Saving Private Ryan….Space Edition

As NASA and SpaceX prepare to fly astronauts to the International Space Station from the Kennedy Space Center, a unit of the U.S. Space Force will be on alert should anything go wrong. But instead of being prepared to rescue astronauts while they are in space, this unit is focused on terrestrial rescue. This raises the question. How will Space Force or another country’s military rescue astronauts when something goes wrong in orbit? Let’s find out.

The Fun Part

She was amazing, Ariana thought. How had less than 100 people built something like this in less time than it took her to finish her graduate degree in Orbital Sociology? Ariana was looking at a replica of her new ship, the USS Endeavor, the first of a new class of space cutters while marveling at how real the 1/3rd earth gravity felt in the spinning central hub of the ship.

Ariana assumed command of the ship after her time at the Space Service Command and Staff College. The Endeavor, at nearly 175 meters long, was nearly three times the size of her space shuttle namesake. Endeavor’s central shaft hosted her storage, fuel, and shuttles, while the crew lived and worked almost exclusively in the nearly 100 meter rotating central hub. The fold-able solar arrays extended another several hundred meters in each direction, giving the ship, which had a nuclear reactor, the possibility of operating on solar power even when the ship was within the orbit of Pluto.

Ariana was snapped out of her revere at a chime on her desk computer. Answering it, she saw the face of her ruggedly handsome executive officer, “What’s up Brad?” she says, banishing any awkward thoughts. “Ma’am, we just received orders from HQ, we are to respond to a distress call from ERO 9”. Ariana quickly thought back to her briefing on the elevator ride skyward, ERO, or Easily Relocatable Objects were asteroids in heliocentric orbit which were fairly easy to move into lunar or earth orbits. ERO 9 was a Canadian claimed rock nearly 1 kilometer in diameter, and its rare minerals were worth between 1 and 3 trillion dollars.

“What could those Canadians gotten into?” She responds. Brad smiles ruefully, “Looks like their water recycler has been having problems for a few weeks, and they ‘forgot’ to order spare parts.” “Looks like a repeat of ERO 2 when the Chinese administrator was scared to report the problem, and the whole team died of dehydration.”

“Damn It Brad! That is the last fucking thing we need now. Is the Endeavor even ready to fly?” “Yes Ma’am, although best case we are six days out.” “Exactly Brad, now it is our fucking fault that we can’t save the stupid fuckers who couldn’t be bothered to keep up with their maintenance” “Looks like it is Ma’am…but isn’t that why they pay us the big bucks?  

“Brad, remind me again why I joined the Space Force? Don’t answer that you snarky asshole – I know it is better than flying a desk back at the Pentagon…let’s just get this done.”

The Real Deal

Space rescue operations will largely depend on orbital resources….no surprise there….but what exactly does that mean?

First off, lets define what we are talking about:

Space: <100 miles above me right now

Rescue: Help when I need/want it

Space Rescue: The recovery of a team of astronauts after their spacy ship stops working. Roughly equivalent to the downed aircraft recovery operations conducted by militaries around the world.

Ok so we have defined our topic. Now lets look at what would necessitate a rescue (so as to understand what sorts of resources might be needed for the rescue itself)

A rescue is needed when:

  1. Space ship experiences a loss of control of its primary source of thrust/steering/communication


  1. Retains life support

A rescue is NOT needed when:

  1. Anything happens that compromises the life support of the ship in such a way that the reserves of heat, air, water or food are insufficient to sustain the crew until help can arrive

I’ll put that in simpler terms. A rescue is needed when there is a chance of getting to a broken-down ship and people are alive. If there is not a chance of that then it would be called a recovery mission (EVEN if the people are alive when said mission sets out). And to be even blunter…a recovery mission is space is just f’ing stupid. Or will be for the next ten to twenty years (cue Live and Let Die). If you want to know why then you are a more caring person than I – and we will probably disagree.

So then, we have defined our terms, outlined when a rescue would be needed. Now let’s talk mechanics. A space rescue is going to most closely resemble rescuing a sunk submarine. You need to find the ship, get alongside, shuttle personnel, and finally return home.

Step 1. Find Ship

It is easy to assume that finding a space ship would be easy. Afterall – every science fiction movie ever involves sensors sweeping space and ships are easily detected. However, in ‘real’ space you have about a good a chance of finding an ‘uncooperative’ (meaning not broadcasting a radio signal) space ship, as you have of finding your phone when it is on silent. Seriously though, there is a reason that astronomers regularly report ‘surprise’ asteroid flybys of earth. That reason is that space is really really f’ing huge, and our ability to keep track of things is puny.  

So then, actually finding the ship in need of rescue is likely to be non-trivial even with some sort of emergency transponder system (which I think is safe to assume will be a part of any future space ship).

Step 2. Get Alongside

Remember that time you attempted to step from your car to the one driving next to it on the highway? No? Oh…. well…that is a reasonable facsimile of ‘getting alongside’ a derelict space ship (see Fig. 1). This isn’t a situation of a sunken pirate ship. It is a runaway school bus that you have to catch, get close to, and stay alongside of while a rescue is underway.


In the best case this ‘getting alongside’ happens in the orbit of a big rock (earth, moon…etc), rather than in the intervening space between one of said rocks.

Step 3. Shuttle Personnel

This is probably the easiest step in our little hypothetical rescue. It involves you (cause clearly I am driving this rig) setting up some sort of system to allow the poor souls aboard the doomed vessel to cross over here to us. Think a cable, tunnel or net. Really anything that gives us fancy monkeys the ability to clamber between space boats.  

Step 4. Return Home

If you are still with me to this point you are either REALLY into knowing all the details of something, OR, you finished reading the rest of the internet and this is all that stands between you and the last bag of chips. Either way, I’ll keep the last step simple.

You need to turn your ship around and go home. Easy peasy…or would be…if you weren’t in space. So in space you never stop moving, you just bring your speed relative to something down to 0. Meaning, when you pulled alongside the doomed ship, you were still hurtling through space really really fast. And to get home there is a really good chance you are going to have to lose all that speed before you can start going in the other direction (or make a REALLY big turn).

Typically, these directional changes are done using planets, moons or other rocks. You enter the orbit of said big thingy, spin around it, and fire your engines at just the right point of your spin to shoot you back in the direction you want.


Notice how Voyager one used the little blue ball to dramatically change its course.


What this means for you, the intrepid rescuer, is that you better have enough fuel to get to the doomed ship, stop, AND return home before your air runs out. And that is a fucking lot of fuel.

Which is why rescuing people in space is dumb…and they should be forced to self-recover…it has been plan A for submarines since about 1939, and will probably be what space adventurers are expected to do for at least the first few decades in space.

We think space rescue will look like this:


But in reality it is going to be a hell of a lot more work…and probably not worth it.

In summary: rescuing people in space is a four-step process, that requires basically double the resources of the doomed ship, so we should just let them fend for themselves.

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