Thursday, February 14, 2008

Guns in space

In space, no one can hear you shoot.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station apparently have access to a gun.


Former NASA engineer Jim Oberg... wrote about the gun on his Web site. He said the gun has no place in an environment where people are under such high stress.

"There have been cases of severe psychological strain on people in space, strain that they have taken out -- that their shipmates worried about the ultimate actions," Oberg said.


Oberg knows an astronaut bent on orbital manslaughter could simply throw any number of switches to do the job, but he said the crews would be safer if the gun was locked up or left on Earth.

The gun is located in a survival kit between some seats aboard the Soyuz spacecraft. All the crewmembers know about it, and U.S. astronauts who fly aboard the Soyuz are trained to use it.

On his site Oberg describes the gun:
The triple-barreled gun can fire flares, shotgun shells, or rifle bullets, depending on how it's loaded. The gun and about 10 rounds for each barrel are carried in a triangle-shaped survival canister stowed next to the commander's couch. The gun's shoulder stock opens up into a machete for chopping firewood.


"It is a wonderful gun," agreed Mir veteran Dave Wolf. "I found it to be well balanced, highly accurate, and convenient to use."

It's unlikely that the gun would fire outside in the vacuum. Gunpowder needs air, specifically oxygen, to burn. The tiny amount of air sealed in the shell, would not be enough to properly fire the bullet. At best it might manage a smoky little fart that would shove the bullet away in slow motion, if it moved it at all. Inside the space station, shuttle, or Soyuz capsule, the gun could cause quite a bit of trouble. If a bullet punctured the walls, it could kill everyone there. Even if it didn't, there are delicate electronics everywhere that would not respond well to bullets.

In the case of a crew member going crazy and needing to be subdued, a gun would be just about the worst tool to use. A taser, would not be much better because of the electronics. If the crew isn't capable of physically wrestling a violent companion into a position where they could tie them up without help, a chemical weapon would be the safest thing to use. Though even that would have to be specially made for the special circumstances of a space craft. Off the shelf chemicals like pepper spray wouldn't work. In zero gravity an aerosol would keep spreading till it dispersed through the entire atmosphere, gassing everyone. They would need something like a sticky gel, so if of it missed the target, it would attach to the nearest wall for later clean-up. The gel would have to be formulated so it didn't penetrate into electronics, was non-corrosive, and didn't conduct electricity.

All in all, a roll of nickels in your fist might be the safest weapon to use in space until the sleep ray is perfected.

Note :An instant poll attached to the news story asks "Should the space station crew have access to a gun?" Fifty-nine percent of the respondents say yes. I'm not sure if that is a reflection of the irrational, but common, American opinion that any problem can be solved with more guns, or if it is a much more rational fear of surprise attacks by giant space squid. To be on the safe side, I think I'll continue to avoid contact with my fellow citizens.

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