German military officers ushering an alien out of a Bavarian forest-from a 1990's UFO magazine.

German military officers ushering an alien out of a Bavarian forest-from a 1990’s UFO magazine.

Last week Elon Musk grabbed more headlines with his comments about sending colonists to space and the inevitability of deaths among the pioneers to the planet.

This triggered several responses in this week’s issue of The Economist. In their opening editorial they opine that Musk –and others-are setting their sights on the red planet for all the wrong reasons.  While acknowledging that humans have this need to explore, The Economist cautions against putting energy into voyages to Mars for what they deem -the wrong reasons-fear of mass extinction of humans on earth.

They call out stories by H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds) Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clark for their scare mongering stories about the destruction of human society.

Even scientists take a hit. Stephen Hawking’s suggestion that without human migration to surrounding space we face extinction from nuclear war, AI gone awry or a supervirus  is called “claptrap.”

Martian surface

Martian surface


While acknowledging the dream for travel to Mars is “stirring,” they take issue with the motivation Musk and others addressing colonization on Mars are using to promote their plans for the planet.  In The Economist’s opinion too much fear is behind the motivation for trips to Mars.

While the magazine agrees a natural or artificially designed pandemic, nuclear war or climate change could kill billions, extinction from these events is labeled “unprecedented.”

Even  an asteroid event like that which killed off dinosaurs isn’t as alarming as it might have been in the past due to the fact we catalog their movements  and none offer any danger in the foreseeable future.

In their opinion the only real concern for the preservation of human life here worth worrying about is long run-a billion years from now when earth isn’t inhabitable according to the timeline suggested by science.

In the end The Economist believes in the dream of Mars but not one based on the fear of death which they believe is prime motivating force behind present motivations to go there.

Fine. But in away The Economist sentiment is just splitting hairs. It looks like humans are going to Mars for whatever reasons.  Death is part of life so it’s only right Musk talks about the inevitability of death among colonists to Mars.  It’s yet another way of making the future trips real.  Death on the planet is going to happen. And most likely there will be both burials and some option around cremation.

And so in this same vein we might ask, what about death in space- far from a planet or space station?  What happens if a crew member dies while on a protracted voyage to Mars or other nearby planet?

While working on a screenplay a few weeks ago I had to research this scenario: someone dies on board a space craft months from earth-traveling to Mars.

What do you do with the corpse? Do you take a burial-at-sea-approach?  Shoot the body into space?

I was surprised to find out that there doesn’t seem to be an official policy about handling a death in space.

For one thing there are UN Treaties about littering in space that our country has signed. Many argue that under these treaties no one is allowed to eject dead voyagers into space.

The only other solution with any weight that came up involved several steps for dealing with a dead body.

The basic approach involves taking it and securing the body to the outside of the space craft where it will be subjected to the extreme cold of deep space.

There it would ride until the craft  began the re-entry phase of its journey-to land.

In order to avoid its destruction, the body would have to be brought back into the space craft.  Of course this sets up a potentially unnerving situation where the colonists have to deal with the dead person’s body again. Effects on morale can’t be discounted.

Furthermore taking a body frozen in this manner back into the temperature of the space craft means the body will just break apart-having become so brittle from freezing in this manner-that the change in temperature will cause it to shatter.

To counter the latter affect there’s a least one company that’s working on an approach that from what I can understand involves immediately placing a body treated in this manner-into a machine that essentially reduces it in a uniform manner-to a fine power or dust. But it’s still in an experimental phase.

So again there’s no specific policy yet dealing with a death …in space.

This may be one of those situations that only the episode itself will help to clarify what the approach will be.

As far as the fear of species death and the drive to colonize other orbs in space goes, when hasn’t human exploration had an element of fear of survival involved in its activities?

The more important question may be about what is accomplished in its wake.

Dean Balsamo

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