# Practical, non-moral question about The Cold Equations

What does the pilot do after he’s made his delivery? We’re told multiple times that there is only. so. much. fuel. to get the EDS to whatever planet it’s headed for. Does it also have enough fuel to get back?

And where is “back”? The cruiser the EDS left from has already hyperspaced beyond reach. Can the pilot hook up with a different cruiser? Maybe, but how does he know how much fuel that will take, and can he get more if he needs it? And if it’s a matter of days before another cruiser is near enough for him to reach it, does he have to hang around in the colony until then? Doubtful there’d be much food or shelter to spare, if colonial life is as harsh as we’re told. Or is he stuck there, and the team gets a new member?

The science-fictional way to look at it is that he lands on the planet, they refuel him, and he goes on his merry way. Flying a spaceship is just an extrapolation of flying an airplane to another continent. Running out of fuel is a temporary inconvenience.

The right way to look at it is the converse of a “they lived happily ever after” story. There is no future other than that. You don’t ask what “happily” means. The story is complete in and of itself.

Looking at it again, I now see that the story is just a version of the Trolley Problem. Do you kill one person or kill seven people? That’s why the second answer is the right one. Godwin was playing out a philosophic riddle and stripping away all context. Nobody in the real-world ever sets up a Trolley Problem if there is any way to avoid it. No excuse is ever given for the ship not to have been given a bit of extra fuel. Are we to believe that a hyperspace carrier with four EDS ships doesn’t have a sufficient supply to give the ship some wriggle room? Emergency airplane rescues always allowed some extra for the unforeseeable.

Expecting more from a Trolley Problem is like asking what happens to the man who is the answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx. It’s not an answerable question.

I thought the story said he had to wait on the planet until someone came by and got him. Months at least.

Before she’s shoved out the airlock, the girl writes some goodbye letters to her family. She gives the letters to the EDS pilot to be mailed, but she acknowledges that the letters aren’t going anywhere until a cruiser makes a scheduled stop at the planet, and her family will have long since been informed of her execution by the time they receive the letters. IMHO, this suggests that the pilot has to hang out on the planet and consume their valuable supplies until the next scheduled cruiser visit.

I’d guess that the EDS ships are purely one-way, and the cruisers have some kind of larger shuttlecraft that they use during their scheduled stops. This is just fanwanking, as the story is silent about what happens during those stops.

On his way where, though? And as far as refueling…

There is a reason for the shuttle not to have extra fuel. The cruisers run on nuclear power, but the EDSes have a finite amount of “the bulky rocket fuel and the fuel was rationed with care; the cruisers’ computers determin[ed] the exact amount of fuel each EDS would require for its mission.” No margin for error (and I wonder if there ever might be a case of having to avoid a comet or another ship?). And, if the fuel is so expensive and hard to store, I wouldn’t expect the colonies to have extra fuel. Or maybe they normally do, but in this case it was wiped out by the same tornado that made the delivery necessary.

JAQ, I’m checking but still haven’t found anything that says that. There was mention of another cruiser due on the planet in a few months. Perhaps he could wait for that, but as I said before, what would he eat? The team are probably barely feeding themselves.

IIRC, the colony wasn’t having a problem with food supplies; they needed a serum to cure a deadly disease. There wouldn’t have been a problem with one extra mouth to feed.

The colony normally had a supply of the serum, but there had been a tornado two days earlier that had wiped out most or all of their supplies, which probably included food. I daresay, though, that the crew would have welcomed an extra pair of hands in whatever work they were doing. If the pilot did have to wait for another cruiser, I can’t see anyone in that situation doing nothing but hang around.

If the colony was so desperate for supplies that one extra healthy body would tip them over into doom, then they’d be better off letting the seven sick people die in the first place, wouldn’t they?

Now that’s a cold equation.

My quibble is that the pilot waits longer than he normally would have to make his landing burn, because he’s hoping that some way would be found to save the stowaway, and even though he knows there won’t be, he’s still procrastinating having to do the inevitable.

But waiting longer for the landing burn, assuming it’s even possible, will result in a more efficient burn. Surely, the computers already gave him the most efficient landing possible, given the razor-thin margins that are at the core of the story. Or if for some reason the computer didn’t already give him the most efficient landing, then maybe he could actually save her by procrastinating.

The story said the tornado wiped out their supplies of the serum, but nothing about food and other supplies. It would be logical that they keep medical supplies in a different location like the infirmary instead of where the food supply was kept.

My understanding of the story was that there was some reserve for error and the pilot was basically consuming it by doing the procrastinating. I also recall (without going back to read the story again to confirm) that there are ships in this story with sufficient capabilities to do the kind of rescue required, but they are not common “on the frontier” so maybe there was some faint hope. I presume that the mothership crew spent most of the story trying to find out of one of those happened to be nearby.

And the procrastination allowed for a teary last call with her brother, so there’s that.

I imagined that the colony had already achieved self-sufficiency agriculture-wise so the crew could “live off the land”, but lacked the industrial capacity to produce their own medical supplies.

No, you misunderstand: Procrastinating is actually good. It’s always better to wait longer and do a higher-acceleration burn, so long as your pilot, payload, and engine are capable of that higher acceleration (which, in the story, they were, because he did conclude the mission successfully after spacing the girl). He should have procrastinated even if he didn’t have the stowaway.

To the OP’s question, I think the pilot is stuck at their destination until they can catch a ride, how long that takes is probably variable.

And no, it’s not the trolley problem, it’s not an either/or scenario, there’s no option where the stowaway lives.

Sure there is. Throw away the medicine.

Don’t say that the medicine doesn’t weight as much as the girl. Postulate that there is special equipment needed to keep it cold, as with the corona vaccines. Anything you want. It makes as much sense as any other fanwank because there is no story otherwise.

Sure, if you insist on making it the trolley problem, but you’re writing your own story then.

Aside from increased risk. This isn’t theoretical, either–SpaceX faces the same decision every time they land a rocket. They are capable of a 3-engine high-acceleration burn or a single-engine one. The 3-engine burn saves fuel. But SpaceX always uses the single-engine burn if there is sufficient remaining propellant (plus margin), because timing is less critical, and because the probability of one engine starting successfully is higher than for three engines.

In this story, many minutes pass between events, so timing wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s possible that increased load on the engine also poses risk.

I’ve heard similar “solutions” like, “cut off all of the limbs of the girl, and all but one of the limbs of the pilot (so he can still operate the controls) to get the weight down” (and positing that limb regeneration was available in this universe).

The story is supposed to be a protest against that kind of “situation looks dire, but the hero finds a super-clever way out of it that saves everybody”. The point is that sometimes (usually, even) the reason it looks like its a hopeless situation with no way out is because it is a hopeless situation with no way out.

Yes, it is a hopeless situation. And that is the point. No argument there.

But it’s a totally artificial hopeless situation, set up with ridiculous boundaries, and a lack of alternatives imposed by the author rather than sense. Really, a supercivilzation with atomic hyperdrive cruisers can’t drop a drone onto a planet? Really, they … Well, there have been a million commentaries on the story pointing how artificial the situation is.

The best commentary was in fact twenty years before the story, from Chico Marx in A Night at the Opera.

Now I tell you how we fly to America. The first time, we get halfway across when we run out of gasoline. We got to go back. Then I take twice as much gasoline. This time, we were just about to land, maybe feet, when, what do you think, we run out of gasoline again. Back we go and get more gas. This time, I take plenty gas. We get halfway over, when what do you think happened? We forgot the airplane. So we sit down and talk it over. Then I get the great idea. We no take gasoline. We no take the airplane. We take steamship.

Sci-fi of the 50s didn’t do a great job of predicting cheap, miniaturized computers. And in fact we see in the story that the EDS pilot has to radio back to the cruiser to ask their computer to perform a trivial mass/propellant calculation. And their computer systems are still using relays and cogs! Oh, and they print out the result for the operator to read back over the radio. A completely unmanned drone is beyond that level of computer technology.

Sure, it’s ridiculous now, but given that almost all authors got it wrong, one can’t exactly blame this particular story or this particular author for failing that one. Heinlein was putting slide rules on his ships just a few years earlier.

I can forgive the author for failing to anticipate drones. But I can’t forgive the lousy security on that hyperspace cruiser. The girl was able to waltz into that EDS thing “when no one was looking,” and there’s a nice roomy closet for her to hide in. We’re told that stowaways are such a big problem that there are protocols in place to deal with them, but the pilot doesn’t bother to search the ship before leaving—he doesn’t even take two seconds to check that closet, the only place where a stowaway could hide. And the only warning is an “UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT” sign, the same vague, toothless admonition one sees everywhere. I suspect you could ask a hundred people what that sign means, and none of them would say, “you’ll die if you go in there.”