Let’s look ahead to the future. Close your eyes and picture the technologically advanced world at the dawn of the 21st century, all the way to the year 2001! By this time, as predicted by author Arthur C. Clark and director Stanley Kubrick, we will have manned space flights to Jupiter and beyond. Pan-Am space planes will have been around for years. Artificially intelligent, allegedly infallible supercomputers will be capable of being in charge of life support for everyone on board a spacecraft. What could possibly go wrong?
Kubrick’s visionary and groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey presents an ultra-realistic tale of space travel and exploration that didn’t exactly come true more than a decade go. However, even steeped in 60s science, it helped bring science fiction films out of realm of corny monster movies and into the modern age. But how accurate is it?
After the HAL-9000 computer kills Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) by severing his oxygen line while on a space walk outside the Discovery, David Bowman (Keir Dullea) takes an escape pod to save him. However, HAL refuses to let Bowman back into the Discovery. In an act of desperation, Bowman blows the explosive bolts on his pod and leaps into the airlock of the Discovery. He is exposed to approximately 14 seconds of the vacuum of space before he can manually engage the airlock and repressurize the chamber.
As much as we love 2001: A Space Odyssey, that got us thinking: Could someone really survive being exposed to the vacuum of space, even for just 14 seconds?
The Answer: Yes, but it would suck
With the exception of ridiculously cheesy movies like Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, in which Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) literally flies Lacy Warfield (Mariel Hemingway) half-way to the moon without nary a blood vessel bursting (as well as a deleted scene in which Superman flies a child into space), most Hollywood films at least acknowledge the danger of explosive decompression when faced with the vacuum of space.
In one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Event Horizon, Ensign Justin (Jack Noseworthy) is expelled from an airlock, which results in massive trauma to his flesh and his eyeballs bursting into strings of blood and eye goo. Mission to Mars sees Tim Robbins pull off his space helmet and flash-freeze like a package of supermarket spinach. These are, not surprisingly, more extreme versions of what would actually happen, exhibiting the excessive creative license of Paul W.S. Anderson and Brian DePalma.
According to William P. Jeffs from NASA:
“The 14 seconds in vacuum would have been unpleasant but survivable.”
Jeffs points to Air Force experimentation on chimpanzees as evidence. Back in the 1960s, the Air Force conducted a series of tests on chimpanzees, among which they inflicted sudden decompression on 17 subjects and left them in a vacuum between 5 and 210 seconds. All but one of the chimpanzees survived and recovered from the experiments with no noticeable cognitive or nerve damage. The only subject that died, who was exposed to a vacuum for 90 seconds, was an older chimpanzee with high blood pressure and a heart abnormality.
Of course, these chimps were put in a 100% oxygen environment from 4-to-24 hours to recover. David Bowman had to walk to the HAL-9000 central core and deactivate the supercomputer’s higher brain functions before traveling through a stargate and becoming a star-child. This wasn’t exactly a relaxing day for him.
But what about those explosive bolts?
Bowman was definitely not working in a 100% atmosphere situation because he used explosive bolts to break into the Discovery’s airlock. As a general rule, pure oxygen and explosions don’t play nice together.
In the early days of the space program, explosive bolts were commonplace. Space capsules are notoriously compact and crowded, so Bowman was crouching right next to them when they went off. However, he would be likely perfectly safe. As Jeffs points out, “Given the fact that all but one Mercury astronaut fired the explosive bolts to egress the side hatch, I don’t think proximity is an issue.”
It’s not that explosive bolts haven’t posed a threat to some astronauts. In fact, when Gus Grissom splashed down in his Mercury capsule on July 21, 1961, the explosive bolts fired prematurely, and he had to scramble out of the capsule before it sunk like a stone to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. While explosive bolts have their hazards, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowman was in very little risk of drowning while orbiting Jupiter.
So, we’re cool in the vacuum of space, right?
I wouldn’t want to spend my vacation at 0 mm Hg, but biology can be highly resilient. It’s been more than 45 years since 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, and it continues to be one of the most scientifically accurate depictions of space travel ever committed to film. Even today in a post-Star Wars, post-CGI world, the effects hold up. Compared to films that were actually released in 2001, like Tim Burton’s not-so-epic retelling of Planet of the Apes or the CGI mess that is Cats & Dogs, 14 seconds in explosive decompression might be desirable.
Just don’t put an “infallible” supercomputer in charge of anything. Those things are egomaniacs.