Every October, NASA gets into the Halloween spirit by sharing "spooky" pictures of space, such as the creepy jack-o'-lantern sun or this year’s glowing dead star that invokes Slimer from Ghostbusters. I fully applaud NASA for its participation in what is perhaps the best holiday of the year. But I’m here to tell the good folks at the space agency that they don’t really need to do all that much to make space scary.
Space is terrifying already.
First and foremost, space is actively trying to kill its guests. That is, if you were to go outside without a spacesuit on, death will come swiftly. No, you don’t freeze immediately and your eyes don’t pop out of your head like some movies suggest. But since you are in a vacuum with no pressure, all the air tries to escape out of your body. The air inside your lungs expands, potentially causing your body tissues to tear. (You actually don’t want to hold your breath, because it’s going to make this process a whole lot worse.) And the dissolved air in your bloodstream creates tiny bubbles that eventually puff you up like a human balloon.
If you were to go outside without a spacesuit on, death will come swiftly
Meanwhile, you have about 15 seconds until you lose consciousness — the average amount of time it takes for your oxygen-deprived blood to reach your brain. That’s what happened to one NASA test subject in 1965, who was exposed to a near vacuum chamber when his spacesuit leaked. He later reported that he could also feel the saliva on his tongue starting to boil, since liquids have a much lower boiling point when in environments with low pressure. If his team hadn’t quickly stepped in and pressurized the chamber, he may have been able to survive for a couple minutes, but he would have been powerless to save himself.
But death by space exposure isn’t even the scariest thing for me. What freaks me out the most is death by push. If you start moving in one direction in space, you will continue moving that way unless something stops you or you have a means to propel yourself in another direction. And there's no way to save yourself by twisting or flailing. If this happens to you in lower Earth orbit, you could just stay in orbit indefinitely or potentially get dragged back down to the planet over time. If you make the trip into deep space, though, a frightful push can be an even more terrifying scenario. I’m basically talking about this awful, no good scene from Armageddon’s much better sister film, Deep Impact.
Hopefully we'll never have to visit an outgassing asteroid that's about to slam into our planet, so this scenario is pretty unlikely. And astronauts in lower Earth orbit take many precautions during their spacewalks to avoid drifting too far from home. The outside of the International Space Station has grips for the astronauts to hold onto, and spacewalking crew members are always tethered to the station. If there’s an emergency, the astronauts also have propulsion systems, called SAFER, that they wear on their spacesuits that can give them an extra boost back to the ISS. Fortunately, no astronaut has ever had an emergency that required help from SAFER.
Okay fine. Still, I can think of nothing scarier than this.
When I see this GIF, all that consumes my mind is that the fictional astronaut will continue to shriek helplessly, as he hurdles through endless nothingness with no objects to grab, no net to catch him. Eventually the void will be all that surrounds him, a suffocating monotony of darkness — as if he never existed in the first place.
As a space reporter, I fully understand the irony that the thing I love to write about is also the thing that I fear the most. But I think my dread of space also fuels my passion for it. Because space is so lethal, I have such respect for the engineers and technologies used to keep people alive in the deep void. But damn if I really want to be scared, I just need to think about being blown out of the airlock — or failing to get a grip.