I was wondering if there was a way for a creature to survive the vacuum of space for ten minutes with only a tank of oxygen and a mask to breathe the oxygen with. The creature comes from an Earth-like planet, and how this creature evolved is not covered in this question.


What changes to biology are needed in order to survive the low temperature of space?

The creature is a larger creature. Factors like pressure and boiling blood do not seem to be important, at least according to this article.

UPDATE: There seems to be a bit of confusion about the environment the creature is in. The creature is wearing a mask like this one bloke down below.

The helmet

This mask/helmet provides oxygen, but other than the mask, the creature is wearing no other protection. How we keep the oxygen mask on and flowing into your lungs is not covered in the question.

  • $\begingroup$ Its not clear what you are asking. Is the animal exposed to the vacuum of space or is it breathing oxygen at atmospheric or some other pressure. It can't be both. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 2 '17 at 18:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Slarty The question involves a creature with an oxygen tank and mask only, with no pressure suit or other thermal protection. I was asking what kind of biology is required for it to survive in the vaccum for an extended period of time. $\endgroup$ – OneSurvivor Nov 2 '17 at 18:47
  • $\begingroup$ Just to be clear on what would be likely to happen to the pilot in the above picture in a vacuum. Depending on the construction of the mask it might well be blown off by the force of air being ejected from the oxygen supply and pilot's lungs. If not then the pilots breath and all of the air from the tank will very rapidly exit from the edges of the mask probably taking off his visor in the process. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 2 '17 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ @Slarty I think you're getting hung up on this mask situation. The questions isn't about the mask. He's wanting you to ignore the need for oxygen in this scenario. $\endgroup$ – oxide7 Nov 2 '17 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ oxide7, thank you! @Slarty, this is not a question about the mask, its about the creature surviving if it had sufficient oxygen. I don't know how to make this more clear. $\endgroup$ – OneSurvivor Nov 2 '17 at 19:16

Switch to a bird like breathing system or use a giant rubber band. There are really only three dangers in your scenario.

  1. Temprature, but as long as you are naked there is not much you can do about that, if you happen to drift into direct sunlight your toast.

  2. Mucus membranes, exposed mucous membranes do not handle vacuum well they either rupture or freeze (boiling water cools mucous membranes down incredibly quickly). But assuming it is their entire face inside the mask this is not a big problem. you may want to say a full helmet not mask. Maybe a souped up version of the inflatable bike helmet if you need rapid deployment for emergencies.

  3. Gas pressure, mammal have problems breathing because we rely on a negative pressure driven breathing mechanism, well vacuum is the ultimate negative pressure so we can't breath because the gas around our lungs exerts too much pressure for them to work. Birds on the other hand don't have this problem their lungs are rigid and they breath by inflating air sacs, this is accomplished by direct musculature unlike the roundabout way mammals do it. Muscles pull on the air sacs directly inflating them no matter what. Bird can breath just fine in vacuum (provided they have something TO breath).

Now your fellow will not be comfortable, the increased tension on the skin is supposed to be unpleasant similar to the sensation of swelling, but skin can hold it own against vacuum quite well. For years writers have toyed with the idea of a space suit that is little more than a helmet and an elastic band around the chest. Which works fine for the short term, but for long term the bodies inability to regulate temperature is a major and fatal consideration. For ten minutes you can go with just the hemet and band or switch to a avian breathing system either way you have to hope the person is in shade so they don't die of hyperthermia. Note this assumes the helmet also covers the neck, otherwise strangulation is an issue.

Note swelling, due to body fluids cold boiling, will largely immobilize the person and they will poop,pee, ect as gas pressure forcing everything out.

  • $\begingroup$ The avian route seems like the best fix for what I want. Nice work! $\endgroup$ – OneSurvivor Nov 2 '17 at 20:19

Water Bears! are a great place to start. They are the only know creature on earth that can survive unaided in the vacuum.

There are a few ways something could survive a vacuum. With air, even a Human being could do it. The oxygen tank and mask help a lot here. It wouldn't feel great for a person, they'd slowly freeze or get sunburned or maybe both depending on where they are. They'd swell up significantly and lose moisture if the mask doesn't cover the face. The eyes would warp and vision would become a problem and the eyes could be permanently damaged.

If its a made up creature there are tons of ways for them to survive. Having pressurized air to breath covers the biggest initial concern. After that you only need the creature to be able to deal with radiation/heat and cold. Many insects can deal with radiation. Heat and cold can be dealt with with any kind of insulation. Our skin does a decent job but anything thicker and furry would likely do even better for longer.

  • $\begingroup$ The mask would not work in a vacuum all of the oxygen in the cylinder would end up rapidly dispersing into space and not into your lungs. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 2 '17 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ Aha. Thus explaining the new Star Trek propulsion system. Actually, not explaining it at all, but at least providing some factoid to hang on it. $\endgroup$ – DPT Nov 2 '17 at 20:45

The immediate problem with a human exposed to the vacuum of space is not lack of temperature, it is lack of pressure. Your blood will boil, as the gases dissolved in it return to gaseous form in the absence of pressure. Those bubbles block your blood vessels or your heart stalls because it's now filled with gas it can't pump very well, and you lose consciousness and die from lack of bloodflow.

This is exactly what happens when a diver returns quickly from a deep dive to shallow water or the surface, or an aircraft over around 60,000 feet loses pressure and the occupants don't have pressure suits.

In this U2 crash, a test pilot's helmet failed at high altitude, and he lost consciousness quickly. He did regain consciousness when the plane spun down to a lower altitude but was killed when he tried to eject and hit the tail.

Could you slowly decompress like divers do? Yes, but you'd run out of oxygen during the process. Very low pressure means almost no gas to breathe, so even pure O2 won't help if there isn't enough of it.

Much as I hate to contradict the esteemed Mr Clarke, holding your breath will not stop your arteries from being blocked by gas bubbles.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 for mentioning the bends, although the risk is low it is there. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 2 '17 at 20:21

The "low temperature of space" is not a serious issue. If you're familiar with how thermoses operate then you should be aware that a vacuum is a relatively good insulator against heat (and by extension cold). While your creature's body would radiate heat away, it's also producing heat internally just by its metabolic processes. It would take hours to freeze even if you were in interstellar space or the shadow of a large object and you might not freeze at all if you were in direct sunlight. You might actually boil. The low pressure of space is actually a much more serious danger than freezing, provided that you have an air supply.


There was an old story by Arthur C. Clarke that basically stated that as long as you can hold your breath, you are Ok in vacuum. The protagonist made a leap of faith through the void and lived to tell.

It was supposed to be realistic at least per that time physics and biology. Obviously, no one really tested this.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately this story is not true. You would not be able to keep the air in your lungs. 1 atmosphere of pressure in your lungs would force the air out into the vacuum. You might remain conscious for 10 or 20 seconds and stay alive for a minute or two... $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 2 '17 at 18:09

A human can survive in a vacuum for a minute or two
Some dogs have survived up to 3 minutes exposure https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19660005052.pdf
Ten minutes would not seem to be survivable. But in a larger animal with an alien biology it might be possible. I don’t think the oxygen mask would be of any real use at all as all of the oxygen would immediately be sucked into the vacuum and disperse.

  • $\begingroup$ On the oxygen mask, the mask is built and worn in a way the lack of oxygen is not a factor in this question. $\endgroup$ – OneSurvivor Nov 2 '17 at 18:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I suppose the real question is this: is this animal exposed to a vacuum or not? If it is then the mask is of no use. If it’s not then it would be of use. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Nov 2 '17 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ You could build a mask that would work in vacuum, it just needs to exert more than 1 bar of pressure, If they are a mammal you need to compress the chest however. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 2 '17 at 20:10

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.