Ebullism is the formation of gas bubbles in bodily fluids due to reduced environmental pressure, for example at high altitude. It occurs because a system of liquid and gas at equilibrium will see a net conversion of liquid to gas as pressure lowers, for example, liquids reach their boiling point at lower temperatures when the pressure on them is lowered.


Symptoms of ebullism[1] include bubbles in the membranes of the mouth and eyes, swelling of the skin, and bubbles in the blood. Blood circulation and breathing may be impaired or stopped. The brain tissue may be starved of oxygen because of blockage of arteries, and the lungs may swell and hemorrhage. Death results unless recompression is rapid enough to reduce the bubbles before tissue damage occurs.

In 1960, Joseph Kittinger experienced localised ebullism during a 31 kilometres (19 mi) ascent in a helium-driven gondola.[2] His right-hand glove failed to pressurise and his hand expanded to roughly twice its normal volume[3][4] accompanied by disabling pain. His hand took about 3 hours to recover after his return to the ground.

Tissue samples from the remains of the crew of Space Shuttle STS-107 Columbia revealed evidence of ebullism. Given the level of tissue damage, the crew could not have regained consciousness even with re-pressurization.[5]


In the atmospheric pressure present at sea level, water boils at 100 °C (212 °F). At an altitude of 63,000 feet (19,000 m), it boils at only 37 °C (99 °F), the normal body temperature of humans. This altitude is known as Armstrong’s Line.[6] In practice bodily fluids do not boil off at this altitude. This is because the skin and outer organs have enough strength to withstand this pressure,[7] thus pressure inside the body would be significantly higher—however, nitrogen bubbles starting to form is still an issue.


To prevent ebullism, a pure oxygen (O2) atmosphere was used in early space flights to eliminate nitrogen in the blood. There are major fire hazards associated with using pure O2 as a breathing gas, which was central to the death of three astronauts in a fire during a ground test with Apollo 1.[8] Nonetheless NASA continued to use a [nominally] pure oxygen atmosphere throughout the Apollo Program but switched to air for the follow-on Space Transport System "Space Shuttle". Russian cosmonauts used pure oxygen before changing to a higher-pressure nitrox mixture, leading to incompatibility problems in 1975 on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.[9] Space suits are often pressurized to several psi lower than stations' capsules or shuttles and since they still use pure O2, an acclimation period is common in the airlock to remove nitrogen and other gases from the bloodstream.


The term "space ebullism" was introduced by Captain Julian E. Ward in his paper "The True Nature of the Boiling of Body Fluids in Space", published in Aviation Medicine in October of 1956.[10][11] It was suggested "because the word ebullism does not connote the addition of heat to produce vapor." It comes from Latin ebullire, meaning "to bubble out, or to boil up."

See also


  1. ^ Czarnik, Tam, "Ebullism at 1 Million Feet" (Retrieved 2010-02-16).
  2. ^ Pilmanis, Andrew; William Sears (December 2003). "Physiological hazards of flight at high altitude". The Lancet. 362: s16–s17. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(03)15059-3. PMID 14698113. S2CID 8210206.
  3. ^ Higgins, Matt (May 24, 2008). "20-Year Journey for 15-Minute Fall". The New York Times (online). p. 2. Retrieved 2012-09-23.
  4. ^ "Skydive from the Stratosphere", NOVA Online, Public Broadcasting Service(PBS). November 2000. Retrieved 2012-09-23
  5. ^ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2008). "Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report NASA/SP-2008-565" (PDF). Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. p. 3-83.
  6. ^ Davis, Jeffrey R., Johnson, Robert, and Stepanek,Jan, Fundamentals of Aerospace Medicine, 4th Edition (2008), p. 252.
  7. ^ Landis, Geoffrey A., "Human Exposure to Vacuum Archived July 21, 2009, at the Wayback Machine" (Retrieved 2010-02-16).
  8. ^ Garber, Steve (18 January 2007). "NASA Apollo Mission Apollo-1". National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved 16 February 2010.
  9. ^ Lethbridge, Cliff (2000). "Apollo-Soyuz Test Project". Spaceline. Archived from the original on 20 January 2010. Retrieved 16 February 2010.
  10. ^ Mohler, Stanley R.; Day, Pamela C. (September 2006). "The Annual Awards of the Aerospace Medical Association". Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 77 (9): 979.
  11. ^ Ward, Julian E. (1956). "The True Nature of the Boiling of Body Fluids in Space". The Journal of Aviation Medicine. Aviation Medicine. 27 (5): 429–39. PMID 13366883. S2CID 6765165.