you don’t believe me take a frozen steak out of your freezer and bang away on it with a hammer. You may as well try to break up a tree trunk by shaking it.

    *$&*@# academics.

  6. abulafia says:

    I’d want to go out strapped upright to a surfboard and pointed in the general direction of Orion.

  7. ArcticStorm says:

    Nicely done Trotsky, I LOL’d.

    It was nearly a haiku anyway, I took the liberty.

    Out of the airlock
    Refreshing spritz of febreeze
    Now, onward to Mars.

    This whole scenario can be avoided if they simply make sure not to allow any crew members to wear red shirts, no matter how snazzy they look.

  8. Ito Kagehisa says:

    Well, that just tears it.

    If I ever realize my childhood dream to be an astronaut, I am going to insist that I must not be returned to Earth unless I’m still alive.

  9. travtastic says:

    It’s good to remember, the only reason we repatriate our dead nowadays is cheap transportation. Before the internal combustion engine, you got buried with a modicum of respect right about where you were killed.

    Space flight isn’t cheap transportation, it’s literally the most expensive transportation. While an interesting idea, this would be very costly and highly impractical.

    Not to mention dangerous! When you’re as exposed as space flight requires, you take as little equipment as you can, and the most reliable you can find. You don’t take unnecessary prototype gear.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I would absolutely want to be buried at sea and would have discussed this with my family beforehand.

  11. Anonymous says:

    …If you are bringing MY fat ass into ‘space’ & I am unlucky, and/or, stupid enough to get wasted by Klingons, (or what-have-you), I might want to be managed by one of two, (2) things, for the betterment of my crew:
    1.) Meat, for those who ship out, (to space), as pure ‘carnivores’. 265lbs must equal a few hamburgers, w/ OR w/o cheese! Plus tubuler steaks!
    B.) After returning my H20 to the crew, I get thrown out the airlock with a number on / in several areas of my suit/container/whatever denoting my number among the MANY humans who will come to be discharged, ‘buried at space’!

  12. Whatnot says:

    How would they deal with more than one body at once? Would they have only one “Body Back”? Presumably they would have to store the other body/bodies somehow until the apparatus was free, especially if the process takes a few days. Dangle them on a tether outside the ship? Stick them in the freezer?

    Just wondering.

  13. Anonymous says:

    “It would take 7 months to travel to or from Mars, and communication delays may be as long as 20 seconds”

    Surely it’s more like 3 to 15 minutes?

  14. glittergirl says:

    It’s the 21st century, please don’t refer to ‘manned’ missions. I grew up thinking I couldn’t be an astronaut because I was a girl.

  15. Mark Temporis says:

    It’s by Larry Niven, and I think it’s in the anthology ‘Borderlands of Sol’. I THINK it’s titled ‘Becalmed in Space’ but I might be off.

  16. Donald Petersen says:

    This struck me as a weird idea. Sure, most of us have formulated most of our ideas about the hazards of space exploration through science fiction, but this passage here, which explains the motivation for the whole concept, really struck me:

    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.

    There are a great many unknowable things about lengthy interplanetary trips, but how the crew might react to a death in their ranks strikes me as more or less predictable. Space exploration is the sort of hazardous frontier-pushing endeavor that humanity has felt compelled to pursue throughout its history. As a species, we’ve long sent the more intrepid among us to try to set foot Where No-One Has Gone Before, and often (usually?) with a high mortality rate. People have died on the slopes of Everest, in the depths of the Marianas Trench, in search of the Northwest Passage, while rounding the Cape of Good Hope, on their way through Donner Pass, even on their way up to orbit. Is it not axiomatic that the type of person who might be selected for a Mission to Mars might not be the sort who would fold into a whimpering, inefficient puddle at the first sign of danger? To quote Super Chicken, they knew the job was dangerous when they took it.

    I guess I just feel like freeze-drying, vibrating to bits, and otherwise turning your late crewmate into a precious cargo of Folger’s Crystals seems like it might not do much to ease the ill effect of said crewmate’s expiration upon the rest of the crew. Whole lotta unnecessary fuss & bother & weight & expense. I know if I were aboard, my will would specify that if my death weren’t caused by anything too messy, like explosive decompression, incineration, crushing between large chunks of machinery, or disintegration by some alien’s “pew pew pew” ray gun, and if my remains are whole enough to permit it, I’d want to be placed in a suitably heroic pose, dressed in my favorite jumpsuit, and squirted out the airlock in the general direction of elsewhere. And if my death were too messy, then we’ll forego the heroic pose in favor of a cardboard box (in case any sympathetic crewmembers want to wave goodbye from the viewports; don’t wanna ruin their appetites). No need to drag my carcass back to the “Green Hills Of Earth.” And don’t bother with any fancy preparation other than making damned sure I’m actually dead. My loved ones don’t need me brought back; they half expect to never see me again anyway. And if I were religious, I’d especially want to be spaced; how better to get “nearer my God to thee”?

    I’m not saying that only insensitive clods like me should be sent to Mars. But it does seem to my under-evolved mind that this particular form of sensitivity would not have found much traction in, say, Magellan’s fleet. I wonder what Buzz Aldrin thinks about it?

  17. Anonymous says:

    NO, no no no no no NO! Put ‘em in a coffin, and fire ‘em out the photon torpedo launcher tube. Seriously. Do NOT go thru all this falderal with the freeze-drying etc… furthermore, I think it would be rather bad for their psychological wellbeing to have the remains still attached to the ship. Oh, and the coffin should be matte black, so that it’s not very visible out the windows (the last thing anybody wants is for the surviving crew to get sudden lumps-in-the-throat every time they look out the window, especially should it happen at a rather inopportune moment).

  18. Anonymous says:

    i’m not sure i would get into a spaceship that had built in coffins for everyone…

    or maybe everyone but the last person, because why, really…

    interesting (and somehow tragically politically correct) but i can’t imagine that the majority of humanity wouldn’t expect them to just dump the body in space, i mean how bad a burial would it be, really, to be stuffed somewhere between the moon and mars?

  19. Sciamachy says:

    Wouldn’t bodies make excellent compost for terraforming Mars though?

  20. TomDArch says:

    Arrgh. This is such a solution in search of a problem. Yes, obviously, this interesting process would not be used, and, obviously, a deceased crew member would be “buried at space.” The one useful aspect of this is to point out that the mission will need to have something on board that would work as the “burial shroud” for the “burial” and that some procedure will need to be developed.

    Let me take this somewhere even more morbid/morose: The more interesting/challenging problem than death on this sort of mission would be dealing with a protracted fatal illness or injury. A 2 to 3 year long mission staffed by people in their 40s and 50s makes me think that it’s entirely possible for one of the crew members to develop cancer during the mission, and that’s totally without factoring in radiation exposure. Similarly, some sort of accident that causes fairly severe internal injuries, such as brain damage or damage to abdominal organs. How do you plan for one of the crew members suffering for days, weeks or months, and then dying? Planning for a funeral and disposal of the body is easy. Having hyper-skilled/effective people stuck in a situation of helplessness for a long period of time could cause much worse problems, I would think.

  21. rebdav says:

    I have an idea. We need to invest many billions of dollars on a futuristic reusable digging device to bury dead astronauts.

    We can call it the Space Shovel.

    It will be heavier and is covered in useless gadgets but it will be an ok digging tool, not great but it will get the job done 98% of the time, just don’t think about the 2% where it kills the whole digging crew.

    We need to get beyond using simple purpose designed digging tools and move toward our glorious SY-Fy future.

    Then we can cancel the program without replacement and be reduced to digging with Russian shovels when they are willing to let us rent them.

  22. Antinous / Moderator says:

    I believe that K’Ehleyr arrived on the Enterprise in one of these.

  23. zubed says:

    really great info, lots of thanks…

  24. I less than three mermaids says:

    Seems feasible if the “body back” is also the astronaut’s daily sleeping bag, as has been done in battlefield conditions many times. The resulting mass could serve as radiation shielding or reaction mass.

    I’m with the other posters- why go to all the trouble of getting out there just to come home? ;)

  25. Brainspore says:

    Nice Stiff / Packing for Mars crossover!

  26. Felton / Moderator says:

    Anyone who’s ever seen this documentary knows how problematic this kind of thing can be.

  27. Anonymous says:

    I recognize the tremendous power of creedos like “bring them all home” in maintaining morale in the face of danger (and if anyone is still breathing, it’s one I certainly subscribe to) but a death by accident in the service of a planetary mission doesn’t carry the same risk of perpetual uncertainity, risks of descretation, and so forth that have led guaranteed return of remains to be such a vital element of modern military decorum.

    In any case, what amounts to an in-ship crematorium seems to be the absolute worst possible combination of 19th century exploratory and modern military tradition. If the point is to return remains, return remains- stick them in some sort of automated preservation unit and screw it shut. Considering the quantities of cryogens a craft will be carrying in any case, it seems an obvious choice. Otherwise, bury them with the flag on Mars, or strap on a little solid fuel motor in orbit so they jet away till they’re just another star. If they’re half the astronaut they’d half to be to sit in that craft in the first place, it’s a possibility they’ve already accepted, if not embraced. But asking your three or four best friends in the world (nay, solar system) to effectively run you through a grinder a few hours after you kick it and then store your powder on a shelf for two years seems to fail the out-of-sight-on-with-the-mission finality of dumping the body (you have an involved and invasive process followed by hanging onto the remains) or the emotional gravity of bringing home a fallen comrade (urns don’t have pallbearers.) Getting spaced was good enough for the crew of the Enterprise and the Galactica and it’s good enough for me.

  28. Kerov says:

    I loved, loved, loved reading this.

    This is a wonderful piece on how our cultural death rituals could be adapted for space. Mundane quibbles about practicalities are almost entirely beside the point. The exciting thing is: we could do it, and this article takes us, for a few minutes, into a near-future where we do.

  29. bascule says:

    I’m sorry I think this is the worst article I have ever read on Boing Boing. And by worst I mean badly researched, thought out and written.

    This is just a press release from the Swedish inventors of a ‘process’ which will quite likely feature on a list of worst ever inventions ever if it’s not mercifully forgotten forever.

    This is a bad solution for a problem with multiple obvious sensible alternate solutions.

    Also, “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? ” The solution here has no dignity. Freeze dried, mulched, microwaved and brought back to Earth. No Thanks.

  30. TEKNA2007 says:

    Let’s not go for the Stiff / Bonk / Packing for Mars trifecta.

  31. AlexG55 says:

    Asimov took burial in space for granted:

    I think with modern computers we could go for a Culture funeral. Put the body on a trajectory that will take it into the Sun. A million years later, the astronaut’s photons will shine down on their descendants- if they’re still here by then.

    To those advocating leaving the body on Mars, that’s only a solution if they die on Mars (or just before you get there). Otherwise you have the “how to lug a body around” problem, especially if they die on the way back. I like the idea of “some corner of a foreign world that is forever Mankind”, but it would probably be impractical.

    Incidentally, burial in space could be (once we have space elevators or other ways to cheaply get mass into orbit) a way for the Parsees to deal with their funeral problem. They believe it’s wrong to desecrate earth or fire with their bodies, so they expose them to vultures- but the vultures have become endangered due to overuse of pesticides. No earth or fire in space…

    • Anonymous says:

      “a way for the Parsees to deal with their funeral problem. They believe it’s wrong to desecrate earth or fire with their bodies, so they expose them to vultures- but the vultures have become endangered due to overuse of pesticides. No earth or fire in space…”

      Ah, but space is sometimes equated to Akasha, another of the elements. You wouldn’t want to desecrate that either, would you?

      (personally, I’d opt for space burial, with the stipulation that I be aimed at some object where I’d likely burn up on entry within a reasonable period of time… so as to not turn into a piece of space junk, threatening a later mission with collision. Unless of course it was a mission of hostile brain-sucking extraterrestrials intent on subjugating the Earth, in which case I’d be happy to have my body collide with and destroy their vessel.)

  32. Anonymous says:

    so. if mars has some serious gravity. Unlike the moon… wouldnt it be a huge amount of effort to get off it’s surface again? look how difficult and how much fuel it takes to get off earth. seems like it would make manned trips to mars pretty impractical..

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s not so bad: surface gravity on Mars is about 0.38 g. The Earth has 1.0 g, and the Moon 0.16 g, so it’s much closer to the latter. The distance is a much bigger challenge.

  33. Lindamller says:

    My husband used to work for NASA…they’re the greatest process freaks in the history of mankind. I suppose it would be impolite to litter the cosmos with dead humans, but the analogy to burial at sea is an apt one, and the next-of-kin would surely understand.

    But I wonder if that freeze-irradiate-shake technology could be introduced planet-side as an alternative to wasteful cremation. Not to mention its application to food.

  34. sergeirichard says:

    A solution in search of a problem indeed. Or perhaps, a patent in search of a profit. To quote The Straight Dope:

    A Swedish company called Promessa claims to have developed an environmentally friendly way of disposing of bodies. The deceased is frozen in liquid nitrogen, then shattered with sound waves, and the resultant pieces are composted. The firm’s European patent claims the process works, but while I can find lots of press about it, I see no indication of so much as a trial run. Attempting to contact the company has proven fruitless, and its Web site doesn’t appear to have been updated in years. So I wouldn’t count on cryogenic mortuary services showing up at Costco any time soon.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Yep, it’s Larry Niven’s 1964 short story “”The Coldest Place” (his first). If you have any interest in hard SF at all, you must read his Known Space novels and short stories – great stuff!

  36. Bitgod says:

    All I know is that I’m against using my tax dollars to send robot vibrators into space, it’s indecent! Hrumph!

  37. Trotsky says:

    Astronaut jerky.

    $39 on Amazon.

    http://www.amazon.com/Ronco-FD1005WHGEN-5-Tray-Electric-Dehydrator/dp/B000G20TCQ

    RON POPEIL: How much would you pay, NASA? Wait! Don’t answer… because I will throw in this mini-golf/melon baller helmet ab-so-lute-ly free. NOW how much would you pay? $149? $99?

    NASA: $230,000,000.

    RON POPEIL: Ah… Wow. Shit. For real? Okay. That’s what I was going to say. $230,000,000. Visa or Mastercard?

  38. Anonymous says:

    Crew math on the body back. Five crew, four Body Backs

  39. Brainspore says:

    That seems like a lot of effort to bring back a corpse. Meanwhile, some people on earth are paying good money to send their loved ones’ remains into space!

  40. Anonymous says:

    Duh! Place the body in a bag with a small rocket attached…send it out ahead of the ship. Given a decent acceleration it will be out of sight quickly. Not being decelerated and placed in an orbit, the body will burn up as a meteor in the Martian skies, and the dead astronaut will have the posthumous honor of being the first to reach the planet.

  41. travtastic says:

    I can’t for the life of me remember the title or author, but I remember reading a short SF story where an astronaut is trapped and flash-frozen on Pluto. Although he’s dead for all intents and purposes, the extreme cold causes his brain to superconduct (slowly), resulting in a subjective state of continuous awareness, but with his perception of time slowed down to a crawl.

    Anyone recognize it?

    • Main Holmes says:

      I think you’re referring to “Wait It Out”, by Larry Niven. He’s da man for old school hard sci-fi!

    • Karl Jones says:

      I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon by Philip K. Dick, while not the story you’re thinking of, has a similar premise:

      In the story, a man (Victor Kemmings) regains consciousness during a failed attempt at cryosleep on board a spaceship. The ship’s artificial intelligence cannot repair the malfunction and cannot wake him, so Kemmings is doomed to remain conscious but paralyzed through the ship’s entire ten-year-long journey. To maintain his sanity, the AI replays Kemmings’s memories to him. But when this goes awry, the ship AI asks Kemmings what he wants most — and the answer is that Kemming wants the trip to be over and to arrive at his new home. The AI constructs such a scenario for Kemming and plays it to him over and over for the next ten years. When the ship finally arrives at its destination … [spoiler omitted].

      Wikipedia

      One of my favorite PKD stories.

  42. Anonymous says:

    “I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human. “

  43. holtt says:

    Interesting idea but it doesn’t work very well on the surface of Mars. Like others, bury me at space, or under a pile of Martian rocks. I’d make it my dying wish even now if I thought there was some way it could happen.

  44. jeaguilar says:

    Burial at sea worked at sea.

  45. ret3 says:

    Traditionally, explorers who died were not returned home, but rather interred in the field. Find a low-cost , low-energy way to launch remains from the craft on a trajectory that will eventually take them safely out of the solar system.

    • Anonymous says:

      @4

      A safe trajectory out of the solar system? If it was my body, my will would specify a course toward the center of the solar system with the remaining crew playing Pink Floyd’s Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun as send-off music.

  46. Anonymous says:

    I htink hte main concern should be for the surviving crew and thier mental state. They will have a long mission and must be focused. A burial “at sea” would provide some level of closeur and remove the constant reminder of death. No matter where you put the body, there wont be a real out of the way place on the first space ships to venture to mars. Unless you lash the body to the outside of the vessel.

  47. Anonymous says:

    First thought: Eeeeeeee-v-aaaa
    Second thought: where are they going to get all the extra energy to a) run the shaker, b) get it into space
    Third thought: Fill the bag with air, then mentioning nitrogen later. Which is it.

    last thought: small solid rocket pointed towards the sun. Aren’t we all stardust anyway?

  48. TimDrew says:

    If I was lucky enough to be selected for a Mars mission, the living me would like to think that if I didn’t make it to the red planet alive, at least my remains would. (or if nothing else, be Buried at Space, as in the naval tradition- perhaps with bagpipes played at the ceremony…).

    Of course, being dead, I don’t think it would really matter to me, even if they chucked me out in a bag with “Hefty(TM)” written on the side…

    logically, however, it seems to me that jettisoning still makes sense, as it would bethe least energy and resources consuming option available.

  49. David Pescovitz says:

    Or at least shoot their coffin into the Genesis Planet.

  50. Anonymous says:

    How is it possible to unite science and religion with a design that will not affect space…

    This would be the same silent, pristine, untouched, unchanging, delicate space that has meteors and comets bombing about, and supernovae and gamma ray bursters flaring off in it, right?

    On topic:

    Burial at sea/in the soil of the new found land FTW! It has cultural precedent and mythic resonance:

    “We will say, (s)he journeys the stars/marks where the visitors from another world trod forever.”

  51. bcsizemo says:

    This article almost smells of a sales brochure for the “Body Back” system…

    Either way I think you need to build/train a crew who has the profound understanding that this could very likely be a one way mission. Someone kicks the bucket, jettison their body, and move on.

    Did Bruce Willis give up in Armageddon? No, he kept drilling even when half his crew was dead. Then he kicked everyone else off the rock, and blew it up with him on it.

    So it’s fictional….but hey if I’m gonna go that’s one hell of a way to do it. One way ticket to Mars, sign me up.

  52. Anonymous says:

    I think sending the body into open space would be almost an honor to astronauts, at least if I died in space I’d love to be shot out of the spaceship in an endless travel through space… maybe your body will last even longer than the earth itself.

  53. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure someone must have thought it up (and maybe there are books on it), but I wonder what the procedure of dealing with murder in space would be. Especially with a crew from backgrounds with very different legal systems. I also wonder if Space Law could be agreed upon in time for a mission to Mars.

  54. Anonymous says:

    There’s nothing about cremation or burial that makes them ‘environmentally unfriendly’. You’re returning carbon that came from the atmosphere back into the atmosphere, all the other stuff that came from the environment to the environment. It’s zero-sum. If you bury the freeze-dried remains of a person it’s equivalent to burying them burnt or intact anyway.

    • Anonymous says:

      Fossils fuels are formed from plants and animals that took their carbon out of the atmosphere, and we consider returning that carbon back into the atmosphere environmentally unfriendly. If it was ensured that a crematorium captured all carbon dioxide given off and stored it or used it in a greenhouse(This is the tree your grandma helped grow!), we’d consider that environmentally friendly.

  55. grimc says:

    Hmm…the Body Back looks nothing like the thing they put Spock in to shoot him out of the photon torpedo tube…

    Personally, I would want–demand–to be the first human buried on Mars.

  56. Anonymous says:

    This is one of the funniest article posting/replies I’ve ever read! I’m crying laughing!

  57. Editz says:

    Zapped into powder? Just like the clones in ‘Moon’.

  58. TEKNA2007 says:

    A tight sheet and a pressurized airlock: it worked on the Nostromo, it should work us in the here and now.

    Also: “body back”? Are you sure that’s not “body bag” spoken with an ESL accent?

    P.S. Loved Packing for Mars.

  59. Anonymous says:

    They could turn the corpse into vinyl, so other crew members can enjoy some music to alleviate the grief.

    Seriously, I would *love* if my corpse would be left floating in deep space. The slightest chance that one day some other civilization could discover it and learn something through examining it would make me extremely proud.

  60. Roy Trumbull says:

    The Story “The Hated” by Frederick Pohl which first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1958 anticipated another problem of a long voyage in tight quarters.
    http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/29503

  61. Anonymous says:

    My solution?

    Open Airlock. Aim me at the moon, or Mars, give me a shove. I can’t think of a better place for my remains. Not to mention possibly being found many years later by another mission!

  62. Anonymous says:

    Another vote for burial at sea. I’d be happy for them to leave my body in space, a special honor than nobody could disturb and chances are preservation better than that granted to the pharaohs. Meanwhile they could use the space to carry back some extra Martian rocks, and you know, actually make my sacrifice for something.

  63. metatim says:

    The death processing equipment presumably adds costly additional mass. So how many deaths do you prepare for? For a crew of six – five?

  64. deckard68 says:

    We have a responsibility to bury the body on Mars.

    Exploration of other planets is not only for our own benefit, it is for the benefit of other explorers.

    If someday the Earth is no more, a body on Mars might be the only record of what human beings were.

    Heck, maybe we should start out the journey with a pair of dead bodies, to leave behind on Mars. A representative man and woman.

    I can’t believe NASA thinks that turning a body into some kind of iced-coffee-grinds is a good idea.

  65. Aloisius says:

    I really hope that efforts will be made to prevent human bacteria and waste tainting Mars. Bodies should be ejected into space, not buried on Mars.

    If Mars hasn’t already been tainted by Earth organisms, it will be. It is inevitable. To claim that humans can go to another planet and live on it without contaminating it with untold billions of virii, bacteria and fungi is truly science fiction.

    Frankly I hope some country like China decides to shoot a damn canister full of extremophiles into Mars just to stop the theater we go through today for the sake of people wanting to “preserve” Mars.

  66. RigelK says:

    I suddenly have the urge to watch Star Trek II.

  67. sapere_aude says:

    With all due respect to the people who took the time and effort to come up with this stupid idea, it’s a stupid idea.

    As just about every other commenter has said, the only sensible thing to do is to eject the body into space — the spacefaring version of “burial at sea”. I have to wonder, did the folks who came up with this plan bother to ask any actual astronauts what they would want to be done with their remains if they should die on a long space journey far from Earth? I have a feeling that most of them would actually prefer the burial in space option rather than the pulverize, freeze dry, and return to Earth option. And, if you’re worried about how disposal of a dead body in space would “affect space”, then you obviously don’t understand what “space” is.

    Also, as a previous commenter pointed out, the name “Body Back” just doesn’t sound right. I have a feeling that it was supposed to be “Body Bag”, just spoken with a Swedish accent.

  68. Stefan Jones says:

    Then there’s the long pork option.

    What?

  69. z7q2 says:

    Presumably they will have one air-tight space-suit for every crewmember, or at least a spare. Simply put the body in the suit, and cover the faceplate with grey tape. If you’re on Mars, bury it. If you’re in transit, out the airlock.

  70. Matt J says:

    No way would they bring back the remains. All this equipment adds totally unnecessary weight and historically explorers have not been repatriated if they die far from home. Indeed, it is only within the last half century that soldier’s bodies have been repatriated.

  71. VagabondAstronomer says:

    This happened in “Conquest of Space.” Of course, Ross Martin just sort of drifted off…

  72. Bloodboiler says:

    I recognize that customs related to death are extremely culture specific, but that was overcomplicated, creepy and depicted with distastefully patriotic sketches.

    Why not just have a flatpack freeze drying and powdering machine that compacts and stores the remains into a tasteful urn.

    The ceremonies and processing of the body would be very close to cremation making them familiar and easier to accept than a self rolling body bag.

  73. Anonymous says:

    ehhhh, my first impression is that it seems like a lot of work and weight that could be put to better use. Superfluous would be the term.

    But then again, they’re going to have a lot of time on their hands. Perhaps not at the time of death though. The body bag seems overly complicated. The “vibrator” concerns me just from it’s weight factor. Every little bit counts, and it’d be best to avoid such specialized tools.

    Honestly, I think it’d be beneficial to humanity if an old millionaire rocketed off to the deep unknown with the intent to die out there. Just so people would get over it.

  74. Anonymous says:

    Ahemm! Did no one notice the glaring error…

    “Held there, it is frozen solid in an hour by the nitrogen”

    …uhhhhh…. space is a vacuum!

  75. optuser says:

    This is a pretty heavy post about space-faring considerations for science. Very interesting and informative. This is brought home by the timely advertisement for Red Lobster’s “Celebrate Crabfest” event going on right now. I’m on my way. Thanks!

    Didn’t some scientists also theorize about making such missions “one-way”? We’re sending you out and we’re not planning on bringing you back. Save the logistics of returning someone back … it would lower costs…

  76. Trotsky says:

    Out the airlock.

    A spritz of Febreze.

    On to Mars.

  77. Anonymous says:

    I agree; if I were an astronaut and I died while in space, that’s exactly where I’d want to be buried, just like untold numbers of science-fiction characters who’ve enjoyed the privilege. Just cycle the airlock with my “corpus” inside; if that doesn’t give me enough delta-V to head on out, attach a little solid-rocket motor, or strap an O-tank to me and open the valve.

    If my next of kin back on Earth wanted to remember me, they wouldn’t need to visit a grave site; they could just step outside and look into the night sky. At least then, their eyes would still be turned upward.

  78. Dewi Morgan says:

    This isn’t just a quick jaunt over the Atlantic to a basically identical biosphere. This is a whole different planet.

    I really hope that efforts will be made to prevent human bacteria and waste tainting Mars. Bodies should be ejected into space, not buried on Mars.

    At least until we’ve sucked every drop of knowledge we can get from the untainted world, and we’re ready to terraform.

    • travtastic says:

      Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about contamination, except try to minimize it. There are lots of extremophiles that can survive (for a period of time) hard vacuum and lots of heat.

    • deckard68 says:

      Ok, so if a dead body might colonize Mars with gut bacteria, etc., is there a way to irradiate the body first? An on-board microwave oven or something, that would absolutely ensure that everything down to viruses was absolutely dead, and the body could be buried safely?

      I don’t want the body cremated, though obviously that would work…

  79. Beelzebuddy says:

    Quite a morbid piece of astroturf.

    Bury me at sea boys
    Where no murdered ghosts can haunt me
    If I rock upon the waves
    Then no corpse can lie above me

  80. Trotsky says:

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

    I’m not so sure.

    Could the deceased be repurposed by some sort of polymer coating process into a table or chair? Then every time a crew member rests their space-drink on former astronaut Frank Mohrlang or props their feet up on his plastic encased, but still manly pate, they could feel a rush of fraternity and in their own quiet way come to peace with their comrade’s demise. And also take a load off.

    I think the scientific principles outlined in “Weekend at Bernie’s” are still germane to modern space exploration.

  81. TEKNA2007 says:

    Are there religions where it’s super-important for the dead to be buried? I think I read about cities in the Middle East where, after a suicide bomb goes off, people go around picking up every last tiny piece of the Dearly Exploded for burial.

  82. Anonymous says:

    I’m on Earth and I would kill to be buried in space (It’s SPACE! What the hell is wrong with kids these days?).

    Also: “The best place to keep a body is where others do not see it” – if that is not the God’s honest truth, then I don’t know what is.

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