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Old 03-24-2020, 05:29 AM
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What do they do if an astronaut dies on the ISS?


I read an article this morning about astronauts on the International Space Station. Don't worry, they're all healthy and (apparently) covid-free. But it got me to wondering, if one of them dies up there, what do they do with the body? Is there always a return capsule on station, ready for an unscheduled return to earth? Or would they have to store the body for weeks/months in the vacuum of space to stave off decomposition until a return capsule is sent up to them?
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Old 03-24-2020, 06:46 AM
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Is there always a return capsule on station, ready for an unscheduled return to earth?
Yes. From NASA:
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The Soyuz is like a lifeboat. At least one Soyuz is always attached to the space station. If there were an emergency on the space station, the crew could use the Soyuz to leave the space station and return to Earth.
(Sorry about the kid-oriented cite.)
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Old 03-24-2020, 08:06 AM
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It'd have to be a sudden death, because if any astronaut developed a significant health problem, they'd send them down right away. If it did still kill them, they'd die in a planetside hospital.

And of course, it'd be very surprising if any of them developed Covid-19, because they're the absolute most quarantined members of the entire species.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:04 AM
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If they do develop COVID-19, we might as well end social distancing.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:05 AM
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They can't just send the body back on a Soyuz though, because the remaining astronauts will be left without a way to get home. Each Soyuz needs to carry home 3 astronauts (dead or alive).

If an astronaut is already dead, I think they would just wait a while. Especially when there are only 3 crew members on the station (like right now) and returning the astronauts would leave the station empty. If an astronaut is seriously sick or injured, of course that would be the highest priority and they would come back immediately.

Last edited by scr4; 03-24-2020 at 09:06 AM.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:06 AM
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If they do develop COVID-19, we might as well end social distancing.
Or increase the distance by a whole lot!
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:15 AM
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Why not just perform a ceremony, then put the body in some kind of morgue capsule that could be jettisoned? Seems like an awesome way to be cremated.

I guess deceleration would be necessary, but wouldn't a tiny retro burn followed by a large drogue chute be adequate? I read that even at the ISS height, there's enough atmospheric drag that they burn 7 tons of fuel a year to maintain height.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:25 AM
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Why not just perform a ceremony, then put the body in some kind of morgue capsule that could be jettisoned? Seems like an awesome way to be cremated.
If there happens to be a cargo capsule there, sure. The SpaceX Dragon capsule is recovered, so they could actually send the body back on one of those, if one is available. The other resupply capsules burn up on reentry, so those would work for the cremation option. I imagine NASA would want to examine the body though.

If there isn't a cargo capsule available, I'm not sure how you could do it. There aren't spare remote-control thrusters lying around on the station, as far as I know. A typical deorbit burn is over 100 mph.

Last edited by scr4; 03-24-2020 at 09:26 AM.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:25 AM
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Why not just perform a ceremony, then put the body in some kind of morgue capsule that could be jettisoned? Seems like an awesome way to be cremated.

I guess deceleration would be necessary, but wouldn't a tiny retro burn followed by a large drogue chute be adequate? I read that even at the ISS height, there's enough atmospheric drag that they burn 7 tons of fuel a year to maintain height.
IIRC russians just threw debris out of the space station in a retro-direction. The idea is it would encounter just a bit more drag and burn up sooner, as well as not be a threat to the station. Plus I guess the station would get a slight boost.

To take down a dead body it could require everyone come down, as there always has to be a way home for everyone up there. Also for a medical emergency it could mean the total evacuation of the station for this reason. Death however does not have that same urgency. And while I'm sure there are guidelines I also suspect it would be time for the great minds on the ground to come up with a solution. Perhaps a 'burial in space' would be the most appropriate aka Star Trek launching Spock's body out a torp tube.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:41 AM
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It would depend in multiple ways on how the astronaut died. If the astronaut died of some sickness, they would probably want a full autopsy, to determine what exactly was the cause of death, if it's likely to have been contagious to the other crew members, etc. On the other hand, if they died of some sort of trauma, then the cause of death would be obvious... but then they'd have to ask if whatever accident caused that trauma would also be a risk to the remaining crew members. That might mean shutting down some of the things they're doing, or it might mean shutting down the whole station and bringing everyone back, depending on what caused the accident.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:46 AM
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related : there was a woman Dr. who got cancer at the south pole in their winter (our summer) and she treated herself and they could not fly her out right away. They flew her out as soon as they could which was earlier than they would normally have flights to the south pole.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:57 AM
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If there happens to be a cargo capsule there, sure.
They could just use a photon torpedo casing.
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Old 03-24-2020, 10:02 AM
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To take down a dead body it could require everyone come down, as there always has to be a way home for everyone up there. Also for a medical emergency it could mean the total evacuation of the station for this reason.
Actually, a crew of 6 is considered standard for the ISS, and the Soyuz seats 3. So only 3 people need to come down. But sometimes there are only 3, e.g. when a replacement crew launch is delayed. I believe that's the current situation, due to delays in the Commercial Crew program.
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Old 03-24-2020, 02:07 PM
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There would be a fight for the deceased's belongings followed by an unusual increase in meat consumption over the coming days and weeks...
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Old 03-24-2020, 02:11 PM
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Gynecology seems like an odd choice of specialty for a doctor at the South Pole.
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Old 03-24-2020, 02:46 PM
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Wouldn't the home country of the deceased astronaut have a say in the disposition of their remains? There are currently two Americans and a Russian on the ISS, but astronauts from a total of 41 countries have been on the space station. Each country may have their own protocol for handling autopsies and their own funeral and burial custom.
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Old 03-24-2020, 04:18 PM
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If they had to keep the body for later autopsy and couldn't return right away, they could put it in the airlock and decompress/open that. That would freeze dry the body and prevent decomposition.
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Old 03-24-2020, 08:58 PM
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There would be a fight for the deceased's belongings...
"He's DEAD, Jim! You grab his wallet; I'll go through his pockets."

Quote:
...followed by an unusual increase in meat consumption over the coming days and weeks...
That avoids a bothersome autopsy and explanations of the traumatic "accident". Blame autoerotic asphyxiation, not unbearable flatulence.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:20 PM
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there was a woman Dr. who
There still is.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:38 PM
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My understanding of the Russian procedure on the Salyut stations was that when the Progress resupply capsules were emptied they were filled with the garbage and left to burn up in the atmosphere.
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Old 03-24-2020, 09:55 PM
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related : there was a woman Dr. who got cancer at the south pole in their winter (our summer) and she treated herself and they could not fly her out right away. They flew her out as soon as they could which was earlier than they would normally have flights to the south pole.
And they said it would have been easier to get her back from outer space.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerri_Nielsen
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Old 03-25-2020, 02:28 AM
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It would depend in multiple ways on how the astronaut died. If the astronaut died of some sickness, they would probably want a full autopsy, to determine what exactly was the cause of death, if it's likely to have been contagious to the other crew members, etc. On the other hand, if they died of some sort of trauma, then the cause of death would be obvious... but then they'd have to ask if whatever accident caused that trauma would also be a risk to the remaining crew members. That might mean shutting down some of the things they're doing, or it might mean shutting down the whole station and bringing everyone back, depending on what caused the accident.
And if it's murder we get a new NCIS series, "NASA Criminal Investigation Service"
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Old 03-25-2020, 02:36 AM
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What an intriguing question! I decided to look it up. And I found the answer: *NASA shrugs* "Dunno!"

There really is no provision for a corpse in space. Since NASA does such thorough physical screenings and astronauts are only on the space station 6 months, they're banking on prevention.

One option that's out: dumping the body in space. There's a UN agreement that bans dumping anything into space because it could hit a satellite or other craft. And something must be done with the body within 24 hours to avoid contamination.

One intriguing proposal comes from Promessa, a green burial company. It's called the Body Back and is a GoreTex zip-up coffin. The body is placed inside, the "coffin" inflates, and then, after a brief funeral, the body is quick-frozen inside the airlock (-270C.), after which a robotic arm shakes it into human dust. Water vapor is evaporated, and the coffin is kept outside until just before re-entry. It folds itself into a neat square package.

The plan is designed for a spacecraft, not the ISS, and how doable this is remains to be seen. So far, though, it's all NASA's got.
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Old 03-25-2020, 08:40 AM
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Anyone who's planning on a robot arm "shaking a body into dust" is seriously overestimating the speed of the robotic arms on the Space Station. If you watch carefully, you can see them moving.
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Old 03-25-2020, 12:30 PM
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Can the ISS "function" without a crew? Can we leave it up there, empty, for weeks or months, without it falling into disrepair?
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Old 03-25-2020, 12:51 PM
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To take down a dead body it could require everyone come down
Re-Entry To Bernie's
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Old 03-25-2020, 02:58 PM
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Anyone who's planning on a robot arm "shaking a body into dust" is seriously overestimating the speed of the robotic arms on the Space Station. If you watch carefully, you can see them moving.
Howard Wolowitz built a robot arm that appears to be capable of more vigorous shaking.
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Old 03-25-2020, 04:23 PM
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Astronaut Chris Hadfield's book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth had portions about death during a space mission. I haven't got the book nearby to find the relevant chapter(s) but I remember reading that it was certainly a possibility that has a plan in place.
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Old 03-25-2020, 08:30 PM
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And if it's murder we get a new NCIS series, "NASA Criminal Investigation Service"
This book convinced me that we will never have interplanetary or -stellar space travel, unless the speed of light can somehow be circumvented. She told a story about a space mission that was cut short; she doesn't say who it was or what the news media was told, but the astronauts were brought back early because Mission Control seriously feared they would kill each other. There was also another one where an astronaut was slated to do a long-term mission, and s/he too had to be brought back early, because in this case s/he was rapidly going insane.

https://www.amazon.com/Packing-Mars-...5186209&sr=8-1
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Old 03-25-2020, 11:14 PM
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This book convinced me that we will never have interplanetary or -stellar space travel, unless the speed of light can somehow be circumvented. She told a story about a space mission that was cut short; she doesn't say who it was or what the news media was told, but the astronauts were brought back early because Mission Control seriously feared they would kill each other. There was also another one where an astronaut was slated to do a long-term mission, and s/he too had to be brought back early, because in this case s/he was rapidly going insane.

https://www.amazon.com/Packing-Mars-...5186209&sr=8-1
Cure: Bigger spacecraft. Large, sexually diverse crews. Adequate drugs. A holodeck.
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Old 03-26-2020, 10:24 AM
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Gynecology seems like an odd choice of specialty for a doctor at the South Pole.
Why? Because women aren't supposed to go to the South Pole?
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Old 03-26-2020, 11:02 AM
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Because a doctor stationed at the South Pole is mostly going to be there to deal with emergencies (anything non-emergency will be dealt with by doctors in civilized areas), and gynecology, as a specialty, would not be relevant for most forms of medical emergencies.

Gynecological problems are always with female patients (or at least, patients with female bodies). But most problems with female bodies aren't gynecological.
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