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"The Cold Equations" is a science fiction short story by American writer Tom Godwin, first published in Astounding Magazine in 1954. In 1970, the Science Fiction Writers of America selected it as one of the best science-fiction short stories published before 1965, and it was therefore included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. The story has been widely anthologized and dramatized.


The story takes place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately-needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother Gerry, and was not aware of the law. When boarding the EDS, Marilyn saw the "UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!" sign, but thought she would at most have to pay a fine if she were caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission by exceeding the weight limit, and the subsequent crash would kill both of them and doom the colonists awaiting the medical supplies. After contacting her brother for the last moments of her life, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.


Critic and engineer Gary Westfahl has said that because the proposition depends upon systems that were built without enough margin for error, the story is good physics, but lousy engineering, and that it frustrated him so much he decided it was "not worth (his) time. Very poor Engineering."[1] Writer Cory Doctorow has made a similar argument, noting that the constraints under which the characters operate are decided by the writers, and not therefore the "inescapable laws of physics". He argues that the decision of the writer to give the vessel no margin of safety and a marginal fuel supply focuses reader attention on the "need" for tough decisions in time of crisis and away from the responsibility for proper planning to ensure safety in the first place. Doctorow sees this as an example of moral hazard.[2]

Writer Don Sakers' short story "The Cold Solution" (Analog, July 1991), which debunks the premise, received the 1992 Analog Analytical Laboratory award as the readers' favorite Analog short story of 1991.

In 1999, Richard Harter wrote a detailed analysis of the story online, with special attention to the possible negligence of those who designed the situation such that dilemmas like this could occur, and how this paralleled similar concerns involving industrial safety legislation.[3]

The story was shaped by Astounding editor John W. Campbell, who sent "Cold Equations" back to Godwin three times before he got the version he wanted, because "Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl!"[4]

Allegations of borrowingEdit

Kurt Busiek and others have alleged that Godwin essentially took the concept from a story published in EC Comics' Weird Science #13, May–June 1952, called "A Weighty Decision", by Al Feldstein. In that story there are three astronauts who are intended to be on the flight, not one, and the additional passenger, a girl that one of the astronauts has fallen in love with, is trapped aboard by a mistake rather than stowing away. As in "the Cold Equations", various measures are proposed but the only one which will not lead to worse disaster is for the unwitting passenger to be jettisoned. Algis Budrys said that "the Cold Equations was the best short story that Godwin ever wrote and he didn't write it".

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction points to Robert Cromie's "A Plunge into Space" from 1890 as having a plot very similar to "The Cold Equations", and the theme of Feldstein's story is itself similar to the story "Precedent", published by E. C. Tubb in 1949. As in "A Weighty Decision" and "The Cold Equations", a stowaway must be ejected from a spaceship because the fuel aboard is only enough for the planned passengers. It is possible that neither Feldstein nor Godwin intentionally plagiarized from the stories that came before, but merely produced similar variations on the classic theme of an individual being sacrificed so that the rest may survive, which has graduated from a "rowboat" to a spacecraft.


The story has been adapted for television at least three times: as part of the 1962 British anthology series Out of This World starring Peter Wyngarde and Jane Asher; as part of the 1985–1989 revival of The Twilight Zone ("The Cold Equations") and again in 1996 as a made-for-television film starring Billy Campbell and Poppy Montgomery on the Sci-Fi Channel.[5]

The story was also adapted into an episode of the radio program X Minus One in 1955, an episode of the radio program Exploring Tomorrow in 1958, with the girl was trying to visit her husband to make amends for an affair she had. It was featured as a part of Faster Than Light on CBC Radio's Sunday Showcase in September 2002 by Joe Mahoney (hosted by science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer).[6] The Blake's 7 episode "Orbit" features a variation of the scenario, where a craft has been sabotaged with extra weight, and a similar solution is proposed.[citation needed]

The award winning 2014 short film, The Stowaway[7] is closely based on the story.

The fiction podcast The Drabblecast released a full-cast reading of the story on July 15, 2013.[8]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Cosmic Engineers: A Study of Hard Science Fiction", by Gary Westfahl; Praeger, 1996
  2. ^ ""Cold Equations and Moral Hazard", by Cory Doctorow".
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Our Five Days with John W. Campbell", by Joe Green, The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Fall 2006, No. 171, page 13
  5. ^ "The Cold Equations (TV Movie 1996) - IMDb". Retrieved September 23, 2015.
  6. ^
  7. ^ The Stowaway
  8. ^ a full-cast reading of the story

External linksEdit