Do You Have to Be a Guardian of the Galaxy to Survive the Vacuum of Space?

Warning! There are light spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy in this post. Look away now if you don’t want to know anything about the movie (although, if you don’t, why did you click on this link?!).

The short answer is no. The long answer involves dogs and chimps.

In Marvel’s latest sci-fi excursion Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill a/k/a Star-Lord, looks on in terror as his green companion Gamora floats through the void after her ship is destroyed by a rogue necro-blast. Knowing that she won’t survive without his help, Quill decides to go against the advice of Rocket and tries to save her. Her face ices over as Quill jets across empty space towards her, finally giving her his breathing mask. The two float in the void near “Knowhere,” unprotected, for maybe 90 seconds or less before they are saved and resuscitated. Shouldn’t their eyes explode and bodies freeze or something?

How long does a hero have in the vacuum of space? Maybe 15 seconds to do whatever he needs to do, and then another minute or so to hope someone comes along.

Death by cosmic void is not a pretty death because our whole lives are pressurized. The gases that fill your lungs and bolster your blood and other bodily fluids are always under the atmospheric pressure of Earth. In space, there is effectively no surrounding pressure and so these gases are compelled to escape by physics.

If your lungs were filled with air and you were thrust out into space, the air would quickly rush out and freeze your mouth and airways as it went. The water in your body’s tissues would boil away (boiling temperature drops with pressure, which is why it’s easier to boil water at high altitude), causing a significant bloat of skin and eyes. Dissolved gas bubbles in your blood would block circulation almost immediately, and you would likely pass out due to lack of oxygen to the brain in as little as 15 seconds.

At least one recommendation presents itself: exhale. NASA explains that holding your breath in space, even though it seems like a sensible idea, would probably cause permanent lung damage as air escaped you. But to be clear, NASA also notes, “You do not explode. Your blood does not boil. You do not freeze. You do not instantly lose consciousness.” It’s looking good for Gamora and Quill. But you’d probably get a nasty, literal sunburn.

We know what Quill and Gamora would experience because of the tests we have done on unfortunate animals. In 1965 we exposed dogs to near-vacuums in special chambers and, if rescued within 90 seconds, they all survived. But again, it wasn’t pretty. As Anna Gosline explains in detail for Scientific American (fair warning: it will probably ruin your day), the test dogs underwent serious physical trauma, but they lived to wag another day. The dogs that were exposed for two minutes or less usually returned to normal after 15 minutes or so, though dogs held for over two minutes didn’t always return.

Chimpanzees fared better. Testing chimps in near vacuums showed that they could be revived after three and a half minutes without lasting physical or cognitive damage. Seeing how close chimps are to humans in physiology and cognition, that’s good news for Star-Lord.

Estimating how long Quill and Gamora were exposed to the vacuum of space in Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s plausible that they would have survived unharmed, as they did in the film. They might have been able to go without being rescued for even longer. Of course, a simpler way to survive a harsh environment is to have “body mods” like Gamora has or partial alien physiology like Quill. But if you need a real-world example of the kind of organism that can survive space, look closely at a patch of moss.

The tiny tardigrade—or moss piglet as you should always call it—is one of the hardiest organisms we know. These little creatures can survive being frozen and near incineration, can live with pressures 6,000 times greater that what our atmosphere puts on us, handles doses of radiation thousands of times beyond what would kill us, and in one famous test weathered the vacuum of space unprotected for 10 whole days.

Maybe Peter Quill’s father is secretly a tardigrade; I bet those little creatures could live on an infinity stone.

Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist enterprise. Follow the continued geekery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

IMAGE: Marvel.

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