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"Like any properly trained man in good health, he could survive in vacuum for at least a minute -- if he had time to prepare for it. But there had been no time; he could only count on the normal fifteen seconds of consciousness before his brain was starved and anoxia overcame him."

Attila the Hun: Stop! No shoot fire stick in space canoe! Cause explosive decompression!

Zapp Brannigan: Spare me your space-age techno-babble, Attila the Hun!

Outer space is not friendly. Woe betide anyone foolish enough to step into it unprotected (or unfortunate enough to get Thrown Out the Airlock): they'll pop like a turkey with a grenade stuffed inside.

Well, that's the movie version. In fact, as unfriendly as the vacuum of space is, the body's made of stern enough stuff to stay in one piece. When you step outside, you've got about 15 seconds before you pass out from anoxia, a couple of minutes at best until you die from the same, and all sorts of nasty decompression injuries in between. (Exposed areas swelling up, body fluids boiling off your surfaces) But, you never quite go boom: remember, technically speaking, your blood is not in a vacuum: it's in you, so swelling and boiling blood only occurs toward your squishiest, outermost layer of capillaries. Incidentally, holding your breath would be worse than useless; the difference in pressure would cause a serious and fatal embolism even from the smallest amount of air in the lungs, they can overinflate and rupture, killing you even after you may be rescued.

A classic piece of Hollywood Science; in fact this is so widespread that audiences are outraged when it doesn't happen (see The Coconut Effect and Reality Is Unrealistic). Discussed in detail here.

This one can happen in real life if you get a really high pressure gradient - from above-normal pressure down to atmospheric pressure, say, or to be more precise, about 8 or 9 atm (atmospheres) to 1 atm (normal atmospheric pressure). If you're interested, Google the "Byford Dolphin" - but beware of Nausea Fuel.

The term "Explosive Decompression" is legitimate, but it refers to the speed at which the decompression occurs, not the result or cause. There have been numerous cases of explosive decompression on aircraft (several of which led to crashes), but while it certainly can cause part of the airplane to explode (due to whatever fault caused the decompression in the first place), the usual result for passengers is either slow hypoxia, or if they are really unlucky a chance to go skydiving without a parachute.

See Space Is Cold for another way that space doesn't instantly kill you. See also Continuous Decompression for how Hollywood Science handles actual Explosive Decompression.

Examples of Explosive Decompression include:


Comic Books

  • Transformers: The Reign of Starscream #2 shows Starscream capturing a human and then putting him in his cockpit for the return trip to Cybertron. Since Cybertronians don't breathe and don't need pilots, they don't pressurize their altmodes' operators' spaces. The poor human pops when Starscream leaves the atmosphere.
    • Poor human? At least the human doesn't have to clean a bunch of blood and guts out of his insides.
  • An old Weird Science story had people vanishing instantly when tossed into space. Weird science indeed...
  • In "Scud, The Disposable Assassin," The evil British Shakespearean actor astronaut werewolf undergoes this trope while in a stable orbit over earth. Since he is immortal, his body instantly reconstitutes itself only to explode again...and again, and again ad infinitum.
  • An issue of Justice League of America showed Batman deliberately exposing himself to the hard vacuum of space (while in a controlled chamber in the JLA's base on the moon), exploring his physical endurance limits, or else preparing himself for the eventuality of it actually happening one day (with Batman, either is likely). The artwork was realistic in showing the effects the vacuum was having on his physical body, but he still lasted a lot longer than a normal human would've, even one in the peak of physical condition.

Fan Fiction

Film

  • Pretty much every time a low-budget sci-fi flick does vacuum exposure, it's Explosion Time. If the astronaut gets so much as a rip in his space suit, he'll be painting it with his internal fluids.
  • The James Bond film Licence to Kill features a "Byford Dolphin" style decompression involving a henchman, a decompression chamber and an axe. This one gets frequently trimmed by the local Media Watchdog.
    • Averted in another James Bond film, Moonraker, which had Bond expel the villain out an airlock. He seemed to freeze quickly, but didn't explode. Considering how thoroughly the laws of physics were violated in the movie, it was surprising that they didn't go with that trope as well, though the Squick potential might have been a factor.
    • Kick-Ass has a scene so similar it could be a Shout-Out.
  • The 1981 movie Outland features two professional assassins that are sent on Jupiter's moon Io to kill off the main character O'Niel, who has discovered an illegal drug operation. Both die due to Explosive Decompression: one paints a duct red when O'Niel depressurizes it (after an amusing "ballooning up" shot), the other dies when he is led into shooting a glass windows in the room he's in. We're then treated to a scene in which his body explosively shatters as the air rushing out blows him into space. This happens in a manner of seconds, even though the room appears to be hundreds of feet in every direction, and the hole is relatively small. There's also the problem that the outer windows of a space base are weak enough to be shattered by a shotgun blast from a great distance.
    • Explosive Decompression happened frequently in this movie, which opened with an anonymous character exploding inside his space-suit. Another is exposed more slowly in a space-elevator, and is afterward shown with his guts exploded.
  • Total Recall: In real life, Mars has a mean atmospheric pressure of 600 pascals. Humans are used to a pressure of 101,300 pascals. In the movie, where being exposed to the surface of Mars gives characters eyes the size of tangerines, the pressure is apparently at -1,000 pascals[1]. Even more ludicrous: after returning to "normal" pressure, those tangerine eyes go back to normal, with no ill effects -- they aren't even bloodshot.
    • But, thankfully, before anyone can go "kaflooey", the alien hot-plate melts a glacier, and terra-forms the entirety of the planet in a matter of seconds, before Arnold turns into Austrian salsa.
      • The film does indicate that the entire experience might be a dream, implanted by future tech; this is foreshadowed by such statements as "two-headed monsters (Kuato) and "a blue sky on Mars" (the "Ego-trip's" programmed ending), and the hero and the villain becoming friends. As the movie begins, Arnold (Quaid) even has a nightmare about the very type of explosive decompression happening, which indicates that this is simply his vision of it.
  • Event Horizon, in which a possessed member of the crew attempts suicide by ejecting himself out the airlock. He doesn't explode, but the whole thing is portrayed very messily. To the film's credit, he needs a lot of medical attention when he's eventually returned to breathable atmosphere.
    • His small blood vessels rupture in the decompression, resulting in hemorrage from his cavities. It's pretty realistic, though whether there'd be quite that much blood is anybody's guess.
    • The dialog during the event even has the Captain telling the young crew member to blow all the air out of his lungs just before the doors open
  • Averted in Mission to Mars: Commander Woody Blake sacrifices himself on the way to Mars by taking off his space-suit's helmet, and then he just kind of turns purple and dies. However, it does play Space Is Cold straight by having him insta-freeze.
  • Averted in Titan A.E., in which during a Crowning Moment of Awesome, Corso and Cale escape from a smashed escape pod by using a fire extinguisher to propel themselves through space to the safety of Corso's ship.
    • More to that, Corso specifically instructs Cale to exhale before leaving the pod. The writing staff did their homework on this one.
  • Averted in Supernova when Karl Larson sends the corpse of a man he just murdered out of a casualty chute. The body gets accelerated by a puff of gas but simply flies off into space without so much as even expanding.
  • Partially averted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Dave Bowman has to reenter his ship through the airlock he realizes that he has left behind his spacesuit's helmet. After blowing himself out of his pod into the open airlock he has several seconds of workable consciousness until he can throw a valve to pressurize the airlock again. He apparently suffers no ill effects even though it appears that he attempted to hold his breath.
  • Used in a different fashion to the usual in the film Alien Resurrection, where the Newborn is killed by using acidic blood to melt a relatively small hole in the viewing port behind it; the pressure first pins the Alien/human hybrid against the wall, and then the continued pressure difference... well, it basically sucks the Newborn through the hole.
  • In Executive Decision after a terrorist shoots a plane window, the force of the wind begins blowing out passengers and said terrorist.
  • In U.S. Marshals Vincent Ling, while attempting to shoot Mark Sheridan during a prison transfer by plane, shoots the plane window when Sheridan defends himself. Ling winds up being sucked out of the plane, and the resulting decompression causes the plane to crash.

Literature

  • It doesn't actually happen in the X Wing Series, but after the bridge of his capital ship is breached, General Solo reflects that if the crew can't get into a pressurized area before the bridge is sealed off, they're going to experience the "joys of explosive decompression". To be fair, he might not actually know how people in space die.
    • One would imagine many space-folks - especially the danger-chasing type - would not wish to learn.
    • Later on in the Star Wars timeline, his daughter Jaina Solo witnesses the aftermath of a Yuuzhan Vong attack. Mention of explosively-decompressed bodies is made. Although maybe they just suffered the side effects of being on an exploding ship.
  • In Godwin's science fiction short story The Cold Equations, the young woman found stowed away inside of the EDS fearfully describes what she knows will happen to her if she's jettisoned through the airlock. Although it isn't a tremendously accurate picture of what would happen to someone stuck in the vacuum without a space suit, it certainly is a disturbing one.
  • Larry Niven's works tend to invert the trope, making vacuum relatively easy to deal with, usually by not having the pressure drop from 'normal' to hard vacuum in a fraction of a second unless the hole is pretty damn huge. In one short story, a ship's atmosphere escapes, when the crew are suited but not helmeted. They survive easily, because they have stashed the helmets within arm's reach; the only harm they suffer is annoyance, since they can't eat real food until they can get air and take the helmets off.
  • In Chindi, a poor pilot's lungs explode instantly after his ship's hull is breached.
  • Discussed and averted in the Eighth Doctor Adventures novel The Taking of Planet 5. The Doctor survives the vacuum of space just fine--he does, however, have temperature, cosmic radiation, and the bends to worry about.

Live Action TV

  • 1000 Ways to Die reenacted a (probable) Real Life example where someone accidentally opened a decompression chamber with a scuba diver inside. The chamber went from several atmospheres to one in a split second, and the unfortunate occupant exploded all over the walls.
  • Red Dwarf, "Confidence and Paranoia": Confidence, suffering from an ego the size of a small galaxy, declares "Oxygen is for losers!" and takes his helmet off outside of the ship. He then promptly explodes.
    • Possibly a parody, however, or more likely the comedy of the absurd, as Red Dwarf had a tendency to take every sit-com, western and sci-fi stereotype it could and run riot with them. It is the same show, after all, that, in an episode called 'DNA', had a giant mutated vindaloo-beast that could only be defeated with lager. Not the best show to look for scientific accuracy from - but an excellent show for trope deconstructions.
  • Implied (then averted) in an episode of Knight Rider: The evil KARR starts to drain the air out of his cabin with a hostage inside, saying "Have you ever seen someone explode in a vacuum?"
  • In Blakes Seven there was the infamous sequence where a person teleported into space would explode. Particularly weird here because (as it was Stock Footage) the figure blown up was the same one every time, so it looked as if the victim turned into a doll before expiring.
    • To be fair, at least the first time this happened, it was explicitly explained that this was a side-effect of teleporting beyond the safe range.
  • Mentioned, though not shown, in Defying Gravity, an otherwise good show-disappointing, really.
  • An episode of Space Precinct had an alien with acid blood. When shot its green blood dissolved through the hull causing the corpse to be sucked out into space. A few seconds later it inflates and bursts.
  • Farscape references this in "Dream a Little Dream" when Zhaan has a nightmare about Crichton floating in space, his spacesuit visor cracking, and his head going pop, Outland-style. However, the series otherwise averts the trope on repeated occasions in which characters are shown exposed to vacuum with no explosive consequences. By the start of Season 4, D'Argo, Rygel, Noranti and Crichton had all been exposed to space, with Crichton actually surviving exposure for a minute-and-a-half wearing nothing more than street clothes (occurs during the "Look at the Princess" trilogy). Though the actual length of his vacuum exposure is uncertain, given that the scene was in Slow Motion.
    • In The Peacekeeper Wars, D'Argo and Chiana end up with their ship blown up and them exposed to space. D'Argo's survival is explainable as it's been mentioned that Luxan physiology can survive space exposure for up to a few minutes; Chiana is a Nebari, though, and the ability of Nebari to survive in space is undocumented.
  • Averted in Battlestar Galactica Reimagined in an episode in which two characters are briefly exposed to space, but survive, albeit it takes them many episodes to recover.
  • Usually averted on Star Trek. In fact, on Star Trek, brief exposure to space will just leave you out of breath, when you would actually require medical care. They are, at least, consistent in this manner.
    • Enterprise displays a notable exception to this rule in the fourth season (after playing it straight in the first season, with the same chracter no less) when Archer is briefly exposed and spends the rest of the episode strugling to walk and breathe, with his eyes completely bloodshot.
      • ... which is probably the closest they've come to reality; both extremes of either "no side effects" or "instant explosion" are equally implausible.
    • In The Next Generation episode "Disaster", Dr. Crusher and Geordi are stuck in a shuttle bay with a radioactive fire, and decide to put it out by opening the bay door for a few seconds, removing the oxygen (and every other gas) from the bay. The good doctor even advises Geordi to hold his breath and "resist the urge to exhale" while in the vacuum. (As mentioned above, that's a good way to get dead even if you could otherwise be saved.)
  • An unusual non-sci-fi example, an episode of Castle deals with a victim of the week who dies from this. Much of the humour of the episode derives from Castle's belief that the victim must have been in space while Beckett's more down to earth about it.
  • Dr. Franklin on Babylon 5 mentions this trope -- or rather, how it presumably plays out in Real Life -- in regards to an incident in his childhood when one of his friends got spaced by accident.

 Dr. Franklin: The one thing they never tell you is that you don't die instantly in vacuum. He just hung there, against the black, like a puppet with his strings all tangled up — or like one of those old cartoons where you run off the edge of a cliff and your legs keep going. You could see that he was trying to breathe, but there was nothing. And one thing I remember when they pulled in his body — his eyes were frozen. [long pause] A lot of people make jokes about spacing somebody, about shoving somebody out an airlock. I don't think it's funny. Never will.

  • Shown as one of the two principal problems with fishing from high orbit in Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the other being the absurd length of line and amount of reeling in needed): by the time you've reeled the fish up to your space station, it'll have been shredded and ruined by escaping fluids.

Tabletop Games

  • The Paranoia mission "Clones in Space" is infamous for including an Explosive Decompression Table. This being Paranoia, of course you die, but you can roll dice to randomly vary the exact manner in which you do so (exploding, charring, freezing, all of the above...)

Video Games

  • Most of the Space Quest games allow killing the main character by exposure to vacuum. The effects are inconsistent depending on the humor value, but for the same reason lean heavily towards explosions.
    • "Sudden decompression sucks!"
  • An underwater example can be found in Ecco II: Tides Of Time, where Vortex drones explode if they get too close to the surface. Neither Ecco nor any other creature have a similar risk of decompression.
    • Slighty Truth in Television: deep-sea fish have evolved to life under high pressure and consequently do not react at all well to pressure significantly higher in the water column: deep-sea fish brought to the surface usually have bulging eyes and their swim bladders protruding from their mouths. They don't explode, though.
  • In the Mothership Zeta add-on for Fallout 3, at one point you need to depressurize a section of the ship and walk through it wearing a space suit. However, if you do not wear the suit, or remove it while inside, Your Head Asplode.
  • Referenced in Ratchet and Clank - Tools of Destruction:

 "Congratulations! You've won an all-expenses-paid trip out the airlock! Hope you don't mind letting yourself out, I hate that popping sound of bodies decompressing in space."

  • Crystal Caves is set deep down in mines on an apparently airless planet. The only reason you're able to breathe is thanks to Air Generators scattered throughout the levels. If you carelessly shoot one of them... You've blown up an air generator! The vacuum rushes in and your body inflates like a balloon, then pops as your helmet sails away.
  • Averted in The Force Unleashed: When the Emperor orders Vader to kill you, he crashes you through a window to silently drift into space, but you get rescued shortly after and survive just fine.
    • Conceivably, Vader's lightsaber through Starkiller's chest immediately prior might have been responsible for emptying his lungs, thus saving his life.
  • Ironically averted in Dead Space 2. A Hackers RIG, in place of a proper helmet and armor, outfits you with a gas mask. And thick jacket. This may be a coincidence as the designers don't seem to mind unlikely feats of Postmortem antics, either.
    • Also, this trope (or in this case, lack thereof) reaches a ridiculous level in the last level of the Extraction spinoff, where the main character, seeing as his hand is impaled to the spaceship's outer hull, cuts it off.By hacking away at it with a rock saw. While it could be plausible that space suits were modular, and thus remained functional despite damage occurring to non-vital parts, it still doesn't even begin to explain how all of Nate's blood didn't get squeezed out like milk out of a carton the second he made the first cut.
  • Averted in Portal 2 In the ending, you make a portal to the moon, and you go flying out, hanging on to the badguy, who's also barely hanging on. You're exposed to the dead of space for almost exactly 15 seconds before being rescued, after which you pass out for an unspecified period of time before waking up.
  • Referenced in Sonic Colors, in one of Eggman's hilarious PA announcements:

 Dr. Eggman : If you experience explosive decompression, please try to avoid staining the seat cushions. Those things are expensive!

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • Used when The Simpsons' Itchy and Scratchy go into space. Scratchy's head blows up like a balloon; it explodes when Itchy pricks it with a pin.
    • Also when Homer and Bart accidentally board a shuttle of famous people headed for the sun, then jump out the airlock to get away from Rosie O'Donnell. They blow up and pop like balloons.
    • Although they then got it right(er) in one of the Treehouse of Horror episodes when Homer accidentally fires Bill Clinton and Bob Dole into space - they struggle for a bit, then expire.
  • Played for laughs in Sealab 2021, where a couple people from Spacelab fall victim to this.
  • In the Robot Chicken episode "Maurice Was Caught", little orphan Annie is given Mars for her sweet sixteen party, and upon visiting it, trips and loses her space suit helmet. Guess what happens?
  • Brock Sampson gets briefly exposed to the vacuum of space in The Venture Brothers, but survives due to his Made of Iron nature.
  • Metalocalypse - in the second episode, producer Dick "Magic Ears" Knubbler is leaving a submarine recording session in a bathysphere that's rising way too fast - the camera lingers an agonizingly long time on him screaming until his eyeballs pop. During the end credits, we see he's been fitted with a pair of robotic eyes and he's feeling great.

Real Life

  • The aforementioned Byford Dolphin accident is perhaps the only real case of truly Explosive Decompression. Be warned that the results are not for the faint of heart or those with an overly graphic imagination.
  • If the airliner you're in decides to dismantle itself at 30,000 feet you can expect ruptured lungs to be one of the clues that an in-flight breakup occurred during your autopsy. BOAC Flight 781 is one of the more notorious explosive decompression to occur on a civilian airliner. Aloha Airlines Flight 243 did demonstrate that such an event is not necessarily completely fatal.
    • And it should be pointed out that an explosive decompression event on an aircraft can also kill in other ways. Consider, for example, Turkish Airlines Flight 981, in which an improperly locked cargo door on a DC-10 opened by itself while the plane was in mid air. The resulting pressure differential between the passenger cabin and the cargo bay immediately underneath caused the floor to buckle, severing numerous flight control systems. The plane almost immediately entered into an unrecoverable nosedive, with predictable results.
  • The Nazis did explosive decompression experiments, as if you needed another reason to hate them.
    • As did Japanese scientists working on in Unit 731.
  • There is a myth that has been circling the US military for several years about a Sabot round fired from an Abrams tank into an M-113 with a sheep inside creating an explosive decompression that sucked the sheep through the exit hole but left the vehicle mostly intact. It is most likely a fabrication produced by the Army's Rumor Mill, as a Sabot round uses shrapnel from the armor it displaces to destroy its target, and the targets are anything but intact afterwards.
  • Sabot rounds do, infact, cause atmospheric events within the afflicted target. HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) shells are used to create "spalling" of armor in vehicles. The effect of Sabot darts is due to the air compression ahead of the darts (part of the cause of sonic booms). The environment of the vehicle compresses due to the strict confines of the interior and are then given a release point when the dart exits. It was a common site to see poorly maintained tank turrets "pop" during both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The sheep myth is a confusion with sabot testing and effects on armor testing that occurred at roughly the same time.
    • Higly doubt that. I've never heard of sabot rounds creating "atmospheric events". Turrets popping off seems more like the result of exploding ammunition after a hit. Afaik they also don't rely on creating overpressure in front of them- they rely on being small, heavy projectiles with a high speed and low air resistance to punch through armor even at long ranges.
  • An interesting note from a passenger on a plane which had a hole ripped in it in flight in 2011. A passenger noted:

 "The crew was pretty calm about it. They walked around and checked on everyone," he said. "But it wasn't like the movies where papers get sucked out of the hole, but you could feel it and hear the noise."

  • The crew of the spacecraft Soyuz 11 were killed when the ship's cabin depressurized during reentry. A valve was jolted open during the jettison of the service module causing the cabin's atmosphere to be gradually sucked into space. Their fates were not known until the craft landed (the ground crew lost contact before the fatal incident, which happens normally) CPR was attempted by support crews on the dead Cosmonauts to no avail.



 I say pressure drop

Oh pressure

Oh yeah, pressure gonna drop on you!
 

Notes

  1. FYI, that's impossible
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