Why you'll never go to space prison

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Space prisons are a huge part of science fiction, because eventually we'll run out of places on Earth to put our worst criminals. Mass Effect 2 features a prison ship. And this Friday sees the release of Lockout, in which a snarky hero goes inside a maximum-security satellite to rescue the President's daughter.


But could imprisoning our worst repeat offenders in space ever actually work in real life? In a word, no. Here are the many, many reasons why convicts are not the next cosmonauts.

Top image: Shaun Williams

At first glance, a giant space prison sounds like a good idea. Or at least, it sounds like a cool idea. A giant space prison would be a fantastic way to make absolutely sure that Earth's most threatening villains will never do any more harm to humanity. It could be in orbit around Earth — or if we get really advanced technology, orbiting an inhospitable planet. But once you think about it for a moment, you realize that it would never, ever work.

Of course, in Lockout, there's artificial gravity, and the prisoners are put into suspended animation. But since we currently have no way of doing either of those things, let's assume a real-life space prison wouldn't have either of those features.

It's a Painful Death Sentence

If you're going to send someone into space for an extended period of time — more than a few months — you are certainly disabling them, and almost certainly killing them. Simply executing your prisoners would be a much, much kinder fate than sending them up into space — because space travel is a highly unpleasant way to kill someone. And extended space habitation is a surefire way to do it.

Microgravity is the first and most creative way to kill people. Start with the fact that some people can't tolerate it at all, and are incapacitated by the sickness of it. In that case, constant vomiting and the inability to rest or take in food would finish them off pretty quickly. But even if a convict takes to low gravity like a champ, biology has gotten creatures used to the same level of gravity since we were single-celled organisms, and physics has its say as well.

The lack of gravity will literally take a person apart. Muscles, suddenly getting a lot less exercise, will atrophy. Bones will waste away. Once gravity is no longer pulling fluids down towards the feet, they'll pool around the head and neck instead. This causes the body to keep misjudging the amount of fluid in the body, which makes it difficult to stay properly hydrated, and maintain the balance of minerals in the blood. The displacement of fluid causes the heart rate to increase and the blood pressure to go up.

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Red blood cells change shape, and there are fewer of them — although the long term effects of this are unknown. The immune system, as a whole, is taken out. Astronauts in space are prone to latent viruses, bacteria, fungi, and all kinds of infection. The vertebrae, pressed together by gravity, separate causing horrendous back aches. Even if constant nausea, infection, high blood pressure, and a rapidly-working heart atrophying, don't kill people, the readjustment in coming back to Earth probably will.


Even if the microgravity doesn't kill these unlucky lags, the radiation probably will. Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere shield us from a great deal of radiation, while providing us with spectacular light shows. Even taking a trip in a plane ups the level of radiation a person is exposed to in a given year. NASA estimates that a year of exposure to cosmic radiation is dangerous enough to increase your chances of cancer a decade later. Spend an entire decade bathed in the stuff, and you might as well lick a reactor.

People have suggested various solutions to the radiation problem, but most of them involve massively strong magnetic fields, which cause their own kind of damage. Not only have strong magnetic fields been shown to cause hallucinations, and have been blamed for people seeing ghosts, they also cause retina damage, body chemistry problems, and 'electrolysis of saliva.' This is the liquid in saliva being separated into its chemical components - often hydrogen and oxygen gas. What's more, cosmic radiation can leak into the field anyway, and once inside it's trapped. It's trapped with all the energy it originally had, meaning it will careen through the people inside unless it's 'pumped' out somehow.


In other words, confinement in space will end with a bunch of sick, weak, mentally-addled people who are, at the end, probably counting down the moments until cancer kills them. A bullet in the head would be a mercy.

There's No Amount of Money That Could Make This Worth It

It costs ten thousand dollars to send a single pound of material into space. That means even getting convicts up there is a roughly two million dollar investment per person. Granted, if technology improves and space travel becomes more common, this figure will come down — but not enough to be the equivalent of a bus ride to any of the current concrete hellholes that governments now operate as prisons. And prisoners are the least of the burden. Every pound of food will cost you, and people eat about fifteen hundred to two thousand pounds per year. Every item of clothing, every bit of medicine, every restraint or chain, everything will cost an exorbitant amount of money.

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And every piece of equipment, unless there are enough of these super space prisons to make it a mechanized industry, will have to be custom made, and installed by people — at least some of whom will also need to be sent into space.


Speaking of which, there's the little matter of the guards. Their employment will be a monetary trade-off. They can be sent back and forth every month or so, at a cost of twenty thousand dollars per month, in order to take 'shifts' at the prison. These shifts will require three times the amount of transportation that terrestrial prisons have, since guards won't commute back home to sleep. The prison will need three crews, each working eight-hour shifts, to be living up there at any one time. If that doesn't sound good, then companies can ship guards up there for a year at a time. It's just that, when they get home, they'll need extended periods of medical rehabilitation, which will also push up the costs — not to mention compensation for the massive dose of radiation they'll receive. Where's that kind of money coming from?

Okay, so what if the entire dynamic shifts to an Alien-type situation, only in space instead of on a planet? What if the entire prison weren't some temporary home for convicts but a place where convict labor is used to mine or harvest hard-to-find elements? It's still an inescapable prison, but now the prisoners themselves are doing jobs that literally no one on Earth would be willing to do themselves. And that might be the closest any such place comes to feasibility. There's just one thing that will keep it from ever turning a profit.


Absolutely Anyone Could Wreck the Whole Place

Remember that line in The Hunt for Red October, when Sean Connery turns to Alec Baldwin, who's just about to shoot a KGB agent on a nuclear sub, and tells him to be careful where he shoots, because 'Most things in here don't react well to bullets,'? That was an understatement. One captain of a submarine, in real life, nearly sunk his own vessel because he messed up using the toilet. He ended up surfacing, where his sub was spotted and bombed. And there's nowhere to surface in space.


Wherever there were humans, though, there is sewage. Sewage has to go somewhere, and there are three choices: it can be broken down with harsh chemicals, left to make ever-expanding and flammable gases, or ejected from a valve that is a weak point in an otherwise perfect surface. Food has to come in from a different place. Water is the universal solvent. And this is in something that's comparable to Earth's gravity. In microgravity, a person only has to spit or pee into the air, and you can sit back and watch the drops of fluid migrate through absolutely everything.

There's a reason why they train emotionally stable people to work on submarines or in planes, or other environments where small mistakes can lead to dire consequences. A space station, spacecraft, or anything that's in orbit and populated entirely staffed with convicts who are minimally supervised, sent there to die, and hurting a lot while they do, will be sabotaged before it's even made one circuit around the Earth.


Now underground lava prisons — that might be something.

Top Image: EW

Second Image: Eavesdropping

Third Image: Veevr

Via Race to Mars, Dartmouth, Universe Today and Wired.




Fixed headline: "Why space prisons are impractical today."