Space may look serene and peaceful from down here on Earth, but it is an incredibly hostile environment for humans.
From sudden depressurization to radiation exposure, there are many dangers that astronauts face when venturing into the final frontier.
This article explores 10 fascinating yet terrifying ways you could die in space.
1. Suffocation Due to Lack of Oxygen
One of the most common ways you could die in space is the lack of breathable air. Astronauts rely entirely on their spacesuits and spacecraft to provide oxygen. If those systems fail, it only takes about 15 seconds without air for someone to lose consciousness. Death follows shortly after once the brain is starved of oxygen.
This nearly happened to the crew of Apollo 13 when an oxygen tank exploded, crippling their service module. Through quick thinking and ingenuity, the astronauts managed to adapt spare scrubbers in the lunar module to keep themselves alive until they could return to Earth. Future space travelers may not be so lucky next time a disaster strikes.
2. Freezing to Death in the Extreme Temperatures of Space
Most people know that space is cold, but few realize just how frigid it really is. The freezing temperatures in space is one of the many ways you could die in space. In the shade, surface temperatures can dip below -150°C. That’s cold enough to freeze the air in your lungs if exposed.
Spacecraft and suits provide some insulation from the icy vacuum, but failures have happened. In one chilling example, a small tear in astronaut Luca Parmitano’s suit caused water to leak in during a spacewalk. The water started to freeze on his head before he could scramble back to the airlock. Situations like this show how quickly the extreme cold can become deadly.
As space travel becomes more common, we’ll need better technology to protect against freezing. Until then, it’s just one more hazard waiting for the unprepared in the infinite expanse.
3. Burning Up in the Atmosphere Upon Re-Entry
Space may be cold, but the friction of re-entering the atmosphere can heat a spacecraft to over 1,600°C, making it one of the many ways you could die in space. At that temperature, advanced materials like titanium and carbon-carbon composites begin to melt and burn away.
Early capsules like Mercury and Gemini were designed to handle re-entry heat. But larger vehicles like the Space Shuttle required special ceramic tiles and blankets to protect the craft and crew. Even so, damage to these surfaces contributed to the tragic losses of both the Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.
As private companies start launching more reusable rockets, we’ll need to master the intense heating of re-entry. New ultra-high temperature materials and active cooling techniques are being developed. With them, we can safely return from space without burning up in the atmosphere.
4. Explosive Decompression Blowing Out Your Lungs
The vacuum of space is an inhospitable environment for the human body. Without pressure, gases dissolved in your blood and tissues rapidly bubble and expand. This can literally cause your lungs to burst, along with damage to other internal organs. Decompression is one of the common ways you could die in space, or underwater.
NASA and other space agencies take care to slowly decompress astronauts before spacewalks. However, an unexpected breach in a spacecraft or suit can still cause explosive decompression. Several Soyuz 11 cosmonauts tragically died after a valve accidentally opened during re-entry.
Future space settlers will need to exercise caution when transitioning between pressurized habitats and the vacuum outside. Failing to decompress safely could result in embolisms, hypoxia, and other life-threatening conditions. But with proper precautions, we can avoid the risk of our lungs exploding in the void.
5. Asphyxiation from Gases Dissolved in Your Body Fluids
Another danger of the vacuum of space is asphyxiation. The lack of pressure causes gases dissolved in your body fluids to come out of the solution and form bubbles.
Oxygen normally dissolved in your bloodstream starts to bubble, robbing your brain and body tissues of oxygen. This can lead to hypoxia, loss of consciousness, and death within minutes.
In addition, bubbles can block blood vessels and interrupt blood flow, damaging tissues. Bubbles in joint fluids can cause intense pain, known as “the bends.”
Astronauts pre-breathe pure oxygen before spacewalks to purge nitrogen from their blood and prevent decompression sickness. But accidental, rapid decompression can still be fatal. Advanced space suits may one day administer oxygen during decompression to reduce risks.
With proper precautions, future space settlers can manage dissolved gases and safely transition between pressurized environments. However, overlooking this hazard could quickly turn a simple EVA into a tragedy.
6. Cosmic Radiation Causing DNA Damage
One invisible threat in space is ionizing radiation from cosmic rays and solar flares. Without the protection of Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, space travelers are exposed to higher levels of radiation.
Prolonged exposure can damage DNA and increase cancer risk. Radiation can also damage neurons in the brain, impairing cognitive function. There are some shielding techniques, but they add mass and are not 100% effective.
Mars astronauts could receive over 10 times the radiation dose of people on Earth annually. This may increase their lifetime cancer risk by a few percent. The effect is cumulative, so long missions like Mars colonization pose greater risks.
Research is underway on drugs and gene therapy to help repair DNA damage from radiation. But for now, radiation exposure will be a hazard space settlers must accept. Careful monitoring and risk mitigation will be necessary.
The human body evolved on a planet with a protective atmosphere. But with innovation and caution, we can adapt to the cosmic dangers of venturing into deep space.
7. Exposure to High Energy Photons
In addition to cosmic radiation, space travelers are vulnerable to high-energy photons like gamma rays and X-rays. These extremely energetic waves of light can damage human cells and DNA.
On Earth, our atmosphere absorbs much of this radiation. But in space, astronauts and equipment are exposed. Solar flares and cosmic sources like pulsars and black holes emit bursts of high-energy photons.
Prolonged exposure increases the risk of cancer and other diseases. Shielding from photons requires thick, dense materials that add weight. A balance must be struck between protection and practicality.
Astronauts on the ISS receive over 10 times more radiation than on Earth annually. Missions beyond low Earth orbit expose travelers to even higher levels with less protection.
Researchers are exploring various shielding techniques and drugs to mitigate radiation damage. But for the foreseeable future, the danger of energetic photons remains an unavoidable peril in space.
With care and ingenuity, humanity can manage the risks. But venturing beyond our planet comes with hazards our bodies did not evolve to handle.
8. Ebullism Making Your Body Swell
One of the stranger ways to die in the harsh void is from ebullism. This occurs when the pressure drops so low that liquids in the body start to vaporize.
On Earth, the atmosphere presses down on us with 14.7 psi of force. In space, there is almost no pressure. The liquids in the body come to a boil in this vacuum.
Without a pressurized suit, the water in the soft tissues and blood will begin to evaporate. Bubbles can form in the blood and block vessels, while tissues swell as they fill with water vapor.
Effects start within 10 seconds as water vapor accumulates under the skin. Tissues swell grotesquely—up to twice normal size. The swollen skin is easily bruised and tender.
As fluids boil, the body struggles to function. Water vapor accumulates in the lungs as well. Death follows within minutes from circulatory arrest, lung damage, or embolisms.
Fortunately, pressurized suits prevent ebullism. But a puncture or other failure would quickly expose an astronaut to this gruesome fate.
Like a fish out of water, humans cannot survive the harsh vacuum of space unaided. Our fragile bodies require continual protection to avoid the many perils beyond Earth’s nurturing atmosphere.
9. Lack of Air Pressure Causing Hypoxia
Another danger of space is the lack of oxygen. Without air pressure, oxygen cannot be dissolved in the bloodstream.
On Earth, the atmosphere’s pressure forces oxygen into the fluids of the body and allows us to breathe. But in the vacuum of space, there is no external pressure to push oxygen into the lungs and blood.
Any air in the lungs would rapidly escape. Even just 10 seconds of exposure cuts off oxygen to the brain as air is pulled from the lungs.
Without oxygen, the brain suffers hypoxia—deprivation of oxygen. Mental functions are impaired in seconds. Loss of consciousness follows within a minute at most. The death, making hypoxia one of the many ways you could die in space.
Permanent brain damage arises after 3 minutes without oxygen. Death follows soon after without a pressurized oxygen supply.
Astronauts wear pressurized suits with oxygen to avoid this hypoxic fate. Spacesuits provide the pressure required to breathe in space’s airless void.
Like fish out of water, humans cannot extract oxygen from the vacuum. We rely on Earth’s atmosphere to supply this vital gas. Beyond our planet, we must carry our own artificial atmosphere to survive.
10. Sunburn and Cancer from Solar Radiation
Outside of Earth’s protective atmosphere and magnetic field, space is filled with intense radiation from the Sun and cosmic sources.
The most common hazards are solar ultraviolet radiation and cosmic radiation from supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes.
In minutes, the Sun’s UV rays would inflict severe sunburns on any exposed skin. The radiation penetrating deeper can destroy DNA leading to cancer.
The acute effects of radiation exposure depend on the radiation dose. Mild symptoms like nausea and vomiting occur after 1 day of exposure. Higher doses can damage the central nervous system leading to disorientation, convulsions, and loss of consciousness which is one of the ways you could die in space.
Doses above 5 grays are usually fatal as cells are destroyed faster than they can regenerate. Death occurs within days or weeks. The median lethal dose for humans is about 4 grays.
Astronauts are at risk during spacewalks or from solar flares. The Earth’s magnetic field shields us on the ground. In space, there is no protection without adequate shielding material.
The dangers of space radiation demonstrate the fine balance needed to sustain human life. Our planet provides the perfect conditions – deviate even slightly and our bodies cease to function.
How Does Death in Space Work?
You would lose consciousness within 15 seconds due to a lack of oxygen. After about 90 seconds, you would be dead from asphyxiation and exposure. The exact causes of death would depend on whether you are wearing a spacesuit and how long you are exposed.
Do You Freeze or Burn in Space?
You would experience both freezing and burning. Without protection, the lack of pressure causes bodily fluids to boil, while heat is rapidly lost through radiation. So you may freeze on the inside while burning on the outside.
What Does Space Smell Like?
Space has no smell since there are no molecules to transmit an odor. Astronauts report smells inside a spacesuit, like burned metal, which come from the equipment and environment inside the suit.
There are many fascinating and gruesome ways you could die in space due to the extreme conditions. Key dangers include lack of oxygen, exposure to radiation, pressure changes, and temperature extremes. With proper equipment and precautions, the inhospitable environment of space can survive. But accidents do happen, and space remains a potentially lethal environment for the human body.