After considerable debate and several fistfights in which I have been left friendless there remains a great “void” in my mind. What would happen if a person were thrown into the vacuum of space without protective clothing? Some bozos (e.g., my ex-friends) think you (the person thrown into space) would blow up. I however disagree. Please settle this festering wound.
–Juan D. Montoya, Dallas
You sound like a man with a problem, Juan. Maybe a lot of problems. Luckily, this time the facts are on your side. There is such a thing as “explosive decompression,” but that merely refers to the sudden loss of pressure in an air- or spacecraft, not the effect on the occupants. Though your chances of surviving such an experience are slim, your body would not explode (although see below). In fact, if you were able to scramble to safety quickly enough (as the helmetless astronaut did in the famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey), you might emerge virtually unscathed.
To be sure, there are a few troublemakers who would give Cecil an argument on this. Some flight surgeons at NASA, for instance, say death in a vacuum would be almost instantaneous. They offer the following Technicolor scenario: your blood would boil, your eyeballs would explode, and your lungs would turn to red slush.
But the medical literature suggests this view is exaggerated. For one thing, I have never seen anything indicating your eyeballs would explode (although your eardrums might burst). It’s true that in the absence of ambient pressure your blood and other bodily fluids would boil, in the sense that they would turn to vapor. But that’s not as drastic as it sounds. Your soft tissues would swell markedly, but they’d return to normal if you were recompressed within a short time.
It’s possible your lungs might rupture, since in a vacuum the air in them would greatly expand. But experience suggests this is rare even if decompression is extremely rapid. The chances are much greater if your windpipe is closed, making it impossible for the expanding air to escape.
Death would not be instantaneous. It’s believed you’d have 10 to 15 seconds of “useful consciousness” and it’d be several minutes before you’d die. If you were rescued within that time there’s a decent chance you’d survive. Research with chimps and monkeys suggests that if you were exposed to a virtual vacuum for less than 90 to 120 seconds you might not suffer any permanent damage.
That said, there are circumstances involving explosive decompression in which your body might be torn to bits. This would result not from the exposure to a vacuum per se but from injuries caused by the accompanying air blast. I have here a medical journal article about a case of explosive decompression that killed four divers. (They went from high pressure to normal rather than normal to vacuum, but same idea.) The bodies of three of the dead men were outwardly normal. The fourth man, however, was forced through a narrow hatch by the rush of escaping air and his body was reduced to pot roast. Naturally, the authors of the article felt obliged to include pictures, including a close-up of what was left of the face. You might show them to your bozo friends next time they’re chattering about blown-up bodies.
ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO
Many years ago, when I was young and lived in a city far, far away, I was tempted to retaliate against my neighbor’s Miata. Casting about for an innocuous form of annoyance, I chanced upon the old potato-in-the-tail-pipe trick, as described in your columns of November 2 and January 11. Finding, like G. Hall, that one potato tended to be expelled from the tail-pipe, I didn’t quit. Rather, I just mashed four of the suckers in there. Success! Four was too much even for a Miata. Just trying to help those of a vengeful bent amongst your readers. Sign me . . . –“Spuds” McKenzie, Washington, D.C.
Just proves the old adage, Spuds: if at first you don’t succeed, get a bigger hammer.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.