People Don’t Explode in Space
By Terry D Johnson
Countless science fiction films have exposed their characters to the vacuum of space – often, with explosive results. Outland’s victims of explosive decompression leave behind gory, reddened walls reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting. Perhaps most famously, in Total Recall Arnold Schwarzenegger played an increasingly bug-eyed Quaid when he ventured unprotected onto the airless plains of Mars. Grotesque decompression deaths are a staple of the genre.
These displays of spectacular tissue damage might seem like reasonable speculation, yet we’ve known otherwise for centuries. As early as 1660, the scientist Robert Boyle was exposing animals to vacuum without detonating them. Unconsciousness came quickly to the experimental subjects, but fresh air would quickly revive most subjects if administered before several minutes had passed. Those animals that died of oxygen deprivation did so without painting the walls.
There are several accounts of human beings accidentally exposed to near vacuum. Most dramatically, a test subject at NASA’s Johnson Space Center with a leaky spacesuit experienced a near vacuum. He was unconscious after 14 seconds and remembers feeling the saliva on his tongue beginning to boil, but after the test chamber was repressurized he recovered quickly.
If ever you’re exposed to space for a brief period, don’t try to hold your breath – the pressure difference between your air-filled lungs and the vacuum is likely to cause some damage. Don’t worry about the cold, either – space is chilly, yes, but the lack of air will make the transfer of heat from your body quite slow. There might be some painful swelling, but nothing so dramatic as a messy and very personal explosion.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons (gnu)