Could you survive in space without a helmet?

by Phil Lowe
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If you have watched any science fiction movie set in space you will know that taking your helmet off in the vacuum of space is not a good idea. Whether someone’s face boils, freezes, or explodes, space movies have shown us that nothing can good can come of it. While that is undoubtedly true, otherwise why would we wear them at all, what would actually happen if you were exposed to the vacuum of space?

You would probably die. 

That could be the shortest article ever written on People Today but it is true if you were exposed to the vacuum of space for long enough, you would die. Your face would not boil, it wouldn’t freeze, your insides would not be sucked outside your body but you would die unless you kept the exposure to a short amount of time. We don’t have to speculate on what would happen as we have seen enough evidence from humans and animals in space to know roughly what to expect.

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Dogs were the first to experience the vacuum of space and they did not like it. After around 10 seconds the dogs fell unconscious. Their bodies continued to function though and they experienced vomiting, urinating, and defecation all at once. Some had seizures and all of their bodies doubled in size. Despite all of these occurrences, if they were returned to normalized air pressure in under 90 seconds they turned out ok. For a few minutes after they were unable to walk, some were even blind, but all of their normal functions returned and there were no adverse long term effects. 

Before humans faced the vacuum chimpanzees did. They did better than dogs (who could only survive 90 seconds) with the longest chimpanzee showing normality after three minutes in space. The record for staying alive for chimpanzees was 3.5 minutes but if a chimpanzee was in space for under three minutes then no long term damage was recorded.

Humans have had a number of accidents in space that have provided a great deal of evidence of how we will do in the vacuum of space as well. In 1965 one astronaut had a suit malfunction causing it to depressurize. He managed to stay conscious for 14 seconds. He recalls feeling the water evaporating from his tongue in those seconds. While unconscious his teammates repressurized the cabin and he was able to survive. He regained consciousness around 13 seconds later and was fine. He had lost the ability to taste for a week but other than that he had no issues. 

In another case, a man was exposed to the vacuum of space for three minutes. He fell unconscious too but when the chamber was repressurized he took some big breaths of air and then died. Three minutes is too long for humans. 

It is clear then that we could survive somewhere between 30 seconds and three minutes but I would not want to be the one tasked with finding out our exact limits. In other accidents, single body parts have been exposed to the vacuum of space for longer periods of time. One astronaut’s hand was exposed and he said it was painful, swollen and numb but again did return to normal within hours. 

One thing scientists are sure of is that it is a bad idea to hold your breath. If you try that you will rupture your lungs. This could even happen if you tried to hold your breath on an airplane that had an issue with compression.

It is clear that the movies have created some incredible scenes of movie deaths and while death is likely it just won’t look quite as exciting. You will simply fall unconscious and depending on how long you spend in that vacuum of space you will either wake up later or never again. 

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