Can’t afford commercial space travel but want to see Mars? Maybe there is an alternative. Maybe you can train to be an astronaut, fly up to space, then jump from your space station towards Mars and float all the way there for free. Or maybe not….
In actuality, it’s a very scary thought, isn’t it? To be drifting off into the abyss of space where you can’t survive and most likely can’t return from. So let’s find out what would happen if one were to lose a grip or misplace a step whilst up amongst the stars.
So, what happens if an astronaut floats off in space? There are several outcomes, none of which are pretty. Which fate an astronaut is dealt depends on the angle from which they fall off. They could be left floating (or even spinning) around in space until their oxygen tank ran out, leading to death by asphyxiation. Or float into the Earth’s atmosphere and effectively be fried alive.
If you have a preference for how you’d like to go, guess what? The laws of physics and gravity don’t care.
No amount of flailing your limbs will be able to change your course.
Once you’ve floated away from the station, your destiny has already been chosen for you.
So, you could say that losing contact with a space station is a bit more costly than letting go of a balloon in the wind.
With such a risk involved, how do astronauts ensure that they don’t go for a casual stroll in the galactic park?
How Do Astronauts Stop Themselves From Floating Away In Space?
Astronauts use tethers and SAFERs to stop them from floating off into space. Tethers are cables that keep them attached, while SAFERs are a backup mechanism, like a jetpack that allow an astronaut to fire themselves back should they need to.
You’re not sent up to space to float cozily in the spacecraft and gaze at the stars.
Astronauts have to conduct their research, but they also have to install equipment outside the spacecraft and even make repairs.
Therefore, exiting the spacecraft is an absolutely fundamental procedure that must be performed with great care.
Luckily for the astronauts, they are not trusted to maneuver around the spacecraft like a free-hand rock climber climbing a mountain.
They are provided with multiple tools to make the task of not floating off into space that little easier.
Tethers are the first item of equipment provided to astronauts to keep them grounded to their spacecraft.
Tethers are lengthy cables that are attached to the astronaut’s suit and the spacecraft.
The tether ensures that an astronaut doesn’t stray too far away from the spacecraft and can easily return once they have completed their task.
And as great as they sound they are essentially just cables.
That’s right, just like a pet dog or a naughty child, the astronaut is kept on a sort of leash-type device.
Another device used to keep astronauts from floating off in space is what is known as a ‘SAFER.’
Essentially, this device is like a jet-pack that allows the astronaut to fly back to safety if they become detached from their tether.
Astronauts control the SAFER using a joystick control panel.
No, a joyride on the SAFER is not an alternative to floating when looking for an affordable route to Mars.
I’m afraid you’ll have to save up for that commercial space flight ticket.
What are astronauts trained to do if they start floating off in space?
Astronauts are trained to pilot their SAFER to fly themselves back to the spacecraft if they start to float off into space.
During a rigorous training program, trainee astronauts learn how to complete spacewalks (also known as extravehicular activities) safely so that floating off into space never becomes a reality.
Training environments are created which emulate the conditions of space, acclimating astronauts to the lack of gravity up above.
This way, astronauts can practice spacewalks in training simulations so that they already have a substantial amount of experience operating in a rather floaty environment.
So, if an astronaut does lose their connection with the spacecraft, the SAFER allows them to fly back and reattach to their tether.
However, if the SAFER was faulty or they had forgotten to wear it that day, the astronaut would be without a method of returning to the spacecraft.
As we’ve discussed above, the astronaut can have no control over the direction in which they find themselves floating. It’s not like water, so you can’t swim back!
This is when things would start to get a bit tricky.
In such circumstances, the astronaut’s colleagues on the spacecraft would have to perform a rescue mission.
This would involve another astronaut having to connect multiple tethers together for the astronaut to haul themselves back in with.
If the floating astronaut had been knocked unconscious, then their colleague would have to use the string of tethers as well as their SAFER to bring them back to the spacecraft.
Such a mission is yet to take place, and there is a reason for that.
Has Anyone Floated Off In Space?
So far, no. Unless you count George Clooney’s floaty trip in the 2013 film Gravity, no one has ever had to be rescued from floating off into space because no one has yet been subjected to such a frightening experience.
There have been some close calls, though.
In 1977, a Soviet cosmonaut by the name of Georgi Grechko started to float away from his spacecraft soon after detaching from his tether.
Luckily, his commander, who was nearby at the time, was able to grab Grechko’s leg before pulling him back to the spacecraft.
It’s safe to say Grechko probably owed his commander an astronomical beer right after he’d changed his space diaper!
There was one astronaut who went to extreme measures just for a good photo opportunity.
In 1984, US astronaut, Bruce McCandless, was the first to float freely in space, without any attachment to his spacecraft.
A famous picture was taken of Bruce calmly floating above Earth, but how did he get back?
Well, Bruce was using an MMU (Manned Manoeuvring Unit), which allowed him to perform extravehicular activities untethered, as long as he was within close proximity of the spacecraft.
The MMU was used by NASA on three missions before being judged as too dangerous and consequently retired from use.
Read more: What Happens If An Astronaut Floats Off In Space?
Can You Stop Floating In Space?
You can’t stop floating in space because there is no gravity.
If we were to stop floating, it would be down to a sudden presence of a gravitational center.
Earth, for example, is a gravitational center.
We don’t float when we are on Earth because of gravity’s existence.
When up in space, the gravitational pull that Earth holds on us is so weak that we simply float around in space.
Other planets have gravity, but if Earth’s isn’t strong enough to pull us back down, then Jupiter certainly hasn’t got the power to either (even if it is a much bigger planet).
So, if there was enough gravity in space, it would need to have a center point.
Whatever that was would pull us down to it.
Fortunately for the astronauts, there isn’t gravity in space. Otherwise, they’d be plummeting towards this center at great speed.
Now you might be thinking, ‘hang on a second, I saw that Red Bull guy jump from space and land on Earth.
How come he was able to stop floating and fall back down to Earth’. Well, he didn’t stop floating….at first.
We already know that one potential outcome for an astronaut that floats off into space is that they arrive in the Earth’s atmosphere, where they are fried alive.
This is because, whilst there is hardly any gravity in space, Earth still has a slight gravitational pull on objects close by.
As the space jumper floated closer towards Earth, the level of gravity would increase.
Eventually, the presence of gravity would be so strong that he would stop floating and start to fall down to the surface at a much greater speed.
Why didn’t he meet the horrible fate he was supposed to?
Red Bull prepared for this. The jumper was wearing a pressurized suit that protected him from the drastic change in air pressure.
Ok, so if objects always float in space but are always moving back towards Earth, how does anything stay up in space for a long period of time.
Well, the spacecrafts that astronauts work on are constantly falling towards Earth because of its gravitational pull.
However, the spacecrafts never hit the ground due to the tremendous speed at which they orbit the Earth.
There’s no doubt that floating into space is an occupational hazard when up amongst the stars.
The fear of this happening is a very real one amongst astronauts.
Even those of us non-astronauts who saw Gravity probably have nightmares about it happening to us.
Fortunately, at this stage, the cinema screen is the only place an astronaut has been reported floating off into space.
Hopefully, it will remain that way.
Advancements in technology have allowed astronauts to perhaps be a little more carefree, knowing that they can simply jet-pack their way back to safety.
Even so, if you do find yourself up in space, don’t go for a wander.
Love learning about astronauts? Then why not read my other articles:
- Why Does An Astronaut Weigh Less On The Moon?
- Can Astronauts Walk After Returning From Space?
- What Do Astronauts Do When Not In Space?
- What Happens If You Take Your Helmet Off In Space?
- Can You Survive In Space With Only A Helmet?
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.