If Man Is to Colonize Mars, NASA Needs Guidelines on Burial Rituals

NASA needs to create guidelines for what happens to astronauts when they die in space, before we colonize Mars 1 photo
Photo: YouTube/Popular Science
We’re still years away from fully-fledged space tourism and probably just as many, if not more, until humanity colonizes Mars. Ideally speaking, Mars will be our next home, which we can retire to when resources back on Earth have dwindled to the point of making life incompatible.
All these scenarios are years (and billions of dollars) down the line. But, as the saying goes, it’s never too early to start planning, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said it better: “If you want to go to Mars, prepare to die.” If humanity is to colonize Mars and standardize space travel, burial rituals need to be regulated, Popular Science agrees.

The idea might sound morbid, but death is natural and normal if you strip away all prejudices, mysticism, and religious connotations. Death is tragic, irreversible, and deeply impacting. With space exploration, it’s the elephant in the room, in that astronauts know it could happen at the slightest accident in a matter of seconds, yet no one talks openly about it. More than 550 people have been sent into space, and 21 of them died—but just three did so into outer space, Popular Science notes.

In a matter of years, space launches will be more frequent, taking both astronauts and civilians onto the outer edge and beyond. Later on, the first settlers will arrive on Mars and, once they hopefully survive the landing and the tough conditions on the Red Planet, start colonizing it. In a matter of years, more people will die in space and, when they do, what happens to their bodies?

The video below aims to offer an answer to that question. There’s a lengthier story that goes with it, offering three solutions to the problem that doesn’t exist as of now but will surely do so soon. There’s the current alternative of storing the body in the coldest part of the spaceship for a return home. Said return can take place via the resupply vessel or with the garbage, which burns once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

The second possibility is offering the deceased a so-called “burial at sea,” sending the bodies into the void. However, unlike what you see in the movies, this would be far less spectacular and more morbid. Whatever you drop into the void of space would either trail in the path behind a rocket or just linger. With rocket launches picking up in frequency, it would mean navigating a sea of floating space caskets.

On the topic of Mars colonization, in particular, the issue poses twice more logistic problems. Assuming the first colonizers survive the months-long journey to the Red Planet, the waves of radiation, and the difficult landing, they would most likely have to deal with the reality of losing crew members in the following interval.

Sending the body back to Earth is not a viable alternative: the journey is too long, and space is limited on rockets. A simple burial site is out of the question since NASA has strict rules about contaminating the environment of alien planets.

“Regarding the disposal of organic material (including bodies) on Mars,” Catherine Conley at NASA’s Office of Planetary Protection says, “we impose no restrictions so long as all Earth microbes have been killed – so cremation would be necessary.”

Another option for the same scenario is a worst-case type of thing. Cannibalism in extreme situations, when it ensures the survival of the remainder of the crew, is not unheard of and, while barbaric to the outside world, it is deemed “acceptable but not desirable,” according to bioethicist Paul Wolpe.

Arguably, this kind of conversation is unsettling, triggering, or even offensive to most people. Still, NASA working toward expansive space exploration and not considering this aspect would be like preparing for the birth of a child without thinking of solutions for when (and if) something goes wrong during delivery. NASA has no guidelines regarding this in place right now, but that’s not to say it hasn’t done research on it: in 2005, it conducted a study with eco-burial company Promessa, developing a method that would see a body freeze-dried in space and crushed into “icy ash,” so that it could be returned to Earth.

If man is to go where no man has gone before, NASA and other space bodies have to think of what must be done if man never returns.

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About the author: Elena Gorgan
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Elena has been writing for a living since 2006 and, as a journalist, she has put her double major in English and Spanish to good use. She covers automotive and mobility topics like cars and bicycles, and she always knows the shows worth watching on Netflix and friends.
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