In the new sci-fi film Sunshine, an astronaut named Mace must leave his spacecraft without a protective suit. He makes it through his exposure with only a case of frostbite. Could you really survive outer space without a suit?
Yes, for a very short time. The principle functions of a spacesuit are to create a pressurized, oxygenated atmosphere for astronauts, and to protect them from ultraviolet rays and extreme temperatures. Without it, a spacewalker would asphyxiate from the lack of breathable air and suffer from ebullism, in which a reduction in pressure causes the boiling point of bodily fluids to decrease below the body’s normal temperature. Since it takes a bit of time for these things to kill you, it’s possible to make it through a very quick stint in outer space.
At most, an astronaut without a suit would last about 15 seconds before losing conciousness from lack of oxygen. (That’s how long it would take the body to use up the oxygen left in the blood.) Of course, on Earth, you could hold your breath for several minutes without passing out. But that’s not going to help in a vacuum. In fact, attempting to hold your breath is a sure way to a quick death. To make it for even a few seconds, Sunshine‘s Mace must have expelled the air from his lungs before he ventured into the starry void. If he hadn’t, the vacuum would have caused that oxygen to expand and rupture his lung tissue, forcing fatal air bubbles into his blood vessels, and ultimately his heart and brain. Scuba divers are also at risk for air embolism; they’re instructed not to hold their breath as they ascend from the deep sea.
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