Ep. 658: Space Exploration Horror Stories

We’re recording this episode on Halloween, so how could we resist but take advantage of this opportunity. Space is already terrifying enough, you know, with the vast endless emptiness, incomprehensible mysteries, and uncaring coldness. But here are some scary stories to spook it up a notch.

Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

The Moon by Dr. Sanlyn Buxner, Pamela Gay, Georgiana Kramer (Penguin Random House)

Apollo 10 (NASA)

Apollo 8 (NASA)

Mysterious “Music” Spooked Apollo 10 Astronauts (Smithsonian Magazine)

NASA Astronaut Claims To Have Seen Alien Snake Floating In Earth’s Atmosphere (Unilad)

PDF: Story Musgrave on UFOs in Space (Omni Magazine via James Oberg)

Mir Space Station (NASA)

Chinese astronaut puzzled by ‘knocking sound’ in space (BBC News)

Astronaut solves sounds in space mystery (China Daily)

Solaris (2002) (IMdB)

Temperature cycling (Wikipedia)

‘Seeing’ Cosmic Rays in Space (Universe Today)

Here’s What NASA Plans to Do if an Astronaut Dies in Space (Science Alert)

Why Are There Dozens of Dead Animals Floating in Space? (How Stuff Works)

Animals in Space (NASA)

PDF: Safire Memo (National Archives)

The First Earthlings Around the Moon Were Two Soviet Tortoises (Discover Magazine)

Astronaut Chris Hadfield on Simulating Death (PBS Nova)

PDF: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Emergency Medical Procedures Manual for the International Space Station (ISS) [partial], 2016 (GovernmentAttic.org)

Back to Top


Transcriptions provided by GMR Transcription Services

Fraser: Astronomy Cast, Episode 658. Space Exploration Horror Stories. Welcome to Astronomy Cast from weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, the publisher of Universe Today. I’ve been a space and astronomy journalist for over 20 years. With me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey Pamela, how are you doing?

Dr. Gay: I’m doing well. How are you doing?

Fraser: Good, good. Happy Halloween today.

Dr. Gay: Happy Halloween, and you know what tomorrow is?

Fraser: November 1st?

Dr. Gay: It’s New Book Day.

Fraser: For you?

Dr. Gay: Yes. I have a book coming out and my publishers amused me to no end in a very sick, and sad, and twisted way because they’re like, “Hey, we’re starting to see all the influencer’s pictures out there of your book,” and I don’t have a copy of my book to show you right now because they only sent copies to influencers, and I’m not enough of an influencer to get a copy of my book.

Fraser: Of your own book.

Dr. Gay: Of my own book.

Fraser: Yeah.

Dr. Gay: Yes. So, it’s available for pre-order. 

Fraser: Yeah, the publisher will come to you – we did this as well, and they’re like, “Where do you want to send these books?” So, I gave them a big list of all the people who I thought could help amplify the message, but in many cases, they’re getting copies of the book in their hands before you get a copy of your own book.

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: And they’re like, “Thanks for sending me the new book, Fraser!” I’m like, “You should tell me what it’s like because I don’t know.” All I’ve seen are the pre-pressed. Well, congratulations. What is the book?

Dr. Gay: It’s called The Moon, great title. It’s a kids book so we kept everything super simple. It looks at how we see the moon, what we see about the moon, the history of exploring the moon, and how today’s kids are really gonna be tomorrow’s citizens of whatever lunar bases we end up building. So, we’re basically giving little kids a heads up on how big, hopefully, they will dream and just tell them to dream as big as they can and here is some scientific information to dream with.

Fraser: Wow, congratulations. Awesome work. Now, we’re recording this episode on Halloween, so how could we resist but to take advantage of this opportunity? I mean, space is already terrifying enough with the vast, endless emptiness, the incomprehensible mysteries, and the uncaring coldness, but here are some scary stories to spook it up a notch. All right Pamela, this is a classic Pamela chosen episode. How do you want to tackle this? Give us some scary stories.

Dr. Gay: Well, why don’t we start by looking at the weird stuff that astronauts have seen and heard, and try and explain exactly what it was?

Fraser: Okay.

Dr. Gay: Does that work for you?

Fraser: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, tell me one.

Dr. Gay: So, Apollo 10 – Apollo 10 is going to crop up more than once in this episode.

Fraser: Right.

Dr. Gay: Apollo 10 starts out – and I have no idea why this didn’t happen to Apollo 8, but Apollo 10 reported that as they flew around the dark side of the moon, the far side of the moon – it’s not actually dark, it’s just we don’t see it. They heard this super weird whistling, spacey music.

Fraser: What?

Dr. Gay: Yeah. Yeah, and they came around the Earth facing side, and they’re talking to the ground again, and this was a bit disconcerting. 

Fraser: So, they’re on the far side of the moon, completely blocked from any radio communications that could be coming from the Earth? There should be no way that they could even be picking up radio waves from planet Earth.

Dr. Gay: Right, and there’s this whistling music that sounds like what someone who didn’t have a theremin, but was trying really hard, would create if they were trying to create space music. Any guesses as to what it just might have been?

Fraser: I mean, I’m guessing that that was the first time – well, no. They would have been in the shadow of the Earth because they would have orbited around the Earth a couple of times, and then they went out to the moon. So, I’m guessing somehow, they were in the shadow of the moon, but I don’t know. Something metal, some part of the spacecraft was creaking and groaning. What was it?

Dr. Gay: So, they actually have these really good recordings of it, and it’s coming off the radios, it turns out. They were hearing the absence of signals from Earth. They were hearing some sort of electric noise in the radio components that was what we now have as this classic radio noise from space. This whistling across all the different frequencies of hearing, not of the radio, but they heard it coming out of the radio. 

So, hearing this weird, whistling music was apparently extremely creepy. They warned future missions to be prepared for this. Future missions said, “We are so grateful you warned us because that was super creepy.” So, it turns out that outer space itself will make radio sing, and it is creepy, but not spooky. Just creepy.

Fraser: Is it because they were blocked from the Earth that this was happening?

Dr. Gay: Yeah, because normally, you don’t hear any of that because the signals from Earth are keeping everything occupied. The gain isn’t trying to ramp itself up. 

Fraser: I’m sort of imaging a situation where you got somebody who’s on a microphone and it’s a bad microphone and the software behind it, they’re quiet. So, the software is searching, seeking for sound, and it just keeps cranking the gain, and cranking the gain until it just starts making these weird noises coming out of their microphone, and then when they speak again, then the sound comes back to normal, and then they’re quiet, and then the gain cranks up again. 

That would be really scary, I’ve gotta say, and I can see why the future Apollo astronauts were like, “Thanks for letting us know because that would have been unnerving.” You can imagine this is like a horror movie. That they’re in space, floating around, they go behind the far side of the moon, and then suddenly the radios come on and you hear this weird sound coming out of the radio.

Dr. Gay: Yeah. Yeah.

Fraser: Nicely done. That’s a good story.

Dr. Gay: It’s quite excellent, and it had a reasonable explanation, but I mean, there are lots of things that have reasonable explanations, but when you’re first experiencing them and you don’t know those explanations, you kinda wanna go hide under your bed, but if you’re on an Apollo capsule, there’s no where to go and the noise was coming from inside the capsule, like a phone call coming from inside the house.

Fraser: Yep, yep. That’s awesome. What else you got?

Dr. Gay: So, Story Musgrave is – the poor guy. There are stories all over the internet reporting that Story Musgrave saw a couple of meters, several meter long snake or eel that was white and swimming through space. Some of these reporting’s go on to say, “Well, you might blame it on being a hose, or something.” Story Musgrave, who is the most educated of all of our astronauts, reported that “No, it was an alien-looking eel or –” No, even he, in an interview with James Oberg, for Omni Magazine said, “Yeah. It really looked like there was an eel,” and then guess what he said next? 

Fraser: “But I knew it couldn’t be,” right?

Dr. Gay: He didn’t quite say that. He went on to say that it was probably a lost seal, a lost hose, something that came off of another spacecraft because when you’re in space, you do see other things zipping past. He said that he was actually able to see the mirror when it was 28 miles away at one point.

Fraser: Wow.

Dr. Gay: So, he probably thinks just saw some sort of a seal, or a hose that was in an orbit similar enough to the space shuttle. It seemed to be tracking the space shuttle, swimming along the side, and just the thermos-conditions of space, the left-over energy from whatever it had that sent it into space caused it to just appear to wiggle and swim, which is creepy enough, even when you know what it is.

Fraser: So, he was looking out the window and then some object, probably human-made debris, was on a similar orbit to the space shuttle?

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: I mean, that almost feels like it could have been something – it wouldn’t be an upper stage because the shuttle doesn’t have an upper stage exactly. The shuttle kicks off it’s main –

Dr. Gay: It was long and skinny.

Fraser: Yeah. I’m just sort of thinking if it could be something related. I’m sure people have been obsessing about what this could possibly be for decades.

Dr. Gay: He saw it on more than one mission.

Fraser: Oh, okay. Now it’s getting weird. 

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: Have any other astronauts reported this?

Dr. Gay: Not specifically, just story.

Fraser: And he’s seen this multiple times?

Dr. Gay: But we also don’t know if he’s the only one that was peering out that long. So – yeah.

Fraser: Now I wonder if he needed to get his eyes checked. Parasites in his eyes or something.

Dr. Gay: That is definitely something rather grotesque to consider, but I’d rather think that he just had the misfortune of being on similar orbits more than once with the same –

Fraser: Space is big and seeing the same thing multiple times? That seems pretty ludicrous to me.

Dr. Gay: I know.

Fraser: All right. Well, we’re gonna talk about some more stuff in a second, but it’s time for a break.

Dr. Gay: And now for a word from our sponsor, BetterHelp. We live in a stressful world. There are days when I open social media, or the news, close social media or the news, and just go eat ice cream.  This isn’t the most adult way of handling our world of plagues, and war, and cuts designs funding, but some days we all need help. Sometimes that help needs to be more substantial than a carton of Ben & Jerry’s. 

As I’ve discussed before, part way into the pandemic, I was really struggling and late one night while listening to podcasts, I heard a message like this one offering its own 10% the first month if I wanted to click over to find a therapist to provide me the help I needed. As the world’s largest therapy service, BetterHelp has matched three million people with professionally licensed and vetted therapists available 100% online, plus it’s affordable. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to match with a therapist. 

If things aren’t clicking, you can easily switch to a new therapist any time. It couldn’t be simpler. No waiting rooms, no traffic, no endless searching for the right therapist. Learn more and save 10% off your first month at BetterHelp.com/astronomy. That’s BetterHelp, H-E-L-P, .com/astronomy. 

Fraser: And we’re back. All right. There you go. Someone in the chat just said that someone got toilet paper under their boot on the way to an EVA. That sounds right. A piece of toilet paper out in space. That sounds exactly what you would be seeing. All right. What else you got?

Dr. Gay: So, we have all the weird things that astronauts saw and heard. There was a Chinese astronaut who perceived what seemed to be knocking on the outside door while he was in space. Yeah.

Fraser: Wait, he was on the station, and he heard something knocking on the outside of the station?

Dr. Gay: He was in a capsule.  This was back in 2003, pre-station. So, you have Chinese astronaut in a capsule going around the Earth and hears what sounds just like someone knocking on the door. This freaked the poor guy out enough that he actually edged up to the door and looked outside, and there was nothing to be seen.

Fraser: Right.

Dr. Gay: Other taikonauts have reported the same experience.

Fraser: And he didn’t open the door to see who it was?

Dr. Gay: Dude. No, you don’t do that when there’s vacuum outside. That’s just a bad idea.

Fraser: Again, this now is starting to feel like a space horror story where someone just keeps hearing the knocking and then they just go, “Fine,” and then they open up the door and then they’re sucked out into space. It turns out it was just a piece of metal clanking against the outside of the spacecraft.

Dr. Gay: So, that’s some Solaris stuff right there, but in reality, they suspect it was a heating and cooling, just like your oven sounds like it’s knocking. In all likelihood, it was the space capsule’s thermal cycling was causing what sounded like knocking on the door, and since multiple capsules all share the same design, you would expect multiple astronauts to have this same disturbing experience. 

Fraser: So, I get that happening here. So, our place has a metal roof and metal sides, so has all kinds of thermal expansion and contraction. There will be times when I hear sounds right outside the front door and I’ll open up the front door, go take a look, and there’s nothing. It’s just the building itself creaking, and groaning, and contracting, and expanding in various changing temperatures, but you never get over it. There’s gotta be something deeply human about being attuned to those kinds of sounds, and it always setting your hackles on edge. Yeah.

Dr. Gay: Our house has steam radiators that ping and hiss.

Fraser: Yeah, yeah. Totally.

Dr. Gay: It’s the same thing.

Fraser: Yeah. Absolutely so loud. Very cool.

Dr. Gay: Then, there’s the creepy thing every single astronaut experiences. Can you guess? You closed your eyes – 

Fraser: Oh, yes, of course. Cosmic rays on their eyeballs.

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: Yeah.

Dr. Gay: So, this can’t be something that they were prepared for. The astronauts had the misfortune of just being in space and you close your eyes for the darkness of sleep, and you keep getting these bright flashes coming at you randomly in different places in your vision, and it’s just flashes of high energy particles working to act damage on your retina. Yeah. Yeah. Just like you get cosmic rays on CCD images, you can get them on your eyeballs.

Fraser: Right. So, you’re out there in space, you’re less protected by the magnetosphere of the Earth and these cosmic rays are impacting your retina, the cells in your retina, and are causing flashes to be triggered to your brain, and you’re actually taking eye damage as this is happening. So, this is almost like the opposite. 

The experience would be kinda cool that you would be seeing these flashes as you have your eyes closed, but the understanding of what is actually happening is the part that’s really, deeply unnerving that you are suffering – those are just your retinas. You’re getting hit across your entire body. Your brain, your bones, your blood, your organs. Every part of your body is getting cosmic rays going through it, it’s just you can only see the ones that are going through your retina. 

Dr. Gay: I somehow feel like the first time you experience it, it’s more creepy to see it than understand it in that one moment, but after that first moment, the understanding is creepier, but initially. Initially.

Fraser: Yep, that would be my concern. When you go to space, the clock is ticking, and your body is wearing down the various damages that are happening. You’re losing your muscle mass, you’re losing your bone mass, your fluids are redistributing, your eyesight is getting worse, you’re getting increased radiation damage. I don’t think I could think about anything else. 

I know for a lot of people, they’re like, “Oh, yeah. I want to go to space. It’s gonna be so exciting,” but for me, going to space would be like start the clock. You are now in the death zone like when you’re climbing Mount Everest. That’s why I did my intro at the beginning. Just space itself is deeply terrifying just at a baseline. All right. I see you’ve done freaked right out. Keep going.

Dr. Gay: So, I think your comment on death from space is an excellent Segway into the next thing that I did some Googling on and I had to say that I found some of the creepiest, wrong information on the internet. Not that that should surprise absolutely anybody.

Fraser: Yeah.

Dr. Gay: So, what I was trying to find out was I wanted to find out if there’s any information on how you deal with dead bodies in space. It seemed appropriate for this particular episode, and somewhere along the path from what actually happened to what got written, the story became that there are mummified, dead animals in orbit that get seen by astronauts. 

Fraser: What? Again, space is big!

Dr. Gay: I know, and this is where I feel the need to take a moment and step back and debunk. So, firstful, yes, there have been a ton of animals that have died in space for various animals, whether it be they were laboratory animals on the International Space Station that get sent back after being euthanized in space, got sent back through the atmosphere and burned up in the atmosphere, or they were early animals from early attempts at rocket flight where the animals didn’t make it back to Earth, but eventually, those capsules also burnt up in the atmosphere. 

Any critter that has died in space has either been brought back to Earth and studied in a laboratory or has been burnt up in the atmosphere. So, to all of you who, like me, go and click on every one of these spookiest things in space headlines that are out there, this glorious time of the year, understand that when they say, “Space is filled with mummified dead animals,” there may be one or two things out there that just managed to not come back down through the atmosphere yet. I have not been able to find documentation either direction, but things don’t stand in low Earth orbit forever.

Fraser: For more than a couple of years.

Dr. Gay: And anyways, the animals aren’t free-floating, mummified death.

Fraser: Okay. So, is that a scary story? I guess. 

Dr. Gay: I guess. It’s a scary story if you don’t know the truth, and time was needed. I mean, can you imagine you’re a little kid, like the one reading my book that comes out tomorrow, that is trying to Google about what do astronauts see, and they find an article saying that astronauts and suborbital space flights see mummified dead animals. That’s kind of disturbing.

Fraser: Right, and the reality is that plenty of animals have died in space. They’ve just all burned up in the atmosphere or brought back down for further experimentation in cargo vessels. 

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: Yeah, and yet no human body has ever gone to space. There are no human remains orbiting right now, but there will be. When you think about the Apollo missions, and I’m sure you’ve read that speech that Nixon was gonna give if their lander failed to take off again, and so the astronauts would just be stuck on the moon and then they would die of lack of oxygen. There are lots of spacecraft that have failed and are now floating in deep space. We don’t know where they are, but so far, no humans have done that, but there will be a time when it will happen, and there will be people out there in space dead.

Dr. Gay: Yeah, and I just want to put the caveat on this as of as far as we know because there are other nations that launch rockets, and there have always been unconfirmed rumors, but that’s it. No one has ever been able to confirm them, and you can’t really hide things orbiting the planet. 

Fraser: Yeah, did they go beyond low Earth orbit?

Dr. Gay: No, not that we know of.

Fraser: Did the Russians send a cosmonaut off to Mars?

Dr. Gay: They did send turtles around the moon and those came back safe.

Fraser: Okay. All right. Do you have time for one more?

Dr. Gay: Yes. Yes, I do.

Fraser: Okay. You get to choose one more, that’s all we have time for.

Dr. Gay: All right. So, NASA doesn’t have a public “this is what we do with dead bodies” procedure, but Chris Hadfield reported that they have to go through contingency simulations where they pretend to be killed. 

So, they take turns offing the different astronauts in these contingency sims and running through the “how does this get handled”? and the question of what do you do with the body is one of the things that always get lefts unanswered when you ask an astronaut, but when you ask an engineer, a possible solution is brought up, which is stick the astronaut in a body bag, you put them in space so they essentially freeze dry really fast, then you use the robotic arm to shake the bejesus out of that so they break into a million pieces, take up less room.  You bring them on board, and then you figure out what to do.

Fraser: Whoa. 

Dr. Gay: Yeah.

Fraser: So, there is a book that they have on the International Space Station. It’s this 1,000-page book about medicine, and they list all of the things that they are supposed to do like what if they have a cavity, what if somebody has their appendix rupture, so on, but haven’t looked through it to see what to do in case of death. I wonder if it’s in there. It must be. There must be rules in there on what to do in the case of death.

Dr. Gay: Every article I found said that NASA does not have a standard procedure for dead bodies. So, that may simply be that none of the journalists dug hard enough, and this is one of those times when there’s no publicly available procedure.

Fraser: I’m gonna find it. I’m gonna find it. I’m sure it exists. Yeah. Training manual. Okay. I will look for it. Now I want to dig into it. All right. Well, this has been, I hope, appropriately spooky and scary for everyone. So, when you are contemplating the existential horror of an uncaring cosmos, you can take a moment to think about even scarier things on this hallowed eve. Thanks Pamela.

Dr. Gay: Thank you Fraser and thank you to all of our patrons out there who – you are really the ones that we count on to keep this show going week after week, year after year. 

This week, I would like to thank, in particular, Corrine Dmitruk, Tim Gerrish, Benjamin Davies, Bart Flaherty, Brian Kilby, Dean, Arcticfox, Naila, Lew Zealand, Jordan Turner, Leigh Harborne, Jason Kardokus, Rom Thorrsen, Robert Hundl, Kim Baron, Vitaly, Paul Esposito, Arthur Latz-Hall, Frank Stuart, Ganesh Swaminathan, Bob Zatzke, The Lonely Sand Person, Ruben McCarthy, Timelord Iroh, Daniel Donaldson, Ian Abdilla, and Geoff MacDonald. 

If you’re on the fence about becoming part of our patreon community, and I’m hoping you are because the percentage of you that are part of our patreon community is one of those things that I often find myself raising my eyebrow at. If you find yourself on the fence about joining, well, we are about to start posting audio without any advertisements at all for our patrons over on Patreon.com/AstronomyCast.

Fraser: Nice.

Dr. Gay: So, you can get all of our episodes ad free if you join our patreon.

Fraser: Thanks Pamela.

Dr. Gay: Than you Fraser. Buh-bye. Astronomy Cast is a joint product of Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy Cast is released under a creative common’s attribution license. So, love it, share it, and remix it, but please, credit it to our hosts Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website, AstronomyCast.com. 

This episode was brought to you thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep this show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com/AstronomyCast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, but you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast.

Back to Top