People Don’t Explode in Space

February 11, 2011 at 12:42 am 5 comments

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.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons (gnu)

Sources: NASA, WP An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, WP Robert Boyle

Entry filed under: Despite Popular Belief. Tags: , , , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Terry D. Johnson and Faiziyyah, said: People Don’t Explode in Space #Secrets […]

  • 2. Elbyron  |  February 11, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Also, your blood will not boil unless your blood pressure drops very low (you would be in extreme shock). If you were ejected from an airlock without a spacesuit, you would also get quite a bad sunburn since the UV rays are very strong beyond Earth’s protective atmosphere.
    An interesting related story is of Joe Kittinger, who during his ascent to 102,800 ft (19.5 miles) in an open gondola, lost pressurization of his right hand. He decided to continue the mission, and the hand became painful and useless as you would expect. However, once back to lower altitudes following his record-breaking parachute jump, the hand returned to normal.

  • 3. David Cain  |  February 12, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Ah, what a relief. All this time I’ve been so afraid of entering vacuums without a spacesuit, and for no good reason!

  • 4. Richard Head  |  February 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I always explode inside a vacuum

  • 5. MySecrets  |  February 19, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    Woow, really? I thinkg they did a show on Mythbusters about pressure under water, maybe they can do one about this exploding one.


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