Since human space exploration began just over 60 years ago, 20 people have died. NASA plans to send a crew to the Moon in 2025 and astronauts to Mars in the next decade. And commercial spaceflight is becoming routine. The chances of someone dying en route will increase. What about dead astronauts in space?
If someone were to die on a mission on the International Space Station, the crew could return the body within hours. If it happened on the Moon, this would be within days. NASA already has detailed protocols for such events.
What if it happened on a trip to Mars, 300 million miles away? The crew would have to take care of preserving the body in a separate chamber or specialized body bag. And… If someone were to go into space without the protection of a spacesuit? The astronaut would die almost instantly. The loss of pressure and exposure to the vacuum of space would make it impossible for the astronaut to breathe. Blood and other body fluids would boil.
What about burial? Suppose the astronaut died after landing, while on the surface of Mars. Cremation is not the best option. It requires too much energy that the remaining crew needs for other purposes. Burial is also not a good idea. Bacteria and other organisms from the body could contaminate the Martian surface. So, the crew would probably preserve the body in a specialized body bag. There are many unknowns about how to deal with a death in space.
It is not just the question of what to do with the body. The crew must also be helped to deal with the loss. As well as the families with grief on Earth. It is as important as handling the remains of the person who died.
But to truly colonize other worlds, be it the Moon, Mars, or a planet outside our solar system, this grim scenario will require planning and protocols. And dead astronauts in space will no longer be so unusual.