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What If You Float Away Into Space Forever?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
While most of us have daydreamed about being an astronaut, the thought of being lost in space is nightmare number one! What would happen if you became separated from your crew and the safety of you space station or ship? How would your body react? And how much time would you have? Not a lot!

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What Happens If You Float Away in Space?

We’re all well aware that space is more than a little uninhabitable. For one thing, it’s extremely cold – with temperatures generally hovering around minus 270 degrees Celsius, or minus 454 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s also very little breathable oxygen once you’re beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. And then there’s the fact that space is a near-perfect, pressure-free vacuum. The fear factor is mounting up.

So, what would happen if you were unfortunate enough to be cast out into this freezing, non-breathable, endlessly empty void? In a practical sense, it largely depends on what you’re wearing at the time, and how long you’re out there for.

For anyone who has ever wanted to be an astronaut, a spacewalk sounds like one of the most exhilarating things a human being could possibly do. But ambling through the Great Beyond also poses the very real danger of floating off into oblivion. Naturally, NASA has considered this very possibility. Basic (and pretty obvious) NASA guidelines require spacewalking astronauts to be tethered to their ship or station, so if they happened to slip the tether would catch and lessen the danger. Hopefully. But let’s say a freak accident – as per the movies – did occur, and the tether snapped. What then?

Initially, you may simply float away like a statue, watching helplessly as the safety of your space station recedes slowly from your sight. You could also begin to spin, ensuring that you’re dealt a nice dose of disorientating nausea alongside your ever-growing existential crisis. But NASA does have a back-up plan at this point. All astronauts are required to wear something called SAFER, or Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue. It’s essentially a special type of jetpack that allows you to re-orientate yourself and fly back to safety as soon as possible.

But let’s say the jetpack is all out of fuel. That’s when you find yourself in big trouble. In fact, NASA has no contingency plan to protect astronauts who, for whatever reason, are unable to find their way back. Basically, if your SAFER jetpack fails, you’re on your own. All spacesuits can carry around six to eight hours’ worth of breathable air, and a little bit of drinking water. So, one scenario sees you float through space for a short while, quietly sipping insufficient fluids and accepting your fate, while enjoying the magnificent sights of humanity’s final – and in your case fatal – frontier. If you happened to be close to Earth when your accident occurs, you could well be sucked back into your home planet’s atmosphere. Which sounds a stroke of luck, until you realise you’d be burnt to a crisp upon re-entry.

But let’s say you aren’t even lucky enough to have that smidge of a saviour, your spacesuit. Let’s say you’re enjoying a much-needed nap on the ISS when a freak accident occurs and jettisons you off into space – in just your PJs. The first thing you should do is expel all of the air from your lungs as quickly as you possibly can. Otherwise, the vacuum of space will literally suck it from your body, resulting in a ruthless case of ruptured lung. And you don’t want that.

Thankfully, hypothetical you knew this in advance, and you expelled your air ASAP. Unfortunately, you can’t do anything to protect yourself against the ebullism that follows – when gas bubbles form in your bodily fluids. Contrary to popular belief, this won’t quite result in you instantly exploding or your blood instantly boiling. But, it won’t feel particularly pleasant, either. For one thing, the moisture on your tongue and eyeballs would start to vaporize. The slither of nitrogen in your bloodstream would also begin to bubble, and ultimately you’d inflate to about twice your usual size.

Despite the unforgiving temperatures mentioned earlier, you also wouldn’t instantaneously ‘freeze to death’. Humans give off around 100 watts of radiating heat, and because heat travels differently in space with little conduction and convection, the cold isn’t actually the first thing that would kill you – regardless of what Hollywood says. Although your body would speedily solidify once you had breathed your last.

Before all the brain-boggling cold, ebullism or possible panic-induced heart attacks, the lack of air is what will end you. You’ve either somewhat cleverly emptied your lungs or you’ve had the air violently ripped from your body, but both scenarios leave you unable to inhale more. So, lack of oxygen in the blood leads to lack of oxygen in the brain, which will shut your body down as a last-ditch defense mechanism. But, you’d pass out after around 15 seconds, so at least it’d be over quickly.

But what if there’s an incredibly unlikely turn of events wherein a fellow astronaut somehow manages to save you, and reels you back to safety? If you’re rescued within a minute or two, you might survive. But only just, and you wouldn’t feel a million bucks. You’d be an increased size through ebullism; You’d have suffered both flash-frozen and horribly sunburnt skin due to the pure, unfiltered radiation of space; And that radiation will have also likely damaged your DNA so severely, that eventual mutations and cancers are triggered. Then there’s the unprecedented impact that the ordeal will’ve had on your brain, meaning that you might never wake to tell your truly terrifying story.

That said, you would undoubtedly die if your unprotected body was exposed to outer space for more than two minutes. For the reasons we’ve listed, most wouldn’t even last that long. But, what of your lifeless body?

Your corpse spends the first few hours slowly freezing solid, so that you’d appear, to a probably pretty petrified onlooker, as some kind of floating figurine – likely with an intense expression of dread permanently etched onto your face. Once frozen, the possibilities are endless. You could well be drawn in by the gravitational pull of another planet, star or black hole – after which, your fate is shaped by whatever atmospheric changes they inflict upon you. Most likely though, you’d burn, disintegrate or in some way disappear.

Until then, your body might decompose in space, but very slowly. It’s more likely that your Earthly form would remain untouched for possibly millions of years, floating through the loneliest of landscapes. So, unless your eerily preserved remains are sucked in by some kind of space-based object, they’d indefinitely exist as the ultimate in Earthly artefacts – ready to be discovered by some kind of alien race, as a frozen bygone of another era and planet. So, your body could become a pretty prestigious clump of matter, which is nice.

Altogether, if you accidentally float off into space there are a few options for you. You either live out your last few hours within the relative comfort of a spacesuit, all the while knowing that your oxygen is running out. Or, you take off your helmet, and fast track the inevitable. Or, if you’re caught short and without a spacesuit, you pass out within a few seconds, and hope someone can save you sharpish. Or, and most probably, you perish very quickly, leaving your body to float through the unknowable reaches of space, a ghostly monument to life on Earth. Which would you rather?

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