Escape Pods: Rescue and Survival in Space

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Escape pods and science fiction go hand-in-hand. Seriously, just think of all the films, books and comics that feature a character blasting themselves to freedom in a sealed capsule or navigable lifeboat.

Is your starship’s warp core about to blow? Hit the escape pod. Imperial forces boarding the ship? That’s right, head for the pods. And if an alien monster happens to be overrunning your ship, first grab the cat, then head on into the escape shuttle. Also, wear some skimpy underwear and bring a grappling gun. You never know.

I also can’t help but think our fascination with escape pods has something to do with a subconscious desire for our technology to hug us and envelop us in a kind of safety womb of mechanical warmth. When I talked to my wife about it, she thought it was sort of a “cupcake vs. cake” situation. Starships are great, but everyone likes a little piece made just for them.

Obviously, our current technology prohibits some of the fancier escape pod concepts found in science fiction. If you happen to catch 1979′s “Moonraker” (which, as it turns out, is fiction and not a documentary) on TV any time soon, you’ll even get to watch on as James Bond boards a shag-carpeted space shuttle to escape an exploding space station — and, of course, make love to the Bond girl. Just try those shenanigans in THESE real-life space escape vessels, Roger Moore:

Gemini LSRS: No one wants to wind up stranded in the hostile lunar wastes, yet the risks of this happening were rather high during the Apollo moon missions. As such, NASA designed the Gemini Lunar Surface Rescue Spacecraft (LSRS). In the event that a crew wound up stranded on the moon, NASA could send this unmanned craft to their landing site (a 30-day trip). Two crew members could then board craft and make a direct return to earth. NASA also developed an orbital variant aimed at rescuing three people marooned in lunar orbit, as well as a Lunar Surface Survival Shelter model, aimed at giving astronauts on the surface a little more time to await an actual rescue. They eventually planned to produce a Universal Lunar Rescue Vehicle to perform all three tasks for a trio of astronauts. When Earth’s interest in exploring the moon waned, so too did these plans. Read more about these fascinating designs over at Austronautix.com.

Soyuz TMA: Let’s say you’re on the International Space Station and, despite our best laid plans, something catastrophic happens. Maybe it’s space shrapnel or more problems with the station’s toilet facilities. Perhaps there’s just no more vodka. Whatever the dilemma, there is an escape craft on hand: a Russian Soyuz space capsule. We first flew one to the ISS in 2000 and, like a police shakedown at a Phish concert, there’s been at least one there ever since. Unlike a bottle-cap encrusted Volkswagen, however, this baby can survive reentry and, as with the 2009 space junk scare, provide a place of refuge. Following the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, the Soyuz served as the primary means of transport to and from the ISS. The trip up took two days, while the trip back lasted a mere 3.5 hours.

NASA’s X-38: What, is the Soyuz not a sexy enough return vehicle for you? Well you can thank President George W. Bush, whose funding cuts gave the axe to NASA’s X-38 program. Check out the photo here. Looking like some sort of mini-space shuttle, this sleek little automated return vehicle was designed to house seven crew members inside a pressurized aluminum chamber. The craft was designed to land on a skid. NASA progressed as far as performing drop tests from a B-52 before the project went belly up. According to Wired, the program had cost around $510 million so far and was just $50 million shy of completing its flight tests when the whole “We’re going back to the moon!” thing fell down the priority list.

ARIES 1 LAS: The shuttle era is at an end and, in the decade ahead, our astronauts will climb into Orion crew capsules atop towing Ares 1 rockets. As far as the overall design goes, this will be a return to the days of the Mercury and Apollo spacecraft. As such, expect to see the return of the launch escape system (LES) as well. This is a top-mounted rocket on the capsule that, in the event of a mishap during takeoff, can blast the manned capsule clear of the rocket and allow it to parachute back to Earth. The Soyuz uses this technology as well, while only the first four space shuttle flights had ejection seats. Anyway, as Popular Science covers here, the next-generation LAS systems are right around the corner, compete with a flight computer to guide the capsule to safety.

Max Launch Abort System (MLAS): If the tractor style above sounds a bit too retro, fear not. There’s a proposed alternative in NASA’s MLAS system. In this, the capsule launches free from the rest of the rocket by the use of four solid rocket engines in the capsule itself. So instead of a single top-mounted rocket pulling the capsule free, you have four rockets blasting the crew to safety in what looks like a stub-nosed mini rocket. NASA is still working out all the kinks but it’s shaping up to be a safer, more reliable escape system — and oh so much more attractive. Discovery Space’s Irene Klotz has the full story right here.

So there you have it. Some actual attempts to create a dependable plan B for space disasters. Walk, don’t run — and do remember the cat.

Abandon ship at HowStuffWorks.com:

How the Orion CEV Will Work

How Space Junk Works

How Space Shuttles Work

How Space Stations Work

Image: Everyone’s favorite space heroine, Lieutenant Ripley. Space heroin, however, is another issue entirely. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)