Monday, November 28, 2011

Medical Mondays: Step into Outer Space

Today, I'm tackling Fiona L's great question from a few weeks ago:

"My fictional scenario has to do with space. Or generally, when you take oxygen out of a room. What will happen to the person? How long will it take for them to realise they can't breathe? What symptoms come first and how long before they kaputz... And out of curiosity, why oxygen? What's so special about oxygen that we need? Why not any other types..."

Oxygen. How I love thee, let my brain count the ways...
See this formula?

C6H12O6 + 6 O2 + 38 ADP + 38 phosphate → 6 CO2 + 6 H2O + 38 ATP

In non-chemistry speak, that means "sugar + oxygen = energy."

This is one of the many equations for why we're alive. Without oxygen and glucose, you can't live.

And out of curiosity, why oxygen? Why not nitrogen, or helium? (See the Botanist's great comment below--well said!) Without getting all Carl Sagan-ish on you, basically, that's how life on earth simply is. Life is based on carbon building blocks (like sugar, and protein, etc) and oxygen as the means to make it run. Perhaps on another planets or systems, things could evolve to run on other elements? I'm sure a chemist would laugh at me for saying that, but it's fun to imagine.

When you take oxygen out of a room, what will happen to the person?
So your body needs oxygen, particularly your brain. When it doesn't get enough blood supply (meaning the delivery of oxygen), it stops working = you pass out. In an oxygen-less environment, that might take a minute, more or less.

What Fiona's question is dancing around, though, is what about if you were in a vacuum? Like in outer space? That doesn't mean a room without oxygen, or even a room with a Hoover. It means a room without ANYTHING, including pressure and air.

If a person took a foolish, naked step off the Space Shuttle, they'd encounter the following:
  • no oxygen
  • no pressure
  • extremely low temperatures

Living on earth means we are in a tightly pressurized cocoon of oxygen and other gases, courtesy of our atmosphere, which sticks to the earth because of gravity. At or above the Armstrong limit, around 62,000 feet above the earth's surface, the lack of pressure will cause oxygen dissolved in human blood to form bubbles. Yeah, that's boiling blood.

Now, at 62,000 feet, your body's tissues and skin are tough enough to keep up the pressure within the body so you don't explode, but you will start to have serious symptoms of altitude sickness, caused by these forming bubbles in the blood and tissues. Also, if it's a sudden exposure, the symptoms are worse.

In space, what would happen?
  1. Without a spacesuit and with full body exposure to space's vacuum, you'd last maybe with 15 seconds of consciousness.
  2. If they could get you back on the shuttle immediately, into a re-compression chamber and with intensive medical care, you might survive.
  3. Before you passed out, you'd notice your saliva boiling off your tongue (this is not "hot," temperature wise--it would be the sensation of liquid quickly bubbling and vaporizing away), fluid/blood frothing in your lungs, mouth and eyes, and maybe the extreme cold temperature (well below zero).
  4. Soon, your heart would stop (asystole, or "flat lined" at the 2 minute mark, or probably earlier--see my comment about the Soyuz 11 disaster in the the comments section), and the entire time, gas bubbles would expand in your body. Blood vessels would pop through your skin as your blood vaporized into space. Some of it would coagulate on your skin or air passageways. Your lungs would suffer from popped air passages filling with boiling and/or coagulating blood.
  5. At the five minute mark, your heart and brain are permanently damaged and frying away. And yes, at this point, you're probably very dead.


A fascinating, if not ewwww-ish topic for today. Thanks Fiona!

There were a few references I used to research this topic.

Can you survive space without a spacesuit? This is a good one. In the sci-fi movie Sunshine, a guy takes a spacewalk with a suit and survives. This article explains how it might have made sense.

Ebullism at 1 million feet: The human struggle with altitude. There are examples of people surviving explosive decompression above the Armstrong limit. I did not make up the boiling saliva comment, it's from this reference.

If you've got a fictional medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at
All I ask is that you become a follower and post a link on your blog when I post your answer. This is for fictional scenarios, only. Please check out the boring but necessary disclaimer on my sidebar --->
Also, don't forget to stop by Laura Diamond's Mental Health Mondays and Sarah Fine's The Strangest Situation for great psychiatric and psychological viewpoints on all things literary. :)

Now follow Medical Mondays on Twitter! #MedMondays

56 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

Fascinating! :)

Sarah said...

I always love references! This is one of your more ew posts, Lydia, but very well done as always. I have learned enough to avoid naked space-walking. Thank you.

salarsenッ said...

'K, you lost me with your equation. lol JK. Seriously fascinating post!! I think I'm lightheaded. Must breath deeply...

Natalie Aguirre said...

Very interesting but something I definitely don't want to experience.

Stephen Tremp said...

Now this was a fun post to read! I can see using this in a book. Maybe a person traversing a wormhole accidently gets spit out half way to their destination and this is what happens to their bodies during their last minutes of life.

Talli Roland said...

Yikes! Remind me not to go into space without my special suit!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Biochemistry and physiology. Oh, how I love them. :D

Great post, Lydia!

LTM said...

That is truly disgusting. The thought of anything bubbling in my body gives me the willies. :p

But you know crazy-good Q&A as always~ :o) <3

Old Kitty said...

I embrace oxygen! I love oxygen! I heart oxygen! I never ever ever want to be free of the stuff! LOL! Yay for oxygen! Take care
x

Little Ms. Fun said...

I literally started breathing harder when I read this. Well, now I know why I love oxygen so much and have this horrible fear of losing it. I don't swim for fear of drowning and I hate elevators for fear of closed places. Deeeeppp Breathee!! hahaha

Bossy Betty said...

I'll never look at oxygen the same way!

Linda Gray said...

The very question had me running for my (non-existent) oxygen mask, imagining COPD symptoms as just a tease of things to come. Yeesh! Brilliant info., though. Saliva bubbling off your tongue? Prolonged stoppage of bodily systems, but only 15 seconds of consciousness--that's a relief!

Amanda Borenstadt said...

That is way fascinating! And graphic! LOL

If you pair today's Medical Monday with Laura's Mental Health Monday post of the day (on Pleading Insanity), somebody could write an interesting murder story about going crazy and killing somebody by taking oxygen out of a room. :)

Connie Keller said...

Boiling blood and saliva. Kind of cool. I think I saw an episode of Battlestar Galactica where a character went "into space" w/o a space suit for a brief period and survived.

Meredith said...

Boiling blood? How creepy!

David P. King said...

This post is truly awesome! :)

julie fedderson said...

For a real life account of this, look at the Soyuz 11 Soviet Space disaster, where three astronauts lost their lives from depressurization in space. (I studied the root cause analysis of why it happened. I really am not that big of a space nut).

E. Arroyo said...

Wow. This is some great info.

Jessica Bell said...

Wow. I love reading about how people can die. That's really morbid, I know :) But you like writing about it, so I think we're even :o) lol

Lydia Kang said...

Hey Julie, thank you for that comment. In the Soyuz disaster (which was the only known death of humans in space, as opposed to high altitude) the three cosmonauts died of apparent cardiac arrest 40 seconds after depressurization. I think my numbers are probably too kind, in fact.

JEM said...

Ohh, spooky. What great research you do! My takeaway from this article: horrible painful things will happen to you in space. Maybe stay on Earth.

Krispy said...

This is probably more than I ever wanted to know, but it was also kind of awesome in a scary way? Haha. As usual, thanks for these interesting tidbits!

Heather said...

*shudders* Yikes! This is fascinating though. I've often wondered what would really happen if one was thrust into space for whatever reason. Thanks, I'm bookmarking this!

Bathwater said...

That is probably the grossest explanation you have ever given us. :).

Jillian said...

Very interesting and disturbing, which I guess is what makes for a great Medical Monday post ;-). It also made me wonder: is run-of-the-mill altitude sickness, like what you might get hiking mountains in Colorado, also the result of the oxygen bubbles and "boiling blood" you mentioned? Yikes!
Also, I loved the phrase "not to get all Carl Sagan-ish on you."

Roland D. Yeomans said...

A totally fascinating post -- especially to a science fiction fan like me (opening scene of OUTLAND). So we freeze while our blood boils? Brrr! Great imagination to come up with this post, Roland

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I knew what happened, just not how fast. I've seen several science fiction movies that show people caught in such a situation that survive by exhaling all air.

Emily Rose said...

Yikes! How unpleasant...

Ghenet Myrthil said...

Fascinating. Note to self: don't go to space without a suit. ;)

Jennifer Hillier said...

Why couldn't you have been my science teacher in high school? You make everything so easy to understand. And you make it fun and cool, too.

Great post, Lydia.

Liza said...

Okay. I'm just going to hang out here on Earth.

mooderino said...

Very interesting. Movies sometimes show a man in space without a suit blowing up like a beachball, is that possible?

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino
The Funnily Enough

Carrie Butler said...

I kept taking deep, greedy gulps of air while reading this. I didn't even realize it until the end. *grins* Great work as always, Lydia! :)

A Lady's Life said...

I guess this would apply to diving too when you would need decompressing.
Kinda scary isn't it?

E.R. King said...

As you said, ewwwish, but fascinating. I hope I never experience these situations first hand!

Vicki Rocho said...

Oh how I love Medical Mondays! The thought of saliva boiling off the tongue is a vivid one.

Thank you for continuing to educate us!

Nancy Thompson said...

Can I just say...your freakin' brilliant! Having read this, I have a medical question I'd like to toss at you sometime. It deals with a scene in my own novel.

JEFritz said...

As I actually have a scene where this applies, this was awesome to read. Thank you for explaining it.

Karen Lange said...

This is why I am not planning to step off the shuttle anytime soon. Thanks for the info!

Botanist said...

I'm glad you posted this. In one of my WIPs, the MC gets ejected from an air lock when a docking tunnel comes adrift. The opposite lock isn't too far, but she has to scramble to open it up. I figured maybe 10 to 15 seconds before she loses the plot, so I'm glad to hear a medical expert saying something similar.

About the question "why oxygen?", I guess the simple reason is that it is highly reactive (see how well it rusts iron!) so it is easy to use in an energy-liberating reaction. Nitrogen isn't nearly so attention-seeking, and helium is inert therefore useless for powering anything.

Alleged Author said...

Boiling blood. What an awful way to die. Isn't that what the bends are (in water)?

Kelly Polark said...

Fascinating post as usual.
And I'll be staying on Earth, thank you. :)

Mrs. Silverstein said...

Ughhhhhhhhh...but, thanks, because I will be showing this post to my husband. I don't issue a lot of edicts, but I did put the kibosh on any notions he might have entertained of space travel (including any possible someday space elevators, or commercial space flight.) This will back me up nicely.

Shelley Munro said...

Another interesting post, Lydia. It did make me squirm a little and feel thankful for oxygen!

Theresa Milstein said...

This exact scenario takes places in the book Inside Out by Maria V Snyder. Scary scene! Now I know the real reason behind it.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Another most excellent Medical Monday, Lydia. I never would've guessed people would 'boil' out there. Ewewew.

Laila Knight said...

Wow this is some deep physics. Oxygen depravation...experienced it first hand while having an asthma attack. As for surviving in space, Earthlings would hack it, but I'll bet there are countless of aliens species out there who would be just fine. So if we can't live without glucose, does that mean that something like the protein diet would kill us?

Have a great day. :)

Coleen Patrick said...

Hi Lydia! Found you from Laura B's site. Cool blog, felt compelled to follow :) I can't say I understood all of this post, but I now know for sure not to step out of the space shuttle--at least not naked!

Susan Fields said...

Sounds pretty unpleasant all around!

Cold As Heaven said...

I remember we learnt the ATP-ADP cycle in high school. Interesting stuff. Even on earth there are organisms that live without oxygen, anaerobic bacteria and stuff like that >:)

Cold As Heaven

Carol Kilgore said...

Wow. Simply wow. Sorry I'm so late here. Yukky Sinus Headache.

Southpaw said...

Medical Mondays are always so fascinating.

Jillian said...

Another comment from me, because I'm still thinking about boiling blood... so it's only logical to award you the One Lovely Blog award for that lovely image, right? (It made sense in my head.)

Here it is.

Seriously though, I love Medical Mondays and your blog in general. Keep being amazing!

Stephanie D said...

I'm diggin your Medical Mondays...even if I'm reading it on Wednesday.
:)

Munk said...

Cool post Lydia...
My family is off to the Kennedy Space Center soon. I hope they have an extra space suit. My blood will just boil if they don't.

Fiona L said...

YES!!!!! Thank you so much Lydia!!! I am so using this =DDDD Sorry I didn't read this sooner, the internet has been dead for awhile and it's working slowly again. Once again thank you for answering my question! *rubs hands together* Can't wait to start including the symptoms. Greatly appreciated!

 
ALL CONTENT © 2012 THE WORD IS MY OYSTER / BLOG DESIGN © 2012 SMITTEN BLOG DESIGNS