Death in the Cosmos: What Happens When Someone Dies in Space?

A composite image of an untethered astronaut in rear view, isolated and drifting off into deep space above the earth. 

The advent of commercial spaceflight has ushered in a new era of space tourism, providing exclusive opportunities for celebrities and civilians to experience the wonders of space. Unlike traditional astronauts who undergo rigorous training and medical scrutiny, these space tourists may have limited pre-flight preparation and medical screening. As the number of people traveling to space increases and the prospect of establishing human bases on the Moon and beyond becomes a reality, a pertinent and complex question arises: What happens if someone dies in space? This article explores the legal, moral, and practical issues surrounding death in space and highlights the importance of preparing for this uncomfortable yet inevitable reality.

Challenges of Death in Space

There are a number of challenges to dealing with death in space, including:

  • Lack of gravity: On Earth, gravity pulls our bodies down, so when we die, our bodies fall to the ground. But in space, there is no gravity, so a body would simply float away.
  • Extreme cold: The average temperature in space is about -270 degrees Celsius, which is much colder than any freezer on Earth. This cold would quickly freeze a body solid.
  • Radiation: Space is full of radiation from the sun and other stars. This radiation can damage DNA and cause cancer, so it is important to protect astronauts from it. But if an astronaut dies in space, their body would be exposed to this radiation without any protection.

What Happens to a Body in Space?

What happens to a body that dies in space depends on the circumstances. If the body is inside a spacecraft, it will likely stay there until the spacecraft returns to Earth. If the body is outside a spacecraft, it will float away and eventually freeze solid. The radiation from space will eventually destroy the body, but this could take millions of years.

Cases of Death in Space

There have been a few cases of people dying in space. In 1971, three Soviet cosmonauts died when their spacecraft lost pressure. In 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members. And in 2003, the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated on re-entry, killing all seven crew members.

In each of these cases, the bodies of the astronauts were returned to Earth for burial. But if an astronaut dies on a mission to Mars or another distant planet, it is unlikely that their body will be returned to Earth. In this case, the body would likely be buried on the planet where they died.

Ethical Considerations

There are a number of ethical considerations surrounding death in space. For example, who decides what happens to the body of an astronaut who dies on a mission? Is it the astronaut’s family, the space agency, or someone else?

There are also religious and cultural considerations to take into account. For example, some religions require that bodies be buried in a certain way. How would these requirements be met for a body that dies in space?

Legal and Regulatory Considerations:

International space law dictates that individual countries are responsible for authorizing and supervising all national space activities, whether governmental or private. In the United States, commercial tourist spaceflights necessitate a launch license issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In the unfortunate event of a death during a commercial tourist mission, the FAA would conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of death. If the fatality is attributed to mechanical failure, the FAA might suspend further launches by the company until a comprehensive investigation is concluded.

Duty of Care and Long-Duration Missions:

Presently, the duration of tourist missions is relatively short, reducing the risk of deaths from natural causes. However, as humanity ventures on longer missions, such as trips to Mars, the possibility of deaths in space becomes more pertinent and complex. It will be crucial to establish a robust investigative process to determine the cause of death and ensure that lessons are learned and improvements are made. Space-faring nations must come to agreements on the jurisdiction and procedures for dealing with deaths in space to ensure a unified and coherent response.

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International Cooperation for Long-Term Settlements:

The prospects of human settlements on celestial bodies raise additional considerations. Planning for long-term space settlements will require addressing the eventuality of death and developing protocols for coping with such situations. International cooperation will play a pivotal role in establishing frameworks for managing and responding to deaths within these settlements. Agreeing on common procedures for investigations, preserving remains, and providing support to the affected individuals and families will be essential for the success of humanity’s spacefaring endeavors.

Practical Considerations for Human Remains:

On shorter missions, returning the body to Earth would be the most feasible option. However, on longer missions, preserving the body in a specialized chamber or utilizing advanced preservation techniques might be necessary. The disposal of human remains on a celestial body presents complex ethical challenges, including concerns about contamination and cultural differences in how the dead are treated. Technical solutions for storage and disposal will likely be developed over time, but international cooperation and agreements will be vital in managing these sensitive issues.

Coping with Loss and Psychological Support:

Dealing with death in space goes beyond merely handling the remains; it involves supporting the crew members who may experience the loss firsthand and helping grieving families back on Earth. The isolation and confined living conditions of long-duration space missions can exacerbate the emotional impact of such events. Developing protocols to assist crew members emotionally and psychologically will be crucial for the mental well-being and success of these missions.


As space exploration continues to advance, the possibility of deaths in space becomes a reality that we must confront. What happens when someone dies in space raises complex questions regarding the legal, ethical, and practical aspects of handling such incidents. This challenge will require careful planning, international collaboration, and sensitivity to cultural and individual differences. By addressing these uncomfortable topics proactively, humanity can ensure that as we venture further into the cosmos, we are prepared to navigate the challenges and responsibilities that come with being a space-faring species. Embracing these considerations will shape a future where space travel not only advances scientific knowledge but also reflects the humanity and compassion that defines us as a species.


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