by A. T. Miller
De-bunking "The Cold Equations" by Tom Goodwin
| I have to raise a b/s flag about the story The Cold Equation. I don't have a problem with the equation, but I do with the unreasonably inhumane, or unbelievably incompetent space crew depicted. Firstly, anyone who has flown on military aircraft knows a little something about being specific with the numbers vs. weight and fuel consumption. I work with fighter aircraft, so I'm well acquainted. No rational pilot or loadmaster would ever allow a vehicle off the flight line without more than enough fuel for those "just in case" moments, no matter how strict the Command. That is why avionics engineers give pilots the optional ability to dump fuel if it exceeds their needs in flight.
Note that in our time, systems specialists and the load crew weigh everything by either looking at an object's data plate, or by the guesstamation of those providing the load. They then pass those hand-written numbers to their chief, who passes them on to the loadmaster for final computation. In the future, it is reasonable to assume that we would have automated these weighing systems, making them far more accurate, if not infallible. If they were automated, and the computers had to have weighed the vehicle at its fully loaded capacity before take off, remember that the girl had hid in the ship long enough for final maintenance crew, the load crew, and taxi personnel to miss her presence.
What Tom Goodwin is suggesting is this:
The call comes in, "Colony needs medical supplies ASAP. Deaths are eminent. Send EDS!" The medical officer supplies the goods, which a loader whisks to the hangar and places in the cargo bay. Someone weighs the goods on the way out, then calculates that, along with the approximate weight of the pilot--provided he has not eaten a big bowl of cheerios that morning--along with the entire ship without fuel into a solemn equation, and then justifies the added weight of the fuel before, during, and after consumption. The loadmaster goes through final systems check and the taxi personnel stand by for take off. Suddenly and inexplicably, with minutes of precious life ticking away down on the colony, the entire crew, pilot, taxi-driver, and tower personnel decide to go have a nap. In the silence of the moment, Scruffy the janitor decides to swab the deck, likely whistling while he works. From a side entrance, a passenger who has no military background or security clearance whatsoever wanders past live, machine gun and semi-automatic sidearm toting sentries into the launch bay, stops to have a conversation with Scruffy, and then moseys into the craft. Once safely tucked away in a broom/coat closet (huh?!?), all activities resume at a feverous pace. The pilot rushes across the hangar and into the craft, and then, without bothering to do any kind of last minute preparation, jets toward the colony. Alone in space, he waits with pistol at the ready as the stowaway pops out of the closet so he can put a cap in that person's ass, all the while saying "It wasn't me. It wasn't me. It's this damn law, you see."
I think its safe to assume that her weight had been included unintentionally from the start. If that be the case, the story could have gone the extra mile by having the pilot take pity on her and do the unthinkable, attempt to land with her alive. When they arrive unharmed, the EDS pilot would then realize that he would have made a terrible error sending her to her doom. They could have even raised the drama by having the pilot do the math himself, measure it against the fuel and discover an unexpected overage. He could then attribute that to her presence, but not be entirely sure, and build suspense.
Second, if stowaways were such a problem, then the space crew had to be fairly idiotic, or worse, wanted stowaways to die, by not planning for unexpected passengers during flight. If an area of a vessel is prohibited, as with a Navy vessel that isn't even space worthy, it is not likely that a civilian could just wander into a place where they could easily throw away their own life. If such an act as stowaway proved 100% life threatening to all who attempted it successfully, why just put up a sign? Come on. We do not even obey traffic signs on Earth. Human life is precious. If you do not think the Commanders of big vessels believe it, think again. That is why there are so many nit-picky procedures to for crews to follow, because every life is priceless. Over-fueling should have been a mandatory flight preparation in a vessel with large enough compartments for someone to hide and not be visually noticeable.
I mean, it happened enough for them to make a LAW about it, and not one of those bogus laws like not shooting a whale from the inside of your car (and yes, that is a state law in California). They issue the pilot a pistol in case stowaways will not go for a nice, suitless space walk willingly, but they will not spring for a stowaway alert system that could prevent it? They won't even include a stowaway search as part of the pre-flight checklist? This is the future, right, a technologically superior place? I would hope it is also a technologically common-sensical (yeah, yeah, I'm a wordsmith, get over it) place as well. Where was the proximity alert before flight? If the internal sensors are their equivalent of a black box, then it should have been running from the instant they built that ship, and active the instant the pilot powered its systems. For an airtight seal, shipboard oxygenation systems should have registered the extra burden from the instant the hatch was closed and she took her first breath.
For that matter, no military pilot worth his salt would ever enter a craft without knowing that a member of the load/maintenance crew had inspected every inch of it by before take off. I know the A-10 pilots I work with are sticklers about the bombs they carry, the fuel that is pumped into their planes, and the condition of the plane before they fly. Commander Hatch, one of those pilots in particular, even holds a sentimental attachment to his plane and swears that if an enemy shoots him down, he will not even bother to eject. If the pilot of this story suddenly found a stowaway on his craft, and there was a law on the books that requires him to murder anyone on board after leaving the mother ship, it means he did not do any kind of check before take off to ensure he would not have to "do his duty”. Whether it was mandatory or not, and believe me, if there was still the ability for citizens to bring law suits against the government, it would be, it means that he was DIRECTLY responsible for her death. It means that his "Oh well. Tough noogies." attitude about it would end in his ass being planted on a metal rack in the brig, not free to continue being a murdering EDS pilot. Do that equation, Mr. Goodwin.
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