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"The Cold Equations" is a science fiction short story by 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 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, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.
The story, first published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding, has been widely anthologized and even dramatized.
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Critic 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. Writer Don Sakers' short story "The Cold Solution" (Analog, 1991), which debunks the premise, received the 1992 Analog Analytical Laboratory award as the readers' favorite Analog short story of 1991.
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!"
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Some sources, including Kurt Busiek, have alleged that Godwin essentially took the story from a story published in EC Comics' Weird Science #13, May–June 1952, called "A Weighty Decision", scripted 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".
Other sources note that the theme of Feldstein's story is itself strikingly similarly to the story "Precedent", published by E. C. Tubb in 1949; in that story, as in the others, a stowaway must be ejected from a spaceship because the fuel aboard is only enough for the planned passengers. These sources argue that neither Feldstein nor Godwin intentionally "swiped" from the stories that came before, but merely produced similar variations on an ancient theme, that of an individual being sacrificed so that the rest may survive, but there were only two people on that ship.
In Carl Barks's 1948 "Rocket Race to the Moon" (Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #93, June 1948 issue), Donald Duck's nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie stow away on Donald's rocketship. Once they land on the lunar surface, they discover that the extra weight of the young ducks has used up so much fuel that they do not have enough for the return trip, thus stranding them on the Moon.
The story has been adapted for television at least three times: as part of the 1962 British anthology series Out of This World; as part of the 1985–1989 revival of The Twilight Zone ("The Cold Equations") and again in 1996 as a made-for-television film on the Sci-Fi Channel. 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, and for "Faster Than Light" on CBC Radio's Sunday Showcase in September 2002 by Joe Mahoney (hosted by science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer). In the X Minus One broadcast the girl was trying to visit her husband to make amends for an affair she had.