How Many People Have Died in Space, and What Happened To Their Bodies?

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As NASA is getting ready for a new epoch in space exploration — building a permanent base on the Moon and using it as a transition for further flights to Mars, it makes sense to think about people who have helped pave our way to the stars. After all, the first spaceflights had a bumpy start; besides, many people still recall shuttle disasters, the last one occurring only 20 years ago. How dangerous would the new exploration stage be? How many people died in space already? What risks are 21st-century astronauts willing to take? Let’s find out!

How Many People Died in Space Missions Already?

The total death toll of all space-related missions stands at 22 people. One Soviet cosmonaut and three NASA astronauts died in a total of two accidents while preparing for their missions. Both times, a fire broke out in training chambers, and astronauts did not have enough time to get out because confined, oxygen-filled chambers are the perfect environment for instant fire spread.

The first person to die on a mission was Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov. In 1967, the parachute landing system on the Soyuz 1 spacecraft malfunctioned, causing the vehicle to crash to the ground at a speed of 50 m/s. Komarov died instantly — a small consolation for the first death on a cosmic mission in history.

Three more cosmonauts died on the Soyuz 11 mission, also when returning home. Before that, the crew successfully completed most of their mission goals, but upon atmosphere re-entry, the module depressurized, and all cosmonauts suffocated. Both missions, due to some strange irony, carried backup crews instead of the main ones — so speak of divine providence. To this date, Vladislav Volkov, Georgy Dobrovolsky, and Viktor Patsaev remain the only people who have died before re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. All other accidents happened below the Karman line.

So, exactly what happened to the bodies that died in space? The module itself landed as planned, but all three people were found dead, with dark blue patches on their faces and traces of blood around their noses and ears. Most probably, the leak that depressurized the capsule caused body vessels and ear drums to burst before the crew suffocated — a gruesome death. Orbital Today reports that the names of astronauts who died in space are forever commemorated on the Moon — the Apollo 15 crew brought a plaque with them in 1971.

The two most horrible disasters — as far as the sheer casualty numbers are concerned — are NASA’s Challenger and Columbia crashes in 1986 and 2003, respectively. Challenger broke down in the air less than two minutes after launch. Columbia crew was returning to Earth from an otherwise successful 16-day mission. In another 16 minutes, the crew would make a safe landing. But the shuttle broke down just 63 km above the Earth’s surface. Both accidents killed the whole crew complement of 7 people — so 14 astronauts in total.

So far, these 22 people are the only astronauts who died in space missions or in training. We sincerely hope that this number will not change. But just to satisfy our morbid curiosity, let’s discuss a few possible death-in-space scenarios.

What are the chances of surviving in space?

Without special equipment — none whatsoever. Space is almost a vacuum, and there is no air to breathe. So, is death instant in space? Almost instant — according to Stefaan De Mey, ESA Officer for human and robotic exploration, a person would lose consciousness in about 15 seconds and die of suffocation within 90 seconds of exposure.

But current figures on the death of astronauts prove that the actual chances of surviving on a mission are quite high — considering that over 600 people have already crossed the border of space, and most of them returned safely to Earth.

What Does NASA Protocol Say About Dead Bodies in Space?

The current mortality rate is reassuring; still, astronauts regularly keep watch on the ISS, Artemis crews are about to set on the new Moon exploration missions, and some of them will be later stationed on the lunar base. So, is there a protocol for people who die on a mission? Not yet, and hopefully, there will not be a precedent.

ISS astronauts, for example, are in constant contact with their bases, so should anyone die on the ISS, the responsible agency will have to decide after the incident. Most probably, the body would be returned to Earth with the next resupply mission, which generally happens every two months. However, if the death was caused by a mechanic malfunction, the more pressing task for the ISS and ground station crews would be to ensure the safety of surviving astronauts.

The same logic applies to all future Moon and Mars missions — the body would most likely be preserved in a special bag until the spacecraft’s return to Earth. But with a massive disaster scenario, the crew would make survival their top priority. Not that the odds of it are high, considering how many people died in space missions so far.

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