We tend to think of escape pods as a science fiction trope: They jettison off of Star Destroyers or launch out the top of giant mechanical spiders just before Will Smith destroys them with a pun. But they're not all fictional: When everything has gone to hell, when the ship is sinking, when the shuttle is exploding, when that natural disaster is bearing down on you relentlessly, take hope. There actually might be an escape pod nearby ...
Ready to make everything just so much worse.
In the year 1500, Chinese bureaucrat Wan Hu attempted the first manned rocket flight by strapping hundreds of fireworks to his chair and lighting the fuse. He lifted a few feet off of the ground, and quite reasonably exploded. Roughly 500 years later, with the help of centuries of careful consideration and all the industriousness of mankind's collective genius, NASA sat down with intricate blueprints, cutting-edge technology and the greatest minds of the day, and said, "Hey, what ever happened to that rocket chair thing?"
This is the Lunar Escape System (LESS).
Not this. This is just a Chinese man exploding.
A sprocket of engineers (that's what you call a group of them -- we looked it up) called the Apollo Applications Program were planning a series of long-duration moon stays, and got all the way to the design stage before NASA pulled the plug. But the blueprints were already complete: AAP had laid out everything for these extended trips to Earth's moon. Even an escape system, should the lander fail after idle weeks spent on the abrasive lunar surface.
In the event of a lander failure, instead of curling up into a ball and seeing how many tears moon dust can absorb (Hint: It's zero. They just pool in your face mask), you could unpack the Lunar Escape System from beneath the ship, assemble it like an IKEA bookshelf, then siphon off fuel from the lander and strap yourself on.
"Oh dear God, the Allen wrench is missing!"
Yes, we meant "on": You sat on top of the damn thing. There were no walls, no ceiling. Just a chair, you and open space.
"Look, it says right here in the manual: You have to hold my hand if I ask."
Once you were belted into your hastily assembled rocket chair filled with stolen fuel, you simply aimed for that tiny glimmer of light in between the stars. That was your Command Module. It's been up there the whole time, orbiting the moon, ready to take you home. All you have to do is hit it ... exactly.
It's like threading a needle that's a mile away and made of burning death.
This was accomplished using math and explosions and little else: The computer was deemed "too heavy" to be necessary, so it was up to the copilot to run all the calculations on a scratchpad, trying to work out the precise trajectory of both the LESS and that pinprick of light miles up in space. And if he forgot to carry a 1 and delayed the pickup by a few hours, then you both died in a vacuum. Because the LESS had no life support systems, aside from the four hours of air in the suit's backpacks, much of which would likely be used in the preparation stages. If literally anything went less than perfectly -- if one external variable went wrong, or if any component failed -- two astronauts went hurtling off into the blackness of space on the worst Bungee Chair Ride in history.
Let's set the scene: You and your crew are manning one of America's finest early rockets, and by "finest" we of course mean "whatever we could slap together out of war surplus as fast as possible, cuz we got to beat those commies in this here game of space tag!"
Apparently terrible headlines predate the Internet.
We don't know why that NASA scientist is talking like a grizzled old prospector; it takes all kinds to make the world go 'round. Besides, you've got bigger things to worry about: The launch countdown just reached zero, the rockets are firing and holy shit, you're doing it! You're going to space! You're going ... sideways?
Oh. Well, that's it. You're dead. You had a good run, but everybody knows that rocket launches are like first impressions: You only get one chance at them, and if something goes wrong, everybody is on fire.
"So what do you do? Explode? Right-o."
That's how we, the ignorant, casual space fans, tend to think of rocket launches, anyway. But that's not necessarily true: NASA actually did have backup plans. If something went wrong on a launch, and your main rocket was set to explode, there was another, smaller emergency rocket attached to your capsule. The capsule would detonate a series of explosive bolts that detached your emergency rocket from the exploding rocket and rocketed you sideways away from the main rocket's explosion, and then, when you were far enough away, more explosive bolts would explode, detaching you from the main rocket's escape rocket and then rocket rocket explosion rocket.
"Explosion explosion rocket. Explosion? Rocket!" -NASA
Hey, don't fault them for fixing every problem with explosions and rockets; NASA was a group comprised almost entirely of rocket scientists. When you ask a bunch of plumbers to fix a car, they're all going to start looking for leaks.
"I think I see the problem. What we need here is more fire."
But despite this whole system reading like a Michael Bay movie about the Fourth of July, the one time a Launch Escape System was actually needed, it was a total success. In 1983, a Russian Soyuz rocket tried to launch and things went awry. The Launch Escape System quickly boosted the capsule to safety, propelling the cosmonauts almost 2,000 feet, where they achieved G-forces of about 17G. They eventually parachuted down safely, 2.5 miles away from the launch site. When interviewed later, the commander said the first thing he did after the Launch Escape System initiated was turn off the cockpit voice recorder, because "we were [just] swearing."
No seriously, that's what he actually said. Why would you even doubt that? What would you do while being flipped through a Jacob's Ladder of exploding missiles -- recite poetry?
The guy on the left is finding this almost-catastrophe particularly arousing.
Early space shuttles were designed to carry a crew of four, but usually packed fewer space suits than crew members, out of both concern for weight and a keen sense of cinematic drama that bordered on the cruel. Long story short: If the entire crew ever had to abandon the shuttle for some reason, somebody was getting left behind. Jesus, it's starting to seem like every troubleshooting guide for early space flight missions simply read:
Did restarting fix problem?
If yes, high five.
If no, die in space.
But it's not hopeless: You'll still have the Personal Rescue Enclosure! Designed to be an easy, low-cost alternative to a spacesuit, in the event of an emergency an astronaut crawled inside the PRE ...
... sealed it, donned an oxygen mask and safely waited for help to arrive. Here's what that looked like:
There are so many ways that man is wishing death on us right now.
As you can see, the PRE was tiny. It was only about 3 feet in diameter, meaning you'd have to curl up into a tiny ball to fit inside of it, which shouldn't have been too hard, as the fetal position is a perfectly natural response to being abandoned in the cold vastness of space with nothing but a giant, clear hamster ball between you and the abyss. If the claustrophobia doesn't have you chewing your own arms off, you should be perfectly safe ...
... for about one hour.
That's how much oxygen the PRE holds. But if you happen to be in one of the many places in outer space that can't be reached in an hour, there's the matter of guidance and propulsion, which you won't have to worry about, because the PRE has neither of those things. With the short life span, the complete lack of control and the tight quarters that have your legs practically wrapped around your own head, the only thing we can imagine the PRE being useful for is spending a good, solid hour kissing your ass goodbye in the relative privacy of outer space.
Meanwhile, Consumer Reports has ranked it worst escape pod to find out you're sharing with a stow-away facehugger.