Most car accidents happen close to home, a truism that holds up in space travel. The actual travel itself has proved much less fatal than actually getting there and back, which requires nerves and heat shields and complex math. Out of the hundreds of manned missions we’ve sent into space, including a number that required astronauts to untether themselves in low earth orbit and nine that actually sent them to (or around) the moon, the only people to have actually died in space were the unlucky cosmonauts of Soyuz 11, who perished when a valve jolted loose during preparations for re-entry. The three men, none of whom were wearing full protective suits at the time, asphyxiated within seconds from the rapid loss of pressure inside their capsule.
Several have died in different stages of spaceflight, but usually below the roughly-100 km altitude that we’ve declared as the dividing line between Earth and space -- a few on the ground, several during re-entry, at least one from his capsule slamming into the ground due to a catastrophic parachute failure, but space itself has a low body count.
You’d think it’d be more, right? I’m not entirely sure why we’ve been so fortunate, but I wager a large part of it is the time and effort put into developing effective space suits. There’s something about the idea of dying in space that is uniquely awful -- you have to contend with fears of choking, of falling, of being punctured and of being burned, of your body mangled beyond recognition. Direct exposure to the vacuum of space, among other things, will cause the human body to bloat -- during Project Excelsior, NASA’s attempt to test a theoretical high-altitude ejection, a pressure seal in Colonel Joe Kittinger’s right glove failed, causing his hand to swell up to about twice its normal size.
Kittinger completed his mission despite great pain, setting several records in the process -- some of them, including highest skydive and fastest unassisted speed by a human being, were broken recently by Felix Baumgartner, who smartly used Kittinger as an advisor during his mission. Baumgartner’s suit experienced no such failures, perhaps because it looked like a tank compared to Kittinger’s insubstantial threads.
The amount of protection required to survive in space makes the modern space suit almost a ship unto itself, albeit one with limited range and little direct method of propulsion. NASA used to have so-called Manned Maneuvering Units that could attach to an astronaut’s suit and allow him to attempt daring, untethered spacewalks. MMU use was discontinued after the Challenger disaster; although the system itself was successful, the organization judged it less of a risk to simply tether an astronaut to the ship or station, or use robotic arms to make any external repairs. I like to think that someone in charge of decision-making saw this photo of an MMU-strapped astronaut on a particularly-distant spacewalk and came to a sudden and decisive epiphany about life and its fragility.
I was at the movies this weekend and came upon the trailer for “Gravity”, a film about two astronauts stranded in space after the destruction of their space station. There’s a shot right at the end of one of the astronauts, played by Sandra Bullock, tumbling away from Earth, totally out of control, into the black. The audience collectively sucked in its breath. We all know that we’re going to die alone, but many of us will at least have the comfort of dying in a familiar place. For as much as we’ve done to tame it, to make it a place in which we can live, space will never be safe for us. We’ll always have to armor ourselves against the lacks -- of heat, of pressure, of air -- and if the layers of fiberglass and plastic and gold fail us, then we’ll suffer the ultimate exile. We’ll never come home.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at email@example.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.