In Deep Space Do People Explode?


Space Death

Conflict is key in greats works of art. In high school literature, teachers instruct classes in the big recurring patterns: man vs. man, man vs. society, and man vs. nature.  Science Fiction delights in getting maximum light years out of all three conventions. In the face of the unknown, what else is man to do, if not struggle? In particular, science fiction films exploit our struggles in  of outer space for maximum thematic and visual impact through. As a theme, it is the unknown made real, the vast never ending expanse of starry blackness. There is romance found in its enormity. In swashbuckling utopian franchises like “Star Trek”, space is the grand adventure, dangerous, but there for the taking. Humanity’s very own tree of knowledge. Its fruit unfolded and stretched into the infinite. Other works tend to play up the risk and danger of exposure. People explode in deep space. Eyes burst. Occasionally, nothing happens at all. They just float away to their death. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is the latest film to depict death by exposure and takes limited artistic license in the process. (Spoiler warning: moments of the film will be discussed.)

The most common fallacy is the body will simply explode in outer space. “Gravity” avoids this mistake. From a visual standpoint explosive decompression makes for wonderful dramatic shorthand; however, it’s not scientifically plausible. Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait explains what would happen if  a space suit were to rupture. First, all air would rush out of the suit. Second, the decompression would send the body into the bends, much like when a deep sea diver emerges from the ocean too quickly. Third, since blood travels through the air- tight circulatory system, there is no air within the circulatory system to expand in the first place. However, air in the body would be expelled through the mouth and anus.  (Yes, in the vastness of space, in what will be your last chance to say something profound, even if only you know what it is, you’re going to fart. You’re going to let loose a great big fart.) Finally, with no air to breath suffocation is imminent.

Instead of going for the gore, Cuaron depicts the deaths of the shuttle crew through impalement, that or they become human popsicles. Space junk and micrometeoroids are real threats to astronauts whether or not they are wearing suits. Any object launched into space will orbit around the earth for millennia. Much of the destruction witnessed in “Gravity” has now, in the context of the film at least, become a permanent fixture of the Earth’s orbit. Any collision with the objects will create a domino effect of more space debris careening through earth’s orbit creating more explosions and so on and so forth. This explains why space junk seems to follow Sandra Bullock around like a flock of angry hawks. It’s also a clean, rational explanation of the film’s redshirt extra, whose suffers an ugly, if mercifully quick, death.

Space junk is a growing problem for astronauts and space stations. For example, since the early 1960s hundreds of millions of small  antennae orbit earth in dangerous clusters. This is accompanied by the presence of micrometeoroids, which are small bits of space rock and other unknown debris hurtling through space.  These rocks have ability to puncture the outer layers of space stations, so it goes without saying that an exposed human is screwed. Luckily, spacesuits are designed with protection against micrometeoroids. Micrometeoroids usually aren’t a problem though. No one once lasts long enough for them to be a major concern in the first place!

But what about death by freezer burn? Several crew members look like they had a liquid nitrogen bath. This is the one place a hardcore science geek could gripe about the film. Plaitt says while air is being expunged from the body so is moisture. Farting and the worst case of chapped lips ever, why? Normally our operative method of expelling heat is conduction, the process by which heat moves from a warm body to a cold one. In this process, density creates efficiency. There is no air in space, hence no density, so the process of conduction is highly inefficient. In space we’re stuck radiating heat; we lose heat slowly. Instead of freezing in the strictest sense, human beings are likely to freeze-dry. Instead of popsicles, humans would be malty hunks of freeze dried ice cream (also known as astronaut ice-cream).

People may not explode in deep space, but this doesn’t mean their deaths are any less brutal. They’re quick and savage. As a dramatic work, “Gravity” benefits by eschewing bombast in favor of realism. Quite frankly, exploding bodies would have undermined the tension of the film. Now that Gravity is a hit with film goers and critics alike will more science fiction films opt for this path or will they opt for the easy cliche?

Written By David Arroyo

What happens to a human body

The Danger of Space Junk

Micrometeoroids and Space Debris

The Hazards of Space Travel


3 Responses to "In Deep Space Do People Explode?"

  1. David Arroyo   October 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Yeah, you’re right. 2001 approaches space travel with calm detachment, which does beg the question, where did the trend of hyperbolic space deaths begin?

  2. Keith Mosher   October 6, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    The lack of an exploding exposure is not new to film. “Open the pod bay doors, Hal.” Your closing question is answered in your opening thesis. The artist will do as the artist feels necessary to create drama, tension, conflict or excitement. I feel that “Gravity” rests within a select group of science-fiction films, where realism is the primary driver, as opposed to sci-fi movies where action is the key motivator.

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