So far, all the space exploration related events that resulted in Loss of Crew (LOC) took a complete crew, and as far as we're aware, no accident in space that resulted in the loss of human life, be it during launch, descent, or even while on the launchpad (Apollo 1), left any surviving crew member astronauts/cosmonauts.

This got me thinking that there must be some procedures in place that would be followed by surviving crew members in the eventuality of a loss of a single or a few members, but not a complete crew. I'm in particular interested in procedures in place while aboard space stations or manned spacecraft in space, but since that's possibly still a bit too broad, let's limit ourselves to how such events are supposed to be handled by surviving crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

A few points to my question that I'd like answers to address/discuss:

  • Body retrieval in the event of LOC during Extravehicular Activity (EVA)
  • Body storage aboard the spacecraft/space station and transport to the Earth
  • Procedures that are in place, and in effect for surviving crew of any nationality
  • Notifying spouse and/or family members, and their further contact with the surviving crew
  • How much do LOC procedures vary across nations participating in activities aboard the ISS
  • Order of importance (priority) of any of these procedures

As I suspect such documentation might already be available online, I will accept answers covering most of these points above in freeform quotes and my own description, and referencing used literature (attaching links, where possible). The scope of the question is trying to get an impression of such procedures, with an emphasis on the effects of such an event on the surviving crew members and their ability to cope with it, and how much they can count on support from the ground crew.

In a nutshell, how well are the ISS astronauts prepared for any such eventuality?

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ This document from NASA contains a lot of information about potential loss of crew situations, but I couldn't find answers to any of your specific questions. $\endgroup$
    – called2voyage
    Commented Sep 5, 2013 at 14:32
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ Immediately start looking for the crew member. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Adler
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 2:08

1 Answer 1


During the Gemini missions, when we started sending more than one person at a time in a spacecraft and also doing thinks like EVAs, these eventualities were discussed in detail.

  • Body retrieval - wouldn't happen. SOP, if a crew member becomes separated from the ship (alive or dead) and cannot return to it, is to leave him behind. Energy, such as fuel, is a fundamental constraint of our spacecraft, and spending it to retrieve a stranded crewman may put the entire mission in jeopardy.
  • Body storage - Only an issue if the person died while aboard the spacecraft (as in the previous point). Procedures would depend on the spacecraft, its current configuration, the agenda for the mission and the wishes of the family. If the family wishes it and it's possible, the body can be returned to Earth by simply strapping it into the person's seat, or storing it in their sleeping bag. Almost any situation involving a crew fatality, however, would likely be an emergency, and such concerns would be secondary.
    • A fatality of one crewmember on a Gemini mission would depend on whether an EVA was planned; the body may be released into space during the EVA. If an EVA was not planned or had already occurred, the deceased crewmember would likely be belted in their seat and would simply ride back down to Earth.
    • For a fatality on an Apollo moon mission while in transit to the moon, the mission would likely be aborted in much the same manner Apollo 13 was. While in lunar orbit, if the CMP died with the LEM on the lunar surface, that may well be a fatal situation for the entire crew, as the CMP has to coordinate with the LEM as it returns. Either of the pair in the LEM, while it's on the lunar surface, could be left there if they died. During the return leg, the body could be placed in a spacesuit (to control the odor) and left in the LEM to be jettisoned. After LEM jettison, the body would simply be strapped into the person's seat and would ride down to Earth with the rest of the crew, likely being committed to the sea by the crew of the recovery vessel.
    • A fatality aboard the Shuttle would either be committed to space from the airlock or would be stowed in their sleeping bag for return to Earth.
    • A fatality aboard the ISS, or any other station, would likely be handled similarly, with the additional option of placing the body aboard a Soyuz or Dragon for return to Earth.
  • As far as procedures for surviving crewmembers, if they're in contact with Mission Control, the Flight Director makes the call regarding whether to continue or abort, and what the surviving crewmembers should do with the body. If they're not in contact with the ground at the time, and regaining contact is unlikely, the ranking member of the crew makes the call. In almost all cases, while there are specialists on every crew, everyone can do anyone's job when it comes to keeping the spacecraft running and performing basic mission functions. This is in contrast to most space sci-fi, where it's often a critical plot point that only one guy knows how to do something mission-critical. Even the situation in Apollo 13 where Swigert's being counted on to dock with the LEM, was fictionalized a little; in real life, if Swigert couldn't have docked the CSM with the LEM, either of the other two people in that spacecraft could have, and everyone would have gotten a try before they scrubbed the mission.
  • Notifying spouse/family members: This will happen as soon as the death is confirmed, because NASA's communications loop is available to the media, and so if there's a problem the media will know about it very quickly and tell the entire world about it.
  • I wouldn't know how different any member agency's procedures could be; what's possible becomes sharply limited when you're in a tin can, hundreds of miles from help.
  • The #1 priority in an LOC scenario is always the life and safety of the surviving crew, followed very closely by salvaging as much of the mission as is possible. These priorities may be reversed in the right circumstances; while humans don't like to discuss assigning a monetary value to life, it happens regularly for a variety of practical and legal reasons. By most such measurements (e.g. lifetime earnings potential), the vehicle and the mission, even in a "routine" trip to the ISS or deploying/maintaining a satellite, are many orders of magnitude more expensive than any one crewmember.
  • 22
    $\begingroup$ "...the vehicle and the mission, even in a "routine" trip to the ISS or deploying/maintaining a satellite, are many orders of magnitude more expensive than any one crewmember." A LOC event in a space program will have severe political, logistical, and funding repercussions that will outweigh the pure-capitalism monetary value of a life. I would expect that mission control would prefer to save a life rather than save, e.g. a billion-dollar space telescope, and even if they didn't, I'd bet most mission commanders would save the life even at the cost of their career. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 17:06
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ "Almost any situation involving a crew fatality, however, would likely be an emergency, and such concerns would be secondary." - mightn't a medical issue potentially cause a fatality, but not be an emergency situation, e.g. blood clot lodged in brain leading to stroke etc might be unfortunate, but not enough to immediately scrub the mission, given that the other crew members are able to fill in and cover that crew member's duties. $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Commented Jun 5, 2017 at 13:05
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Disposing of the body in space on missions utilizing smaller craft, like Gemini, Apollo or Soyuz, would cause a serious weight distribution problem on reentry. (Shuttle would "shrug it off" and there's enough junk on ISS to provide a dummy weight for the returning craft to balance it in absence of a crew member.) $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Commented Jun 6, 2017 at 22:47
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @SF.: I'm certain that Apollo or Soyuz could be balanced in all cases and the manuals for Gemini indicated it could handle re-entry with one empty seat. $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 5:03
  • $\begingroup$ @RussellBorogove I think The Martian depicted this quite well, regarding the political implications of saving or not the stranded astronaut, putting the rest of the crew at risk, etc... $\endgroup$
    – gromain
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 10:44

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