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What a way to go

As a lifelong sci-fi geek, I used to think I’d love to hitch a ride on a ship to space, just for the sheer hell of it. After reading this, ehh, not so much.

Here’s Exactly How You’d Die in the Vacuum of Space
In the depths of interplanetary space, it’s not the unimaginable cold that kills. It’s everything else.

You did it. You annoyed your crewmates enough that they did the unthinkable: they shoved you into the airlock and kicked you out of the space station. No suit. No air. Nothing. Just you and the vacuum of space. If you want to survive this grisly scenario, you’re going to have to act quickly.

First, It’s Going To Be Colder Than You Can Imagine…
But you’re not going to have to worry about freezing to death. Yes, space is generally cold, around 3 Kelvin, due to a bath of radiation soaking the universe known as the cosmic microwave background. However, the human body is rather inefficient at getting rid of heat, especially in the vacuum of space. There are three ways to transfer heat from a warm body to its surroundings: convection, conduction, and radiation. Convection is the movement of a fluid, like warm air rising to higher altitudes. Conduction is the transfer of heat through physical contact, like when you accidentally touch a hot stove. Radiation is just that: emitting electromagnetic radiation.

Without any air or water to surround your body, there’s no way for convection or conduction to transport heat and cool you off. Instead there’s just radiation. A typical human body emits around 100 watts of infrared radiation (about the same amount of energy as an old-school incandescent light bulb). That’s not all that impressive, and it will take several hours to bring your internal body temperature below freezing.

But the coldness and the vacuum of space is going to affect you in other, faster ways. For starters, any oils or moisture on your skin will immediately evaporate in the vacuum, leaving a nasty frostbite behind in their departure. Even though you’ll be surrounded by vacuum, you won’t explode. Your skin is pretty good at keeping your insides on the inside of you, so your blood won’t boil and your eyes won’t bulge out. Instead, you’ll suffer a rare vacuum-induced malady known as ebullism (not to be confused with an embolism, which is a type of blood clot).

Ebullism occurs when the surface of your skin is exposed to vacuum (which it now unfortunately is). The lower pressure on the outside of your body causes the liquids just inside your skin to expand, causing you to swell up. Fortunately we don’t have a lot of experimental evidence that has explored the full effects of ebullism, but in some cases of accidental exposure to vacuum, people have experienced swelling of up to twice their normal size.

That’s not going to be pretty, but it is generally survivable as long as you return to a pressurized environment within a few minutes.

But you’re not going to get a few minutes.

Don’t Hold Your Breath
The moment the atmosphere escapes the airlock, you might be tempted to hold your breath to buy you more time, the same way you would when going underwater. That is an extremely bad idea. The problem is that your squishy bits (particularly your lips, throat, and upper respiratory system) are not designed to hold in a lungful of air against a vacuum. All that air in your lungs will come out, despite your best efforts, and if you try to hold it back it will escape in an especially violent and sudden way, causing irreversible damage on its way out.

Just let the air out; it’s gone.

And so, unfortunately, are YOU. Yeah, not interested, no thanks.

8 thoughts on “What a way to go

  1. Typical <i>PopSci</i>, getting it gloriously wrong and f**king up the details.
    The human body cools at a predictable curve even in temperate zones.
    1.5° per hour – When the ambient temperature is down to 0°F.

    But 3°Kelvin is -454.72°F.

    The fucktards writing at PopSci tried to use a formula that doesn’t work at ambient temps approaching Absolute Zero, and fucked it up, as one expects from these technical ignoramusii.

    The human body reaches freezing (32°F.) in 44.4 hours at an ambient temp of 0°F.
    It’s going to drop to freezing one helluva lot faster than 44.4 hours when the outside temp is a relentless -454.72°F. Like minutes.

    So yeah, you’re going to flash freeze.

    File this under “Duh, fucktards.”

    And all that gas, from lungs, bowels, and tissues, is going to boil to the surface in an absolute vacuum in milliseconds, probably exploding you in the biggest explosion of strawberry jam you can imagine.

    This has happened dozens of times in decompression accidents right on earth with hardhat divers. PopSci could have looked it up.

    PopSci likes to be hip-contrarian, but they’re not smart enough to look up why long-standing information came into being in the first place. Because as a rule, they’re simply not smart.

    Now you know why you also don’t have flying cars and jet packs now, either, and why dirigible aircraft carriers never happened.

    Either way, you won’t care, because you’ll be dead in a few seconds.

    1. I don’t think they are too far off actually. No mass for heat to transfer to does mean the rate of cooling is dependent upon radiation which will be slow enough that you’re not going to freeze before your dead. The air in your lungs will be sucked out immediately, so you only have a few minutes to live for that reason. And then every bit of moisture in your body is attempting to boil off in the near zero vacuum. I don’t how fast that is, but it will produce a cooling as well as the radiation. In any event the comment that the brain will be shutting down very fast seems likely as hell.

      I had never given any thought to the sun keeping a body from freezing in an orbit around earth, but that makes sense.

      I don’t think there very far off here.

      1. You aren’t going to freeze to death, which was never at issue. You’d be dead in seconds long before that happened, and hitting 90° F, long before freezing, would put you in a hypothermic coma, if you lasted that long, which you wouldn’t.
        You also aren’t going to take days to freeze at -450°+ F., which was and is at issue.
        As I said, they tried to apply atmospheric radiation norms to a vacuum approaching absolute zero.
        Which doesn’t work.
        And shows they’re idiots.

        The human body being 2/3rds moisture, the victim is going to be a cold, hard, dry piece of exploded toast in seconds, because all that moisture boiling off will carry much of the body’s heat with it instantly, at a vastly accelerated rate over solely radiation.
        The gas embolisms will be an explosion outward from every part of the body, in the most horrific case of “the bends” ever.
        And the heat as the absorbed gasses boil off literally cooks you in seconds from the inside out.

        The Byford Dolphin Accident: How 5 Deep-Sea Divers Met Grisly Deaths | HowStuffWorks

        What’s left will not be a coherent piece of meat, but a carcass rent open to the vacuum in multiple places from your internal stir fry.
        The Byford incident was going from 9Atm to 1. A space accident will be going from 1Atm to none whatsoever. There’s no equilibrium, everything simply boils out of you.

        If the remaining carcass should manage to float into sunlight, one side might warm up to 250°F., while the other is -250°, depending on its movement.
        Pretty much like the Moon in sunlight vs. shadow, or the opposite sides of the Space Shuttle back in the day, or the ISS now.
        Slow dry-roasted on one side, hard frozen on the other, and freeze-dried throughout, and long-since dead.

        Death by hypoxia and hypothermia were the risks only with Apollo XIII, a rigid non-complaint tank, unlike a spacesuit.

        If the LOX tank explosion had caused a rupture of the crew module, probably of any size larger than a fist, it would have all been over in a fraction of a second, with the astronauts inside sucked out through any hole like a giant Playdoh Fun Factory and flying through space as human spaghetti, and the capsule cartwheeling through space until rejoining the sun. We never would have known what happened.

        Likely everything would simply have winked out.

        Space is not your friend.

        1. Space is not your friend.

          We agree on that 🙂

          As I said, they tried to apply atmospheric radiation norms to a vacuum approaching absolute zero.
          Which doesn’t work.
          And shows they’re idiots.

          I disagree. The best insulation is what? A vacuum*. You can absolutely calculate the radiation values for a vacuum approaching absolute zero.

          The moisture in your body will not boil instantly because the pressure inside your body doesn’t drop instantly. I simply don’t know how to calculate the speed at which it will drop internally. I can do the pressure drop equations just fine, but I have no data on the strength of the human body. What I will tell you is that all spacecraft operate in that same vacuum and they are of necessity built very light with very light shells to contain the internal pressure.

          *it’s why they make vacuum thermos bottles.

          1. A vacuum only insulates inside from outside when said vacuum is <i>contained</i> between the two.
            The vacuum of Space in such an instance insulates <i>nothing</i>, because the vacuum itself is vacuuming out gas and heat from that rapidly-dead body, like a Dirt Devil the size of the Milky Way.

            As for pressure gradients, anyone who’s experienced burps and farts at altitude can guess why everything from the stomach north will be coming up and out, and why everything south of the stomach will be flying out the other end like you were plugging the blown-out window on a 747 with your butt at 40,000′.

            You can imagine where the circulating blood volume will go when you blow out a hemorrhoid, both eyeballs, and your nasal passages. You can imagine what happens with urinary sphincters and your eardrums too. It’s one thing when your ears pop; it’s quite another when your brains follow them out both auditory foramens.

            And while skin is resilient at room temperature against normal atmospheric pressure in either direction, how resilient it will remain when it’s suddenly subjected to -450° temps leads me to believe you’re going to be shredded like a dry leaf in a blender as all that internal pressure seeks a way into the vacuum ASAP.

            Spacecraft are weight-restricted, so they’re built to withstand outward pressures of 1 Atm, with a safety factor. They are virtually eggshells. (The Lunar Module, for example, was literally a single sheet of mylar in several places.)

            Crack that eggshell in a vacuum in absolute zero and you get frozen plasma streamed out the breach.
            So with people wearing meatsuits.

            They’ll be frozen goo, all right, probably less than an hour after they’re already dead.

            The animal rights lunatics will scream, but perhaps NASA should toss a rabbit out of the ISS at altitude in a sealed plexiglass cage, pop the hatch, and film the result, in the name of science.

            I’d suggest a cow, but the weight penalty to get one in orbit is prohibitive.

            But at least they could blame the inevitable mutilation on aliens afterwards.

            1. A vacuum means there is no conduction or convection which is what makes it a good insulator. A mass cools only at the rate it radiates energy into space. Nothing else matters (does that qualify as a pun?).

              I’m on board with the rabbit toss.

              1. Agreed on the radiation.
                But I have grave doubts the meatsack would maintain integrity.

                1. As I said earlier, I don’t have nor can I find the data required to actually determine how long the “integrity” would hold. I just don’t think it’s a near instant disaster. Your life is measured in a couple minutes at best, and less than that is likely.

                  From the article, and to the point you make – “The lower pressure on the outside of your body causes the liquids just inside your skin to expand, causing you to swell up.“, that’s going to happen pretty near instantly. Skin is rather amazing and pretty damn tough and pliable, as I’m sure you know.

                  It’s actually an interesting proposition.

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