Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Death in space

Promession, they call it. An alternative to cremation that reduces a body to bits. The method was invented and patented by Swedish ecologists Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and Peter Mäsak, who have now collaborated with NASA to adapt it for use during a proposed 3-year mission to Mars. In the event that one of the crew dies in space, his or her body would be placed in a container dubbed the "Body Back." A robotic arm would be used to move it through the airlock into space, where the body would freeze in about an hour, and then vibrate it on the end of a tether, which would reduce the frozen corpse to small pieces in about 15 minutes. Microwaves would be used to evaporate the water, leaving about 25kg of dry powder, and the container would take on a more compact shape. The Body Back would be retracted by the robotic arm before the spacecraft reenters Earth's atmosphere.

Promession solves the dual problem of returning the remains of an astronaut to earth to serve the emotional well-being of the crewmember's family while keeping the remains out of sight to address the psychological needs of the remaining crew during the rest of the mission. The need for a flexible ceremony in space is also anticipated for the crew reactions ranging from loss, sorrow, and isolation to fear, mistrust, and guilt. Astronauts have died, of course, in and after orbit, and the effects of exposure of an unprotected astronaut to the vacuum of outer space have been contemplated, but this is the 1st carefully-considered and humane alternative to jettisoning a body in the event of a death en route.

Promession was invented to dispose of the dead body in an environmentally friendly way, without the greenhouse gases that cremation adds to the atmosphere or the chemicals that traditional burial adds to the ground. Instead, the buried bits would feed the earth. Wiigh-Masak embraces the method she has developed: "I'd like to come back as a rhododendron, a Cunningham white....I have several in the garden myself. It's very lovely. It's always great to imagine what you'll be when you grow up."

1st image) NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless II, further away from the space shuttle than any previous astronaut, thanks to a jet-propelled backpack, 2nd image) European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang on a spacewalk, 3rd image) The proposed "Body Back" capsule being held and vibrated outside a spacecraft to achieve promission

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