With the USA and Russia, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), both planning separate manned missions to Mars in 2030, the concept of death in space is an issue that needs to be addressed. A trip to Mars takes 7 months each way in addition to the mission time. The journey is both hazardous as much as it is unprecedented. Yet the uniqueness of the mission presents problems with regards to morality and biology.
How to dispose or process the body poses the dilemma in that the corpse needs to be stored without contaminating the other crew members. Body purification starts almost as soon as a body dies. The practical concern is to protect the other crew members from sickness and disease that could be caused by a corpse in transit. Further consideration needs to be given to cleansing and sterilising potential debris and organic matter from inside the space-ship.
Promession is a radical ecological technique for processing a corpse. It offers a solution for corpse transit in the limits of space travel. The idea has been proposed by Swedish ecologists Susanne Wiigh-Masak and Peter Masak. Promession works by freezing the body, in this instance using the vacuum of space. The frozen body is then vibrated to form dust. Mercury, metals and water are removed. Then the dust is vacuum packed. The body is then ready for burial in a biodegradable coffin. This resolves biological transit concerns as controversial as it may sound.
The cause of death however will be hard if not impossible to ascertain as no existing coroners will be present. No forensic analysis, medical enquiry, or police investigation can occur. The requirements of full cooperation of the nations involved would need to be a precursor if the crew were formed from different nationalities. Questions will need to be resolved about how the death was caused, if for example it was accidental or with intent.
Death in space will certainly generate psychological effects with the remaining crew members. The allocation of guilt and the survivor complex could be of serious detriment to the current mission. Effects on the ability of the crew to perform with total control could pose a practical concern.
Ceremonial rights would need to be conducted to allow crew members to focus and channel their emotion. In addition making a transition from sorrow to mourning would allow the healing process to begin. Similarly this is the strongest point in consideration of the deceased’s family back on Earth. The return of the body would allow traditional ceremonies of the dead to be followed on Earth. The idea of pushing a body out of an airlock into the vacuum that is space would not be ethical.
Despite the idea that death is not the most enthralling aspect to discuss, its consequence is necessary as humanity progresses its space adventure campaign. The resolution of both the biological concerns and the psychological factors will enable humanity to venture further and for longer into the vastness that is space. Space presents its own unique problems which need technological advances to help resolve. However these advances must fit into the ethical understanding of human life and humanity.