Ways that Space Can Try to Kill You Especially on Long Distance Journeys

AdminCadet:  I really like the article I’m posting below. It goes into details about why flying in space is dangerous and how it can be deadly. I think its a really good article:


It was published by science.howstuffworks.com – looks like they did their homework.


Some additional observations on my part:

First please note that not everything in the article is covered by my level of expertise.  I was a Shuttle engineer but did work on a moon lander and moon rover study plus some other projects (after Shuttle was cancelled) which touched on some of the bio issues the article addresses. But I am no means an expert on these issues.  I’m more of mechanisms kind of engineer.

I of course knew about the radiation issues and concerns with micro-debris from my Shuttle days. The article didn’t mention the latest rather “interesting” idea being bandied around in space exploration circles (SpaceX has even mentioned it) of sending older men and women (who are past “reproductive age”) on any long multi-month space trips we may attempt.  My understanding is older folk may have a leg up because studies show they can handle the radiation a bit better (plus they have a shorter life span ahead of them so statistics are in their favor of having less chances of getting cancer – sad but true). Also it would take a lot of mass to protect against radiation – actually I heard water or a liquid barrier around a vehicle would be more effective than a metal barrier.  But my understanding is it would take a lot of liquid to do this. And space radiation comes from all directions, so the protection would need to be around the total living area.  “Up mass” is always the Achilles heel of any launch system.  Studies are continuing on this important issue.

Also protection against micro debris again involves installing a barrier between space and the crew and sensitive hardware.  Some suggestions have been perhaps using some type of material that can absorb impact energy instead of just acting as a shield.  Again, this design issue would have to be addressed, and balancing “up mass” versus the odds of being impacted would have to be weighed by the vehicle designers and project management.  I can tell you the Shuttle windows and other structure did indeed see debris strikes during each relative “short” mission (days instead of multi-months), and Station has had its fair share of impacts as you can imagine during its long stay in Earth’s orbit – some quite close to delicate and vital hardware.  One fact greatly in our favor is as you get farther from Earth’s orbit, the debris that humankind has personally introduced into space gets farther and farther behind you.  But this doesn’t eliminate the threat, just makes it smaller.  There’s still a lot of small pieces of rock whizzing around out there.

I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard (or didn’t recall hearing ) about the fatal accident the three cosmonauts suffered in 1971 from vacuum exposure prior to re-entry. Terrible. I was interested to hear that a human body (at least as shown thru canine tests (which seems rather cruel but then I love dogs)) can suffer the terrible effects of vacuum exposure but can pretty much recover if the exposure is kept under 90 seconds. If that’s true maybe that stupid scene near the end of the original “Total Recall” movie where Arnold and his girlfriend are thrown out onto the surface of Mars without suits but lived to tell the tale wasn’t so stupid after all (I still think its stupid that they were able to get up afterwards with no apparent soreness or disability or even a headache!).  Also, the recent great “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie with its scene with Star Lord rescuing Gamora in space maybe could be possible too.  Who knows…  But I am traveling into geek-dom here [yes – once a geek, always a geek]…  Let’s get back to the article.

I appreciate the article mentioning the concerns about dust getting into suits and vehicle hardware. I remember hearing the Apollo astronaut suits had a lot of trouble with this issue.  This is on the money and is a definite concern for lunar and Mars missions, especially for long duration stays.

One thing I noticed missing was the concern with solar flare radiation.  As many know the Apollo lander had little to no protection against the intense radiation of a solar flare.   This was primarily to limit Moon down and up mass, I assume.  It would have been bad news if a crew had been hit by a flare while they were still on the Moon. Again, solar radiation shielding means mass.  So for long distance trips perhaps a shielded “safe room” or barrier directed toward the sun would be needed for the crew to get in or behind if a flare would occur.  At least its uni-directionally and not omni-directional like space radiation.  And at least the crew should have warning and time to respond. Again this is an up-mass and vehicle design issue to be tackled by any long distance vehicles that may be built.

In conclusion:  All in all, I think article explains very well why going to places like Mars and other far away destinations is going to be hard.  And also why building hardware and practicing through missions to our nearest neighbor, the Moon, at least in the beginning (with potentially longer and longer stays) will be of major benefit for any Mars mission.   But of course it will not give us all the info we need since there still will be lunar gravity to deal with during long stays – which is why micro-gravity testing on Station is so important.  But it would be an excellent way to begin and learn in preparation to any trips to our far away neighbors.

Big kudos to the writer of the article.

Article / Art Credit: science.howstuffworks.com – author: Patrick J. Kiger  – 2014

UPDATE:  A friend of mine who works suit testing and test design sent me the following 3 minute video currently on YouTube about a NASA spacesuit test that had a failure with the pressure line during vacuum testing in the mid 1960’s and exposed the test subject to approximately a minute of full vacuum.  My friend pointed out to me that in these conditions, the human passes out within just a few seconds (this information is re-inforced in the video).  [So I’m back to saying the “Total Recall” scene was just plain wrong!  Haha!  The Guardians scene was more realistic, I guess, since Star Lord and Gamora passed out.]  Anyway, enjoy the video called “Space Suit Testing” and uploaded by “NaOHKDBO” on June 2, 2010.  A side note: The statement at the end of the video that, to date, no American astronaut has ever perished due to vacuum exposure (thank goodness) does not obviously take into account the three Russian Cosmonauts who died in 1971.

Video Credits: Author NaOHKDBO – YouTube – NASA, June 2, 2010 [Reference testing: Mid 1960’s]… This video can also be found at http://www.spaceanswers.com/space-exploration/incredible-footage-of-a-nasa-test-subject-being-exposed-to-a-space-like-vacuum/ published on November 13, 2013.


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