This past week, I was revisiting classic Sean Connery science fiction from the 1980s, and I happened upon Peter Hyams’ High Noon-inspired thriller Outland. In this film, Connery plays a Marshal on Io, a moon of Jupiter. After butting heads with the boss on the moon base, Connery finds himself the target of assassins sent to Io. Their weapons of choice: shotguns.
Shotguns… in the future… in space.
The climax of the movie played well for plenty of action and thrills, but it did make me ask the same question that Chick (Will Patton) asks of Colonel Willie Sharp (William Fichtner) in Armageddon: “What are you doing with a gun in space?”
After considering what is possibly the most level-headed and logical question ever posed in a Michael Bay movie, I got to thinking: Is it really a good idea to have guns in space?
The Answer: No. It’s a terrible idea that can kill pretty much everyone.
There’s a reason why the Federal Aviation Administration won’t allow guns on airplanes, and it’s not just for the same reason they won’t allow box cutters. Like a bomb, a gun on a plane can do a lot more damage than only shooting someone. Projectile weapons can pierce the hull of the plane, or break a window. This is just an insurance claim on the ground, but in mid-air, it could be disastrous when the plane depressurizes.
Cabin depressurization results in chaos, which we’ve seen plenty of time in airline disaster films like Non-Stop and Executive Decision. Not only can it further damage the fuselage and result in people and objects being sucked out, depressurization at even a modest altitude can result in unconsciousness or death. Normal oxygen pressure at sea level is 21% of the atmospheric pressure. People will start to pass out if that pressure drops by one-fourth. If it drops by half, people can suffocate.
This is why Air Marshals are the only ones with guns allowed on planes, and they are specifically trained to shoot at an assailant’s body. This does more than just immobilize the assailant; it also reduces the likelihood of a bullet hitting another person or breaching the hull.
In space, this is much worse because there is no external pressure. Where a breached airplane fuselage would eventually equalize, a building or ship exposed to the vacuum of space would decompress to nothing.
Of course, space vehicles are made with stronger materials than airplanes, but they are not impervious to damage. Any material can be made bulletproof if it is thick enough, but depending on the weapon, even titanium might not stop it.
The windows of NASA’s Space Shuttle were made with tempered glass that could withstand great pressures, the vacuum of space, and the heat of reentry, but they were still made from glass. Military vehicles are made with crack-resistent materials designed to take fire and still retain transparency. Even with new materials like transparent magnesium aluminate being proposed for stronger space windows, even a tiny crack under the vacuum of space would be disastrous. We all remember what happened to the human-xenomorph cross-breed in Alien: Resurrection, don’t we?
But would guns actually fire in space?
The earliest guns would not, but firearm technology has come a long way from muzzle-loaded muskets. Today’s ammunition is self-contained and has its own oxidizer inside the load. This is why many guns will actually fire underwater with no exposure to the outside air.
The shotguns in Outland might have other problems. While shotgun shells are not specifically designed to be airtight, they are held together by a plastic case. If the plastic shells have a strong seal on them, exposing them to the vacuum of space could potentially cause them to rupture and later fire improperly. Of course, the shotgun shells seen in Outland could likely have been specifically manufactured for space use.
Still, it’s not a good idea to fire that shotgun willy-nilly in space because when it, in fact, does fire, it could breach the hull.
It would also likely knock you over because weight is different than mass. In a zero-G environment – of a 1/6-G environment that is shown in Outland – the recoil from any weapon would be significantly greater on the shooter. Because of the law of conservation of momentum, the momentum of the bullet as well as the explosive gas from the cartridge would be transferred to the shooter. With no gravity, or even one-sixth the gravity of Earth, the shooter would have much less weight and thus much less friction holding him down.
Any way you look at it, guns in space are not a good idea, so…
What is the alternative?
Many science fiction films opt for laser guns and blasters to compensate for the loss of practical projectile weapons. True lasers would simply pass through transparent glass since they would be made of light. However, the blasters we see in movies like Star Wars or the phaser energy weapons we see in Star Trek cause impact damage and would likely cause the same problems that projectile weapons do.
NASA has never sent guns into space, though from the 1986 to 2006 the Russians would arm their cosmonauts with a triple barreled TP 82 pistol. However, this gun was meant for their landing, which could happen in remote locations, because the Russian Soyuz program wanted to give the cosmonauts a means to defend themselves from wild animals while they were waiting to be picked up. No one wanted Russian space heroes eaten by wolves.
In reality, future space probes, vehicles, and space stations will not be weapons-free. Instead, they would employ some form of non-lethal weaponry, like tasers and rubber bullets. Many of these non-lethal weapons are already being used by the U.S. Department of Defense and local law enforcement agencies. It’s not inconceivable that stun guns and tranquilizers could be the weapon of choice for space in the future.