One of the very first science fiction stories I ever remember enjoying as a child was, A Fall of Moondust, by Arthur C. Clarke.
For those of you who have never enjoyed it, that particular Hard SF tale relates accounts aboard the dust-skimmer Selene as she takes tourists on a cruise across the lunar surface. As they traverse the Sea of Thirst (located within the Sinus Roris) an area filled with a dust so fine it flows like water, they encounter problems and sink.
I’m not going to give the game away, as it still makes excellent reading. But basically, the plot revolves around the race to try and save the passengers and crew of the Selene before their air runs out.
And that got me thinking…
What would actually happen to someone if they suffered an accident within the lunar environment? Would you expand and burst? Freeze? Boil? What? Because the plethora of films and SF series on TV relate such tragedies in a number of different ways.
Well, I did some digging; (mainly through NASA articles), because the truth is somewhat stranger than fiction.
Ha! Listen to this…
Did you know, if you don’t try and hold your breath, exposure to space for say…half a minute is unlikely to produce permanent injury? You will not explode. Your blood will not boil. You won’t lose consciousness nor freeze like an ice cube.
It’s only when you start trying to hold your breath that things start to go wrong, because the pressure difference will quickly induce lung and eardrum problems. And, because the environment is obviously hostile, you are likely to start to suffer from a number of related difficulties the longer you are exposed.
For example, after 10 seconds a mild form of bends or a little bit of sunburn might occur. There may be some form of skin and organ damage because of swelling. Dependent upon how fit you are, you will eventually start to lose consciousness and that’s when the more serious injuries start to accumulate. Within a few minutes, you’ll be well on the way to dying.
The point is, contrary to popular belief, you won’t be making a mess over the lunar environment or turning into a huge icicle, because your skin and circulatory system prevent the heat being instantly snatched from your body. You won’t pass out until your body has used up all the oxygen in the blood. You won’t fry, unless exposed to direct sunlight…in which case it is likely you’ll be burnt by ultraviolet radiation. Weird eh?
Okay then, but what happens if I’ve got a spacesuit on and something happens. Surely that’s going to be much better for me, yes?
Well, obviously. You’ll be protected from temperature and radiation extremes. And as your air runs out, you’ll get a chance to panic much more thoroughly than an unprotected casualty.
So what would happen to a body in space?
Here’s the thing. If you didn’t have a suit, it is probable that you would be rapidly mummified. Also, some scientists are starting to think the rapid freeze-dry affect might kill the bacteria inside you so quickly, that you wouldn’t actually decay.
However, if you were in a suit, things would be quite different. (I hope you aren’t eating anything as you read this) The bacteria in your intestine would begin to multiply rapidly and cause your body to swell with a buildup of gas. Then, dependent upon the time of day on the lunar surface, you would begin to freeze at night (-150 ⁰C) and cook in the day (120 ⁰C), releasing an interesting cocktail of stinky gasses. Nice!
Eventually, the seals would give out on your suit, and all the trapped gasses would escape. Once you were reduced into a mass of freeze-dried/oven cooked beef jerky, the amino acids and proteins in your body would break down, and then things would really get messy.
So there you go, a titillating little bit of trivia you’ll be able to impress people with at parties if anyone ever asks the question…
“I wonder what would happen if I died on the Moon?”
And, I don’t know about you, but having learned what happens, if I ever did find myself in dire straits in a vacuum and I had the time to make a choice, I think I’d take option A, and make much less mess.
What would you do?
Until next time…