Space might look pretty in the pictures, but it’s actually a very hostile environment where a lot can go wrong. Why is this the case? Well, space isn’t like Earth at all. For a start, there isn’t any gravity in space, which means astronauts have much less control over their movements. It’s also freezing cold, too cold for us mere earthlings to endure. Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, there’s no oxygen up amongst the stars, so we can’t breathe in space. Because the environment of space is so hostile, it’s dangerous for any astronauts that travel up there on a mission. Now, of course, these astronauts are given all the appropriate training and equipment to help them survive space whilst they’re up there, but that doesn’t mean there’s no threat at all. It leads to that fatal question…
So, has an astronaut ever died in space? Sadly 3 astronauts have died in space. However, these were not technically astronauts but cosmonauts of the Soviet Union. They died while returning to Earth from a mission in 1971. To date, no astronauts from the US/NASA have died, despite there being some close seriously close calls.
When I say cosmonaut, that’s the Russian classification. You can read more about the differences between astronauts and cosmonauts below.
For astronauts, specifically from the US, they’ve avoided such outcomes (until now).
Astronauts have died on Earth, though, especially during space flight launches that malfunctioned.
Nevertheless, let’s continue to explore those three previously discussed and what actually happened to them.
Note, I may use the term astronaut and cosmonaut interchangeably throughout this article. Not because they are the same thing, just that they both serve similar duties of exploring space in the true sense.
How Many Astronauts Have Died In Space
To date, 3 astronauts have died whilst in space. Many more astronauts have died during their training whilst on Earth.
When you consider how dangerous space is and the fact that about 550 astronauts have traveled up to space, 3 doesn’t seem too high a fatality count.
But it’s still 3 more deaths than we would have hoped for.
The 3 deaths all occurred in June 1971. The astronauts, who worked for the Soviet Union, were on the same mission, Soyuz 11.
They were Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev.
The mission was the first time humanity had stayed on a space station.
It was actually a glorious success initially, with the 3 astronauts successfully living onboard the Salyut 1 space station for a total of twenty-three days.
But it was during their return journey to Earth that disaster struck.
So, perhaps this wasn’t the death in space you were expecting.
Well, it’s true that no astronaut has died on a space station or gotten lost in space. But there have been a few close calls.
In 1973, 2 American astronauts, Pete Conrad and Joe Kerwin were on a spacewalk to deploy a solar panel that hadn’t deployed after their launch.
The effort they applied to deploy the solar panel propelled them both with some force. Luckily, their tethers stopped them from floating off into space.
Learn more: What Happens If An Astronaut Floats Off In Space?
In 1977, it was reported that Soviet Union astronaut Yuri Romanenko untethered so that he could lift himself out of an airlock to get a view of the cosmos.
He then accidentally propelled himself too forcefully, leading to his sudden drift toward outer space.
Luckily, his comrade, Georgy Grechko, arrived in time to grab Yuri and pull him back to safety.
The deaths of Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev occurred during spaceflight. But the reason why it’s classed as a death in space is that it occurred whilst they were reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.
We’ll talk more about how they died later on.
Astronaut Deaths On Earth
Many astronauts have died in their training on Earth or during the launch out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Let’s start by talking about deaths during space flight first.
You will probably be aware of NASA’s 1986 space shuttle disaster.
On the 28th of January that year, The Challenger space shuttle exploded approximately 73 seconds after takeoff.
A malfunction allowed hot gas to reach the shuttle’s main external tanks, which contained hydrogen-oxygen fuel, causing the explosion. All 7 crew members onboard sadly passed away.
Then, in 2003, 7 more NASA astronauts passed away when the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated when it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. During the launch, a piece of foam insulation had broken away, consequently damaging a wing and protective tiles.
The Soviet Union wasn’t without its spaceflight disasters either.
For example, in 1967, Vladimir Komarov sadly passed away when the parachute on his landing capsule didn’t open.
Astronauts can also die during training. It is reported that 13 astronauts from various space agencies have passed away during training and spaceflight testing.
How Have Astronauts Died In Space?
Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev, the only 3 astronauts to have died in space, died because their re-entry capsule depressurized, leading to suffocation.
We’ve been through some of the ways astronauts have died during training or spaceflight whilst still on Earth.
Now it’s time to find out how exactly Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev passed away whilst they were on their mission in space back in 1971.
The mission was almost over. They had lived on the space station and completed their tasks. All they had to do now was return to Earth.
Learn more: How Do Astronauts Get Back To Earth? – This Cant Be So!
The astronauts sat, without their spacesuits on, in the Soyuz descent module, waiting to reenter the atmosphere of Earth.
But a breathing ventilation valve malfunctioned by opening inadvertently. This led to disaster as the module depressurized with oxygen leaking into space.
Without any oxygen in the cabin, the three astronauts passed away onboard from asphyxiation, which is caused by suffocation.
The module itself actually reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed without any problems.
Their colleagues back at home would have been jubilant, only to soon realize that they had passed away.
What Happens If An Astronaut Dies In Space
If an astronaut dies in space, the astronauts will need to safely store the body until they return to Earth.
For the Soviet Union, the deaths of Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev were dealt with similarly to how deaths on Earth normally are.
They would have been buried or cremated. After all, they were found dead on Earth, not in space. It’s just that they died whilst in space.
But what would happen to an astronaut if they actually died in space and their body was found there? On the space station, perhaps?
Well, things would actually be quite tricky, especially for the other crew members. Having a dead body lying around isn’t healthy for anyone.
So the astronauts would need to find a way to keep the body cool so that its decomposition was slowed.
At the same time, the body would need to be stored somewhere safe where it wasn’t at risk of contaminating other crew members still onboard and alive and well.
This is all that would need to be done on a short mission or one that was returning soon.
With the body safely stored, astronauts would just have to wait until they returned to Earth with the dead body so all the appropriate procedures could take place.
But if the death occurred on a longer mission, then this is when things get tricky.
If a mission was a year-long, the surviving crew would most likely have to freeze the body so that it could be returned safely.
Here is the interesting thing, though.
As space travel evolves and becomes more and more advanced, new technological innovations will be required to assist in storing dead bodies on spacecrafts.
In other words, the further humanity explores outside our solar system; the longer astronauts will spend time away from Earth.
Some may simply go on missions of their lives, where they only return to Earth when they have passed away from natural causes.
And for such a long journey, a spacecraft would require technology that helps store a dead body.
Of course, such a scenario is most likely well beyond my time here!
That is the positive way of looking at it, i.e., astronauts dying peacefully of old age after exploring the cosmos.
The perhaps darker way of looking at it is that the chances of astronauts dying in space will increase as humanity’s exploration of it expands.
In other words, the further humans travel away from Earth, say to Mars, the more dangerous and risky it becomes. The chances of an astronaut dying are higher, so the need to safely store dead bodies becomes all the more important.
Now, you might be thinking, isn’t there some kind of protocol for handling all this?
The truth is that there actually isn’t. NASA doesn’t have a comprehensive protocol for dealing with a sudden death onboard.
The responsibility is all left to the Commander to decide how they deal with the situation. But you can bet that their first point of call after they have initially mourned is to safely store their comrades’ bodies.
Death in space is very much possible. Fortunately, the training astronauts complete ensures that they are the best people on Earth to survive in space.
But sometimes, things can be out of an astronaut’s control, as was the case for so many who lost their lives either on Earth or in space.
As the space race extends, the risk of death becomes more severe.
Hey, my name is Chris. I’m a passionate and seasoned astronomer who loves nothing more than observing the night sky. I also love researching, learning, and writing all things Space and the Universe. I created Astronomy Scope to share my knowledge, experience, suggestions, and recommendations of what I have learned along the way while helping anyone to get into and maximize their enjoyment of the hobby.