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.


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. Since I wrote that previous sentence, smartphones have transformed into pocket computers which has the secondary feature of also being a communicator. As with the old general purpose desktop and laptop computers, they are more defined by their currently installed software and apps than by the fact they are 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 crewperson just photographed 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 (i.e., practically indestructible). 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 (so the other scouts can at least get an idea of what sort of creature ate their fellow crewmember).


The future of battlefield communications is resting comfortably near your back gums.

Next time you pass someone on the street who appears to be talking to themselves, they may literally have voices inside their head…and be a highly trained soldier on a dangerous mission. The Pentagon has inked a roughly $10 million contract with a California company to provide secure communication gear that’s essentially invisible.

Dubbed the Molar Mic, it’s a small device that clips to your back teeth. The device is both microphone and “speaker,” allowing the wearer to transmit without any conspicuous external microphone and receive with no visible headset or earpiece. Incoming sound is transmitted through the wearer’s bone matter in the jaw and skull to the auditory nerves; outgoing sound is sent to a radio transmitter on the neck, and sent to another radio unit that can be concealed on the operator. From there, the signal can be sent anywhere.

“Essentially, what you are doing is receiving the same type of auditory information that you receive from your ear, except that you are using a new auditory pathway — through your tooth, through your cranial bones — to that auditory nerve. You can hear through your head as if you were hearing through your ear,” said Peter Hadrovic, CEO of Molar Mic creator Sonitus Technologies. He likened the experience to what happens when you eat a crunchy breakfast cereal — but instead of hearing that loud chewing noise, you’re receiving important communications from your operations team.

Your ability to understand conversations transmitted through bone improves with practice. “Over the period of three weeks, your brain adapts and it enhances your ability to process the audio,” said Hadrovic. But even “out of the gate, you can understand it,” he said.

The Molar Mic connects to its transmitter via near-field magnetic induction. It’s similar to Bluetooth, encryptable, but more difficult to detect and able to pass through water.

Sonitus received early funding from In-Q-Tel, the nonprofit investment arm of the CIA, to develop the concept. Hadrovic declined to say whether CIA operatives had used the device in intelligence gathering. But the Molar Mic has seen the dust of Afghanistan and even played a role in rescue operations in the United States.

In Aug, 2016, a connection Hadrovic met through In-Q-Tel introduced the company to the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx (since rebranded simply DIU). They linked Sonitus to their “warrior in residence” and several other pararescuemen, or PJs, from the Air National Guard’s 131st Rescue Squadron at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, near the DIU headquarters. Pararescuemen airdrop behind enemy lines to rescue downed aircrews.

A few of the airmen took prototypes of the device on deployment to Afghanistan. Although they didn’t use it during missions, they were able to test it repeatedly and offer feedback. Hadrovic said the 14 months of testing were critical to improving the product for use by the military.

In 2017, a few of the PJs from the 131st brought Molar Mic along when they deployed to Texas to help with rescue operations for Hurricane Harvey. Hadrovic said the airmen were pleased with its performance during complicated operations involving water, helicopters, and a lot of external noise.

“This guy is standing in neck-deep water, trying to hoist a civilian up into a helicopter above. He says, ‘There is no way I would be able to communicate with the crew chief and the pilot if I was not wearing your product.’”

The same technology holds the potential for far more rich biometric communication between operators and their commanders, allowing soldiers in the field and their team to get a timely sense of how the soldier is responding to pressure or injury, without him or her having to communicate all of that explicitly. It’s something that the military is working toward.

“As we look to the future human-machine interface… the human creates a lot of information, some of it intentional, some of it unintentional. Speaking is one form of information creation,” says Hadrovic. “Once you’ve made something digital, the information can be interspersed…We have a tremendous wealth of opportunities to communicate out of the person and back to the person, information that can be either collected from them and processed offline and given back in a nice feedback loop. What we’ve done is invested in the platform that will support these future elements.”


Working inside the International Space Station is sometimes like assembling complex furniture but with the tools and paper instructions continually floating out of reach. Astronauts also face situations unforeseen by the instructions. Communication delays with ground control to troubleshoot these occasions mean even more valuable time is lost. Now, ‘mobiPV’ is looking to help. 

Developed by ESA, this ‘mobile procedure viewer’ uses software on an android smartphone that allows astronauts to perform manual tasks hands-free while connecting them in real time to mission control via video, voice and text.

In addition to the smartphone strapped to their wrist, astronauts are equipped with a head-mounted camera, an audio headset, and a tablet as an alternate display option. 

When problems arise, the astronaut can switch on the camera to capture the situation and immediately receive expert feedback from Earth.

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen first tried out mobiPV during NASA’s underwater space simulation in September 2014, and during his mission to the Space Station in September 2015.

Those trials led to fewer cables and a major software redesign to allow multiple ground stations to link to the astronauts. The software was improved again following a July 2016 test by ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer during NASA’s latest aquatic venture. 

With the prospect of saving a significant amount of time, mobiPV will become a standard part of the Space Station. ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli will be next to try it out during his mission later this year, after which ESA can offer it to all Station partners.

As with all technology, it will be continually updated based on feedback. Its developers are already looking to add augmented reality headsets for a richer and more efficient experience. 

Space is by no means mobiPV’s final frontier. It needs only an Internet connection and is adaptable to different procedures and environments, making it a lower-cost and easy way of connecting ground controllers to remote teams. Subsea, military and other industries can benefit from the time and cost saved by mobiPV – though there is no word yet on a household version helping with those sets of flatpack furniture. 

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.



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.


(ed note: Johnny Dahlquist is a member of the Patrol. He is part of the personnel of the lunar nuclear bomb base. One fine day he learns that a coup d’etat is happening. The commander has been murdered, and colonel Towers is taking over the place. Towers' plan is to become the ruler of the world, with the threat of nuclear bombardment. Johnny ain't gonna let his little girl grow up under a totalitarian dictatorship. Johnny manages to get into the bomb room, and has about fifteen minutes to sabotage all the bombs.)

      Or they could drill a hole, let out the air, and open, the door without wrecking the lock. Or Towers might even have a new airlock built outside the old. Not likely, Johnny thought; a coup d’etat depended on speed. Towers was almost sure to take the quickest way — blasting. And Lopez was probably calling the Base right now. Fifteen minutes for Towers to suit up and get here, maybe a short dicker — then whoosh! the party is over.
     Fifteen minutes — In fifteen minutes the bombs might fall back into the hands of the conspirators; in fifteen minutes he must make the bombs unusable.
     An atom bomb is just two or more pieces of fissionable metal, such as plutonium. Separated, they are no more explosive than a pound of butter; slapped together, they explode. The complications lie in the gadgets and circuits and gun used to slap them together in the exact way and at the exact time and place required.
     These circuits, the bomb’s “brain,” are easily destroyed — but the bomb itself is hard to destroy because of its very simplicity. Johnny decided to smash the “brains” — and quickly!
     The only tools at hand were simple ones used in handling the bombs. Aside from a Geiger counter, the speaker on the walkie-talkie circuit, a television rig to the base, and the bombs themselves, the room was bare. A bomb to be worked on was taken elsewhere — not through fear of explosion, but to reduce radiation exposure for personnel. The radioactive material in a bomb is buried in a “tamper” — in these bombs, gold. Gold stops alpha, beta, and much of the deadly gamma radiation — but not neutrons.
     The slippery, poisonous neutrons which plutonium gives off had to escape, or a chain reaction — explosion! — would result. The room was bathed in an invisible, almost undetectable rain of neutrons. The place was unhealthy; regulations called for staying in it as short a time as possible.
     The Geiger counter clicked off the “background” radiation, cosmic rays, the trace of radioactivity in the Moon’s crust, and secondary radioactivity set up all through the room by neutrons. Free neutrons have the nasty trait of infecting what they strike, making it radioactive, whether it be concrete wall or human body. In time the room would have to be abandoned.
     Dahlquist twisted a knob on the Geiger counter; the instrument stopped clicking. He had used a suppressor circuit to cut out noise of “background” radiation at the level then present. It reminded him uncomfortably of the danger of staying here. He took out the radiation exposure film all radiation personnel carry; it was a direct-response type and had been fresh when he arrived. The most sensitive end was faintly darkened already. Half way down the film a red line crossed it. Theoretically, if the wearer was exposed to enough radioactivity in a week to darken the film to that line, he was, as Johnny reminded himself, a “dead duck”.

From THE LONG WATCH by Robert Heinlein (1948)

(ed note: Warning: spoilers for A MAN'S PLACE by Eric Choi. The location is Maryniak Base on Luna. Jamie Squires is the technical specialist: food services, i.e., he's the cook. The rest of the crew tend to look down on him.)

      The klaxon blared through the small confines of the kitchen, synchronized with the flashing red light on the ceiling. Jamie put down the knife and, after a quick check to ensure everything in the kitchen was off, ran out into the mess hall. The diners must have stood up quickly from their seats, given the number of chairs knocked backward. Their faces were apprehensive.
     “An X12 (class) solar flare is in progress,” barked Laura Crenshaw, the general manager of Maryniak Base, over the intercom. “All personnel are to report to their designated storm shelters immediately.”
     Billy Lu, Maryniak’s chief engineer, appeared in the doorway. His red cap designated him as the emergency warden for this sector. “All right, everyone, follow the signs, straight down the corridor. Let’s move!”
     Jamie followed the crowd into the passageway. He tried not to think about the X rays and gamma rays that were even now going through their bodies. Traveling at the speed of light, they hit Maryniak at about same time as the warning from the space weather satellites at the L1 point. The imperative now was to get to the storm shelters before the arrival of the protons and heavy ions.

     Joe McKay, the Shift Two foreman, stood at the entrance to the shelter. “Right this way, people!” he said, pointing to the hatch on the floor.
     Jamie mounted the ladder and lowered himself down into the tunnel. Across Maryniak, personnel were gathering in six other protective chambers buried beneath the base’s larger modules. The structures and the lunar regolith were supposed to protect the crew from the incoming stream of solar particles.
     There were already a dozen people in this shelter. Jamie found himself a spot on the bench along the chamber wall. Ten more descended the ladder, followed by Joe and Billy.
     “Is that it?” Joe asked.
     “Crenshaw’s on her way,” Billy said.

     The base manager arrived a few minutes later. “All set?”
     Billy did a head count. “That’s everyone for here.”
     “Close it up,” Crenshaw ordered.
     Joe climbed the ladder to close the outer hatch. Once he was back down, Billy slid the ladder up the tunnel before trying to close the inner hatch. The hinges creaked, and he seemed to be having difficulty engaging the latches, but he finally managed to seal the door.

     “What’s our status?” Joe asked Crenshaw.
     “We’re the last ones to lock down,” she reported. “All personnel, both in-base and EVA, are in shelters. The proton stream should be sweeping through here in about twenty minutes.”
     “Are we sure this thing is buried deep enough?” Jamie asked nervously.

     The solar storm lasted eleven hours before the United Nations Space Development Agency gave the all-clear signal. Jamie returned to the kitchen to find things exactly as he had left them. Using the back of a knife, he scraped the diced onions into the trash, and dumped the liquid eggs. He then got some garbage bags from the cabinet and walked to the refrigerator, a secondhand unit purchased by ADC at a former rival’s bankruptcy auction.
     There was a knock on the doorframe.
     “Mind if I come in and pick up the TLD?” Billy asked.
     “Go ahead.”
     Billy walked to the wall beside the refrigerator and pulled the thermo-luminescent dosimeter from its bracket. The TLD was a stubby fat tube, about the size of a fountain pen.
     “It’s a shame to waste all this food,” Jamie said as he surveyed the refrigerator’s contents.
     “Yeah.” Billy held up the TLD. “But until I’ve had a look at these, we don’t know if the food in the shielded logistics module is compromised. If it is, we’ll be eating those disgusting rations from the shelter until the company bothers to send up a shuttle.”
     Crenshaw broadcast a briefing on the status of the base at the end of the workday. Being one of the largest common areas, the mess hall was a natural gathering place. A large post-dinner crowd gathered to watch the monitors.
     “On behalf of the company, I want to commend everyone on the manner in which we handled this emergency.” Crenshaw’s image was dotted with dark spots, indicating pixel dropouts from the radiation-damaged CCD elements in her office camera. “The good news is that the impact on production will be minimal. The total dose in the shelters was less man twelve millisieverts, and the reading in the logistics module was also within limits.” (12 mSv is about 0.004 of an astronaut's annual allowed chronic radiation dosage, and has zero acute effects)
     Jamie let out a bream. The food supply was okay.
     “Now, the bad news. The proton degradation of the solar arrays was severe. Output from the power farm is down almost twenty percent. In order to maintain production levels and have adequate battery margin for lunar night, there will be unscheduled brownouts of nonessential systems over the next several weeks.”
     “The other major loss is the greenhouse. All the plants will have to be destroyed. This will impact atmospheric regeneration, requiring increased duty cycles of the metox canisters for CO2 scrubbing …”
     Jamie tried to push Paul and Maria out of his mind, shifting his thoughts to the loss of fresh fruits and vegetables. He would have to adjust the menu to meet the nutrition requirements while maintaining variety.
     “… other than that, we fared well. Some of the essential electronics we couldn’t power-down suffered single-event upsets, but the redundant systems kicked in as designed. We should be fully back on our feet when the supply shuttle comes through next month. In the meantime, we have a business to run.”

     Upon returning to the kitchen, Jamie immediately knew that something was wrong. It should have been filled with the smell of freshly baked cake. Instead, there was nothing.
     He turned on the oven light. “Oh, no …” He opened the door. The cake was flat. “Damnit!” A brownout must have hit the kitchen while he was gone. Fred Sabathier’s cake was ruined.

(ed note: the crew slowly start feeling sick. Nosebleeds, dizzy spells, no appetite, feeling tired, vomiting, skin blisters. Doctor is not sure what is causing it, though the symptoms are consistent with low-level radiation sickness. Except the white blood cell count should be low but they are normal.)

     Jamie calmed down, a little. “So what else could it be? Food poisoning?”
     “You tell me.”
     Jamie thought for a moment. “It’s not likely. The refrigeration systems in both the kitchen and the logistics module are fine. Almost everything I make is well-cooked, especially since we lost the greenhouse. Also, we eat a wide variety of foods, so it can’t be any one item.”
     “That’s what I thought.”

(ed note: crew is suffering from fuzzy thinking, and a series of near fatal accidents occur. They know something is very wrong, and get very frightened and angry. )

     It was an angry and frightened crowd that packed the mess hall to capacity. Those who couldn’t make it in person were watching through the monitors.
     Crenshaw had to shout to be heard, calling for quiet three times before she could speak. “You’ve all received the briefing material through your consoles and organizers, but I’ve called this meeting to personally answer any questions you might have on the current …” she hesitated, “… situation, at Maryniak.”
     “Why won’t the company come clean?” Predictably, the first to speak was Paul. “We’re all sick from the solar storm!”
     “That’s not true,” Crenshaw said. “The total dose inside the shelters was within safe limits.”
     What if the dosimeters were faulty?” asked Suhana.
     “The TLDs are ancient technology, but they’re reliable,” Billy said. “I’d have preferred solid-state dosimeters throughout the base—not just in the shelters—but the company prefers to use the cheaper TLDs for the modules. In any case, I have no reason to think the readings are wrong.”
     “I don’t believe anything you people are telling me!” Paul shouted. “How do we know the shelters were buried deep enough? How do we know there was enough shielding?”
     “The storm shelters meet all applicable UNSDA standards,” Crenshaw said.
     “Do they? We all know how this sorry-ass company screws up and cuts corners. Look at what happened on Banting (space station disaster with multiple fatalities. Cause was inadequate repair work). For God’s sake, there’s even a rumor they stocked the rover with the wrong rations!” Paul pointed at Jamie. “The company’s to cheap to even hire a decent cook! I think they skimped on shelter construction, and Billy over there doctored the dosimeter data to cover it up.”
     “Are you calling me a liar?” Billy’s face turned red. “Why would I go along with a cover-up? I’m sick, too, you moron!”
     Paul didn’t let up. “We have been exposed to a harmful dose! Everybody’s sick. My hair’s been coming out in clumps every time I shower.”
     “The TLDs don’t lie,” Billy reiterated.
     “Then maybe kitchen boy’s been putting something in our food!” Paul exclaimed.
     Jamie decided to speak up. “Billy, are you sure the food in the logistics module wasn’t compromised?”
     “Yes,” Billy replied. “The logistics module is shielded, just not to UNSDA human-rated standards. The food’s fine.”
     “How do these TLDs work?” Jamie asked.
     “They’re tubes of lithium borate manganese.” Billy held up his hand, with his thumb and index finger apart. “The crystals absorb energy from ionizing radiation. After exposure, I plug them in an analyzer, where they’re heated up to three hundred degrees Celsius. This causes the energy to be released from the crystals as photons. The analyzer’s calibrated to determine the total dose absorbed by the tube based on the light it gives off.”
     Jamie thought about Fred Sabathier’s birthday cake. “Do you watch these tubes as they heat up?”
     “Do I watch paint dry? Of course not. I usually step outside and do something else.”
     “What would happen if the power got interrupted as the tube from the logistics module was being heated up, before it got up to three hundred degrees?”
     “Well, the TLD would cool down, and then when the power came back on, they would …” A look of horror flashed across Billy’s face. “Oh, crap …”
     A deathly silence fell over the mess hall.
     “The food,” Crenshaw said at last. “It’s the food.”

     “You helped solve the big mystery.”
     “All I did was ask a question.”
     “The right question,” Maria said. “When the TLD from the logistics module was heated and cooled, it partially reset the crystals, so when it was heated up to its proper temperature the second time, fewer photons were emitted, producing an erroneously low reading.”
     Jamie nodded again. “According to the nutritionist in Montreal, the radiation could’ve destroyed up to forty percent of the pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and thiamine (vitamin B1) content in our food.” He shook his head. “We’ve been suffering from vitamin B deficiency.”
     “I’ve prescribed mega doses of supplements,” Maria said, “but everything in the infirmary got zapped worse than the food in the logistics module. The company’s sending up a contingency supply shuttle, but until it gets here people are going to be popping pills like crazy to make up for the depleted dose in each capsule.”
     “I can tweak the menu,” Jamie said. “Try to make the best of whatever vitamin B is left in our nuked food. How does chicken and brown rice sound?”

From A MAN'S PLACE by Eric Choi (2003)

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.

StemRad Antiradiation Vest

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. It doesn't protect the marrow in other bones, but at least the vest is light enough that the person wearing it can move.

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.


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).

Anti-Nuclear Goggles

As mentioned before: Rockets Don't Got Windows, or at least they shouldn't. Especially in the middle of a space battle. Enemy nuclear detonations and laser beams can temporarily or permanently blind you.

If you simply must watch the battle through a window, you'd best be wearing some eye protection.


"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
The PLTZ Goggles

(ed note: "PLTZ" is an acronym for Lead (Pb) - Lanthanum - Titanium - Zirconium)

In the early seventies, a new goggles/helmet combination to better protect SAC's aircrews against nuclear flash blindness was developed by the Air Force. The protection device (helmet-mounted special goggles containing four lenses) was developed under a $7.2 million contract managed by Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. The requirements for the goggles was orchestrated by Cal Crochet, SAC Life Support System program manager, who was the direct interface with Sandia Laboratories at Kirtland AFB, NM.

The idea for the goggles came from Cal's experience during his early days of flying helicopter (1957) at Eniwetok Atoll during nuclear tests under "Operation Hardtack" and later from his experiences with the flash curtain, gold goggles and eye patch problems encountered as a SAC B-47 and B-52 aircraft commander with the 306th and 509th Bomb Wings.

Flash blindness is a temporary visual impairment caused by a tremendous amount of light emitted by a nuclear weapon's explosion. The sensitive rods and cones on the surface of the eye's retina become overloaded or 'bleached out'. This is the same phenomenon experienced when a person exits a darkened theater into bright sunlight. Just as an auto driver can be temporarily blinded by a set of of oncoming headlights, an aircrew member's ability to maintain control of an aircraft can be seriously jeopardized.

The goggles provided both flash blindness and thermal protection for the area covered. The thermal flash blindness protection device operated on the same principle as a pair of polarized filters that, when oriented 90 degrees to one another, stop all light from passing through. Rotation of the optical lenses was accomplished electronically through application of an electro-optic material containing lead, lanthanum, zirconium and titanium. Under normal light conditions (open state), the lenses looked like ordinary sun shades. When a bright explosion occurred, a simple photocell and transistor amplifier caused the lens to become totally opaque (closed state) for as long as the triggering flash remains. During this condition (closed state), the crewmembers will continue to have visual acuity (similar to viewing through welder's goggles); whereby, their respective duties can still be performed without the effects associated with flash blindness. The lenses could close off light in microseconds, and absorbed as much as 25 calories of heat per square centimeter.

The goggles were affixed to the helmets by the individual aircrew members when their use was required. To get them in place, a crew member had 20 seconds to pick them up, raise them over head and while holding them out horizontally, slide them down the front of the helmet onto the connections and then snap the protective devises on. The PLTZ goggles were sealed in plastic inside a canvas bag that was attached with velcro under the glare shield in front of the TFR scope.

First production goggles were delivered to Chanute AFB, Ill. for the training and maintenance personnel. In early fiscal year 80, SAC FB-111 aircraft at Pease AFB, NH and Plattsburgh AFB, NY did undergo cockpit modifications to accommodate the power pack of the thermal flash blindness protection device. The lenses are energized by low amperage 28 volt DC current.

by Bob McElwain

From the early days of developing nuclear weapons is was evident that one of the side effects of the blast was an extreme flash effect, so strong that the human eye would be severely affected without protection.

What is flash blindness?

The initial thermal pulse from a nuclear blast can cause eye injuries in the forms of flash blindness and retinal scarring. Flash blindness is caused by the initial brilliant flash of light produced by the nuclear detonation. This flash swamps the retina, bleaching out the visual pigments and producing temporary blindness. During daylight hours, this temporary effect may last for about 2 minutes. At night, with the pupil dilated for dark adaptation, flash blindness will affect personnel at greater ranges and for greater durations. Partial recovery can be expected in 3 to 10 minutes, though it may require 15 to 35 minutes for full night adaptation recovery. Retinal scarring is the permanent damage from a retinal burn. It will occur only when the fireball is actually in the individual's field of view and should be a relatively uncommon injury.

Impact on aircrew

It is easy to imagine how disruptive temporary blindness would be to an aircrew operating in a complex hostile environment . 10 minutes is an extremely long time not being able to see your instruments or operate your weapons systems, and even two minutes is a long time, especially if you are in the middle of a high-speed low level penetration flight. The need for protection is therefore evident.

Methods of protection

The only means of protection initially was a very dark visor combined with a monocular eye shield - an eye patch much like the ones we habitually associate with pirates and buccaneers. Later it was discovered that the protective capacity of the visor could be enhanced by applying a very thin layer of gold to the visor lens. The gold layer reduced the light transmittance of the visor to only 2 percent compared to approximately 15% for a standard neutral visor depending on type. The same sort of gold layer was applied also to astronauts’ helmets to protect them from the damaging ultraviolet rays in the 200 to 300 millimicrons range. Needless to say the gold-plated visor lenses were very expensive. It therefore turned out to be less practical to install them for daily use where they would be easily scratched.

The MIL-G-635 flash blindness goggle kit

An alternative to the gold-plated visor was developed in the form of a gold-plated lens for the well-known B-8 or M-1944 goggles. These could be worn when needed and otherwise tucked away in their protective box.

The flash blindness goggle kit (MIL-G-635) consists of one container, one complete pair of goggles, one KMU-219/P modification kit (a rubber strap), and one monocular eye shield. According to PACAF regulations MIL-G-635 goggle kits are used in multiplace aircraft where they are stored on board and distributed as required, or they are used in fighter aircraft where the PLZT goggles are too large and cumbersome.

It should be noted that the military specification is titled "MIL-G-635 Goggles, Sun, Wind And Dust". It does not say anything about the gold-plated visor lens. The MIL-G-635 is therefore only an identification of the frame used in the goggle kit, not a designation of the kit itself. Federal Stock Number of the goggles is 8475-00-133-3740, and the eye shield is FSN 8475-00-175-5323.

The electrooptical goggle

Several attempts were made over time to produce a more sophisticated form of flash protection than just a gold-plated visor. One such attempt was the electrooptical goggle under development in the early 1960s. The goggle used dual lenses in each eye piece, one fixed and one movable. Vertical metallic bars were deposited on each lens. In the open state the bars of the moving lense were superimposed with the bars of the fixed lens. In operation, the rise time of a high intensity light source was detected by a photocell which activated a small propellant piston motor which forced the moving lenses to translate such that the opaque bars now were superimposed with the clear spaces of the fixed lens. The goggle was completely self-contained and would operate four times without replacement of motors. The object was for the goggle to close within 500 microseconds and block 99.99 percent of the light transmission. AF Manual 64-4 does not say why the goggle did not pass the developmental stage but the field is open for anyone to guess. There is no doubt that it must have been difficult to guarantee that the physical movement of the lenses could meet the 500 microsecond target and it is also questionable how storage would affect the goggle.

The DH-101 helmet

Another nuclear flash protection system was developed for the US Navy in the early 1960s, the DH-101. The DH-101 was manufactured by Omnitech Incorporated (later Gentex Optics) and was based on a standard APH-6 shell.The DH-101 is a nuclear flash protective helmet assembly manufactured in two sizes, medium (DH-101B) and large (DH-101A). Judging from the helmet designation, the helmet shell was manufactured by Gentex Corporation. The DH-101 was used by the Navy as an experimental nuclear protective helmet. At least one of these helmets is dated 1964 with the removable glass part of the goggles being dated 1963. The glass part of the goggles are double paned glass with a air space in the middle. The goggles are removable by pushing the silver knobs on each side.
Apparently DH-101 helmets were ordered under two contracts, N156-46680 was for the procurement of training helmets (the ones with black cord and tube), and N156-42471 for the procurement of operational helmets (the ones with two white braided cords). It looks as if the system was never fielded operationally in the fleet. US Navy A-6 and A-7 aircraft were equipped with a radiation protection system consisting of one fixed and three movable fiber glass segments, which enclosed the entire cockpit viewing area when extended. They were meant to be activated by the nuclear flash sensor on the DH-101 helmet. For special weapons missions in the A-7, the pilot's helmet was equipped with a flash-blindness protective (ELF) lens. When the nuclear flash sensor that closes the radiation panels was activated, a current was also directed to detonate a very small explosive charge contained in the lens. The exploding charge released a light-blocking graphite suspension to the inner core of the lens to protect the pilot's eyes from thermal flash while the closure panels were extending. When protected by the closure panels he would change the lens. The ELF lenses were normally stored in containers on the ejection seat in the cockpit when not in use.

Three types of lenses have been identified. One is the operational lens with an explosive charge, one is the air pressure-operated training lens, and one is an inert lens modified from a live lens but without charges (MichaelFox' lens has the contact points from an operational lens but a hole has been drilled to allow fitting to a training helmet with air tube). The inert lens may have been used purely for training the correct handling and changing of lenses or for display purposes.

DH-101A helmet with gold-coated operational visor. The nuclear flash sensor is
not installed in its recess above the visor frame.© Craig 'Bloodhound' Hall

The PLZT goggles

The most advanced thermal flash protective devices in use are the PLZT goggles. These goggles are made of sandwich composite of polarized glass with an inner layer of a transparent electro-optic ceramic called PLZT. When linked to an electric current, the lenses are clear. But any dangerous flash of light, such as lightning or a nuclear blast, instantaneously breaks the circuit. This causes the lenses to go black, protecting the vision of anyone wearing the helmet. The designers of the PLZT goggle had found that the material could be discharged quicker than when charged to change the transmittance. Unfortunately, in order to obtain the desired switching speed, this meant that when the nuclear flash protective goggle failed, it was basically opaque.

PLZT is a ceramic material consisting of lead, lanthanum, zirconate, and titante and it can be electronically switched rapidly in polarity, such that when sandwiched with a near infrared blocking material and a fixed polarizing material, the visual transmittance can be varied from full open state (approximately 20%) to totally opaque within a ten-millionth of a second.

The protection device ( helmet-mounted special goggles containing four lenses) was developed under a $7.2 million contract managed by Aeronautical Systems Division at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. The requirements for the goggles was orchestrated by Cal Crochet, SAC Life Support System program manager, who was the direct interface with Sandia Laboratories at Kirtland AFB, NM. The idea for the goggles came from Cal's experience during his early days of flying helicopter (1957) at Eniwetok Atoll during nuclear tests under "Operation Hardtack" and later from his experiences with the flash curtain, gold goggles and eye patch problems encountered as a SAC B-47 and B-52 aircraft commander with the 306th and 509th Bomb Wings.

The PLZT material was developed by two engineers, Gene Haertling and Cecil Land, from the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico from 1961 to 1973 (U.S. Patent No. 3,666,666, May 30, 1972, "Ferroelectric Ceramic Materials").
What initially was a visor lens for B-52 pilots was later refined into glass that fit entirely within the viewing ports of an airplane cockpit, with 6-in. diameter shutters in the viewing windows.

The original PLZT goggles, military designation EEU-2/P, were developed for nuclear bombers such as the B-52 and B-1 in the Strategic Air Command (SAC), where the crewmembers would hopefully be just outside the blast, radiation, and/or heat damage radii of the weapon. A later version was designated EEU-2A/P, the difference between them being that the EEU-2A/P changes to dark faster than the EEU-2/P. By 2003 Thermal Flash Protective Devices (TFPD) were required for all PACAF aircrews on SIOP missions. Either the MIL-G-635 or PLZT goggles at the wing commanders discretion would satisfy requirements for TFPD. On aircraft that were PLZT modified, it was recommended that the PLZT goggles be used.

PLZT goggles in operational use

The EEU-2/P was first put in operational use in FB-111A aircraft. The first production goggles were delivered to Chanute AFB, Ill. for the training and maintenance personnel. In early fiscal year 80, SAC FB-111 aircraft at Pease AFB, NH and Plattsburgh AFB, NY did undergo cockpit modifications to accommodate the power pack of the thermal flash blindness protection device. The lenses are energized by low amperage 28 volt DC current.

The goggles first arrived on July 23, 1980 at Pease AFB after specified modification to the FB-111A, aircrew helmets and oxygen masks had been completed. When the goggles became operational, the 509th BMW set two firsts as alert aircrew Maj.Jack Pledger and Capt.William Rauschenbach, respectively pilot and navigator with the 393rd BS, became the world's first aircrew to be equipped with the new goggles while on alert status with FB-111A 68-0252. Soon after, the entire alert force of the 509th had achieved initial operating capabilities with the new flash blindness goggles. Each alert aircraft was fitted with two sets of goggles

The goggles were affixed to the helmets by the individual aircrew members when their use was required. To get them in place, a crew member had 20 seconds to pick them up, raise them over head and while holding them out horizontally, slide them down the front of the helmet onto the connections and then snap the protective devises on. The PLTZ goggles were sealed in plastic inside a canvas bag that was attached with velcro under the glare shield in front of the Terrain Following Radar (TFR) scope.

PLZT has its limitations, too

Tests in 1978 revealed that while tactical fighters could also deliver smaller nuclear weapons, use of the PLZT goggles in fighter aircraft was not favourable, due to the weight and visual transmittance. Also, the tactical fighters would probably have delivered the weapons in the daytime during this era and the effects of temporary flash blindness in the daytime would be minimal for the smaller nuclear weapons. US Army Aviation Research Laboratories (USAARL) evaluated a nuclear flash blindness protective device with the initial development of the HGU-56/P helmet program in the early 1980's. Among other things they found that the PLZT electronics, which detected a certain increase in ambient luminance in approximately 4 microseconds, could be accidentally activated by the rotor blades and when near a radar station. However, the real problem with the nuclear flash blindness protective device requirement is the concept for helicopter operations. In the European scenario with a tactical nuclear war with the former Warsaw pact, the very basic unclassified war game models showed that the only helicopters that could survive were the ones hidden in bunkers. Therefore, it did not make sense to use a nuclear flash blindness protective device for Air Warrior or Army aviation with the known technology.


Handbook of Personal Equipment, AF Manual 64-4, 30 March 1964
FM 8-10-7 Health Service Support In A Nuclear, Biological, And Chemical Environment, 22 April 1993
AFI 11-301 vol.1 PACAF supplement, 18 July 2003
From NUCLEAR FLASH EYE PROTECTION by Steen Hartov (2005)

Wrist Gear

"Hm. This thing I wear on my wrist says they're not poisonous."
Leela, Futurama

Items on your wrist are easy to access, versatile, and just look awesome.

Can function as any number of useful tools, like a communicator, a firearm, a light, a scanner, a music player, a smart watch, a portable computer, etc. Typically, this will appear in sci-fi shows as a device from which characters can access a wide variety of tools. Also, unlike a hand-held device, being wrist-mounted makes it "Hands Free", meaning it won't get lost, dropped or hinder the user by limiting the number of hands they might need in a given situation. Truly a remarkable device.

These gadgets in portable computer form are widespread on videogames, because they function pretty well as an inmersive Diegetic Interface for the pause menu.

Compare: Tricked-Out Gloves, Comm Links (can be worn on the wrist), Gadget Watch (with other built-in special devices). See also Magical Accessory.

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


      It would have been easy to believe that they were the only two people in the world, yet they could not be more than five kilometres from the village. They had certainly ridden much farther than that, but the narrow cycle track had been designed to take the most picturesque route, which also turned out to be the longest. Although Loren could locate himself in an instant from the position-finder in his comset, he did not bother. It was amusing to pretend to be lost. (this was hot stuff in 1986, but nowadays any smartphone has a GPS chip and access to Google Maps)

     Mirissa would have been happier if he had left the comset behind.
     ‘Why must you carry that thing?” she had said, pointing to the control-studded band on his left forearm. ‘It’s nice to get away from people sometimes.’
     ‘I agree, but ship’s regs are very strict. If Captain Bey wanted me in a hurry and I didn’t answer —‘
     ‘Well — what would he do? Put you in irons?’
     ‘I’d prefer that to the lecture I’d undoubtedly get. Anyway, I’ve switched to sleep mode. If Shipcom overrides that, it will be a real emergency — and I’d certainly want to be in touch.’

     Like almost all Terrans for more than a thousand years, Loren would have been far happier without his clothes than without his comset. Earth’s history was replete with horror stories of careless or reckless individuals who had died — often within metres of safety — because they could not reach the red EMERGENCY button.

From SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH by Arthur C. Clarke (1986)

Cad Bane was a Duros bounty hunter known for his ruthlessness and brutality. Bane would gain the most notoriety in his career as the top bounty hunter in the galaxy shortly after the death of Jango Fett.

As a skilled bounty hunter, Bane was described as cold and cruel. He worked only for credits and would turn on his own allies for the right price. Bane often did not get along well with other bounty hunters and never hesitated to kill the innocent. He did have a sense of respect, however, shown when he saved Rako Hardeen from a fall during the Box challenge.

Gear and Equipment

"I want a Rogue-class starfighter, with elite weapons, a cloaking device, the works. Oh, and triple my usual rate"
―Cad Bane demanding his payment to Darth Sidious for infiltrating the Jedi Temple

Cad Bane carried a number of tools and other equipment which helped him in a any number of situations, as most Bounty Hunters did. His weapons of choice were the dual LL-30 Blastech pistols which he kept at his side at all times. These pistols were custom built for Bane himself, ensuring that he made the best of his shots.

Additionally, Cad Bane had two multipurpose wrist gauntlets which included a number of features including a comlink, cable launcher, upload link, contact stunner and possibly more. He was also equipped with personal repulsor rocket boots, which could enable him to take flight speedily.

Embedded into his cheekbones were artificial breathing tubes. This breathing system allowed Bane to work in the harshest of environments throughout the galaxy, before their confiscation in prison.


Omni-tools are multipurpose diagnostic and manufacturing tools as well as computers used for a variety of civilian and battlefield tasks, such as hacking, decryption, or repair. Higher-end omni-tools are equipped by Engineers, Sentinels, and Infiltrators to make use of their tech talents and powers. When activated, an omni-tool can appear over either of a person's forearms and/or hands, and occasionally both, as an orange hologram.



Omni-tools are handheld devices that combine a computer microframe, sensor analysis pack, and minifacturing fabricator. Versatile and reliable, an omni-tool can be used to analyze and adjust the functionality of most standard equipment, including weapons and armor, from a distance.

The fabrication module can rapidly assemble small three-dimensional objects from common, reusable industrial plastics, ceramics, and light alloys. This allows for field repairs and modifications to most standard items, as well as the reuse of salvaged equipment.

Omni-tools are standard issue for soldiers and first-in colonists.

Omni-tool Weapons

Although melee-combat applications for the omni-tool are almost as old as the device itself, the feature was largely unused prior to the Reaper invasion. The need to take on multiple husks in close quarters forced the Alliance to develop ways to enhance the tool's offensive capability.

The most common melee design is the "omni-blade," a disposable silicon-carbide weapon flash-forged by the tool's mini-fabricator. The transparent, nearly diamond-hard blade is created and suspended in a mass effect field safely away from the user's skin. Warning lights illuminate the field so the searing-hot blade only burns what it is intended to: the opponent.

More technically adept soldiers frequently modify their omni-tools to maximize stopping power through electrical, kinetic, or thermal energy. Some troops integrate the weapon with their kinetic barriers, transforming the omni-tool into a wrist-mounted bludgeon; others fabricate flammable gases, held in place by a mass effect field and ignited upon impact. All prove deadly surprises for opponents who expect a disarmed Alliance warrior.

Known Functions


  • Flashlight
  • Scanner
  • Repairing items
  • Dispensing medi-gel
  • Programming and hacking
  • Camera
  • Video, audio and holographic communication
  • Projecting holographic images; omni-tattoos
  • Downloading and playing video games
  • Converting items into omni-gel
  • Manufacturing objects in real time


  • Using Tech Talents and Powers
  • Applying upgrades to items
  • Melee Weapons
    • The Soldier class can extend an "omni-blade" from the omni-tool, and use it to impale an opponent.
    • The Infiltrator class shapes the omni-tool into a forked "omni-blade" with the addition of an electrical current, then slashes upwards.
    • The Engineer class activates an incendiary attack with the omni-tool before backhanding an enemy.
    • The Sentinel class extends "omni-blades" from omni-tools on each arm to slash an opponent.
    • Batarians can create an enforcement gauntlet, which is like a an omni-tool covered in blades and spikes, to strike opponents.
    • Vorcha create a pair of thin, curved omni-blades from each of their two omni-tools and use them to savagely slash the enemy.
    • N7 Destroyers can create a slimmer and longer version of the omni-blade that extends backwards from the wrist and is used for a backhand slash.
    • N7 Demolishers use their omni-tool to punch an opponent and create a small explosion on contact.
    • N7 Paladins can create an omni-shield to protect themselves from incoming gunfire or to strike an opponent. The shield can be imbued with fire or ice to create shockwaves when the shield is slammed down.
    • Armiger Legion turians stab an omni-tool into the ground after propelling themselves toward an enemy.
    • Geth Juggernauts use their omni-tools to create pulses of energy or drain the shields/barriers of an enemy.
    • Alliance Infiltration Units use a cryo omni-blade to uppercut the opponent.
    • Talon Mercenaries produce omni-bows from their omni-tools to attack their enemies from afar.


The Glovatrix is the signature anti-personnel weapon and multi-tool of the SWAT Kats. Designed by Razor, the original version of this device was worn like a fingerless glove, with three barrels over the knuckles and a box magazine over the top of the hand. This magazine also had a small elevating panel that could dispense other gadgets and projectiles. A mostly red metal gauntlet connected to much of the wrist/forearm.

The Ultimate Super Tool

Contained in the Glovatrix was a small arsenal of miniaturized versions of the SWAT Kats trademark missiles, which included Scrambler Missiles, Octopus Missiles, Bolos, Nets and Tarpedos, among others.

While the SWAT Kats kept the Glovatrix armament primarily less-than-lethal, they also carried more lethal explosives as well.

The Glovatrix was also a helpful tool and life saving device, with all versions equipped with a grappling hook and line launcher. Later versions included radar tracking systems, buzz-saw cutting extensions (that could shoot the blades in a one-shot attack), telescoping metallic shields, lock picks, and plasma arc torches for cutting through steel. A control panel in the Glovatrix could also be used to remotely pilot the Turbokat.

Normally T-Bone or Razor would only wear one Glovatrix on their right hand, but during a situation where the two were counter-attacking Dark Kat, T-Bone wore two for added firepower and protection from contact with Hard Drive (though during the altercation, the Glovtrixes inexplicably jammed).

The Glovatrix’s name is a pseudoword, a combination of the phrase “glove of tricks.”

From entry for GLOVATRIX

(ed note: the article gives an outline for a role-playing game in which the players travel between parallel universes (nexi or nexuses), performing mission at the behest of a whimsical weakly-godlike entity named "Tao". The players have a limited time to perform the mission and to get to the time-portal leading to their next mission. Their main tool is something called a "Tao Watch")


     The one piece of standard equipment, the nexus-indicating Tao-watch, is shaped like a slim black digital watch. Three buttons operate three high resolution color-coded displays, giving lattitude and longitude, a pointer and range, sometimes alternate coordinate systems, time of nexus event and time the nexus will last, and a probability in negative exponents.

     The yellow channel indicates personal, small-sized nexi and, at times, other agents.

     The red channel tells of pivotal, universe-altering events, and is the key for the mission; it tells the agent where to go, but not what to do.

     The blue displays left-overs. lt may have a message from Tao, it may even play video games. Blue is Tao’s favorite channel.

From GODWAR: HOW TO RUN A MULTIVERSE by Mike Sweeney, Different Worlds magazine #29 (1983)


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.

Robin: Where'd you get a live fish, Batman?
Batman: The true crimefighter always carries everything he needs in his utility belt, Robin.
Batman (1966)
Gadgets are a requisite for any Badass Normal Superhero, especially if he's Crazy-Prepared. But where does he keep all of his wonderful toys? Why, in his Utility Belt, of course!

Stuff that might be found in a Utility Belt:

Note that this is usually not the same as a Bag of Holding. A Bag of Holding is generally used to just pile in as much as you can when looting (ie removing stuff from the enemy base/dungeon) while a utility belt holds carefully chosen key items in specific, easy to access places to take them with you for use at the enemy base/dungeon.

Contrast with Too Many Belts, where the belts are fashion accessories which Do Nothing.

Not to be confused with Rob Liefeld's pouches, which are NEVER USED.

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

Nonstandard Gear

Surveillance Drone

Back last century, "Snooper" were all the rage in science fiction. Nowadays they are yet another science fiction prediction that have become reality, in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles used in an aerial surveillance role.

Naturally some of the science fictional devices are still a bit more fancy, with stuff like antigravity.


The screen which he was watching at the moment, however, was not connected with an underground pickup.

It was linked with a pickup in the bottom of a basketball-sized sphere driven by a small inertial engine that held the sphere hovering in the air above the game sanctuary on the northern tip of Manhattan Island.

In the screen, he had an aerial view of the grassy, rocky mounds where the earth hid the shattered and partially melted ruins of long-collapsed buildings.

From ANYTHING YOU CAN DO... by Randall Garrett (1962)

      He indicated one of the hard laboratory chairs. “Do sit down, I asked you in because you have a fly on your sleeve.” He caught it deftly. “I’m interested in insects.”
     “I should have thought,” Gaynor said carefully, “that you had enough on your mind without worrying about insects.” He sighed. “There was a time when nothing could get through the insect barriers, but maintenance is third-rate now. What was it—a common house fly?”
     “That depends on the word common, doesn’t it?” He inserted it skilfully into a viewer and pressed a switch. “This takes a little time to warm up but…” He made a number of adjustments and squinted through the eye-pieces. “Ah, as I suspected—look.”
     Gaynor leaned forward. The view—probably a product of Duncan’s superior technology—was like a pair of binoculars sunk into a square, black box. Through the eyepieces a lighted screen revealed both external and internal structure of the tiny insect—only it wasn’t an insect.
     Gaynor felt a curious, unbelieving numbness. Clearly visible in the screen was the tiny solar motor and an incredibly complicated drive mechanism for the wings. Behind the compound faceted eyes were the complete circuits for a comprehensive tele-recording unit.
     Gaynor found himself sweating. No one on this planet to his knowledge could construct micro-devices of such precision.
     “Where the hell did it come from?”
     “That I shall have to find out. It will need a little care. There’s a minute container beside the motor with a detectable reaction, possible hydro-nuclear or solar energy matter.” Duncan shook his head thoughtfully. “It’s not big enough to be lethal—but one’s fingers are also valuable.”
     “I still don’t know how you propose to find out where it came from.” Gaynor was trying to sound casual.
     “Well, obviously, it isn’t radio-controlled or it would be detectable. It is, therefore, comprehensively programmed, so all I need are the programme tapes. I can then interpret the electronic symbols and trace backwards.”
     “That sounds a full-time job.”
     “It will take some little time. The only way to deal with a micro device effectively is to construct and programme another micro device to take it to pieces.”
     “How long will that take?”
     “With what I have to work with here, about three days.”

     Duncan smiled. “Some time ago I found a somewhat dubious insect on your coat-sleeve. I back-tracked the programme tapes to a thumb-size vehicle, rocket-type, forty miles beyond the city limits.” He laughed. “Little fleas have smaller fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em … In short, our insect took back a passenger which it brought here.”

From THE PRODIGAL SUN by Philip E. High (1964)

      The field display next to him showed a three-dimensional enlarged image of a flying insect, three feet long and twice that across the open wings. After a first incurious glance, Mike ignored it. He sat staring straight ahead for the next ten minutes.
     “So the real interest lies in the second agenda. Trader Asparian, you’ve had longer to study this image than Kallario. What do you make of it?”
     Mike gave the insect shape on the display a first serious inspection. “What’s the image scale?”
     “There's a scale calibration bar at the bottom. Display magnification is roughly a thousand to one. The real thing is about an eighth of an inch long.”
     “And it’s inorganic, from the look of it.”
     “It is.”

     “And those are working wings. So somebody went to the trouble of making a flying gadget smaller than a housefiy.”
     “Correct. Any idea why?”
     Jake Kallario was showing signs of interest, leaning forward across Mike to stare at the display. “Surveillance?”
     “Damn right. Bugging with a bug.” Connery zoomed in on the head, so that the other two could see the eyes. “High-quality lenses, indium antimonide detectors, high-quality audio recording. Diamond crystal lattice brain, nuclear-powered propulsion system, and tllere’s enough capacity for two hundred hours of continuous recording. The whole thing is a beautiful piece of work. It’s a triumph of technology.”

     “Chill manufactured?” Mike asked.
     “That would have been my guess, too. But apparently it’s not. There’s an interesting story to the way we got our hands on this thing.” He paused.
     Signs of life at last. Both men were looking at him expectantly.

     “The fly is a triumph of high technology,” he went on. “But its discovery was a triumph of low technology. It was found stuck to a fiypaper in Rasool Ilunga’s palace in Coronation City. It must have landed there accidentally, and it didn’t have enough power to get free. Ilunga himself noticed it—he’s an entomologist in addition to his other talents. His first thought was probably the same as mine would have been: this is a gadget that the Chills (the citizens of Antarctica Nation, master technologists) have planted here, to spy on what we’re doing. Most people would have destroyed it, or maybe freed it and tried to load it up with false information. But Rasool llunga’s a tricky character. He decided that the Diamond Fly—that’s what he named it, Musca Adamantis—could be worth a lot to the Ten Tribes if it was handled right. So he did the last thing most people would have done; he went to the Chills down at the Pole and said he had the Fly in his possession and for a twenty percent interest in anything profitable that resulted, he would give it to them. He reasoned that if they showed no interest in it, that meant they must have planted it themselves. And even if they had developed it, they might be willing to pay a lot to have it back. Either way, he had nothing to lose. Well, the Chills were fascinated. They took the Fly away and did their own research—and it drove them crazy. Apparently the logic for the Fly’s brain is designed so well that it’s not difficult to program. The Chills are keen to find out who did the design, but it’s the fact that the brain could ever be built that has them tied up in knots. They say the precision machinery needed is impossibly small, and they’re the experts. We’re talking of something that can perform fabrication work on single molecules—or smaller. It’s so tiny, the Chills say its fabrication is ‘below the molecular barrier.’ That means it can't be built, not with any tools they can make or imagine. But it was built. Contradiction. And then, a couple of weeks ago, the Chills discovered another Diamond Fly, in their own council chamber at Cap City. After that, they found two more, and we turned up three of them here. Look.”

     Connery picked up a small black cube from the top of his desk, and slid back the top. As the other two men craned forward, he carefully lifted out a tiny blue-black object and placed it in front of them.
     “It’s recording now. The Chills showed us how to operate the Flies by remote control when they came to us for help. We signed an agreement with them—flat fee plus ten percent royalty—and Daddy-O and Max Dalzell started digging.”
     Connery paused for effect. That last statement, as it was meant to, had caught the other two’s attention. Daddy-O (the trader's master AI) working in direct combination with a top Master Trader made a rare and powerful team.

     “The pair of them tracked down the maker of the Fly in just a couple of days. The brain was fabricated by a woman named Sabrina Vandermond, a Yankee. We know that for sure, and the Chills agree. But we still don’t understand how. The Chills have assembly techniques that operate down almost to molecular levels, but they couldn’t begin to put the Fly’s brain together. And naturally, that is driving them crazy.”

(ed note: Mike goes on the mission, and almost dies. But he manages to escape, with the secret. He dictates his report on the rescue airplane and falls unconsious. He wakes up in medical tank, with his friend talking to him.)

     “Hurt? Nah! Just scratches. I’ ve been banged up worse than that fightin’ in bed. You'll be out of the tank in a couple of weeks. You did all right, boyo. Don’t you remember giving Daddy-O a data dump on the plane?”
     “No. Not a glimmer of it. What did I tell him?”
     “About the Fly. What it was, how it was made.”
     “But that's impossible. I don't know how it was made.”
     “You don't think you do. But you must have known it subconsciously, because you gave Daddy-O all the pieces: what was in Sabrina Vandermond's library, and what you heard her say in her apartment, and then what she said later to the cityboss. And you kept saying in the plane, ‘you have to start on the other side.’ Daddy-O interpreted all that, and put things together."

     “You mean you know how the Fly brain was made?” Mike’s own brain was dull and numb.
     “It wasn’t."
     “Wasn’t what?”
     “Wasn’t made. The brain. Not mechanically, the way we usually think. The brain was too small—even the Chills can’t make machinery that operates down below the molecular level. The Chills call it the molecular barrier.”
     “I knew that.”

     “So there's no way you can get past that barrier with mechanical methods. You try to make things smaller and smaller, but then you find you’ve hit quantum levels, trying to manipulate single molecule layers. So how can you possibly build something smaller than that? There's only one answer, the one you gave Daddy-O: you have to start on the other side of the barrier. You have to be a chemist, and a microbiologist, not an engineer, and you have to use chemical processes that build from the atoms upward to the molecules, using tailored chemical reactions—just the way the enzymes in living tissues do it. Remember the program library you saw: inorganic solid state lattice theory, side-by-side with enzymatic processes for living tissue. The Fly’s brain wasn't made, Mike, it was grown, chemically, like an organism, using methods developed by that woman Sabrina Vandermond, with her brother’s help on the engineering.”

From TRADER'S WORLD by Charles Sheffield (1988)

(ed note: on the Junkyard Planet, our heroes are prospecting the abandoned Third Force High Command, a based buried in a mesa.)

      Toward midafternoon, the tunnel in the canyon was cleared. It had been vitrified solid; the scanners reported that it was plugged for ten feet. A contragravity tank let down in front of it, with a solenoid jackhammer mounted where the gun should have been, and began pounding, running a hole in for a blast shot. There were more explosions topside.
     When it was clear, they sent a snooper in first. It was a robot, looking slightly like a short-tailed tadpole, six feet long by three feet at the thickest. It transmitted a view of the tunnel as it went slowly in; the air, it found, was breathable, and there were no harmful radiations or other dangers. According to the plans, there should be a big room at the other end, slightly curved, a hundred feet wide by a hundred on either side of the tunnel entrance. The robot entered this, and in its headlight they could see reconnaissance-cars, and contragravity tanks with 90-mm guns. It swerved slightly to the left, and then the screen stopped receiving, the telemetered instruments went dead and the robot's signal stopped.

     "Tom," Rodney Maxwell said, "you keep the crowd back. Klem, stay with the screens; I'll transmit to you. I'm going in to see what's wrong."
     Half a mile ahead, at the other end of the tunnel, they could see a flicker of light that grew brighter as they advanced. The snooper still had its light on and was moving about. Once they caught a momentary signal from it. As Rodney Maxwell piloted the jeep, Conn kept talking to Klem Zareff, outside. Then they were at the end of the tunnel and entering the room ahead; it was full of vehicles, like the one on the bottom level at Tenth Army HQ. As soon as they were inside, Klem Zareff's voice in the radio stopped, as though the set had been shot out.
     "Klem! What's wrong? We aren't getting you," his father was saying.
     The snooper was drifting aimlessly about, avoiding the parked vehicles (the snooper floats using antigravity). Conn used the manual control to set it down and deactivate it, then got out and went to examine it.

     "Take the jeep over to the tunnel entrance," he told his father. "Move out into the tunnel a few feet; relay from me to Klem."
     The jeep moved over. A moment later his father cried, "He's getting me; I'm getting him. What's the matter with the radio in here? The snooper's all right, isn't it?"
     It was. Conn reactivated it and put it up above the tops of the vehicles.

     "Sure. We just can't transmit out."
     "But only half a mile of rock; that set's good for more than that. It'll transmit clear through Snagtooth."
     "It won't transmit through collapsium." (technobabble armor made out of condensed matter. Electron shells of the atoms are collapsed upon nulcei, the atoms in actual contact. Won't allow any electromagnetic radiation to pass, and can widthstand nuclear explosions. Total handwavium.)
     His father swore disgustedly, repeating it to Zareff outside. Conn could hear the old soldier, in the radio, make a similar remark. They should have all expected that, in the first place. If the Third Force High Command was expecting to sit out a nuclear bombardment in this place, they'd armor it against anything.

(ed note: now our heroes are trying to penetrate an abandoned space port that is being used as a base by air pirates. While the good-guy military force assaults the surface installations, Conn and the infiltration team are sneaking in using underground tunnels. They send a snooper ahead in case the tunnels are booby-trapped)

     They sent a snooper in first; it picked up faint radiation leakage from inactive power units of overhead lights, and nothing else. The tunnel stretched ahead of it, empty, and dark beyond its infrared vision. After it had gone a mile without triggering anything, the jeep followed Anse Dawes piloting and Conn at the snooper controls watching what it transmitted back. The two lorries followed, loaded with men and equipment, and another jeep brought up the rear. They had cut screen-and-radio communication with the outside; they weren't even using inter-vehicle communication.
     At length, the snooper emerged into a big cavern, swinging slowly to scan it. The walls and ceiling were rough and irregular; it was natural instead of excavated. Only the floor had been leveled smooth. There were a lot of things in it, machinery and vehicles, all battered and in poor condition, dusty and cobwebbed: the spaceport junkheap. A passage, still large enough for one of the gunboats, led deeper into the mountain toward the crater. They sent the snooper in and, after a while, followed.
     Beyond was another passage, almost as wide as the Mall in Litchfield; even the Lester Dawes could have negotiated it. According to the plans, it ran straight out to the ship docks and the open crater beyond. Anse turned the jeep into a side passage, and Conn recalled the snooper and sent it ahead. On the plan, it led to another natural cavern, half its width shown as level with the entrance. The other half was a pit, marked as sixty feet deep; above this and just under the ceiling, several passages branched out in different directions.
     The snooper reported visible light ahead; fluoroelectric light from one of the upper passages, and firelight from the pit. The air-analyzer reported woodsmoke and a faint odor of burning oil. He sent the snooper ahead, tilting it to look down into the pit (where they find prisoners taken captive by the pirates. Our heroes free the prisoners and give them guns).

     "Let's look these robots over," he said. "Find about half a dozen we can load with blasting explosive and send ahead of us on contragravity." (even common janitor robots have built-in antigravity)
     They found several—an electric-light servicer, a couple of wall-and-window washers, a serving-robot that looked as if it had come from a restaurant, and an all-purpose robo-janitor. In the passage outside, they began loading the lorries with bricks of ionite and packages of cataclysmite, packing all the scrap-iron and other junk around the explosives that they could.

     He lifted the jeep and started off; the lorry, and the scows and the other lorry followed; the snooper and the bomb-robots went ahead like a pack of hunting dogs. They went through great chambers, dark and silent and bulking with dusty machines. They came to a place even the snooper couldn't enter, choked to the ceiling with dead vegetation, hydroponic seed-plants that had been left untended to grow wild and die.
     "You're the officer in command, Conn," his father told him (over the radio). "Your decision. How soon can you attack? We're almost through to the crater."
     "There's a vertical shaft right above us, and a lot of noise at the top. We'll send up a couple of bomb-robots to clear things at the shaft-head and follow with everything we have."
     "We'd better send Gumshoe Gus up, first," Sylvie suggested.
     "You handle him. Take a quick look around, and then pull him back. We'll need him later." It was the first time he'd ever caught himself calling a robot "him," instead of "it." He thought for a second, and added: "Give your father and Mr. Vibart the controls for the two window-washers; you handle the snooper."
     He gave more instructions: Yves Jacquemont to turn his bomb-robot right, Vibart to turn his left; the two lorries to follow the jeep up the shaft, the scows to follow. Then he leaned back and looked at the screens that had been rigged under the top of the jeep. A circle of light appeared in one, growing larger and brighter as the snooper approached the top of the shaft; two more came on as the bomb-robots followed.
     "All right; follow me," he said into the inter-vehicle radio, and started the jeep slowly up the shaft.

     The snooper popped out of the shaft, onto a gallery that had been cut into the solid rock, fifty feet high and a hundred and fifty across, with a low parapet on the outside and the mile-deep crater beyond. There were a few grounded aircars and lorries in sight, and a medium airboat rested a hundred or so feet on the right of the shaft-opening. Fifteen or twenty men were clustered around it, with a lifter loaded with ammunition. They looked like any crowd of farm-tramps. Suddenly, one of them saw the snooper, gave a yell, and fired at it with a rifle. Sylvie pulled it back into the shaft; her father and the chief engineer sent the two bomb-robots up onto the gallery. The right-hand robot sped at the airboat; the last thing Conn saw in its screen was a face, bearded and villainous and contorted with fright, looking out the pilot's window of the airboat. Then it went dead, and there was a roar from above. On the other side, several men were firing straight at the pickup of the other robot; it went dead, too, and there was a second explosion.
     The gallery, when the jeep emerged onto it, was empty except for casualties, a few still alive. The side of the airboat was caved in; the lifter-load of ammunition had gone up with the bomb.

From JUNKYARD PLANET by H. Beam Piper (1961)

It was some five days later that, seated comfortably in the quarters that had been assigned to Spencer, rooms carved from living rock and carefully and artistically decorated with friezes, Carlisle and Spencer were disturbed, nay, even startled, to see a black object the size and general shape of a football come floating gently into the room, turn a cold and unwinking glass eye on them, and say in a slightly cracked voice: "If you two asteroids with planetary ambitions will arise and follow me down the corridor, I can show you where men of brains are laboring." (voice is of the football's inventor, Aarn from Jupiter Colony)

Then it fell silent It stared at them for some seconds as they sat in stupified amazement, then turned leisurely about and started out of the door. Its cracked voice commented only that: "Two such frog-mouthed, ant-brained, instinct-controlled, undernourished runts weren't worth the trouble, anyway."

"Well, I'll be a hyperbolic-orbited asteroid. That grease glob from Jupiter has a new idea." With which Spencer tore out of the door and down the corridor after the fast-vanishing black ostrich egg. Carlisle was on his heels as the soft black of the device all but hid it in the slight gloom of the corridor leading to Aarn's quarters.

Aarn was seated grinning before a television board of a new and complex type. "Rather clever thing, isn't it?" asked Aarn and the egg at the same time.

"Which of you should I answer?" asked Spencer sarcastically. "That egg up there looks more intelligent. I thought it was a bomb getting ready to blow up when the blamed thing floated in there."

"Yes—we are thinking of that idea, and Anto Rayl, here, has already turned the plans of this device over to his government, and they are making a number of them. Present idea is that after a Shal torpedo has breeched the walls of the ship, these can sail in and start operating on the internal structure as directed.

"This particular model is the new-type spy ship. It consists of miniature—very miniature—space-ship drive of the momentum-wave type (reactionless drive), two small but powerful aggie (antigravity) power coils, a radio-control apparatus, and a small radio-sending apparatus connected with a television device of the usual sort—but smaller size. Rather crude. Not a good lining on the screen, but you can see enough, and the ears are quite effective. The whole report is sent back continuously on two short-wave beams.

"As I said, Anto Rayl has turned the plans over to the government, and they are making about ten an hour now. They plan to increase the production to about fifty an hour; and equip all ships with them. The Sunbeam is assigned to special duty—with seven full-fledged momentum-drive, antigravity-powered battleships and twenty of the new cruisers. Our duty is to patrol and investigate, by any means possible, the doings of Teff-el (the enemy aliens). The battleships and cruisers are to protect us."

Aarn went back to work. Anto Rayl and several other Magyans were in the control room of the Sunbeam with him as he sent out his little "egg-boat," as the investigators had been called, and attempted to land it on Teff-el safely. He met with difficulties as usual, and cursed the Tefflan ship heartily. Teff-el was nearly a million miles away, which meant his control of the little machine was extremely poor, since the light-speed messages that controlled it took several precious seconds for the round trip. He had to move it slowly, exploring carefully before him. Already the little ship was nearer Teff-el than any Magyan had ever been.

The egg-boats, as made in quantity, were egg-shaped, and about eight inches in greatest dimension. They contamed no apparatus for the projection of speech, as no attempts would be made to attract attention—decidedly the opposite. Since they were black, Aarn had carefully chosen to send them in from the day side of Teff-el; they were therefore black against black space.

The present egg-boat was within about fifty miles of the surface of the planet when Aarn had been forced, by the lightning swoop of the Tefflan heavy cruiser, to move rapidly to other regions and had moved out of the little investigator's beam. He'd picked it up again, to find the thing was headed for a body of water, and though he'd sent a reversing message, he feared he was too late.

"Blast that restriction on the speed of light! I can't get anywhere this way," he grumbled. "I'll have to send another one now, and every time one of those things is spotted by a Tefflan, it will mean another three hours' work."

"Why not lower a whole collection at once?" suggested Anto Rayl

"Why—that might be possible—they'd have to respond to two wave lengths—a master wave, that they all obeyed, and a key wave, that they reacted to individually, but it might be done."

The investigator shot rapidly ahead now, in clear day light, high in the sky. There were ships up here—ships that scurried busily across the sky between cities. There was a great deal of anxious activity, and the furnaces that stood above ground, alone of Tefflan city structures, were evidently working hard. A great opening in the ground, into which ships of all sizes were constantly sinking while others rose from it, betrayed the entrance to Cantak.

The investigator crept forward at a speed of some two feet per second, till it was directly over the great bore. Then Aarn let it drift across.

By far the most common vessels were huge. The next was. The little investigator caught by it, lodged in a crack under its great, stubby wing, and carried down, cushioned by its antigravity field. Aarn gave a stop signal and knew the little machine would remain in place unless heavily jarred in landing.

The ship it clung to descended, landing in the midst of a great terminal, a bustle of Tefflan activity. With a sudden swoop, the investigator detached itself, shot straight up into the air, and disappeared in the black roof of the great cavern before the startled Tefflans could guess what had happened.

Laborers, common Tefflans, they paid no further attention, and went on with their work. And all that day, behind doors, hidden in great vessels, in small vases and among bushes in parks, the investigator listened and watched and sought. It crept out when the lights were turned down for the rest period, and slunk into important public buildings, buildings that had no window glass in this great cavern where there was no weather, save that which they made themselves. Through ventilation tubes, through doors, through transoms, the investigator went, seeking records, secrets—

Never before had Magyans (the good guys) had so perfect an opportunity to learn every secret of Teff-el.

From THE MIGHTIEST MACHINE by John W. Campbell jr. (1934)

Lie Detector

This section has been moved here

Speed Learning

This section has been moved here

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). Which means Gary Seven will be real upset if his servo is lost or stolen, in an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket sort of way.

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.


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. Which is written on the arms of the Sabbatic Goat in the famous illustration by Eliphas Levi).

Cutting tools include knives, chisels, lathes, scissors, 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, needles and thread, 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).


A Multi-Tool is the "Swiss Army Knife" approach to tools, commonly seen in the United States as a fondness for Leatherman tools. It is a prime example of the fatal flaw of overengineering. The general outcome is a worthless tool that can do a little bit of everything, but cannot do any of its functions very well.

Of course the science fictional versions can perform every function to optimized perfection. Which is why they call it "fiction."

In David Drake's novel Rolling Hot the tank maintenance crew used a sort of powered mult-tool. It was sort of a combination electric drill/ultrasonic cleaner/screwdriver/socket wrench. If you used it to remove a screw or a bolt, it would "swallow" the item to keep them from dropping to the ground and/or falling into an inaccessible location.

In Larry Niven's 1967 short story "The Soft Weapon", space explorers discover a high-tech gadget from a long extinct species. Said gadget is a handle on a sphere, with a selector slide on the handle. Moving the slider changes the weapon mode, which manifests as the sphere technomagically re-forming itself into different devices. One would assume that it is made of pure handwavium.

Settings included Sonic communications device, telescope, cutting laser, small jet pack, energy absorber, computer, matter-to-energy-conversion weapon, and self-destruct.

In 1973 this story was adapted as an animated Star Trek episode "The Slaver Weapon."


      Vierziger left the jitney at the gap in the fence. He jogged the rest of the way to Coke and Daun. He wore two bandoliers and a garrison belt hung with various munitions, but none of the equipment jingled or clattered as he moved.
     “We were going to let the Astras take it from here,” Coke commented mildly.
     “No, Matthew,” Vierziger said. “We were going to do it right.”
     “We still have to wait for the ram,” Coke said.

     “I can open the warehouse doors if you’d like, sir,” Niko Daun said. “So long as the power’s still on, like it is now.”
     Coke blinked. “You can?” he said.
     Johann Vierziger smiled at him. The harsh illumination from the roof floodlights made the little man look like a gnome, an incredibly vicious gnome.
     “Sure,” Daun said.
     He reslung his sub-machine gun and fumbled in the small tool pouch on his belt as he walked to the latch plate beside the sliding doors. The kit Daun had left back at the fence contained the special equipment he needed for the outer defenses, but he wore what he considered basic tools whenever he had his trousers on.

     “I hope he remembered to put the curst gun on safe,” Coke grumbled.
     “He did, Matthew,” Johann Vierziger said. He faced the door, but his eyes were far away. He flexed his empty hands twice, then readied his sub-machine gun. “He’s a very careful lad. A credit to you as his commander.”
     “I’m ready,” the tech said. He’d pressed a flat disk held by a magnet or suction cup to the latch plate. A coil of thin flex ran from the disk to the squeezer in Daun’s hand.

     The logistics officer carried a multitool. He used it now to loosen fittings behind the wood-veneer interior panels. His size and single hand made it difficult to work in the strait confines, but he proceeded without asking for help.
     "I thought it might be the fans themselves," Esteban said, peering through the opposite window in an attempt to follow what was going on. "They'd been replaced in the past with standard units, Gurneys, instead of Stellarflow parts. I thought that might be the problem, but the fans synch fine when I jury-rigged a chassis from a ground car."
     "You do a lot of work for the Astras, then?" Moden asked. His face was hidden, but his casual tone fooled no one.
     "I work for whoever pays me!" the mechanic snapped "Or doesn't pay, half the time. The cyclo drivers, its their livelihood. They haven't got any money when they break down, and sometimes they forget to pay when I get them running again. Do you have a problem with that?"
     "Quite the contrary," Sten Moden said. He folded the powered multitool into its belt pouch, then straightened with a flat plug-in module in his hand
     Four hours after they'd started — straps replaced with pieces cut from sheet stock, bearing freed in a sonic bath from the multitool, and journals cannibalized from one of the pair of redundant trunk-lid cantilevers — Esteban ran the fans up and down in perfect unison before shutting off the power.
     "As good as new!" he announced.

From THE SHARP END by David Drake (1993)

      The lightwand on the ground beneath the baseplate illuminated everything in the scarred, rusty steel cavern—including the flange, until Simkins tried to position the nacelle and his arms shadowed the holes. The young technician looked scared to death. The good Lord knew he had reason to be, because if Simkins screwed up one more time, Ortnahme was going to reverse his multitool and use the welder end of it to—
     Ortnahme sighed and let his body relax. He set down the multitool, which held a bolt ready to drive, and picked up the drift punch to realign the cursed holes.
     Henk Ortnahme was tired and sweaty, besides being a lot older and fatter than he liked to remember … but he was also the Slammers' maintenance chief at Camp Progress, which meant it was his business to get the job done instead of throwing tantrums.
     Ortnahme had let the drift punch slide down and was groping for the multitool again. His arm muscles, rigid under their covering of fat, held the unit in place.
     Simkins set the multitool in his superior's palm, bolt dispenser forward, and scuttled for the open access plate. "Yes sir," he called back over his shoulder.
     The multitool whirred, spinning the bolt home without a shade of difficulty.

     The warrant leader ran his multitool down the channel of the close-in defense system. The wire brush he'd fitted to the head whined in complaint, but it never quite stalled out.
     It never quite got the channel clean, either. Pits in the steel were no particular problem—(the tank) wasn't being readied for a parade, after all. But crud in the holes for the bolts which both anchored the strips and passed the detonation signals … that was something else again.

     Tech 2 Simkins was dog-paddling with a worried look. He was trying to retract the cutting blade of his multitool, but his face kept dipping beneath the surface.

From ROLLING HOT by David Drake (1989)

      She followed him through the archway into the next hall. There were filing cabinets along the wall and single display case in the center of the room.
     "Now here is one I'm justly proud of." The Baron walked to the case and the transparent walls fell apart.
     "What," Rydra asked, "exactly is it?"
     "What does it look like?"
     "A — … piece of rock."
     "A chunk of metal," corrected the Baron.
     "Is it explosive, or particularly hard?"
     "It won't go bang," he assured her. "Its tensile strength is a bit over titanium steel, but we have much harder plastics."
     Rydra started to extend her hand, then thought to ask, "May I pick it up and examine it?"
     "I doubt it," the Baron said. "Try."
     "What will happen?"
     "See for yourself."
     She reached out to take the dull chunk. Her hand closed on air two inches above the surface. She moved her fingers down to touch it, but they came together inches to the side— Rydra frowned. She moved her hand to the left, but it was on the other side of the strange shard.

     "Just a moment." The Baron smiled, picked up the fragment, "Now if you saw this just lying on the ground, you wouldn't look twice, would you?"
     "Poisonous?" Rydra suggested. "Is it a component of something else?"
     "No." The Baron turned the shape about thoughtfully. “Just highly selective. And obliging." He raised his hand. "Suppose you needed a gun"—in the Barons's hand now was a sleek vibra-gun of a model later than she had ever seen—"or a crescent wrench." Now he held a foot long wrench. He adjusted the opening. "Or a machete." The blade glistened as he waved his arm back. "Or a small crossbow." It had a pistol grip and a bow length of not quite ten inches. The spring, however, was doubled back on itself and held with quarter inch bolts. The Baron pulled the trigger—there was no arrow—and the thump of the release, followed by the continuous pinnnnnng of the vibrating tensile bar, set her teeth against one another.

     "It's some sort of illusion," Rydra said. "That's why I couldn't touch it."
     "A metal punch," said the Baron. It appeared in his hand, a hammer with a particularly thick head. He swung it against the floor of the case that had held the 'weapon' with a strident clang. "There."
     Rydra saw the circular indentation left by the hammerhead, Raised in the middle was the faint shape of the Ver Dorco shield. She moved the tips of her fingers over the bossed metal, still warm from impact.
     "No illusion," said the Baron. "That crossbow will put a six inch shaft completely through three inches of oak at forty yards. And the vibra-gun—I'm sure you know what it can do."
     He held the—it was a chunk of metal again—above its stand in the case. "Put it back for me."
     She stretched her hand beneath his, and he dropped the chunk. Her fingers closed to grab it. But it was on the standard again.
     "No hocus-pocus. Merely selective and … obliging."

     He touched the edge of the case and the plastic sides closed over the display. "A clever plaything. Let's look at something else."
     "But how does it work?"
          Ver Dorco smiled. "We've managed to polarize alloys of the heavier elements so that they exist only on certain perceptual matrices. Otherwise, they deflect. That means that, besides visually—and we can blank that out as well—it's undetectable. No weight, no volume; all it has is inertia. Which means simply by carrying it aboard any hyperstasis craft, you'll put its drive controls out of commission. Two or three grams of this anywhere near the inertia-stasis system will create all sorts of unaccounted-for strain. That's its major function right there. Smuggle that on board the Invaders' ships and we can stop worrying about them. The rest—that's child's play. An unexpected property of polarized matter is tensile-memory." They moved toward an archway into the next room. "Annealed in any shape for a time, and codified, the structure of that shape is retained down to the molecules. At any angle to the direction that the matter has been polarized in, each molecule has completely free movement. Just jar it, and it falls into that structure like a rubber figure returning to shape."

From BABEL-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966)

Mentally Controlled Tools

These are tools that are controlled simply by thinking at them. Crude versions require electrodes surgically implanted in the brain, advanced versions can remotely read the user's thoughts with no surgery required.

In James White's collection Major Operation, the continent-sized strata creatures of the planet Meatball create silver tools that can be molded into various shapes by a user simply visualizing the desired shape and thinking it at the tool. The interesting thing is that more than one entity can control a given tool. If a strata creature forms the tool into a dagger-like shape and hurls it at you, save your skin by frantically thinking the tool into some kind of blunt object.

In the movie Forbidden Planet is featured a titanic forerunner installation called the Krell Machine. When the machine was activated, any Krell citizen could mentally control it to wish for anything they wanted. The machine woudl then use the power of 9,200 thermonuclear reactors to make it happen. At that point the Krell learned the hard way about the Monsters from the ID problem. The entire race was exterminated overnight.

In Daniel Galouye's Lords of the Psychon the alien invaders use ring-shaped generators to create clouds of mysterious "psychon plasma". The plasma can be formed into any shape the user can imagine and utilized as a universal tool. Unfortunately the Monsters from the ID problem will allow ones subconscious to instantly form it into nightmare shapes drawn from the foul depths of your personality. Generally the subconsciously controled plasma won't harm you, just seriously harm your mental stability.

The problem can be fixed by undergoing psychoanalysis, to purge all the crap out of your subconsious. The nightmarish shapes formed by the psychon plasma can accelearate the process. However, it is very important to have such psychoanalysis rooms to be widely spaced apart. Otherwise your psychon plasma may not be controlled by you, but instead by a person in an adjacent room. And psychon plasma subconsciously controlled by somebody else can easily kill you.


     Biron looked it over slowly. “And you build gadgets here? What kind of gadgets?”
     “Well, special sounding devices to spy out the Tyrannian spy beams in a brand-new way. Nothing they can detect. That’s how I found out about you, when the first word came through from Aratap. And I have other amusing trinkets. My visi-sonor, for instance. Do you like music?”
     “Some kinds.”
     “Good. I invented an instrument, only I don’t know if you can properly call it music.” A shelf of book films slid out and aside at a touch. “This is not really much of a hiding place, but nobody takes me seriously, so they don’t look. Amusing, don’t you think? But I forget, you’re the unamused one.”

     It was a clumsy, boxlike affair, with that singular lack of gloss and polish that marks the homemade object. One side of it was studded with little gleaming knobs. He put it down with that side upward.
     “It isn’t pretty,” Gillbret said, “but who in Time cares? Put the lights out. No, no! No switches or contacts. Just wish the lights were out. Wish hard! Decide you want them out.
     And the lights dimmed, with the exception of the faint pearly luster of the ceiling that made them two ghostly faces in the dark. Gillbret laughed lightly at Biron’s exclamation.

     “Just one of the tricks of my visi-sonor. It’s keyed to the mind like personal capsules are (message capsules that can only be opened by their intended recipient). Do you know what I mean?”
     “No, I don’t, if you want a plain answer.”
     “Well,” he said, “look at it this way. The electric field of your brain cells sets up an induced one in the instrument. Mathematically, it’s fairly simple, but as far as I know, no one has ever jammed all the necessary circuits into a box this size before. Usually, it takes a five-story generating plant to do it. It works the other way too. I can close circuits here and impress them directly upon your brain, so that you’ll see and hear without any intervention of eyes and ears. Watch!”

From THE STARS, LIKE DUST by Isaac Asimov (1951)

(ed note: the good ship Descartes from the Galactic Survey lands on the planet Meatball. It is covered by huge flat creatures the size of continents. The ship comes under attack from … something, so they retreat. Lieutenant Harrison is injured, so they swing by the intergalactic Sector General Hospital.

Unknown to them, one of the strata creatures is intelligent. It has weird "tools." These are objects the size of baseballs that can be transformed into any shape just by thinking at them.

One of the tools was clinging to Harrison's space suit but nobody noticed. After decontamination, a nurse came by looking for a medical tool, and the thought-tool promply transformed into the desired medical tool. The unwitting nurse picked up the thought-tool thinking it was the item they were looking for.

A series of odd incidents happen, as the thought-tool keeps responding to the thinking of everybody around it. Dr. Mannon almost inadvertently kills a patient during surgery because he doesn't understand that the thing he is holding is not a scalpel, but instead an alien tool that alters its shape as he thinks about the operation.

Finally Dr. Conway realizes what is going on.

The hospital sends an expedition to planet Meatball because these thought-tools will revolutionize surgery, and they want to trade for some.)

INVADER (1966)

      After the operation they had all wanted to question Harrison about Meatball, but before they could do so Conway had first to explain what had happened again to the Lieutenant.
     “…And while we still have no idea what they look like,” Conway was saying, “we do know that they are highly intelligent and in their own fashion technically advanced. By that I mean they fashion and use tools…

     “Indeed yes,” said Mannon dryly, and the thing (thought-tool) in his hand became a metallic sphere, a miniature bust of Beethoven and a set of Tralthan dentures. Since it had become certain that the Hudlar (the surgical patient) would be another one of Mannon’s successes rather than a failure he had begun to regain his sense of humor.

     …But the tool-making stage must have followed a long way after the development of the philosophical sciences,” Conway went on. “The imagination boggles at the conditions in which they evolved. These tools are not designed for manual use, the natives may not possess hands as we know them. But they have minds…

     Under the mental control of its owner the “tool” had cut a way into Descartes beside Harrison’s station, but during the sudden takeoff it had been unable to get back and a new source of mental control, the Lieutenant, had unwittingly taken over. It had become the foothold which Harrison had needed so badly, only to give under his weight because it had not really been part of the ship’s structure. When the attachments of Harrison’s suit had been sterilized in the same room as the surgical instruments and when a nurse had come looking for a certain instrument for the theater, it again became what was wanted.
     From then on there was confusion over instrument counts and falling scalpels which did not cut and sprayers which behaved oddly indeed, and Mannon had used a knife which had followed his mind instead of his hands, with near-fatal results for the patient. But the second time it happened Mannon knew that he was holding a small, unspecialized, all purpose tool which was subject to mental as well as manual control, and some of the shapes he had made it take and the things he had made it do would make Conway remember that operation for the rest of his life.

     …This…gadget…is probably of great value to its owner,” Conway finished seriously. “By rights we should return it. But we need it here, many more of them if possible! Your people have got to make contact and set up trade relations. There’s bound to be something we have or can do that they want…
     “I’d give my right arm for one,” said Mannon, then added, grinning, “My right leg, anyway.”
     The Lieutenant returned his smile. He said, “As I remember the place, Doctor, there was no shortage of raw meat.”
     O’Mara, who had been unusually silent until then, said very seriously, “Normally I am not a covetous man. But consider the things this hospital could do with just ten of those things, or even five. We have one and, if we were doing the right thing, we would put it back where we found it—obviously a tool like this is of enormous value. This means that we will have to buy or conduct some form of trade for them, and to do this we must first learn to communicate with their owners.”
     He looked at each of them in turn, then went on sardonically. “One hesitates to mention such sordid commercial matters to pure-minded, dedicated medical men like yourselves, but I must do so to explain why, when Descartes eventually makes contact with the beings who use the tools, I want Conway and whoever else he may select to investigate the medical situation on Meatball.


     The scout ship broke off the maneuver and roared into a landing behind them. By then the ground was already beginning to sag.
     Suddenly they (thought-tools under control of the strata beast) appeared.
     Two large, flat metal disks embedded vertically in the ground, one about twenty feet in front of them and the other the same distance behind. As they watched each disk contracted suddenly into a shapeless blob of metal which crawled a few feet to the side and then suddenly became a large, razor-edged disk again, cutting a deep incision in the ground. The disks had each cut more than a quarter circle around them and the ground was sagging rapidly inside the incisions before Conway realized what was happening.
     “Think cubes at them!” he yelled. “Think something blunt! Harrison!” (the exploration team crew can over-ride the control over the thought-tools, if they think hard enough at them)
     “Lock’s open. Come running.”

     But they could not run without taking their eyes and minds off the disks, and if they did that they could not run fast enough to clear the circular incision which was being made around them. Instead they sidled toward the scout ship, willing every inch of the way that the disks become cubes or spheres or horseshoes—anything but the great, circular scalpels which something had made them become.
     At Sector General Conway had watched his colleague Mannon perform incredible feats of surgery, using one of these thought-controlled tools, an all-purpose surgical instrument which became anything he wanted it to be instantly. Now two of the things were crawling and twisting like metallic nightmares as they tried to shape them one way and something else—which was their owner and as such had more expertise—tried to shape them another. It was a very one-sided struggle but they did, just barely, manage to hamper their opponent’s thinking enough to allow them to get clear before the circular plug of “skin” containing the drilling rig and other odds and ends of equipment dropped from sight.


     They were three semicircular disks of metal which seemed to flicker into and out of existence on the area of ground covered by the long morning shadow of the scout ship. Harrison stepped up the magnification of his scanners, which showed that the objects did not so much appear and disappear as shrink rhythmically into tiny metal blobs a few inches across, then expand again into flat, circular blades which knifed through the surface. There they lay flat for a few seconds among the shadowed eye plants, then suddenly the discs became shallow inverted bowls. The change was so abrupt that they bounced several yards into the air to land about twenty feet away. The process was repeated every few seconds, with one disc bouncing rapidly toward the distant tip of their shadow, the second zig-zagging to chart its width and the third heading directly for the ship.
     The third disk was still coming at them in five-yard leaps along the center of their shadow. He had never before seen them display such mobility and coordination, even though he knew that they were capable of taking any shape their operators’ thought at them, and that the complexity of the shape and the speed of the change were controlled solely by the speed and clarity of thought of the user’s mind.

     “Lieutenant Harrison has a point, Doctor,” said Murchison suddenly. “The early reports say that the tools were used to undercut grounded ships so that they would fall inside the strata creature, presumably for closer examination at its leisure. On those occasions they tried to undercut the object’s shadow, using the shaded eye plants as a guide to size and position. But now, to use your own analogy, they seem to have learned how to tell the itch from the object causing it.”
     A loud clang reverberated along the hull, signaling the arrival of the first tool. Immediately the other two turned and headed after the first, and one after the other they bounced high into the air, higher even than the control position, to arch over and crash against the hull. The damage scanners showed them strike, cling for a few seconds while they spread over hull projections like thin, metallic pancakes, then fall away. An instant later they were clanging and clinging against a different section of hull. But a few seconds later they stopped clinging because, just before making contact, they grew needle points which scored bright, deep scratches in the plating.
     “They must be blind,” said Conway excitedly. “The tools must be an extension of the creature’s sense of touch, used to augment the information supplied by the plants. They are feeling us for size and shape and consistency.”
     “Before they discover that we have a soft center,” said Harrison firmly, “I suggest that we make a tactical withdrawal, or even get the hell out.

     Conway nodded. While Harrison played silent tunes on his control panels he explained that the tools were controllable by human minds up to a distance of about twenty feet and that beyond this distance the tool users had control. He told her to think blunt shapes at them as soon as they came into range, any shape so long as it did not have points or cutting edges.
     “No, wait,” he said as a better idea struck him. “Think wide and flat at them, with an aerofoil section and some kind of vertical projection for stabilization and guidance. Hold the shape while it is falling and glide it as far away from the ship as possible. With luck it will need three or four jumps to get back.”
     Their first attempt was not a success, although the shape which finally stuck the ship was too blunt and convoluted to do serious damage. But they concentrated hard on the next one, holding it to a triangle shape only a fraction of an inch thick and with a wide central fin. Murchison held the overall shape while Conway thought-warped the trailing edges and stabilizer so that it performed a balanced vertical bank just outside the direct-vision panel and headed away from the ship in a long, flat glide.
     The glide continued long after it passed beyond their range of influence, banking and wobbling a little, then cutting a short swathe through the eye plants before touching down.

     “Doctor, I could kiss you…” she began. (actually, she is already married to him)
     “I know you like playing with girls and model airplanes, Doctor,” Harrison broke in dryly, “but we lift in twenty seconds. Straps.”

     “It held that shape right to the end,” Conway said, beginning to worry for some reason. “Could it have been learning from us, experimenting perhaps?”
     He stopped. The tool melted, flowed into the inverted bowl shape and bounced high into the air. As it began to fall back it changed into glider configuration, picking up speed as it fell, then leveled out a few feet above the surface and came sweeping toward them. The leading edges of its wings were like razors. Its two companions were also aloft in glider form, slicing the air toward them from the other side of the ship.


     They hit their acceleration couches just as the three fast-gliding tools struck the hull, by accident or design, cutting off two of the external vision pickups. The one which was still operating showed a three-foot gash torn in the thin plating with a glider embedded in the tear, changing shape, stretching and widening it. Probably it was a good thing that they could not see what the other two were doing.
     Through the gash in the plating Conway could see brightly colored plumbing and cable runs which were also being pushed apart by the tool. Then that screen went dead as well just as takeoff boost rammed him deep into the couch.
     “Doctor, check the stern for stowaways,” said Harrison harshly as the initial acceleration began to taper off. “If you find any, think safe shapes at them—something which won’t scramble anymore of my wiring. Quickly.”

     Suddenly there was a silvery blur of motion on the ground beside the pump housing and a corpsman hopped a few yards on one foot before falling to the ground. His boot with his other foot still in it lay on its side where he had been standing and the tool, no longer silvery, was already cutting its way beneath the blood-splashed surface.
     “Tool attacks are increasing in frequency and strength,” said Garoth in Translated. “They are also displaying considerable initiative. Your idea of clearing an area around the feeding installations of all eye plants so that the tools would have to operate blind, and would have to bounce around feeling for targets, worked only for a short time, Doctor. They devised a new trick, that of sliding along a few inches below the surface, blind, of course, then suddenly extruding a point or a cutting blade and stabbing or swinging with it before retreating under the surface again. If we can’t see them, mental control is impossible, and guarding every working corpsman with another carrying a metal detector has not worked very well so far—it has simply given the tool a better chance of hitting someone.

     “And just recently,” Garoth concluded, “there are indications of the tools linking up into five- , six- and in one case ten-unit combinations. The corpsman who reported this died a few seconds later before he was able to finish his report. The condition of his vehicle later supports this theory, however.”
     Conway nodded grimly and said, “Thank you, Doctor. But now I’m afraid that you’ll have to withstand air attacks as well. On the way here we taught the patient how gliders work, and it learned fast…” He went onto describe the incident, adding the latest pathological findings and their deductions and theories on the nature of their patient. As a result the meeting quickly became a debate and was degenerating into a bitter argument before he had to pull rank and get his human and e-t doctors back to a state of clinical detachment.

From MAJOR OPERATION by James White (1966)

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 Isaac 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)

Warning: spoilers for RENEGADE by Joel Shepherd

Lisbeth appeared beside the chair, also clasping some coffee. She didn’t make a face as she sipped, Erik noted. Phoenix coffee was far below the quality of what she was used to. “Where are we?” she asked, peering at the command screens.

A few of the officers up and down the bridge aisle glanced at her. Rows of faces in their chairs, pale in the wash of display light, amidst the humming of ventilation and the ever-present rumble and thump of the cylinder rotation. Most were only strapped in loosely, not expecting immediate trouble.

Erik looked at his sister. Her hair was pinned up and tied at the back… too long for crew, but acceptable for a spacefaring civvie. She wore a plain spacer jumpsuit with pockets and webbing straps. Life support pouch, medical kit, harness hooks. Standard spacer gear. Regs said anyone not wearing it would be confined to quarters.

“If you’re going to stand there,” Erik told her, “then take hold.” Lisbeth blinked at him. “That’s what we call it — ‘take hold’. It means brace, grab something, never stand unsecured.”

From RENEGADE by Joel Shepherd (2015)

(ed note: the protagonists are dealing with humanoid aliens whose galactic empire collapsed about twelve thousand years ago. But you can still bump into them if you fool around with time machines. The aliens have very versatile uniforms)

      The package contained a much folded article of fabric, compressed and sealed in a transparent bag which he fumbled twice before he succeeded in releasing its fastening. Ross shook out a garment of material such as he had never seen before. Its sheen and satin-smooth surface suggested metal, but its stuff was as supple as fine silk. Color rippled across it with every twist and turn he gave to the length—dark blue fading to pale violet, accented with wavering streaks of vivid and startling green.

     Ross experimented with a row of small, brilliant-green studs which made a transverse line from the right shoulder to the left hip, and they came apart. As he climbed into the suit the stuff modeled to his body in a tight but perfect fit. Across the shoulders were bands of green to match the studs, and the stockinglike tights were soled with a thick substance which formed a cushion for his feet.

     He pressed the studs together, felt them lock, and then stood smoothing that strange, beautiful fabric, unable to account for either it or his surroundings.

     Ross understood. By rights, his thigh should also have been scorched where the flame had hit, yet he felt no pain. Now as the tribesman examined him for a burn, he could not see even the faintest discoloration of the strange fabric. He remembered how the aliens had strolled unconcerned through the burning village. As the suit had insulated him against the cold of the ice, it seemed that it had also protected him against the fire, for which he was duly thankful. His escape from injury was a puzzle to the tribesman, who, failing to find any trace of burn on him, left Ross alone and went to sit well away from his prisoner as if he feared him.

     Fire—there was something about fire—if he could only remember! Ross stumbled and nearly fell across one leg of the dead horse they were propping into place. Then he remembered that tongue of flame in the meadow grass which had burned the horse but not the rider. His hands and his head would have no protection, but the rest of his body was covered with the flame-resistant fabric of the alien suit. Could he do it? There was such a slight chance, and they were already pushing him onto the mound, his hands tied. Ennar stooped, and bound his ankles, securing him to the brush.

     A tongue of yellow-red flame licked up at him. Ross hardly dared to breathe as it wreathed about his foot, his hide fetters smoldering. The insulation of the suit did not cut all the heat, but it allowed him to stay put for the few seconds he needed to make his escape spectacular.

     The flame had eaten through his foot bonds, and yet the burning sensation on his feet and legs was no greater than it would have been from the direct rays of a bright summer sun. Ross moistened his lips with his tongue. The impact of heat on his hands and face was different. He leaned down, held his wrists to the flame, taking in stoical silence the burns which freed him.

     Then, as the fire curled up so that he seemed to stand in a frame of writhing red banners, Ross leaped through that curtain, protecting his bowed head with his arms as best he could. But to the onlookers it seemed he passed unhurt through the heart of a roaring fire.

     Keeping his footing, he stood facing that part of the tribal ring directly before him. A cry rose and a blazing torch flew through the air and struck his hip. Although he felt the force of the blow, the burning bits of the head merely slid down his thigh and leg, leaving no mark on the smooth blue fabric.


     Now the wizard capered before him, shaking his rattle to make a deafening din. Ross struck out, slapping the sorcerer out of his path. He stooped to pick up the smoldering brand which had been thrown at him. Whirling it about his head, though every movement was torture to his scorched hands, he set it flaming once more. Holding it in front of him as a weapon, he stalked directly at the men and women before him.

     The torch was a poor enough defense against spears and axes, but Ross did not care—he put into this last gamble all the determination he could summon. Nor did he realize what a figure he presented to the tribesmen. A man who had crossed a curtain of fire without apparent hurt, who appeared to bathe in tongues of flame without harm, and who now called upon fire in turn as a weapon, was no man but a demon!

     When the bubbles ebbed and Travis stepped out of the cubby, he was met by a changed Ross. The latter was just hitching up over his broad shoulders the upper part of a tight, blue-green suit. It clung to his body, modeling every muscle as he moved. Made all in one piece, its feet were soled with a thick sponge that cushioned each step. Ross picked another bundle of blue-green from the floor and tossed it to the Apache.

     “Compliments of the house,” he said. “I certainly never thought I’d want to wear one of these again.”

     “Their uniforms?” Travis remembered the dead pilot. “What is this—silk?” He rubbed his hand over the sleek surface of a fabric he could not identify and was attracted by the play of color—blue, green, lavender—rippling from one shade to another as the material moved.

     “Yes. It has its good points, all right—insulated against cold and heat, for one thing. For another, it can be traced.”

     Travis paused, his arm half through the right sleeve. “Traced?”

     “Well, I was trailed over about fifty miles of pretty rugged territory because I was wearing one like this. And they tried to get at me mentally, too, when I had it on. Went to sleep one night and woke up heading right back to the boys who wanted to collect me.”

     Travis stared, but it was plain Ross meant every word he said. Then the Apache glanced down again at the silky stuff he was wearing, with an impulse to strip it off. Yet Murdock in spite of his story, was fastening the studs which ran from one shoulder to the other hip of his own garment.

     “If we were in their time, I wouldn’t touch this with a fifty-foot pole,” Ross continued, smiling wryly. “But, seeing as how we are some thousands of years removed from the rightful owners, I’ll take the chance. As I said, these suits do have some points in their favor.”

     Travis snapped his own studs together. The material felt good, smooth, a little warm, almost as soothing as the foam bubbles which had scoured and energized his tired body. He was willing to chance wearing the uniform. It was infinitely better than the hide garment he had discarded.

     “Helmets fastened?” His voice boomed hollowly inside the sphere now resting on Travis’ shoulders and secured by a close-fitting harness. Ashe had discovered those and had tested them, preparing for this time when they might dare a foray into the unknown. The bubble was equipped with no cumbersome oxygen tanks. It worked on no principle Renfry was able to discover, but the aliens had used these and the humans must trust to their efficiency now.

     They went armed, strapping on the belts supporting the aliens’ weapons. And they issued into a merciless sunlight, as threatening with its white brilliance as the flames of the night before.

     Ashe shielded his eyes with his hand. “Try wearing the helmets,” he ordered. “They might just cut some of the glare.”

     He was right. When they fastened down the bubbles, the material cut that daylight so that their eyes were unaffected.

     “We do it this way.” Ashe, the veteran explorer, took over with decisive authority. “You stay here, Renfry—up at the door. Any sign the ship is coming to life again and you fire—on maximum.”

     A bolt of the force spewed from the narrow muzzle of the alien weapon would produce crackling blue fire which should be visible for miles. They were not sure of the range of the helmet coms, but they could be certain of the effectiveness of a force bolt as a warning.

From TIME TRADERS by Andre Norton (1958)

Care and Feeding of Space Fleet Crew in the Diesel Age

Let's talk about uniforms. Uniforms have several functions beyond keeping your backside from sticking to the furniture (though that may be the most important!)

Uniforms allow you to recognize a member of the service.

Uniforms provide some measure of protection.

Uniforms provide pockets.

Space Fleet uniforms are made of nonflammable material. The basic uniform onboard ship consists of a light blue coverall with green piping down the legs and boots (either high boots or ankle height). Sleeveless and legless green overalls are often worn over this.

The Space Fleet is fairly easy going regarding uniforms onboard ships and in transit. Small personal touches are allowed. In addition while the uniforms are designated male or fem crew are welcome to wear whichever version is more comfortable to them.

The basic uniform consists of a blue coverall and boots. The boots have ankle and shin reinforcements. The protection is not only good for  using a lifter belt, it is helpful in low gravity maneuvering. Crew sometimes try 'stunts' to traverse several decks under low gravity levels and forget that while their weight is reduced their mass is the same and they can build up a good head of steam. Already ankle and leg injuries are down 40% in the Fleet with the use of this foot wear.

Unfortunately wrist and arm injuries are up 40%. The fleet is looking into wrist and elbow guards.

As you can see the uniforms have pockets. The pockets seal closed for zero gravity situations.

Branch is indicated by the collar and cuffs. The Space Fleet generally does not bother with rank insignia aboard ships. Rank badges are reserved for dress uniforms. Anyone transferring ships is advised to learn the hierarchy quickly.

The blue collars and cuffs mark these crew as Engineering. The Engineer on the left is further differentiated by the yellow tag on her collar and yellow striping in her hairband as dealing with airlocks and extravehicular activity.

The crew have hair at the maximum length allowed by regulations. This is for ease in donning spacesuits. Hair bands and scrunchies are required. If gravity goes out or a ship moves suddenly a crew might get hair whipping in their eyes during a crucial moment.

Engineers almost always wear specialized boots with reinforced steel toes just in case someone drops something heavy.

As a further note, most crew are allowed jewelry such as rings and chokers. Engineers are not due to safety concerns. electrocution and getting your necklace caught in machinery is never fashionable.

Officers have a white collar and cuffs. these officers have added over tunics to their basic uniform. this is pretty common. Engineering does not usually do this because the tunic gets in the way when crawling through machinery. The officer on the right is outfitted for a landing party with a compressor mask and eyescreen used for missions on Mars or a desert area. He's also wearing lifter breaches, similar to riding breaches with extra leg room for making jumps. The fem version of the tunic opens in the back and the make version on the side. Both tunics have straps running under the legs and arms that a lifter belt attaches to. They also have supplemental pockets. The officer on the left is wearing jewelry to give an idea of acceptable ornaments.

Some crew wear lifter belts onboard their ship to transit decks fairly quickly. Other just prefer wearing the tunics because the basic uniform feels like pajamas.

Billed cps are not used in the Fleet in general. Crew using billed caps have to turn the bills around to ascend ladders for safety reasons, the crew all carry goggles for eye protection and it's too easy to catch the bill on machinery in the engineering sections. Also if anything a space helmet can go over a sift cap in an emergency. You don't need to take it off.

Deckhands are designated with red collars and cuffs. They are usually relatively new to the Fleet and low ranking, Deckhands are extra crew carried in case personnel are incapacitated. Their major function is to handle damage control and first aid. When they aren't doing that they could be performing maintenance, swabbing decks or assisting personnel in almost any task. They also double as ship's troops. In some cases personnel remain deckhands after several years or for their whole career because they prefer the constantly changing duties. Highly experienced hands of this sort are prized.

This deckhand is wearing goggles with light enhancing lenses (like the engineers). Not everyone puts up with the added weight of the light enhancement gear and most goggles are not equipped.Almost everyone wears goggles onboard ship or has them handy. For one thing, low gravity plays hell with vision over long term exposure engorging and warping eyes. The goggles have an electro massage feature that alleviates this. Crew operating in the machine shop or laboratory may be exposed to metal filings or other contaminants and the goggles provide protection as well. Finally in the event of a micrometeor strike or combat it is possible for the inner hull to be breeched. Most breaches are a few centimeters across and will take several minutes (at least) for pressure to drop dangerously but winds from these hull can whip debris into eyes and blind unprotected crew at crucial moments.

Medical branch is designated by green collars and cuffs. This doctor replaced the over tunic with a smock and the lifter foot wear with comfortable ship shoes. She is clearly happy with a more sedentary set of duties.

Gunners are designated with yellow collars and cuffs. They also will wear their over tunics and lifter belts on duty. This is because reloads for the big guns can weigh over 100 kilos and lifter belts help enormously with reloading. Gunners are often the most adept crew at changing the lift settings on their belts to let them tote heavy loads. Sometimes they even use the winches set up for that purpose.

Warships seldom carry troops. They are simply not designed to move people in large numbers and the Fleet usually commandeers civilian liners or sleeper freighters for large troop movements. Special Forces are the exception to this. Special forces operate in small teams of two to five operatives. They are part of the Fleet by necessity, troops have to pitch in with the regular crew on a flight. In general they operate as deckhands, performing maintenance and aiding more skilled crew. Some Spectfor members wear mission badges on their caps. Others believe mission badges are bad luck or tempting fate. Badges record numbers in the same fashion as Roman numerals (| = X, / = V and o =I). Those officer has completed 16 missions (|/o = XVI). The uniform's tunic contains some armor, not enough to matter against modern weapons but able to stop clubs or a knife thrust.

In general uniforms are simply ignored unless you need a character sketch. You might consider using the gear worn when assessing saves. Perhaps using your lift belt to drop down the length of the ship is a dicey idea but you rightfully point out that you're wearing those lovely boots and deserve a +1. perhaps later you're trying to be stealthy and you hard soled reinforced boots give you a -1. In general things should even out and again the uniform pictures I posted are just for color, to develop a look for my world. though you might get into an argument with your CO over those mission badges you clipped to your cap.

Flight Suits

My father was in the USAF, and I found his old flight suits to be very comfortable and practical. The many zippered pockets were quite useful. Though when I attended science fiction conventions with my cosplaying friends, this turned out to be a liability. Cosplay costumes seldom included pockets, so I wound up being the pack mule for everybody else.

The pockets were useful, but practical. They shut with zippers so things could not fall out, especially if you are spinning in mid-air. They were also positioned so to avoid the straps on one's parachute and the belts holding you into the aircraft seats. I trust you see how this could also be applied to spacecraft crew uniforms.

The center zipper has tabs at both ends, which allows the bottom tab to act as a fly. This allows the user to urinate without unzipping the entire front. But only if the user has male genitalia or a freefall toilet with a urine funnel. Torchships are capable of prolonged periods of multi-gee burns, so the acceleration couches may well be designed with built in urine funnels aka "relief tubes". You cannot get up and walk to the head if the ship is pulling five gees.

If the user has to defecate they are S.O.L. out of luck, whatever their gender. You almost have to take the entire flight suit off. As a side note, since one cannot remove one's spacesuit in vacuum without dying, defecation in a space suit is handled with either diapers or something more complicated.

There was one interesting pocket that would puzzle a civilian. A narrow one located on the left inner thigh. It held a special switch-blade knife, with a curved hooked blade (MC-1 survival knife).

You see, when you use a parachute to escape a plummeting aircraft, the chute will get you down to the ground without you becoming a large blood-colored splat. But if there is any wind when you land, the chute can easily drag you to death. The curved blade was to quickly cut the chute canopy lines to prevent that unhappy fate. The blade deployed by pushing the switch-blade button on the knife because time is of the essence. And the knife was held in that special pocket, perfectly positioned to be quickly grabbed.

There is also a convenient grommet hole on that pocket used to attach the knife to the suit by nylon cord lanyard. Could be the difference between life and death in case you drop the knife.

But I knew about that pocket because I was an air-force brat. I often saw that orange-handled knife when my father suited up to go to work. As well as his dragon helmet.

Science fiction authors may find it entertaining to think up what sort of similar equipment is regularly carried by the spaceship crew in the novel.


A flight suit is a full body garment, worn while flying aircraft such as military airplanes, gliders and helicopters. These suits are generally made to keep the wearer warm, as well as being practical (plenty of pockets), and durable (including fire retardant). Its appearance is usually similar to a jumpsuit. A military flight suit may also show rank insignia. It is sometimes used as a combat uniform in close quarters battle or visit, board, search, and seizure situations, for its practicality.


As aviation developed in unheated open cockpits, the need for warm clothing quickly became apparent, as did the need for multiple pockets with closures of buttons, snaps, or zippers to prevent loss of articles during maneuvers. Various types of flight jackets and pants coverings were developed and, during World War I, leather two-piece outfits were common among pilots to ward off the chill caused by propwash and the cold of low-oxygen high-altitude flying. Leather quickly became the preferred material due to its durability and the protection it offered against flying debris such as insect strikes during climb-outs and landings, and oil thrown off by the simple rotary and inline motors of the time. Australian aviator Frederick Sidney Cotton's experience with high level and low-temperature flying led Cotton in 1917 to develop the revolutionary new "Sidcot" suit, a flying suit which solved the problem pilots had in keeping warm in the cockpit. This flying suit, with improvements, was widely used by the RAF until the 1950s.

By the time World War II started in earnest, electrically heated suits were introduced by Lion Apparel in conjunction with General Electric for patrol and bomber crews who routinely operated at high altitudes above 30,000 feet, where air temperatures could get so cold that flesh could freeze instantly to any metal it touched. As enclosed and pressurized cabins came into operation, the necessity of bulky leather and shearling jackets and pants began to fade. For example, pilots, navigators, and bombardiers of a B-17 operating in Europe in 1944 comfortably wore their officer's uniforms under an A-2 flight jacket, due to the enclosed and heated cabin; but the waist gunners needed electrically heated suits, as they fired their guns through open window gunports. When the B-29 Superfortress was introduced in the fight against Japan, along with remote-controlled coordinated gun turrets, the fully pressurized crew cabin made bulky flight gear obsolete.

Where bomber pilots could wear their service uniforms as flight gear, fighter pilots needed a uniform that functioned in the tight confines of the typical fighter plane cockpit. The AN-S-31 flight suit was developed for the US Army Air Corps and featured two button-down breast pockets and two button-down shin pockets that could be accessed from the sitting position. The US Navy used a slightly different model that featured slanted pockets with zippers. The material used was either wool or tight-weave cotton for wind resistance and fire protection.

The need for short-duration fire protection was demonstrated early during that war. As technology advanced, the fire-protective flight suit, helmets, goggles, masks, gloves and footwear were designed and used. The footwear often could be cut to appear like civilian shoes in the country where the crew member would land if shot down.

Flak jackets were also developed to give bomber crews some protection from flying shrapnel, though these increased the overall weight of the airplane and reduced the effective bombload that could be carried.

With the era of jet flight and improved focus on safety; however, fully fire-retardant materials were required. It was also simpler to make a one-piece suit when it would potentially have to fit over existing clothing or various types of under-garments.

Also, with the coming of jet flight came the development of the G-suit, a special kind of flight suit (worn alone or in combination with a traditional flight suit) that protected the wearer from the physical stress of acceleration by compressing the body to keep blood from pooling in the legs. As the pilot executed high-G combat maneuvers, his blood would literally be pulled from his head and shift downwards into his lower body, starving the brain of oxygen and causing a blackout. The G-suit was designed to allow some retention of blood in the pilot's head, allowing him to execute high-G turns for sustained periods of time.

In the 1950s and 1960s, even more specialized suits needed to be developed for high-altitude survelliance (such as with the U-2 and SR-71 aircraft) and space flight. These would include full pressurization, and would be the precursor to today's space suits.

Current standards

The current flight suit that is standard for most air forces and navies is made of Nomex, a fabric made from spun aramid that is lightweight and fire-resistant. The flame-retardant capabilities of this material make it ideal for protecting aviators in case of a fire. The suit is often green or desert tan in color, with multiple pockets for specific pieces of gear (such as a clear plastic pocket on the thigh intended to house a map of the aircraft's planned flight path), but color, style, and cut vary greatly from country to country. The current model flight suit for the US military is the CWU 27/P and is available in sage green and desert tan. Commercial flight suits for civilian flying are also available, and are frequently used by helicopter crew (including non-pilots such as flight engineers and nurses), aerobatic pilots, and others who desire a practical "uniform".

Members of the United States Marine Corps wore flight suits during most vehicle patrols and ground combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because their standard camouflage utilities were not flame-resistant. Flight suits have now been phased out among ground personnel with the introduction of the Flame Resistant Organizational Gear, or "FROG" suit, which resembles the standard camouflage utilities.

Space flight

NASA astronauts have worn one-piece flight suits when in training or on flights in their NASA T-38s. The current flight suit worn by astronauts is royal blue, made of Nomex. The now-common "shirt-sleeve environment" of the orbiting Space Shuttle and International Space Station has resulted in much more casual attire during spaceflight, such as shorts and polo shirts.

In the pre-Challenger era, shuttle crews wore light blue flight suits and an altitude helmet during launch/reentry. Apollo crews wore white 2-piece beta cloth uniforms during non-essential activities and the full A7L pressure suit during launch, TLI, lunar ascent/descent, and EVAs. Mercury and Gemini crews wore their pressure suits for the duration of the mission, with the exception of Gemini 7.

Pilots and flight crews use several colors of flight suit. NASA crews, for example, wear blue flight suits as a sort of functional dress uniform during training. The orange suits that they wear during launch and re-entry/landing are designed for high visibility, should there be an emergency recovery. White suits are worn during space walks to control temperature. NASA non-astronaut flight crew at Langley Research Center wear blue, and crew at the Dryden Flight Research Center wear either green or desert tan, and all newer suits issued are desert tan.

From the Wikipedia entry for FLIGHT SUIT

When military pilots are flying a plane, what is the advantage of flight suits or coveralls compared to wearing traditional pants and a top?

Flight suit advantages:

  • Multiple pockets
    • Each pocket located so as to be accessible when strapped into the seat/parachute/survival vest
    • Each pocket with zipper opening/closing, of size large enough to accommodate needed items
    • Pen/pencil pocket on outside of upper arm, with zip compartment for small flashlight
  • Front zipper extends from neck to crotch, with zipper pulls top and bottom. Bottom pull allows use of relief tube while strapped into the seat
  • Fire-resistant Nomex material
  • One-piece design prevents wind from destroying, damaging or removing clothing during bail-out
by Jim Gordon (2013)


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)


This section has been moved here.

Atomic Rockets notices


This week's featured addition is DEUTERIUM MICROBOMB PROPULSION

This week's featured addition is BDM EXPLORATION CARRIER

Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets

Support Atomic Rockets on Patreon