So you're watching a good old Space Opera or your favourite Cyber Punk TV series. There's been a grand battle and within all the excitement, you forget that in an intergalactic space war so big there must have been at least a few casualties. It is of course, the writers' jobs to remind of this eventually so as to add to the drama whilst slowing the pace a little.
Next you, the casual viewer, will be shown images of the debris left behind in the battle. It will only be a matter of time before you're shown a body (or parts thereof) floating within the wreckage.
This is Dramatic Space Drifting.
Common in Science Fiction, this is when a spaceship blows up in a battle and relatively important characters are visible drifting through the debris, usually with all body parts intact. This is a trope based mostly in aesthetics as there is often little scientific logic behind such scenes. Characters are usually dead, thus emphasizing the tragic consequences of the battle at a human level, but there are occasions in which characters are still alive and such occasions can either have the same effect or achieve a more comedic one.
See also Thrown Out the Airlock.
No relation at all to Multi-Track Drifting.
Tenchi Muyo! had living characters drift through space on at least two occasions
Outlaw Star sort of does this in the episode "Cats and Girls and Spaceships" though a flower was used instead of a human.
Gundam often features this, usually with a character's battered mecha, although the pilot's often still alive inside. An episode of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam begins with the body of a soldier from the One Year War having drifted out somewhere around Saturn. Early episodes showed the drifting corpse of Kamille's mother.
"The Short, Happy Life of Roons Sewell", a comic arc in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, ended with Roons' death; the front of his Y-Wing exploded, sending shrapnel through his flight suit and ejecting him into space. There's an image of him still out there during his eulogy, frozen dead with a manic smile on his face. Unusually for this trope, it's a relatively uplifting thing - he gave his life, he saved people in doing this, his sacrifice had meaning. If we cannot celebrate the moments we hold back a dark tide, why fight it at all?
In Rogue Leader, an X-Wing Series comic, it was shown that a week after the Battle of Endor, the sanctuary moon's skies are still crowded with ships and bodies. Some pilots, including Wedge, signed up for salvage duty, because even Imperials deserved a proper funeral.
Films — Animated
Dead Space Downfall ends with Vincent's body floating through space, as the series theme song "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" plays.
The opening shot of the Warhammer 40K film Damnatus, including a human skull for no discernible reason other than GrimDarkness.
A quick flash during the opening space battle above Coruscant in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, when the Clone fighters escorting Anakin and Obi Wan are blown up.
The 2009 Star Trek film shows us how one ends up with dramatic space drifting when it depicts a person hurtling out of a breach in the hull of the Kelvin.
Alien - Kane's dead body is shot from an airlock as if out of a cannon.
Parodied in Spy Hard, where General Rancor is launched into space aboard his rocket, and then floats around until he slams into an Apollo-type spacecraft, prompting a voiceover of "Houston, we have a problem".
The plot of Gravity is about two such characters, knocked free after their space shuttle is destroyed by a cloud of space debris. The question is then, how do you get back to Earth?
There's also a few drifting corpses in some of the early scenes, some of whom aren't even wearing spacesuits.
Also the ultimate fate of Matt Kowalski.
An early example: George Pal's 1955 film Conquest of Space has a crew member who is attached to a string and hanging of the side of the ship after shards from an asteroid puncture his suit. The rest of the crew quickly become unnerved by having the body dangling off the side so the commander eventually decides to release him.
George Pal's earlier film Destination Moon had a mid-mission crisis where one of the crew accidentally falls off the side of the rocket and is stuck floating off the back. Fortunately his partners are able to save him.
Europa Report: James Corrigan provides a Heroic Sacrifice by letting himself drift off into space when a failed maintenance job sprays a toxic substance over his spacesuit and he runs the risk of poisoning the atmosphere of the ship.
This is the plot of the Ray Bradbury short story (and play) Kaleidoscope. Most of them are live (for now), and able to talk to each other by radio till they get out of range.
Also No Particular Night or Morning, which ends with an insane astronaut jettisoning himself out into space, though unlike most examples he actually finds such a fate rather comforting.
In Komarr a precise analysis of the trajectory of drifting debris is used to help determine the cause of a space accident.
In The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, one of the characters passes through a portal onto a warship that's been destroyed in the fighting — it's open to space and full of the dead bodies of its crew.
Happens in Shatterpoint with the troop complements of a number of destroyed Drop Ships - infantry, grenadiers, and the like. Except because they're in environment suits, they're still alive. And because they're clones, they keep fighting. In fact, the associated short story is told through the eyes of one of these troopers. He lives.
The end of Galaxy of Fear: Spore has a Star Destroyer torn apart in the middle of an Asteroid Thicket, scattering its mind-controlled crew out into the vacuum. Spore's primary host is killed. It survives, but it's harmless without air and a living primary host.
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Arthur and Ford are tossed off the Vogon ship. They float free for a few seconds before the Infinite Improbability Drive brings the ship to save them.
Also in Enlightenment, with Turlough's PG suicide attempt.
Farscape did several varieties of this several times; one notable instance is D'argo and John floating in space after jumping out a ship which they'd loaded with explosives to ignite an inhabited moon's atmosphere, destroying Scorpius' gammack base.
Another point in the series, John had to jump from a ship that was being destroyed (after he had sabotaged it with him still on it), to another ship that was drifting some hundred yards away. The kicker? He did it without a spacesuit.
There was also at least two cliffhangers involving John being stranded alone in space after incidents with wormholes. The first time Moya was sucked into a wormhole while he was outside, leaving him alone in the middle of deep space, the second time he was left in orbit around Earth.
In an episode of Stargate SG-1 a bad guy gets beamed out into space for holding a gun on someone. When the former hostage asks what happened to him, he drifts towards the bridge window and actually gets a shot off before smacking into it and sliding off.
Two examples in Stargate Atlantis, both involving Asuran replicators (nanite robots).
The first is after an Asuran scientist does a Heel-Face Turn. When the other replicators detect this they wirelessly reprogram him, causing him to attack the Atlantis team. They beam him into outer space, with the episode closing on a shot of him floating around.
The second is of Dr. Weir (now turned replicator) and her Ascension-seeking brethren floating in space after she tricked them into following her through the Stargate to protect the rest of the expedition.
During the episode "Objects in Space" in which Jubal Early is spaced and left to die. Played for comedic value at the end of the episode, where even Jubal recognizes he is performing some excellent Dramatic Space Drifting.
"Well, here I am."
Also in the Firefly episode "Bushwhacked" when Serenity encounters a derelict ship and then a dead body smacks into the cockpit windshield, startling Wash (and the audience).
Battlestar Galactica had Lee floating through space after the destruction of the Blackbird, watching Galactica and Pegasus tear two Cylon basestars to pieces. Ron Moore got the idea from the story of Ensign George Gay, the only survivor of his squadron who watched the climax of the Battle of Midway while floating in the Pacific.
Star Trek does this pretty often, but one of the standouts is in Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Best of Both Worlds", part II, where we see an incredible amount of debris after the battle with the Borg at Wolf 359 - nearly forty Federations ships all blasted to pieces, amounting to 11,000 deaths. Of course, many would have preferred actually seeing the battle.
In "The Next Phase", Geordi and Ro fight a Romulan who's in phase with them, but out of phase with normal matter, thus all of them having intangibility. The Romulan attacks the pair, but is sent flying through the bulkhead and out into space, where we see him quickly drift out into space, motionless.
In Babylon 5, when Commander Sinclair finally remembers what happened at the Battle of the Line: his squad member Mitchell is ambushed and killed, and the next thing we see is his helmet drifting away, past Sinclair's front view in his Starfury.
The 1960s science fictional "Moon Period" in Dick Tracy is quite justifably called a Dork Age, but it did give Chester Gould a chance to do some spectacular artwork that he couldn't have done otherwise. The scene where a murderer tosses a body out of the space coupe and leaves it drifting in the black sky is pretty chilling.
StarCraft had a scene in the Terran ending, showing an arm drifting amidst debris, blood trailing from the stump on one end, and smoke trailing from the cigarette still held between its fingers on the other.
Chemistry takes a back seat there (No oxygen to sustain the combustion). It's just pure Rule of Cool. Or perhaps, the cigarettes are loaded with oxygen. This is how all those non-space marines are breathing on alien planets.
Sprinkled throughout the zero-gravity sections of Dead Space. Can be expected or a horrifying surprise depending on how well orientated you are.
The cover also features an example; what appears to be Isaac's severed arm, floating away.
The Halo series begins and ends with this trope. More specifically, it begins when the Pillar of Autumn first drifts into view, continues on with the Master Chief's escape from the first Halo, and ends with his escape from the destruction of the Ark.
Played with in LEGO Star Wars: the animation of the destruction of the first Death Star shows all sorts of exploding starship parts flying straight at you, ending with a flailing Stormtrooper minifig.
EVE Online will have this at the site of any major PVP battle, at least until some macabre scavenger scoops up the corpses for his trophy collection.
Anything smaller than a capital-sized vessel will look like a generic large, medium, or small-sized piece of sparking space-flotsam, depending on the size of the destroyed ship in question. Capital-sized ships, however, look like actual wrecks: they retain the appearance of the original ship while being scorched, hollow, and dark, with several sections of the outer hull missing.
In the beginning of Mass Effect 2, during the attack on the Normandy SR-1, Shepard is separated from the ship and thrown out into space. His/her suit begins to leak and Shepard flails wildly as he/she falls into the atmosphere of a nearby planet and burns up.
Fun fact: when done with male Shepard, the scene is a shot-for-shot reconstruction of Frank Poole's death in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
On rare occasion, after shooting down a ship in Privateer, you can see a body part (often a hand or booted foot) floating in space.
When investigating the transport destroyed in the intro of Wing Commander IV, you may see a charred skeleton floating around in space.
In Portal 2, you are at one point treated to the picture of Wheatley doing this in the ending. Well, all right, not terribly dramatic since he's an AI and is invulnerable to the effects of spacing, and he's got the Space Module for company.
In The Force Unleashed this happens to Starkiller at one point. You can also send enemies to this fate by breaking the windows on ships and getting them sucked out into space.
It's possible to do this to yourself (or, well, the kerbalnaut you're controlling) in Kerbal Space Program if you run out of EVA pack fuel before you can reach your spaceship's capsule.