Canadian astronaut Julie Payette is safely back on terra firma. During the post-mission press conference, she described the environment in which the International Space Station has been constructed, i.e., space, as “one of the most hostile”.
But… is it?
The funny thing is, while the human body is not designed to survive in space, if you suddenly found yourself floating outside the ISS, you’d have several seconds of useful consciousness before passing out. Further, if you managed to get back in before too many seconds have passed, you might survive the experience with only minor wear and tear and no permanent damage. (Yes, that infamous scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey is scientifically plausible.)
Compare this to the bottom of the ocean. How long would you survive under a pressure of several hundred atmospheres? Or consider the crater of an active volcano. How many seconds of consciousness would you enjoy before your body is vaporized?
And then I have not even considered something like the surface of the Sun (not to mention its interior.) Talk about hostile!
The thing is, space is hostile alright, but we are creatures of the near vacuum: we can briefly survive in vacuum, even return from it without major injury. Even for our machines, it’s much easier to survive in space than it is to survive elsewhere. Perhaps this should be seen as encouraging… once we master the challenge of getting out of the Earth’s gravity well economically, living in space may not be as hard as it sounds.