It's plausible that the EDS itself (if properly designed) wouldn't spare any mass for a door lock, but not at all plausible that there's no real attempt to keep unauthorized personnel off the flight deck — there's no reason not to install a locked door there.
Everybody except the stowaway herself understands the implications of the situation without having it spelled out, which suggests that the problem is supposed to be common knowledge. That raises another question: why does anybody try stowing away on an EDS? Presumably the "brutal and dangerous men" who would try such a thing plan to solve the excess-mass problem by tossing the pilot out the airlock — but if they expect to fly and land the thing themselves why not just steal an empty one (especially given the nonexistent security they seem to have) rather than wait for one to fly out on a mission?
"Why not just steal an empty one?" Because the cruiser has to briefly drop out of hyperspace to launch an EDS. You'd have to wait for them to do that, and given the brief window of opportunity, stowing away is probably the only way to ensure you can catch a ride.
"Everybody except the stowaway herself understands the implications of the situation without having it spelled out" That's exactly the one person the sign would be directed towards! Or, in general, people stowing away. That all said, with the logic this story runs on, you can easily argue that the sign would be extra weight.
The sign would be on the flight deck door, not the EDS itself. In fact there was a warning sign on the way in — a generic warning against unauthorized entry that for some reason didn't actually explain that stowing away would get you killed.
Or, for that matter, something to the effect of, "Secure area: Unauthorized personnel will be shot on sight."
Why isn't the EDS inspected before it gets sent on a critical mission with no margin for error?
In mitigation, it is repeatedly stated that such an event would be a probably less-than-once in the career of a pilot type incident, but in the event that it happened the pilot was trained to expect a complete lunatic. And he may have carried a sidearm simply because he was a military officer. Also, idiot teenagers die on railway lines all the time.
Mitigation? As noted below, if the pilot expects any stowaway who might have slipped on board to be "a complete lunatic", he really ought to check while he's still on the main ship and can get help dealing with said complete lunatic.
Anyway, are you saying he doesn't have the twenty seconds it would take to look around this tiny craft and see if there's any unexpected human-sized bundles sitting around? A pilot always checks his vehicle just for the sake of safety, regardless of whether or not there's a possibility of stowaways. He's about to trust his life to this thing!
The pistol may have had the unspoken purpose of letting the pilot shoot himself if he missed his deceleration-point and was stranded in space forever.
That doesn't make sense if every gram of mass counts — a cyanide pill is a lot smaller than a pistol.
The powerful impact of the story—and it is powerful, no question about it—is based entirely on a premise which I find completely implausible: to wit, that a spacecraft delivering critical supplies would be designed with no safety margin at all. Oh, pfui. They don't make tricycles without a hefty safety margin. And I'm quite sure that if you traveled back in time and interviewed Ugh the Neanderthal, he'd explain to you that his wooden club is plenty thick enough to survive any impact he can foresee. He made damn sure of that before he ventured out of his cave. He may have a sloping forehead, but he's not an idiot.
Spacecraft, all spacecraft, operate on a zero safety margin, because the energy cost of dragging additional fuel around with you is so mind-bogglingly huge that it is cheaper to lose a multi-billion dollar deep space mission than it is to add redundant systems.
Really? Zero safety margin? The Space Shuttle had five identical avionics computers, survivable abort modes for loss of up to 2 of the 3 main engines (and all 3 main engines after the first 90 seconds), and has successfully reached orbit (though a lower one than planned) even when losing an entire main engine (STS-51-F).
That's a limit of current technology, not a fundamental law of the universe. The incongruity comes in when this situation is juxtaposed with a universe of "huge hyperspace cruisers" luxurious enough to carry janitorial staff (the girl found out about the EDS launch because she was "practicing my Gelanese on the native girl who does the cleaning in the Ship's Supply office" when the order arrived at said office).
It isn't even a limit of current technology - spacecraft today have plenty of margin for error. The Apollo 13 mission is specifically a case of a spacecraft that proved capable of supporting an extra person over its design specifications.
It is explicitly stated within the story that the EDS consists of a life bubble and a drive system. There is no convenient "extra mass" to be jettisoned because the ship is stripped to the bare bones in the first place.
It is going to decelerate at 5 gees for an extended period of time in order to hit the atmosphere slowly enough that it won't BURN UP on entry. The pilot is making a mercy dash to a research outpost where he will be stranded for at least a year until a mothership can retrieve him. No 'emergency rations', no spare change of clothes, the crash couch is NOT an optional extra at 5 gee, and the door to the closet plus his sidearm (the only other named ship components) cannot possibly mass to greater than two kilograms.
He's going to be sitting somewhere with only one set of clothes for a year? The ship that finally picks him up had better have a good air-filtration system....
Finally, imagine the converse situation, a space LAUNCH where an extra 50 kilograms causes the ship to fail to reach it's correct orbit. Would everyone be crying foul then?
Yes, because it would mean somebody was idiotic enough to design and build an orbital launch vehicle that could be destroyed by accidentally being given two coats of paint at the factory instead of one. When you're talking about something that will cost you millions of dollars and kill people if it breaks, sane people design it so that it doesn't break that easily.
Why didn't the EDS have an automatic system that instantly notified the pilot when it detected that it was over-heavy?
For that matter, why did this ultra-minimalistic ship have a pilot anyway? It doesn't have a complex mission, so why don't they just make it a computer-controlled drone? I bet a computerized system built with centuries more advanced than present technology would weigh a lot less than pilot + life support + cockpit.
There had been many stories written about sophisticated computers by '54, and in any case, computers or not, unmanned spacecraft were being developed at that time.
And it's odd how the characters never even seem to consider trying things like finding mass on the EDS that can be disposed of or if necessary lightening the girl by removing her limbs. It's not really implausible that this wouldn't have worked but you'd think the girl would have suggested things like that anyway even if the pilot knew better and since the whole point of the story seems to be about how sometimes there really is no third option. It would have helped to see alternatives actually get shot down instead of the reader being left with the impression that possibly the girl could have been saved if the characters used their brains a little bit.
Removing her limbs? Are you serious? What, you think he has a full hospital staff and equipment on board? Yes, there are people who have survived removing their own arm with a pocket knife, but they are exceptional. There was one case of a young man who survived having both arms ripped off by a farm machine and managed to call for help on the phone. But the odds of surviving that are beyond calculation. Exactly how are they going to remove her limbs? Hospitals use circular saws, you think there is one on board? Just removing one arm without proper medical care is enough to kill many people.
Yes, it's insanely risky and she is likely- maybe even probably- going to die. However, it at least allows her to *roll the dice* and hope that shock, blood loss, and what have you do not kill her first. I don't know about you, but I'd rather take an option that offers long odds for my survival as opposed to certain death. That's hugely similar to the aesop the story was aiming for.
A ship, with a very serious mission, through the vacuum of space, doesn't have at least one doctor on board? I mean, at least then the option could be shot down instead of outright ignored. And if there is a bio-engineer anywhere near where they should land (or even just a normal engineer), we could expect her cut limbs to be replaced at the end.
The ship doesn't have a doctor because it only has one crewmember and is being sent on a mission that only lasts a matter of hours. They really weren't expecting him to need surgery during that time. Also, reattaching the limbs is going to be difficult after they get jettisoned out of the airlock.
Part of the problem is that the ship isn't properly portrayed as "ultra-minimalistic". At the tragic climax of the story where the pilot ejects the stowaway:
He shoved the red lever back to close the door on the empty air lock and turned away, to walk to the pilot's chair with the slow steps of a man old and weary.
Emphasis added, to highlight the point that a real "ultra-minimalist" emergency ship would be like the astronauts' description of a Project Mercury capsule: "You don't ride in it, you wear it."
Why does an "ultraminimalist" craft have an AIRLOCK or INTERNAL LIFE SUPPORT, for pete's sake? An airlock is only necessary if you're going outside the ship while in space (or dumping a body). If this is as stripped down as they claim, it should have a single layer door like a Gemini capsule — you have to depressurize the whole ship to open it in space. But that brings up the second point; why have internal life support? Design the ship to operate in hard vacuum and give the pilot a space suit that he remains inside for the duration. You can put a vacuum-proof container around anything that wouldn't do well if left exposed (like, say, jars of vaccine).
Better question: How much does that pilot chair weigh, and how much difficulty would there be in removing it, and tossing IT out the airlock? Yes, re-entry would be difficult without that chair, but not impossible.
Difficult in the sense of 'fatal for the pilot' as that chair seems to be the deceleration couch, and that alone might be a good reason to toss her out the airlock: would you rather die from depressurization, which is more or less fast, or being turned into chunky salsa by several gravities worth of force which may not be fast enough at being fatal?
Yeah, and that's a major flaw in "The Cold Equations": it's an Anvilicious morality play, and the dilemma's so obviously set up by the author that it falls apart the moment the reader starts asking questions like why they couldn't just lock the frickin' door. The story's sole purpose is to hit the reader with a gut-punch of an Aesop: once that impact wears off, the house of cards falls down.
It was apparently written as a Take That to the stories of the time, which always had happy endings, even if a Deus ex Machina was required to make it so. But though "The Cold Equations" is implausible, unsubtle, and exists solely to drop an anvil, the same can be said of many of its contemporaries.
In all fairness, the girl did appear to be completely harmless. Harmless-looking people can be terrorists or murderers just as easily as anyone else, but they tend to catch people in Real Life off guard when they are.
All true, but the story does have some Unfortunate Implications in the way it treats her gender as a mitigating factor. All the pilot has to do to convince his superiors that a real tragedy is unfolding is say "the stowaway is a girl". Even before he goes on to relay her motives, they're taken aback - and just a few seconds before, they were callously asking why he hadn't killed the stowaway yet!
Though, since the whole story's trying to subvert the usual plot where the man performs a Heroic Sacrifice to save the girl, perhaps it was written that way deliberately, to call out the reader's own innate prejudice. Had it been a man, most readers probably would have been more comfortable with the situation. The girl's innocence and beauty don't do her any good: the story's practically beating the audience over the head with the idea that the universe doesn't play favorites or show mercy, so the first step of that lesson is to lampshade our expectations about who's supposed to live and die in these kinds of stories, by having the pilot and mission control share them.
Woah, wait a second. How is the attitude that any random man is obviously a criminal deserving of death even remotely healthy?
The attitude also worsens one of the other plot holes. If the pilot's default assumption is that EDS stowaways are "warped men, mean and selfish men, brutal and dangerous men", that is all the more reason he should have searched the ship before taking off, so he could call for backup in case he encountered such a dangerous intruder.
As a more general principle, the total lack of a preflight inspection is Idiot Plot. If this is supposed to be some super ultra emergency mission being conducted well past reasonable safety margin, at the absolute outer limit of the spacecraft's fuel envelope, because its just that vital that this get through no matter what... then it makes no sense that there wasn't a pre-flight maintenance check so rigorous that it made a Formula One racing pit crew look like your neighbor who never changes his oil and drives on bald tires. If we're supposed to believe this is a critical mission being conducted under risky conditions, then shouldn't the characters be acting like it? Instead, we get a guy who just walks into his spacecraft, fires it up, and takes off without so much as doing a basic visual inspection of the interior space, as casual about the whole thing as if he were getting into a car to go deliver a pizza.
Oh, get real. A strong and and hardened man who lived through dangerous life and death situations, is living on the edge of civilization, where most of the people he encounters are either brave explorers or dangerous criminals and irresponsible adventurers. He encounters a young girl. Of course he feels pity for her, and yes, because she's a young and frail girl. And that feeling is not an "unhealthy attitude toward woman", it's a natural human reaction which will hopefully never vanish. What is really an "unhealthy attitude" is to present it as a proof on some kind of oppression of women, and gender inequality and political incorrectness and other craziness. There's absolutely nothing wrong to feel pity about someone who is weaker than you, and is in mortal danger because of a sad misunderstanding. And if 99% of criminals in a border world happen to be strong and brutal males (because of the harsh conditions), then assuming a stowaway being one of them, and feeling differently when finding a young girl is not any form of evil and outdated and unhealthy prejudice. Given the demographics of the border worlds, being a young and frail girl is and should be a mitigating factor.
It's less to do with his attitude, perhaps, than with the way it's articulated: The constant, almost fawning dwelling on her youth, her grace, her sweet perfume, her blue eyes, her soft brown hair, contrasts sharply with 'If she were a guy, he'd be dead by now.' It's implied that a male stowaway wouldn't have to be a crude opportunist; being male would be enough for the pilot to space said male stowaway with far less hestitation, which may imply that females are worth more, in their vulnerable, innocent fragility, than their male equivalent. That's just a guess, though.
What this troper found bothersome was the focus on her youth and "innocence": She calls her parents "Mama" and "Daddy" at eighteen, she's a "lonely little child" ignorant of laws which are unaffected by her 'innocence and youth and beauty,' and if she had stayed on Earth, it would have been well-mannered parties and gaiety in the moonlight, because that's what a woman does in the future, even if she picked up a new language and was heading to a job off-world. We even learn that she probably dropped out of college and worked part-time to support her family, yet the narration (and, by extension, the pilot) dwells on her being a pretty young girl. And while it was probably incidental, having her overcome the idea of death to by stymied by the idea of being ugly when she dies, on the heels of the repeated noting of her good looks, is a bit.. unfortunate. Granted, this was written in the 50's, so that was probably pretty progressive, but...
That's the point. You're supposed to notice how prejudiced the captain is.
Quite apart from the lack of security and the unwillingness to think of alternatives, one apparent oversight on the part of the author is how on earth is an EDS pilot supposed to get back home?
He's not... he is stuck there until he can be retrieved in a year's time. It's a potentially one-way mercy dash. Life's cheap out here on the rim.
Considering the EDS is a supply ship, it's not unreasonable to assume it carries its pilot's rations. Of course, it's not unreasonable to check for stowaways before you launch either.
Reason has no place in this story.
Rations for a year, or however long it takes another ship to swing by and recover him? He'd better hope his destination has a fatter "safety margin" than his ship, or they might have to draw straws....
You people seem to forget, he's landing at a colony. They will feed and clothe him for a year until a ship can swing by to pick him up. The colony has no trouble doing so, their only problem is the disease he is bringing the cure to. Plus there are likely a few people dead from it already, so he can take their place.
It's a survey expedition, not a colony. We're told that there are only 16 people on Woden, divided into 2 groups of 6 and 10 respectively, seperated by 8000 miles. With groups that small, a single extra person could be a strain on their resources.
One short story entitled 'The Cold Solution' (Analog magazine, early '90s) not only dealt with most of the fridge logic by having the stowaway being a cute kid who wanted to visit an uncle on a plague-stricken colony world, but proposed a working solution.
Is that the one where the guy cuts his limbs off — you call that a solution?
The pilot/narrator mentions that regeneration only works reliably with children, so she thinks she's out of luck (although she doesn't think it will affect her career as a spacer).
Assuming the theory of cutting her limbs off would reduce the weight enough to allow the ship to land safely is workable, the idea that a ship pilot would be able to (medically speaking, the fortitude to do so is another issue) do so without killing her is rather unlikely, to say the least.
Er, how exactly does "having the stowaway be a cute kid" solve any of the Fridge Logic problems? If anything, a little kid sneaking onto the flight deck makes the Swiss Cheese Security problem stick out like an even sorer thumb.
The kid would weigh less than the girl, draining less fuel, so they have to dump less weight than in the original story, so they can get by with just jettisoning some limbs instead of a full person. This Troper has never read The Cold Solution, but it seems like that's where it's going. The problem of the kid getting onboard in the first place is still there, though.
The key wallbanger to this story is something engineers call MARGIN OF ERROR. The author obviously had no perspective whatsoever on how a decent engineer thinks. No engineer with a full deck of cards is going to design a spacegoing vessel—- several tons of machine, fuel, and life support (air, water, food)— with a margin of error for fuel smaller than a couple hundred pounds. And if fuel was literally THAT tight, why didn't they make it a glider wing like the Space Shuttle, or at least install a parachute? The story would have worked better, honestly, as an investigation of the Utter Cheap Bastards in the company hierarchy who were so cheap and shortsighted that they wouldn't even fork over the cost of emergency backups, reliable security, or at least enough fuel to insure a safe landing,or even the cost of a stupid lock on the door. The story should have been called "the Bottom Line."
The problem with your proposed solution is that, as the title change implies, it changes the theme of the story. "The Cold Equations" is about how the universe is rigid and uncaring, not about how greedy people cause tragedies. The engineering mistakes are definitely ridiculous, though.
That isn't a problem with the solution. That is a further problem with the original story. If the premise can't survive even basic analysis, than its a bad premise.
Greedy and appallingly naive at the same time. If anyone had wanted to sabotage the UBS's mission, they could've just strolled on in, stuck a bomb in the cubbyhole the girl had hidden in, and walked out again. Or, if no bomb were available, even a simple load of luggage or junk that weighed the same as the girl could've skewed those equations enough to scrub the mission, with no radiant heat to betray its presence until too late. Heck, merely forgetting to empty the closet of whatever supplies it'd held before launch would do that.
For that matter, why does this ship even have a "closet" big enough to hide in? The most efficient allocation of mass (i.e. the only one that would be considered, given the "no margin for error" premise) would be to have a cargo compartment (with, at most, some hardpoints on the walls to attach stuff to — certainly no installed shelving, doors, or other clutter to provide a hidey-hole) and a cockpit just barely big enough for the pilot.
It would actually have made more sense if she was just hiding in a corner of the hold; maybe it was originally meant to ferry slightly larger cargo, so there was just enough space for her to squeeze into. Having a closet is... odd.
Even hiding in a cargo hold doesn't make much sense. If you're building a minimalist ship design, you'd want to avoid having to keep unnecessary areas pressurized and heated. Anyone hiding there would still die, but the process would be a bit more immediate.
In fairness, I said it would make more sense than a closet that wouldn't exist, not that it made any real sense. Besides, the term "minimalist" clearly means something different from the ship we're given, which - as pointed out further up - would have been far more compact than what's described. Who knows? Maybe this "minimalist" ship has an inexplicably heated/pressurized hold to match its unnecessary closet. Though if she did hide in the hold, and it was unheated/unpressurized, the entire issue would be neatly bypassed, since all you'd have to do is jettison the corpse.
In fact if they're willing to cut things as close as they appeared to the mission could have been endangered by him sitting too long on one side and altering the course by a tiny fraction of a degree during the trip, killing him and (since there is no one to jettison) leaving the entire population of the planet to die. Would have gotten the point across even better than the story he wrote.
I always wondered why they didn't have something on the ship that would light up red and go beep when the maximum was reached while they were loading it. Or prevent the ship from being deployed if it was over max. And if weight was such an important consideration, why didn't they have small, slightly built people piloting the thing instead of big bruiser spacefaring dudes as per usual?
"The Cold Equations" has been so long and so widely hailed as a "classic" that when Richard Harter posted the original version of his "Critical Analysis" — a lengthy, detailed Fridge Logic analysis — fans reacted in horror and outrage (or, as Harter himself put it, "The original posting triggered an extended discussion, conducted in the calm, even-handed, dispassionate style for which usenet is famed for").
Let me say two quick things in favor of Tom Godwin, the author of this short story. The first is, he DIDN'T want to kill the girl off. He sent the story to Astounding Magazine multiple times, each time with a non-lethal way of fixing the problem. It was the magazine's editor John W. Campbell who rejected each of Godwin's happier endings. It was Campbell, not Godwin, who wanted the girl to die. The second is that had the girl not been killed, NO ONE would remember this story 50+ years later. The cruelty of dealing with the situation in such a harsh manner is what made this story immortal, and I suppose Campbell probably understood that. The fact that it's horrific and goes against convention is what makes it stick out in a sea of similar stories. I mean, seriously people, how many people do you think would still be reading Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" all these years later if that story ended with everyone coming to their senses and abandoning their killing ritual?
I may be unique, but I judge works based on their merits and am not afraid to compare like to like simply because they are like. But even excepting that, and assuming it could be lost in a sea of similars, a distinct happy ending could have easily been produced and still be memorable. Maybe it could have been made into a movie. Or revolutionized society's views on women and on taking technological precaution - the problems are mainly human error, not the universe being cruel or cold.
YMMV clearly, because every 'solution' made above makes wildly optimistic assumptions, misreads the text or outright ignores the laws of physics as applied to spacecraft. The only complaint that can justifiably be levelled at it is that it is not clear in ruling out the impossibilities (every member of the crew, and the colonists, understand the situation so implicitly they jump straight to stoic despair) with the exception of the (huge and expensive) hyperdrive motherships, this is a very, very hard piece of scifi
It seems the main solutions are "Check before leaving", "Build a wider margin of error", and "Remove equivalent weight". So human error, human error, and human error. The captain obviously expects any stowaway to be a dangerous criminal - so why didn't he check before launch? The ship is massive and pretty roomy, but less than less than less than a fraction of a fraction of 1% of its weight causes it to swerve off-course only at the end of its trip? Plus, this ignores how the planets (if not stars) they pass would have their own masses also affecting the ship's course - and she would be insignificant to most of them as well. Hell, this last one "outright ignores the laws of physics as applied to spacecraft"! The third is odd because it is less-solvable directly, because it seems the ship is ultra-minimalist - but given the extra space and such the claim doesn't hold weight even if we do accept a human-weight margin-of-error.
The problem isn't the solution — as mentioned above, the problem is the fact that the scenario is implausible in the extreme for multiple reasons.
That's not necessarily a problem, if you read it as a morality play. But if the story is an Aesop about an impartial universe sometimes requiring cruel actions, the moral starts to fall apart once you wonder if things would have been different, had whoever designed the craft considered a margin of error. Or, if that would have been too inefficient, maybe they could have replaced the closet with a button that flashed before take-off if the ship was over its weight-limit. Or maybe this carefully-constructed ship and its precious cargo could have been better-secured, so that random college students can't just walk aboard. After a point, the moral sounds less like "An impartial universe forces cruel choices" and more "Human error forces cruel, potentially-avoidable choices."
Here's one for you: If so little additional weight requires enough expenditure of fuel to throw off the landing, shouldn't the ship already be doomed because it expended more fuel launching?
Perhaps there was just enough error margin to account for that, and it was all used up. Still, that puts the margin of error on safe operations from 'non-existent' to 'uselessly small'.
Or maybe the initial launch is done using a launcher on the mothership rather than the ship's rocket. Of course this doesn't address the issue of why that system didn't do a weight check since weight would be pretty critical for that as well.
Why isn't there a copilot? All 20th and 21st century aircraft, barring privately owned airplanes designed to hold only one or two people and some luggage, require a copilot, just in case the pilot has some sort of a medical issue and is rendered unable to fly. If there had been a copilot, then instead of having to toss the girl out the airlock, there could have been a Heroic Sacrifice instead. The overall message would not have been lost (in space, there is absolutely no margin for error, or someone will die), and the end of the story would not have been quite so depressing.
This entire page seems to ignore one very important thing: There is very little less important to story function than scientific plausibility. Thing is, this wasn't supposed to be a story explaining the various ins and outs of a fictional universe. It is, first and foremost, a story about the cruel necessity of one girl's death to save others. The lack of fulfillment the ending creates? The feeling that it all could have been avoided? That's the point. And no amount of scientific accuracy would change it.
This objection ignores one very important thing: the complaints are not about 'scientific plausibility', they're about how this entire story can't exist in the first place unless every significant actor in the story has the IQ of an oxygen-deprived lemming on muscle relaxants. We have a trope for that.
This would be more believable if the story didn't beat the reader over the head with the "cold scientific reality" of the rocket equations and how the girl's death was a necessary due to scientific laws and various engineering constraints.
Bingo. A story whose Aesop is 'sometimes horrible things happen due to engineering constraints' has an obligation to make the engineering make sense — otherwise, it subverts its own Aesop, and the real lesson the story teaches becomes 'protip: don't hire morons to be your engineering staff'.
I don't think the premise of the story (physics are unforgiving) and the criticism (the engineering is bad) are incompatible. In RL, physics really are unforgiving, and this story the girl doesn't know it, yes... But I'd argue that the designers do know it and just don't care, or simply accept the risks. Yes, they could have done things better. Who fucked up? The girl? The designers? The pilot? All of them? The universe doesn't care who fucked up. There are laws of physics. Maybe you are ignorant like the girl, or maybe you know the consequences but just don't care, like the designers, maybe it could've been prevented, but once the situation got rolling, all the what-ifs don't matter. Remember the 9/11 hijackers? In hindsight, it's clear that having poor cabin doors can be a bad idea, but that doesn't make all the passengers less dead. And even then, when someone jacked your plane, you were expected to get ransomed off, not flown into a building. I mention this point because people complain about the pilot and his pistol. He was under the idea that only violent maniacs would try to jack the ship. I thought the gun was for his protection. If you think only crazy dudes try to stow away, you'll also think someone crazy enough to try would also be willing to kill you and jettison your body. I'd say the gun was for his protection, mostly.