We’ve been looking up at the stars for centuries, but it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been able to actually think about exploring them. Space is still one of the harshest environments that we’ve ever discovered colder than most people can imagine, with no oxygen and plenty of radiation to increase the risk of cancer and other dangerous diseases. When an emergency happens in space, there’s no one to come to the rescue.
The History of Space Emergencies
There are plenty of emergencies for us to pick from in science fiction movies and novels, but there are harrowing incidents to pick from in the real world, too. First, let’s take a look at the history of space travel and outer space emergencies.
Apollo 13 is probably the most immediately memorable. In 1970, Apollo 13 launched from Cape Canaveral and was en route to the Moon when, 56 hours into the mission, one of the craft’s oxygen tanks exploded. Instead of landing on the Moon, as they had planned, the crew and the Ground Control team had to figure out how to get the astronauts home.
Ground Control was able to talk the astronauts through some minor repairs such as rigging a replacement filter for the CO2 system responsible for keeping their air breathable and bring the crew home.
The crewmembers of the Soyuz 11 are the only people who have died in space three cosmonauts were asphyxiated just before reentry because an air vent had opened during the automated descent phase, exposing them to the vacuum of space. The craft landed safely on autopilot, but the astronauts had died during reentry.
Medical emergencies can occur in outer space just as often as they happen here on Earth, but being in orbit means that the astronauts are hundreds of miles straight up from the nearest doctor and they don’t always send medical doctors into space. Even things like CPR, which is standard procedure here on Earth, can be difficult without gravity to hold the patient to the ground.
Micrometeorites are another hazard astronauts may encounter in space. These tiny pieces of space dust get accelerated to supersonic speeds, and even a flake can be devastating. A hole in the hull of the International Space Station can create a massive emergency venting oxygen makes it hard to breathe and could potentially push the station out of its orbit.
The Earth’s magnetosphere extends out far enough that it protects the ISS from the majority of the ambient radiation, but not all of it. The space station is equipped with sensors, and astronauts have both their short-term and lifetime radiation exposure levels monitored. If the lifetime levels get too high, the astronauts are no longer allowed to travel into space.
These potential emergencies can happen in orbit around our planet, but they can also occur as we explore the rest of the solar system. Right now, our eyes are set on our neighbor Mars. The atmosphere there can’t support human life, so the same precautions we take now for our astronauts in orbit will have to carry us onto the Martian surface.
NASA has plenty of redundancy plans to help keep its astronauts safe. Nearly 50 years ago, Mission Control was able to talk the Apollo 13 astronauts through putting a square peg in a round hole to repair the module’s CO2 filter with nothing more than some duct tape and a sock.
That innovation has only evolved over the intervening decades. The safety of our astronauts is the most important thing to the scientists and engineers who create the rockets that carry them to the stars. Even if emergencies do occasionally happen, these astronauts are prepared for just about anything.