We all know people don’t explode when exposed to space without protection. But science fiction has taken some liberties with vacuum exposure over the years. Here are 19 scenes of people being exposed to space, ranked from the least realistic to the most.
While the explosive decompression scene is a hallmark of science fiction films, there are ways of getting it right: we do know that you don’t explode, boil or flash freeze: when shoved out of an airlock, you do have about fifteen seconds before you pass out from oxygen deprivation and a couple of minutes before you actually die.
So, how does science fiction handle it? Let’s go from ludicrous to good.
19. Total Recall
Towards the end of Total Recall, Quaid throws a bomb and blows out the wall of one of the buildings on Mars. Cohaagen, who triggered the bomb, is sucked out of the building, where he proceeds to explosively decompress in the thin Martian atmosphere.
Why this is completely, utterly wrong: Aspiring screenwriters, repeat after me: you don’t explode in space. You don’t explode in space. Total Recall is a totally grotesque and hilarious scene. It’s a iconic, to be sure, but it’s not what would happen if you found yourself on the surface of Mars without a space suit. Not even close.
On Jupiter’s moon Io, Sean Connery is a sheriff on a mining facility, and discovers that workers are dying: one unfortunate soul rips open his space suit, and explosively decompresses in a ridiculous fashion.
Why this is bonkers: This is one of the worst examples. You don’t swell up like a balloon and pop when you’re exposed to hard vacuum. It’s a dramatic example, because it’s so over the top.
Zaahn has a nightmare in which Crichton gets a crack in his helmet’s visor, and blows up like a balloon, not too unlike what we saw in Outland.
Nope. OK, it’s a dream sequence, and clearly an homage to Outland, but again, this doesn’t happen.
16. Mission To Mars
When the rescue mission reaches Mars, the crew of Mars II needs to evacuate when it’s breached by micrometeoroids. As they make their way to an orbiting resupply module, Woody overshoots. When his wife and fellow crewmates attempt to rescue him, he removes his helmet, killing himself so that they don’t die trying to save him.
Why this is wrong, wrong, wrong: Woody doesn’t explosively decompress, but he does freeze instantly. While you would die fairly quickly in the vacuum of space, it would take a little while for the heat to leave your body for you to freeze like this.
15. Event Horizon
During the film, the ship’s chief engineer Ensign Justin is possessed and goes into an airlock, where he tries to commit suicide by opening the doors.
Why this is wrong: When Justin’s airlock looses pressure, he begins bleeding quite a bit, and being exposed to the vacuum of space isn’t going to do that. On the plus side, though, he does survive, and he’s brought back into the airlock.
The Killjoys crew is trapped on a derelict ship, where they come across an insane scientist with some nanites that have killed off the rest of the crew. When her ship, Lucy, detaches, she has to make the jump through space to get back on board.
Wait, really? We see this tactic later on, with Sunshine, but this isn’t as well done. The nanites are used to alternatively heal and torture people – but they can’t do one while they do the other. So, while Dutch is infected, she makes the jump, realising that they will heal her while she’s exposed to vacuum. The depiction here is a lot more dramatic than what would actually happen. But, she doesn’t die or explode.
13. Dark Matter
At the end of Episode Ten, Two is forced into an airlock: another crew is trying to get from information from the crew of the Raza, and threaten to space her if they don’t come clean. The her crew gives up the code, but she’s spaced anyway.
Eh, we’ll go with it: It makes for a great cliffhanger, but this is one of those science fiction handwaving moments. Two survives because she’s an advanced synthetic human, which gives her some extra abilities and nanites that protect her. The crew believes that she died, which shows that for normal people, going into space without a suit is hazardous to your health. So, other than the hand-waving technology magic, this works for what it is.
At the end of the episode Ariel, Mal slugs Jayne with a wrench after discovering that the mercenary tried to sell them out. When Jayne wakes up, he’s in an open airlock while they’re leaving the planet’s atmosphere.
Somewhat accurate? OK, this isn’t technically spacing, but he was well on his way. The use of these scene is neat, because it’s definitely aware that you’re not simply going to get sucked out of the airlock when it’s cracked open just a bit, even with a thin atmosphere. I would have expected Jayne to sound a little more out of breath though, given that the ship will clear the atmosphere in just 2 minutes.
11. Star Trek
In the opening moments of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek, the Kelvin is attacked, opening its hallways up to space, and one hapless crew member gets sucked out into space.
We’ll live with it: There’s some accurate things here: the crew member doesn’t explode, which is a plus, but they also drop the sound when she exits the ship. She’s also moving a bit after she’s cleared the breach, meaning that death was not instantaneous. The downside here is that literally seconds before this, the missiles were screaming through space.
At the end of Moonraker, James Bond shoots the film’s villain, Hugo Drax with a dart, before inviting him to take a giant step for mankind: out the airlock he goes.
Why this is right: Drax obviously doesn’t survive this trip, but it’s a nice departure from some of the more sensational depictions of getting spaced. He doesn’t blow up or have blood gushing out of his ears: he just flies out into the black. Bonus points for the sound going away as well.
There’s a couple of airlock scenes in this film, but the one that I’m thinking of is the airlock jump. Three members of the crew of the second Icarus find themselves trapped on the first, with a blown out airlock. In order to get back to their own ship, they have to jump across the gap into another airlock. There’s only one problem: they have one space suit. One crew member takes the suit, while the other two wrap themselves up with insulation and tie themselves to him.
Why this is sort of right: The crew members know that the vacuum of space is harmful to your health with prolonged exposure: not just because of the lack of air pressure, but because of the temperature. You wouldn’t freeze that quickly – Andrew Fisher says that it would take you a while for someone to reach the temperatures to actually need the extra insulation.
In Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan had gone off to Mars for some solitude, and brings along Silk Spectre to prove a point. Upon bringing her to the Red Planet, she gasps for air after he forgot to provide a bubble of air.
Why this is somewhat accurate: This is actually pretty well done! Silk Spectre arrives on Mars and finds that she can’t breathe: Mars has only a fraction of the air pressure of Earth. She didn’t explode, or really have anything happen to her. Given such an abrupt drop in pressure, she might have had some adverse effects that she should get Dr. Manhatten to check up on.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
After escaping from Knowhere, Gamora’s ship is blown up, leaving her out in the vacuum of space. Starlord jumps out with his mask, and uses it to save her while he calls in for a rescue.
Why this is right: There’s two things here. The first is that Gamora’s out in vacuum for a while (which should be taken with a grain of salt, given her alien physiology and augmentations), but she could survive for a minute or two, and she wasn’t exposed for too long. Peter Quill on the other hand, also flies around without a suit, and he wasn’t out long enough to incur any side effects before he was rescued.
In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone finds herself alone in a Soyuz capsule, when her presumed-dead partner, Lt. Matt Kowalski shows up and opens the door to let himself in.
Why this is sort of right: Stone probably would have survived the brief decompression – the scene only lasts for a couple of seconds while Kowalski lets himself in and re-pressurizes the capsule. The sound drops out too, which is a good touch. The downside? The entire scene is all in Stone’s head, so anything could have happened.
5. Battlestar Galactica
In ‘A Day in the Life’, during the third season of Battlestar Galactica, Chief Tyroll and his wife Cally head over to an airlock to check it over. While they’re inside, the ship detects a pressure differential and locks the airlock doors. With air leaking out, the crew hatches a desperate plan to save them: open the outer doors, and scoop them up with a Raptor.
Why this is pretty well done: This scene and episode shows off a couple of cool things. First, we see the impact of the loss of air throughout the episode, and as they slowly lose heat in the airlock. Moreover, when they blow the doors, they make the jump without space suits, and survive. They even end up the medical bay afterwards, recovering.
4. Titan A.E.
Why this is right: The characters here know that you’re not going to explode (Cale probably would have known this from the type of work that he did), and they even knew enough to exhale in order to prevent any internal injuries. Even better? Cale wakes up in an infirmary, getting treated for his little spacewalk.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
“I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that.” This is probably one of science fiction’s most iconic scenes: Hal doesn’t allow Dave Bowman to dock with the ship, forcing the astronaut to jump – missing his helmet – into an airlock.
Why this is right: This scene is great. Dave lines up the shot and dives in, and doesn’t suffer any ill effects, other than getting bounced around the airlock a bit. He’s not out there long enough to die. Plus, there’s no sound anywhere in the scene, which makes it all the more accurate and unsettling.
2. The Martian
When astronaut Mark Watney is trapped in a malfunctioning airlock, he gets knocked around a bit, and cracks open his helmet. As the air is leaking out, he pulls out some duct tape and begins to patch up the hole.
Why this is right: This is a fun scene, because of course Duct Tape will do this sort of thing, right? It has been used for repairs in space before, just not on a visor:
I can believe that it would be enough to slow down any sort of leak in a helmet, at least to the point where he could get to safety. In the novel, he uses a quick-setting epoxy, which strikes me as something that would be a bit better to use.
Just for fun, you can see Matt Damon get blown out of an airlock in Interstellar, but he is wearing his spacesuit.
1. The Expanse
There’s a whole bunch of scenes where people are thrown out the airlock or threatened by it in this show. Miller is about to get the treatment on Ceres, and threatened a corrupt land lord with spacing early in the season, but the scene that I’m thinking of happens in the show’s sixth episode, Rock Bottom, when Uncle Mateo discovers a loose wire and opens his helmet to remove it.
Why this is right: Nothing happens. He slowly breaths out as he opens his faceplate and removes the wire. Syfy even has a page devoted to the scene:
Space is a vacuum, meaning that there are no particles floating around. When you are exposed to this, the air in your lungs has no choice but to be forced out through your mouth. If you held your breath you’d be in big trouble. This is because any remaining air would rapidly expand, rupturing the lungs. You won’t freeze instantly and your eyeballs won’t explode, but you will become aware of the spit on your tongue boiling away, as well as your sweat.
What really works about this scene is that it’s so casual: the Belters live out in space, and they’re extremely adept at working in the vacuum, not panicking when something comes up.
This certainly isn’t a comprehensive list of all the times that this sort of thing happens: what scenes would you include, and where would they fall on the list?