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), flashlight (routinely carried by all crewmembers on US naval vessels, because it gets real dark when the power goes out), and a service sidearm. Don't forget your atomic pen.

If the spacecraft is atomic powered, radiation dosimeters will be a standard part of a rocketeer's uniform. 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.

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.


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.

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.

Tricorders might also incorporate Life Signs Sensors, Dual-Laser Remote Sensing and Gamma Ray Spectrometers.

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.

New tricorder technology might be able to hear tumors growing

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.


In wilderness areas the crew will carry first-aid kits (containing much more than just a few band-aids and aspirin), and doctors/paramedics will carry portable medical kits. First-aid kits will also be located in damage control storage lockers in strategic parts of the spacecraft or lander.

In Harry Harrison's DEATHWORLD series, people carried little medikits. These require no medical training to use. When pressed over a puncture wound, the infection and poison analyzer will detect toxins and the medikit's tiny computer will automatically select and inject the required antidote(s). Assuming that the user has been vigilant about keeping all the antidote reservoirs filled, of course. Otherwise it will just beep a warning that it is out of the medicine you need, you moron. The user can also press a button to inject a temporary stimulant, though this is for emergency use only. The same goes for the sedation button and pain killer button.

In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's THE GRIPPING HAND, elderly Horace Bury's wheelchair has a "diagnostic sleeve." It also does not require any medical training to use. When put on the arm, the sleeve does a quick automated medical examination including blood tests. The medical computer does a diagnosis and injects medications as required. If it detects a more serious problem it will sound the alert to call a doctor.

In the TV show Earth 2, doctors used a DiaGlove (diagnostic glove). This is a multiple medical tool for use by doctors on their patients, it requires extensive medical and surgical training in order to use. It can check a patient's heart rate, pulse, EKG, temperature, and do several types of blood tests. It can do ultrasound and MRI scans. It has integral tools that a doctor can use for basic surgical functions like laser incisions, cauterizing wounds, and suturing wounds shut. It can even administer defibrillator jolts if the patient suffers a cardiac arrest. It does not do any computerized diagnosis, that is the human doctor's job.

In the RPG Space Opera crew can wear a Personal Medisensor. This is a strap-on wrist unit the same size as a large wristwatch (ask your parents what a wristwatch was, kids). It constantly monitors the physical condition of the user and displays medical data with a holographic display (but it takes medical training to interpret the data). More to the point, if the user suddenly dies, the medisensor automatically injects a dose of Thanokalamine drug to keep their body fresh until their buddies can get them to a hospital with life revival capabilities.

In Frank Herbert's DUNE novels, members of wealthy families prolong their life-span by always scanning their meals with a poison snooper before eating a single bite. The snooper will beep a warning if an enemy (or ambitious offspring) has slipped a deadly poison into the food or drink.

In the real world, in 2011 the X Prize Foundation announced the Tricorder X Prize. The constest is to develop a mobile device that can diagnose patients as well as or better than a panel of board certified physicians.

There are quite a few real-world medical devices that could be called "medical tricorders" with very little exaggeration.

(ed note: MarkusB is an electronic hobbyist trying to create a simplistic tricorder)

As I have always been fascinated by medical electronics and medical mathematics and was sickened by a thrombosis on left calf a month ago, which nearly killed me because I didn't took the pain and the tumefaction serious for several days, I recently started to develop a simple form of a medical tricoder.

My tricorder has currently only two sensors: an infrared thermometer (MLX90614) to measure the body temperture on the forehead and a PPG (Photoplethysmograph) sensor to measure pulse/heart rate on the ear lobe.

During my research I was astonished, how many medical information can be computed by only knowing the body temperature, pulse rate, gender and age. By far the most interesting discovery was the use of naive Bayes classifier in automated medical diagnosis. Also very interesting are the following fever diagnoses, which are not too difficult to translate into an according algorithm: fever in adults and fever in infants and children.

From Medical tricorder by MarkusB (2014)

In Star Trek, doctors use medical tricorders (a tricorder optimized for medical use) to diagnose ailments (the pocket-sized medical scanner is a more portable but does not report as much detail). A device called an anabolic protoplaser is used to heal wounds by repairing torn veins and arteries and uniting the nerves and muscle fibers using some technobabble radiation. Hyposprays inject medications using jets of air instead of needles, this was cutting-edge science fiction in the time of the original Star Trek but is now common in the real world. In the field Starfleet doctors would carry a medkit containing essential medical tools.

According to the Star Fleet Medical Reference Manual, a medical tricorder has a compartment in the lower section containing a bare-bones emergency surgical kit.

When it comes to surgery, the tool schema is much like that of engineering tools. Surgical tools mainly 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). In Star Trek, the lasers scalpels cut things into two, and the anabolic protoplasers (somehow) cause body tissues to grow back together. The implication is that the protoplasers somehow use lasers to hyperstimulate anabolism (cell division). Which is total technobabble. In the real world the closest thing to a protoplaser is the skin-cell gun used for burns, but that requires stem cells harvested from the patient.

There are a few tools in other categories: Diagnostic, Measuring, and Supportive. The tricorder and medical scanner is the diagnostic tool (medical database and expert system) and the measuring tool (x-ray and MRI scans). Surgical supportive tools are not shown in Star Trek but in the real world they include retractors, clamps, and forceps.

Surgery is difficult in the field because for best results it requires a sterile area to operate in, and anesthesia for the patient. Star Trek surgical kits include a magic drug called "sterilite" which technobabblically protects the surgical patient from becoming infected when operated on in an unsterile environment. And another magic drug called "melanex" which technobabblically induces safe anesthesia. In the real world, anesthesia is a tricky dangerous procedure that must be closely monitored to prevent harming or killing the patient. The drugs used must be carefully matched to the patient's allergies and genetic make-up.

Anabolic Protoplaser
     McCoy's fingers probed lightly around the broken spear shaft that protruded from the boy's side.
     "Sara, put a represser on that," he ordered.
     The woman removed a small, oblong object and placed it near the wound. She pressed a button on the instrument and, instantly, the flow of blood stopped under the influence of a low-power force-field.
     "Suction," McCoy said.
     Sara pressed a flexible hose to the wound and the blood was drawn away.
     "Now, I can see what I'm doing," McCoy murmured. "Sara, prepare an automatic IV, universal hemo factors, one liter," he ordered a moment later.
     Snapping open a small kit, Ensign George removed a telescoping metal rod with a collapsible tripod base. Next, a plastic pouch containing a dark powder was hung at the top of the rod. She poured a liter of water from a storage jug into it. The powder dissolved almost instantly, and a red fluid began to run through a plastic tube into a needle which had been inserted in the boy's left arm.
     "Good," McCoy said, his eyes glancing up briefly. "Now a type oh-oh scalpel."
     Ensign George handed the instrument to McCoy and he pressed the tip of the slim cylinder against the boy's side. A short, bloodless incision appeared under the ragged hole around the spear shaft.
     "Probe," he ordered.
     Sara handed him a flexible, light-carrying tube with tiny waldoes on it, and he inserted it into the small incision below the wound. Plugging a lead from the other end into the medical tricorder, he studied the display on the instrument's tiny screen.
     "Take a look, Jim."
     "Ugly," Kirk said, looking at the black silhouette of the barbed spear point which had torn through the chest muscles and was buried in spongy gray lung tissue. "How are you going to get that thing out?"
     "Watch. Minilaze, Sara," he ordered.
     She handed him the tiny cutting tool. He made a clean incision through the tissue that had closed in around the barbs, the beam cauterizing as it cut. Then, grasping hold of the short, splintered stub, he gently pulled the head out.
     "Sara, anabolic protoplaser, type zero."
     He applied the tip of the instrument to the interior of the wound, slowly working it outward to repair torn veins and gashed arteries, and unite nerves and muscle fibers. Soon, all that was left was the closing of the jagged tear where the spear had gone in and the small incision below it.
     "Type two protoplaser."
     "Bones, wait," Kirk said, breaking his long silence. "I have the impression this is the boy's first battle; he only looks about fourteen or fifteen."
     "So?" McCoy asked.
     "How about giving him something to remember?"
     "Like old Heidelberg, eh?"
     "Something like that, Bones."
     "If Starfleet finds out, they may lift my license," McCoy said, adjusting the protoplaser and setting to work.
     When he finished, he looked at a puckered scar that made a semicircle on the boy's chest where the shaft had been. He made a quick scan with the medical tricorder and then switched it off.
     "That'll give him some status with the other boys," he said. "And with a little rest, some hot soup, he'll be back on his feet in a day or two. Now the head wound."
     He studied the torn flesh critically. "Good thing they shave their heads. Saves me the trouble of depilating him."
     When he had finished, McCoy injected Alt with another dose of universal antibiotic and a stimulant to counteract the anesthesia. By the time the boy began to come around, the Federation medikit was safely back in its hidden compartment.
From Spock, Messiah! by Theodore Cogswell and Charles Spano (1976)

Contents of NASA's Shuttle first aid medical kit:

  1. bag
  2. blood-pressure cuff
  3. sterile drape
  4. flashlight
  5. disposable oral thermometers
  6. tongue depressors
  7. insertable airway
  8. cotton balls
  9. tourniquet
  10. Foley catheter (you don't want to know)
  11. sterile gloves
  12. fluorescein strips
  13. otoscope and ophthalmoscope heads
  14. stethoscope
  15. lubricant jelly


"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.

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.

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. 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)


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)

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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