Shortly, governments and companies will face the dilemma of death beyond Earth.
Those of us who witnessed the commercial space flights of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson at Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, respectively, lived long enough to witness what had been talked about for several decades: one day it would be possible to travel into space as civilians... paying millions of dollars, of course. And space tourism has raised certain questions like this: What happens if a tourist dies in space?
So far, it hasn’t happened, but if commercial space travel continues with the same regularity, it’s almost certain that at some point companies will run into that problem. It used to be that astronauts underwent specialized training and extensive medical tests for years before they could go into space. Now celebrities and civilians, with little or no training, can do so as well.
If before the risk of death on a space mission was remote... now it is beginning to sound like something that is almost definitely going to happen.
According to Space.com, it all depends on the cause of death. If someone does die on commercial space travel, determining the reason the person died is the first step. International space laws stipulate that each country is responsible for authorizing and overseeing national space activities, whether government or private. In the United States, for example, commercial spaceflight requires a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to take place.
If a person dies on a commercial space flight because of a mechanical failure of the aircraft, the FAA would have to conduct an investigation and suspend future flights of the responsible company. But if mechanical failure is ruled out as the cause of death, then the overall safety measures the provider gives to its tourists would have to be investigated, in addition to determining whether the company actually did everything possible to prevent the person’s death.
What happens to the body?
One consideration companies should take into account, according to Space.com, is the handling of the body. If it is a short mission, it is likely to be returned to Earth, with all measures in place to prevent the crew from coming into contact with possible forms of contamination. If it is a trip to Mars, for example, it is likely that before returning the body to our planet it will have to be frozen to facilitate its transfer.
However, if we start making longer and further journeys, the possibility of storing the body until it is returned to Earth becomes more complicated: here the option would involve disposing of the corpse. This brings with it different considerations, ranging from avoiding contributing to the vast amounts of space debris already floating around our planet to the chilling possibility of lifeless human bodies floating adrift.
Could the corpses be buried on other planets? That’s another problem, as a human body could biologically contaminate that planet. The same with cremation: it is a polluting process that would also consume a large number of resources in space.
So far, the problem of people dying in space is only a conversation we are having hypothetically. However, technological advances will almost certainly lead us to create legislation and procedures for dealing with death beyond Earth, and we had better be prepared.
Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva