Has Anyone Ever Floated Away in Space?

20th Mar 2024
Has Anyone Ever Floated Away in Space?

The job of an astronaut is not only one of many responsibilities; it’s dangerous. The price of any mistake can be very high. That is why only the best fly into space, and the best of the best go out of the spacecraft into outer space. But even then, the risks to their lives are very real. In this article, you will learn if anyone has floated away in space, and what happens if an astronaut floats off in space.

Can You Float Away in Space?

Easily. In zero gravity, any limb movements do not change either speed or course. The trajectory will depend on the last push from the surface. The direction of the impulse is the direction in which you’ll fly endlessly. So, the image from the space movies, when a spacesuit is moving away from the ship, is quite realistic, and this is one of the most powerful fears, as the astronauts themselves admit.

Is There Any Protection Against Floating Away in Space?

Astronaut in space
Astronaut uses a safety halyard. Credit: april12.eu

The most reliable insurance used today is a winch with an attached cable. Can an astronaut float away in space that way? Yes, a strapped-in astronaut can move away from the ship or station as far as the cable length allows it. The cable is made of high-strength Kevlar-based materials and is designed specifically for harsh space conditions, so it takes incredible force to break it.

The second, less reliable option is using various jet devices, backpacks, and modules that allow the astronaut to move in zero gravity outside the spacecraft. With their help, you can change the direction of movement and try to adjust the course towards the ship. If this succeeds, there is a chance to grab the handrails or the hand of a fellow astronaut and return to the ship. This is why astronauts always work in pairs outside of a spacecraft or station.

Starting with the Gemini mission and continuing into the early 1990s, NASA and other agencies attempted to develop mechanized fall arrest devices, but they did not work out well. Today, private companies are developing new-generation extravehicular activity suits, and there is hope that they will be used in the Artemis lunar mission.

What Happens If an Astronaut Floats Off in Space?

If, for some reason, the insurance did not work (the cable unfastened or broke off, the spacesuit’s jet device failed), and you moved away from the spacecraft to a distance that does not allow your partner to grab you, you are doomed. Like all bodies in zero gravity, you will continue endless movement, slowly rotating around your own axis.

If the last push sends the astronaut towards the Earth, then, after a while, this person will reach the Earth’s gravity zone, begin to fall down, and will burn in the dense layers of the atmosphere because the spacesuit is not designed for such heat loads.

If the final impulse sent an astronaut into outer space, the end would be orbiting the planet like an artificial satellite even after running out of oxygen.

If the astronaut manages to adjust the trajectory towards the ship using a jet module or a backpack, another potential danger arises — damage to the spacesuit in a collision with the ship’s coating. If the integrity of the suit is compromised, decompression and instant death will follow.

Has anyone floated away in space?

Fortunately, most of the horror stories shown to us in movies never happened in real life. So, the answer to the question has an astronaut ever floated away in space and died, is a negative one. However, there were cases where this might have happened.

Joseph Kerwin, working in outer space
Astronaut Joseph Kerwin, working in outer space, helps Charles Conrad uncover a solar panel; 7 June 1973. Credit: images.nasa.gov

1973, Charles Conrad and Joe Kerwin

In 1973, Skylab astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad and Joe Kerwin were thrown away by a solar panel they were trying to manually deploy, but their tethers saved them from floating away.

1977, Yuri Romanenko

In 1977, aboard the Soviet space station Salyut 6, astronaut Georgy Grechko took an extravehicular walk, and when he returned to the airlock, crew commander Yuri Romanenko wanted to look outside. Grechko gave way to him, but Romanenko pushed himself too hard and began to move away from the station. He had not attached his cable and would have flown away, but fortunately, Grechko managed to grab his leg and drag him inside.

1984, Bruce McCandless

In 1984, during the shuttle mission STS-51-A, astronaut Bruce McCandless was testing the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) in outer space and moved almost 100 m away from the Challenger spacecraft. Had the device malfunctioned, Bruce would have been stuck there forever. Rumor has it that the MMU engine actually suffered a malfunction, and the astronaut was unable to return to the shuttle. Crew members allegedly came to his rescue and used the shuttle’s robotic arm to save their colleague.

1997, Michael Foale

The last known case occurred in 1997. Astronaut Michael Foale broke his tether during a spacewalk, but he managed to grab the handrail at the Mir station and buckle himself back in. This incident does not appear in official sources, but it could have happened because a dangerous accident occurred on that mission as a Progress supply ship had collided with MIR, and Foale spent a lot of time outside the station, working in extreme conditions.

So, there have been astronauts who floated away a bit, but fortunately, they all managed to return to their spacecraft. However, risks still exist, and we hope that modern technologies will allow us to create such extravehicular activity units that will never again urge us to ask the sad question: has anyone floated away in space?

References and Additional Information:

  • The Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU)
  • The Next-Generation Spacesuit
  • Bruce McCandless American naval aviator and astronaut
  • 50 Years Ago: Skylab 2 Astronauts Splash Down After Record-Breaking 28-day Mission
  • Remembering near-death dramas on a Russian space station
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