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So, What Would It Be Like to Be In Space Unprotected?

Illustration for article titled So, What Would It Be Like to Be In Space Unprotected?

Humans can't survive out in the vacuum of space. At least not for long. But what would those 14 seconds or so be like? Not fun, it turns out!

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Here's what'll happen, according to NASA:

At NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center (now renamed Johnson Space Center) we had a test subject accidentally exposed to a near vacuum (less than 1 psi) in an incident involving a leaking space suit in a vacuum chamber back in '65. He remained conscious for about 14 seconds, which is about the time it takes for O2 deprived blood to go from the lungs to the brain. The suit probably did not reach a hard vacuum, and we began repressurizing the chamber within 15 seconds. The subject regained consciousness at around 15,000 feet equivalent altitude. The subject later reported that he could feel and hear the air leaking out, and his last conscious memory was of the water on his tongue beginning to boil.

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Well, shit. [NASA via Acts of Volition via Kottke]

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DISCUSSION

Decompression actually causes cooling rather than warming – think of holding down the button on an aerosol can. The process is called adiabatic cooling. I’m not a physicist but I am a diver, and I suspect that he was wrong in thinking that water was boiling on his tongue. I recently spent some time in a recompression chamber as a sort of try-dive/dry dive experience - it was interesting as while I've regularly compressed myself to 4 or 5 bar in a dry suit, what I never really experienced was that as you compress (descend) the air around you becomes warm and humid in a chamber – on ascending the reverse happens – you get colder and air condenses, often causing you to cough. We spent about 15 minutes ascending from six bar to one bar – the proportional changes in gas volumes in a one bar to zero bar ascent are far greater, and if it happens quickly gas in solution in liquids will expand and bubble, causing an effect not unlike a diet-coke bottle full of mentos – it’s more likely that he was feeling the water on his tongue fizzing – scary to think that his blood would have been doing the same thing.