You’re in trouble. On a mission of international importance and life-saving significance that only you can complete, you have been set adrift in space. Your heroic attempt to repair a crucial bit of satellite technology has gone awry, and now you’re drifting further and further away from your buddies — who, you’re convinced, are already preparing their tearful yet stoic remarks to the news media about how you died furthering the cause of space science. What do you do?
If your answer was something along the lines of “Spend a few minutes screaming then quietly begin peeing yourself”, then you need to chill out. Also, you probably wouldn’t have been selected for the space program.
Here’s the good news about getting lost in space. It’s actually really, really difficult to die because of it.
Obviously, your first priority is actually getting back to a place of safety, somewhere you can wipe those crocodile tears off the faces of your so-called friends. But get this: if you drifted off at a right angle to their orbit, you don’t actually have to do anything. Just stay put, and in an hour or two the laws of orbital dynamics will see you drift right back to them. Please don’t ask me to explain how this works. It involves a lot of numbers and squiggly lines, and frankly, I’m not sure I have what it takes to do it justice.
But let’s say that you didn’t drift off at just the right angle. In fact, let’s say things aren’t looking good. You’re spinning away, out of control, the only sound your harsh and ragged breathing in the confines of your suddenly very constricting spacesuit helmet.
Take a few really deep breaths and remember that your spacesuit has a jet pack on it with quite a lot of fuel. It’s called the Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue (SAFER — the EVA stands for Extra-Vehicular Activity, or spacewalk). It runs off gaseous nitrogen propellant. Assuming you can right yourself, you can navigate your way back to your friends. It’ll be difficult, but it’s certainly possible.
Out of fuel? Been a little bit too extravagant with the old gaseous nitrogen propellant? Not to worry. You’ve got two oxygen tanks and some carbon dioxide filters which, working together, mean you’ve got about six to eight hours of air. Even if you’ve burned half that, you’ve still got four hours before you really start to run into problems. And hey, you’ve got water, thanks to an inbuilt pack and a rubber to inside the helmet. No food, but you’re not exactly going to be out there long enough to starve to death, are you? At the very worst, you’ll die feeling mildly peckish.
And you really do need those six to eight hours, because the only way you’re getting out of this now is if your friends come and get you. There’s no way they’re just flying their spaceship over to you; it takes far too long to manoeuvre, and often struggles to do so with the accuracy needed to capture a wayward astronaut. One option, floated by Popular Science, is to have an enterprising buddy link several tethers together, and make her way over to you using her own SAFER.
If that fails… well, at least you’ll have a nice view.
Rob Boffard is the author of Tracer and Zero-G, and the upcoming Impact — all published by Orbit in the US and UK. For more on Rob’s books and writing, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.