What happens if an astronaut dies in space? This is the question that NASA has been juggling for years, a true ethical and logistical conundrum that requires a practical method that both respects the dead while removing the body from the spacecraft as soon as possible. See, deceased bodies are not something you want to be in close proximity to – they smell really bad, they are a hive of bacteria as they decompose, and it would be pretty scarring for astronauts to have to live alongside the corpse of their fallen friends.
At this point, you’re sitting here thinking: “why don’t they just expel the body into space?”. After all, throughout sci-fi movie history, opening the airlock and releasing the corpse into the abyss has been the go-to method. Except, due to the prevention of space junk and potential collisions with other orbiting spacecraft, UN law actually makes it illegal to dump corpses in space.
Therefore, NASA had to get creative. They created multiple research groups to generate some viable ideas, exploring different avenues in which to dispose of bodies in space. According to some of the people involved, few solid ideas were put forward but there was one that stood out – and it is quite a strange one.
In collaboration with the ecological burial company Promessa, one research team proposed the ‘Body Back’ idea. Firstly, the body must be removed from sight and prevented from polluting the air within the spacecraft as it decomposes. The scientists proposed it should be put into a Gore-Tex bag and sealed – essentially a space-age body bag. This part isn’t all that innovative, but it does allow respects and tributes to be paid to the fallen crew member.
From here, it gets a little bit strange. The Body Back was developed with the idea of travelling to Mars, so simply sending the body back to Earth is off the table. They can’t be cremated – flames and pressurized oxygenated environments are not exactly a match made in heaven.
So, the team turned to promession. Promession is an ecological burial technique in which a body is freeze-dried and then vibrated, disintegrating the body into dust, with the potential to return the remains into the ecosystem as a form of fertilizer if they so wish. It was invented by Promessa’s founder, Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, and was offered by Promessa until 2015, when the company was liquidated. The idea was slammed by critics, who said it isn’t possible to atomize a body in this way.
Still, NASA was intrigued (according to Promessa) and they thought up a way to make this process happen in space. The idea was to place a body in the bag and expose the corpse package to the freezing temperatures of space. Once adequately frozen, it would be vibrated by a robotic arm until it was nothing but a fine powder. It could then be stored, ready to be returned to their loved ones once the crew comes home, or used as a fertilizer (if this works is debatable, but there's a terrestrial funerary practice that can turn you into compost).
This idea was developed in 2005, but with the liquidation of Promessa and no more word from NASA on the suggestion, it appears to have been abandoned. In 2013, the founder of Promessa announced that NASA or other, unnamed private organization was prepared to use the plan in an emergency during their voyage to Mars, but this was never verified.