Emmanuel Urquieta, Baylor College of Medicine – What Happens if Someone Dies in Space?

What happens if an astronaut dies in space?

Emmanuel Urquieta, assistant professor in the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, considers the options.

Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta currently serves as Chief Medical Officer at the NASA funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health, where he manages research projects in areas ranging from radiation protection to psychological changes during deep spaceflight. Dr. Urquieta has a dual faculty appointment as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. He holds a medical degree from Anahuac University in Mexico City and a Master of Science in aerospace medicine from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He is also a FAA private pilot and scuba diver.

What Happens if Someone Dies in Space?

I recently received a question through The Conversation’s “Curious Kids” platform from Guillermo in Florida. He asked: “What happens if someone dies in space?”

My team and I at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health – or TRISH – find and fund innovative technologies to keep astronauts healthy. As a space medical doctor, dying in space isn’t my favorite thing to think about. However, protocols exist for this scenario, and it is something many people wonder about. 

Let’s first discuss what would happen in a pressurized environment, like a space station or vehicle.  

  • If an astronaut died on a low-Earth-orbit mission, the crew could send the body to Earth in a capsule within hours.
  • If this happened on the Moon, the crew could take the body home in just a few days. 
  • If an astronaut died during the trip to Mars, the crew likely wouldn’t be able to return quickly to Earth. They would probably preserve the body in a separate chamber or specialized bag for the months or years remaining of their mission, and deliver the body to Earth upon their return.

Alternatively, death could occur outside a pressurized environment. 

  • If an astronaut stepped outside into space, or onto the surface of the Moon or Mars, without the protection of a spacesuit, they would die almost instantly from exposure and the lack of atmosphere.  
  • If a death occurred on the surface of the Moon or Mars, the crew would likely preserve the body in a specialized body bag until it could be returned to Earth.

A top priority would be supporting the surviving crew and grieving families on Earth.

Planning for every scenario is part of space exploration. Our priority at TRISH is to use the latest science and technology to help humans thrive during flights and long duration missions in space – or wherever else they explore.