A habitat or spacecraft will need to carry more emergency equipment than, say, a sea-going boat. Most sea-going emergencies will be happening on somewhat more leisurely time-scales than outer-space disasters. And for most Terran-bound disasters, the people will at least have access to unlimited amounts of air. Not so, in space.

But no matter the location of the emergency, a person will have a much higher chance of survival if they stay level-headed and do not panic.


(ed note: Lucian Dreyfuss lives on the Moon, in the Central City complex. One fine day he is working for extra money by being a tour guide for a group of stupid Terran tourists. He has a group of tourists in a view-dome on the surface, pointing out the Lunar sights. Unexpectedly, Terra vanishes. {for complicated reasons you can read about in the novel})

      “As you can see, the Sun is just rising over the coast of North and South America, and there’s clear weather over most of the Atlantic. Can anyone spot the coast of Africa?”
     The murmur of voices swept toward a crescendo as the groundlings eagerly pointed out the perfectly obvious to each other. Next step. He could explain how the South American coast matched up with Africa. He looked up at the Earth and began.
     “Very good. Now, if you look toward the dark side of the planet, you can just see—”

     He saw it. He saw it happen. One moment the Earth was there, and then, suddenly, in a weird, twisted flash of blue light, it wasn’t. He blinked, unbelieving.
     The Earth wasn’t there anymore.

     Around him, the tourist voices rose again, a bit uncertainly. “Is it an eclipse?” one of them asked.
     “Hey, sonny, is this some kind of joke?”
     “Did the polarizers switch on in the wrong place?”
     “No, dummy, this dome isn’t polarized. It’s got that Sun-blocking gizmo on the control arm outside.”
     “It must be a power failure. All the lights on Earth went out.”
     “Yeah, right, including the Sun?”
     “Hey, mister, you ever seen anything like this before?”
     “Young man, what in heaven’s name is going on?” Mrs. Chester demanded in an imperious voice, as if Lucian were responsible for preventing disasters.

     Lucian ignored the welter of voices and stared at the impossible sky, his mind racing for an explanation. What in the name of God could create the illusion of a planet vanishing? He dreamed up a half dozen theories. A black dust cloud wandering through the Solar System, a bad prank by some grad students on one of the space habitats, flinging a king-size occulting disk in front of Earth, a sudden weird flaw in the dome’s glass that filtered out Earth-colored light. But none of his ideas made sense, or were even physically possible.
     Then if there were no way to make it seem the Earth was gone, then it had to be that—

     Lucian never had the chance to complete the terrifying thought. The first moonquake hit. The Moon’s entire existence had been shaped by the tidal stresses imposed by Earth’s massive gravity well. Internal stresses in the Moon’s crust, stresses that had existed before the first trilobite ever swam Earth’s seas, were suddenly no longer there. With the strain patterns of a billion years suddenly relieved, the Moon’s crust snapped, like a rubber band let go after being stretched out. The first of the shock waves smashed into the surface, sending everyone in the dome sprawling.
     Lucian, standing on the low tour-guide dais, was flung into the air, tumbling end over end in the Moon’s leisurely gravity.
     It was the quake that convinced Lucian of the impossible truth. The sudden, appalling shock of the very ground beneath his feet, flinging him about, made the disaster real. He slammed into the floor of the dome and clung to it, digging his fingers into the rubber matting.

     Suddenly his mind was clear. A legend spoke to him, and told him what to do.

     “Accept the situation, think and act,” his father’s voice whispered to him. His father, Bernard Dreyfuss, hero of the SubBubble Three disaster. A thousand—ten thousand more would have died, if Bernard Dreyfuss had not kept his head. “Most people panic when they are in danger. Not our family.” That was family lore, the family law, Lucian told himself. “We think in a crisis, boy,” his father had told him. “That’s why we survive. When the terrible, the frightening, the incredible happens, accept it and act while the others are still in shock. It’s in your blood to do it. Trust that and act.”

     He looked up in the sky. All his life, all the centuries humanity had lived on the Moon, all the endless millions of years before that, the Earth had hung in that one spot in the Lunar sky, the one unmoving object among the wheeling Sun and stars. It had hung there, always.
     And it wasn’t there now. Damn it, accept that. No one was going to believe it, but accept it. It had happened. How? How had it been wrecked? Had it exploded?
     Stop it. Accept the incredible. The how of it didn’t matter just now. The ground below his feet rattled again, and he heard a little girl whimper in fear. It refocused his mind. He could do nothing for the people of Earth, but the loss of the planet had consequences here, now.
     And he had responsibilities. For starters, the people in this dome. He did not even notice that he had stopped thinking of them as tourists and groundlings.
     They needed help. If the ground danced again, and the dome cracked this time… He had to get them safely down below, down into the panicked ant heap the city must be by now…
     It struck him that down below they wouldn’t know about Earth yet.
     Earth. Dear God, Earth. He looked again at the frightened people all around him. Earth people. They needed help. Help in getting below to safety, help in avoiding panic.

     Keeping their minds off whatever had just happened to their world was vital. Focus them on the immediate danger. Don’t let them have time to think.
     Lucian stood up carefully, adopting the cautious, wide-legged stance of a man expecting the ground to give way. “Everyone, please listen carefully.” He must have gotten some sort of tone of authority into his voice; they all quieted down and turned to him. Calm them. Downplay the situation. “You are in no immediate danger, but safety regulations require the evacuation of these domes after even a minor tremor.” There was nothing remotely “minor” about the temblor they had just experienced, but Lucian was perfectly willing to minimize the danger if it calmed these people and got them the hell out of here.
     “Please form a single-file line and move in an orderly fashion back down the entrance ramp.”
     Warn them of the turmoil below. “Please bear in mind that everyone under us in the city felt that tremor too, so things might be a little chaotic down there.”
     Fine, that will keep them from being shocked—but won’t they get completely freaked if they see the goddamn natives in an uproar? Panic is contagious. How to keep them from catching it—or causing it? Of course. Appeal to their pride. “The people below will be scared, and we’re scared—but let’s not let other people’s fear panic us. Show them tourists can handle a crisis just as well as Conners. Now let’s move, quickly. ”
     He jumped down and made his way through the crowd to the exit ramp. He started ushering the people down, and found himself pleasantly surprised at how cooperative they all were. He spotted a young woman who looked levelheaded toward the head of the line and took her by the arm. What was her name? Deborah, that was it. “Listen, Deborah,” he said. “We’ll need to keep the whole crowd together until we get back to the hotel. Hold them at the entrance to the main concourse while I take up the rear.”
     If we get that far. Lucian knew full well what a quake could do to the underground tunnel-and-dome system that made up Central City. A collapse, a major pressure breach, a jammed lock, and they would be trapped. He thrust the thought from his mind. Just get them down below. He never even noticed he had managed to make himself forget the main problem:

     Earth was gone.

     Lucian breathed a sigh of relief as the airlock swung open. He had wondered if it had been a bad idea to head down into the depths during a quake—but now the move was vindicated. He didn’t mention it to any of the tourists, but the blinking yellow panel on the lock indicator meant that there was an air leak somewhere in the observation-dome complex. Had they stayed behind, sooner or later they would have been out of air. If the quake had likewise jammed the airlock door mechanism, they’d all be dead. The door stopped its travel and locked into the open position.
     He noticed more than a few of his charges were hanging back, unwilling to enter the confined space of the airlock chamber. In a quake, claustrophobia was entirely rational. “Come on, folks,” he said, trying to assume the air of a bored tour guide again, weary of squiring his flock. If he treated them like sheep, maybe they would act like sheep.
     “Inside. The sooner we get into the lock, the sooner we can get out the other side. Let’s get into the lock.”
     Still they hung back, until Deborah, the sensible young woman, squared her shoulders and strode purposefully into the lock. That was enough to get most of the others moving.

     Lucian crowded them all into the lock chamber. He had twenty-eight people on the tour. Normally he would cycle the tour through in two runs—but one more good jolt and the lock might jam. Get them all through while he still could. Lucian herded the last tourist in, wedged himself in, and shoved his way over to the lock controls. He broke the seal over the emergency switch and punched the crash-cycle button. A siren hooted, and the normal white lighting cut out, replaced by blood red emergency lights. The domeside hatch swung shut at double time and bolted itself shut. The tourists crowded back from it.
     The pump mechanism clunked and clanked, making noises that were unnervingly unfamiliar to Lucian’s practiced ear. Could the quake have screwed up the innards of the lock? What if it jammed? How long could the air last in here? It was a bit warm already, with all these people crowded into this small space. Then came the welcome hissing sound of the pumps equalizing pressure with the city side.
     The city side doors opened. With a collective sigh of relief, the whole herd tumbled out into the entryway.

     Central City was built underground, a series of lens-shaped hollows, kilometers across, known as Sub-Bubbles. The tourist dome sat on the surface, fifty meters directly above one edge of a lens, connected to the interior’s ground level by a long ramp running between the surface level and the airlock. The city side of the airlock complex had been designed with tourists in mind. One whole wall was made up of huge view windows that canted in from the ceiling toward the floor, overlooking Amundsen SubBubble, affording a splendid vista of the bustling city below.

     Except now the view windows were shattered heaps of glass on the ground and jagged knife-edges sprouting up from window frames. A sooty wind swept into the overlook chamber.

     The city below looked like a war zone. Smoke billowed up from at least three separate fires, only to be caught in a violent wind that flattened it into the sky blue ceiling of the bubble. Wind. Nothing scared a Conner more than a leak.
     Lucian forced the worry from his mind. Either the repair crews were handling it or they weren’t. Lucian’s gaze left the ceiling and he looked down at the city again. The lush greenery that the city took such pride in was still more or less there, but whole garden sections had slumped over. Landslides had carried off hillside trees.
     Mobs swirled about here and there—whether in panic or in some attempt to deal with the fires and other crises, Lucian could not tell. The lighting in the city was dimmer than it should have been. The emergency lights were on in places. Swirling smoke darkened everything. Many of the tall, graceful towers for which the city was famous had been felled or badly damaged. From what Lucian could see, the high-rent districts of the dome slopes had taken a lot of punishment.

     Perfect, Lucian thought, glancing back at his charges. Just what these people need to see. “Come on, folks. Turn left and out the down ramp to the main city level. Let’s get down and back to the hotel.” Don’t give them time to think, his father’s voice whispered. Not when thinking will lead to panic. Get them home. He counted noses. There were still twenty-eight. Good. At least he didn’t have to go back through the lock after stragglers. Lucian led the group down the access ramp, a long spiral walkway leading down from the overlook chamber. As with the chamber itself, the wall facing the dome interior was made entirely of glass. That was both for the benefit of tourists and because there was nothing cheaper than glass on the silica-rich Moon. Whatever the reason, it left Lucian leading twenty-eight people, most of whom barely knew how to walk in low gee, down an incline littered with razor-sharp fragments of glass, trying to stay out of a howling wind that blew through where the glass wall should have been. Somehow he got them down without anyone slicing open an artery.
     The route back to the Aldrin Inn was at least short and direct. There was no sign of the bus that was supposed to be waiting to take them back. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. The periphery of the main level was littered with boulders and parts of buildings shaken loose from upslope, clogging the roads with debris. He urged his charges into a brisk walk back toward their hotel.
     Even in that short walk Lucian saw enough to scare him badly. Amundsen SubBubble, at least, was in pretty bad shape. Every house, every building, seemed to have soaked up some damage. There was an obstruction in the road every few hundred meters. Abandoned cars, debris fallen from buildings, felled trees and broken tree limbs were scattered everywhere.

     Finally they reached the Aldrin Inn. The big building seemed utterly intact. A small knot of people standing outside the entrance was the only sign here of anything out of the ordinary. By the looks of things, the place had been evacuated, and the guests were just now being allowed back in. Lucian, standing in the middle of the rubble-strewn road, looking at the hubbub around the hotel, felt something being shoved into his fingers. He looked into his hand. A British twenty-pound note. He realized Mrs. Chester was standing next to him.
     “Thank you so much, young man,” she said. “I’m so glad we’re all down safely.”
     Lucian looked at her blankly. A tip. The woman had tipped him for saving her life. Without him, they’d still be a panicky mob up in a leaking dome. At least it served to tell him he had discharged this responsibility. They don’t tip you until the job is over. He dropped the twenty-pound note, let it flutter to the ground, and walked away without saying a word.

From THE RING OF CHARON by Roger MacBride Allen (1990)

Pressure Breach Gear

Equipment to deal with a breach in a habitat module or a space suit are covered here.

Escape Craft

RocketCat sez

Oh, so you want a freaking lifeboat on your spacecraft, do you? Where did you get that brilliant idea, Einstein, a Star Trek episode?

Use your brain: if the life boat is actually going to preserve your crew's life it'll have to have enough stuff so that it'll actually be a spacecraft. Only with a more limited life support, much lower delta V, drastically less elbow room, and more likely to kill the crew. I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you intended the lifeboat to be smaller that the actual ship.

Why would you want to waste valuable payload mass on something so worthless? I guess you've forgotten Every Gram Counts! Galaxy! I'm going to have to staple it to your forehead or something. You'd be much better off taking whatever is threatening the ship and throwing that overboard instead, and making do with the rest of the ship.

And don't even talk to me about escape pods. Might as well hop into a coffin for all the good they'd do. Actually a coffin would be better, at least that will save on funeral expenses.

(h/t to John)

A "self-rescue ship" is one where in an emergency, the mission can be abandoned and part of the ship can transport the crew home. NASA usually focused on this option because they did not have the budget for a separate rescue ship to go save the crew (with one or two exceptions). As you can read above, this is RocketCat's preferred option.

But for certain spacecraft emergencies, it is best if the crew and passengers abandon ship in some type of escape craft. This is also better for the science fiction author's dramatic purposes. A good example is when they took Alfred Hitchcock film Lifeboat and re-worked it into the science-fiction TV movie Lifepod.

A "life-raft" is a long endurance device carrying many castaways. Its purpose is to keep the castaways alive until they are found and saved by a rescue ship. It is analogous to a wet-navy life-raft. It is discussed here.

A "lifeboat" or "life pod" is a long endurance device carrying many castaways. Its purpose is to keep the castaways alive until they can travel to a safe haven with their rudimentary propulsion system. It is analogous to a wet-navy lifeboat with a motor. It is discussed here.

A "Reentry capsule" or "escape pod" is a short endurance devices carrying few or one castaway. It is only used to to leave a distress spacecraft if there is a Conveniently Close Planet. The castaway(s) bail out of the distressed spacecraft in the reentry capsule, which immediately heads for the planet and does its best land safely on the surface. It analogous to a parachute on an aircraft. It is discussed here.

Escape Craft
Life Raft
Life Boat
Reentry Capsule

Self-Rescue Ship

As previously mentioned, a "self-rescue ship" is one where in an emergency, the mission can be abandoned and part of the ship can transport the crew home. NASA usually focused on this option because they did not have the budget for a separate rescue ship to go save the crew (with one or two exceptions).

This was seen in the Apollo 13 disaster, when the Command and service module's life-support system was destroyed they used the Lunar module as a "lifeboat" while the ship limped home on a free-return trajectory.


During the Apollo lunar missions and landings 50 years ago, there was a real risk of losing a crew during each mission. For the launch phase, the risk was relatively small due to an effective launch abort system with an escape tower. During the passage to the Moon, the crew would have had the option of using the Lunar Module’s engine to return to Earth, as was done so successfully during Apollo 13. However, once a crew was in orbit around the Moon, or had landed on the Moon, the risk level was multiplied: a loss of vehicle control or failure of the propulsion system for Earth return or, worse, a failure during descent to or ascent from the lunar surface.

In one respect, the Apollo lunar module design gave crews the ability to abort a lunar landing by separating the ascent stage from the descent stage and returning to the Command and Service Module, even after committing to land. As long as the lander could reach orbit or was still in orbit, the service module could have probably rescued astronauts stranded in a non-operative ascent stage. However, if the crew had already landed and the ascent stage would not lift off, the crew could only survive a few days. They could not survive a lunar night unless the lander was designed for it. Worse, if the ascent stage had failed in any major way during an ascent, there was no backup system to reach a minimal lunar orbit and to save them from impacting the lunar surface within an hour or less.

On March 26, 2019, Vice President Mike Pence announced a revised lunar initiative, to attempt to return humans to the lunar surface by the end of 2024, instead of by 2028. In April, the picture gradually clarified, as there are now two program phases: to have a new human lunar landing (the exploration phase) by 2024 followed by a more permanent presence (the operational and sustainable phase), probably at the lunar south pole, by 2028. The plans and designs continue to evolve rapidly, as five years is a very short time span and the decision makers can feel the pressure. In early May, this accelerated lunar landing program was named Artemis. The ongoing development program for the lunar vehicles and hardware is called Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP. NASA had also planned a Moon to Mars Mission Directorate to coordinate that overall effort, which included Artemis, but Congress refused to allow the organizational change. As a result, Mark Sirangelo, a NewSpace-oriented executive who had been picked to lead it, resigned from NASA on May 23. This means that the existing NASA bureaucracy will be in charge of the program.

There are both good and bad aspects to the new lunar initiative. The significant national prestige or geopolitical aspects of human space operations during a declared “space race” should not be ignored or denigrated, but any acceleration of a lunar effort would also move the day forward to when we can conduct actual water mining operations on the lunar surface. The main drawback (and danger) is that a two-phase plan sets up the possibility that it will include building two sets of lunar vehicles, one set expendable for use by 2024, and another set reusable for later missions. Considering how hard it is to get funding for space programs, it would be very wasteful to build expendable vehicles to use for just a few years. (This assumes that planners still think that expendable vehicles can be built and qualified faster. Hopefully they have paid attention to how fast SpaceX was able to develop its reusable vehicles.)

The danger to the program comes from the strong possibility that whoever is president after 2024 would cancel work on the reusable set of vehicles. The plan also sets up the similar danger that any flow of extra money from Congress in the near term might be cut off after a few lunar landings with the expendable vehicles are accomplished. It also seems unlikely that the House today would even provide such extra funding for the accelerated plan to support a goal backed by Trump. House hearings on the NASA budget earlier this month ignored Artemis and the need for a supplemental budget item to support it.

Assuming that the lunar operational phase, due to be under way by 2028, will include a larger orbiting base or Gateway, from which multiple reusable lunar landers or ferries can operate, the problem of enabling crew survival after 2028 with a subsequent Earth return during an emergency in lunar orbit is probably covered. (Operating a lunar landing program entirely from Low Earth Orbit with no near-lunar base would require a huge vehicle similar to the SpaceX BFS stage).

But what about the period from 2024 to 2028? We have no idea if there are any plans to place an early crew refuge habitat in a low lunar orbit reachable by a lander or ascent vehicle, versus the high lunar orbit where the Gateway will be located. Since each mission launched on Orion will cost billions and is scheduled years in advance, there are no plans for another standby rescue mission in case of a problem. The production capacity for the SLS booster is limited, and funding is always tight, making a set-aside rescue mission via an SLS very unlikely. The overall cumbersomeness of the SLS-based mission concepts also would result in a very long response time, probably too long to effect a rescue.

It behooves everyone in a position of authority over the Artemis program to work to provide reasonable protection for lunar crews during the first phase (2024–2028) so that crews are never again put into the (now) unnecessarily risky position of those that flew on Apollo. To more fully protect the new lunar crews, a couple of additional steps need to be taken besides the lander design. The three main risks to the crew after they have entered lunar orbit are (1) inability to lift off from the lunar surface, (2) failure of the ascent vehicle or its engine during the ascent from the lunar surface or after an aborted landing, and (3) inability to leave lunar orbit and return to the Earth. All of these would require both backup systems and a rescue mission to deal with. Since crews are most likely to be stranded on the lunar surface or in lunar orbit, it makes sense that emergency equipment should be placed in both locations before any human missions. This would consist of either a second return vehicle with storable propellant or a crew refuge habitat with a solar radiation storm cellar and supplies enough to last for several months while a rescue mission is mounted.

The current accelerated lunar plan is one promulgated by the White House. In my opinion, some of the news media unfairly blamed then President Reagan in 1986 for pressuring NASA to launch the shuttle Challenger “on schedule” ahead of a State of the Union speech that night, (a hypothesis which has never been proven), when the provable cause was clearly NASA management’s decision to ignore engineers’ stark warnings, as in “take off your engineer’s hat and put on your manager’s hat.” However, in the case of a future lunar crew lost or stranded with no hope of rescue on a lunar mission before the operational phase, the onus would be at least partly on the White House, since it is a program they have initiated with a clear deadline. Part of the onus would still be on the mission and vehicle designers.

The clear intention for the new plan seemed to be that a lunar landing expedition would first go, in a vehicle like Orion, to a minimal Gateway station with a small habitat module and docking node in a high lunar orbit, where they would board a composite lunar vehicle. A transfer module acting as a space tug would move the lander and ascent sections to low lunar orbit, where the lander would carry the crew in the ascent section to the lunar surface. On ascent, the lander would be left behind and the ascent stage would rendezvous with the transfer tug, which would carry the ascent stage with crew back to the Gateway; alternatively, the ascent stage could go directly to the Gateway. These two modules could possibly have been reusable in the earlier plan.

On May 16, NASA issued NextSTEP contracts to 11 companies to begin studies of lunar vehicles. There are suggestions that the previously planned three-part vehicle system could have reusable ascent and transfer elements. In the contracts, there is not a single mention of the ascent vehicle component, which was previously assumed to be built in-house by NASA but will now be considered by a separate NextSTEP procurement. Thus, in this set of contracts, the integrated lunar vehicle still seems to be in two or three parts, so It is not at all clear if there is now a desire by NASA for it to be designed as a reusable lander or not.

For a vehicle using hydrogen-oxygen propellants and only needs to perform a total of about 4 to 5 kilometers per second of delta-V per round trip, and in an environment with no air drag and low gravity, you simply do not need a three-segment vehicle to perform a lunar landing and return, even from a high lunar orbit. It is not clear why the vehicle would consist of “a complete integrated lander that incorporates multiple elements such as a Descent Element, Ascent Element, and Transfer Vehicle” (NASA wording). Such phraseology seems to be contradictory as it does not describe an “integrated vehicle”, unless the “elements” are fully and physically integrated into a single vehicle. Some companies have since proposed a two-vehicle version of the system which omits the transfer vehicle.

NASA had actually started to change direction in April but seems to be creating some confusion about the program is it moves forward by issuing the design contracts in May for the previous design. On April 26, NASA announced in a procurement filing that it was looking for a NextSTEP proposal, for which it may issue contracts in the summer of 2019, for an integrated lunar lander instead of the weird, three-part vehicle originally proposed. What does this mean for crew safety? It would reduce the number of components and the number of needed rendezvous operations, and provide more flexibility in designing vehicles that can survive in-flight damage and still function, just like the World War II airplanes that often landed safely when shot full of holes.

A truly integrated, reusable lunar vehicle should consist of a single module, with one major exception. Just like the original Apollo lunar lander’s ascent stage, the integrated vehicle should have a self-propelled crew cabin that can separate from the main lander, if (and only if) the main vehicle fails at any point, and perform an abort to orbit or an abort to surface at any time during a lunar mission. (With the expendable Apollo vehicle, the ascent stage was intended to separate on every mission.) The fuel load for the cabin can also be sized to minimize it so that (depending on the current velocity and altitude), either an abort to orbit or surface, but not both, can be performed. Irrespective of whether the vehicle to be used in 2024 is expendable or reusable, such a self-rescue crew cabin should be included in the design. The cabin should be as small and light as possible, but allow for crew survival long enough to provide a practical rescue time window. It should use new storable, non-toxic propellants for its emergency propellant supply if possible. Once the cabin with crew is either back in orbit or on the surface, a rescue by another vehicle is possible. Thus, in terms of configuration, the integrated lander would look much like the original, but with a much larger propulsion section.

One other design for a safer lunar module is potentially possible. If the integrated lunar module can be designed in functional modular sections so that if a portion of its fuel tanks, engines, or controls are damaged, the vehicle would have enough remaining capacity to continue an ascent from the Moon (or abort a descent and return to lunar orbit), the need for a self-powered crew cabin is reduced. However, the design must take into account the damage that occurred during Apollo 13, where an internal explosion destroyed much of the Apollo Service Module, but left the Command and Lunar modules undamaged. In space, the results of an explosion are reduced since there is no air pressure outside (and often inside) the vehicle to conduct the force of an explosion, resulting in less damage. Good design could help isolate the results of such an event to one portion of the integrated lunar vehicle. Structural partitions between functional modules would add some weight, but this would be balanced by removing the need for a separate crew cabin. All engines should be able to be gimbaled and throttled so that any single remaining functional engine can provide the needed thrust aligned through the center of mass of the vehicle.

If a lunar landing takes place as early as 2024, it is still not clear if the lander system would be delivered to the minimal Gateway in lunar orbit fully fueled or if it would be refueled from an orbiting depot before landing. We should be able to develop a usable cryogenic propellant depot in five years as it is not a complex vehicle: just a set of insulated tanks, cryo-coolers, and fuel transfer pumps. Fuel storage and transfer in high or low lunar orbit would increase the total mass a lander could carry to the surface, and also provide an emergency fuel supply. A fuel depot using lower performance non-cryogenic storable propellant would require more propellant and tank mass and would be more expensive than a cryogenic system, even before lunar-sourced-propellant becomes available. Such a crew refuge needs a solar radiation storm cellar. If a depot is used, a crew refuge/habitat module can be attached to the Gateway depot, possibly surrounded by the depot’s tanks for shielding, to take advantage of the required attitude control and station keeping thrusters such a depot would need. This would satisfy the requirement for a lunar orbit crew refuge.

If we have multiple lunar crew landers, one or more of them can be modified to carry down to the surface a nearly identical crew refuge/habitat. If it has a solar storm cellar, the habitat does not even need to be unloaded from the lander after landing, as long as the crew has access to it and can land within a short distance of it. Alternatively, a fresh ascent vehicle could be landed at the intended landing site, well protected against lunar thermal extremes with effective insulation, its own sunshade, and cryo-coolers. The whole intent is to provide coverage of the most likely failure modes without bells and whistles. These can be added as things advance to the operational stage, where mining of lunar water could begin, requiring more frequent and routine lunar flights. Another simple rescue system would be to have a spare lander with ascent vehicle docked at the gateway base, using the base’s power to keep its propellant cold. It would be able to land precisely and rescue a stranded crew very quickly. This is the situation toward which things should evolve to after 2024; the main question is how soon the spares could be built and emplaced.

Of the various companies that are interested in participating in Artemis, SpaceX stands out as the one company that may be able to complete development of two independent kind of lunar access for humans within a short time of each other. A future integrated Artemis lander could fit (probably dry) inside one or more Falcon Heavy launch fairings, and could also be refueled in orbit by tankers launched by Falcon Heavy. At the same time, the company is pushing its Starship/Super Heavy program very hard, and it is quite possible that, due to its huge size, an uncrewed Starship could be refueled in LEO, fly to the Moon, land, take off, and return to Earth before 2024. This timetable is similar to the first scheduled Starship cargo flight to Mars, postulated for 2022 or 2024. If the Starship can land and return safely, it would provide a comprehensive lunar rescue system, even if NASA is unwilling to fund it or participate in its development due to NASA’s continuing political allegiance to the SLS as their primary large booster. By the time the Starship/Super Heavy is flying, it will probably be too late for NASA to switch its support to that system as the primary lunar architecture, but it not only shows great promise as a rescue system, but also as a primary transport system for the period after 2024.

It is possible that, given annual NASA and Congressional budgetary restrictions, the crew safety features, including a depot with a crew refuge in lunar orbit, could slow down a lunar surface program timetable. This is in fact one of the main and legitimate fears of opponents of the Gateway station, which originally was not designed to support lunar landings at all and whose funding, independent of a landing program, would have delayed any lunar landing. To prevent any delays, or even the perception of delays, the safety features should get their own parallel funding so that everyone can see that the landing program is being helped, not harmed. This intent should be clear in any initial proposals for safety-related hardware development.

Having at least two ways of getting crews to the Moon and back is as important as having two ways of getting crews to the International Space Station and back down again. For this reason, it is very desirable to have agreements with commercial companies such as SpaceX, which may be able to conduct their own lunar missions by or before 2024. Thus it is possible that such companies might be able to deliver a crew refuge and depot to lunar orbit and refuges to the lunar surface in advance of human landings, in addition to being able to conduct crew rescues. International partners may also be able to assist.

Taking such a position does not obligate NASA to abandon its own lunar vehicle plans unless Congressional funding fails to materialize, as was the caused during the Space Exploration Initiative almost 30 years ago. There is less than a year to choose between using SLS or private launchers in support of the new lunar program. It is, however, very hard to see how NASA will be able to develop its own lunar hardware without more funding, given the huge financial drain into the SLS program created by Congress. In the event Congress doesn’t provide the additional funding, the Trump Administration always has the option of backing SpaceX or another private company with the capability to develop lunar vehicles by the 2024 deadline, especially if done in cooperation with NASA. The agency is starting to show an inclination to allow vehicle integration by the private companies at their own facilities, which would greatly speed up the process. This private option also offers the huge advantage that the existing NASA plans cannot include for all of its launches: reusable launchers and a much cheaper lunar program.


Lunar Escape System

This is an emergency lunar escape vehicle concept, in case an Apollo Lunar Module crashed upon landing. It was designed to be assembled from various parts canibalized from the wreck. Note that in the two-man version, the pilot gets an acceleration chair, but the poor second astronaut is slung under the chair by straps. You can read more about this here, and here.

Life Boats

To reiterate: "lifeboat" or "life pod" is a long endurance device carrying many castaways that generally is not reentry capable. It is analogous to a wet-navy lifeboat. The main difference between a life-raft and a lifeboat is that the liferaft does not have a motor.

The technical term for a life-raft is Bail-Out-and-Wait device (BOW). You use it to escape from an uninhabitable spacecraft and await rescue from a remote source (ground-based or space-based). It has no propulsion module.

The technical term for a lifeboat is a Return-to-Space-Haven Bail-Out-and-Return device (RSH-BOR). It does has a propulsion module with enough delta-V to travel to some space based haven with a habitable enviroment. Do not get it mixed up with the RE-BOR, those have a reentry module.

There are some nifty lifeboat and one man reentry vehicles detailed here.

Christopher Weuve says that a merchant ship's primary piece of damage control equipment is a lifeboat. Keep in mind that he is mostly thinking about damage suffered during wartime due to hostile weapons fire.

If the lifeboat is designed for prolonged use, it would be useful for it to contain equipment to put the people into suspended animation. This will reduce the consumption of air, food, and sanity. The lifeboat Narcissus from the movie Alien had a suspended animation capsule.

However, Jim Cambias raises an important point:

I've never understood the purpose of life pods. Why abandon a spaceship, however shot up or meteor-damaged it may be, just to hang around in a flimsy balloon or cramped pod? You're still on the same course, since no life pod can carry much delta-v, and the life-support problems are considerable. Why not include some kind of pressure balloon to provide temporary airtight containment in a hulled compartment and use the ship's own life-support? That way you get the ship's radiation shielding, power, etc.

If it's a reactor emergency you're worried about, don't eject the crew in pods, EJECT THE REACTOR!

(Actually, I realize perfectly well the purpose of life pods: it lets sf writers tell lifeboat stories in space.)

Jim Cambias

If your science-fiction universe includes some coast-guard like service, it makes even more sense to avoid life boats and instead yell for help and sit tight.


      "We are required by law," the Captain went on, "to conduct three survival drills as soon as possible after takeoff, even though nothing has ever gone wrong or, considering the current fail-safe structural philosophies and the multiplicity of back-up systems, is ever likely to. But you know all this. You also know that, to keep the passengers from feeling nervous, the first drill is treated as something of a joke—an amusing film followed by a light-hearted question and, answer session. Don't frighten them. Mercer. But don't be too much of a comedian, either."

     It was a beautifully made film, technically excellent and with a nice balance of animation and actual footage—but it lacked accuracy. Not that it made any deliberate misstatements; it was just that watching the antics of a cartoon character did not give a true picture of a real person's physical and mental capabilities.
     A smiling young pseudo-spaceman who had cut his gleaming teeth on a great many TV commercials began by introducing everyone to their ship, talking brightly over performance and payload charts, design philosophy, and an animated staging sequence. Then he began taking the ship apart, literally, into neat, color-coded sections, magnifying each section and detailing its function—control, officers' quarters, passenger lounge and cabins, weightless lounge, reaction mass tank, and the eye-twisting detail of the reactor itself. Mercer's sickbay/cabin looked ridiculously large for one man and thirteen patients, while the quarters of the passengers were unbelievably spacious. Mercer did not believe, and neither, after a few days, would the passengers.
     "… And now," continued the smiling spaceman, hesitating as if to apologize for wasting their time on non-essentials, "we come to the subject of survival should an emergency arise. No such emergency has arisen in the past, nor, considering the rigorous checks and inspections carried out before every flight, is one ever likely to occur in the future. Nevertheless, we are obliged by the regulations to explain our survival equipment and to give you the chance to practice with it…"
     Mercer had already seen the film many times and had listened to much more detailed lectures on the subject.

     His train of thought branched off onto a different, but nearly parallel, track.
     In his line of work human life had always been considered of paramount importance—in theory, at least, a life was valued beyond price. But the cost of protecting the lives of officers and passengers in a spaceship, where every kilo hauled out of Earth's gravity represented enough coin of the realm—anybody's realm—to make every person on the ship comfortably rich from the cradle to the urn, was astronomical.
     Naturally the price of the passengers' tickets did not defray even a small fraction of the transport bill, much less the extra-weight penalties represented by back-up systems and survival equipment. Those items were conveniently lost in the even more complex systems of government bookkeeping under headings like national prestige, technological spin-off, and assisting the maximum utilization of technically trained manpower. Human life seemed to grow more and more valuable the farther it was removed from Earth. In space its value was incalculable; in the five-hundred-and-one-thousand-seater transports flying between five and ten miles above the surface it was high; but on surface transport systems the powers that were did not seem to worry too much about lives, passing a few laws about car safety belts, speed regulations and ship radar. As a result, no fare-paying passenger had ever been lost in space, a few hundred a year on average were cremated in metal birds which prematurely stopped flying, and on the surface they mowed each other down with cars in thousands every day.
     Mercer had spent two years with an organisation, which processed road accidents. That was how it referred to itself and the cases it admitted, because far too few of them survived for it to call itself a hospital, which cured people. He had grown up in—and was now, he realized, trying to flee—a technologically advanced, ultra-fast and strangely bored society, whose casualties had had the depersonalized, sexless sameness of so many mashed flies. The drunken or drug-ridden or simply bored drivers and the careless or absent-minded or innocent bystanders, when they were separated from the machinery or the machinery was removed from them, could rarely be made presentable by even the most conscientious of morticians. Mercer's thoughts were taking a very morbid turn.

     He had long ago discovered that there were no simple answers to complex problems, and the best thing he could do right now was to give all his attention to the survival film while trying not to look openly scornful of the simple answers it was giving to what would be, if it ever occurred, an extremely complex and lethal problem.
     The spaceman with the teeth, the cap worn on the back of his head and practically all of his uniform zips undone, was saying "… In the unlikely event of such an emergency, the passengers and crew will probably have several hours, or even days, to abandon ship-a process which can, if necessary, be carried out safely and without undue fuss in a few minutes.

(ed note: for more details about the Dark Inferno lifeboats, go here)

From DARK INFERNO by James White (1972)

The cold emptiness in her stomach congealed into a knot of tension. This whole voyage was turning into a fiasco. With what she'd learned from Martin—including his mission—there was no way the Navy could make a success of it; in fact, they'd probably all be killed. Her own role as a negotiator was pointless. You negotiate with human beings, not with creatures who are to humans as humans are to dogs and cats. (Or machines, soft predictable machines that come apart easily when you try to examine them but won't fit back together again.) Staying on was useless, it wouldn't help her deliver the package for George Cho, and as for Martin—

Rachel realized she had no intention of leaving him behind. With the realization came a sense of relief, because it left her only one course of action. She leaned forward and spoke quietly. “Luggage: open sesame. Plan Titanic. You have three hours and ten minutes. Get started." Now all she had to do was work out how to get him from the kangaroo court in the wardroom to her cabin; a different, but not necessarily harder task than springing him from the brig.

The trunk silently rolled forward, out from under her bunk, and its lid hinged back. She tapped away at the controls for a minute. A panel opened, and she pulled out a reel of flexible hose. That went onto the cold-water tap on her tiny sink. A longer and fatter hose with a spherical blob on the end got fed down the toilet, a colonoscopy probing the bowels of the ship’s waste plumbing circuit. The chest began to hum, expelling pulses of viscous white liquid into the toilet tube. Thin filaments of something like plastic began to creep back up the bowl of the toilet, forming a tight seal around the hose; a smell of burning leaked into the room, gunpowder and molasses and a whiff of sh*t. Rachel checked a status indicator on the trunk; satisfied, she picked up her gloves, cap, anything else she would need—then checked the indicator again, and hastily left the room.

The toilet rumbled faintly, and pinged with the sound of expanding metal pipework. The vent pipe grew hot; steam began to hiss from the effluent tube, and was silenced rapidly by a new growth of spiderweb stuff. An overhead ionization alarm tripped, but Rachel had unplugged it as soon as she arrived in her cabin. The radiation warning on the luggage blinked, unseen, in the increasingly hot room. The diplomatic lifeboat was beginning to inflate.

The shipping trunk in Rachel’s cabin had stopped steaming some time ago. It had shrunk, reabsorbing and extruding much of its contents. A viscous white foam had spread across the fittings of the cabin, eagerly digesting all available hydrocarbons and spinning out a diamond-phase substrate suitable for intensive nanomanufacturing activities. Solid slabs of transparent material were precipitating out of solution, forming a hollow sphere that almost filled the room. Below the deck, roots oozed down into the ship's recycling circuits, looting the cesspool that stored biological waste during the inbound leg of a journey. (By long-standing convention, ships that lacked recyclers only discharged waste when heading away from inhabited volumes of space; more than one unfortunate orbital worker had been gunned down by a flash-frozen t*rd carrying more kinetic energy than an armor-piercing artillery shell.)

The self-propelled trunk, which was frozen into the base of the glassy sphere, was now much lighter than it had been when Rachel boarded the ship. Back then, it had weighed the best part of a third of a tonne: Now it massed less than fifty kilos. The surplus mass had mostly been thick-walled capillary tubes of boron carbide, containers for thin crystals of ultrapure uranium-235 tetraiodide, and a large supply of cadmium; stuff that wasn’t easy to come by in a hurry. The trunk was capable of manufacturing anything it needed given the constituent elements. Most of what it wanted was carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, available in abundance in the ship's sewage-processing plant. But if a diplomat needed to get away in a real hurry and didn’t have a potent energy source to hand … well, fission, an old and unfashionable technology, was eminently storable, very lightweight, and didn’t usually go bang without a good reason. All you needed was the right type of unobtanium to hand in order to make it work. Which was why Rachel had been towing around enough uranium to make two or three good-sized atom bombs, or the core of a nuclear saltwater rocket.

A nuclear saltwater rocket was just about the simplest interplanetary propulsion system that could fit in a steamer trunk. On the other side of the inner pressure hull from Rachel’s cabin, the trunk had constructed a large tank threaded through with neutron-absorbing, boron-lined tubes: this was slowly filling with water containing a solution of near-critical uranium tetraiodide. Only a thin layer of carefully weakened hull plates and bypassed cable ducts held the glassy sphere and its twenty-tonne saltwater fuel tank on the other side of the bulkhead, inside the warship. The hybrid structure nestled under the skin of the ship like a maggot feeding on the flesh of its host, preparing to hatch.

Elsewhere in the ship, toilets were flushing sluggishly, the officer's shower cubicle pressure was scandalously low, and a couple of environment techs were scratching their heads over the unexpectedly low sludge level in the number four silage tank. One bright spark was already muttering about plumbing leaks. But with a full combat engagement only hours away, most attention was focused on the ship's weapons systems. Meanwhile, the luggage's fabricator diligently churned away, extruding polymers and component materials to splice into the lifeboat it was preparing for its mistress. With only a short time until the coming engagement, speed was essential.

Subvocalizing again: “Luggage. Query readiness state."

"Lifeboat closed out for launch. Fuel storage subcritical and ready. Spare reaction mass loaded. Oxygen supply nominal. Warning, delta-vee to designated waypoint New Peterstown currently 86 k.p.s., decreasing. Total available maneuvering margin 90 k.p.s." That would do, she decided. The saltwater rocket was nearly as efficient as an old-fashioned fusion rocket; back home, it would do for an Earth-Mars return trip, surface to surface. This was pushing it a bit‐they wouldn't be able to ride it back up into orbit without refueling. But it would do, as long as‐

She swallowed, glanced at Martin and blinked twice, the signal for “hold your breath." “Luggage: prep for launch. Expect crew arrival from one hundred seconds. Launch hold at T minus twenty seconds from that time." Once they burned that particular bridge and jumped overboard, all she could do was pray that the bridge crew wouldn't dare light off their radar—and risk warning the Festival—in order to find her and kill her. The lifeboat was a soap bubble compared to the capital ships of the New Republican naval force.

(ed note: After some diversionary explosions and a running gun battle, Rachel and Martin manage to make it back to the secret lifeboat. Rachel is knocked unconsious but wakes up inside the boat.)

     “A minute ago," said Martin. “What's happened in here?” He was in the couch next to her. The capsule was claustrophobically tiny, like something out of the dawn of the space age. The hatch above them was open, though, and she could just see the inner door of her cabin past it. “Hatch, close." I said I had a lifeboat, didn't I?"
     “Yeah, and I thought you were just trying to keep my spirits up." Martin's pupils were huge in the dim light. Above him, the roof of the capsule began to knit itself together. “What's going on?"
     “We're sitting on top of—" She paused to pant for breath. “Ah. Sh*t. On top of—a saltwater rocket. Fission. Luggage full of—of uranium. And boron. Sort of unobtanium you need in 'mergency, stuff you can't find easily. My little insurance policy."
     “You can't just punch your way out of an occupied spaceship! " Martin protested.
     “Watch me." She grimaced, lips pulling back from her teeth. “Sealed—bulkheads. Airtight cocoon 'round us. Only question is—"
     “Autopilot ready," announced the lifeboat. An array of emergency navigation displays lit up on the console in front of them.
     “Whether they shoot at us when we launch."

     “Wait. Let me get this straight. We're less than a day out from Rochard's World, right? This—thing—has enough legs to get us there? So you're going to punch a neat hole in the wall and eject us, and they're just going to let us go?"
     “ ‘S about the size of it," she said. Closing her eyes to watch the pretty blue displays projected on her retinas: “About ten thousand gee-seconds to touchdown. We're about forty thousand seconds from perigee right now. So we're going to drift like a t*rd, right? Pretend to be a flushed silage tank. If they light out their radar, they give themselves away; if they shoot, they're visible. So they'll let us go, figure to pick us up later 's long as we get there after they do. If we try to get there first, they'll shoot…"
     “You're betting the Festival will finish them off." (a Kardashev type 1.5 civilization in the area)
     “Yup," she agreed.

     “Ready to arm initiator pump," said the autopilot. It sounded like a fussy old man.
     “M' first husband," she said. “He always nagged."
     “And here was me thinking it was your favorite pet ferret." Martin busied himself hunting for crash webbing. “No gravity on this crate?"
     “ ‘S not a luxury yacht."
     Something bumped and clanked outside the door. “Oh sh*t."

     “We launch in—forty-two seconds," said Rachel.
     “Hope they give us that long." Martin leaned over and began strapping her into the couch. “How many gees does this thing pull?"
     She laughed: it ended in a cough. “Many as we can take. Fission rocket."
     “Fission?” He looked at her aghast. “But we'll be a sitting duck! If they—"
     “Shut up and let me work." She closed her eyes again, busy with the final preparations.

Sneak was, of course, of the essence. A fission rocket was a sitting duck to a battlecruiser like the Lord Vanek; it had about four hours’ thrust, during which time it might stay ahead—if the uncompensated acceleration didn't kill its passengers, and if the ship didn't simply go to full military power and race past it—but then it was out of fuel, a ballistic casualty. To make matters worse, until she managed to get more than about ten thousand kilometers away from the Lord Vanek, she’d be within tertiary laser defense range—close enough that the warship could simply point its lidar grid at the lifeboat and curdle them like an egg in a microwave oven.

But there was a difference between could and would which, Rachel hoped, was big enough to fly a spaceship through. Activating the big warship’s drive would create a beacon that any defenders within half a light-minute or so might see. And torching off the big laser sensor/killer array would be like lighting up a neon sign saying INVADING WARSHIP—COME AND GET ME. Unless Captain Mirsky was willing to risk his Admiral’s wrath by making a spectacle of himself in front of the Festival, he wouldn't dare try to nail Rachel so blatantly. Only if she lit off her own drive, or a distress beacon, would he feel free to shoot her down—because she would already have given his position away.

However, first she had to get off the ship. Undoubtedly, they’d be outside her cabin door within minutes, guns and cutters in their hands. The weakened bulkheads between the larval lifeboat and the outer pressure hull were all very well, but how to achieve a clean separation without warning them?

     “Mech one. Broadcast primary destruct sequence."
     “Confirm. Primary destruct sequence for mech one."
     “Sword. Confirm?"
     The transponder in her luggage was broadcasting a siren song of destruction, on wavelengths only her spy mechs— those that were left—would be listening to. Mech one, wedged in a toilet's waste valve in the brig, would hear. Using what was left of its feeble power pack, it would detonate its small destruct charge. Smaller than a hand grenade—but powerful enough to rupture the toilet’s waste pipe.

Warships can’t use gravity-fed plumbing; the Lord Vanek’s sewage-handling system was under pressure, an intricate network of pipes connected by valves to prevent backflow. The Lord Vanek didn’t recycle its waste, but stored it, lest discharges freeze to shrapnel, ripping through spacecraft and satellites like a shotgun loaded with ice. But there are exceptions to every rule; holding waste in tanks to reduce the risk of ballistic debris creation was all very well, but not at the risk of shipboard disaster, electrical short circuit, or life-support contamination.

When Rachel's makeshift bomb exploded, it ruptured a down pipe carrying waste from an entire deck to the main storage tanks. Worse, it took out a backflow valve. Waste water backed up from the tank and sprayed everywhere, hundreds of liters per second drenching the surrounding structural spaces and conduits. Damage control alarms warbled in the maintenance stations, and the rating on duty hastily opened the main dump valves, purging the waste circuit into space. The Lord Vanek had a crew of nearly twelve hundred, and had been in flight for weeks; a fire spray of sewage exploded from the scuppers, nearly two hundred tonnes of waste water purging into space just as Rachel's lifeboat counted down to zero.

In the process of assembling her lifeboat, the robot factory in Rachel’s luggage had made extensive—not to say destructive—changes to the spaces around her cabin. Supposedly solid bulkheads fractured like glass; on the outer hull of the ship, a foam of spun diamond half a meter thick disintegrated into a talc-like powder across a circle three meters in diameter. The bottom dropped out of Rachel's stomach as the hammock she lay in lurched sideways, then the improvised cold-gas thrusters above her head kicked in, shoving the damply newborn lifeboat clear of its ruptured womb. Weird, painful tidal stresses ripped at her; Martin grunted as if he’d been punched in the gut. The lifeboat was entering the ship’s curved-space field, a one-gee gradient dropping off across perhaps a hundred meters of space beyond the hull; the boat creaked and sloshed ominously, then began to tumble, falling end over end toward the rear of the warship.

On board the Lord Vanek, free-fall alarms were sounding. Cursing bridge officers yanked at their seat restraints, and throughout the ship, petty officers yelled at their flyers, calling them to crash stations. Down in the drive maintenance room, Commander Krupkin was cursing up a blue streak as he hit the scram switch, then grabbed his desk with one hand and the speaking tube to the bridge with the other to demand an explanation. Without any fuss, the warship's drive singularity entered shutdown. The curved-space field that provided both a semblance of gravity and shielding against acceleration collapsed into a much weaker spherical field centered on the point mass in the engine room—just in time to prevent two hundred tons of bilgewater, and a twenty-tonne improvised lifeboat, from hammering into the rear of the Lord Vanek's hull and ripping the heat exchangers to shreds.

(ed note: Doing some pointless calculations, and linear interpolation of nuclear enrichment of uranium tetraiodine, my slide rule says:)

NSWR Lifeboat
Fuel20.4% enriched
Uranium Tetraiodide
Exhaust Velocity91,780 m/s
Specific Impulse9,360 sec
Uranium Tetraiodide Fuel Mass250 kg
Fuel/Propellantwater solution of 2%
20.4% enriched
Uranium Tetraiodide
Fuel/Propellant Mass12,500 kg
Dry Mass7,500
Wet Mass20,000 kg
Mass Ratio2.66
ΔV90,000 m/s
From SINGULARITY SKY by Charles Stross (2003)

Dark Inferno Lifeboat

There is a good description of lifeboats in the eponomously named novel Lifeboat (AKA Dark Inferno) by James White.

The NTR passenger rocket's habitat module spins on its axis for artificial gravity. Since the rocket's designer failed to consult with Mr. Cambias, in the event of a nuclear engine disaster the crew and passengers escape in lifeboats.

The hatch to each lifeboat are set in the floor of the habitat module. The lifeboats are cylindrical but inflate into spheres once they are clear of the ship. At the top is the pressure hatch. 2.4 meters below the hatch is a plastic bag containing lightweight screens used for dividing the inflated pod. Below that is the service module and food store. While uninflated, the walls are folded with convolutions projecting inward. When inflated each lifeboat is three meters in diameter. The upper half of the sphere is transparent, the lower half is covered in reflective foil as a sun-screen.

The service module contains a two shot pre-measured solid rocket, a radio, one heavy set of sunglasses, and a lifesupport system. The lifesystem contains the breathing mix equipment, thermal control, toilet, and water reclamation.

The first passenger jumps into the pod. They then press backward into the side wall and raise their hands to help the next passenger into the pod. The second passenger does not jump, instead they sit on the edge of the hatch with legs dangling down while gripping the hatch coaming with both hands. The first passenger grabs the second's legs and helps them down. They both press backward and the second passenger helps the third in the same way. Three passengers is what the lifeboat lifesupport system is rated for. Passengers are warned to leave behind anything made of metal or having sharp edges, which could puncture the lifeboat walls.

The lifeboats are ejected radially perpendicular to the habitat module's spin axis, at a velocity of 2.45 m/s (1/4 g). Under normal conditions, each lifeboat's umbilical power line is remotely severed before ejection. In the event of a ship control failure, the umbilicals will not be severed, and will give each lifeboat an off-center tug as they separate. This will cause the lifeboats to slowly tumble. If there is an crewperson available, they can manually sever the umbilicals.

The crew cabins eject as four wedge shaped sections. Since they are closer to the spin axis than the floor of the passenger module, the ship's spin has to be increased so they too will be ejected at 2.45 m/s. The medical officer's cabin has a radio powerful enough to reach all the passenger lifeboats, since the officer will have to offer medical advice.

A radio beacon is left behind to designate the rendezvous point.

If a lifeboat is tumbling, the passengers can arrest the tumble by crawling. Lie flat on the transparent section of the lifeboat skin while holding the moulded finger-grips. Rotate their body until the Sun appears to be coming from the top of your head, passing in front of you, and then moving under your feet. Then start crawling in as straight a line as possible. When you come to the lock section or the services panel, or when you are crawling over plastic, which is not transparent, try to keep your line of movement straight by looking ahead to the next transparent section to see where the Sun is. Gradually the tumble will stop. If the Sun is moving too fast to see, blink as fast as you can to visually slow it down. If there is more than one passenger in the pod, they can help by crawling along the same line, evenly spaced around the interior wall. Or even hold on to each other with feet on the walls and heads near the center, and walk in the proper direction.

The desired attitude of each lifeboat is with zero tumble, and the silver section of the wall aimed at the Sun.

The ship proper, still under thrust, leaves the rendezvous point. Once the ship is safely away (after a few days), each lifeboat burns a pre-measured solid rocket to reverse their vector. The engine is oriented so that the thrust axis is aimed at the rendezvous point. The "A" pre-measured rocket is burned for 4.9 m/s of delta V. This cancels the 2.45 m/s outward vector, and gives a 2.45 m/s inward vector in the direction of the rendezvous point.

If the radio beacon is operational, orienting a lifeboat in the proper direction is easy, using fancy electronics.

If the disaster renders the beacon inoperable, the passengers in the lifeboats have to do orientation the hard way. The navigation officer will calculate the reference stars for each lifeboat. The stars will be in a plane perpendicular to the desired vector. The boat's passengers will have to orient such that the line of demarcation between the transparent and the silvered skin hemispheres touches each of the reference stars. They use the same technique used to arrest lifeboat tumble: by crawling on the skin. The officer will have to teach the passengers enough constellations so they can identify the reference stars. Failure to properly orient the lifeboat will probably doom the occupants.

The navigational officer will give each specific lifeboat a precise count-down to igniting the "A" pre-measured rocket.

When the lifeboats near the rendezvous point, the lifeboat will orient itself so that the thrust axis point away. Then on command from the navigational officer they burn the "B" pre-measured rocket and come to a halt. The rocket gives a delta V of 2.45 m/s, cancelling their vector. In this case the proper orientation of the lifeboat is secondary to igniting the B rocket at precisely the correct time. Improper orientation will merely result in a small amount of lateral drift. Improper timing means the lifeboat could stop way short or way past the rendezvous point, possibly even far outside the rendezvous area.

At the rendezvous point they will meet the rescue ship.

The life support section can supply breathable atmosphere enough for three people for two weeks (42 person-days).

The life support section can handle the body heat of up to three adults. Past that the environment will become hotter. Passengers should avoid exertions and remove some clothing in order to prevent heat build up.

The food supply is low-residue and highly concentrated. This is to avoid straining the toilet. The lack of bulk will mean the passengers will always be hungry even though there is enough nourishment to keep them alive. There is enough food for three persons to last two weeks (also 42 person-days).

Water is reclaimed from the toilet and atmospheric humidity. It is more pure than most tap water, but passengers might detect a psychosomatic stink from it if they dwell too much on its source.

Perry Rhodan Rescue Pod

For you ugly Americans who have not heard of Perry Rhodan, it is a German science fiction series that has been steadily published installments since 1960 (more than 2,850 as of April 2016). Pretty much the most successful science fiction book series ever written.

Rescue Pod of the League of Free Terrans

Type: 12-person Emergency Rescue Pod (ERP), carried by long haul spaceships (Year 1289 NGZ or 4876 A.D.)

An element of ship safety on large space ships are the Rescue Pods. They serve along with dinghies and assorted matter transmitters as additional ways to rapidly abandon the ship in a emergency. Although the ERP are considered antiquated from technical view, they are still very robust and economical. ERP are deployed on space ships in the 500 and 800 meter class, especially for ships operating beyond the main routes with no planets, bases, or outposts in the immediate environ. Crew enter the ERP by an express antigrav elevator monitored by a rescue positronic computer (elevator enters ERP from the bottom at point labeled "Einstieg"). Every crew member has an allocated seat in an ERP in case of emergency.

Note that upper compartment (crew section) can be jettisoned from lower section along plane-of-separation located immediately below spotlights (24).

Technical Data

  • Dimensions: height 8.2 m, maximum diameter 6.0 m
  • Mass: 19.25 metric tons
  • Crew capacity: maximum 18, standard 12
  • Offensive weapons: none
  • Defensive weapons: x2 staggered force fields (High-overload and Paratron)
  • Slower-Than-Light engine: Puls proton beam
  • Faster-Than-Light engine: Lineardrive (range 12,000 light-years)
  • Power plant: NUGAS-fed Schwarzschild-reactors

  1. Crew-compartment landing parachutes (jettison)
  2. Automatic hyperspace emergency transmitter
  3. FTL Lineardrive astrogation sensor
  4. Hyperspace transmitter back-up conventional metal antenna
  5. RCS
  6. Life support system and consumables storage
  7. RCS fuel tanks
  8. Wrap-around sensor array for normal-space sensors
  9. Acceleration couches with integrated inertia dampers
  10. Storage for emergency supplies and equipment
  11. Antigrav shaft exit
  12. Rescue positronic computer
  13. Antigrav generators
  14. Sickbay deck, equipment and spare part storage
  15. FTL Lineardrive
  16. Puls proton beam STL normal-space engine
  17. Power reactor
  18. Batteries
  19. NUGAS ball fuel storage (engine and reactors)
  20. Force field generators
  21. Service and repair robot
  22. Landing gear
  23. Launch rack
  24. Spotlights
  25. Emergency hatch (jettison)
  26. Hyperspace transmitter main malleable-energy antenna (projectors)

Text and artwork by Gregor Paulmann

Translation from German by Michel Van

From Rettungspod der LFT from PR 1876

Reentry Capsule

To reiterate: A "Reentry capsule" or "escape pod" is a short duration devices carrying few or one castaway that allows them to bail out of a spacecraft in orbit around a planet and safely land on the surface. It is much like a parachute on an aircraft. Except when you pull the ripcord on one of these things the fall will be about two orders of magnitude higher.

The technical term for a reentry capsule is Return-to-Earth Bail-Out-and-Return device (RE-BOR). They include a reentry module. Do not confuse them with RSH-BOR, those have a propulsion module but no reentry capability.

Note that all of the reentry capsules shown here rely heavily upon aerobraking, they would not work on an airless planet or moon. For that the reentry capsule will need seriously large engines and propellant tanks (i.e., you need a full lander). On the plus side any planet or moon with no atmosphere will also have lower gravity. In our solar system the largest airless body is the planet Mercury, and its surface gravity is only 0.38 of Terra. This will reduce the propellant required.

Under the heading of "some people have too much free time on their hands", there are a few science fiction stories featuring bored people using reentry capsules as a sport, much like sky-diver do today. Jumping out of a perfectly good spacecraft. Adrenaline junkies will always be with us.



     An orbital escape vehicle which can be folded and stowed aboard an earth orbiting, manned spacecraft and used to safely return a crewman to the earth's atmosphere in the event of an emergency. The vehicle is comprised of a flexible casing having an ingress-egress opening therein, a heat ablative means covering said casing, and an inflatable bladder system within said casing for supporting the crewman and for maintaining said casing in a stable aerodynamic shape during its reentry into the atmosphere.

     The invention described herein was made by an employee of the United States Government and may be manufactured and used or for the Government for governmental purposes without the payment of any royalties thereon or therefor.

     This invention relates to an orbital escape vehicle, and more particularly relates to an inflatable reentry vehicle which can be stowed aboard an orbiting manned spacecraft and used to return a crewman to earth in the event that the manned spacecraft becomes disabled.

     Man's ability to leave the earth's atmosphere, orbit the earth, and return safely is now a reality. However, vehicles required for carrying out such missions are extremely complex, and it is conceivable that failure could occur within a vehicle while it is in orbit which would prevent said vehicle from successfully reentering the earth's atmosphere. In such an event, the vehicle and its crew would be doomed to either orbit the earth forever, or to reenter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled manner which obviously would be disastrous. Therefore, the need for an emergency escape means for crewmen of an orbiting space craft is readily apparent.

     Various means for rescuing stranded astronauts have been proposed, but heretofore none have proven feasible. For example, it has been proposed that a second spacecraft be readied for launch in the event that an orbiting spacecraft becomes disabled in orbit. With technology as it now exists, such a rescue, in addition to the tremendous expense involved, would depend upon the orbital position of the disabled craft, and if said craft were not in proper position for a quick rendezvous, the "catch up" time required for the rescue craft to reach the disabled vehicle could be fatal. Therefore, it is vitally important that the escape means be immediately available to the stranded crewmen whereby they can effect a timely return to earth in the event of an emergency.

     To adequately function as an escape vehicle, said vehicle must meet a strict set of requirements. As mentioned above, the escape vehicle must be capable of being carried on board the orbiting spacecraft so that it will be immediately available to the occupants of the craft. This requires the vehicle to be relatively light in weight and to occupy a relatively small space while stowed on the spacecraft. Also, the vehicle must include means for properly orienting said vehicle for reentry and for braking the speed of the vehicle so that it will drop from its orbital path and reenter the atmosphere in a controlled and pre dictable manner. Further, the vehicle must include protection from the intense heat which is generated during re entry, and must provide a proper environment for the crewman during reentry. Finally, means must be provided for lowering the crewman to a safe landing after he has reentered the atmosphere.

     The present invention fully meets all of the above mentioned requirements. The orbital escape vehicle of the present invention provides the minimum equipment necessary for an individual crewman of an earth-orbiting spacecraft to effect and survive both atmospheric reentry and earth landing in the event that said spacecraft becomes disabled. Structurally, the invention comprises an inflatable casing having a basic spherical configuration when inflated. The casting is comprised of a substrate of heavy nylon cloth which has a zippered opening therein through which a crewman can ingress and egress. The outer surface of said casing is covered with a heat ablative mate rial, while the interior of the casing is adequately lined with insulative material. A small double-panelled window is provided in the casing so the crewman can properly sight the vehicle on a reference point during retrofiring, as will be explained in detail below. A hand grip is provided in the casing through which a solid propellant, internally burning retrorocket assembly is fitted. The retrorocket assembly has air nozzles means as a part thereof which can be connected to a pressure source from within the vehicle to provide means for orienting the vehicle to a proper reentry attitude prior to retrofire.

     An inflatable bladder system is provided in the casing and is comprised of an inner spherical bladder and an outer bladder which conforms to the basic inner configuration of the casing. Also provided in the casing is a gaseous oxygen supply for providing breathing and cooling oxygen for the crewman, a gaseous nitrogen supply for inflation of the bladders, and a parachute having survival equipment on the harness thereof.

     The operation of the reentry vehicle is as follows. The vehicle is folded into a relatively small package and is Stowed in an external compartment of an orbiting spacecraft. In the event that the spacecraft malfunctions and is unable to effect a safe reentry, a crewman dons proper extravehicluler garments which are part of his standard equipment, and connects his suit to either a backpack supply of necessary oxygen, or to the spacecraft's ogygen supply system by use of a long, umbilical line. He then leaves the cabin of the spacecraft, works his way to the storage compartment, and removes the packaged vehicle. The straps holding the vehicle in a folded position are then removed and the vehicle is unfolded. After the crewman has partially entered the vehicle, he switches his oxygen supply from the backpack or spacecraft to the oxygen supply in the vehicle. He then discards the backpack or umbilical line, puts on a parachute and related survival equipment which are stowed in the vehicle, completely enters the vehicle, and zips up the ingress opening in the vehicle.

     The crewman next positions himself with respect to the vehicle so that he can hold the hand grip with one hand and arm the retrorocket assembly with the other. When he is in this position he is also in position to see through the window in the casing. During this time used oxygen and CO2 from crewman's suit are being exhausted through the air nozzles on the retrorocket assembly, and by manipulating the hand grip and rocket assembly the crewman can maneuver the air nozzles to properly orient the spacecraft to the right attitude for retrofire. The crewman then waits until he sights a predetermined reference point on the earth, at which time he fires the retro-rocket. Upon completion of the retro firing the retro-rocket assembly is jettisoned and the bladders are in flated in said vehicle. These bladders position and sup port the crewman with respect to the casing so that the vehicle and creman form a definite aerodynamic shape which has a high degree of stability during reentry.

     In a short time the vehicle will fall into the earth's atmosphere, and during the early moments of reentry a tremendous amount of heat is generated. This heat will be dissipated by the heat ablative structure on the vehicle, and the insulation in the casing will maintain the interior of the vehicle at an acceptable level for survival of the crewman. After the vehicle has passed through the heating zone it will continue to fall, and the air at the lower regions of the atmosphere will cool same. Since the bladders of the vehicle are at a very small absolute pressure, the pressure of the atmosphere will cause the bladders to automatically deflate as it falls through the atmosphere, thereby notifying the crewman that he is at a safe level to leave the vehicle. The crewman then unzips the opening, disconnects the escape vehicle's oxygen supply and switches to oxygen from a standard "jump” bottle which is attached to the parachute harness, leaves the vehicle, and makes a regular parachute landing back to earth. Survival equipment in the form of a floatation vest, radio beacon, concentrated food, small amount of water, etc. are all attached either to the parachute harness or crewman space suit for use by the crewman once he has landed.

     The actual construction, operation, and the advantages of the invention will be better understood by reference to the drawings in which like numerals identify like parts in the different figures, and in which:

     FIG. 1 is a perspective view of a crewman retrieving the present invention from a disabled spacecraft;

     FIG. 2 is a perspective longitudinal view of the orbital escape vehicle of the present invention when in a folded position;

     FIG. 3 is a perspective view taken along line 3-3 of FIG. 2;

     FIG. 4 is a perspective view of the present invention with a crewman entering same;

     FIG. 5 is a side view partially in cross section of a crewman closing the zippered opening of the present invention;

     FIG. 6 is a partial enlarged cross-sectional view of the heat protection structure of the present invention;

     FIG. 7 is a side view partially in cross section of a crewman maneuvering the vehicle into a proper reentry attitude;

     FIG. 8 is a partial longitudinal cross sectional view of the retrorocket used with the present invention;

     FIG. 9 is a perspective view of the retrorocket assembly of the vehicle being sighted on a reference point on the earth;

     FIG. 10 is a perspective view looking out the window of the orbital escape vehicle at the time of retrofire;

     FIG. 11 is an exploded view partially in cross section of a crewman jettisoning the retrorocket assembly and inflating the vehicle; and

     FIG. 12 is a perspective view partially in cross section of the vehicle in a fully inflated position.

     Referring more particularly to the drawings, the orbital escape vehicle 10 (see FIG. 5) comprises a casing 11 which has a spherical configuration when it is fully inflated. A zippered opening 11a (see FIG. 4) having a flap 11b is provided in casing 11 to allow ingress and egress of a crewman. Casing 11 is comprised of a sub strate 12 of fiber glass or heavy nylon cloth which has a heat ablative structure or heat shield 13 secured to its exterior. Any known heat ablative material which allows the desired flexibility can be used for the heat shield. One example of a preferred construction of a heat shield is shown in detail in FIG. 6. Nylon cord 13a, or the like, is woven through substrate 12 much in the same manner as commercial "pile' carpets are woven. This “pile" carpet is then completely impregnated with a layer of an elastomer ablator to form the heat shield. The interwoven cord 13a serves as reinforcement for the ablator 13b and provides a greater surface area to which the ablator material can adhere. The ablator or heat shield 13 at the stagnation point 14 (see FIG. 12), or that point which will receive the greatest load during reentry, is approximately 0.50 inch thick and tapers to approximately 0.010 inch thick 180° from the stagnation point. A layer of insulative material 15, e.g. a 0.5 inch layer of polyurethane foam, is bonded or otherwise secured to the interior of casing 11 to provide the necessary insulation for reentry. This over-all small thickness of the heat shield 13, substrate 12, and insulative layer 15 allows the entire casing 11 and its related equipment (which will be discussed below) to be folded into a compact package having a length of approximately 4 feet and a constructive diameter of 1.5 feet (volume of 7 cubic feet), see FIGS. 2 and 3 for folded configuration.

     A conical projection 16 is formed on flap 11b and is at a point approximately 180° from stagnation point 14. Projection 16 can be formed by embedding a stiff wire 16a, or the like, in the selected portion of substrate 12 (see FIG. 8) to give projection 16 its necessary configuration. This projection 16 has an opening there through to which a hand grip 17 is attached. The grip 17 can be rotated relative to projection 16 and, due to the fiexibility of the casing surrounding projection 16, hand grip 17 can also be “wobbled” with respect to the casing. Grip 17 is a hollow and is adapted to receive the shank 19 of a retrorocket assembly 18 which will be discussed further in detail below. Rocket assembly 18 is press-fitted in grip 17, or is secured thereto by easily releasable shear pins or spring detents (neither shown) whereby the assembly can be easily moved by grip 17, but can also be easily separated therefrom when desired. A double-panelled, heat-resistive window 20 (approximately six inches in diameter) is secured in flap 11b adjacent conical projection 16 for a purpose discussed later.

     A bladder system is provided in casing 11 for shaping and Stabilizing vehicle 10 during reentry. This system consists of an inner inelastic, pressure tight, fabric bladder 21 and an outer semi-elastic bladder 22 (see FIG. 11). The inner bladder 21, which assumes a spherical configuration approximately 36 inches in diameter when in flated, is connected only at one point 21a (approximately 150 from the stagnation point and opposite the win dow) to insulation layer 15 by means of bonding or the like. Outer bladder 22 is connected to insulation layer 15 along the greater portion of its length. Bladder 22 is So constructed that it will essentially conform to the inner configuration of the casing 12 along its outer parameter and to the configuration of the crewman along its inner parameter to essentially form a “cocoon" about the crewman when bladder 22 is in its fully inflated position.

     An oxygen bottle 23 is partially embedded in the inner Sphere and is hermetically sealed thereto. Oxygen bottle 23 has a hose outlet 24 which is controlled by valve 25, and which is adapted to be connected to the suit of the crewman to provide oxygen for both cooling and breathing, and for pressurizing the space suit. Bladders 21 and 22 are connected to each other by a pressure reducing valye 26 for a purpose disclosed later. Also completely embedded and sealed in inner bladder 21 is a nitrogen gas bottle (not shown) which is attached to the inner side of one of two diametrically opposed handles (not shown) provided on the bladder 21. These handles can consist of a molded rubber projection, straps, or any other means whereby the crewman can grasp opposite sides of said inner bladder to open said nitrogen bottle and to maneuver bladder 21 to its proper position while it is being inflated.

     The retrorocket assembly 18 preferably consists of a solid propellant, internally burning rocket engine 30 capable of developing 7500 pound-seconds of impulse at an average thrust of 200 pounds. Rocket engine 30 has dual canted thrust nozzles 31 positioned to brake the orbital speed of vehicle 10 and to direct the blast of said rocket away from the vehicle when the rocket is fired. The rocket normally includes a spring wound timing device 30a (see FIG. 10) that starts upon rocket ignition and "times' the length of retrorocket firing, as will be discussed in greater detail below. Assembly 18 has a shank portion 19 which is adapted to extend through the open ing of grip 17, as briefly explained above, and has canted nozzles 33 as an integral part thereof. A longitudinal passage 34 extends the length of shank 19 and connects opening 35 with air nozzles 33. Opening 35 is adapted to receive a press type fitting 36 which is connected to a hose 37 which in turn is adapted to be connected to the vent of a crewman space suit for a purpose disclosed below. The fitting 36 is easily disengageable from opening 35.

     Shank 19 has a threaded opening 38 at the lower end thereof which normally has a safety cap (not shown) screwed therein to prevent premature firing of the retro-rocket. This safety cap is removed by a crewman after he has entered vehicle 10, and a percussion igniter 40 which is stowed in the vehicle is screwed into opening 38 to arm the rocket 30. A primary igniter material 39 is provided in shank 19 which is ignited by igniter 40 to actuate and fire rocket engine 30. Electric leads (not shown) could also be provided in shank 19 to allow igniter 40 to start timing device 30a, or timer 30a could be actuated by a pressure switch which would be responsive to the pressure within rocket 30 when fired. It is recognized that a parachute including a standard oxygen "jump” bottle for landing the crewman and survival equipment such as a CO2 inflatable floatation vest, survival kit, emer gency rations, and a radio beacon all can be stowed in vehicle 10).

     The operation of the orbital escape vehicle is as follows. The vehicle 10 is folded and stowed in an external compartment 51 of a manned orbiting spacecraft 50. In the event spacecraft 50 becomes disabled, a crewman 52 immediately updates his knowledge of his ephemeris, desirable retrofire landmarks, firing duration, etc. He does this from both on-board information and/or ground supplied data. During this time it is desirable that crewman 52 will take on as much food and water as possible from the spacecraft systems before leaving spacecraft 50. These operations will take approximately 3 to 5 minutes. Crewman 52, after donning proper extravehicular activity gar ments, will then leaves spacecraft 50 and retrieve vehicle 10 from the service module (see FIG. 1). During this mode of operation, crewman 52 is being supplied with oxygen either from a backpack 53 or through an umbilical cord (not shown) connected to the spacecraft's oxygen supply. Upon retireving the escape vehicle, he releases straps 11c (see FIG. 2), and places his feet through unzipped opening 11a into vehicle 10 (see FIG. 4). At this stage he reaches into casing 11 for hose 24, attaches it to his space suit and opens valve 25. There should be approximately a two hour supply in oxygen bottle 23. Once the hose 24 is attached and valve 25 is open, he discards his backpack 53 or umbilical cord, completely enters the vehicle 10, and zips up the zipper opening 11a (see FIG. 5). This total operation should take approximately 12 minutes. He next "wiggles" himself into the position shown in FIG. 7 so that his body is essentially straight and where he can grip 17 with one hand. He then unscrews the safety device (not shown) from shank 19 of retrorocket assembly 18 and attached precussion igniter 40 to the rocket. Igniter 40 also has a hand grip thereon which the crewman can grasp with his other hand to help hold the rocket in grip 17 while it is being fired and to aid in maneuvering rocket assembly 18 with respect to casing 11.

     Crewman next attaches vent hose 37 on his suit to opening 35 in the shank of the retrorocket so that oxygen and CO2 venting from his suit will pass through passage 34 in shank 18 to air nozzles 33. By twisting and wiggling grip 17 and the handle on igniter 40, the crewman can utilize the thrust from nozzles 33 to maneuver vehicle 10 into a proper reentry attitude. This attitude is achieved when retrorocket assembly 18 is pointing at or just slightly below the earth's horizon as it appears downrange along the orbital path (see FIG. 10). Crewman 52 during this time is looking through window 20, and when he passes over predetermined reference point X on the earth (e.g. a particular mountain range, body of Water, etc.) he pulls a lanyard (not shown) on igniter 40 to fire retro-rocket 30 and to start timer 30a. Maximum retrofire time for full 500 feet/sec. retrograde velocity increment at 0.5 g is approximately 37.5 seconds. The crewman maintains proper attitude during retrofire by manipulating rocket assembly 18 the same as he did for attitude acquisition. Most of the retrorocket thrust will be reacted through grip 17 to casing 11. Crewman acceleration reaction will be shared between his arms and his legs. He can "stand" against the far end of casing 11 and react a large part of his acceleration force with his legs. The crewman watches timer 30a (see FIG. 10) and when the proper retrotime has elapsed he releases the handle of igniter 40 which allows the still firing rocket assembly 10 to pull itself out of grip 17 and jettison itself from vehicle 10. Fitting 36 on hose 37 will easily disengage as the shank 19 is pulled through grip 17.

     Since there will be at least a minimum of eight minutes between the completion of retrofire and reentry of the earth's atmosphere, crewman has ample time to locate and grasp the two handles (not shown) diametrically opposed on inner bladder 21. Since bladder 21 is highly flexible, the nitrogen bottle embedded therein can easily be opened or broken to allow the inner bladder to inflate. Inner bladder 21 will inflate to 5 p.s.i.a. in about one minute, during which time the crewman maintains a grip on the handles and positions himself on bladder 21 by wrapping his legs around oxygen bottle 23 (see FIG. 11). When inner bladder 21 reaches 1.75 p.s.i.a. pressure, pressure reduction valve 26 (see FIGS. 11 and 12) will begin to meter nitrogen into outer bladder 22 which will fully inflate to 1.75 p.s.i.a. in about 2 minutes. During this time, pressure within bladder 21 will drop to 3.0 p.s.i.a. Crewman 52 will now be semi-enveloped in outer bladder 22 and somewhat pressed into the higher pressurized inner bladder 21. The 1.75 p.s.i.a. bladder pressure is selected as the minimum required to maintain the now spherical contour of casing 11 during reentry and to properly support crewman up to 8.5 g acceleration. The pressures in the bladders are limited to a value that will not collapse crewman's pressure suit and thereby insures that proper oxygen circulation and cooling will be maintained during reentry. The vehicle and crewman are now in the configuration shown in FIG. 12.

     During early moments of reentry vehicle 10 will pass through a Zone in which intense heat is generated, but this heat is adequately dissipated by heat shield 13 with insulation 15 maintaining the interior of casing 11 at an acceptable temperature. Once the vehicle is through this zone, it will fall through the atmosphere which will tend both to slow and cool the vehicle. At approximately 50,000 feet altitude, the pressure differential across the bladders will noticeably decrease. At 30,000 feet, outer bladder 22 will relax to the point where vehicle 10 is no longer spherical. Crewman 52 can now move his arms freely and can begin unzipping flap 11b. At 15,000 feet, outer bladder 22 is almost completely deflated, and inner bladder 21 is but 30% to 40% of its original volume. Vehicle 10, which now has no shape of its own, is descending at approximately 200 feet/sec. Crewman 52 switches from oxygen bottle 23 to the “jump' bottle (not shown) on his parachute harness, pulls himself out of casing 11, and makes a regular parachute landing back to earth. He can then utilize his survival equipment until he is picked up by rescue craft.

     While the invention has been described with reference to a particular detailed embodiment, it should be under stood that modifications, substitutions, and the like may be made without departing from the spirit of the invention and the scope of the appended claims.

From US PATENT #3,330,510 by Caldwell C. Johnson (1967)

Satellite Life Jacket (MOOSE)

     It is not inconceivable that an astronaut may eject from a disabled spacecraft in the manner of a man abandoning a "burning ship" by donning a life jacket and jumping into the water. This is, in fact, precisely the scheme proposed by Bloom and Quillinan, (15) and designated by the acronym MOOSE (Man Out Of Space Easiest, later changed to the more professional-sounding Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment).

     As shown in the sequence of Fig. 110, when it is necessary to abandon the spacecraft, the man dons a space suit (or he may already have it on) and with it the attendant oxygen supply, recovery aids, and survival gear. As part of this design, the space suit is enclosed in a plastic covering and has attached to it tanks containing a foaming plastic and mixer. The man is also provided with a retrorocket package. To deorbit, the man visually orients himself to the earth and measures the altitude and direction of flight with an optical sight mounted on the retrorocket. Using the altitude information and precalculated range tables mounted in a display on the rocket structure, the man is able to aim and fire the rocket motor at the proper orientation in order to achieve reentry. Since there is little effect due to small retrothrust misalignment, visual aiming with a simple gunsight type of device should provide sufficiently accurate alignment. In many cases, the man will avail himself of the option of delaying the firing of the retrorocket until his position in orbit is advantageous to landing in a particular area. The procedure then calls for the astronaut to orient himself for reentry, using the cold control jets on the retrorocket and inflating the plastic covering to the designed shape for reentry. Straps attached to the man and the plastic covering position him in the proper relationship to the plastic covering. The foaming process then fills the space between the man and the plastic covering with foam plastic. A dense plastic foam of 50 lb/ft3 (800 kg/m3) forms the ablation shield, a less dense foam of 3 lb/ft3 (80 kg/m3) forms the afterbody, and a very low density foam of 1 lb/ft3 (16 kg/m3) "pots" the man and equipment in the vehicle. Prior to reentry, the high-intensity flare is fired and the beacon activated. The design shape is highly stable and orients itself early in the reentry. During reentry, the dense foam plastic ablates, protecting the man from the thermal environment, and the very low density plastic cushions him against the deceleration. After maximum reentry heating, radar chaff is expelled, and another high intensity flare is fired. At an altitude of about 30,000 ft (9,100 m) the parachute is deployed on signal from a baroswitch. Parachute-opening shock and drag pulls cutting cords which remove the lightweight foam plastic from around the man's hands and arms. The parachute is designed to limit the impact velocity to 30 ft/sec (9 m/s) at sea level. This is well below the maximum allowable impact velocity. At impact, Sofar bombs are released to provide location aids if the impact is on water. After impact the man releases himself from the lightweight foam by pulling on cutting cords with his freed hands and arms. He then obtains the survival kit embedded in the plastic foam. MOOSE can be used as a raft if the impact is on water, and the survival kit is equipped to maintain him in almost any earth environment.

     Figs. 111 and 112 show the MOOSE design. The entire unit weighs on the order of 470 lb (213 kg).

     A typical reentry trajectory for the MOOSE system is shown in Fig. 113, and the resultant reentry stagnation heating flux and total heating are shown in Figs. 114 and 115 respectively. Fig. 116 shows the calculated resultant ablation of the MOOSE shield. Urethane foam appears to perform well as the ablation material.

     Improvements beyond the capability of the early MOOSE system may come in the control of the impact area. This can be accomplished by providing the capability of remaining in orbit until a more desirable position has been reached and then firing the retrorocket. The extended time in orbit requires additional oxygen, CO2 removal, and moisture removal. Altitude-, direction-, and angle-measuring equipment is another area of improvement. The optical sight is replaced by an IR sight of the vaporgraph type, thus enabling the man to view the dark side of the earth more clearly. Photo cells used to scan the IR sight could measure the included angle of the earth, and a simple computer, calculating the altitude and time to go to retrorocket firing, would also control the attitude jets from the photocell information. Air-, water-, and land-snatch capability could also be provided.

15. Bloom, H. L., and Quillinan, J.H., "Manned Satellite Emergency Escape Systems," Adv. in Astro. Sci., Vol. 8, Plenum Press, New York, 1961.

Satellite Life Raft

     It is common practice for ships to carry life rafts as part of their emergency equipment. Utilized at sea, a lift raft separates the shipwrecked sailor from the hostile sea environment, and lacking power and controls, drifts toward shore at the mercy of the currents. Its counterpart in space, the satellite life raft, insulates the shipwrecked astronaut from the hostile space environment while it hurtles toward earth (after deorbiting) without propulsive power or course control, under the influence of gravity.

     This concept, as well as that of the satellite lifejacket, is due to Bloom and Qullinan. (15)

     The satellite life raft, shown in Fig. 117, although utilizing the same reentry shape, is a rigid vehicle with a 0.052-in. thick fiberglass liner protected by a nylon-reinforced phenolic plastic ablation shield 3/4 in. thick. With a 1/4 in.-thick aluminum-honeycomb-cored fiberglass afterbody to complete the closure, this rigid device gains in structural integrity and reliability over the life jacket which must be foamed into shape in space.

     Typical operation of the life raft escape is shown in the sequence of Fig. 118. During normal operations, the satellite life raft is mounted in the wall of the satellite, shield protruding, entrance hatch open to living or working quarters, and airtight seal and clamps holding the life raft in its position. On initiation of the "abandon ship" signal, the astronaut climbs into the life raft, secures the hatch, and loosens the clamps (explosive or magnetic). Springs eject the life raft, and after seating himself in the seat composed of aluminum frame with a supporting web of partially drawn nylon, he secures his acceleration-deceleration harness and utilizes the periscope with 180° lens and scribed display face to determine proper orientation for deorbiting. Stored gas (which is air, available for breathing in case malfunction of deorbiting rockets necessitates a wait for rescue) is employed in the attitude jets to orient the life raft for retrorockcting. Attitude is adjusted according to visual observation of the juxtaposition of the earth with scribed circles on the periscope display. The emergency signaling procedure detailed earlier, consisting of flares, radio beacon, and Sofar bombs, is employed in sequence by the life raft.

     Reentry heat protection is furnished by the ablating heat shield, which also furnishes the insulating properties to prevent the reentry heat pulse from penetrating to the interior. Subsequent to traversing the extreme reentry conditions, the parachute is deployed by baroswitch signal at an altitude of 30,000 ft. The heat soaking that would take place during parachute descent and that would raise the inside temperature is avoided by jettisoning the heat shield at parachute opening. Landing impact is maintained at about 30 ft/sec (well below man's tolerance in the orientated seat of partially drawn nylon). After landing, the entrance hatch may be opened for air or egress. Since the device floats, there is no need to leave it if it lands on water. In the event it becomes necessary to leave, the rubber life raft from the survival kit may be launched through the hatch, which provides quick escape capability. As before, the survival kit provides sufficient equipment to maintain the man in almost any earth environment, and the handpowered "Gibson Girl" radio transmitter provides searchers with a homing signal (Nicknamed the Gibson Girl because of its hourglass shape).

     A typical trajectory for the satellite life raft is shown in Fig. 119, and Fig. 120 presents a plot of the stagnation point heat flux resulting from such a trajectory. The total stagnation point heating is given in Fig. 121, and it is this value which fixes the amount of ablating material required.

     By employing phenolic nylon as the ablative heat shield, the life raft design is able to take advantage of that material's higher effective heat of ablation, and thus it requires a heat shield thickness of only 3/4 in. while still maintaining a safety factor of at least 100%. This information is shown graphically in Fig. 122 which, for an extreme reentry condition, indicates the amount of heat shield ablated from the surface of the life raft during reentry. In addition, the char and remaining ablative material form such effective insulation that the inner surface of the fiberglass liner remains below 160° during the heating portion of the trajectory.

Satellite Life Boat

     Continuing the analogy with sea rescue equipment, a higher degree of survival capability is afforded by the use of a satellite lifeboat. This idea, also developed by Bloom and Quillinan, (15) is best studied with respect to stipulated crew size and degree of maneuverability desired.

     Arbitrary selection of a three-man team, with associated equipment and a 500- nautical mile cross-range maneuver, combined with a requirement to initiate the maneuver at 0.8 to satellite velocity in order to avoid maneuvers when stagnation heat fluxes are highest, fixes payload weight at about 1,000 lb, and L/D at about 1.5 (Fig. 123). These, together with compact design and simplicity requirements, helped set shape factors in the design selection.

     The resulting device is shown in Fig. 124.

     An interesting feature of this lifeboat is the combination of heat shields used. On the windward surface, where reentryheat fluxes and air temperatures are high, this device employs the ablating phenolic nylon shield. On the lee side, the lower air temperatures allow the use of a reradiation heat control provided by a refractory coating backed by 4 in. of insulation.

     In operation, the sequence of Fig. 125 seems reasonable. At the "abandon ship" signal, the astronauts scramble into the lifeboat which is sealed to the outside of the space station. The access hatch of the lifeboat is open to the interior of the station, and the astronauts occupy the aluminum-nylon web chairs, the hatch is fastened, seal is broken with station, and the lifeboat is sprung away from the station. Using a periscope version of the alignment sight previously discussed, the lifeboat is positioned by cold jets for deorbiting, and the retrorocket fired. With periscope retracted, instrumentation aboard provides information on reentry loads, vehicle orientation at reentry, and time to initiate maneuver. At the "maneuver" signal, the periscope is once again extended and maneuvers begin when the pilot astronaut, using navigation aids aboard, locates a suitable landing area. The previously described location aids are still used in sequence; e.g., flares, beacon, and chaff. On approach to the landing area, the parachute is deployed and the landing is almost vertical. Should the landing take place on water, the lifeboat floats more than half out of the water. When required or desired, the forward half of the device is released and jettisoned. The rear half can continue to float and is provided with a watertight plastic cover for insertion in the space left by the ejected nose section. If the lifeboat is to be abandoned, the rubber raft of the survival kit can be inflated, and, as before, survival kit and "Gibson Girl" provide excellent survival capability.


     As noted earlier in this monograph, a complete manned space mission profile is generally divided into prescribed regions, each of which exhibits its own peculiar abort problems. It would seem to imply that several different abort systems would have to be incorporated in the same vehicle.

     EGRESS, which is an acronym for Emergency Global Rescue Escape and Survival System, is an attempt to provide an abort capability over a complete range of flight profiles from on-the-pad, through atmospheric boost, orbit injection, orbit, reentry, and landing. The EGRESS vehicle is illustrated in Fig. 126. Its basic design employs the existing B-58 cockpit ejection capsule. Space rescue additions include an attitude control system, guidance unit, environmental control system, UHF communications link, retrorocket, and a drag stabilization system. The total weight is 716 lb.

     The system operation varies with different phases of the flight profile. For this reason,a manual selector switch is incorporated in the design thereby allowing the astronaut to preprogram the ejection and recovery operation for the particular flight conditionat abort.

     A typical abort sequence begins with encapsulation; that is, the upper, center, and lower doors (which are normally positioned above the hood in Fig. 126) are moved to the down position, thereby completely sealing the astronaut from the environment. The astronaut ejects the capsule by squeezing one or both of th eejection triggers on the ejection handles or firing a canopy or hatch jettison actuator; after a 0.3-sec delay, the ejection catapult is fired, giving the capsule a separation velocity of 50 fps. The rocket provides an impulse of 3,000-lb-sec ,which is enough to ensure tail clearance for a 1,000-lb capsule at a dynamic pressure of 1,600 psf. Since peak dynamic pressure during boost is only 800 psf, this combination of rocket and catapult should be sufficient to provide separation and attenuate decelerations.

     Nominal spinal accelerations imposed on a man by the catapult are approximately 13 g. If the ejection occurs in any suborbital period, the sequence fires the ejection rocket. Since the capsule drag is quite high and is only partially offset by thrust, the vehicle deceleration rate can be as high as 22g. As the capsule clears the vehicle, aerodynamic forces (if they exist) will position the capsule so that the heat shield is forward and positive acceleration (eyeballs in) is imposed on the capsule occupant. Stabilization is provided aerodynamically by the capsule/heat shield combination, and it is augmented by a drag chute stabilization system during sub-orbital periods.

     If ejection occurs during orbit, the ejection rocket is locked out and the ejection sequence fires only the small ejection catapult. The catapult provides minor acceleration; thus the capsule is simply pushed out of the primary vehicle. At this point, the attitude control system is used to orient the vehicle manually and stop tumbling. The astronaut then uses the onboard clock for time information. Knowing the exact time, and using an onboard position location chart (based on time), the occupant decides when to initiate retrofire. The onboard life support system is designed to provide oxygen and environmental control for approximately 1.5 orbits to allow adequate landing site selection. Before retrofire, the capsule is oriented manually so that the telescope reticle is in line with the horizon. Manual retrothrust then is initiated; alignment is maintained by using the large attitude control nozzles. After retrothrust, the capsule is oriented to the reentry position and manually retained by using the attitude control system.

     The 50-ft-diameter ring-sail recovery parachute reduces the capsule' s rate of descent to 25 fps. Ground impact forces are absorbed by four shock attenuators that are part of the heat shield attachments. The closed capsule can float without using auxiliary buoyancy devices. However, to provide stability in rough seas and maintain an upright attitude to open the upper capsule door, four outriggers with inflatable flotation bags are provided. The bags can be inflated quickly from a pressure container on the upper flotation outriggers, A hand-operated pump is provided for inflating the flotation bags on the lower outrigger. The most critically needed items of survival equipment are accessible to the occupant of the closed capsule. After landing, the capsule can serve as a shelter or life raft.

     A typical abort sequence is illustrated in Fig. 126. It is essentially the same with slight, but important, variations over the entire flight profile.

     The boost phase establishes design criteria for the maximum dynamic pressure and maximum airloads; the reentry phase establishes design criteria for the aeroheating condition. The stability problems are somewhat different in these phases because of the differences in the Mach number and dynamic pressure combinations.

     The escape environment has been investigated for several points during ascent, which comprises powered flight to a low perigee, coast, and final injection at the mission altitude. The escape conditions during the period of coast are not significantly different from the normal orbit conditions.

     A typical boost trajectory is presented in Fig. 127. Critical escape points are: (1) at launch, (2) at maximum dynamic pressure, (3) near staging, and (4) before orbit injection.

     Results that affect design criteria are summarized in Table VIII; the first columns show the first critical conditions the capsule would experience when it is separated from the basic launch vehicle during boost; the second critical condition represents the period when the capsule falls back to earth or reenters from the launchabort trajectory.

     The maximum airload and deceleration occur during case A, the low-altitude booster, maximum dynamic pressure condition. However, the heating rates are low in this case. The most critical combination of deceleration and heating occurs in case E, the near-orbit injection case. Although the initial flight path angle at abort is only +3°, the trajectory dynamics and velocity combine to give a return-to-earth, or reentry, angle of about -6° or -7° at a velocity of about 20,000 fps and an altitude of 300,000 ft. This relatively steep reentry angle results in high decelerations and heating rates.

     Table VIII also shows the nominal orbital reentry conditions for comparison. The orbital reentry trajectory shows the most critical heating rates, but the dynamic pressures are about one-half those shown for case E. The critical design limits imposed by the reentry trajectory include maximum allowable decelerations encountered for shallow reentry. The capsule retrorocket will provide a predetermined reentry angle; the trajectory data shown in Figs. 128 and 129 represent the proposed capsule reentry. If the capsule is ejected from a lifting parent vehicle during reentry, the deceleration and aeroheating conditions generally will be no more severe since lift vehicles typically reenter at shallow angles.

     The aeroheating environment is nearly identical to that of the hardwareproved Mercury capsule. The proposed capsule heat shield has a slightly smaller diameter than the Mercury shield (70 in. as compared with 74.5 in.), and the W/CDS is about one-half (25 psf vs 55 psf). No particular problem areas are anticipated for the forward ablative heat shield, since the heating rates of 50 to 60 Btu/ft2-sec and heat loads of 6,000 to 8,000 Btu/ft2 are similar to those experienced by the Mercury capsules.

     For escape from the parent vehicle during reentry, the capsule may eject at a maximum heating condition. In this event, the ablative heat shield briefly faces rearward until the capsule can rotate (yaw) 180° . A check of the yaw maneuver showed low total heat loads on the doors.

11. Dunn, J. P., and Carroll, P. C., "Project EGRESS," J. Spacecraft, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1967, p. 9-14.


     Another system which has an abort capability throughout the flight profile is the paracone. (28) This concept, which is illustrated in Fig. 130, exhibits marked similarities to the satellite life raft (Sec. 3.4.2) and EGRESS (Sec. 3.4.4). Its distinctive feature is the use of an inflatable cone. It is claimed that this affords advantages by providing:

  1. Automatic stability and orientation during atmospheric entry and descent to impact due to its peculiar shape.
  2. Protection for the crew from temperatures generated by the reentry forces.
  3. Absorption of the drag force of reentry due to atmospheric deceleration, For this application this force will be over 2-g for 3 rain with a 10-g peak with the crew in the prone position.
  4. Atmospheric deceleration to impact.
  5. Impact attenuation to minimize the landing force.
  6. Shielding against immersion, forest impact, or landing hazards in other adverse terrain.
  7. Flotation in the event of a water landing.
  8. A large, three-dimensional target for visual or radar search
  9. Shelter for the crew against the elements until recovery.
  10. Psychological support to the crew by providing him with a large vehicle during the long minutes of the return.

     Basically, the paracone is a gas-inflatable structure shaped like a cone with a large spherical nose. The astronaut is positioned and supported within the cone approximately one third the length of the cone as measured from the leading edge of the spherical nose. He is suspended over an air mattress flotation plenum chamber which, in turn, is located over the impact attenuator (see Fig. 131).

     The paracone is part of the crew control seat, and includes the ejection device which enables the crew to clear the stricken vehicle, the stabilizing unit for retro postion alignment, the retro unit to allow deorbiting, the Paracone inflation system that inflates the deploys the Paracone, the life support pack, and the survival pack (Fig. 132). When deployment occurs, the astronaut is so positioned within the paraconethathe is protected during the reentry-temperature and aerodynamicdeceleration phase. In addition, as an integral part of its expandable structure, the paracone provides a terminal velocity impact decelerator, impact attenuation system, flotation and anti-immersion devices, and a large, three-dimensional search target for recovery.

     The Paracone is weight-limited rather than size- or shape-limited, and is designed to handle any payload of reasonable size or shape within its weight accommodation design envelope. The astronaut or the crew-containing capsule rests within the Paracone with the crew in the prone position. Deployment of the Paracone may take place either before or after the retrograde force is applied to the payload removing it from orbit.

     In a de-orbit abort sequence, the astronaut actuates the ejection handle which (1) vents the cabin; (2) removes the emergency access door in the vehicle; (3) ejects the astronaut, his seat, and the paracone system at a predetermined rate; and (4) actuates the radio beacon transmitter. At a safe distance from the stricken vehicle, the astronaut stabilizes his seat with his attitude controls. He rotates the retrorocket into firing position, observes his position above the earth, and determines when he will fire his retrorockets. He has one orbit's time in which to do this. As he approaches his selected retrorocket firing point, he stabilizes to the correct firing attitude by using his horizon sighting bar, by orientation through star observation, or by radio instructions from earth. At the selected time, he fires his retrorockets and continues to made his attitude adjustments until the retroroeket impulse is completed (see Fig. 120).

     The velocity increment of 550 fps applied in the retrograde direction will result in an initial entry speed of approximately 26,000 fps and an angle of 2.5°. If a ±10% tolerance in velocity increment and 30° tolerance in application angle in any direction are allowed, the minimum entry angle is 1° and the maximum angle is 2.5°. The paracone has been designed to operate successfully while not exceeding human tolerance limits over this range of entry conditions. These tolerances should provide impact with a range error of less than 500 n. mi.

     After the retrorocket firing, the astronaut jettisons the empty retrorocket and actuates the paracone inflation system which allows the inflation gas to enter the pneumatic shaping structure of the paracone. From this point until after earth impact the astronaut has no other operation requirements. As the Paracone inflates, the internal gas pressure forces the protective housing segments apart until the segments reach a point at which they are automatically jettisoned. The pressurizing gas inflates, the internal gas pressure forces the protective housing segments apart until the segments reach a point at which they are automatically jettisoned. The pressurizing gas inflates the shapes the paracone around the crew. The internal shaping pressure of the paracone is maintained at a pressure differential of 3 psi during the atmospheric reentry and descent to earth. Time of descent from retro to impact will be approximately 1 hour.

     As in the case of EGRESS, the precise details of the abort sequence vary with the particular phase of the flight profile.

     An on-the-pad abort is illustrated in Fig. 133.

     Some basic testing has been performed on the paracone structure including (1) wind-tunnel tests for drag and stability information, (2) free-fall model drop tests for dynamic stability information, (3) full-size impact attenuator tests, and (4) flow tests of various attenuator materials for use in comparative analyses seeking the most efficient material for the attenuator.

     It is reported that these tests have been sufficiently encouraging to demonstrate basic feasibility of the design, Further details may be found in the paper by Kendall. (28)

     28. Kendall, R. T., "Techniques for Space and Hypersonic Flight Escape," Proc. SAE Aerospace Systems Conf., Los Angeles, 1967, p. 394-400.


The escape pods were lenticular ceramic heat shields with thermoplastic covers, hardly bigger than Porta Potties. Stored inside each was a parachute and an inflatable raft in an ejection rig and — the only really specialized gadget — a hand-aimed, gyro-stabilized, solid-fuel retrorocket. An astronaut who had to leave orbit in a hurry was supposed to climb in, lie back, clutch the retrorocket to his or her chest, adjust position and attitude with its gas jets, then take aim at an easily identifiable star specified by mission control and pull the trigger.

The impulse from the solid-fuel rocket would gradually slow the pod until orbital velocity was lost, whereupon the astronaut threw away the rocket, closed the flimsy hatch with its little bubble window, and tried to relax while falling through the atmosphere, on fire, decelerating at five gees plus. Below about 7,000 meters or so the pod's cover would pop off, spilling the astronaut and deploying the chute.


In seconds he had the nearer pod free of its straps. Lifting the thermoplastic lid, he found all the neat packages of equipment nestled where they should be. He ripped open Velcro fastening of yellow webbing, yanked at cotter pins festooned with red warning strips. One of them activated a SARSAT radar beacon...

...Flipping over to squat on the pod, he shrugged off his life-support backpack and hooked into the pod's portable emergency oxygen supply. He wrestled himself onto his back and tugged the parachute straps across his chest and shoulders, pulling the life raft package up under his rump. The strap edges scrunched thick layers of suit material into an oppressive lump in his crotch. It was exhausting work, and he heated up fast without the coolant flow from this abandoned backpack, but it had to be done right; parachutists had dismembered themselves with loose harnesses.

From STARFIRE by Paul Preuss (1988)

(ed note: the planet of New Finland has been conquered by space nazis. No, really. From a hidden rogue planet colonized by the Ku Klux Klan, The New John Birchers, the remnants of Afkrikaaners in Exile, and other assorted fascist groups. Anyway, the Federation cannot rescue New Finland because the nazis have surrounded the entire solar system with homing anti-ship missiles. The New Finland freedom fighters have to capture the control system for the missiles. Which happen to be inside a huge nazi aerospace craft named Leviathan orbiting the planet at low altitude. The controls have to be captured, not destroyed, or there is no way to turn off the missiles. The freedom fighters have to figure out a way to get lots of their soldiers onto the nazi ship. Sadly they do not have spacecraft capable of carrying large amounts of troops.)

      Then Marie-Francoise came up with a wild card: one-man escape shells. Escape shells are one of the simplest and scariest ways to get out of space. About all they amount to is someone in a spacesuit inside an ablating heat shield, plus a moronic guidance system and a retro rocket. If you're stuck in space, you wriggle into the thing and push the button with crossed fingers. The guidance gizmo points the retro in roughly the right direction, and with luck it guns properly, you get kicked in the direction of the atmosphere, and the heat shield melts away, maybe without cooking you. You press another button and explosive bolts blow the reentry shell either away from you or through you and then a chute pops open, which, more than likely, deposits you in the ocean, where you drown.

     They weren't really all that dangerous, I suppose, but there were people who rode them as a sport. In my line of employment I've been close to killed enough times trying to do a job that I don't see the point of risking my neck for fun.

     About 200 escape shells had been stockpiled on Vapaus while it was being built, for the use of construction workers in an emergency. This official stockpile had never been used, and it still gathered dust in a storeroom somewhere.

     Marie-Francoise also found a club full of overconfident idiots who called themselves The Meteors, which I thought was all too well-chosen a name ("meteorites" actually survive long enough to hit the ground. "meteors" usually disintegrate at altitudes of 50 kilometers). They had held regular drops before the war, and had manufactured their own shells. They hadn't been able to make any drops, or any new shells, since the war began, but they had had their eyes on the old official stockpile for a long time.

     The club president insisted that The Meteors could land on the deck of Leviathan if they were dropped from orbit accurately. They planned to use grappling hooks and count on plenty of padding in their suits. I hesitated before agreeing to let them go, but we were going to need every overconfident idiot we could get our hands on.

     From every side it was the same-everyone wanted to fight, everyone wanted to go, everyone wanted to grab that ship. Marie-Francoise told us Vapaus was a beehive stirred up. Every workshop was full, every gun was loaded, every ship was ready to fly.

From THE TORCH OF HONOR by Roger MacBride Allen (1985)

A SF Staple

For me, the introduction to escape pods came via Episode 1 of Star Wars, and the small capsule that R2-D2 and C3PO used to escape from the Tantive IV. Then there were the triangular Sovereign class pods from Star Trek: First Contact, the spherical escape pod from Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, and the flying coffins from Prometheus (yes, I am going to wash my mouth out with soap after mentioning that abomination). Escape pods are an established feature of SF spacecraft, and unlike many other features shown by Hollywood as vital, they appear to be a logical addition to any ship. In a more realistic SF 'Verse, however, it seems unlikely that a deep-space craft will be so equipped, for reasons that will be explored later. The type of spacecraft, its mission, and the 'flavour' of the 'Verse all affect the utility of a escape pod, and while they may make sense in the context of Star Wars, they may not apply to many situations in a hard SF world.

Escape Pod: Definition

Like many kinds of SF tech the escape pod is often confused with other vehicles, and/or misnamed. Quite often there are small spacecraft that serve the same role, such as the Narcissus shuttle from Alien, or the escape craft in which Ripley, Newt, and Hicks escape from the USCSS Nostromo in Alien3 (more soap). These two craft do not qualify as escape pods because they have an extended flight capability, enabling in them to make planetfall from beyond orbit, or reach a inhabited system from deal space. As in the case of the Narcissus a 'lifeboat' the craft such as these may in fact be the auxiliary vessel carried as part of normal operation; this is seen in Star Trek (2009) when the USS Kelvin was evacuated with the shuttles.

An escape pod can only be used to reach the surface of a planet from orbit, and possesses only enough DeltaV to deorbit, often combined with atmospheric braking. If used in deep space the pod would simply float until help arrived, as it could if the planet was unsuitable for landing. This is the type seen often in Star Wars, especially the animated Clone Wars, although those are far more sophisticated than might be the case. Unlike a 'lifeboat' craft escape pods are often seems as disposable, having only enough power to make a safe landing and call for help.

Arguments For & Against

Escaping from a dying spaceship just in time to see it exploded in a nuclear fireball moments before the escape pod begins to tear into the atmosphere of the inhabitable, uncharted planet... This is kind of fiction that inspires the inclusion of escape pods in spacecraft designs. Desirable as it might be, however, it is only a fiction. Space is a relatively benign environment; a crippled spaceship will not sink, be torn apart, or explode as an aircraft, ship, or submarine might. And don't forget, in space none can hear you scream, so you will be waiting a long time for help.

Deep space is a different case to a planetary system or orbit itself, so I'll discuss it separately. The most effective way of analysing an escape pod in deep space is to compare it to the lifeboats on a cruse ship. I know, space isn't an ocean, but in this case it is a helpful analogy. If a cruise ship sinks the lifeboats have on job — keep people alive until help arrives, which, given the number of ships in major shipping lanes, should not be too long. It seems safe to assume that a space liner could use escape pods in the same way, but this fails under several criteria. One, the spaceship cannot sink, so there is no danger to staying aboard a spaceship that has been disabled by a failure or meteor strike. Note that NSWR spacecraft are an exception to this, as they can explode if the tanks fail; but even then it would be better to jettison the tanks themselves. The ship will be compartmentalised, so even severe damage should leave habitable sections. Two; the pods cannot carry sufficient life support, food, or power. One a lifeboat in the pacific there is air, sun for solar power, edible fish, etc. to help you survive. In space, any escape pod or 'lifeboat' needs to carry oxygen, filters to scrub CO2, water recycling, etc. This might be doable for the short term, say a few days to a week, but on a Hohmann transfer that is going to do no more than prolong the agony. And if the ships in the 'Verse are fast enough to rescue the survivors, then escape pods are not needed, they could just stay with the ship and its greater supply of food, power, oxygen, etc. So it can be seen that escape pods are infeasible for deep space; dangers like fissioning fuel can be easily dumped, and the pods are going to have fewer resources.

Near space has the same limitations as deep space, but orbit does allow the use of escape pods. Over a habitable planet all the pods have to do is land, something that can be accomplished with far less weight than survival for a few weeks in deeps space. For this task a escape pod might be a one man device scarcely larger than a phone booth; the drop pods used by the ODST in Halo would be quite similar to what would be needed. Or it could be larger, carrying several people and enough supplies to last them for weeks or months, along with communications equipment. If the planet is hostile — incompatible atmosphere — then there is no point landing, and it is better to stay in orbit where the arguments against escape pods in deep space apply.

It seems that pods are of the most use when in the vicinity of a planet, which means that Star Trek and Star Wars got something right at least. It also makes them unlikely to be found on spacecraft that spend a long time in transit between destinations, due to the weight penalty. The place they are most likely to be found is on a space station. Stations likely carry far more people aboard than can be evacuated by shuttle alone, have less of a weight limit, and are normally close to planets. Which brings up another constraint; the planet must be habitable, or at the very least, non-hostile. And these may be few and far between in the real world.

The above points can be extrapolated to indicate the type of 'Verse in which escape pods are going to be a commonplace, and where they will be used. Space stations over habitable planets will be the main use, followed by ships that have large crew/passenger numbers and which regularly pass habitable planets. Note that within a solar system this is unlikely, so you are looking at starships. Given the difficulty of interstellar flight, and the time spent in deep space away from any planet, means that only FTL starship really befit from escape pods. This is the case in Star Wars, where hyperspace is used to jump from one habitable planet to another. Usually the starships are close enough to a habitable planet that escape pods are a perfect safety measure. FTL comms also make them more practical, as it allows for a much higher probability of rescue, especially if the starship went down outside normal travel routes.

So you end up with a moderately hard 'Verse. One in which the technology and setting are generally crammed with realistic science, but in which there is FTL travel and communication, a unlikely number of human habitable planets, and starship design that goes in for catastrophic failure (or space battles in orbit, although it is unlikely anyone would survive from the loosing ship, no matter what escape methods they had planned).

From THE FUTURE IN SPACE: ESCAPE PODS, PART I by William Moran (2015)

Survival Kit

A deluxe reentry capsule will also contain a survival kit. There are two basic types:

Shirt-sleeve environment survival kit: those kits that assist survival on nice planets you can walk around in your shirt-sleeves without dying horribly. Habitable planets, in other words.

Hostile environment survival kit: those kits that assist survival on nasty deadly planets that will kill unprotected humans in a few seconds. Non-habitable planets, in other words.

Shirt-sleeve Environment Survival Kit

A habitable planet survival kit is going to be more or less identical to a conventional survival kit you can purchase right here on Terra.

Emergency rations will be included. If you expect to live off the alien land and eat alien native food ("xenorations"), don't forget to bring your tracetabs.

A first-aid kit and other medical gear which are useable by an untrained person. You can assume a nurse or doctor will have their own full medical kits.


"One thing," Michelle chimed in, "Kelly, take this," , she tossed him a flat metal box, about five centimeters on a side, with a metal chain. "Wear that around your neck at all times from now on. Those are your tracetabs. They contain all the trace elements your body needs. There are about three thousand tabs in that box (8.2 years). If we go on xeno-rations, you'll need them."

Kelly seemed puzzled.

"There are about a thousand planets," Sims explained, "that supply native food edible by humans. On maybe half a dozen of them, all the trace elements necessary for human survival are present in the food."

"If the soil and atmosphere are comparable to Earth's," Michelle continued, "native flora and fauna may give you all the protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins you need, but trace elements can be hard to come by. You'll die just as dead from lack of magnesium, phosphorous, or any number of other elements as from lack of water. If you get stranded on a xenoworld, that box can be your lifeline. Always keep it filled."

From Space Angel by John Maddox Roberts (1979)
Survival Kit

A survival kit is a package of basic tools and supplies prepared in advance as an aid to survival in an emergency. Civil and military aircraft, lifeboats, and spacecraft are equipped with survival kits.

Survival kits, in a variety of sizes, contain supplies and tools to provide a survivor with basic shelter against the elements, help him or her to keep warm, meet basic health and first aid needs, provide food and water, signal to rescuers, and assist in finding the way back to help. Supplies in a survival kit normally contain a knife (often a Swiss army knife or a multi-tool), matches, tinder, first aid kit, bandana, fish hooks, sewing kit, and a flashlight.

General contents

The general contents of an emergency survival kit depend on the location. Basic components in a survival kit address the needs of first aid, food, water, shelter, navigation, and signalling.

Shelter and warmth

A variety of materials are recommended for emergency shelters, and vary between geographic regions. Options often included in survival kits may consist of:

Health and first aid

First aid kits will often include a combination of the following:

  • Bandages
    • Sterile combine dressing, and gauze pads
  • Adhesive tape, and gauze tape
    • Disinfectant pads
    • A 30-day supply of personal prescription medication
  • Antibiotic cream
  • Burn cream
  • Aspirin
  • Sunscreen (where appropriate, above 30 SPF)
  • 100% UV protective sunglasses ("UV 400") (protects eyes from harmful UV radiation. Polarized glasses are not necessarily UV protective, but aid with glare only)

Food and water

Most survival kits involve sustenance for short periods of time, to be used and replenished before contents spoil.

  • Water in sealed containers for dry areas, or water purification tablets or household bleach in areas where water is available but may be contaminated. For emergency water purification see: water purification techniques
  • Canteen full of water, and a filter if needed
  • Heavy duty aluminum foil to create a distillation tube to remove salt from salt water during boiling/condensation. Must have another receptacle to collect condensate.
  • Canned food, Meals Ready-to-Eat (MRE), or high-energy foods such as chocolate or emergency food bars.
  • Fishing line and gear (fish hooks, lures, and split shot leads)
  • Snare wire
  • Gillnetting (for emergency fishing)

Some dry fruits, peanuts or roasted grams.

Signaling, navigation and reference

Since the primary goal of a survival kit for lost or injured persons is rescue, this part of the kit may be considered the most essential. Key elements for rescue include:

  • Distress radiobeacon
  • Whistle
  • Signal mirror
  • High power LED light (able to have batteries replaced, and carry an extra battery), white lens, with signaling capabilities. Strobe versions are available for some lights. Use lithium cells only, due to superior shelf life.
  • Flare: three fires in a triangle is the international distress signal
  • Laser pointer with lithium batteries, for superior signaling range. Laser pointers have resulted in at least one rescue: during the night in August 2010 two men and a boy were rescued from marshland after their red laser pen was spotted by rescue teams.
  • Surveyor's tape - orange or chartreuse for marking location for rescuers
  • Pen/pencil and paper for leaving notes to rescuers about direction of travel
  • Compass. Analog watch can also be used to determine orientation when the sun is visible - See direction finding using a watch
  • Trail maps/charts (if location is known in advance)
  • Survival manual for technique reference
  • Glow stick

Multipurpose tools or materials

Survival kit tools emphasize portability and versatility. Tools recommended for many types of survival kit include:

  • Fixed-blade knife, or multitool such as a Swiss Army knife.
  • Can opener such as the P-38 or the P-51
  • Heavy-duty needle and thread for repairing clothing and equipment
  • Red or orange plastic bag(s) or trash bags
  • Sturdy cord or "550" parachute cord for setting up a tarpaulin and snaring small animals
  • Hatchet with sheath for cold conditions, or machete for tropical conditions (shelter and fire)
  • Camp stove or some type of gas burner and fuel such as bottled propane or Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)
  • Candles for light, signaling, fire-starting
  • Metal billycan or "water bottle" for water storage, boiling, purification, cooking
  • Compact saw such as Japanese style backsaw with coarse teeth (folding models available). Bow saws can quickly cut larger diameter limbs and small to medium thick trees, and Folding saws can be small enough to fit into a kit, but big enough to cut small to medium diameter limbs, and possibly smaller trees.
  • Solar charger
  • Helmet

Lifeboat survival kits

Lifeboat survival kits are stowed in inflatable or rigid lifeboats or life rafts; the contents of these kits are mandated by coast guard or maritime regulations. These kits provide basic survival tools and supplies to enable passengers to survive until they are rescued. In addition to relying on lifeboat survival kits, many mariners will assemble a "ditch bag" or "abandon ship bag" containing additional survival supplies. Lifeboat survival kit items typically include:

Safety equipment
Communications and navigation
  • Compass
  • Distress beacons or (EPIRBs) to alert the Cospas-Sarsat rescue consortium, an international satellite-based search and rescue distress alert agency and identify the registered beacon owner's specific information from their registration file
  • Red flare, rocket parachute flare, and/or smoke signal flare
  • Laser pointer for signaling aircraft (red is color of distress, but green color is higher power and will be seen farther), with lithium cells, in double waterproof plastic pouch (pointers of high power are a theoretical hazard to eyes of low-flying pilots at night)
  • Radar reflector (to help rescuers locate the raft)
  • Lighter
  • Lantern and fuel, the fuel doubles as firestarter
  • Radio transceiver, standard VHF marine when operating near inland shore, 121.5MHz AM VHF guard channel capable aircraft band transceiver to contact rescuers and high overflying commercial and military aircraft visible by contrails, an optional amateur radio if a licensed radio amateur, (see Ham Radio) or an AM/FM/Weather/Shortwave radio receiver to receive precise time for celestial navigation as well as weather information
  • GPS navigation device
Food and water
Other tools and boating items
From the Wikipedia entry for Survival kit
Russian Soyuz survival kit

NAZ-3 survival kit. It was designed in 1968 for the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft, the reliable workhorse of space flight which is still in use today. As outlined on this interesting site about the Russian space program, the kit contained the following from top left to bottom right:

  • Makarov pistol and ammunition
  • wrist compass
  • 18 waterproof matches with striker
  • machete; fishing kit
  • strobe light with spare battery
  • 8 fire starters
  • folding knife
  • antenna
  • 3-pair wool gloves
  • signal mirror
  • NAZ-7M type medical kit
  • penlight
  • R-855-YM or R-855-A1 radio
  • two “Priboy 2S”, ПРИБОЙ-2С radio batteries
  • three wool balaclava hoods.
From Inside the Cosmonaut Survival Kit by Benjamin Breen (2013)

Hostile Environment Survival Kit

Hostile environment survival kits will contain pretty much everything in a shirt-sleeve environment kit, plus extra equipment to cope with such problems as the lack of a breathable atmosphere.

Making a survival kit for a planet with an enviroment lethal to an unprotected human is incredibly difficult. An castaway using a reentry capsule to land on Terra might wind up in unpleasant places such as a jungle, desert, or ocean; but at least they will have access to unlimited amounts of breathable air. Maybe even food and water. A castaway landing on Mars will not be so lucky. Just ask Mark Watney.

Basically the kit will have to include a pup tent sized habitat module with an entire life support system (Poul Anderson called them "sealtents"). Might as well just make the reentry capsule into a freaking spacecraft. It will probably take the form of some type of inflatable habitat module.

Alternatively you'll need compact equipment to re-fill your space suit's oxygen tanks (and make more O2). Meaning your space suit will be your habitat module. I hope the suit has sanitary facilities or it is going to be really nasty as the suit fills up with poop.

In a paper entitled An overnight habitat for expanding lunar surface exploration by Samuel S. Schreiner et al is described a piece of equipment that could be adapated into a hostile enviroment pup-tent. The item was intended only to be an overnight habitat used for eight hours or so, but it is a start.

An overnight habitat for expanding lunar surface exploration

The system is intended to enable two astronauts, exploring with an unpressurized rover, to remove their space suits for an 8-h rest away from the lunar base and then conduct a second day of surface exploration before returning to base. This system is composed of an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) on the rover, an inflatable habitat, a solar shield and a solar power array...

...The mass, volume, and power analyses of each subsystem are integrated to generate a total system mass of 124 kg and a volume of 594 L, both of which can be accommodated on the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle with minor improvements.

The rover ECLSS connects to the habitat via umbilical cables to maintain the atmosphere in the habitat. A thermal control unit on the rover is connected to the liquid cooling garments worn by the astronauts to provide active thermal control, while a solar shield is used to provide passive thermal control to minimize the load on the thermal control unit. The ECLSS contains a carbon dioxide scrubber, a “slurper” to remove humidity, an oxygen tank for respiration, and a water tank for the sublimator, crew hydration, food preparation, hygiene or medical use. The solar array provides power for the overnight system and recharges the rover batteries for the second day of exploration...

2.1. Inflatable ribbing concept

When the astronauts first enter the inflatable habitat, the airlock volume requires a support structure in order to retain its internal shape while at zero internal pressure. Inflatable ribbing may be chosen for structural support. This ribbing consists of a frame of small-diameter inflatable tubes that, when inflated to high pressure, provide a rigid structure for the habitat. Thus, the astronauts can inflate the ribbing prior to entry without filling the interior of the habitat with O2. Then the astronauts can enter the habitat, close the airlock, and fill the interior of the habitat to the desired pressure. A similar inflatable ribbing concept is used in commercially available inflatable camping tents.

2.2. Flexible membrane airlock design

To reduce the total size of the habitat, a novel flexible membrane was designed such that the same internal volume could function as both an airlock and habitat. As shown in Fig. 3, a thin, flexible, airtight membrane divides the internal habitat volume into an airlock side (left) and a habitat side (right). The membrane material is similar to the habitat outer surface without the micrometeorite protection, resulting in approximately 1/4 the surface density. The membrane is sized such that at any given time the entire volume can be used either as an airlock or as a habitat.

The concept of operations for entering the habitat using the flexible membrane airlock is illustrated in Fig. 3. After the astronauts have entered the habitat and pressurized the airlock, they remove their suits on the airlock side (top row of Fig. 3). Next, the airlock membrane is moved manually by the astronauts to its neutral transition configuration (middle row of Fig. 3). A valve in the membrane is used to regulate air flow from one side of the habitat to the other while the membrane is moved and the flow path is filtered to ensure that lunar dust is not transferred from the airlock side to the habitat side. After moving the membrane to the neutral position (in which it divides the habitat into two equal halves), the astronauts unzip an airtight zipper and proceed to the habitat side through the hole in the airlock membrane. Equipment is passed through in the same way. Next, the airtight zipper is closed and the membrane is manually moved towards the airlock side, maximizing the volume of the habitat side (bottom row in Fig. 3). The astronauts close the valve to the airlock side and then conduct activities within the habitat...

...When considering entry and exit of the habitat, a net could potentially be used to restrain the airlock membrane in its neutral transition position in circumstances where the habitat side is pressurized but the airlock side is not. With a net in place, only partial venting of the volume would be required for entry and exit. The flexible membrane concept makes efficient use of the available space and reduces the total required internal volume of the habitat.

2.3. Inflatable geometry optimization

A preliminary geometric analysis was used to select a cylindrical geometry with hemisphere end caps and a flat floor. The cylinder was designed to accommodate the two astronauts standing vertically to don/doff their suits and the two astronauts sleeping side-by-side. The design was further constrained to a minimum interior volume of 12 m3 as a conservative estimate [9], and was required to have a flat cylinder wall between the end caps that was long enough to accommodate a door 0.75 m wide for entry and egress. The radius of the cylinder, the width of the flat floor, and the length of the cylinder were optimized to ensure that these requirements were met while minimizing the total mass of the inflatable skin and ribbing...

Table 1. Optimal inflatable pill mass and volume
Support ribbing1.100.090.0007
Adjustable airlock4.0410.0160
Packed volume0.2879
Table 2. The optimized geometry of the inflatable cylindrical flat-floor habitat
Cylinder radius1.29 m
Cylinder flat side length0.75 m
Maximum floor width1.80 m
Maximum floor length2.55 m
Maximum height2.21 m
Interior volume12.00 m3
Door height1.84 m

2.5. Inflatable deployment and stowing

...Using the packaged volume of 0.2879 m3 determined in Section 2.3 (packing factor of 2), the folded inflatable can be expected to fit into a rectangular prism of dimensions 1.4 m×0.7 m×0.294 m...

4. Environmental Control and Life Support Systems

To enable an overnight stay on the lunar surface, the system needs to provide a suitable environment and consumables such as water and food. To meet this need, an Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) was designed to support two astronauts during the overnight stay and to recharge the astronauts׳ Portable Life Support Systems (PLSS) for a second day of exploration. The demands of the first day were not included in the system design because they would be met by the astronauts׳ (PLSS)...

Table 5. Oxygen and water requirements and storage system sizing for the overnight mission
Consumables storageOxygenWater
Quantity required (kg)8.123.9
Tank mass (kg)6.84.0
Tank volume (L)99.923.9

6. Results: system mass and volume estimates

Mass Breakdown
ECLSS28.5 kg
Emergency Power2.0 kg
Emergency Inflatable Seat6.0 kg
Power13.2 kg
Thermal Shield4.6 kg
Inflatable35.0 kg
ECLSS Consumables34.1 kg
Total123.4 kg
ECLSS Consumables Mass Breakdown
H2O - Med, Hygeine, Food Prep7.8 kg
H2O - Crew Hydration7.1 kg
H2O - Rover Sublimator5.9 kg
H2O - Refill Suit Sublimator3.9 kg
Oxygen for Ribs1.5 kg
Oxygen for Habitat + Respiration6.6 kg
Food1.3 kg
Total34.1 kg
Volume Breakdown
Inflatable Habitat
287.9 L
Thermal Shield4.1 L
Power62.6 L
ECLSS186.0 L
Emergency Inflatable Seat
51.2 L
Total34.1 kg
A Fall of Moondust

     It was at least two years since Lawrence had been inside an igloo. There was a time, when he had been a junior engineer out on construction projects, when he had lived in one for weeks on end, and had forgotten what it was like to be surrounded by rigid walls. Since those days, of course, there had been many improvements in design; it was now no particular hardship to live in a home that would fold up into a small trunk.
     This was one of the latest models—a Goodyear Mark XX—and it could sustain six men for an indefinite period, as long as they were supplied with power, water, food, and oxygen. The igloo could provide everything else-even entertainment, for it had a built-in microlibrary of books, music, and video. This was no extravagant luxury, though the auditors queried it with great regularity. In space, boredom could be a killer. It might take longer than, say, a leak in an air line, but it could be just as effective, and was sometimes much messier.
     Lawrence stooped slightly to enter the air lock. In some of the old models, he remembered, you practically had to go down on hands and knees. He waited for the “pressure equalized” signal, then stepped into the hemispherical main chamber.
     It was like being inside a balloon; indeed, that was exactly where he was. He could see only part of the interior, for it had been divided into several compartments by movable screens. (Another modern refinement; in his day, the only privacy was that given by the curtain across the toilet.) Overhead, three meters above the floor, were the lights and the air-conditioning grille, suspended from the ceiling by elastic webbing. Against the curved wall stood collapsible metal racks, only partly erected. From the other side of the nearest screen came the sound of a voice reading from an inventory, while every few seconds another interjected, “Check.”
     Lawrence stepped around the screen and found himself in the dormitory section of the igloo. Like the wall racks, the double bunks had not been fully erected; it was merely necessary to see that all the bits and pieces were in their place, for as soon as the inventory was completed everything would be packed and rushed to the site.
     Lawrence did not interrupt the two storemen as they continued their careful stock-taking. This was one of those unexciting but vital jobs—of which there were so many on the Moon—upon which lives could depend. A mistake here could be a sentence of death for someone, sometime in the future.
     When the checkers had come to the end of a sheet, Lawrence said, “Is this the largest model you have in stock?”
     “The largest that’s serviceable” was the answer. “We have a twelve-man Mark Nineteen, but there’s a slow leak in the outer envelope that has to be fixed.”
     “How long will that take?”
     “Only a few minutes. But then there’s a twelve-hour inflation test before we’re allowed to check it out.
     This was one of those times when the man who made the rules had to break them.
     “We can’t wait to make the full test. Put on a double patch and take a leak reading; if it’s inside the standard tolerance, get the igloo checked out right away. I’ll authorize the clearance.”

From A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke (1961)


Castaways will need survival skills or they will be facing a real short life-span. They will get to see how good they are at playing Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson. Which could be a real challenge if the planet does not have a human-habitable biome.

As the duration on the planet without rescue drags on, the line between castaway and colonist becomes blurred. A few old-timey science fiction stories postulate a "castaway's code" where people marooned on a habitable planet with no hope of rescue must marry each other and found a colony, by law. Left unstated is why such a bizarre law would have been passed in the first place. Rampant imperialism, I guess.

Sometimes space explorers won't crash but will discover a shipwrecked spacecraft or life boat and will do a search for castaways. That is, of course, if it is a Terran spacecraft. If it is extraterrestrial, more caution is needed. If it from an unknown extraterrestrial species, call out the marines and the first contact specialists. And do keep in mind the movie "Alien."

If explorers discover lots of shipwrecked spacecraft, go to red alert because you have apparently discovered a "Sargasso of Space planet". And if you are not real careful you'll be the next shipwreck. Whatever wrecked all those other spacecraft might still be active.

Old pulp science fiction stories sometimes take the slant that deliberately marooning another human on a wilderness planet for the rest of their life is an unspeakable act, the crime of crimes. It doesn't matter if they are your worst enemy, it just isn't done.

More recent science fiction is a bit more cynical. Vaporizing your enemy with a laser pistol is too merciful, marooning them ensures they suffer your maximum revenge as they slowely starve to death.

Novels and short stories that cover the shipwrecked spaceship and castaway theme include:

Movies that cover the shipwrecked spaceship and castaway theme include:


A castaway is a person who is cast adrift or ashore. While the situation usually happens after a shipwreck, some people voluntarily stay behind on a deserted island, either to evade captors or the world in general. A person may also be left ashore as punishment (marooned).

The provisions and resources available to castaways may allow them to live on the island until other people arrive to take them off the island. However, such rescue missions may never happen if the person is not known to still be alive, if the fact that they are missing is unknown or if the island is not mapped. These scenarios have given rise to the plots of numerous stories in the form of novels and film.

From the Wikipedia entry for CASTAWAY

Marooning is the intentional act of abandoning someone in an uninhabited area, such as a desert island. The word first appears in writing in approximately 1709, and is derived from the term maroon, a word for a fugitive slave, which could be a corruption of Spanish cimarrón, meaning a household animal (or slave) who has run "wild".

The practice was a penalty for crewmen, or for captains at the hands of a crew in cases of mutiny. Generally, a marooned man was set on a deserted island, often no more than a sand bar at low tide. He would be given some food, a container of water, and a loaded pistol so he could commit suicide if he desired. The outcome of marooning was usually fatal, but William Greenaway and some men loyal to him survived being marooned, as did pirate captain Edward England.

The chief practitioners of marooning were 17th and 18th century pirates, to such a degree that they were frequently referred to as "marooners". The pirate articles of captains Bartholomew Roberts and John Phillips specify marooning as a punishment for cheating one's fellow pirates or other offenses. In this context, to be marooned is euphemistically to be "made governor of an island".

From the Wikipedia entry for MAROONING

It is on a world whose name I do not know, on the slopes of a great mountain, that the Javelin came down. She is surrounded by black boulders which are too heavy for a man to move. I have sealed the cracks in her silver skin with mud and clay, but she no longer has a door. Inside, she is not badly damaged — the drive chamber and the tailfins are shattered beyond all hope, but living quarters are still sound. If it were not for the fact that she was built to stand upright, but lies on her side, she would be comfortable. But who can sleep in a vertical bunk?

Some thirty or forty yards from the ship there is a cross planted in the ground. It marks Lapthorn's grave. It is a shallow grave because there is not a great deal of dirt caught in the crack between the faces of implacable rock. The cross is often blown down, as though the wind is able to seek it out and pluck it away. Lapthorn is not welcome here; neither am I. The wind continuously tells me so.

To right and left, as I look down the mountain, the view is excised by more gigantic slopes of languid black rock, but before my resting place is a channel which leads down to the plain away across the ashen desert. Far off, beyond the expended sands, more mountains form a distant wall which shines all colours from red to violet as the sun walks the grey sky from dawn till dusk. Brown clouds move sullenly across the sulky face of the sky, washing the black mountain faces with hazy tears. The sparse bushes, the shifting sand, the grey ridges are obscured by a constant floating dust which likewise changes colour with the advancing hours of every day.

I wear a long beard. My hair is never cut save for the tufts which threaten to invade my eyes and rob me of sight. I take no pride in cleanliness. I live in misery and regret, and make no effort to assert my humanity. I am an invader, a beast. There is no need to remind myself that I belong elsewhere. I am not wanted here.

Another day is draining away, and the desert is cold tedious blue-turning-grey. I was not always so despairing. I used to go down every evening to the plain to bring water from the small pools which are constantly maintained by the rain which flows from the slopes. I would bring water for washing as well as for drinking. But I found that I could carry water enough for three days if I did not bother to wash, and I grew idle, long ago. I used to occupy my days in mending my ill-used home, in trying to improve the meagre quality of my life here. I mounted expeditions to all points of the compass, and planned the circumnavigation of the world which I had inherited by virtue of being stranded. But what I found on the peak, in the far plain, and on other slopes never repaid the effort I put into reaching them, and mental fatigue soon drowned my adventure with pointlessness.

The sky is as black as the mountains now. The desert plan is invisible. I light the fire. The light hasn't much warmth. Lapthorn would have complained of its dull colour and its foul taste. But it's all I have. The ship retains a reservoir of power, but all of it is directed to one single purpose - maintaining the faint, surely futile, mayday bleep which is my solitary hope of eventual rescue. The bleep has a limited range, and no ship is likely to pass within it, because I am within the fringes of a dark nebula, where no sane captain would bring his ship. But the bleep is my one link with the universe beyond the mountain, and it surely deserves every last vestige of the Javelin's power.

The fire is dying. It's time for sleep. I wish that for once I didn't have to go to bed hungry. But I wish the same things every night. There's not much that's edible growing on the mountain or living down in the desert. The ship's supplies of deep-space gruel ran out some time ago. Somehow, though, I don't starve. I chew leaves and I snare mice, and I contrive to live. But I'm always hungry. Perhaps I ought to be thankful that I haven't poisoned myself. But the world sustains my kind of life. I'm not wanted, but I'm tolerated, because I'm not too much of a nuisance.

I sleep in the control room, because my bunk is wrong way up, and the control room is the only space big enough for the wall to make an adequate floor and vice versa.

From THE HALCYON DRIFT by Brian Stableford (1972)

Emergency Space Suit

An emergency space suit is currently science fiction. It is some temporary suit you can put on in about thirty seconds.

Equipment used to save untrained civilians in case of a loss of pressure can be found here.

The science fiction suit hinges on some kind of oxygen you can inject into your blood stream to avoid anoxia. Coupled with some kind of suit to provide pressure to avoid Ebullism, Decompression Sickness, Kittinger Syndrome, and other nasty ways that space kills you.

Star Trek predicted something along these lines called "tri-ox compound." The novel Phase Two postulated "dioxo solution." As it turns out there is a real world version of injectable oxygen being experimented with. It only works for 15 minutes but I'm sure that will be improved.


(ed note: technical term is apparently Intravenous Oxygen or Injectable Oxygen)

      Boston, Mass. - Patients unable to breathe because of acute lung failure or an obstructed airway need another way to get oxygen to their blood—and fast—to avoid cardiac arrest and brain injury.  A team led by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital has designed tiny, gas-filled microparticles that can be injected directly into the bloodstream to quickly oxygenate the blood.
     The microparticles consist of a single layer of lipids (fatty molecules) that surround a tiny pocket of oxygen gas, and are delivered in a liquid solution.  In a cover article in the June 27 issue of Science Translational Medicine, John Kheir, MD, of theDepartment of Cardiology at Boston Children’s Hospital, and colleagues report that an infusion of these microparticles into animals with low blood oxygen levels restored blood oxygen saturation to near-normal levels, within seconds. 
     When the trachea was completely blocked— a more dangerous “real world” scenario—the infusion kept the animals alive for 15 minutes without a single breath, and reduced the incidence of cardiac arrest and organ injury. 

     The microparticle solutions are portable and could stabilize patients in emergency situations, buying time for paramedics, emergency clinicians or intensive care clinicians to more safely place a breathing tube or perform other life-saving therapies, says Kheir.
     “This is a short-term oxygen substitute—a way to safely inject oxygen gas to support patients during a critical few minutes,” he says. “Eventually, this could be stored in syringes on every code cart in a hospital, ambulance or transport helicopter to help stabilize patients who are having difficulty breathing.”
     The microparticles would likely only be administered for a short time, between 15 and 30 minutes, because they are carried in fluid that would overload the blood if used for longer periods, Kheir says.
     Kheir also notes that the particles are different from blood substitutes, which carry oxygen but are not useful when the lungs are unable to oxygenate them. Instead, the microparticles are designed for situations in which the lungs are completely incapacitated. 

     Kheir began investigating the idea of injectable oxygen in 2006, after caring for a little girl who sustained a severe brain injury resulting from a severe pneumonia that caused bleeding into her lungs and severely low oxygen levels. Despite the team’s best efforts, she died before they could place her on a heart-lung machine. Frustrated by this, Kheir formed a team to search for another way to deliver oxygen.
     “Some of the most convincing experiments were the early ones,” he says.  “We drew each other’s blood, mixed it in a test tube with the microparticles, and watched blue blood turn immediately red, right before our eyes.”
     Over the years, Kheir and his team have tested various concentrations and sizes of the microparticles to optimize their effectiveness and to make them safe for injection. “The effort was truly multidisciplinary,” says Kheir. “It took chemical engineers, particle scientists and medical doctors to get the mix just right.” 
     In the studies reported in the paper, they used a device called a sonicator, which uses high-intensity sound waves to mix the oxygen and lipids together. The process traps oxygen gas inside particles averaging 2 to 4 micrometers in size (not visible without a microscope). The resulting solution, with oxygen gas making up 70 percent of the volume, mixed efficiently with human blood.
     “One of the keys to the success of the project was the ability to administer a concentrated amount of oxygen gas in a small amount of liquid,” Kheir says. “The suspension carries three to four times the oxygen content of our own red blood cells.”
     Intravenous administration of oxygen gas was tried in the early 1900s, but these attempts failed to oxygenate the blood and often caused dangerous gas embolisms. 
     “We have engineered around this problem by packaging the gas into small, deformable particles,” Kheir explains. “They dramatically increase the surface area for gas exchange and are able to squeeze through capillaries where free gas would get stuck.

From INJECTING LIFESAVING OXYGEN INTO A VEIN by Boston Children’s Hospital (2012)

(ed note: Stan does not realize he has been subjected to a hyper-learning technique in school that has programmed his brain with spacecraft survival protocols, among other things. He books a trip with Captain Paulsen to travel to the asteroid belt. An assassin has planted a small explosive charge to blow a hole in the ship's habitat module and kill Stan and Paulsen. Due to the assassin's ignorance of spacecraft survival protocols the attack is ineffectual.)

Excitedly Stan turned to the skipper, but his thoughts were cut off by a thunderclap which hammered his body. Instantly the explosion was followed by a high-pitched, whining scream that echoed on each nerve, and the internal feeling of bursting that meant rapidly falling atmospheric pressure.

Terror tore at his nerves—the terror of vacuum, of space, of the emptiness around the tiny ship; of the internal explosion in vacuum that would extinguish forever the tiny spark that was himself … Yet the terror seemed to lie on an unimportant shelf of his consciousness, while his body took on a life of its own—opening his mouth and yelling to expel the pressure from his lungs.

Then his eyes turned as of their own volition to Paulsen, whose lips were moving, whose fingers were reaching out to a control—the control that would cut the motors, Stan realized. At the same moment he found himself releasing the straps on his own body and pushing out of the deep seat, twisting with the push to bring his hands into line with the small opening in the wall above and behind their seats.

The shelved panic jibbered at him as his fingers found the opening and began groping, since his eyes were losing their focus. The scream was fading, then cut off abruptly just as his fingers found the syrettes they were seeking. He grasped two and reached one toward Paulsen.

The skipper was almost beside him now, a hazy figure, and Stan groped for his hand, forcing one of the syrettes into it. Then he brought the remaining syrette to his leg with a slap that forced the needle in and injected its contents into his system.

The jibbering idiot on the shelf of his mind was subsiding slowly as he pulled the syrette carefully out, pinned it to his tunic. His eyes now could barely make out the most gross objects in the cabin swinging lazily about him as he spun slowly in free fall.

The dioxo solution from the syrette spread a warm glow through him. Stan opened his mouth wide and expelled the last of the air that was doing its best to strain out of his lungs. The pressure in his ears let go with a loud pop. The cloudy look of things before him and the burning sensation in his eyes caused him to squeeze them tight shut, and as he did so pain shot through them, and the jibbering panic clawed again for his brain. Tiny crystals of ice were grating across the tender surfaces of his eyes, he knew; and as this was followed by a sensation of cold, he realized that the boiling tears would freeze in the vacuum around him and freeze the eyelids shut.

Something grasped him, and momentarily the panic took over and he twisted ready to slug. Instantly he realized that it was Paulsen, and he took the fear almost physically, shoving it aside and completely away, before he turned his attention back to what Paulsen was doing.

It felt as though he were being stuffed into a bag, but there was no sound. Then he felt drawstrings pull tight at his shoulders and across his chest, and abruptly there was pressure around his face again. And Paulsen was sliding the bag down over his arms, tying it at each joint; then down over the torso with a repeated lacing.

Blinded by tears, Stan opened his eyes to see clear plastic standing only inches ahead; and, as he began to breathe again, Paulsen’s voice came to him over a tiny speaker somewhere in the hood.

“That’s right, Dustin. Work your jaws and the swallowing mechanisms. Keep blinking your eyes.”

As Stan became more aware of his surroundings, he saw that he was in a loosely fitting plastic bag, tightly belted at each joint.

I’ll be damned, he thought. A Mickey Mouse.

There was a tingling sensation in his throat, and he realized that the “air” he was breathing was not air but carbon dioxide quickly developed from a small plastic pack of acid and soda, from between which the separating plug had been pulled; a gas generator designed to supply the necessary minimum pressure to the suit. It was a device that could not have been used except for the diox which would supply his oxygen requirements for the next hour.

Temporarily safe, the panic vanished to whatever realm he had thrown it, Stan found a handhold and turned himself toward the control panel.

Paulsen was in his seat now, checking the space around the ship for enemy craftbut the guy wasn’t in a spacesuit!

Unbelieving, Stan stared. Paulsen had on a hood, but just that, over his regular red pilot’s suit.

But of course. That pilot’s suit was a gas-proof spacesuit; and the hood that had obviously been unzipped from a pocket at the back of the pilot’s suit collar had a similar low-pressure gas-generator packet.

Stan sighed his relief, then let his attention slide to the deep hole in the checkerboard wall centered above the control panel.

The hole was a full two-foot square that had blown through to the outside of the hull and was now crushed there; a mess of metal and foam plastic insulation, at the bottom of what seemed to be a square tunnel into the hull structure. The water shielding from the compartment had obviously been blown on through into space, followed by the air from the control cabin; but the hole through which they had blown could not be seen past the mess of metal and plastic.

Paulsen was through with his check now, and his face looked puzzled, but he only said, “I’m going to put us under drive to get gravity, then we’ll see what the damage is.”

The return of even the light one-tenth-G gravity was grateful to Stan’s senses, and the cabin reoriented quickly around him.

“If we can/work fast,” Paulsen’s voice came to him abruptly over the tiny intercom, “we can save having to pressurize the bunk area to get you into a tightsuit. I’ve got plug-in compartments aboard, of course, so it shouldn’t take more than half an hour to clear up this mess. Do you think you can take the Mickey Mouse for that long?”

Experimentally, Stan flexed his arm and found that it responded stiffly. The veins that had been standing out like cords against his taut skin were beginning to recede. The rapid breathing induced by the one hundred percent carbon-dioxide atmosphere was exchanging nitrogen out of the blood at a rapid rate, and pressure was equalizing between himself and the suit.

“Seems okay,” he said. “A little stiff and a few cramps, but yeah, I can work like my life depended on it. I didn’t know they were plug-in compartments, though. I can take the Mickey Mouse all right. I just didn’t know the problem could be resolved so quickly.”

“It’s a Belter, not an Earthie system. You’ve surprised me so often with your Belter know-how, I guess I’m surprised now when you don’t know.” Paulsen chuckled, then without another word crawled into the tight tunnel.

From PHASE TWO by Walt and Leigh Richmond (1979)

(ed note: this does not require injectable oxygen, it has a shoulder PLSS)

Alice was beside him in the other hammock. Her eyes were open, her mouth faintly frowning.

That scared him. "What is it?"

"I don't know. Suit up."

He grimaced. Suit up—she'd had him climbing in and out of that damn emergency suit for six hours of the first day. It was a man-shaped clear plastic bag with a zipper that ran from chin to knees, forking at the crotch. You could get into it in an instant, and it took another instant to plug that thick air-and-water tube into the ship's lifesystem; but he'd caught the zipper a couple of times and got language one does not expect from one's sex partner regardless of previous experience. "From now on you wear nothing but a jock strap," she'd ordered. "And you wear that all the time. Nothing gets caught in that zipper."

The last couple of hours she was throwing the suit at him from behind, a crumpled ball he had to shake out and get into in ten seconds. When he could do it with a blindfold, she was satisfied.

"It's your first move," she'd said. "Always. Anything happens, get into that suit."

He snatched the suit without looking, slid feet and hands and head in and zipped it two-handed and plugged into the wall. Another instant to pull the shoulder pack out of its recess, slip it on, pull the plug and plug it into that. Stored air filled his suit, tasting tasteless. Alice was still faster; she was ahead of him, swarming up the ladder.

From PROTECTOR by Larry Niven (1973)

Emergency Shelter

An emergency space suit that can be donned in 30 seconds would be great, but is currently science fiction. And even if such quick-don suits are available, if there is a catastrophic loss of pressure, a crewperson has about 10 seconds max before they go unconsious.

What you need is a tiny cubicle you can jump into, slam the door, and yank the cable to the emergency oxygen tank. In under 10 seconds. An Emergency Shelter in other words. Though to make the situation survivable, the shelter needs to include some sort of space suit.

Such shelters will have to be located at strategic spots in the habitat module. And there should be enough shelters so a hull breech does not trigger a death-race among the crew, where slowest gets to die of hypoxia.


      Bowman cracked the seal, and pressed the button.
     Nothing appeared to happen: there was no sound, no indication that the Sequencer had started to operate. But on the biosensor display the languidly pulsing curves had begun to change their tempo. Whitehead was coming back from sleep.

     And then two things happened simultaneously. Most men would never have noticed either of them, but after all these months aboard Discovery, Bowman had established a virtual symbiosis with the ship. He was aware instantly, even if not always consciously, when there was any change in the normal rhythm of its functioning.

     First, there was a barely perceptible flicker of the lights, as always happened when some load was thrown onto the power circuits. But there was no reason for any load; he could think of no equipment which would suddenly go into action at this moment.

     Then he heard, at the limit of audibility, the far-off whirr of an electric motor. To Bowman, every actuator in the ship had its own distinctive voice, and he recognized this one instantly.

     Either he was insane and already suffering from hallucinations, or something absolutely impossible was happening. A cold far deeper than the Hibernaculum's mild chill seemed to fasten upon his heart, as he listened to that faint vibration coming through the fabric of the ship.
     Down in the space-pod bay, the airlock doors were opening.

(ed note: the HAL-9000 artificially intelligent computer, which is the brain of the Discovery, has been driven into psychosis by conflict between its prime directive to accurately communicate information and the byzantine requirements of military security. HAL had been instructed to lie, by humans who find it easy to lie. But HAL doesn't know how. The only way for HAL to get out of the logic trap is to murder the crew.)

     A moment later, all other sounds were submerged by a screaming roar like the voice of an approaching tornado. Bowman could feel the first winds tugging at his body; within a second, he found it hard to stay on his feet.
     The atmosphere was rushing out of the ship, geysering into the vacuum of space. Something must have happened to the foolproof safety devices of the airlock; it was supposed to be impossible for both doors to be open at the same time. Well, the impossible had happened.
     How, in God's name? There was no time to go into that during the ten or fifteen seconds of consciousness that remained to him before pressure dropped to zero. But he suddenly remembered something that one of the ship's designers had once said to him, when discussing "fail-safe" systems: "We can design a system that's proof against accident and stupidity; but we can't design one that's proof against deliberate malice..."

     In the steeply curving corridor of the centrifuge, the wind was howling past, carrying with it loose articles of clothing, pieces of paper, items of food from the galley, plates, and cups — everything that had not been securely fastened down. Bowman had time for one glimpse of the racing chaos when the main lights flickered and died, and he was surrounded by screaming darkness.
     But almost instantly the battery-powered emergency light came on, illuminating the nightmare scene with an eerie blue radiance. Even without it, Bowman could have found his way through these so familiar — yet now horribly transformed — surroundings, Yet the light was a blessing, for it allowed him to avoid the more dangerous of the objects being swept along by the gale.
     All around him he could feel the centrifuge shaking and laboring under the wildly varying loads. He was fearful that the bearings might seize; if that happened, the spinning flywheel would tear the ship to pieces. But even that would not matter — if he did not reach the nearest emergency shelter in time.

     Already it was difficult to breathe; pressure must now be down to one or two pounds per square inch. The shriek of the hurricane was becoming fainter as it lost its strength, and the thinning air no longer carried the sound so efficiently. Bowman's lungs were laboring as if he were on the top of Everest. Like any properly trained man in good health, he could survive in vacuum for at least a minute — if he had time to prepare for it. But there had been no time; he could only count on the normal fifteen seconds of consciousness before his brain was starved and anoxia overcame him.
     Even then, he could still recover completely after one or two minutes in vacuum — if he was properly recompressed; it took a long time for the body fluids to start boiling, in their various well-protected systems. The record time for exposure to vacuum was almost five minutes. That bad not been an experiment but an emergency rescue, and though the subject had been partly paralyzed by an air embolism, he had survived.
     But all this was of no use to Bowman. There was no one aboard Discovery who could recompress him. He had to reach safety in the next few seconds, by his own unaided efforts.

     Fortunately, it was becoming easier to move; the thinning air could no longer claw and tear at him, or batter him with flying projectiles. There was the yellow EMERGENCY SHELTER sign around the curve of the corridor. He stumbled toward it, grabbed at the handle, and pulled the door toward him.
     For one horrible moment he thought that it was stuck. Then the slightly stiff hinge yielded, and he fell inside, using the weight of his body to close the door behind him.
     The tiny cubicle was just large enough to hold one man — and a spacesuit (but see below). Near the ceiling was a small, bright green high-pressure cylinder labeled O2 FLOOD. Bowman caught hold of the short lever fastened to the valve and with his last strength pulled it down.
     The blessed torrent of cool, pure oxygen poured into his lungs. For a long moment he stood gasping, while the pressure in the closet-sized little chamber rose around him. As soon as he could breathe comfortably, he closed the valve. There was only enough gas in the cylinder for two such performances; he might need to use it again.
     With the oxygen blast shut off, it became suddenly silent. Bowman stood in the cubicle, listening intently. The roaring outside the door had also ceased; the ship was empty, all its atmosphere sucked away into space.
     He could survive here, if he wished, for about an hour — even without the spacesuit. It seemed a pity to waste the unused oxygen in the little chamber, but there was no purpose in waiting. He had already decided what must be done; the longer he put it off, the more difficult it might be.
     When he had climbed into the suit and checked its integrity, he bled the remaining oxygen out of the cubicle, equalizing pressure on either side of the door. It swung open easily into the vacuum, and he stepped out into the now silent centrifuge.
From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1969)

Minimalist Emergency Shelter

I was wondering how big these Clarke emergency shelters would have to be; since they have to accomodate one crewmember, one space suit, and enough extra room so that the crewmember can actually wiggle into into the suit. On the International Space Station, they use Extravehicular Mobility Units. These separate into two parts at the waist, which means you need lots of room to suit up in one of those things.

The thought occured to me that you can make the emergency shelter smaller if the suit is outside, attached to a Suitport. Then the shelter proper just needs enough space for the crewmember and swinging room for suit's backpack/entryhatch.

A smart person who goes by the handle of ReLuxe made the idea even better. Instead of a rigid cabinet for the emergency shelter, replace it with a Life Support Ball. A rigid cabinet is always the same size, the life support ball deflates down into a flat package. If vacuum strikes a crewmember can leap into the ball, seal it, and inflate with emergency oxygen in under 10 seconds. Now they have an hour to power up the suit, prep it, and squeeze into the blasted thing (donning one of those hinged backpack suits can take about five minutes, mostly squirming into the water cooled long-johns).


      Seated in his acceleration chair on the control deck of the Space Lance, waiting for Bill Sticoon to come aboard, Tom found his concern for Roger overriding his enthusiasm for the race. When Sticoon appeared and began to prepare the ship for blast-off, Tom went through the motions mechanically. The Space Lance was scheduled to leave first, with Kit Barnard following at the exact time interval of their arrivals. The Deimos tower operator's voice droned over the loud-speaker on the control deck of the Space Lance " ... minus five, four, three, two, one"—then the breath-taking pause before the climactic—"zero!"
     The ship shot spaceward, rockets roaring loudly in the thin atmosphere of the small satellite. The next moment, before the horrified eyes of thousands of people, the Space Lance exploded a few miles above the ground.
     Astro stood frozen at the viewport of the Good Company, his eyes glazed with shock as he watched the Martian ship disintegrate far above him. All he could do was mutter brokenly, "Tom ... Tom ..."

     "Blast off!"
     Without any preliminaries, Kit Barnard's order sent the Good Company hurtling spaceward. Astro had just enough time to throw himself into an acceleration chair before the ship shot away from the Deimos spaceport toward the wreckage of the Space Lance.
     "Braking rockets!" roared Kit. "Hit them hard, Sid."
     The ship bucked under the force of the counter-acceleration, and the veteran spaceman fought to keep her under control. He snapped out another order. "Cut all rockets!"
     The ship was suddenly quiet, hanging motionless in space in the middle of the still-twisting wreckage. The huge bank of atomic motors, the largest single unit on the ship, had already begun to swing around the small moon Deimos in an orbit, while other shattered remains of the once sleek ship began a slow circle around the motors themselves.
     Astro was struggling into a space suit when Sid and Kit joined him in the air lock. Quickly the three spacemen clamped their space helmets closed and adjusted the oxygen nozzles. Then, after testing their suit intercoms, they closed the inner-portal air lock, reduced the air pressure, and opened the thick pluglike outer portal. They stared out at the gruesome spectacle of torn hull plates, twisted spars, and broken pieces of equipment floating gently in the velvet space, outlined against the reddish hue of the planet Mars.

     "Astro! Kit!" shouted Sid through the suit intercom. "Look, there's Sticoon! Over there near that tube." Following Sid's pointing finger, Astro and Kit turned toward an exhaust tube that had been ripped in half by the explosion. The Martian spaceman's body floated next to it, limp and broken. Astro shuddered. If Sticoon was dead, then there was little hope for Tom. The big Venusian fought back tears.
     Maneuvering themselves away from the ship with the aid of the small jet packs strapped to their shoulders, they reached the dead spaceman. Sid carried him back to the ship while Astro and Kit remained to search the wreckage for Tom.
     By now, three small jet boats and two rocket scouts had blasted off from Deimos, bringing emergency rescue equipment. More than a dozen men poured out of the ships and joined in the search. The work was carried on in silence. No one spoke.
     Astro and Kit worked side by side, pushing their way gently through the twisting mass that was once a proud spaceship, to the heart of the spiraling wreckage, down toward the bank of atomic motors that was attracting all the lesser pieces. Suddenly Astro paled. He gripped the veteran's arm and gestured toward a large section of the ship on the other side of the motors that they had not seen before.
     "By the stars," Kit gasped, "it's the air lock! All in one piece!"
     "If Tom managed to get in there, or if he was in there when the ship exploded, maybe he has a chance."
     "You're right, Astro," said Kit hopefully.
     "But we can't open it out here," said Astro. "If Tom is inside, we have to take it down to Deimos. If we open it here, and he doesn't have a space suit on, he'd suffocate."
     "He'd freeze solid before that," said Kit, not mentioning the possibility that Tom might very well be frozen already, since the ship's heating units had been torn away from the air lock.
     Quickly Astro hailed the members of the emergency crews that had rocketed up from Deimos and told them of the possibility that Tom was inside the chamber. They all agreed, since they had failed to find the cadet anywhere.
     Kit and Astro immediately took charge of getting the bulky boxlike chamber back to Deimos where it could be opened safely. Two of the jet boats were jockeyed into position on either side of the chamber and several lengths of cable were stretched between them, forming a cradle for the chamber. Since the jet boats were equipped with foldaway wings, which, when extended, would enable them to fly at slower speed through atmosphere, they hoped to make a glider landing at the Deimos spaceport.
     Astro would not let anyone handle the boats but Kit and himself, and only by threat of physical violence was he able to keep the regular pilots out of the control chairs on the speedy little ships. He might suffer for it later when the officers reported his actions, but the big Venusian was beyond caring. If Tom was not safe inside the vacuum chamber, he felt there wasn't much use in being a cadet any longer.
     With Kit Barnard in one jet boat, Astro strapped himself into the control chair of the other, and intercoms on, they gently fed power into their ships. Coordinating perfectly in their maneuvers, they headed back to the spaceport with their strange cargo.
     Slowly and gently, Kit and Astro circled lower and lower until the two jet boats were directly over the Deimos spaceport. They circled wide and shut off power together, coming down in a long, easy glide. Keeping the cables taut between them, so the chamber wouldn't touch the concrete strip, the two spacemen made perfect landings, coming to a stop directly in front of the control tower. Astro was out of his ship in a flash and almost immediately Kit was beside him. They took no notice of the stereo reporter who was focusing his camera on their efforts to force open the portal on the chamber. Nor did they notice the immense crowd, standing behind police lines, watching and waiting in silence.
     "A cutting torch!" bellowed Astro to the emergency crew below. "Get me a cutting torch."
     In an instant the torch was handed to him, and ripping the space gloves off his hands, the big cadet began cutting into the tough metal side of the chamber.
     The seconds ticked into minutes. The crowds did not move, and only the low comments of the stereo reporter talking over an interplanetary network could be heard above the hiss of the torch as Astro bent to his task. A half hour passed. Astro didn't move or turn away from the blinding light of the torch as he cut into the section of the chamber where the portal locks would be. He did not notice that the Good Company and the emergency fleet had returned to the spaceport, nor that Sid was now beside him with Kit.
     An hour passed. It seemed to the big cadet that the metal he was cutting, alloyed to protect spacemen against the dangers of the void, was now threatening to cost Tom's life, if indeed he still survived. No one could live long under such conditions unless they had a fresh supply of oxygen. Kit tried to take the torch away from Astro, but the giant Venusian would not let him have it. Again and again, the tanks of fuel supplying the torch were emptied and quickly replaced with fresh ones.
There was something awe-inspiring about the big cadet as he crouched over the torch, its white-hot flame reflected in his grim features. Everyone around him watched in silent fascination, aware that this was a rare exhibition of devotion toward a comrade. They all were certain that Astro would reach Tom—or die in the attempt.
     Before anyone could say anything, the voice of the Deimos operator broke the stunned silence. "Deimos to Titan, I have your information now. Are you ready, Titan?"
     "Go ahead, Deimos," said the Titan man.
     And then, as Strong held his breath, the metallic voice from the loud-speaker reported on the final result of the tragic explosion over Deimos.
     " ... Chamber was cut open and Cadet Corbett was rushed to the spaceport's sick bay...."
     As the metallic voice of the Deimos tower operator continued his report of the tragic crash of the Space Lance, Strong and Walters sighed with relief. At least Tom was not dead!
     "He is still in a state of shock, but after a preliminary examination, the medical officer reports that he will recover. That is all the information I have at this time, Titan. End transmission." The loud-speaker was silent except for the continuous flow of static.

(ed note: Tom is alive, but he reveals that the Space Lance exploded because it was sabotaged)

From TREACHERY IN OUTER SPACE (a Tom Corbett Space Cadet book)
by Carey Rockwell (1957)

      He was Gulliver Foyle, Mechanic's Mate 3rd Class, thirty years old, big boned and rough . . and one hundred and seventy days adrift in space. He was Gully Foyle, the oiler, wiper, bunkerman; too easy for trouble, too slow for fun, too empty for friendship, too lazy for love. The lethargic outlines of his character showed in the official Merchant Marine records:

FOYLE, GULLIVER — AS-128/127:006


     A man of physical strength and intellectual potential stunted by lack of ambition. Energizes at minimum. The stereotype Common Man. Some unexpected shock might possibly awaken him, but Psych cannot find the key. Not recommended for further promotion.

      He had reached a dead end. He had been content to drift from moment to moment of existence for thirty years like some heavily armored creature, sluggish and indifferent, Gully Foyle, the stereotype Common Man, but now he was adrift in space for one hundred and seventy days, and the key to his awakening was in the lock. Presently it would turn and open the door to holocaust.

     The spaceship Nomad drifted halfway between Mars and Jupiter. Whatever war catastrophe had wrecked it had taken a sleek steel rocket, one hundred yards long and one hundred feet broad, and mangled it into a skeleton on which was mounted the remains of cabins, holds, decks and bulkheads. Great rents in the hull were blazes of light on the sunside and frosty blotches of stars on the darkside. The S.S. Nomad was a weightless emptiness of blinding sun and jet shadow, frozen and silent.
     The wreck was filled with a floating conglomerate of frozen debris that hung within the destroyed vessel like an instantaneous photograph of an explosion. The minute gravitational attraction of the bits of rubble for each other was slowly drawing them into clusters which were periodically torn apart by the passage through them of the one survivor still alive on the wreck, Gulliver Foyle, AS-128/127:006.

     He lived in the only airtight room left intact in the wreck, a tool locker off the main-deck corridor. The locker was four feet wide, four feet deep and nine feet high. It was the size of a giant's coffin. Six hundred years before, it had been judged the most exquisite Oriental torture to imprison a man in a cage that size for a few weeks. Yet Foyle had existed in this lightless coffin for five months, twenty days, and four hours.

     On the one hundred and seventy-first day of his fight for survival, Foyle answered these questions and awoke. His heart hammered and his throat burned. He groped in the dark for the air tank which shared his coffin with him and checked it. The tank was empty. Another would have to be moved in at once. So this day would commence with an extra skirmish with death which Foyle accepted with mute endurance.

     He felt through the locker shelves and located a torn spacesuit. It was the only one aboard Nomad and Foyle no longer remembered where or how he had found it. He had sealed the tear with emergency spray, but had no way of refilling or replacing the empty oxygen cartridges on the back. Foyle got into the suit. It would hold enough air from the locker to allow him five minutes in vacuum … no more.
     Foyle opened the locker door and plunged out into the black frost of space. The air in the locker puffed out with him and its moisture congealed into a tiny snow cloud that drifted down the torn main-deck corridor. Foyle heaved at the exhausted air tank, floated it out of the locker and abandoned it. One minute was gone.
     He turned and propelled himself through the floating debris toward the hatch to the ballast hold. He did not run: his gait was the unique locomotion of free-fall and weightlessness … thrusts with foot, elbow and hand against deck, wall and corner, a slow-motion darting through space like a bat flying under water. Foyle shot through the hatch into the darkside ballast hold. Two minutes were gone.

     Like all spaceships, Nomad was ballasted and stiffened with the mass of her gas tanks laid down the length of her keel like a long lumber raft tapped at the sides by a labyrinth of pipe fittings. Foyle took a minute disconnecting an air tank. He had no way of knowing whether it was full or already exhausted; whether he would fight it back to his locker only to discover that it was empty and his life was ended. Once a week he endured this game of space roulette.
     There was a roaring in his ears; the air in his spacesuit was rapidly going foul. He yanked the massy cylinder toward the ballast hatch, ducked to let it sail over his head, then thrust himself after it. He swung the tank through the hatch. Four minutes had elapsed and he was shaking and blacking out. He guided the tank down the main-deck corridor and bulled it into the tool locker.
     He slammed the locker door, dogged it, found a hammer on a shelf and swung it thrice against the frozen tank to loosen the valve. Foyle twisted the handle grimly. With the last of his strength he unsealed the helmet of his spacesuit, lest he suffocate within the suit while the locker filled with air if this tank contained air. He fainted, as he had fainted so often before, never knowing whether this was death.

From THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester (1956)

Civilian Survival

Sometimes in an emergency situation, the crew will have to deal with people who cannot wear a space suit. This includes people who are too wounded, too unconscious, too untrained, or too stupid to use a suit (or even put one on). It will be useful to have some kind of basic no-frills life support equipment that you can shove the people into and trust it to keep them alive without your attention.

Life Support Balls

Personal Rescue Enclosures
Crew Size1
Oxygen Supply1 hour
Habitable Volume0.33 m3
Height0.86 m
Span0.86 m

It will also be useful to supplement one's supply of space suits with Personal Rescue Enclosures aka emergency life support balls. These are basically bare essential spherical suits with no arms, legs, or heads for use by people who are injured or untrained in suit operations.

The ball had three layers: urethane inner enclosure, Kevlar middle layer, and a white outer thermal protective cover. The user enters the ball, puts on the oxygen mask, cradled in their arms a carbon dioxide scrubber/oxygen supply box, and a crewperson outside zips it up. The ball would be connected by an umbilical to the shuttle to supply air until the airlock depressurized. Then the oxygen box gives the user one hour of breathable air, while a crewperson tows the ball to safety.

Mercifully the ball included a tiny Lexan window to prevent total sensory deprivation.

When a passenger liner has a problem, the crew members will stuff the passengers into these balls, zip them up, and tow them to safety. And even a person highly skilled in space suits can be a problem if they are unconscious and suffering from a broken arm. It will be much quicker to slip them into a ball instead of trying to suit them up.

For passengers, one would be wise to use balls that cannot be opened from the inside. Passengers can do remarkably silly things at the worst possible moment.


The personal rescue enclosure (PRE), or "rescue ball", was a device for transporting astronauts from one Space Shuttle to another in case of an emergency. It was produced as a prototype but never flew on any missions.

The ball was 36 inches (910 mm) in diameter and had a volume of 0.33 cubic meters (12 cubic feet). The structure comprised three fabric layers and incorporated a window and a zipper to allow the astronaut to enter and exit the ball. The ball enabled one crew member to curl up inside and don an oxygen mask and hold a carbon dioxide scrubber/oxygen supply device with one hour's worth of oxygen. The ball would have been connected by an umbilical to the shuttle to supply air until the airlock depressurized. The rescue ball containing the crew member would have been carried to the rescue shuttle by a space-suited astronaut.

The PRE was designed to protect humans in space in the event of an emergency where not enough full space suits were available. It was developed in the 1970s and 1980s to support the Space Shuttle program. The PRE was designed to be used in conjunction with a fully suited astronaut that would provide mobility to the person in the ball. The ball's life-support systems consisting of oxygen and a carbon dioxide scrubber could support a person for about an hour.

The life support system that supplied oxygen was called the Personal Oxygen Supply, or, alternatively, it could be supplied with oxygen from an external source after being sealed. The ball was made of fabric, and was sealed by way of zippers, with a small circular window to allow the occupant to see out.

NASA evaluated three methods of transporting the balls:

  • By hand, a suited astronaut would haul the balls
  • By robotic arm, a robotic manipulator arm would move the balls through space (see Canadarm)
  • The balls would be attached to a line between two spaceships and pulled along like a clothesline.


  • 86-centimeter-diameter (2.82-foot; 34-inch) sphere
  • As a flexible not rigid item this figure would be subject to some variation, especially if not pressurized.
  • Materials/construction methods
    • Fabric consisting of three layers
  • Window constructed of Lexan
From the Wikipedia entry for PERSONAL RESCUE ENCLOSURE

     Arvid was out of his seat and trying to reach God knows what, and Wes was checking his seat belt, when the whole station rang and shuddered. Wes yelled and clapped hands over his ears. The others were floating out of their seats — freefall? He swept an arm out to push Giselle back into her seat, and she clutched the arms. He couldn’t reach anyone else.
     Freefall? How could that be? The connecting tunnel must have come apart! Nikolai was screaming into a microphone. He stopped suddenly. He turned and looked around, stunned, ashen.
     Behind Wes the wall smashed inward, then outward. The buckle on Wes’s seat harness popped open. Wes grabbed instinctively, a death grip on the arm of his chair, even before the shock wave reached him. The Nigerian snatched at Wes’s belt and clung tight. He was screaming. Good! So was Wes. Hold your breath and you’d rupture your lungs.
     For the stars were glaring in at them through the ripped metal, and the air was roaring away, carrying anything loose...
     ...Vacuum! Dawson’s eyes and ears felt ready to pop. Giorge’s grip was growing feeble, but so was the wind; the air was almost gone. So. What have I got, a minute before the blood boils out through my lungs? I’ll never reach my million-dollar pressure suit, so where are the beach balls? I located them first thing, every compartment, the emergency pressure balloons, where the hell were they? If Americans had built this place they’d be popping out of the walls...
     ...Nothing was popping out of the walls. Dawson’s intestinal tract was spewing air at both ends. His eyes sought … Rogachev, there, clawing at a wall. Dawson patted the shoulder at his waist and kicked himself toward Rogachev. Giorge hung on, in good sense or simple panic.
     His throat tried to cough but it couldn’t get a grip.
     Wes bounced against a wall, couldn’t find a handhold, bounced away. Losing control. Dying? The black man caught something. but kept one arm around Wes’s waist. Rogachev looked like a puffer-fish. He was fighting to tear open a plastic wall panel. It jerked open and he bounced away.
     Bulky disks, four feet across, turned out to be flattened plastic bags. Wes skimmed one at Rogachev. He pulled another open, crawled inside and pulled the black man in too. Zipper? He zipped them inside. Tight fit. Some kind of lock at the end of the zipper. With his chin on the black man’s shoulder Wes reached around the man’s neck and flipped the lock shut, he hoped.
     Air jetted immediately.
     Reverse pressure in his ears. He pulled in air, in, in, no need to exhale at all. They were going to live. They were floating loose, and nothing to be done about it, because the pressure packages were nothing but balloons with an air supply attached. Rogachev’s too was bouncing about like a toy, but at least he’d gotten inside.
     Wes’s passenger was beginning to struggle. It was uncomfortable. Wes wanted to say something comforting, or just tell him not to rip the g****m beach ball! But now his throat had air to cough with, and he couldn’t stop coughing. He sounded like he was dying. So did Giorge.

From FOOTFALL by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1985)

     I noted with approval that Carlos' mouth was wide open, like mine, to clear his lungs so that they wouldn't burst when the air was gone.
     Daggers in my ears and sinuses, pressure in my gut...
     ...The air was deadly thin but not gone. My lungs thought they were gasping vacuum. But my blood was not boiling. I'd have known it.
     So I gasped, and kept gasping. It was all I had attention for. Black spots flickered before my eyes, but I was still gasping and alive when Ausfaller reached us carrying a clear plastic package and an enormous handgun.
     He came in fast, on a rocket backpack. Even as he decelerated he was looking around for something to shoot. He returned in a loop of fire. He studied us through his faceplate, possibly wondering if we were dead.
     He flipped the plastic package open. It was a thin sack with a zipper and a small tank attached. He had to dig for a torch to cut our bonds. He freed Carlos first, helped him into the sack. Carlos bled from the nose and ears. He was barely mobile. So was I, but Ausfaller got me into the sack with Carlos and zipped it up. Air hissed in around us.
     I wondered what came next. As an inflated sphere the rescue bag was too big for the tunnels. Ausfaller had thought of that. He fired at the dome, blasted a gaping hole in it, and flew us out on the rocket backpack.
     Hobo Kelly was grounded nearby. I saw that the rescue bag wouldn't fit the airlock either... and Ausfaller confirmed my worst fear. He signaled us by opening his mouth wide. Then he zipped open the rescue bag and half-carried us into the airlock while the air was still roaring out of our lungs.
     When there was air again Carlos whispered, "Please don't do that any more."

From THE BORDERLAND OF SOL by Larry Niven (1975)

Thorpe slowly climbed back into the narrow hospital bed that had been his home for the past month. Despite his argument with the nurse, he was glad for the rest. He had forgotten how heavy Earth gravity was. The fact that he was on Earth at all indicated how close to death he had been after the accident. Normal procedure called for a strict regimen of diet and exercise before returning to standard gravity. To do otherwise risked heart failure. His presence in a hospital bed in the Swiss Alps was evidence that heart failure had been the least concern of his rescuers.

Thorpe remembered very little of the accident, although a month in bed had given him plenty of time to read the report. The lift operation had gone perfectly to the point where the cable operators began slowing the load. One of the cable brakes had seized, causing the Number Two Cable to jerk to a halt. The sudden stop had placed too much strain on the cable, causing it to snap somewhere between tower and load. Relieved of its tension, the broken cable had rebounded like a cracked whip.

In one way, Thorpe had been lucky. If the ten-centimeter-thick cable had landed on him, there would not have been enough left to identify. As it was, the broken end crashed down a hundred meters from where he and Nina had been standing. The impact shattered the strands of the cable and sent a cloud of shrapnel in their direction. One piece hit Thorpe just below his right knee, punched a hole through his vacuum suit, and shattered his leg. His suit had depressurized immediately and unconsciousness had quickly followed.

Stabbing pains in eyes and ears are usually the last things a victim of rapid decompression ever feels. Thorpe remembered thinking that as he blacked out. As soon as Nina saw the cloud of red vapor explode from Thorpe’s leg, she began calling for help. She had then stripped the slip ring harness from her suit and used it to tie a crude tourniquet around Thorpe’s thigh. The tourniquet had sealed well enough that she was able to repressurize Thorpe’s stricken suit. The emergency response team had arrived three minutes later. They had stuffed Thorpe into an emergency bag and inflated it on the spot. After that, it had been a race to see how quickly he could be gotten to an Earthside hospital.

From THUNDERSTRIKE! by Michael McCollum (1989)

Personnel Module


      “All right, dearie. Ready to get on in?” the tech asked, her voice far gentler than Sianna had expected.
     “Ah, um, almost,” Sianna said. “Just—just a second.” Sianna looked down at the personnel module, a box for transporting a person to space at absolutely minimum cost in the smallest space possible. The permod was lightweight, and could be loaded and boosted in any number of launch systems. This one was to be stacked in with a hold full of cargo modules and boosted direct to NaPurHab (space colony).
     The personnel module was completely self-contained, and could keep a human being alive for perhaps weeks at a time in a pinch—if the human didn’t mind losing all semblance of dignity, and, perhaps, any shred of sanity. The permod treated a human being like a slab of meat that had to be kept at a certain temperature, in a certain atmosphere, with nutrient going in one end and waste products coming out the other. It was, in effect, a storage locker designed to hold a person.
     Sianna did not like it, to put it mildly. The fact that the permod was almost precisely the size and shape of a coffin did not do much to make her feel better.

     The suit tech stepped down on a treadle switch set into one corner of the module, and the safety catches released with a disconcertingly loud clunk. The tech pulled open a small access panel and yanked on the lever inside it. The top of the module swung open in exactly the manner of a coffin. Whoever had designed this thing had not given much thought to the psychology of the occupant.
     Sianna stepped forward and peered inside. She had gotten a quick training session the day before, but reality was rarely in conformity with training or expectations. The interior was an off-white rubber sort of material, all smooth, rounded contours. The outlines of a human body were molded into the bottom to create a form-fitting shape that was dished-out a bit wider than it ought to be at the base of the torso. Naturally. There was the issue of sanitation, after all.
     “All right, time for the plumbing,” the tech said. “Off with the robe now.”

     The robe dropped to the floor, and Sianna stared straight ahead at the tiled wall, determined that the suit tech be utterly invisible. A hand Sianna was determined not to see presented her with the waste control unit, an ungainly white object shaped roughly like an oversized, rigidized diaper that opened up with a hinge between the legs. Tube couplings whose purposes she did not wish to consider came out of it here and there.
     Sianna took the thing in her two hands with as much enthusiasm as she would have felt in accepting a dead rat. She opened the clamshell hinge and looked inside. The interior was coated with a clear lubricant gel intended to keep the parts of it that touched her skin from chafing. The parts of the interior that wouldn’t touch her were all odd-shaped recesses and discreet bits of valving and tubing.

     All right, then, she would be a mannequin. It wouldn’t be her she was putting it on, but an inanimate object. Spread the legs. Swing the unit around and hold it between the legs. Use her right hand to push the rear half up against the buttocks—good, clinical, impersonal word, buttocks —stoop down just a bit to open up her—no, the —legs, reach down with the left hand and pull the front half up and closed. Snap the six latches shut, and the mannequin had the unit on.
     It hung loosely on Sianna’s body. She switched on the inflator, and felt the unit snug up to her body in a most disturbing way. It felt cold, and stiff, and sterile. The lubricant was unpleasantly cool and slick again her skin.
     All right, she had it on. The suit tech could now be allowed to exist, at least somewhat. The tech nodded her approval. “Good. Fine. Nice fit. But wait until we get you launched and you’re in zero gee before you try the thing out. The suction system will pull off the waste products while you’re in zero gee, but you’ll get one hell of a mess if you try using it on the ground. Okay?”

     “Good. All right.” The tech stepped around in front of her and started to point out the controls. Sianna forced herself to look down. “Suction is that green switch on the left front. Post-use sanitizer is the red switch on the right front. And make sure the suction system is on and running before you try anything unless you want big problems. But once it’s powered up, you can urinate and defecate normally.”
     Normally? How the hell was she supposed to do anything normally when she was wearing a fiberglass diaper and stuffed into a coffin?
     Coffin. Damnation. She had been trying to avoid thinking about that part of it. Coffins. Death. Sealed in. Closed spaces. Tiny space, no space, lost in deep space, out of control sealed in a black death box blasted into the sky—
     No. Stop. Calm. Calm.
     But there was no calm. There was only raging fear and the pounding of her heart, and the thought of the fast-coming moment when the tech would close the lid on her and—

     “That’s it,” the suit tech said, completely oblivious to Sianna’s rising sense of panic—or perhaps determinedly ignoring it. “All set.” The tech seemed to have a limitless supply of meaningless little phrases of encouragement. “We need to spray you down next.”
     Sianna nodded, not quite willing to speak. The spray was a combination of a skin moisturizer, to combat chafing, and an antiseptic-antifungal agent, to keep her from molding over in the confines of the module as she became increasingly ripe over the next few days.

     “All set now, dearie. Now let’s get the shirt and leggings on and we’ll be all squared away.”
     Sianna did as she was told. She stood on one leg, then the other, as the tech slipped the leggings on and did up the fabric-clasps that held them on. The shirt went on in something more like the normal manner, buttoning up the front. Both leggings and shirt were made of a very warm, soft, absorbent flannel cotton—the one concession to comfort in the whole operation. They felt good next to her skin.

     “Two hours until boost, and it’s going to be just about a three-day ride. Long time to be in a box, but you won’t be anywhere near the record. And you should be asleep most of that time, anyway.”
     “Suppose I, ah, can’t sleep?”
     “Then you take a pill, and sleep until it wears off and then take another pill. Keeping you zonked out saves on life support—and boredom. All right then, let’s get you in there.” And, maybe, if we keep you asleep enough of the time, you won’t go insane quite so fast. Even if the tech didn’t say the words, Sianna knew they were there. Thrown off balance by the bulk of the waste control unit, Sianna tottered most unwillingly toward the module.
     After all the briefing and preparation, getting in seemed almost too simple. Sianna simply sat down on the edge of the module, and then put first one leg and then the other over the edge, bracing herself with a hand on either side of the box as she eased herself down into the module, as if she were getting into a bathtub full of slightly over-hot water. Except getting into a tub didn’t put her on the ragged edge of terror. She sat up in the module, and found that her waste control unit wasn’t quite fitting into the recess intended for it. She wiggled herself down a bit, and it dropped into place rather neatly and a bit abruptly, like one of those puzzle games where you roll a ball into a hole.
     “Lie down, dear,” the tech said. Sianna did as she was told. She found herself lying very still, staring at the ceiling. The tech leaned over her for a minute, checking this and that, attaching hoses to the waste control unit and to the interior of the module.
     “All set there. Now, I want you to try the sanitation system. Red switch on the left first, then the green on the right.”
     What point in color-coding the switches if she has to lie on her back and can’t see them? But Sianna reached down and found them after some fumbling. She flipped the left switch. There was a sudden, high whirring noise, and the feel of cold air blowing past her skin. She threw the right switch, and jumped a bit as warm water jetted through the unit. She shut down the water jet and let the suction system run a bit longer to help dry her off. She shut off the left switch and listened as the purifier kicked in, reclaiming the water for its next use in cleaning—or as drinking water. Even the lunatic optimist who had run yesterday’s training session and had told her how great the system was allowed as how the water wasn’t likely to taste real good after the fourth or fifth time.

     “Okay, now,” the tech said. “I’m going to close up now, and this hatch isn’t going to open until you’re safe at NaPurHab. You’ll have the use of your arms and hands for an hour or so, but once you get loaded into the launcher, the restraint system is going to come on. The airbags will inflate and hold you in place. You have got to get your arms down into the recesses molded into the padding before that happens.
     “You’re going to be boosted at about ten gees. More if they change the flight plan. If your arm is lying against your stomach or something when the restraints inflate, it will be pinned in place. If that happens, you’ll be lucky to get away with a broken arm and crushed ribs. Internal injuries and bleeding, more likely.” The tech pointed to a small panel light that read “prepare for restraint” set into the inner lid of the module. “When that light goes off, arms and legs in the restraint recesses, and no excuses. You ought to have three minutes warning, but people who count on ‘ought’ get dead. If your nose itches after that light goes on, don’t scratch. Do you understand?”

     There was, quite sensibly, no way to open a personnel module from the inside. The danger of a panicky transportee popping the thing open at the wrong time was far greater than the danger of a transportee not being able to get out someplace it was safe.

     Wait a second. There was an external view control, right? She could look out. Yes. That would help a lot. She stared intently at the control panel directly over her face. Which one was it? She stabbed a nervous finger at one button, then another. There. That turned the monitor on, anyway. The flat screen came to life, about thirty centimeters in front of her face. Good. Nothing on it but a status display. Air good, temp good, clock showing the time. But what about the external view? External. There! An old-fashioned selector knob. She twisted it hard to the right

     The permod was all toughened padding inside, the comm and display and dispenser controls carefully recessed so you couldn’t switch them on by accident. Damn thing was a miniaturized spacegoing padded cell.

     She wanted to turn her head away, but the restraint pads had inflated around her head as well, holding it quite gently but quite firmly in place. You could snap your neck by having your head turn when a high-gee boost kicked in, and the permod designers had taken no chances.

(ed note: and of course when the permod reaches its destination, the poor cargo master who has to open it is assaulted with a stench that has to be experienced to be believed. And they are occasionally assaulted by the permod inhabitant, who have gone insane with claustrophobia.)

From The Shattered Sphere by Roger MacBride Allen (1994)

Space Burial

This section has been moved here

Damage Control

Damage control facilities are generally only found on military vessels. One room will be Damage Control Central (DCC), often near or in the engineering section. This is where the Damage Control Officer coordinates the damage control parties. Generally you want the DCC to be in the section of the ship that is hardest to damage (actually, the second hardest spot to damage. The hardest spot should be occupied by the bridge/CIC).

There may be small damage control lockers sited at strategic locations throughout the ship. Locker contents may include hull patches, emergency power cables (i.e., glorified extension cords), short range radios, testing and sensing instruments, portable emergency power generators, fuses, fire extinguishers and tools. They may also have first-aid kits.

Lockers near the reactor or drive will also include geiger counters or other radiation detection and monitoring gear. The detectors will be mounted on long telescoping rods, so one can poke the detector around a corner or near a suspicious breach without exposing oneself.

On wet-navy ships there is a special damage-control deck, which is the lowest deck with longitudinal breaks in the watertight bulkheads. This allows quick access to all parts of the ship. However, since our ships are tail-landers instead of belly-landers, in place of a damage-control deck might be one or more special ladderways running along the core of the spacecraft.

The cables, pipes, and duct work will either be exposed along the corridors, behind removable panels to protect them from clumsy crew, or accessable via manholes.

If the ship's power grid goes dead, the emergency lighting will go on. This will be red to preserve the night vision of the damage control parties. This means the cables and pipes will be labeled in black text since red lighting makes color coding ambiguous.

Christopher Weuve says that a merchant ship's primary piece of damage control equipment is a lifeboat.

A well-trained damage control crew can limit the collateral damage and allow a ship to limp home rather than die a lonely death in the vacuum. Each damage control team is assigned a certain area of the vessel. They learn its various pathways and systems by heart, and can move quickly even through darkness and variable gravity conditions. Though they carry most of their equipment with them, the rest is stored in Damage Control Lockers (DCLs), small rooms that serve as home base for the various teams.

A standard DCL is little more than a roomy closet. Each contains a full set of tools, power cutters and fire fighting equipment, plus a complete database of that particular area of the ship. A dedicated expert system is on hand to monitor the team's progress and inform them of the nature of the problem (if known) or the characteristics and schematics of the problem area.

(ed note: The Jovian Confederation ship books have spacecraft designs that are remarkably scientifically accurate and will repay careful study. The accuracy is due to precise oversight by Marc Vezina.)


Then, before Benno could check his own side of the console to verify whether things were indeed alright, his internal debate was blown away by the unforgiving, indiscriminate lance of an offensive x-ray laser.

The single beam struck the Puller a glancing blow, centered on a space just beneath the outer hull and aimed outboard. Armor plate, radiation shielding, piping, wireways, conduit, decking, internal honeycombed structure, atmosphere, and people all ionized and ablated into a dense, mixed plasma. This plasma exploded outward, crushing the spaces surrounding the hit and dealing further physical and thermal damage. Combat Systems Maintenance Central, or CSMC, lay deep within the Puller’s battle hull—three spaces inward from where the x-ray laser struck—but that meant little next to the awesome destructive power of a Dauphine capital-class xaser warhead.

Benno cut the channel before Johnson could respond and switched his suit radio to the Combat Systems Maintenance Net. “All stations, this is CSMC, we’ve taken a slice through our hull, and all our point-defense is offline. Assuming no mounts were hit, it means the beam cut the control runs, and we need to string emergency data lines and power. Mounts should switch to local control. Unless you’re a mount captain or a gunner/loader, I need you to unstrap and meet me outside CSMC, now. This is an all hands effort!”

Every mount and several auxiliary control stations had internal communication and data techs to handle problems locally as they arose. Anything they couldn’t immediately fix in situ, they would shut down and rely on backups, or they would send out maintenance drones to repair remotely.

Benno glared at him. “This situation is salvageable, but with so few, we have to work smart, and we have to work fast.” Benno called up the ship’s schematic on his suit’s forearm info panel and was pleased to note Damage Control had just updated it. An angry, red scar sliced through an edge of the Puller’s long, hexagonal, forward battle hull, just in front of the amidships’ radiator banks. He flipped through a number of overlays, disregarding the layers for piping, structure, ventilation, and power, and finally stopped at the Combat Systems data network overlay. He made it live and pushed it to the others. ("live" means the notations he makes on his copy will be repeated on everybody's copy)

Benno marked vital nodes and stretched out lines to note where they would string emergency fiber runs. Where the damage was too significant, they would have to work backward to a clear node and set up wireless re-transmitters to cover the gaps. Fiber would be more secure in a battle environment with electromagnetic pulses, nukes, and the electronically noisy snap of lasers going off all around them, but speed mattered more than fidelity. He hoped to be done at the same time or before the electricians finished rigging casualty power.

Benno de-aired the corridor and passed back through the door into what remained of CSMC. Picking up a repair pack, he approached the melted, sparking scar sliced through the side of the compartment. A stationary, quiescent star field yawned wide over the top of the cut. Across the chasm, the other side of the gash was not a clean cutaway like one would find in a virtual tour. It was melted and torn, broken and jumbled, but Benno could just make out the arrangement of decks and compartments.

He gingerly climbed down into the hellscape. His suit insulated him from the still-hot edges, but he had to be careful. The metal pieces would cool rapidly, conduction bleeding their heat into the structure of the Puller, but anything that had broken free of its mount, anything non-metallic or well-insulated, might remain white-hot for some time. Radiation into the vacuum of space was a slow method of heat transfer.

Benno reached his first objective, an operational network multiplexer hub. The fiber data trunk it fed into had been vaporized, but the yellow and red LEDs on the hub blinked merrily away, waiting for the opportunity to send their data from radars and lidars to combat direction computers, and from direction systems to illuminators and weapons mounts. The network was designed to be fault and battle damage tolerant, to automatically re-route from damaged or missing components to backup data lines and remain working. Slice out half the battle hull, however, and you would overtax even a robust system’s tolerances. The copper backup trunk running through the centerline of the Puller only had enough bandwidth to maintain essential ship systems—nothing approaching the volume of data it took to accurately aim and direct fire across hundreds and thousands of kilometers of empty space.

He worked quickly, opening the hub and replacing the existing trunk interface with a new network interface card. He clipped in an armored fiber cable, anchored it down, and began unspooling it from the reel he had brought. Stepping gingerly, he crossed the hull gash to the other side and another working hub. These components had never been directly connected before, but Benno couldn’t care less about the system’s original design. If they could jury-rig enough connections, the system would re-route itself. Satisfied, he went on to the next task on the list.

Benno passed other techs, repair drones, and damage control teams, laboring as expeditiously as he was, making temporary repairs to primary power, cooling lines, and air supplies. He could also see a couple of his techs, stringing their own data cables or replacing components battered beyond repair.

In the middle of the gash, en route to his next task, thrust gravity cut out. Before his gorge had a chance to rise at the sudden freefall, the accelerometers in his suit detected the shift and switched on magnets in his boots, knees, elbows, and palms. Benno reached out and grabbed hold of the nearest exposed structural girder, anchoring himself with the magnets.

Usually, the massive dark matter conversion engines astern turned the long bulk of the Puller into a tower, improbably balanced upon spindles of fire, thrusting upward at a continuous Earth-normal gravity of acceleration (Puller is a tail-sitter, like all real spacecraft). Cutting out meant changing vectors. Changing vectors in battle indicated violent maneuvers. Benno gripped and prayed.

An abrupt scream sounded in his helmet. In the corner of his tortured vision, a figure flashed by, drifting free from one side of the cut and zooming out into empty space as the maneuvers continued. The scream was on Benno’s working channel. That meant it was one of his techs.

Just as abruptly, the scream cut off—far sooner than it should have from the ship merely leaving the tech behind. They might well have heard the unfortunate tech for hours until the Puller thrust beyond his suit’s radio range. But now there was only silence, broken by the continuing snaps of radio noise. Benno supposed the ship had carried on past the technician—exposing him to the hot particle thrust of the main engines.

Regardless, the work had to be done, or they’d all be dead soon. Benno checked the active system diagram on his forearm. They had closed several critical loops and signals were starting to flow again in the combat direction network, but latency and bandwidth were still pitiful. The gunners did not need to shoot at where the incoming warheads had been, they needed to shoot where they were at that moment, or—better yet—extrapolate with sufficient fidelity where they would be.

Benno re-assigned a number of Webb and Ortiz’s tasks to Goldman, Salazar, and Aquino, but he took the lion’s share for himself. These kids had him beat in speed, but his experience had been twice all of theirs combined before he had left the technical enlisted side and earned his warrant. He knew tricks for accomplishing temporary battle repairs they had never even imagined.

The labors became a blur. Find a working node, strip the damage, wire in a replacement module, connector, or transceiver, and string fiber to the next station. And all the while, the Puller jinked and juked, piled on acceleration, went back into freefall, and backed at flank thrust, dodging the relatively tiny warheads and their invisible lances of ship-killing energy. The hull shuddered and vibrated with defensive fire hard enough to shake apart their repairs, but they and the damage control teams gained ground nonetheless. The work was quick and dirty, but as they toiled, the running diagnostic diagram on his forearm grew greener and greener.

Finally, the voice of the TAO cut in over every circuit, “All mounts, we show the combat direction network back online. Take your mounts out of local and shift to coordinated remote fire from CIC.”

From THE MUTINEER'S DAUGHTER by Chris Kennedy and Thomas A. Mays (2018)

(ed note: in the year 2050, our heros are members of the Southwestern Rocket Society (SRS) fan club. The fans want to travel in space in the worst way, but civilians are not allowed to fly in their own ships.

On a field trip to Luna Louis' rocket junkyard they are stunned to find the space ship Absyrtis sitting in the lot. As it turns out that ship was Mr. Louis' last command when he was in the UN Space Force, and when the ship was decommissioned he managed to obtain it at scrap metal prices.

Club president Chubb Delany has an insane idea. He tells Mr. Louis that the club would love to refurbish the old ship, and fly it on a short hop to Luna. With Mr. Louis as captain.

Mr. Louis says if the club will promise that, he will give the ship to them free, along with any used rocket parts in the lot needed for the refurbishing.

They fix it up pretty good, for a team of amateurs. Of course shortly after lift-off, everything that was not quite properly refurbished starts malfunctioning...)

      And the baffling, trifling problems with the ship’s equipment started. Taking a figurative hitch in his belt, each man put down his fear and called up all his reserve of knowledge, determination, and skill—no matter how small each may have been.
     The vent valve on the forward tank bay jammed, and LeRoy lost all tank pressure. Since it was a sure bet they would lose precious propellant through an open vent and since the tanks had to have a suppression head on them for the pumps, LeRoy was in a quandry.
     “Pull the valve and cap the line,” Chubb told him.
     “But I’m liable to rupture the tanks!” LeRoy objected. “That valve acted as a relief valve as well!”
     “You’ll just have to watch your pressures, boy. And watch ’em close!”
     Then the drive on the forward radar antennas quit cold. Bob Danforth crawled into the nose cone with Bert, and they came back shaking their heads.
     “Can it be fixed?” Chubb asked.
     “Some goof on the ground crew tightened the gear-retaining nuts with a straight wrench instead of a torque wrench. Must have been when I wasn’t looking. He got them too tight. All the gears are stripped. Those that didn’t grind themselves to bits got chunks of other gears in them and chewed themselves to pieces or jammed up tight,” Bert said in a tired voice. “It's locked up and the selsyns are smoldering messes.”
     “It’ll take a whole new antenna system,” Danforth remarked. “And it happened in about twenty seconds flat.”
     “Can we use it for fixed forward sights?” Chubb wondered.
     Bert shook his head. “The dish is canted fifteen degrees to the starboard.” He started through the aft hatch. “So we’re blind forward—staggering blind!”
     This was followed fifteen minutes later by the utter failure of the water recovery system. The tangle of coils in the vacuum still plugged up—somewhere—with something. Greg did his best, but finding a plug in three hundred meters of tubing was beyond him. The air system was still removing water from the air, but it wasn’t enough. Everyone went on very short water rations.
     “I’m not too sure about the purity of what we’ve got,” Greg reported. “The purification took place in the still.”
     Chubb took a look at the running-time clocks over the chart desk. Over twenty-six hours left until touch-down at Dianaport. He reached out, touched the interphone switch, and called for Doc Barcarez.
     “Doc, how much medicinal alky have you got?”
     Doc told him. “I … ah … I’ve also got a couple of jugs of Mexican rum I smuggled aboard in my baggage.”
     “You have any thiamine?”
     “Some. I have to take it.”
     “Okay. Greg’s having trouble with the water. Can you hit it with enough alcohol so we can stay sober and yet keep from coming down with the galloping crud? You may have to push thiamine to anybody who gets tight.”
     “Bueno! Can do!”

     Greg went aft and Chubb finished up checking the position fix. It looked good so far. “Take the deck, Bert,” he told his exec. “I’m going down and see if We can’t raise Al on the radio. I want to keep him plugged in on what’s going on.”
     “You want to speak to who?” the ham operator in El Paso asked. Chubb repeated Al’s name. “Oh, he’s your lawyer, isn’t he? Well, he isn’t here. I haven’t seen him at all.”
     There was a sharp snap, a pop, and the smell of smoldering insulation. The voice on the speaker quit. Half the sets in the electronics compartment went dead. The lights flickered. With a jerk, Bob Danforth reached over and pulled the main power switch.
     “Overload somewhere!” the new electronics officer re- marked hastily. “No, that wasn’t it; line voltage soared.” He reached for the intercom switch. The squawk box was still operative. “Hello, power room! This is electronics! Our line voltage went wild! What’s wrong?"
     “Wait one! Electrical fire in the power room!”
     Chubb reached the handle on a red box and yanked it down. A horn squawked throughout the ship. He muscled Bob away from the intercom and pushed the all-call. “All hands, general alarm! Fire in the power room! Greg, cut their blowers and stand by to seal-off! Bert, proceed with an emergency party to the power room. Damage and disaster plan number two is in operation!”
     He almost collided with Bert coming aft as he went forward to his own post in the control room. The desire to get back there and see what was going on couldn’t overcome his sense of responsibility as skipper. Chubb had to be in the control room right then. He just barely got into his couch before LeRoy passed the word, “Stand by, control room! We’ve got it under control!”
     “Bert’s coming back, LeRoy,” Chubb told him.
     “We won’t need him. We’ve almost got it out. Just some insulation on the port generator.”
     Chubb breathed a sigh of relief. Had it been bad, the entire tail might have gone. A fire in space is not serious; it can alWays—or nearly always—be extinguished by evacuating the compartment where it is. But in a power room, it can get out of hand in a hurry. He knew of one case, the SS Mirmidon, where an electrical fire had gotten to the reactor control circuits; no pieces of the ship had ever been reported (at least no pieces larger than two atoms sticking together).
     “Hello, Chubb, this is Bert. It’s secure back here. I just got here, and it’s out. Smoky, though. How about some blowers?”
     Chubb sounded the word to secure, then asked, “What’s the damage?”
     “The voltage regulator on the one remaining generator’s conked out. LeRoy got a terrific voltage surge on the line. The regulator itself is a sooty mess right now. We can write it off. Better find out what it did elsewhere.”
     The news was not encouraging. The lighting units on two decks were gone, the microwave oven in the galley was washed-up, and—most important—nearly half the communications gear was finished.
     “We still have radar and doppler,” Danforth reported. “And the low-power UHF stuff is okay; it was off. We can talk to Dianaport when we get close enough. But we can't even listen to anything else—not even Sammy in El Paso.”
     LeRoy and his crew started running continuous shifts on the power boards, regulating the ship’s electrical voltage by hand.
     “Well—how do things stand?”
     “We’ll make it. We’ve got plenty of scotch tape and glue.”
     “And the generator?”
     “As long as We keep heavy loads off it, We’re all right. I’ve asked everybody to call the power room before they so much as turn on a light. We could actually run the reset of the way on the emergency batteries…”
     “Don’t. Save them. We may need them yet.”

From CONTRABAND ROCKET by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) (1956)

In principle Defiant was a better ship than she'd been when she left New Chicago. The engineers had automated all routine spacekeeping tasks, and no United Republic spacer needed to do a job that a robot could perform. Like all of New Chicago's ships, and like few of the Imperial Navy's, Defiant was as automated as a merchantman.

Colvin wondered. Merchantmen do not fight battles. A merchant captain need not worry about random holes punched through his hull. He can ignore the risk that any given piece of equipment will be smashed at any instant. He will never have only minutes to keep his ship fighting or see her destroyed in an instant of blinding heat.

No robot could cope with the complexity of decisions damage control could generate, and if there were such a robot it might easily be the first item destroyed in battle. Colvin had been a merchant captain and had seen no reason to object to the Republic's naval policies, but now that he had experience in warship command, he understood why the Imperials automated as little as possible and kept the crew in working routine tasks: washing down corridors and changing air filters, scrubbing pots and inspecting the hull. Imperial crews might grumble about the work, but they were never idle. After six months, Defiant was a better ship, but...

From REFLEX by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
(the deleted first chapter of The Mote in God's Eye)

      For three days Rod worked on MacArthur. Leaking tankage, burned-out components, all had to be replaced. There were few spares, and MacArthur's crew spent hours in space cannibalizing the Union war fleet hulks in orbit around New Chicago.
     Slowly MacArthur was put back into battle worthy condition. Blaine worked with Jack Cargill, First Lieutenant and now Exec, and Commander Jock Sinclair, the Chief Engineer. Like many engineering officers, Sinclair was from New Scotland. His heavy accent was common among Scots throughout space. Somehow they had preserved it as a badge of pride during the Secession Wars, even on planets where Gaelic was a forgotten language. Rod privately suspected that the Scots studied their speech off duty so they’d be unintelligible to the rest of humanity.
     Hull plates were welded on, enormous patches of armor stripped from Union warships and sweated into place. Sinclair worked wonders adapting New Chicago equipment for use in MacArthur, until he had built a patchwork of components and spares that hardly matched the ship’s original blueprints. The bridge officers worked through the nights trying to explain and describe the changes to the ship’s master computer.

     Cargill and Sinclair nearly came to blows over some of the adaptations, Sinclair maintaining that the important thing was to have the ship ready for space, while the First Lieutenant insisted that he’d never be able to direct combat repairs because God Himself didn’t know what had been done to the ship.
     “I dinna care to hear such blasphemy,” Sinclair was saying as Rod came into range. “And is it nae enough that I ken wha’ we hae done to her?”
     “Not unless you want to be cook too, you maniac tinkerer! This morning the wardroom cook couldn’t operate the coffeepot! One of your artificers took the microwave heater. Now by God you’ll bring that back…
     “Aye, we’ll strip it oot o’ number-three tank, just as soon as you find me parts for the pump it replaces. Can you no be happy, man? The ship can fight again. Or is coffee more important?”

     Cargill took a deep breath, then started over. “The ship can fight,” he said in what amounted to baby talk, “until somebody makes a hole in her. Then she has to be fixed. Now suppose I had to repair this,” he said, laying a hand on something Rod was almost sure was an air absorber converter. “The damned thing looks half-melted now. How would I know what was damaged? Or if it were damaged at all? Suppose…”

     “Man, you wouldna’ hae troubles if you did nae fash yoursel’ wi…”
     “Will you stop that? You talk like everybody else when you get excited!”
     “That’s a damn lie!”

     But at that point Rod thought it better to step into view. He sent the Chief Engineer to his end of the ship and Cargill forward. There would be no settling their dispute until MacArthur could be thoroughly refitted in New Scotland’s Yards.

     “Yes.” Rod stood and offered Sally his arm, and the others scrambled to their feet. She was quiet again as he escorted her through the corridor to her cabin, and only polite as they parted. Rod went back to the bridge. More repairs had to be recorded into the ship’s brain.

     New crew and old hands swarmed around the ship, yanking out damaged equipment and hurriedly thrusting in spares from Brigit’s supply depot, running checkout procedures and rushing to the next job. Other replacement parts were stored as they arrived. Later they could be used to replace Sinclair’s melted-looking jury rigs … if anyone could figure out how. It was difficult enough telling what was inside one of those standardized black boxes. Rod spotted a microwave heater and routed it to the wardroom; Cargill would like that.

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1974)

Damage Control Gallery

Nuclear Reactor Emergency

SCRAM the Reactor

Primitive spacecraft (like we make today) tend to use lightweight power supplies. Since the one-lung propulsion systems cannot cope with anything massive, not without savagely cutting into the payload mass. But once the state of the art advances, ships become electricity hogs. Especially if they are warships.

While plentiful power is always welcome, it does come at a cost. Besides the fact that they are aglow with lethal radiation, such plants can occasionally become — how can we put it — unstable. Which is real exciting if the plant is using fission, fusion, or antimatter reactions.

Alternatively, a ship could be inexorably heading for a crash landing and you'd just as soon not share the crash site with a reactor going all China Syndrome on you. Or with magnetic cannisters of antimatter fuel, which are much more touchy than nitroglycerin bottles and contain orders of magnitude more bang.

Remember, Jim Cambias said If it's a reactor emergency you're worried about, don't eject the crew in pods, EJECT THE REACTOR!

The point is there has to be some mechanism to quickly quench the power reaction (whatever it is), and render both the reactor and the fuel inert and safe. Or a mechanism to eject the blasted thing and get it as far away as possible.

There will be a SCRAM button to shut down the power plant and a JETTISON button to eject the power plant. Paranoid designers will also have computerized monitoring systems to watch the power plant and automatically push the appropriate button in a fraction of a second.

The term "Scram" means "the sudden shutting down of a nuclear reactor usually by rapid insertion of control rods." Urban myth alleges it came from "Safety Control Rod Axe Man" but this is incorrect.


      Kzanol swung his chair around so he could see the star map on the rear wall. The sapphire pin seemed to twinkle and gleam across the length of the cabin. For a moment he basked in its radiance, the radiance of unlimited wealth. Then he jumped up and began typing on the brain board.
     Sure there was reason to be impatient! Even now somebody with a map just like his, and a pin where Kzanol had inserted his sapphire marker, might be racing to put in a claim. The control of an entire slave world, for all of Kzanol’s lifetime, was his rightful property; but only if he reached Thrintun first.
     He typed: “How long to recharge the battery?”
     The brain board thudded almost at once. But Kzanol was never to know the answer.

     Suddenly a blinding light shone through the back window. Kzanol’s chair flattened into a couch, a loud musical note rang, and there was pressure. Terrible pressure. The ship wasn’t ever supposed to use that high an acceleration. It lasted for about five seconds. Then —
     There was a sound like two lead doors being slapped together, with the ship between them.
     The pressure eased. Kzanol got to his feet and peered out the rear window at the incandescent cloud that had been his fusor. A machine has no mind to read; you never know when it’s going to betray you —

     The brain board thudded.
     He read, “Time to recharge battery:” followed by the spiral hieroglyph, the sign of infinity.
     With his face pressed against the molded diamond pane, Kzanol watched the burning power plant fade among the stars. The brain must have dropped it the moment it became dangerous. That was why it had been trailed half a mile behind the ship: because fusors sometimes exploded. Just before he lost sight of it altogether, the light flared again into something brighter than a sun.
     Thud, said the brain. Kzanol read, “Reestimate of trip time to Thrintun:” followed by a spiral.
     The shock wave from the far explosion reached the ship. It sounded like a distant door slamming.

     There was no hurry now. For a long time Kzanol stood before his wall map, gazing at the sapphire pin.

From WORLD OF PTAVVS by Larry Niven (1965)

Engine Poison

Reactors are throttled via nuclear damapeners.

If the reactor is exposed to a neutron reflector, the neutrons that would have worthlessly escaped are instead sent back into the reactor core. This is like spraying pure oxygen into a coal furnace: the nuclear reaction goes into high gear and produces atomic power like crazy.

On the other hand, if the reactor is exposed to a neutron poison, it gobbles up any neutrons that hit it. This is like a big bucket of ice water on a coal furnance: the nuclear reaction is snuffed out.

This is used several ways:

Reactor Control Drums
     These are the standard nuclear damapeners used to throttle the reactor under normal operation. If you rotate the drum so more neutron reflector is exposed to the core, the nuclear reaction heats up. Rotate to expose more neutron poison, the reaction cools off. This allows the ship's engineer to dial in the desired power level for the reactor, or to turn the reactor off entirely.
Poison Wire
     Nuclear rocket engines are boosted into orbit from Terra's surface by chemical boosters, with the nuclear part totally inert. If there should happen be a catastrophic failure (say, if the booster explodes) an inert reactor will spread a bit of mildly radioactive fission fuel over the ground below.
     But if a reacting nuclear reactor is exploded, you have a major nuclear disaster on your hands. This will spread to the four winds a lethal mix of violently radioactive fission fragments and neutron-activated reactor structure bits. And you thought Chernobyl was bad…
     So to make damn sure that the boosted reactor stays inert, they "safe" it by lacing the interior with "poison wire". These are wires composed of neutron poison materials. Only after the reactor is safely in orbit are the poison wires removed.
Flood Poisoning
     Rarely an operating reactor can suffer an "excursion". This is when the power level of the nuclear reactor starts oscillating wildly up and down. This is an emergency.
     The problem is that the reactor control drums are only rated to control up to a certain level of neutron flux. And the excursion oscillation can make the neutron flux surge way above the control limit. If you don't do something quick, the reactor core will melt down despite turning the control drums to full kill.
     That is where the flood poisoning system come in. It rapidly floods the entire reactor until it is jam-packed with neutron poison. Generally it is controlled by a hair-trigger trip-wire, generally in the form of a neutron flux sensor that automatically activates the flood system the instant it detects an exursion.


     Two types of countermeasure techniques are being actively considered for application to the NERVA engine program. These are: (1) poison wire, and (2) explosive destruct.

     The poison wire system involves insertion of a number of wires containing a material of high neutron cross-section into the coolant-channels of the reactor core. These wires would be inserted prior to completion of engine installation. Prior to engine startup the wires would be withdrawn from the core and disposed of outside of the nozzle structure.


(ed note:an "excursion" is when the nuclear chain reaction oscillates enough to generate a short pulse-width surge of neutron flux above the maximum flux limits of the control system. It is sort of like when an automobile start backfiring, except with atomic energy instead of petrol. It means the reactor is starting to get out of control and you'd better do something quick before the engine does its impression of Chernobyl.

Flood poisioning is analogous to flooding the firebox of a steam engine with cold water to extinguish all the burning coal.)

5-12 Emergency Flood Poisoning

Multiple excursions do not necessarily mean widespread physical destruction of the reactor core. Ordinarily, emergency safety systems would become activated upon sensing the first excursion pulse. The most effective excursion-abort safety system is based on “flood poisoning,” In emergency situations, great quantities of neutron absorber materials are dumped into the reactor. This poison flooding promptly chokes down the fission process…and keeps it down. Subsequent excursions cannot occur.

The design concept is to store the flood poison materials outside of the core. These poisons may be powder, pellet, or gaseous in form. They may be one or a combination of the strongest absorber materials previously listed. These poisons would not be functionally related to, nor would they be integral with, the regular control system. They are strictly for emergency use only.

The poisons are stored under high pressure with suitable piping from storage to a manifold around the reactor pressure vessel head. From this manifold, there would be connections to each of the verniering plenums in the control drums around the core. During normal pneumatic verniering, the regulating pressures would be lower than the storage pressure of the flood poisons. Upon release signal, the pneumatic controllant would be overcome by the high pressure of the flood poison. The result: all control drum plenums would be “flooded” with strong neutron absorbers. The quantity of flood poison to override all of the control drums, regardless of their ΔC positions, can be computed. This is simply a matter of comparing macroscopic absorption cross sections such that

Σp » Σd + Σe

Here, the subscripts are p for flood poison, d for control drums, and c for core.

(ed note: the symbol » means "much greater than")

One arrangement of how the flood poisoning scheme might be adapted to rocket reactors is shown in Figure 5-13. Note particularly the excursion sensors. They are threaded into the pressure vessel wall where they are exposed simultaneously to propellant cooling and fission heating. Upon a fission excursion, one or more of the sensors actuates a pneumatic valve which releases the flood poison into the control drum plenums.

When released, the flood poisons would absorb many more neutrons than the normal controllant materials. Since these poisons are predominantly capture-gamma emitters, they would ernit gamma rays in profusion. There would be localized regions of very high gamma heating. As a consequence, special after-cooling of the flood poisoned control drums is required.

After the excursion neutron flux is choked clown, the flood poisons could be removed. This could be done via a vacuum pump and suitable piping (indicated in Figure 5-13). The removed poisons could either be reclaimed and restored under pressure, or they could be dumped overboard. By removing the poisons, the propulsion reactor could be operated normally again.

From NUCLEAR SPACE PROPULSION by Holmes F. Crouch (1965)

Engine Destruct

In many cases powerful rocket engines incorporate dangerous power technologies integral to their design. Just like dangerous power generators, you will need the ability to SCRAM or eject them in emergencies. A good example is solid-core nuclear thermal rockets, which are literally nuclear reactors with the hot working fluid piped to an exhaust nozzle instead of a generator turbine.

NASA had even more worries during the NERVA project. Instead of just worrying about the crew, they also has to worry about the unfortunate inhabitants on Planet Terra who lived near the (radioactive) engine crash site.

I found two interesting reports: Nuclear Rocket Destruct System Requirements by W. H. Esselman of Westinghouse Electric Corporation (Astronuclear Laboratory) and A Destruct System For the NERVA Engine by K. N. Kreyenhagen, W. H. Thiel, and S. K. Yoder of Aerojet-General Corporation. You can find them in this report along with more scary reading. I'll try to give you an executive summary.

For NASA's purposes, there are actually two separate types of engine jettison: pre-operational ("anti-criticality") and post-operational ("disposal"). Or "before you power-up the reactor" and "after you power-up the reactor". Pre-op happens when the chemical booster lofting the nuclear spacecraft into orbit fails mid-flight. Post-op happens when the nuclear spacecraft has been delivered into orbit, is flying around under nuclear power, and suddenly starts to crash on Terra.

You see, a brand-new nuclear reactor that has never been powered-up is actually not very radioactive. After you power-up the little monster it creates all sorts of hideously radioactive radioisotopes in the fuel rods, and neutron-activates nearby structural members exposed to the neutron flux.

What's the difference? Well, for pre-op jettison you eject the engine and use explosive shaped charges to coarsely chop it into sub-critical bits. Bits that will not undergo nuclear fission even if they land in the ocean (water is a great nuclear moderator). A relatively chunky 0.205 grams of U235 per square centimeter (750 grams within a 27 inch diameter circle). The idea is that uranium is relatively harmless, you just want to prevent the blasted stuff from gathering in a critical mass and undergoing nuclear fission. Even if the fuel elements dissolve into goo and start flowing around.

Post-op is different. Now the engine is full of dangerous radioisotopes. To have less than quote "acceptable" unquote levels of contamination, you have to use explosives to finely pulverize the reactor into itty-bitty fragments that will ablate down to less than 25 microns (9.84×10-4 inches) in size by the time they fall down to the 30 kilometer altitude level. The report figures the bits will have to start out at 1 mm in diameter to ablade enough. The report helpfully defines "acceptable" as "no excessive radioactivity returns to a populated area."

They did lots of math that you can read all about in the report to analyse various reactor fragment sizes, see what size it will ablade down to, and calculate the radiation dose it emits. They assumed the nuclear engine operated for 30 minutes at 1120 megawatts. The results are in the table below. The important parts are the last two columns. They figured a dose rate of 0.018 Rads per hour (1.8×10-4 Grays per hour) was acceptable. This translates to an initial fragment size of 1/32 inch (0.79 mm or "about 1 mm").

Now, since the post-op minimum fragment size is smaller than the pre-op fragment size, one would assume that you could use the same post-op explosives system for either type of engine destruct. But you'd be wrong. You see, pre-op the nuclear engine is perched on top of the chemical booster, a gigantic thin-walled tank jam-packed with chemical fuel. NASA safety experts concluded that you want to use the smallest explosive system possible because detonating the chemical booster will make everything worse. And the post-op explosives system is much larger that the pre-op, it will detonate the chemical booster for certain. Bottom line is you'll need two separate explosive systems, one for pre-op and one for post-op.

Shaped charged explosive systems were selected for the design because they had the lowest mass of all the reactor disassembly systems. (It might be worth while to review the difference between a shaped charge and a self-forging projectile, they are similar enough to be confused together, but are quite different in end result. The report tends to use the two terms interchangeably.)


Concept 1 consists of a girdling array of linear shaped charges. When detonated, they cut through the crunchy outside reactor casing and neutron reflector layers, to get at the chewy core in the center. The shock pulverizes the core, and the sliced and diced reactor casing allows the core to disperse. Simple and reliable.

However, the girdle cannot withstand the radiation or the intense heat of normal engine operation. Before you fire up the reactor you have to somehow dismount or discard the girdle, or it will unexpectedly blow up the engine.

Concept 2. My apologies, the image is almost worthless. I think the original was in color. It is supposed to show a conical shaped charge inside the nozzle. Upon detonation it sends a self-forging hypervelocity jet of metal upward through the throat of the nozzle, scoring a direct hit on the bottom of the reactor core. This shatters the core, and hopefully also ruptures the reactor casing so the fuel rods can escape. While this concept is lighter than Concept 1, it is unclear if the shock will be enough to rupture the casing.

Obviously the pilot had better eject the conical shaped charge before firing up the engine or they will get a very rude surprise. The pilot will find the hot exhaust ignites the shaped charge and shoots them in the a... destroys the engine.

Concept 3 is merging Concept 1 and Concept 2. You reduce the power (and mass) of C1's girdle so it is just strong enough to rupture the casing. C2's up-the-nozzle shot only has to take care of the core. The researchers actually tested this using a steel rocket casing, magnesium bars to simulate reflector segments, and a Titan nozzle. It flew into pieces like a champ. They used 57 kilograms of C-4 plastic explosive for the girdling charge with a cross-sectional area of 29 square centimeters. This actually proved to be over-kill, they wanted to try even smaller charges.


This is a challenge. You have to take a 1,360 kilogram core of fuel-enriched graphite and pulverize it into 1 mm particles.

Since the core is surrounded by pyrolitic graphite tiles, support tiles, a lateral support system, graphite reflector barrel, steel barrel, shim rods, coolant channels, tie bolts, beryllium reflectors, control rods, and the aluminum pressure hull, designers have focused on somehow introducing an explosive charge into the core and detonating it in the center. Otherwise the explosive force has to waste energy cutting through all the crap surrouding the core. This is known as the "central burster" concept.

Obviously the explosive charge cannot be resident inside the core during normal operation, for the same reason you do not store crates of dynamite inside a furnace. You have to somehow quickly get the explosive charge into the core and trigger it.

Concept 4 has the explosive charges inside a series of long projectiles. This are stored in launcher tubes above the engine, behind the radiation shadow shield. The latter is because radiation is bad for the explosives. Upon command, the projectiles are launched, penetrate the shield, enter the core, then blow up. They require an impact velocity of 300 meters per second.

The guns or launchers have to be lightweight, reliable, capable of delivering the projectiles simultaneously and capable of detonating the projectiles simultaneously. This is going to cost you lots of mass, "lightweight" is a relative term. If the explosive charges are 14 kg apiece and there are four projectiles, the total mass will be a whopping 680 kg, not counting the control and power source circuitry.

Concept 5 has a series of shaped charges with self-forging warheads that are attached to vertical bars. These are stored above the radiation shadow shield. Upon command, the bars are slowely lowered so they surround the core. Sort of a three dimensional circular firing squad. When detonated they fire hypervelocity jets of molten metal through the stuff surrouding the core and shred the core.

The advantage over Concept 4 is much lower system mass, it is trival to deliver them simultaneously and it is relatively easy to trigger the charges to go off simultaneously. For the same 680 kg system mass, Concept 5 can utilize a hundred or more shaped charges.

Concept 6 uses slabs of plastic explosive instead of racks of shaped charges. The idea is for the explosion to implode the core, crushing it.


Nothing really enjoys radiation, and explosives are touchier than most. You do not want the radiation from the engine degrading the explosive's punch nor do you want them to detonate prematurely. A NERVA engine typically produces a dose rate of 105 rad/sec at the side and 103 to 104 rad/sec in the shadow of the radiation shield. So over an operating time of 1,200 seconds the total dose will be from 106 to 108 rads.

Premature detonation happens when the radiation flux heats the explosive by gamma absorption and inelastic scattering. Typically explosives blow up when they reach a temperature of 150 to 200°C. They may not actually explode, but it is almost as bad if the stuff undergoes decompostion or deflagrates. They will not be able to perform their duty. Some coolant may be required.

Explosive degradation happens as radiation breaks chemical bonds in the explosive's molecules. This gradually turns the plastic explosive into just plain plastic. This seems to happen at about 107 to 108 rad which means the radiation shadow shield might provide enough protection. There is some suggestive evidence that cooling helps slow degradation, which is a good thing. Coolant weighs less than radiation shielding.


(ed note: Remember that an anti-criticality destruct systems {ACDS} is designed to destroy a reactor before the reactor has ever been powered up, while a post operation destruct system {PODS} is designed to destroy a reactor after the reactor has been powered up.

For ACDS the reactor has not been powered up so it is relatively non-radioactive. Chopping it into coarse sub-critical bits will do.

For PODS the already fired reactor is dangerously radioactive. Minimum acceptable solution is to blast the reactor into infinitesimal 1 mm particles, and preferably smaller.

A bifunctional destruct application can be used for either ACDS or PODS.

Pure ACDS are designed to be "ejectable". ACDS is used to destruct a reactor before it has ever powered up, it is never used afterwards. So immediately prior to the first reactor power-up you want to jettison the ACDS. This is because [A] the ACDS is just so much penalty-weight after the reactor has powered and [B] it is dangerous to carry a high-explosive device attached to your reactor one second longer than you have to.

PODS and bifunctional destructs are not ejectable, since an occasion for their use may happen at any time in their entire service life.)


     The candidate explosive type NERVA engine anticriticality destruct systems (ACDS) have been preliminarily tested and studied. This report summarizes the status resulting from work accomplished through 15 June 1963.

     The Mark A concept and small ejectable Mark D concepts have demonstrated achievement of the ACDS dispersion criterion (course chop) and indicated superiority over all other ejectable ACDS concepts considered.

     The multiple projectile Mark D concept has demonstrated superiority over all PODS concepts (Post Operation Destruct System) considered for bifunctional destruct application (capable of being used for either phase of operation, this is difficult to design).


     The ACDS is required to render the reactor essentially harmless in the event an accident to, or malfunction of, the NERVA engine occurs prior to its operation. The purpose of the ordnance-type Anticriticality Safety System (ACSS) is to divide the reactor core into subcritical fragments, and to disperse these fragments so that none of the portions can combine in a geometry that could become critical in a moderating environment (i.e., so no clumps of reactor fragments can attain critical mass, start a chain reaction, and make radioactive death).

     A tentative criterion was established for assessing the effectiveness of an ACDS based upon critical concentrations of fueled core material when immersed in a moderating environment such as water (i.e., if the fragments fall into water, a smaller density of core fragments will go critical and start a nuclear chain reaction). This criterion, in terms of practical test techniques, established that the maximum quantity of fueled core material allowed to fall within any surface area represented by a circle 25 inches in diameter, should be less than 12.5 lb (5,700 grams, any more than that and the blasted stuff will go critical and start spraying deadly radiation everywhere).

     The maximum core-fragment concentrations resulting from preliminary tests of the various concepts were compared and evaluated. From this, a series of tests for each of three destruct system concepts were conducted in an effort to further demonstrate the explosive feasibility. The three concepts were the Mark A, the Mark C, and the single-projectile Mark D/J, all of which are described in detail in the technical discussion portion of this report. Component tests were conducted in support of these concept tests to develop and evaluate the functional capabilities of the individual explosive components so that the competing concepts would have an equal chance for success. No attempts were made to optimize the systems studied; rather, the emphasis was placed on demonstrations of explosive charge configuration feasibility.

     The Mark A concept (in Test AC-155) demonstrated successful achievement of the anticriticality dispersion criterion against a full-scale, semi-accurate target. (for ACDS, less than 12.5 lbs within a 25 inch circle) Although several tests of the Mark C concept were conducted, none were successful in attaining the necessary dispersion against a reasonably simulated engine. Two tests (AC-129 and AC-154) of the internally emplaced explosive projectile concept (Mark D/J) met the dispersion criterion. Tests of this concept were conducted by assembling the test model with the simulated projectile statically in place within the core.

     The feasibility of propelling an explosively loaded projectile into a full-scale, simulated engine target in support of the Mark D/J concept was demonstrated in two concurrent PODS program (Sub-Subtask 1.6.5) tests (post-operational dispersion of core into 1 mm fragments) conducted at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

     All of the ACDS concepts depend, to some degree, upon the ability of the core material to transmit confinement-rupture loads and core fragmenting and dispersion forces; consequently, the correlation of material characteristics established by the Fragmentation Research program is important to the success and basic understanding of the various destruct mechanisms (graphite rods were used as core simulating material for destructive testing, since real reactor core with uranium-235 and everything is too expensive to just blow up).

     The selection of the Mark A system (Figure 1) for use as the primary, ejectable ACDS was essentially based on a comparative analysis of the Mark A and the ejectable Mark D/J concepts. The major considerations were:

  • Total system weight
  • System response time
  • Initiation reliability
  • Ejectability
  • Integration and emplacement

     Although the aft-mounted, single projectile Mark D/J concept is the more efficient system, as far as the amount of explosive needed to accomplish the anticriticality destruct task, the Mark A concept is more desirable from all important feasibility aspects considered during selection of the ejectable ACDS, The Mark A concept will, then, receive a concentrated design and physical property determination effort to be completed and presented in the Milestone 25 report.

     Selection of the forward-mounted Mark D/J concept for the bifunctional destruct system (a destruct system that can be used either pre- or post-operation) was determined by a different set of considerations, since some of the above are not applicable to a bifunctional system. The main consideration is dictated by the postoperation destruct criteria. PODS concept feasibility and development progress to date, as described in the Milestone 30 report, has indicated that the Mark D/J concept, installed above the NERVA engine shadow shield, will be the proposed explosive destruct system on which further development work should proceed during CY 1964.

     Comparison of all Mark D/J PODS test results with the anticriticality destruct criterion indicated that excessive fragment dispersion or a condition of "overkill" exists. The PODS test program incorporated multiple explosive charges statically simulating launched projectiles, each of a size considered adequate for accomplishment of the anticriticality dispersion criterion. Selection of the required number of bifunctional projectiles to satisfy this criterion is then solely dependent upon whether the RIFT interstage structure is to be defeated also by ACDS action or is to be removed independently by systems furnished by the RIFT contractor. It may not be technically feasible to defeat the confining effects of the interstage structure by any method other than fragment penetration produced by massive overkill.

(ed note: Translation: if you only need one explosive charge to destruct a pre-operation core, but you need five charges to destruct a post-operation core, there is a problem using the same system bifunctionally for both pre- and post-operation destruction. Five charges pre-operation will disperse the bits of the core over a much wider area than is desired: "overkill")

     Integration of the Mark D/J concept into a bifunctional capability becomes merely a modification of the control and fire system (CFS), There is little weight penalty involved and no ejection requirement, which makes the selection of this concept for the bifunctional destruct system appear most advantageous. Further design and analysis work will proceed on the bifunctional Mark D/J concept; the cumulative results of this effort will be presented in the Milestone 25 report.


     The long range objectives of this program are to develop an explosive destruct system that will render the reactor core harmless in the event either an accident to, or malfunction of, the NERVA engine should occur prior to its operation in the RIFT and subsequent missions.

     The immediate objectives were: (1) to determine the feasibility of achieving the tentative ACDS performance criteria, and (2) to select the ejectable ACDS concepts best suited for further studies and preliminary design. This discussion presents preliminary descriptions of several explosive concepts that have been studied, tested, and show promise of meeting the tentative ACDS performance criteria. The conclusions presented are based upon the results of tests performed with full-scale simulated NERVA engines and design studies reflecting presently available NERVA engine data.


     A power excursion, with the associated release of contaminating fission products, could result if the nonoperating NERVA engine were placed by accident, or a result of malfunction, into a highly moderating environment such as water or liquid hydrogen. A concurrent chemical explosion of the propellant could widely disperse the nuclear material, creating a difficult (if not impossible) problem of decontaminating the surrounding launch facilities. Should a similar malfunction occur during traverse of the shallow Atlantic Ocean shelf, the resulting nuclear excursion would produce fission contamination that could be spread by strong tides to inhabited shores. However, should the NERVA engine fall into deep water beyond the Atlantic shelf wide dispersion of fission products could occur without producing a hazardous situation.

     To preclude these hazards prior to NERVA engine start-up, the destruct system must: fracture the reactor core into subcritical fragments, and disperse these fragments so that none of the portions could combine in a geometry which could become critical in a moderating environment.

     Criticality studies have evolved a literal interpretation of the three-dimensional geometric dispersion criterion for submerged nuclear material. The tentative ACDS criterion evolved from these studies, incorporating a factor of safety, established an approximate quantity of 12.5 lb of the fragmented fuel-element material (or test simulant) as the maximum amount which can be allowed to fall within a 25-inch diameter flat circular area for a successful destruct operation.


     Two types of countermeasure techniques are being actively considered for application to the NERVA engine program. These are: (1) poison wire, and (2) explosive destruct.

     The poison wire system involves insertion of a number of wires containing a material of high neutron cross-section into the coolant-channels of the reactor core. These wires would be inserted prior to completion of engine installation. Prior to engine startup the wires would be withdrawn from the core and disposed of outside of the nozzle structure.

     Several conceptual methods were suggested for the use of high explosives to accomplish the anticriticality destruct task. The concepts employ various types of charges such as linear shaped, curvilinear shaped, conical shaped, and explosive projectiles. Some utilize only one charge configuration while others employ different configurations in their most promising combinations.

     Externally placed high explosive destruct systems are designed to convert chemical energy into kinetic energy which is transmitted through the engine pressure vessel and associated internal components rupturing the outer structures and fragmenting the core material. Under such circumstances, the breakup and dispersion of the core material is a combination of the effects of: (1) explosive jet action produced by the impact of minute particles of matter moving at extremely high velocities, causing cutting and external separation of structural material; (2) intense shockwaves produced by the detonation of high explosives, causing further fracturing and spalling of the cut material; (3) intense localized pressure and temperature regions near the engine pressure vessel, produced by great volumes of hot expanding explosives gases; (4) mechanical impact by structural members that have been accelerated to high velocity by the action of explosive gas pressures; and (5) collision and interaction between neighboring fragments traveling along intersecting courses at high velocities.

     The internal burster type explosive projectile concepts are designed to carry the high explosive into the reactor core prior to initiation. These concepts create a highly confined, rapidly attenuated explosion within the core which causes the graphite elements to be crushed against the massive engine pressure vessel and reflector structures. The confinennent structure tends to fail in a predictable manner determined by the explosive charge parameters and the manner by which the structure is loaded, thereby allowing the contained high-pressure gases and fractured core material to be released and dispersed through the rapture zones. The inserted projectile explosive charge effects contribution to core breakup and dispersion are somewhat different from those systems using externally placed explosive components. The primary effects are a combination of: (1) intense, localized explosive Shockwaves, produced by the detonation of high explosives; (2) intense, localized pressure and temperature region, produced by great volumes of hot, expanding explosive gases momentarily confined by the massive pressure vessel and reflector structure; (3) mechanical impact by small projectile-casing fragments that are propelled at high velocity through the core material by the action of explosive gas pressure; and (4) collision and interaction between neighboring fragments at high velocities.


     Various explosive destruct concepts are depicted in Figures 2A and 2B and are discussed below,

1. Mark A

     The Mark A configuration consists of an external linear cutting charge array, distributed over the pressure vessel, combined with an aft entry conical shaped charges. In this concept, a configuration of curvilinear and linear shaped charges are attached to the engine pressure vessel in such a manner that sections can be ejected from the engine prior to its startup if the ACDS is not required to function. The placement of the charges is such that, at initiation, the major structural integrity of the engine is destroyed by the curvilinear and linear shaped charges. The conical shaped charges, located to fire through the engine aft closure into the core mass accomplish the core fragmentation and dispersion. Provisions for ejection of the explosive charges are incorporated in the mounting attachments.

2. Mark C

     The Mark C concept consists of multiple conical shaped charges installed externally on the engine, directed to fire into the core mass. Upon initiation, the resulting jets penetrate the engine and disperse the core as required by the destruct criteria. Radial forces developed by the jet interaction with the core were expected to rupture the pressure vessel. This concept is considered ejectable.

3. Mark D

     The Mark D concept consists of internal burster projectile(s) launched from tube(s) located either aft of the nozzle closure or forward of the shadow shield (bifunctional system: ACDS/PODS), In this concept, the projectile, having an armor-piercing ogive, is propelled from a gun or launcher at a velocity sufficient to permit adequate core penetration prior to delayed initiation of the contained high-explosive charge. Ejection provisions are possible for this concept. The bifunctional projectile design (required to achieve the critically small PODS fragment-size criterion) is larger than the optimum size required to satisfy the present ACDS dispersion criterion, hence, an "over-kill" condition is produced. No ejection capability is required for the bifunctional design,

4. Mark J

     The Mark J concept consists of a single deep-penetrating shaped charge combined with a follow-through internal burster projectile. This concept is similar to the Mark D concept, including its capability of bifunctional operation as either an ACDS or a PODS. The aft-entry-type Mark J concept also can be ejected from the engine prior to startup if the ACDS is not required to function. As in the Mark D concept, a projectile is launched into the core where it is detonated to produce fragmentation and dispersion effects. However, in this concept, a path of entry is opened for the projectile by the hypervelocity jet of a conical shaped charge placed in front of the projectile launch tube. Reduced projectile velocities can be used with this concept, but the launcher and projectile design criteria would be changed somewhat. However it appears that there is no significant change in total system weight between the two internal burster concepts.

(ed note: The only difference between the Mark D and Mark J concepts is Mark D penetrates core using armor-piercing nose and Mark J uses a shaped charge)

5. Other Concepts

     Other ACDS concepts were studied and tested. They were determined to be infeasible after preliminary study or failed during test to produce adequate fragmentation or dispersion, As a result, such concepts are no longer being considered. However, should significant changes be made, either in the NERVA engine design and operation or in the anticriticality safety criteria, certain concepts now discarded might deserve further consideration.


1. Destruct System Design Criteria

     In addition to fulfilling the basic fragmentation requirements, the ACDS must exhibit the following inherent characteristics:

  1. Minimum system weight
  2. Rapid response
  3. High reliability
  4. Capability to operate in the established environments
  5. Integratable into the engine complex
  6. Optimum mounting and ejection features
  7. Safety considerations.

     Several explosive ACDS concepts have been evolved that employ various types of linear shaped charges, conical shaped charges, and projectile (internal) charges, either separately or in combination (Figures 2a and 2b).

     The explosive requirements for desired fragmentation will be determined from empirical data derived from the concurrent explosive performance study. Results of tests conducted to date indicate the Mark A and the aft-entry Mark D concepts offer the most promise as ejectable ACDS. Detailed arrangements and approximate size of either the explosive array or the launch mechanism, or both, for these systems are shown in Figures 23 and 24, Typical configurations of the basic charges employed are shown in Figures 25, 26, and 27. Figure 27 describes a portion of a projectile weight-trade-off study in which two types of metals were selected for the casing walls.

     In addition to demonstrating explosive feasibility, the Mark D and Mark J concepts are also the most favorable for incorporating an ACDS and a PODS into.a single bifunctional system. In this application, the launch tubes and projectiles would be located forward of the shielded area, thereby eliminating the need for their removal upon startup of the NERVA engine. This results in a significant weight reduction by eliminating the ejection fixtures required for an ejectable ACDS.

     Mechanical feasibility studies on the ejectable ACDS have been concentrated on the Mark A and the aft-entry Mark D/J systems, with the studies on bifunctional systems directed toward the forward-mounted Mark D and Mark J systems. Areas under investigation include:

  1. support structure
  2. ACDS ejection mechanism
  3. actuation and launch mechanisms
  4. basic projectile and shaped charge configuration
  5. location and space limitations
  6. system weights
  7. fire control, fuzing, and initiation
  8. response time
  9. reliability
  10. post-ejection dynamics.

     Inasmuch as the explosive application on the Mark B and Mark C concepts (considered as ACDS), and on the Mark I and Mark M concepts (considered as bifunctional ACDS/PODS) have proved inadequate or have produced marginal or unreliable fragmentation results to date, these concepts have not been actively pursued beyond the stage of preliminary design and testing.

     To develop configurations of the lightest possible weight, systems are being designed on a "minimum redundancy" basis. Such a system will utilize the minimum number of charges and critical components required to produce the desired results. Added redundancy could be achieved by duplicating the explosive array; however, this would make the destruct system too heavy (remember every gram counts). It is anticipated that the redundancy in the initiation system will be adequate to meet the reliability requirements.

2. Destruct Modes

     a. Mark A ACDS - Ejectable

     The Mark A system, as demonstrated by Test AC-155, is made up of an array of linear shaped charges located around the pressure vessel with two conical shaped charges located either on or near the nozzle cone (Figure 28), The linear shaped charges are arranged with a curvilinear ring of charges located on a level with the top of the core at the intersection of the outer reflector segments and the top support collar, and four corelength (or slightly longer) longitudinal linear shaped charges equally spaced around the periphery of the pressure vessel. The conical shaped charges located at the nozzle cone are positioned so that their combined jet action will be concentrated in the core. This is done so that maximum reenforcement and dispersion.of translated energy (and attendant fragmentation) can be derived from jet interaction of the double conical shaped charge arrangement.

     Since the explosive feasibility tests have demonstrated that the Mark A system of this configuration has met the tentative fragmentation and dispersion requirements specified, special emphasis has been placed on the mechanical feasibility evaluation and analysis of this system. The alternate Mark A configuration, as represented by Tests AC-131 and AC-133, did not demonstrate adequate performance but, because of its direct method of core confinement release, further feasibility considerations will be made.

     b. Mark D ACDS - Ejectable

     The Mark D ACDS concept consists of one high-explosive projectile located in a launch tube that is mounted alongside the rear nozzle cone and skirt as previously shown in Figure 24. The orientation of the launch tube is such that the projectile will penetrate the core diagonally offset from the center. The projectile assembly consists of the following major components: (1) cartridge case containing the propellant charge; (2) body containing the high explosive; and (3) armor-piercing head ogive with an impact/delay-type fuze. In addition, the projectile assembly is equipped with an igniter at the end of the cartridge case, a gas check at the projectile base, which prevents leakage of propelling gases past the projectile, and shock discs at each end of the projectile body for cushioning and attenuating deleterious shock propagation to the high explosives during projectile acceleration, impact, and penetration.

     The launch-tube assembly will be either of closed breech or of recoilless geometry, depending upon its material, weight, and space limitations.

     Upon initiation of the propellant charge, the projectile will accelerate and impact the convergent portion of the engine nozzle, triggering the impact-type fuze mounted in the nose of the projectile. The nominal nose-fuze delay will be such that initiation of the explosive charge will occur when the projectile has reached the desired offset position near the center of the core.

     Evaluation of explosive feasibility experiments to date on the Mark D concept indicates that a single internal-burster projectile containing 23 to 25 lb of Composition B explosive with an approximate column length of 32 in, will provide the required fragmentation effect. Special emphasis has, therefore, been directed toward the preliminary study of the projectile and launch-tube assembly applicable to the concept. Two basic projectile diameters (calibers) are anticipated for the ACDS or bifunctional Mark D system: 105mm (4, 125 in.), and 133mm (5, 250 in.), Investigations have been conducted to develop an optimum type of charge tube and armorpiercing ogive for the projectile (Figure 27).

     The design of the launch-tube assembly is dependent upon the projectile weight and length as a function of velocity for proper core penetration. Also, the projectile travel time (acceleration time) is a prime factor; the shorter this time, the higher the breech-section pressures. Since rapid-response time is of utmost importance in the ACDS, a projectile acceleration time in the order of 5 to 8 msec has been set as a reasonable criterion. Although the exact projectile velocity for desired penetration and implantation in the core has not been established, a velocity range requirement of 500 to 800 fps has been tentatively established for the small aft-entry Mark D system upon which to base the analysis.

     Preliminary evaluation of the Mark D ACDS indicates that this system exhibits several advantageous features and a considerable amount of investigation and analysis has therefore been conducted on this system.

     c. Mark D and Mark J - Bifunctional Systems

     Because of the similarity in function of the Mark D and Mark J bifunctional systems, they will both be discussed in this subsection. The Mark D or Mark J bifunctional system consists of from 4 to 6 launch tubes of either closed breech or recoilless configuration located forward of the shielded area. The orientation of the launch tubes is such that the projectiles will penetrate the forward shield and travel into the core in a circular array with a radius of approximately 0, 5 to 0, 7 of the core radius. The projectiles on the Mark D or Mark J bifunctional systems -^ill be of similar configurationj but will be larger than the projectiles on the ejectable Mark D or Mark J ACDS. Only one of these projectiles will be required for the ACDS function. The CFS would be modified to provide an override to accomplish this function. The devices should all be of similar size and performance capability to ensure proper spatial distribution of energy to satisfy the stringent postoperation destruct criteria.

     However, in the event that gross over-kill is object!onables the ACDS operation may be accomplished by one of the launch tubes and projectiles being of smaller caliber or of shorter length, or both, than those remaining so that an explosive load applicable to the anticriticality requirements could be used. Since the ACDS projectile might have a smaller charge, the explosive quantity in the other 3 or 5 remaining projectiles would be increased to compatible limits for PODS function. This might entail radical performance effects brought about by the unequal spatial distribution of these projectiles.

     Inasmuch as the ACDS portion of the bifunctional system will require the added penetration capability and may require the method of simultaneous initiation in reference to the multiple projection array for PODS function, it is preferred to employ multiple projectiles of identical geometry and capability, rigidly emplaced in the forward end of the NERVA engine compartment.

     Preliminary evaluation of translated or liquidexplosive transfer systems of the Mark D or Mark J configuration indicate several disadvantages. Basically, reliability and response-times are affected. Preliminary analysis of a translated system with the single ACDS launch-tube and projectile assembly, initially located at the nozzle cone, indicated that this system was not justified.

4. System Weight Analysis

     A preliminary analysis to determine an order of magnitude of subsystem and system weights for the various candidate destruct systems was initiated. This analysis is summarized in Table 10, To offer a better evaluation of the relative total-system weights applicable to the bifunctional systems, the Total System Weight column in Table 10 has been divided into two parts which show the applicable weight of: emplaced systems, and translated systems.

     The ejectable ACDS are all considered emplaced in contrast to the bifunctional systems on which some of the modes of arrangements in Table 10 could be utilized.

     In an emplaced bifunctional system the explosive arrays would be placed above the shadow shield as close to the core as possible in a ready-to-fire position with no translation required before operation. This results in a system with a relatively short response time and good reliability. However, the parasitic weights imposed by heavy shielding and cryogenic cooling, if required, for PODS operation could add considerably to the overall system weight.

     In a liquid-explosive transfer system, the liquid explosive would be stored in a container located above the shadow shield with a pumping or an expulsion system, or both, for transferring the explosives to properly shaped and thermally controlled containers surrounding the pressure vessel. The shielding and thermal requirements for such a system would be nominal, but the system complexity would be great, primarily because of the environmental control problems.

8. System Ejection Studies

     The following three basic staging and sequencing modes have been evaluated in an attempt to select the best ejection concepts for the various ACDS,

     a. Ejection with Interstage Structure in Place

     This criterion results in relatively difficult physical arrangements since the destruct components must be ejected through and beyond the interstage structure. To accomplish this, the ejected components must be guided in specific directions, by means of rails, cables, or equivalent, out through openings in the interstage structure. These openings would be provided by panels or doors removed by linear cutting charges, explosive bolts or equivalent means for severing support members. It is evident that this particular ejection and sequencing mode presents many problem areas which will result in greater system weights, poor redundancy, and decreased reliability. It is not likely that this staging sequence will be employed.

     b. Ejection Immediately Prior to, or Simultaneously With, Stage Separation

     In this arrangement the destruct system components could be clamped around the NERVA engine and the destruct package could be supported by cables attached to the interstage structure. This would eliminate the ne^d for bosses or mounting lugs, attached to the engine proper, that could produce hot spots during engine operation. Spring-loaded cables or equivalent mechanisms attached to the interstage structure would serve to pull the destruct system components away from the engine prior to or during stage separation. Ejection at nuclear-stage separation could also be accomplished by mounting the destruct systems on top of the Stage II booster and independent of the NERVA engine. Attachment of the system or systems (bifunctional) components to either the interstage structure or to the Stage II booster would be objectionable in the event of premature stage separation or of misalignment due to local structural failure,

     c. Ejection After Nuclear-Stage Separation

     This sequencing arrangement appears the most feasible because it allows practically unrestricted ejection directions or paths for the destruct components. However, the ejection energy requirements are greater in that a relatively high imparted velocity is required to effectively separate the package from the payload at a safe distance prior to destruction. Delayed initiation would then be used to destroy the explosive charges after separation and prior to impact with the earth's surface. The orientation and method of destruct of the charges after ejection is important in order to prevent accidental damage to the nuclear stage. For example, the jet blast of an initiated conical shaped charge could, if properly oriented, cause serious damage to the nuclear stage at distances of several thousand feet. It will, therefore, be necessary either to arrange the post-ejected destruct devices so that initiation does not occur prematurely, or to make arrangements to orient the charges and point of initiation in a desired position prior to destruct.

     Various types of ejection concepts that would be applicable to this ejection mode have been proposed for the ACDS, Figures 37 and 38 depict concepts applicable to the Mark A system; and Figures 39 and 40 show concepts applicable to the Mark D system. These concepts, as well as others, are being analyzed and evaluated further in order to select the most suitable arrangements.

     Investigation and design formulation are proceeding both to obtain ejection methods that will exert the smallest dyna.Tiic force or reaction on the engine pressure vessel during system ejection and to limit the ejected mass to as few packages as possible. Special emphasis i s being placed on limiting the amount of residual mounting hardware permanently attached to the engine to a minimum in order to eliminate possible localized areas of high temperature on the activated engine.

Self-Destruct Mechanism

Self-destruct is a mechanism (protocol or device) that can cause an object to destroy itself on command. The object can be totally blown into smithereens or merely render the object useless if captured by the enemy (the latter is called scuttling). It is rather common in media science fiction since it is so dramatic. That agonizing count-down really ratchets up the tension.

Reasons for including such a device on a spacecraft, space station, or planetary base include:

Range Safety
     If a spacecraft or missile is on a collision course with something valuable or full of innocent bystanders, the range safety officer will trigger the self destruct to prevent a crash. If the destructive energy is from the engine (e.g., antimatter) the destruct charge will just have to neutralize the engine. But if the destructive energy is the ship acting like an impromptu kinetic energy weapon, the closer the charge can come to vaporizing the entire ship the better.
     Most real-world boosters and spacecraft include self destructs to prevent lawsuits and massive negative publicity if the rocket goes off course. Manned rockets generally have some sort of launch escape system to propel the habitat module clear of the blast radius (with the notable exception of the Space Shuttle).
     The range safety officer with their finger on the big red button are usually located at some distance from the object they are blowing up. So they will have some objectivity (i.e., not hesitate because they are scared of committing suicide).
     If civilian owned spacecraft have propulsion systems frightful enough to be weapons of mass destruction then by law all such ships will be equipped with destruct devices controlled by the Launch Guard. Just in case a tramp freighter with an antimatter engine has a drunk pilot and starts heading towards a major metropolitan area.
     Military ships do not have self-destructs for range safety reasons, but they might have them for scuttling purposes. Or because the civilian goverment does not trust the space navy.
     In times of warfare, a warship becoming disabled allows it to be captured by the enemy. There are two items the enemy desires: the intelligence in the warship's data banks and the warship itself.
     The data banks are a treasure trove of valuable information: space navy secret code books, battle plans, task force compositions, etc. If the enemy gets their hands on any of that, the results could be more damaging than losing a battle. All data stores will need some kind of explosive charge or whatever to render the data unreadable. With the charges capable of being detonated on remote command from the CIC or manually by the crew stationed nearby. In the old wet navy the code books had covers made out of lead, to help speed them to Davy Jone's Locker when the captain throws them overboard. That won't work in space.
     Building space warships takes such an inconveniently long time. If the enemy captures one of your warships intact they will gleefully replace the crew, hastily paint on their national insignia, and thus instantly have a new (slightly used) unit in their space navy. To prevent that you want to scuttle your ship. You don't have to atomize it, just damage it enough so that its major contribution to the enemy's war effort is as a load of scrap metal.
Keeping Homeworld a Secret
     If a deep space exploration ship makes first contact with a new alien race, it is imperative that the aliens do not learn the loacation of any of your colonized planets, or your homeworld. Otherwise they can make your species extinct while you flail about trying to locate any of their planets.
     This is a specialized form of scuttling a captured warship's data banks, where the emphasis is on destroying any star charts you have on board.
     If you are super paranoid you might have to destroy the entire ship with crew. It is surprising how much aliens can learn about your home planet by examining seemingly innocent details of the ship. For instance, they can learn clues to your homeworld star's spectral class by analyzing the frequencies emitted by the ship's lamps and track lighting. And the crew can be tortured for information, especially the astrogators (to get them to cough up your homeworld's coordinates) .

A self-destruct is a mechanism that can cause an object to destroy itself or render itself inoperable after a predefined set of circumstances has occurred.

Self-destruct mechanisms are typically found on devices and systems where malfunction could endanger large numbers of people.


Land mines

Some types of modern land mines are designed to self-destruct, or chemically render themselves inert after a period of weeks or months to reduce the likelihood of friendly casualties during the conflict or civilian casualties after the conflict's end. The Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), amended in 1996, requires that anti-personnel land mines deactivate and self-destruct, and sets standards for both. Landmines currently used by the United States military are designed to self-destruct between 4 hours and 15 days depending upon the type. The landmines have a battery and when the battery dies, the landmine self-destructs. The self-destruct system never failed in over 67,000 tested landmines in a variety of conditions. Not all self-destruct mechanisms are absolutely reliable, and most landmines that have been laid throughout history are not equipped to self-destruct. Landmines can also be designed to self-deactivate, for instance by a battery running out of a charge, but deactivation is considered a different mechanism from self-destruction.


The Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Boosters were equipped with explosive charges so that the boosters could be destroyed in the event that control was lost on launch and a populated area was in danger. Physically, this is done by detonation cords running along the booster. As they are set off, they cut open the booster's casing. This not only causes the solid rocket fuel to burn up rapidly by exposing a large reaction surface, the cut-open casing also allows combustion gases to escape sideways instead of through the nozzle. Therefore, the booster no longer produces a significant thrust.

This feature can be seen in videos of the Challenger disaster. After the initial disintegration of the shuttle, the two solid rocket boosters continued firing until they exploded simultaneously 37 seconds later. This occurred when the Range Safety Officer decided that the separated boosters had the potential to endanger those on the ground and activated the self-destruct system.

Military ships

Another form of a self-destruct system can be seen in the naval procedure of scuttling, which is used to destroy a ship or ships to prevent them from being seized and/or reverse engineered.

Deep sea oil drilling

A form of self-destruct system can be observed in deep-sea oil drilling. In the event of an oil well becoming disconnected from its oil rig, a dead man's switch may trigger activation of a blowout preventer blind shear ram which cuts the drill pipe and permanently seals the well to prevent an oil leak.

Data storage

Self-destruct mechanisms are sometimes employed to prevent an apparatus or information from being used by unauthorized persons in the event of loss or capture. For example, they may be found in high-security data storage devices (e.g. IronKey), where it is important for the data to be destroyed to prevent compromise.


Some artworks may have mechanisms in them to destruct themselves in front of many eyes watching. An example is the painting Love is in the Bin by Banksy, which shredded itself right after a £1 million auction at Sotheby's London on 5 October 2018.

Use in fiction

Self-destruct mechanisms are frequent plot devices in science fiction stories, such as those in the Star Trek fictional universe, or the Alien universe. They are applied to military installations and starships which would be too valuable to allow an enemy to capture. An artificial intelligence may invoke self-destruct due to cognitive dissonance. In many such stories, such a mechanism causes massive destruction in a large area, obliterating the object protected by the device. Often the characters have a limited amount of time to escape the destruction or to disable the mechanism, creating story tension. In the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission Impossible, sensitive intelligence or equipment is shown to self-destruct in order to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Usually the self-destruct sequence is lengthy and complex, as in Alien, or requires multiple officers aboard the ship with individual passcodes to initiate the process, with countdown timers that can allow characters to escape. Passwords in 1970s and 1980s movies are noticeably unfit for purposes of such major impact, considering accounts with even low level security in modern times have far more complex password requirements, as the writers of the era did not anticipate the complexity level of computer generated brute-force attacks and security issues.

In the case of Heinz Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb, many of Doofenshmirtz's -inators have a self-destruct feature on them, either activated by Perry the Platypus or by himself on accident.

From the Wikipedia entry for SELF-DESTRUCT
Ripley: When we throw the switches, how long before the ship blows?...
Parker: We ain't outta here in ten minutes, we won't need no rocket to fly through space.

Any relatively simple (compared to the scope of the result) device or process which can cause the complete destruction of a building, spaceship, planet, empire, Weapon of Mass Destruction, etc. Effectively an Achilles' Heel for non-living things. The Evil Overlord seems particularly fond of this trope, frequently installing it in almost all of his ships, buildings and other whatnot, even when there is no obvious reason why such things need an integrated self-destruct system when a non-explosive instant shutdown mechanism will suffice.

Though usually activated by a Big Red Button, some self-destruct mechanisms require two (or even three) people to enter codes, turn keys or push buttons simultaneously, etc. The latter sort almost always comes with a countdown (or even a Magic Countdown) until it actually goes off. All of this fussing about builds suspense and also allows the Self Destruct process to be halted once set in motion.

Sometimes the heroes change their minds, or they weren't the ones who started the countdown. Depending on the situation, the off switch may be uncooperative (or there may not be an off switch); this often results in a Wire Dilemma. Other times it's simply a question of getting back to where the switch is. Either way, the stopping always happens Just in Time.

In the real world, scuttling a large ship is a complicated process involving detonating explosive charges at various points on the superstructure — for obvious reasons, these charges are not in place and armed at all times, but are usually placed just before the fact if it becomes necessary to destroy a ship. Persons working with sensitive equipment are often provided with a more practical "self-destruct mechanism" to use if capture is a possibility — a large hammer, fire axe, or other heavy implement used to smash the equipment and thus stop it being reverse-engineered.

Real world self destructs do exist, such as special microwave ovens for destroying integrated circuits, electrically self-frying storage media, and self erasing disks are used in many intelligence situations; in all cases "won't smoke excessively, no toxic smoke, won't damage the vehicle or occupants" are pretty hard and fast contractual requirements.

Marginally more forgivable in the case of advanced spaceships; the Kzinti Lesson, "A reaction drive's efficiency as a weapon is in direct proportion to its efficiency as a drive", can be made to apply just as well to the ship itself as to other ships.

This can also apply when Antimatter is used as fuel, weaponry or both. Simply releasing all of the antimater from whatever containment system is used keep it from coming into contact with matter can quite reasonably be expected cause extreme damage to the spaceship, even if there's not enough antimatter to outright annihilate it.

Overclocking Attack takes this to the next step. See also Cyanide Pill, Self-Destructing Security, and This Page Will Self-Destruct. Compare Load-Bearing Boss. Sometimes related to Taking You with Me.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)

Government Does Not Trust Space Navy

(ed note: General Nakamura of the U.N. Forces is staging a military coup of the Asterome space habitat. Commander Mason shuts him down, hard.)

     "In a few moments," the general (Nakamura) said, "my warship will fire a missile at your sun mirror, perhaps at one of your fusion plants. Where will your Asterome be without them?"
     Sam noticed the sweat stains on the general's back and under his armpits. Alard did not answer...
     ..."Ship approaching fast," one of the communications officers said.
     An insert appeared in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen, showing a telescopic view of a military vessel identical to the one in the left-hand insert...
     ..."No answer from the ship," the com officer said.
     Nakamura shifted and held the gun near Sam's face. "It's another one of ours," he said calmly...
     ..."General—voice link," the communications officer said.
     Sam looked at the insert; the incoming ship was larger now. A third insert appeared in the top left corner, a woman's face, middle-aged, with handsomely groomed short gray hair.
     "This is Commander Alberta Mason, U.N. Forces. General Nakamura, you are relieved of command. Place yourself in immediate custody under military or civilian personnel at Ganymede City."
     Nakamura surveyed the room. No one moved. Sam expected that at any moment the general would point the gun at Richard or Margot. It's what I would do. The thought surprised Sam.
     "Surrender," Mason said. "The coup is over. It's been over for a while."
     Nakamura grew rigid. He lowered the gun, but kept it pointed in Sam's direction. Slowly the general reached up with his left hand, took off his military cap and threw it to the floor. "So much for U.N. rank." He ran his fingers across his wet forehead and back through his hair.
     "Surrender," Mason said, "or I will open fire on your ship. Do you hear me also, Captain Scorto?"
     "I hear you."
     "Land your ship and prepare to be boarded," Nakamura replied, "or I will kill these hostages before your eyes."
     Sam was grateful that Janet was not in immediate reach.
     "Scorto—open fire on Asterome and the Mars vessel when I give the command."
     Sam felt the gun press against his temple. The floor seemed to shift slightly as he tried to keep his eyes on the screen.
     "Mason, you can't fight a triple threat!"
     "I will not bargain with you, General."
     The gun pushed Sam's head sideways. With one eye he peered at the lower-left insert, where Nakamura's ship was suddenly coming apart, its center glowing cherry red, turning white until the hull was lost in a bright flash. The concussion shook the floor. Sam faced the screen as Nakamura moved the gun away. Gas and debris filled the insert, clearing slowly to show a crater where the ship had stood.
     "I regret the loss of misguided lives," Mason said. "They and the ship might have served us better."
     "How?" Nakamura asked as he stepped back from Sam. "You're too far away."
     "A simple destruct sequence code. The civilian governments that gathered the taxes to build these old ships kept that much insurance against them. Of course, such a safeguard is only effective when not too many people know about it."
     Sam looked at Nakamura, aware that the general would take the explanation as an insult, since it implied that he was not important enough to have known.

From Macrolife by George Zebrowski (1979)
Keeping Homeworld A Secret

(ed note: human ("monster") ship has surprised the alien Ryall planet and Ryall ship the Space Swimmer)

     “I have a message for you from Ossfil of Space Swimmer.”
     “Proceed with the message.”
     “‘The monsters have me surrounded and I am unable to reach the gateway. I am taking evasive action, but will not be able to escape. Request instructions. Ossfil, commanding Space Swimmer.’“
     Varlan muttered a few deep imprecations to the evil star before replying. “Transmit the following: ‘From Varlan of the Scented Waters to Ossfil of Space Swimmer. As a minimum, you will destroy your astrogation computer and trigger the amnesia of your astrogator. After that is done, you may act on your own initiative.’“

(ed note: the humans have captured the alien ship Space Swimmer, and are puzzling over the alien's strange behavior)

     “Naw. Shot him with a dart. He’ll be all right, ‘cept that he’s crazy as a high plateau jumper.”
     “How so?”
     “I found him amidships in one of the equipment rooms. He had this big bar he’d ripped out of some machinery and was using it to beat holy hell out of some access panel. Looked to me like he wanted to get through it and into the machinery beyond...
     ...“What did you say just now, Corporal?” he asked.
     “I said this damned crazy centaur attacked me, sir...”
     “No, about his trying to smash a machine. What machine?”
     “‘Fraid I don’t recognize this alien machinery too good, sir.”
     “Take me to it.”
     Sayers led the way, followed by Philip Walkirk and Sergeant Barthol. They moved through gloomy corridors until they reached a small compartment almost at the very center of the spherical ship.
     “Yonder machine over there, sir!” Sayer said, playing the beam from his hand lamp over a dented access panel.
     Philip gazed at the panel, blinked, and then emitted a low whistle.
     “This thing important, sir?” Barthol asked.
     “You might say that,” Philip replied. “What Corporal Sayers refers to as ‘yonder machine’ is their astrogation computer. The fact that he was trying to beat it to death may mean that their normal destruct mechanism failed to operate properly.
     “That good, sir?”
     Philip Walkirk’s sudden laughter startled the two noncoms. “That box, Sergeant, may well contain information vital to the conduct of the war.
     “What information, sir?”
     “If we’ve been very, very lucky, we may just dredge up a foldspace topology chart for the whole damned Ryall hegemony!”

Scuttling Battleship Donnager

     "Roger, Lieutenant," Holden gasped out. "Why board you?"
     "The command information center," Alex said. "It's the holy grail. Codes, deployments, computer cores, the works. Takin' a flagship's CIC is a strategist's wet dream."
     ..."That means they'll blow the core rather than let that happen, right?"
     "Yep," Alex replied. "Standard ops for boarders. Marines hold the bridge, CIC, and engineering. If any of the three is breached, the other two flip the switch. The ship turns into a star for a few seconds."

(ed note: They escape in the small ship. The Donnager self destructs behind them.)

     "The Donnie went up behind us, Cap. Guess the marines didn't hold. She's gone," Alex said in a subdued voice.
     "The six attacking ships?"
     "I haven't seen any sign of them since the explosion. I'd guess they're toast."
     Holden nodded to himself. Summary roadside justice, indeed. Boarding a ship was one of the riskiest maneuvers in naval combat. It was basically a race between the boarders rushing to the engine room and the collective will of those who had their fingers on the self-destruct button. After even one look at Captain Yao, Holden could have told them who'd lose that race.
     Still. Someone had thought it was worth the risk.

From Leviathan Wakes by "James S.A. Corey" (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) 2011. First novel of The Expanse

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