"Thanasphere" begins with a report of several lies that were told to cover up sightings of the spaceship carrying Major Allen Rice. The Air Force Office of Public Information offered no comment, but astronomers at the major North American observatories and Dr. Bernard Groszinger, a young rocket consultant for the Air Force, blatantly lie about what they know.
The narrator then tells the story of what actually happened. Dr. Groszinger was conducting a military-funded experiment, working closely with major observatories, and was confident about what the results would be. Major Rice, who had been chosen by psychiatrists from among a hundred volunteers, was orbiting the planet in his machine-guided spaceship, in order to report on weather conditions over enemy territory and to observe the accuracy of guided atomic missiles. Dr. Groszinger considered that Major Rice himself was much like a machine in his efficiency and lack of emotion.
Dr. Groszinger waited by the radio with the radio operator and Lieutenant General Franklin Dane, head of the military operation Project Cyclops. They have been up all night waiting for a message from Rice. Finally, they heard his voice over the loudspeaker, and rejoiced that their mission had worked. However, when they asked Rice what outer space was like, he responded hesitantly and carefully. The General asked if anything was wrong, and Rice admitted he heard a child crying, and an old man trying to comfort it. Suddenly, he heard more voices, all of which were getting louder. The General, Dr. Groszinger, and the radio operator heard nothing. Then they lost their connection to Rice. Dr. Groszinger became extremely frustrated that Rice seemed to have lost his mind and thereby ruined the mission.
When Rice's voice returned on the radio, he reported the weather as expected. But he had continued to hear the the disembodied voices, even more clearly than he could hear the men on Earth. In order to check whether he had lost his mind, Rice asked his colleagues on Earth to verify what one of the voices was saying. He asked them to find out whether a man named Andrew Tobin died in Evansville, Indiana on February 17, 1927 - Tobin's voice claimed that his brother had murdered him. The radio operator was clearly terrified, but Dr. Groszinger only accused Rice of pulling off an intricate practical joke.
Eventually, Dr. Groszinger fell asleep. When he woke up, General Dane informed him that Rice had been sending more messages from the voices. Meanwhile, telegrams had arrived, confirming the identities and deaths of some of the voices Rice had heard. General Dane and Dr. Groszinger remained convinced that Rice had orchestrated a huge hoax, and were furious that he was compromising the military mission. They instructed him to give the weather reports, which he did, all while continuing to ask whether they had confirmed what the voices claimed.
Rice next reported that the voice of an old woman was calling out in German for Dr. Groszinger. He could not understand the words, but he repeated them: it was a Goethe quotation, Dr. Groszinger's mother's favorite. Dr. Groszinger turned down the volume and finished the recitation himself, convinced that Rice was telling the truth. The radio operator called it an omen, suggesting that humanity would stop fighting wars when they learned that spirits evidently inhabit outer space. Troubled by this prediction, General Dane insisted nobody can know about the voices - the only way to reveal that news would be to admit that the country was spying, which was not acceptable.
Dr. Groszinger suggested that they investigate the voices even if they could not reveal news of it to the public. However, General Dane countered that the Air Force budget would not support such experiments.
They tuned back into Rice's channel, and now heard voices themselves: the voices of other radio operators around the world, speaking to one another and overpowering Rice's voice. (Unfortunately, the secret radio frequency had been uncovered by others, as we learn soon afterwards.) Finally, Rice reported that all he heard was the voice of a young woman calling his name. General Dane yelled at the radio operator to jam the frequency, in order to protect the secret.
The next morning, Dr. Groszinger struggled with the question of whether the world had a right to know about the spirit voices. From the newspaper, he learned that two radio amateurs had uncovered their secret ultra-high-frequency band, and had heard a man rambling about hearing voices and a last will and testament. Obviously, this was Major Rice. Dr. Groszinger realized that many others would tune to the frequency now that it was mentioned in the paper.
Dr. Groszinger's secretary soon informed him that General Dane had been looking for him, and was now on the phone with Washington. The radio signal was still jammed, but General Dane had tried to get through to Major Rice, and was convinced that the Major had lost his mind. Apparently, the voice of the young woman calling his name had been that of his dead wife, Margaret Rice.
When General Dane left the room for a moment, the radio operator told Dr. Groszinger that Rice wanted to die, and would probably kill himself rather than guiding his rocket ship safely once he hit the atmosphere. The radio operator flipped the switch to unjam the frequency, and they heard Major Rice's voice giddily describing what he saw: shimmering lights all around him, and his wife waving at him. The radio operator jammed the signal again right as General Dane returns. The General repeated his instructions that they keep the secret of Major Rice, since national security depended on it.
Rather than landing the rocket ship safely, Major Allen Rice killed himself by allowing the ship to crash into the sea. Many people saw the ship enter the atmosphere, which prompts the lies that begin the story. As instructed, Dr. Groszinger does keep the secret, lying to news reporters and claiming the object was a meteor.
When a reporter asks him if there is a name for the space beyond the stratosphere, he answers that it is just "dead space" (32). Then he offers another name for it: "thanasphere," from the Greek word "thanatos," meaning "death" (33).
"Thanasphere" was written before astronauts were actually placed in orbit around the earth, and reflects the widespread anxiety surrounding what such an accomplishment might mean for humanity. It also satirizes the overpowering fear and suspicion that pervaded Cold-War America: General Dane's apprehension about revealing any secrets that might compromise national security outweighs the amazing discovery of one of humanity's most pressing, age-old questions. Rather than science fiction, this story has been classified as sociological in nature, questioning the moral consequences of national behavior with which Vonnegut's audience would have been familiar.
The theme of technology is prominent here, especially the tension between technology and humans. Machines, not humans, guide the space ship. Chosen by psychiatrists for his work ethic and seeming lack of emotion, Major Allen Rice is predicted to "function as perfectly as the rocket motors, the metal hull, and the electronic controls" (18). Ironically, it is Rice's detachment that leads to his death. His lack of emotion is arguably a result of having lost his wife, and so does he lose himself all the more when he connects with the realm of the dead. When it seems that Rice has lost his mind, Dr. Groszinger is disappointed in the failure of the one human aspect of the mission, "the one thing he had not designed, the damn man in it" (20). Vonnegut seems to suggest that the inherently human quality can never be discounted, that we always possess a more ethereal quality than machines do.
"Thanasphere" also explores the intersection between science and religion, as Major Allen Rice discovers in the midst of a military mission that deceased souls exist in outer space. Dr. Groszinger and General Dane represent the skeptical scientific perspective, immediately drawing the conclusion that Rice must be pulling off a very elaborate hoax. Vonnegut ironically points to the tension between their scientific approach and the spiritual reality through their exclamations of denial. Dr. Groszinger wonders of the supposed hoax, "God knows what he hopes to accomplish by it. God knows what we can do to make him stop it," and General Dane replies, "So he's trying to jimmy the project, is he? We'll see, by God, we'll see" (23). They invoke a deity (God) without even realizing that such a force must be behind the phenomenon they are discounting. Tellingly, it is not until facts - details provided by Dr. Groszinger's mother - surface that the doctor is willing to consider the possibility.
The irony of "Thanasphere" is that despite the ground-breaking revelation of a spiritual world existing beyond the stratosphere, the status quo is maintained. General Dane insists that national security is paramount, and so the secret must be kept. The answer to whether life exists after death, one of the most important questions facing humanity, is unavailable to the vast majority of humans because of government control. Ostensibly in the name of public safety (news of the rocket could start a war), the government robs humanity of a deep satisfaction.
Rather than focusing on the surprise the characters might experience at learning of the existence of a spiritual world, Vonnegut develops their individual approaches to coping with this new information. Confronted by the spiritual voices first-hand, Rice at first questions his own sanity, asking for verification of the details he hears. But once he communicates with his own wife, Margaret, he is ecstatic, and accepts death whole-heartedly. General Dane's reaction is characterized most negatively, as he immediately insists that the secret of the spirits be kept from the world. Dr. Groszinger, though at first skeptical in a way representative of his occupation as a scientist, begins to use his imagination as he wonders how different people in his life might react to the news if they heard it. In many ways, he is the character who changes the most, and the one whose shift signals a certain optimism in human nature. However, in the end, he keeps his promise to hide the truth for the sake of national security. As often happens in Vonnegut's stories, social demands quash any individual growth and uniqueness.