Standard Gear

There will be standard "Doc" Smith items like binoculars, anti-nuclear flash goggles (if you have to observe an atomic space battle, or be exposed to blinding laser beams. The US Air Force is developing anti-laser contact lenses), highly accurate wrist and pocket chronometer (for astrogation observations), and a service sidearm. Don't forget your atomic pen.

If the ship has no artificial gravity, you might need some magnetic boots.

Space Angel

Within a block of the spaceport dozens of surplus stores catered to spacers. The end of the War had dumped millions of tons of surplus gear on the market, and the shops had sprung up overnight. Ideal places for a spacer to outfit himself cheaply. Torwald headed toward the most reputable-looking of these establishments.

"First," Torwald said, "something to stash it all in." The proprietor brought a spacebag in the glossy gray-black favored by the Navy toward the end of the War. Torwald's own bag was the more traditional dark blue.

Torwald rubbed his palms together. "Now, some protective gear." He was enjoying this, and Kelly was delighted with the amassing of the specialized equipment of his new trade. They went to a section where protective clothing was hung from racks or mounted on stands, everything from antipersonnel-missile-resistant vests to suits of articulated plates made from hardened ceramic fiber. Torwald picked out a one-piece coverall of armor cloth.

"Is that for stopping bullets?" Kelly asked.

"Well, partly. But, you'll be going places where thorns and fangs and stickers and stingers and the like are deadlier than any bullet. That's what the armor cloth is for, mainly. Do you have a knife?" Kelly took one out of his pocket: a spring-blade model, cheaply produced. "Get rid of it. That's only useful for sticking people. I'll find you a better one." He checked the display case at the front of the shop, finally choosing a heavy-bladed sheath knife and a small folding pocket model with several tools in the handle besides the knife blade. "These'll do just about anything. Besides which, if necessary, you can always stick people with them."

Then Torwald selected cold-weather gear, a wrist chrono and calculator, work gloves, clothing—all the necessities for a spacer's bag. Last of all, Torwald took Kelly to the rear of the shop, where the footwear was kept. They rummaged around for a few minutes while Torwald gave him a running lecture on the virtues of good boots.

"You might not think so, kid, but boots are more important than any other item of a spacer's equipment. That's because you never know when you may be set afoot, or in what terrain, or in what climate." Kelly didn't like the sound of the expression "set afoot."

"Besides," Torwald continued, "a spacer has very little to do with space, any more than a sailor has with water. It's just something to get across to reach the planets, where the jobs are. And on the ground, you need boots. Aha, jackpot!" With that exclamation, he pulled a pair of boots from a bin. "Genuine pre-War unissued Space Marine boots!"

"How can you tell they're pre-War?" Kelly asked, sorting through the bin to find a pair that fit. Torwald turned a boot sole-up.

"See those little threaded holes? That's where they used to screw in the magnetic plates. They haven't used those plates in fifty years, but the Navy required that the mounts be left there in case of equipment failures. When the War came along, they dropped that reg, and a lot of quality, to cut costs. These boots will last you a lifetime."

At the entrance of the shop, Kelly caught sight of himself in a full-length mirror. He saw himself as he had always dreamed, wearing a spacer's coverall and boots. The coverall hung slack from his thin frame, and the effect was that of a boy dressed up to look like a spacer. He still didn't feel like one. Then Kelly noticed Torwald reflected over his shoulder in the mirror, grinning at his self-absorption.

"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)

Computers and Communicators

(ed note: much of this section was originally written around 1998 or so. Sections that are crossed out like this are bits that have become obsolete since 1998.)

Additional equipment will include a MOTE IN GOD'S EYE pocket computer, er, ah, Palm PDA smart phone (with a wireless wifi connection to the ship's computer network, if any) and one of those FORBIDDEN PLANET radio-TV communicators.

I cannot believe that the 1969 1974 1994 1999 2001 2005 vintage Star Trek communicators still don't have a video camera, as do the gadgets in the 1956 FORBIDDEN PLANET. How else can you tell if the "all clear" message from your landing party is due to a report given by a sweating crewmember with a Klingon sonic disrupter inserted up their nose? They had TV communicators in Space:1999 for cryin' out loud. Not to mention the VueComms from Johnny Quest).

There is a scene in FORBIDDEN PLANET where the captain and landing party gets a scheduled check-in call from the ship. As per standard operating procedure, the captain acknowledges the call, then turns on the video camera and pans around to prove that he is not speaking under duress.

The pocket computer also appears in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's IMPERIAL EARTH under the name "MiniSec", which I presume is short for "Miniature Secretary".

In the THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE (1974), the pocket computer was also a communicator. When I wrote the previous sentence, before the iPhone had been invented, I was making a shrewd non-obvious observation about converging technologies. But since then, smart phones have become commonplace items. They are basically communicators which are also pocket computers.

In Space:1999, the commlocks were video communicators which also acted as electronic keys to open doors. Currently in the real world several companies are trying to make smart phones into credit cards, which is much the same thing.

Of course, the future is today. Pictured below is the Handspring Treo Apple iPhone, which is a pocket-computer/cell-phone combination. It is also a digital camera. I can picture a special vest pocket on officer's uniforms for such a device, with the camera facing outwards, and a built-in cloth sleeve to route the earphone wire up the shoulder and into the ear Bluetooth earphone.

And no science fiction story I am aware of predicted that the main use of smart phones would be, not to talk to people, but to run the zillions of "apps" that do a few usefull and lots of useless functions.

Another interesting feature of the Handspring line was the late lamented "Springboard" expansion slot. This functioned much like the USB port on your computer, the one with the bewildering plethora of gadgets to plug in. So take your Treo, plug in the sensor module, and suddenly you have a Tricorder. There would be modules for geological survey, medical diagnostics, language translation, electronic multimeter, oscilloscope, reference textbooks on a card, various expert systems, and GPS navigation (which would revert to "dead reckoning" if you were stuck on an unexplored planet with no GPS satellites and your survey ship left orbit).

(Since I wrote the prior crossed out sections, things have changed. You do not need reference textbooks if you have a link to the ship's subset of the internet. And you do not need a GPS module since practically all smart phones come with one as standard equipment)

For planetary explorers, a very useful function would be a dynamic map, with a indicator showing your current location and other important locales (like where your scoutship is). A GPS app in other words. However, you cannot use a GPS locator unless the scoutship has placed a GPS satellite constellation in orbit. And already mapped the planet from orbit so it can download the map into your smart phone. Without a GPS satellite, the app can only do dead reckoning (which gradually gets more and more inaccurate as the errors compound).

Planetary explorers would also find useful a weather forcasting app. Which would require the scoutship to orbit a weather satellite.

A camera (still and video) with automatic uploading of images to the scoutship is also valuable in a planetary survey. Especially if the interesting animal the scout photographs turns around and eats the scout. The last image might be the interior of the animal's esophagus but at least the warning will reach the ship.

Also useful for scouts is a link to the scoutship's database. If they were on a civilized planet the scouts would just surf Google, Wikipedia, and maybe Yelp; but on an unexplored world the only available parts of the internet are those you bring along with you.

I'm sure if you look over lists of modern-day apps for smartphones, you will get ideas about ones that will be useful for planetary explorers.

Explorer smartphones will have to be MIL-SPEC. Dropping your phone and breaking the glass screen can be fatal, it is too vital for a scout's survival. It will have to be rugged enough to hammer a nail with no damage, and capable of surviving a trip through a large animal's digestive tract.

Info Pad

Desperately Seeking the Info Pad

     What they want is something that can go with them all the time, and that will function as an extended memory and as a way to capture their ideas. Specifically, they need to capture notes, sketches, and documents; work with databases; and look up information instantly. They need a brain extender, a true information appliance.
     I call it an info pad. That's the product I want someone to build.
     It's larger than a handheld and smaller than a tablet PC. About the size and thickness of a steno pad. It has a touch-sensitive screen on the front, and very few buttons.

(ed note: see illustration above)

     What the product does

     First and foremost, ink. You write on the screen and it captures your notes and drawings. It's as much like writing on a pad of paper as possible, because the thing you're replacing is the paper notepad or journal that students and knowledge workers carry with them all the time.
     When I say "ink" I mean literally ink – put pixels exactly where the user touches the pen. Tablet PC converts pen strokes to quadratic b-splines, which is mathspeak for curved lines. That process subtly changes the letter forms, smoothing and altering them. It uses a lot of computing power (meaning it needs a faster processor and bigger batteries), and it seems to introduce a slight delay to the interface. You feel like you're using the stylus to push lines around on the screen rather than just writing and forgetting about the computer. I know some people like it, but I found it maddening.
     One of the most important features of the info pad is something it doesn't do: handwriting recognition. Most of the note-taking devices that companies have tried to make over the years, from Newton to Tablet PC, make on-screen handwriting recognition a marquee feature. Your handwriting turns into printed text. That's a logical feature to pursue if you're an engineer; character recognition is an elegant way to bridge the gap between human and computer. It frees us from the tyranny of the keyboard.
     The only problem is, it doesn't work.
     Or maybe a better way to put it would be, it almost works. It's just good enough to get people to try it, creating the expectation that it'll be as foolproof as using a keyboard. But then a few words get garbled, you start going back and trying to correct things, and suddenly you're spending more time managing the device than doing your work.
     This is deadly. It's also unnecessary. The purpose of our device is to let you capture your own ideas and information, so you can refer back to it later. In this context, character recognition is useless. You can read your own handwriting. Just capture ink, do a great job of making that effortless, and punt the rest. You may not get written up in Scientific American, but you'll sell a heck of a lot more product.
     Okay, so now we're writing on the screen. We've replaced two incredibly useful and inexpensive tools, pen and paper, with something more expensive and less flexible. What's the benefit? A couple of things.
     First, our device is an endless notebook. You can keep all your notes in it. Forever. For your entire life. This won't seem like a big deal to a 20 year old, but after you've been in business for a while, there comes a time when you remember a meeting you had a year ago when you heard something brilliant and relevant to the issue at hand. You know you wrote it down, but you also know it's in an old notebook that you filled up and stored in the garage somewhere. Forget about finding it – you might as well have never taken the notes in the first place.
     If you have an info pad, that need never happen again. We'll compress and store all your notes, permanently.
     What's more, we're going to sync the device to your calendar and address book. So it'll know when and where you took the notes, and if the meeting had an attendee list you'll know who was there as well. You can then use all this information to look up old notes.
     This mimics the way people remember things, through associations. You'll remember that the meeting was at a particular conference, or that someone specific was in the room, or that it was the same month as your trip to Mexico. With notes that are cross-referenced with your calendar and contacts, you can browse just the ones that you took at that time, or with that person, or in that location. You may have to look through a few pages, but we should be able to narrow the search enough that it'll be pretty easy to find what you need.
     I said earlier that we won't use handwriting recognition in the device, but I exaggerated. There is one useful task for handwriting recognition in an info pad: indexing. In the background, without pointing it out to the user, the info pad will attempt to recognize the user's notes, in order to build an index to them. The recognized text will never be shown to the user, so we don't have to worry about how many words are misspelled. Recognition that's only 80% or 90% effective is useless for writing a memo, but good enough to create a fantastic index.
     The killer app in an info pad isn't the note-taking, it's the lookup and indexing functions. This produces one simple benefit for a user: If you write something down in an info pad, you'll never forget it again.
     I don't know about you, but in my information-overloaded life, that would be golden.

     The personal archive. The other primary task of an info pad is storing and displaying documents and databases. People in information-heavy jobs typically have documents, files, or reports that they may need to refer to during the day. We'll make it easy for the user to identify those documents, whether they're on the user's PC or on the Internet, and then we'll keep them synced so the user always has the latest version.
     This archive of documents can be quite rich if the user wants it to be. Storage capacity on mobile devices has been growing explosively. We're kind of blase about that, maybe because storage capacity is even higher on PCs. But even a few gigs of storage can hold an amazing amount of information. For example, one gigabyte could hold the uncompressed text from about 2,800 novels. With compression, you could easily double that, if not a lot more. So we're talking the text of at least 5,000 novels, which is one a week for every week of your life if you live to be 96. That's more text than most people will read in their lives.
     What would our information-hungry, memory-extending user do with all that storage? I'm not sure, but one thing I'd do is carry an archive of all my e-mails. Every e-mail I've ever sent. Incoming and outgoing, personal and business. Not the enclosures (they're too large), but the text. It would be great to be able to also capture snapshots of Web articles that I want to refer back to in the future. Make all of this indexed and searchable just like the notes. So this is another part of my life where I'll never forget anything.

     Sketching. I do think we should put basic sketching functionality in the info pad, though. It may not a Moleskine replacement in version one, but it should let users create simple sketches and drawings easily. That's a part of note-taking.

     Size. 9" high, 6" wide, 1" thick (23cm x 15cm x 2.5cm). If you can make it thinner, all the better. The info pad does not fit in your pocket; it goes in your bag or on your desk. Basically, it lives wherever your paper notebook lives today.
     Weight. The weight of a thick paperback book – 16 ounces or less (450 grams). This would be far too much for a phone or handheld, but this is a different device. You won't be holding it up to your face.
     Screen. High resolution grayscale, very high contrast ratio, touch sensitive. Color is optional – color screens generally have larger pixels and lower contrast ratios, making them harder to read. I think some people are going to disagree about color, but it's not essential to note-taking or document reading. (Think about it – how many of us carry colored pens or pencils so we can take notes in color?)
     The ideal screen technology would be the e-ink displays being used in Sony's and Philips' new e-book products. I've seen e-ink technology in person, and it's stunning – the whites are very white, and the blacks are pretty darned black. It looks like a photocopied sheet of paper. It's very hard to see in photographs how much better the screens look; you have to see them in person. To me, as an old-time printing guy, they were breathtaking.
     Unfortunately, e-ink screens have a huge drawback – latency. They work by physically driving tiny black particles to the front or back of a white liquid. This takes a lot more time than flipping on and off a liquid crystal pixel.
     This is very visible in Sony's e-book reader – when you flip the page, it visibly turns all black, then all white, then draws the new page. It's like the flicker you get from a bad video edit, and just as annoying. This is acceptable in an e-book, where the pages don't change often. But it eliminates the possibility of doing anything interactive, like drawing or writing.
     When I was investigating the info pad idea last summer, I talked to someone deeply involved in e-ink technology. The sad message was that it'll be at least two more product generations before they can flip pixels fast enough for effective note-taking – and that will happen only if some potential customer pushes them to do it. Right now the push is for other features -- the biggest demand for e-ink displays right now is for advertising signs that can be changed when needed, and high latency is acceptable there.
     So for version one of the info pad, I think our first choice is a very high-resolution, high-contrast grayscale LCD screen. I've seen some beautiful ones in Japan, so I know they exist.
     Battery life. It needs to run all day with heavy usage (assume eight hours of meetings or classes). That's one of the reasons I specified the thickness at one inch. I think the customer would accept a little more thickness to get a device that can run all day long.
     Slots. One SD, one PCMCIA. The SD slot is for adding extra memory. This lets our base device be less expensive. The PCMCIA slot is for a cellular wireless card, if the user wants it. It would add a lot of cost to build a cellular radio into the info pad, and more to the point we'd then have to create separate devices for separate network standards, and sell through the carriers. Been there, done that, want none of it.
     Built-in wireless. Mandatory: Bluetooth. Not so much to talk to other devices, but for syncing with the user's PC. Cradles are a pain in the butt for a manufacturer. They're inevitably expensive, and the connector is subject to all sorts of breakage and other problems. Instead we ship the device with Bluetooth built in, and a small USB Bluetooth dongle that the user can attach to his or her PC. Then we can buy a nice cheap standardized power supply that plugs into the info pad.
     Optional: WiFi. If we can afford it, we should have WiFi built into the device, just so no one complains about it being missing. But keep in mind that this is a note-taking appliance, not a PC. WiFi isn't essential to the core operation of the device.
     Camera. Built-in one megapixel camera. The lens is on the back or front edge of the info pad. Why build in a camera? Because it helps with note-taking – you can take pictures of notes on a whiteboard, and you can take pictures of pages in a book or magazine. No more time wasted jotting down things from a whiteboard, or copying quotes out of a book for a research paper.
     Built in applications. Note-taker, document viewer, calendar, contacts, to-do, calculator, search. That's it.

From Desperately Seeking the Info Pad by Michael Mace (2006)


A Tricorder is one of the many iconic gizmos created for the original Star Trek TV show that have captured the imagination of science fiction fans. When exploring an alien planet, Captain Kirk will have a phaser weapon, Doctor McCoy will have his medikit, but Mr. Spock will always have his trusty tricorder. Because science.

A tricorder is a multifunction hand-held device used for sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data. The word "tricorder" is an abbreviation of the device's full name, the "TRI-function reCORDER", referring to the device's primary functions; Sensing, Computing and Recording.

In other words, it is a smart phone with a sensor array and lots of RAM. As with all smart phones it will have lots of apps.

However, nowadays everything is all about The Cloud. When you record something, you don't store it locally in your device's RAM, you upload it to the Cloud. Which means nowadays Mr. Spock would be carrying around a Triloader, not a Tricorder.

Well, maybe not. For space explorers on a newly-discovered planet the only available cloud server is probably on the spacecraft they arrived in. Which means no uploading if the tricorder in question is out of contact range or if the spacecraft has exploded or something. There are some advantages to local data storage. Cloud computing seems more suited for the more civilized places in the galaxy, while tricorders have many applications in the more uncivilized areas.

Sensor Array

Like all smart phones, the tricorder will have a still/video camera, and a microphone.

Other sensors could include:

Tricorder sensor arrays might incorporate sensors used by spacecraft remote-sensing suites:


An international team of researchers has developed a proof of concept for a working hand-held chemical scanner. In their paper published in the journal Nano Letters, the team describes their ideas and their belief that they will have a working model within five years and a device for sale within 10.

Science fiction has featured characters wielding hand-held chemical scanning devices for years, but in the real world, that has hardly been the case—mass spectrometers and MRI machines are big and bulky, and not likely to be carted into the field for on-the-spot testing. But that may change over the next few years as the researchers with this new effort describe plans for a scanner small enough to be carried in the hand—a diamond-based quantum device that borrows technology from atomic clocks and gravitational wave detectors.

To create their device, they are looking at ways to take advantage of the development of nanomechanical sensors and quantum nanosensors—they describe the mass spectrometry part of their device as making use of the mass changes that occur when a molecule attaches to a diamond defect. Creating the rest of the device, they report, involves surveying current devices and then looking at ways of miniaturizing them to the point that they can be included on one or a small number of chips.

To that end, they have outlined principles for implementing nanomechanical sensing using nanospin-mechanical sensors in such a device and have also been assessing the potential for mass spectrometry and force microscopy in an extremely small space, compared to those that exist today. Such a device, they suggest, could be easily commercialized. They are now at the stage of building a prototype.

The team describes their future device as a tool for use by people in laboratories who do not have the funds to buy today's bulky machines. They suggest it could also prove useful to environmental researchers in the field. The device would have biosecurity applications and as a chemical scanner that could be used by doctors to perform tests on patients in their comfort of their office. It would provide analytical power at the nanoscale, they claim, in ways that have never been seen before.

(ed note: from paper Nanomechanical sensing using spins in diamond)


Now Stanford electrical engineers have taken the latest step toward developing such a device through experiments detailed in Applied Physics Letters and presented at the International Ultrasonics Symposium in Taipei, Taiwan.

The work, led by Assistant Professor Amin Arbabian and Research Professor Pierre Khuri-Yakub, grows out of research designed to detect buried plastic explosives, but the researchers said the technology could also provide a new way to detect early stage cancers.

The careful manipulation of two scientific principles drives both the military and medical applications of the Stanford work.

First, all materials expand and contract when stimulated with electromagnetic energy, such as light or microwaves. Second, this expansion and contraction produces ultrasound waves that travel to the surface and can be detected remotely.

The basic principle of this interaction was first revealed in 1880 when Alexander Graham Bell was experimenting with wireless transmission of sound via light beams. Bell used light to make sound emanate from a receiver made of carbon black, which replicated a musical tone.

The Stanford engineers built on the principles demonstrated in Bell's experiment to develop a device to "hear" hidden objects.

Proof of principle

The new work was spurred by a challenge posed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), best known for sponsoring the studies that led to the Internet. DARPA sought to develop a system to detect plastic explosives buried underground – improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – that are currently invisible to metal detectors. The task included one important caveat: The detection device could not touch the surface in question, so as not to trigger an explosion.

All materials expand and contract when heated, but not at identical rates. Ground, especially muddy ground soaked with water, absorbs more heat than plastic.

In a potential battlefield application, the microwaves would heat the suspect area, causing the muddy ground to expand and thus squeeze the plastic. Pulsing the microwaves would generate a series of ultrasound pressure waves that could be detected and interpreted to disclose the presence of buried plastic explosives.

Sound waves propagate differently in solids than air, with a drastic transmission loss occurring when sound jumps from the solid to air. That's why, for instance, ultrasound images of babies in utero must be taken through direct contact with the skin.

The Stanford team accommodated for this loss by building capacitive micromachined ultrasonic transducers, or CMUTs, that can specifically discern the weaker ultrasound signals that jumped from the solid, through the air, to the detector.

"What makes the tricorder the Holy Grail of detection devices is that the instrument never touches the subject," Arbabian said. "All the measurements are made though the air, and that's where we've made the biggest strides."

Solving the technical challenges of detecting ultrasound after it left the ground gave the Stanford researchers the experience to take aim at their ultimate goal – using the device in medical applications without touching the skin.

Touchless ultrasound

Arbabian's team then used brief microwave pulses to heat a flesh-like material that had been implanted with a sample "target." Holding the device from about a foot away, the material was heated by a mere thousandth of a degree, well within safety limits.

Yet even that slight heating caused the material to expand and contract – which, in turn, created ultrasound waves that the Stanford team was able to detect to disclose the location of the target, all without touching the "flesh," just like the Star Trek tricorder.

Real-world Tricorders

There are numerous toys and props that simulate a Star Trek tricorder (in its many incarnations in the various Trek TV shows). But the state of the art has advanced enough that many people are attempting to make actual functional instruments. Companies are permitted to call such devices a "tricorder" because Gene Roddenberry's contract included a clause allowing any company able to create functioning technology to use the name.

In 1996 Vital Technologies Corporation sold a device they called the "Official Star-Trek Tricorder Mark 1". They managed to market about 10,000 of them before going bankrupt. The unit had an "Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Meter", "Two-Mode Weather Station" (thermometer and barometer), "Colorimeter" (no wavelength given), "Light meter", and "Stardate Clock and Timer" (a clock and timer).

In 2008 the biotech firm QuantuMDx released details of their handheld DNA lab Q-POC for developing countries, which could diagnose a variety of illnesses with one drop of the patient's blood and only 15 minutes analysis time. In their 2014 crowdfunding camapaign they solicited names for the device, naturally everybody suggested "Tricorder."

In 2008 researchers from Georgia Tech announced their portable hand-held multi-spectral imaging device, and the next day several tech blogs were calling the device a "Tricorder".

In 2009 engineers developed an ultrasound scanner that connects to a smartphone via usb port. The phone acts as the display screen.

As far back as 2009 NASA had been looking into creating sensors that would plug into an iPhone to make a tricorder-like instrument. The prototype sensor module was only able to detect and identify low concentrations of airborne ammonia, chlorine gas and methane; but hey, it's a start.

In 2011 the X Prize Foundation announced with Qualcomm Incorporated the Tricorder X Prize. The constest is to develop a medical mobile device that can diagnose patients as well as or better than a panel of board certified physicians. There is a a US$7 million Grand Prize, US$2 million Second Prize, and US$1 million Third Prize. The winning entry must be an automatic non-invasive health diagnostics packaged into a single portable device that weighs no more than 2.3 kg, able to diagnose over a dozen medical conditions, including whooping cough, hypertension, mononucleosis, shingles, melanoma, HIV, and osteoporosis. There are currently about ten finalists.

In 2012, Dr. Peter Jansen announced having developed an open-source handheld mobile computing device modeled after the design of the tricorder. His early designs can be found here, the current project (Arducorder Mini tricorder) can be found here.

Dr. Jansen's science tricorder mark 2 has sensors to measure atmospheric temperature, humidity and pressure; magnetometer, colorimeter, non-contact IR thermometer, ambient light level, GPS position, ultrasonic distance measurement, accelerometer, and gyroscope intertial measurement.

Dr. Jansen's Arducorder Mini tricorder has sensors for atmospheric temperature, humidity and pressure; a multi-gas sensor (carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ethanol, hydrogen, ammonia, methane, propane, and iso-butane), 3-axis magnetometer, ambient light level, x-ray and gamma-ray detector, low-res thermal camera, polarimeter, ultraviolet detector, spectrometer, 3-axis accelerometer, and a microphone. It can also stream the data over wifi to an online server.

I want one. And so does RocketCat.

AntiRadiation Gear

If the spacecraft is atomic powered, radiation dosimeters will be a standard part of a rocketeer's uniform. This monitors the crewperson's exposure to radiation from nuclear rocket engines, nuclear power generators, and exploding nuclear warheads. The ship's doctor, medical corpsman, or radiation officer will be in charge of recording the readings and referring the crewperson for medical attention if their cumulative dose climbs too high.

The crew may or may not wear another dosimeter optimized to measure exposure to galactic cosmic rays and solar proton storms.

Potassium Iodide tablets would also be valuable. If the reactor core is breached, the mildly radioactive fuel and the intensely radioactive fission fragments will be released into the atmosphere. While none of the fission fragment elements are particularly healthy, Iodine-131 is particularly nasty, since one's thyroid gland does its best to soak up iodine, radioactive or not. Thyroid cancer or a hoarse voice from thyroid surgery might be common among atomic rocket old-timers. The instant the reactor breach alarm sounds, whip out your potassium iodide tablets and swallow one.

The StemRad corporation manufactures personal protective equipment (PPE) for ionizing radiation. In July 2015 it was announced that StemRad would be partnering with aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to develop personal radiation protection for astronauts.

A lead-lined suit with enough Tenth Value Thickness multiples to protect a crewperson would be so massive that they couldn't move. In a gravity field or under acceleration they would lie helpless on the ground like an upside down turtle. In freefall they would spend lots of time and muscle to get up to speed. Then they discover the hard way it takes just as much time and muscle to brake to a halt as they fail to stop from smashing into a bulkhead.

StemRad figures if you cannot stop the radiation, the next best thing is to allow the poor person's body regenerate the damage (before they die). The human tissue which does this best is the bone marrow, which unfortunately very radiation sensitive. So where is the largest concentration of bone marrow? Why, the hip bone of course (a fact well known to anybody who has donated bone marrow).

Therefore the StemRad 360 Gamma antiradiation vest only protects the hips.

According to StemRad's data sheets, the StemRad 360 Gamma can increase the LD50 dosage from 4 Grays to 10 Grays. An increase factor of 2.5 is nothing to sneeze at. To further reduce the mass of the vest the protective material varies in thickness to account for pelvic bone marrow depth and the natural attunation properties of human tissue.


"And the googles. I admit that every spaceship officer I've ever seen wears them but I've never seen them used for anything except as sunglasses. Care to explain?"

"The goggles and binoculars form part of the traditional uniform," Larry answered. "The goggles come from the First Jovian War when they were used as eye protection from atomic explosions and laser radiation. The originals had a semi-opaque liquid driven between the lenses by an explosive charge when a certain intensity or type of light hit a sensor on them. The modern ones use a high speed, reversible, light intensity limiting effect; phototropism it's called. Of course neither item is required unless you're using direct viewports."

From New Lensman by William Ellern

Nick Derington mentions that goggles are used on the International Space Station to protect the eyes from debris floating in free fall. You do NOT want metal shaving getting into your eyes. This hazard was discovered by the original Salyut and Mir cosmonauts, the hard way.

On ISS, safety goggles are nominally worn when crews enter new modules that have just arrived on orbit (in which fans have not yet been turned on the draw particulate into the filters).


In his novel Space Angel, John Maddox Roberts suggests that the crew of an interstellar spacecraft would carry "tracetabs". These are dietary supplement pills, containing all the trace elements required for health. If one finds oneself marooned on an alien planet, the local food might be missing vital elements. Tracetabs are kept in a tin on a chain around one's neck, and contain about three thousand tabs.

"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)

In free fall the rocketeers may also use a "broomstick" to move around.

If you want to brainstorm some ideas for specialized equipment, you may want to look over some of the gear carried by Batman. Or James Bond.

But you must resign yourself to the fact that when you are writing a science fiction novel. No matter how up-to-date you try to make the gadgets and equipment, in forty years it will all seem as quaint as those 1950's SF novels full of slide rules and people smoking cigarettes.

Nonstandard Gear

Lie Detector

A lie detector is a jolly science fiction gadget which often comes in handy. I say "science fiction" because they don't exist in the real world. This is because that hoary old lie detector called the "polygraph" is utterly worthless. In science fiction, the concept dates back at least as far as G K Chesterton's 1913 story "The Mistake of the Machine".

And obviously a working lie detector cannot detect a lie uttered by a person who truly believes the lie is truth. Because as far as the person is concerned it isn't a lie at all. It is also sometimes possible for people to circumvent the lie detector by telling literal but misleading truths (example: "The Best Policy" by Randall Garrett).

A related concept is truth compeller (interfering with the subject's ability to deceive). And in the real world so-called Truth Serums have not been proven to be more reliable than a placebo.


In one huge room, ballroom or concertroom or something, there were prisoners herded, and men from the Nemesis were setting up polyencaphalographic veridicators, sturdy chairs with wires and adjustable helmets and translucent globes mounted over them. A couple of Morland's men were hustling a People's Watchman to one and strapping him into a chair.

"You know what this is, don't you?" one of them was saying. "This is a veridicator. That globe'll light blue; the moment you try to lie to us, it'll turn red. And the moment it turns red, I'm going to hammer your teeth down your throat with the butt of this pistol."

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1962)

     "Why, thank you, Mr. Stenson." He shook hands with the old master instrument maker. "If you could make me a pocket veridicator, to use on some of these people who claim they saw them, it would be a big help."
     "Well, I do make rather small portable veridicators for the constabulary, but I think what you need is an instrument for detection of psychopaths, and that's slightly beyond science at present."

     Piet Dumont, the Mallorysport chief of police, might have been a good cop once, but for as long as Gus Brannhard had known him, he had been what he was now--an empty shell of unsupported arrogance, with a sagging waistline and a puffy face that tried to look tough and only succeeded in looking unpleasant. He was sitting in a seat that looked like an old fashioned electric chair, or like one of those instruments of torture to which beauty-shop customers submit themselves. There was a bright conical helmet on his head, and electrodes had been clamped to various portions of his anatomy. On the wall behind him was a circular screen which ought to have been a calm turquoise blue, but which was flickering from dark blue through violet to mauve. That was simple nervous tension and guilt and anger at the humiliation of being subjected to veridicated interrogation. Now and then there would be a stabbing flicker of bright red as he toyed mentally with some deliberate misstatement of fact.

     "You know, yourself, that the Fuzzies didn't hurt that girl," Brannhard told him.
     "I don't know anything of the kind," the police chief retorted. "All I know's what was reported to me."
     That had started out a bright red; gradually it faded into purple. Evidently Piet Dumont was adopting a rules-of-evidence definition of truth.
     "Who told you about it?"
     "Luther Woller. Detective lieutenant on duty at the time."
     The veridicator agreed that that was the truth and not much of anything but the truth.
     "But you know that what really happened was that Lurkin beat the girl himself, and Woller persuaded them both to say the Fuzzies did it," Max Fane said.
     "I don't know anything of the kind!" Dumont almost yelled. The screen blazed red. "All I know's what they told me; nobody said anything else." Red and blue, juggling in a typical quibbling pattern. "As far as I know, it was the Fuzzies done it."
     "Now, Piet," Fane told him patiently. "You've used this same veridicator here often enough to know you can't get away with lying on it. Woller's making you the patsy for this, and you know that, too. Isn't it true, now, that to the best of your knowledge and belief those Fuzzies never touched that girl, and it wasn't till Woller talked to Lurkin and his daughter at headquarters that anybody even mentioned Fuzzies?"
     The screen darkened to midnight blue, and then, slowly, it lightened.
     "Yeah, that's true," Dumont admitted. He avoided their eyes, and his voice was surly.

     When the deputy marshal touched his shoulder and spoke to him, he didn't think, at first, that his legs would support him. It seemed miles, with all the staring faces on either side of him. Somehow, he reached the chair and sat down, and they fitted the helmet over his head and attached the electrodes. They used to make a witness take some kind of an oath to tell the truth. They didn't any more. They didn't need to.

     As soon as the veridicator was on, he looked up at the big screen behind the three judges; the globe above his head was a glaring red. There was a titter of laughter. Nobody in the Courtroom knew better than he what was happening. He had screens in his laboratory that broke it all down into individual patterns—the steady pulsing waves from the cortex, the alpha and beta waves; beta-aleph and beta-beth and beta-gimel and beta-daleth. The thalamic waves. He thought of all of them, and of the electromagnetic events which accompanied brain activity. As he did, the red faded and the globe became blue. He was no longer suppressing statements and substituting other statements he knew to be false. If he could keep it that way. But, sooner or later, he knew, he wouldn't be able to.

From LITTLE FUZZY by H. Beam Piper (1962)

(ed note: in the novel, it turns out that Terra is actually a ten-thousand year old long-lost colony of The Fourth Imperium. The imperials are trying to unify Terra before the dreaded Achuultani genocide fleet arrives and nukes Terra into a smooth radioactive glassy sphere. The nation of China is reluctant to join, but instead of China being put under direction of an Imperial, it is instead assigned to Chinese grand marshal Tsien. Who uses Imperial lie-detector technology to great effect when putting down the local guerrillas.)

In a sense, Hatcher's injuries had been very much to their advantage. If any other member of the chiefs of staff was his equal in every way, it was Tsien. They were very different; Tsien lacked Hatcher's ease with people and the flair which made exquisitely choreographed operations seem effortless, but he was tireless, analytical, eternally self-possessed, and as inexorable as a Juggernaut yet flexibly pragmatic. He'd streamlined their organization, moved their construction and training schedules ahead by almost a month, and—most importantly of all—stamped out the abortive guerrilla war in Asia with a ruthlessness Hatcher himself probably could not have displayed.

Horus had been more than a little horrified at the way Tsien went about it He hadn’t worried about taking armed resisters prisoner, and those he'd taken had been summarily court-martialed and executed usually within twenty-four hours. His reaction teams had been everywhere, filling Horus with the fear that Hatcher had made a rare and terrible error in recommending him as his replacement. There'd been an elemental implacability about the huge Chinese, one that made Horus wonder if he even cared who was innocent and who guilty.

Yet he'd made himself wait, and time had proved the wisdom of his decision. Ruthless and implacable, yes, and also a man tormented by shame; Tsien had been those things, for it had been his officers who had betrayed their trust. But he'd been just as ruthlessly just. Every individual caught in his nets had been sorted out under an Imperial lie detector, and the innocent were freed as quickly as they had been apprehended. Nor had he permitted any unnecessary brutality to taint his actions or those of his men.

Even more importantly, perhaps, he was no "Westerner" punishing patriots who had struck back against occupation but their own commander-in-chief, acting with the full support of Party and government, and no one reputation, and the fact that he had been selected to replace the wounded Hatcher, had done more to cement Asian support of the new government and military than anything else ever could have.

Within two weeks, all attacks had ended. Within a month, there was no more guerrilla movement. Every one of its leaders had been apprehended and executed; none were imprisoned.

Nor had the chilling message been lost upon the rest of the world. Horus had agonized over the brutal suppression of the African riots, but Tsien's lesson had gone home. There was still unrest, but the world's news channels had carried live coverage of the trials and executions, and outbursts of open violence had ended almost overnight.


     “Yes, Colonel?” Ann Chang’s amplified voice filled the room (from the speakerphone). “What can we do for you?”
     “We need a full shipping schedule as soon as possible,” Falkenberg said. “All space traffic from now through the end of the year.”
     “Of—of course, Colonel. But you know not all traffic is scheduled—”
     “Yes, of course,” Falkenberg said impatiently.
     Captain Rottermill frowned and reached under the table for his briefcase.
     “I’ll send you a copy of everything we have at the moment. If you’ll wait just a moment. It’ll take a few minutes to search the files.”
     Rottermill set his briefcase on the table in front of him and lifted out a small plastic box. He pressed a switch on it and placed it facing Falkenberg’s speakerphone.
     “We can wait,” Falkenberg said. He glanced at Rottermill and raised one eyebrow. Rottermill nodded curtly.
     “Colonel, the computers are doing odd things with the data base,” Ann Chang said. “Let—let me call you back, please.”
     Falkenberg glanced at Rottermill. The intelligence officer nodded again. “Very well,” Falkenberg said. “We really do need that schedule. We’ll wait for your call.”
     “Thank you, Colonel,” Ann Chang said. “It’ll be just a few minutes. I appreciate your patience—”
     “Not at all. Goodbye.” Falkenberg punched the off button, looked to make sure the connection was broken, and looked back to Rottermill. “Well?”
     Rottermill turned the Voice Stress Analyzer so that Falkenberg could see the readout. A line of X’s reached far into the red zone. “Colonel, she’s scared stiff.”
     “What put you onto her?” Ian Frazer asked.
     Rottermill shrugged. “Do enough interrogations and you get a feel for it. Mind you, this isn’t certain. That damn scrambler could affect the patterns. But I’ll bet dinner for a week that woman’s hiding something. Three days’ dinners it’s something to do with shipping schedules.”
     Jeremy Savage laughed. “Rottermill, I doubt anyone will take your bets no matter how you dress them up. I certainly won’t.”

From PRINCE OF MERCENARIES by Jerry Pournelle (1989)

(ed note: the Stainless Steel Rat has infiltrated an enemy base, disguised as an officer named Vaska. Suddenly the base's security officer wants to question all the officers under a lie detector.)

     “You officers, the few among you who were sober enough that is, may have heard an explosion and seen a cloud of smoke while you were on the way here. This explosion was caused by an individual who entered this base and is still undetected in our midst. We know nothing about him, but suspect that he is an offworld spy…”
     This drew a gasp and a murmur as might be expected and the gray man waited a moment until he continued.
     “We are making an intensive search for this individual. Since you gentlemen were in the immediate vicinity I am going to talk to you one at a time to find out what you might know. I also may discover … which one of you is the missing spy.”
     This last shaft exacted only a shocked silence. Now that he had everyone in the right mental condition for cross-examining the gray man began calling officers forward one at a time. I was doubly grateful for the foresight that had dropped me off the truck onto the side of my head.

     It was no accident that I was the third man called forward. On what grounds? General resemblance in build to the offworld spy Pas Ratunkowy? My delayed arrival at Glupost? The bandage? Some basis of suspicion must have existed. I dragged forward with slow speed just as the others had done. I saluted and he pointed to the chair next to the desk.
     “Why don’t you hold this while we talk,” he said in a reasonable voice, passing over the silver egg of a polygraph transmitter.
     The real Vaska would not have recognized it, so I didn’t. I just looked at it with slight interest—as though I did not know it was transmitting vital information to the lie detector before him—and clutched it in my hand. My thoughts were not as calm.
     I’m caught! He has me! He knows who I am and is just toying with me!
     He looked deep into my bloodshot eyes and I detected a slight curl of distaste to his mouth.
     “You have had quite a night of it. Lieutenant Hulja,” he said quietly, his eyes on the sheaf of papers—and on the lie detector readout as well.
     “Yes sir, you know … having a few last drinks with the boys.” That was what I said aloud. What I thought was ‘They will shoot me, dead, right through the heart!’ and I could visualize that vital organ spouting my life’s blood into the dirt.
     “I see you recently had your rank reduced—and where are your fuses, Pas Ratunkowy?” Am I tired … wish I was in the sack I thought.
     “Fuses, sir?” I blinked my red orbs and reached to scratch my head and touched the bandage and thought better of it. His eyes glared into mine, gray eyes almost the color of his uniform, and for a moment I caught the strength and anger behind his quiet manners.
     “And your head wound—where did you get that? Our offworld spy was struck on the side of the head.”
     “I fell, sir, someone must have pushed me. Out of the truck. The soldiers bandaged it, ask them …”
     “I already have. Drunk and falling down and a disgrace to the officer corps. Get away and clean yourself up, you disgust me. Next man.”
     I climbed unsteadily to my feet, not looking into the steady glare of those cold eyes, and stared off as though I had forgotten the device in my hand, then turned back and dropped it on his desk, but he was bent over the papers and ignoring me. I could see a faint scar under the thin hair of his balding crown. I left.

     Fooling a polygraph takes skill, practice and training. All of which I had. It can only be done in certain circumstances and this one had been ideal. A sudden interview without normalizing tests being run on the subject. Therefore I began the interview in a near panic—before any questions had been asked. All of this must have peaked nicely on his graph. I was afraid. Of him, of something, anything. But when he had asked the loaded question meant to uncover a spy—the question I knew was coming—I had relaxed and the readout had shown this. The question was a meaningless one to anyone but the offworlder. Once he saw this the interview was over, he had plenty more to do.

From THE STAINLESS STEEL RAT'S REVENGE by Harry Harrison (1970)

The whole thing was connected, of course, with their top-secret psionic machines. There was one of those—a supposedly very advanced type of mind-reader, as a matter of fact—about which she could get detailed first-hand information without going farther than the Bank of Rienne. And she might learn something from that which would fill in the picture for her.

The machine was used by Transcluster Finance, the giant central bank which regulated the activities of major financial houses on more than half the Federation’s worlds, and wielded more actual power than any dozen planetary governments. In the field of financial ethics, Transcluster made and enforced its own laws. Huge sums of money were frequently at stake in disputes among its associates, and machines of presumably more than human incorruptibility and accuracy were therefore employed to help settle conflicting charges and claims.

Two members of the Bank of Rienne’s legal staff who specialized in ethics hearings were pleased to learn of Telzey’s scholarly interest in their subject. They explained the proceedings in which the psionic Verifier was involved at considerable length. In operation, the giant telepath could draw any information pertinent to a hearing from a human mind within minutes. A participant who wished to submit his statements to verification was left alone in a heavily shielded chamber. He sensed nothing, but his mind became for a time a part of the machine’s circuits. He was then released from the chamber, and the Verifier reported what it had found to the adjudicators of the hearing. The report was accepted as absolute evidence; it could not be questioned.

Rienne’s attorneys felt that the introduction of psionic verification had in fact brought about a noticeable improvement in ethical standards throughout Transcluster’s vast finance web. Of course it was possible to circumvent the machines. No one was obliged to make use of them; and in most cases, they were instructed to investigate only specific details of thought and memory indicated to them to confirm a particular claim. This sometimes resulted in a hearing decision going to the side which most skillfully presented the evidence in its favor for verification, rather than to the one which happened to be in the right. A Verifier was, after all, a machine and ignored whatever was not covered by its instructions, even when the mind it was scanning contained additional information with a direct and obvious bearing on the case. This had been so invariably demonstrated in practice that no reasonable person could retain the slightest qualms on the point. To further reassure those who might otherwise hesitate to permit a mind-reading machine to come into contact with them, all records of a hearing were erased from the Verifier’s memory as soon as the case was closed.

And that, Telzey thought, did in a way fill in the picture. There was no evidence that Transcluster’s Verifiers operated in the way they were assumed to be operating—except that for fifteen years, through innumerable hearings, they had consistently presented the appearance of being able to operate in no other manner. But the descriptions she’d been given indicated they were vaster and presumably far more complex instruments than the Customs machine at the Orado City space terminal; and from that machine—supposedly no telepath at all—an imperceptible psionic finger had flicked out, as she passed, to plant a knot of compulsive suggestions in her mind.

So what were the Verifiers doing?

From UNDERCURRENTS by James Schmitz (1964)

(ed note: Bigoted old bitty Mrs. Donahue wants to stir up trouble for the owner of the Star Beast, so she is lying her ass off telling falsehoods in court.)

     "Mrs. Donahue, tell us what happened."
     She sniffed. " Well! I was lying down, trying to snatch a few minutes rest; I have so many responsibilities, clubs and charitable committees and things.
     Greenberg was watching the truth meter over her head. The needle wobble restlessly, but did not kick over into the red enough to set off the warning buzzer.
     "When suddenly I was overcome with a nameless dread."
     The needle swung far into the red, a ruby light flashed and the buzzer gave out a loud rude noise. Somebody started to giggle. Greenberg said hastily, "Order in the court."

From THE STAR BEAST by Robert Heinlein (1954)

Engineering Tools

In the Tom Corbett novels, Astro may work in his power deck stripped to the waist with a tool belt loaded with wrenches, but in reality it is more likely that he'll be wearing a HazMat suit. All that radiation, you know.

What sort of tools will the engineers carry? I hate to put a damper on things, but chances are a space wrench will look pretty much like the wrench in your garage. The major exception will be tools designed to be used in free fall (the NASA-speak jargon is "EVA tool"). If you are floating in microgravity, using a conventional screwdriver on a conventional screw will just cause your entire body to spin around the screw axis instead of tightening the blasted thing. Even more ordinary tools need some modification. All liquid lubricant has to be replaced with dry (since most liquid lubricants boil away in vacuum). They will have to be thermally insulated from the temperature extremes encountered in the space environment. Tether points are needed to help prevent the blasted things from floating away. And serial numbers will be needed to keep track of what tools are where.

Having said all that, far be it from me to prevent you from imagining all sorts of weird science-fictional tools.

In the handwaving science fantasy category, the Second, Third, Fourth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor Who always carried his trusty multipurpose sonic screwdriver. In the Star Trek episode Assignment: Earth, the mysterious agent Gary Seven is armed with a tool called a "servo." While the sonic screwdriver and the servo are very similar devices, they made their first appearances on TV only 13 days apart. This is not a case of plagarism, it is more "great minds work alike." In any event, unlike the sonic screwdrdiver, the servo is more than a tool. It is also a communication device and a weapon (with both a "stun" and a "kill" setting).

The 23rd Century scientist Varian from The Fantastic Journey used his sonic energizer as a universal tool (focusing his thoughts into the "sonic manipulation of matter"). Varian's sonic energizer looks suspiciously like the tuning fork tool used by Rem the android in the TV series Logan's Run.

More realistically there was also a "multitool" in the David Drake novel Rolling Hot. It was sort of a combination electric drill/ultrasonic cleaner/screwdriver/socket wrench.

But when you get right down to it, most tools fall into one of two categories. They cut one thing into two or they join two things into one. They subtract or add (the ancient alchemists called it "Solve et coagula", or analysis and synthesis).

Cutting tools include knives, chisels, lathes, saws, planers, and sanders. Also included under cutting tools are CNC milling machines and Laser Cutters.

Joining tools include hammer and nails, screwdriver and screws, soldering gun and solder, socket wrench and bolts, arc welders, and glue. Also included under joining tools is solid freeform fabrication for rapid prototyping.

Taken to an extreme, the ultimate cutting tool would be capable of separating a piece of material along a line one atom thick, with a customizable cutting head. In his Known Space novels, Larry Niven invented the "variable sword". This was a handle that extruded a "monofilament wire" one molecule thick, stiffened by a force field. It would cut anything except fabric woven from monofilament or a General Products hull. Imagine a variable sword where one could alter the wire into any shape one wanted.

An even better trick is a tool with a dynamic shape. A controller box would contain the blueprint of the desired shape. Place it next to the block of material and let the box locate itself relative to the block. Plug the cutter into the control box. Now as you wave the cutter through the block, the box will dynamically alter the blade so it automatically cuts the block according to the blueprint.

Similarly, the ultimate joining tool would induce two objects to form atomic bonds where ever they touched. Call it an "atomic bonder". It would be a nice touch if the bonder could reverse the process, causing two joined objects to separate if required. Currently the closest thing we have to that is ultrasonic welding, and that has some severe limitations.

In the modern world, the joke is that you can fix anything using gaffer's tape or WD-40 lubricant spray. The Duct Tape Guys said "Two rules get you through life: If it's stuck and it's not supposed to be, WD-40 it. If it's not stuck and it's supposed to be, duct tape it". Or as @tenbus_uk said "Stop things move as shouldn't, make things move as wouldn't".

You may laugh, but in actuality, every single NASA manned mission starting with the Gemini series has carried a roll of duck tape. This paid off in 1970 when a roll of duct tape helped save the astronaut's lives during the Apollo 13 disaster.

Robert Merrill points out that there are other classes of tools: Diagnostic, Measuring, and Supportive. Diagnostic examples include multimeters and automobile engine timing lights. Measuring include rulers and calipers. Supportive include car jacks and clamps. He also points out that different types of tools are required by different types of workers. Damage Control Teams, Repair Squads, Maintance Crews, Refitters, Installers, and Artificers (never know what you're going to need built on a deep space mission).

Magnetic Wrench, Star Trek "That Which Survives" (1969).

Jo Blocks

As a side note, there are sets of industrial equipment called "Johansson blocks" or "Gauge blocks". They are high-precision unit blocks used to calibrate measuring equipment. When a set of Jo-blocks are created, each block face is lapped to a flatness of about 11 millionths of an inch. As a consequence, the blocks can be induced to cling together by molecular attraction. A light thin oil is applied to exclude air, the blocks are slid together, and a surprisingly strong bond is created. This is called "Wringing-in" or "Jo Blocking."

Mallow had swung the steel sheet onto the two supports with a careless heave. He had taken the instrument held out to him by Twer and was gripping the leather handle inside its leaden sheath.

"The instrument," he said, "is dangerous, but so is a buzz saw. You just have to keep your fingers away."

And as he spoke, he drew the muzzle-slit swiftly down the length of the steel sheet, which quietly and instantly fell in two.

There was a unanimous jump, and Mallow laughed. He picked up one of the halves and propped it against his knee, "You can adjust the cutting-length accurately to a hundredth of an inch, and a two-inch sheet will slit down the middle as easily as this thing did. If you've got the thickness exactly judged, you can place steel on a wooden table, and split the metal without scratching the wood."

And at each phrase, the nuclear shear moved and a gouged chunk of steel flew across the room.

"That," he said, "is whittling - with steel."

He passed back the shear. "Or else you have the plane. Do you want to decrease the thickness of a sheet, smooth out an irregularity, remove corrosion? Watch!"

Thin, transparent foil flew off the other half of the original sheet in six-inch swaths, then eight-inch, then twelve.

"Or drills? It's all the same principle."

They were crowded around now. It might have been a sleight-of-hand show, a comer magician, a vaudeville act made into high-pressure salesmanship. Commdor Asper fingered scraps of steel. High officials of the government tiptoed over each other's shoulders, and whispered, while Mallow punched clean, beautiful round holes through an inch of hard steel at every touch of his nuclear drill.

"Just one more demonstration. Bring two short lengths of pipe, somebody."

An Honorable Chamberlain of something-or-other sprang to obedience in the general excitement and thought-absorption, and stained his hands like any laborer.

Mallow stood them upright and shaved the ends off with a single stroke of the shear, and then joined the pipes, fresh cut to fresh cut.

And there was a single pipe! The new ends, with even atomic irregularities missing, formed one piece upon joining.

Mallow talked through and around his thoughts, "Test that pipe! It's one piece. Not perfect; naturally, the joining shouldn't be done by hand."

From Foundation by Issac Asimov (1951)


What sort of space clothing will a rocketeer of the Solar Guard wear? Interplanetary rogue Northwest Smith always wore gray faded spacer's leathers and a heat-ray gun but a Guardsman will be more practical. Their uniform will be lightweight, to save on mass. No spandex, please.

The clothing might be treated with anti-microbial agents to make them odour resistant, since designing a microgravity clothes washer is a challenge NASA has not yet conquered. On the ISS, clothing is worn and re-worn without washing until they get too stinky. Then they are put on the next cargo supply ship to burn up in re-entry. Actually, in microgravity, clothing does not actually touch the wearer's body as much as it does under Terra's gravity.

Uniforms will not have skirts or kilts for previously mentioned reasons. The uniform might even be designed to function as an emergency space suit (though it is difficult to design such a suit which is also comfortable enough to be worn all day).

NASA ISS astronauts wear clothes with lots of pockets and strips of velcro, as a handy place to carry gear.

The formerly retired postmen were waiting in the hall, in a space cleared from last night’s maildrop. They all wore uniforms, although since no two uniforms were exactly alike they were not, in fact, uniform and therefore not technically uniforms.

From Going Postal by Terry Pratchett (2004)


Winged hats used to be all the rage, but in our current fashion climate, they look rather silly.

Color Coding

A few SF universes color code their uniforms.

SPACE: 1999
FlameMain Mission
YellowService Section
Red on WhiteCOMBAT: Gunnery, Commandos, Fighter Pilots
Green on WhiteNAVIGATION: Navigation, Radar
Blue on WhiteENGINEERING: various Engineers, excluding Engine Room personnel
Red-Orange on WhiteENGINEERING: Engine Room personnel
Black on YellowLIVING GROUP and COMMUNICATIONS GROUP: living arrangement officers and communication techs
Yellow on BlackBlack Tiger Fighter Pilots
Black on WhiteCommunication techs and Physics officers
Yellow on WhiteFighter Pilot Maintenance
Blue-Grey on BlueTorpedo Boat Pilots
Green-GoldCommand: Captain, Helmsmen, Navigation
RedOperations: Engineers and Security
BlueSciences: Medical and Science


In the old days operation officers wore red, command officers wore gold. And women wore less.

Lieutenant Jadzia Dax, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he's a spaceman.

It is a logical necessity. His profession makes him feel like boss of all creation; when he sets foot dirtside he is slumming among the peasants. As for his sartorial inelegance, a man who is in uniform nine tenths of the time and is more used to deep space than to civilization can hardly be expected to know how to dress properly. He is a sucker for the alleged tailors who swarm around every spaceport peddling "ground outfits."

But I kept my opinion to myself and bought him a drink with my last half-Imperial, considering it an investment, spacemen being the way they are about money. "Hot jets!" I said as we touched glasses. He gave me a quick glance.

That was my initial mistake in dealing with Dak Broadbent. Instead of answering, "Clear space!" or, "Safe grounding!" as he should have, he looked me over and said softly, "A nice sentiment, but to the wrong man. I've never been out."

But my vocal cords lived their own life, wild and free. "Don't give me that, shipmate," I replied. "If you're a ground hog, I'm Mayor of Tycho City. I'll wager you've done more drinking on Mars," I added, noticing the cautious way he lifted his glass, a dead giveaway of low-gravity habits, "than you've ever done on Earth."


"I'll show you," I said. "I'll walk to the door like a ground hog and come back the way you walk. Watch." I did so, making the trip back in a slightly exaggerated version of his walk to allow for his untrained eye - feet sliding softly along the floor as if it were deck plates, weight carried forward and balanced from the hips, hands a trifle forward and clear of the body, ready to grasp.

There are a dozen other details which can't be set down in words; the point is you have to be a spaceman when you do it, with a spaceman's alert body and unconscious balance - you have to live it. A city man blunders along on smooth floors all his life, steady floors with Earth-normal gravity, and will trip over a cigarette paper, like as not. Not so a spaceman.

From DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein, 1956


If our valiant rocketeers are part of the astromilitary, they will also have some sort of insignia of rank. And a flashy symbol, either as a shoulder patch or a badge on their caps next to the scrambled eggs. The symbol will probably be some kind of stylized rocketship, a lightning bolt, or the planet Saturn (see the logo of the Sci-Fi Channel). Remember that in Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION trilogy the seal of the Galactic Empire was the "spaceship-and-sun". If you are an old-timer like me, you might have seen such logos in the library. They used to place labels on the book spines for mysteries, crime novels, fantasy, and science fiction. Or they may use other insignia.

The Commdor's own bodyguard, in the confusion, had struggled to the front line, and Mallow, for the first time, was near enough to see their unfamiliar hand-weapons in detail.

They were nuclear! There was no mistaking it; an explosive projectile weapon with a barrel like that was impossible. But that wasn't the big point. That wasn't the point at all.

The butts of those weapons had, deeply etched upon them, in worn gold plating, the Spaceship-and-Sun!

The same Spaceship-and-Sun that was stamped on every one of the great volumes of the original Encyclopedia that the Foundation had begun and not yet finished. The same Spaceship-and-Sun that had blazoned the banner of the Galactic Empire through millennia...

...The golden globe with its conventionalized rays, and the oblique cigar shape that was a space vessel.

The Spaceship-and-Sun of the Empire!

From FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Lower dropped the ship, lower. Even with nothing against which to measure her, it could be seen that she was small—only half the size, perhaps, of Latterhaven Venus or Latterhaven Hera. The gold letters embossed on her side were now readable. "SEEKER III." (And what, wondered Brasidus, of Seeker I and Seeker II?) And above the name there was a most peculiar badge or symbol. A stylized harpy it looked like—a winged globe surmounted by a five-pointed star (Insignia of the Interstellar Federation Survey Service IFSS). It was nothing like the conventional golden rocker worn on Latterhaven uniforms.

From SPARTAN PLANET by A. Bertram Chandler (1968)

The floor of the hall had been cleared of seats. Above the stage at the far end were the three closed circles of the Federation — Freedom, Peace, and Law, so intertwined that, if any one were removed, the other two would fall apart. Under them was the Patrol's own sign, a star blazing in the night.

From SPACE CADET by Robert Heinlein (1948)

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This week's featured addition is the MagLifter surface-to-orbit transport

This week's featured addition is Shepherd's Generation Starship

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