What happens if a tourist dies in space?

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Commercial spaceflight companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are now offering exclusive opportunities for celebrities and civilians to travel to space.

Traditionally, astronauts have been subject to rigorous training and medical scrutiny before going to space, and the risk of death from natural causes was considered remote.

But in this new era of space tourism, it appears medical screening may not be carried out, and only minimal pre-flight training provided.

With a wide variety of people now going to space, and the prospect in the coming years of humans establishing bases on the Moon and beyond, it raises an important question: what happens if someone dies in space?

Under international space law, individual countries are responsible for authorizing and supervising all national space activity, whether governmental or private. In the United States, commercial tourist spaceflights require a license for launch to be issued by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Should someone die on a commercial tourist mission, there would need to be a determination as to the cause of death. If the death of a spaceflight participant was due to a mechanical fault in the spacecraft, the Federal Aviation Administration would look to suspend further launches by the company pending an investigation.

If mechanical failure is discounted, there would need to be consideration of the overall duty of care to all travelers by the commercial provider and assessment made about whether it did everything possible to prevent the person’s death.

Uncomfortable but inevitable

The time spent in space on these tourist missions currently ranges from a few minutes to a few days. This means the risk of a death in space from natural causes is very low, though not impossible.

The question of what to do if someone dies in space will become significantly more pertinent – and complex – when humans embark on longer missions deeper into space, and even one day become permanently established in outer space.

Fundamentally, there will need to be some sort of investigative process put in place to establish the cause of death of humans in outer space. There have been inquests before, such as the inquiry into the Columbia Shuttle disaster in 2003, where Nasa’s space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it returned to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board.

But these have been specialist investigations into high-profile accidents and concerned only US spaceflight. As opportunities for space travel expand, it’s inevitable, either through accidents, illness or age, that deaths in space or on another celestial body will occur.

A formal procedure for investigating deaths on long-duration missions and space settlements will be necessary to ensure there is clear information on who died, the causes of death, and so lessons can be learned and possible patterns detected.