"Feet First into Hell!", that is the motto of the HALO universe UNSC ODST Helljumpers. These specialized soldiers are trained in the unique combat skill of dropping onto a planetary surface from space in personal drop-pods, and they are almost as iconic as the SPARTANs of HALO. They also carrying on an important tradition in science fiction: the concept of Space-Drop Infantry or "Spaceborne". These orbital parajumpers is one that is common throughout sci-fi, and is even being researched by military organizations for realistic real-world applications. In some ways, these futuristic warfighters that drop from star-side to dirt-side are very linked to the brave airborne soldiers of the 2nd World War and Korea along with current Special Operations soldiers. In this blogpost, FWS will examining the sci-fi space-drop soldier and their tools of the trade: the drop-pod along with digging into the sci-fi vision of space paratroopers and why the genre of science fiction is so obsessed with these elite soldiers. For the purposes of this blogpost, we will be using multiple terms for space drop paratroopers. This blogpost does not preclude future one detailing Airborne operations in the near future.
The Forerunner: The Military Parachute Infantry
What is are the "Spaceborne"?
Other Terms for Space Drop Soldiers and Tactics:
- Meteoric Assault
- Orbital Skydive
- Space Jumpers
- Space Paratroopers
- "Coffin Humpers"
- Reentry Infantry
- Space Assault
- Space-to-Planet Assault
- Space Shot
- Reentry Infantry
- Orbital Assaulters
In science fiction, there are several types of reentry vehicles used to ferry space assault troopers from space to ground without a landing craft (dropship). At their most basic, drop pods are just that, a single use reentry vehicle that is with limited flight capability for a single occupant or several that is designed to increase survivability of the paratroopers and to counter the atmospheric friction of reentry. These drop pods range in shape and sizes with some creators taking cues from real-world space capsules, like the Soyuz, Apollo, the NASA Orion, and the Dragon; while others are more capsule shaped, taking a cue from SST.
Other Terms for Drop Pods:
- Drop Module
- Drop Capsule
- Orbital Reentry Vehicle
- Drop box
- Reentry Sled
- Drop Cocoon
- Slip Pod
The Disadvantages of Space Drop Troops
The Realities and Feasibility of Space Drop TacticsSpace has been viewed has the ultimate high ground in warfare, and sci-fi as reflected this with orbital bombardment and space drop armies. While science fiction is packed with brave space marines being dropped dirt-side via drop pods and even some special suits, is this idea even feasibility or realistic? There several examples of actual experiments of beyond brave people jumping from the very upper limit of the atmosphere as seen with Red Bull’s Stratos project and the USAF Project EXCELSIOR. In addition to these real-world tests, there was also the early 1960’s MOOSE project that was envisioned has a means to save an astronaut via personal reentry system in case of critical vehicle damage while in orbit. This creates a somewhat realistic basis for space paratroopers and some real science behind the realities of space diving and capsule dropping.
When it comes to the sci-fi drop capsule that shoots our brave space warriors from an orbiting warship down to the planetary combat zone to battle giant hostile bugs, there are actually currently used examples of space capsules in manned space programs. From the old Mercury to the long-used Soyuz Russian capsule, astronauts are “dropped” from the heavens back down to Mother Earth in either the oceans or the steppes of central Asia. This also forms a foundation for space drop capsule troopers. So, you could feasibility enact capsule and Spaceborne infantry as seen in science fiction, but the real question is should you?
I firmly believe that unless the orbital drop tactic is critical to the mission and its objectives, future military organizations will use HALO and HAAO methods for inserting marines via tactical transports in the upper atmosphere. This is due to the length of time it takes to land space paratroopers from orbit to the ground, greater risk of thermal penetration of the reentry vehicle, and the extreme conditions of free-falling from that height generates. One place where space drop tactics could be more effective is on limited atmosphere planetary bodies or null atmospheric bodies like Luna. We could see more "soft suit" space diving onto the surface of an asteroid or a moon like Luna without the need for reentry thermal protection, making them much easier than landing forces through Class-M worlds.
Is a Hybrid System the Answer?
The Orbital Drop Reentry Suit
Project: HOT EAGLE and NASA MOOSE
There are two known military/space program projects to mimic the sci-fi space drop trooper concept: NASA’s MOOSE and DARPA/USMC Hot Eagle Project. For some time there has been continuous development of a spaceplane that will revolutionize global travel, allowing you to transverse the Earth in minutes. This opens up the possibility of rapid deployment via these spaceplanes and the rapid force in-place is the United States Marine Corps. There were two programs: SUSTAIN and HOT EAGLE. The goal of HOT EAGLE was using a spaceplane, like the hush-hush USAF X-37B or the Rutan/Virgin Starship One, to deliver team of Devil dogs anywhere in the world in two hours of flight time.
The project is not dead official and appears to be operating at a low level. Another space diving system was originally designed for emergency reentry in case of loss of vehicle or space station by NASA. This bail-out system was designed around 1963 and was called Man Out Of Space Easiest. The idea was to shield the astronaut via an inflatable thermal barrier that is filled with polyurethane and use a small rocket motor to propel the astronaut into the atmosphere for reentry. There was never a real-world test of the MOOSE system save for a bridge jump into water test that was not much of a replication of the conditions to be experienced by an astronaut bailing out. There are no plans to modernize the MOOSE for the ISS.
What Happens After the Drop?
Powered Armor and the Orbital Drop Connection
It is assumed by sci-fi creators that you can take Airborne tactics of dropping out of the sky (It's Raining Men!) and apply that to tactical situations on off-world battlefields. After all, these creators see that these daring tactics worked in World War II and that SOF units use jumping techniques like HALO and HAAO to great effect today in special operations missions. Adding to this assumed tactical application of Airborne tactics to the sci-fi Spaceborne troopers is a lack of study and research on why massive paratrooper drops are not as accepted by military planners as they were in the 2nd World War and the grim effect anti-air weaponry can reap on falling soldiers. Adding these two answer together has these badass space assault jumpers being incorporated into sci-fi works since 1934 due to the coolness factor and that death from above can be applied to combat in outer space due to historical examples of effective Airborne combat drops.
Science Fiction and the Space Drop Troopers/Drop Pods
One of the hallmarks of science fiction is retrofitting an item, social issue, or historical event into a sci-fi setting. Space drop soldiers and drop pods are a product of E.E. Doc Smith and Robert Heinlein taking parachuting, paratroopers, and Airborne tactics into a futuristic outer space setting. With Triplanetary (1933) and Starship Troopers (1959) introducing both concepts to the wider sci-fi audience, the idea of orbital diving space marines encased in drop capsules filtered into other works and became a hallmark of military science fiction.Throughout the 1960's we would see pulp sci-fi novels include space drop via specialized suits and drop modules. It helped the inclusion of drop pods that NASA and the Soviet space program were both using capsule-based spacecraft. Beginning in the late 1970's and really exploded in the 1980's was sci-fi wargames along with an increased amount of military SF. These products featured both concepts and even had plastic representations of both, like the 40K Imperium drop pod and the cover art of the Avalon Hill SST boardgame. Anime would also include these concepts as well, and all of this added up to Spaceborne and their drop pods being a go-to concept for future military units in literature, video games, and board games. Even today, drop pods are a popular item for 15mm future wargaming.
The UNSC ODST from The HALO Universe
While the Mobile Infantry of the SST universe are some of the most well-known and historic military space jumpers in sci-fi, the UNSC Space Operations Orbital Drop Shocktroopers from the HALO is one of the modern touchstone examples of the Spaceborne. Via their appearances in the core HALO games, the comics, and the books, there was also their 2009 standalone video game that was coupled with an amazing live-action trailer. Damn fine live-action military SF there! The UNSC developed the concept of the ODST unit going back to 2163 during a time of conflict and pocket wars on Earth and in the Sol system. After the Treaty of Callisto and rising problems on Terra caused the lack of need for a massive military organization and such went the way of the dormancy of the ODST SOF unit.
The UNSC SOEIV Drop Pod from the HALO Universe
During reentry operations, the SOEIV mostly drops unassisted until about 3,000 feet, when a drag-chute opens to slow down the velocity. Just before touch-down, rocket motors first to soften the blow. If these systems fail or the SOEIV lands in deep water, death can result, which is why the ODSTs refer to failed drops as "digging your own grave". Two of the best features of the SOEIV is the ability to adjust their heading and course while in-flight via rocket motors and cockpit controls along with being packed with some supplies for continued combat operations. During planetary operations, cut-off UNSC units that locate an SOEIV drop pod in-field is often greeted as a blessing due to the cache of rations, water, ammunition, and other supplies. One of these can mean the difference between life and death in the field.
The Space Marine Drop Pod from WH40K
The SMC Drop Pod from the QUAKE Universe
The M2 Trojan Drop Capsules from 1988 OVA "Uchu no Senshi" and the 1959 Novel
Starship Troopers may not be the first sci-fi work to feature orbital drop tactics and space paratroopers, but it is the key importer of these concepts to the wider sci-fi audience as continues to be. The capsule drop on a Skinny world is the first scene in the iconic 1959 novel and it is the introduction to the world of SST. While it was not replicated in the 1997 film or any of the other live-action films, the capsule drop is seen in the 1988 Bandai visual OVA SST anime, and it is the closest to the capsule drop in the original text. The unofficial motto of the Mobile Infantry was that everyone drops and everyone fights, which shows the importance of the orbital drop capability of the M.I. The capsules appear along tracks and the troops mount up and are sealed in. Once the go code is given, the tightly bound up powered armor waits in the firing tube for something to happen. As Rico says: "It is better when you drop", and once the capsule is fired out of the twin-tubes and the ship is unloaded, they fall into the exo-planet atmosphere (about 30 miles up) with gravity taking over. Despite the heaviness of the capsules, some scattering will take place, but that tight placement is due to the pilot's skill. During the reentry, layers of the capsule's "skin" peel off clouding up the sky with debris and junk along with "dummy eggs" to fool ballistic computers of Triple-A batteries. After the inner layer is left, the M.I. trooper has to make the call when to jettison the plastic egg and open the parachute for the landing. The book briefly mentions the drop on the bugs homeworld and a number of other drops are mentioned in passing, but nothing to the degree of the description of the original drop on the Skinny world. In the 1988 OVA, the fully outfitted M.I. powered armor is deployed via capsules, like the book, and the jettisoning of the pod to allow the armored trooper to drop down via thrusters. This drop sequence was only seen in one part of the six-part anime film. FWS will be covering this 1988 anime film in a future Military Sci-Fi Oddities.
The Unification's SOD Space and Urban Assault Section from my "Old Universe"
Orbital Skydiving in the Star Trek Universes
The Quartz Zone Drop Massacre from the Rogue Trooper Universe
One of the better comics released by the weekly British comic giant 2000AD was the story of an genetically engineered trooper fighting on the poisoned Nu-Earth without the benefit of NBC protection published, in the original storyline, from 1981 to 1986. These genetic engineered blue-skinned warfighters were designed by the Southers to finally win the war over Nu-Earth from the Norts. The foundation for those Genetic Infantry (GI) was dead soldiers and each one had clips implanted so that the clip could be married up to a new body. Holding slots on certain equipment kept the clips alive until re-implantation. The Southers planned on a massive drop of capsules on Nu-Earth of GIs to overwhelm the Norts. Massive Souther transport spit out capsules as Nort artillery was waiting. The GIs had been setup by a Souther traitor, and every one of the GI, save for one, was slain. That is the main character of the series, who revisits the massacre time and time again. FWS will cover Rogue Trooper in a future Forgotten Classics blopost.
The Federation Special Forces "Hell Divers" from Clearhorizon Miniatures
The Yautja Orbital Insertion Pod from Predator (1987)
The Martian Meteors from War of the Worlds
The Armored Infantry from Section 8 Video Game
The Jumptroops from the Exo-Squad Universe
The mid-1990's American mecha animation television show Exo-Squad, that is totally a forgotten classic, there is an example of Spaceborne soldiers: the Jumptroops. These more naval Exo-Fleet special assault troopers work along side the regular E-frame mechanized forces, who they share a less-than-friendly relationship with. Given their less armored and armed E-frames, their causalities were higher than the regular E-Frame squads. This made E-Frame jocks look down on the more cannon-fodder Jumptroopers, while the Jumptroops viewed the regular E-Frame pilots as arrogant and depend on them to accomplish their missions. These Jumptroops use airborne insection, tactical transports, and drop pods to arrive at the battle. Soon, FWS will discuss Exo-Squad in an lengthy Forgotten Classics blogpost.
The Terran Empire "Drop Commandos" from Path of the Fury by David Weber
In David Weber's In Fury Born 1990's book series, we follow Terran Imperial war hero Alicia DeVries who was a member of a very elite, or as David, FWS consult put it to me the other day at work: "TIER-One on top TIER-One" Special Operations unit. This unit called the Imperial Cadre, also known simply as the "drop commandos". According to Imperial law, the Imperial Cadre is limited to 40,000, but given the requirement, the unit is never full. Which is crazy considering that the most elite global Special Operations comprise of many more than 40,000. These super-soldiers are so expensive that the Terran Empire can construct and staff a Corvette type warship for the same money to train and equip a single drop commando...crazy. Even their drop harness for the drop tubes is three times more expensive than the standard marine one. These space commandos are badass to their core with a deep sense of complete the mission above anything else.
The M-Spec Reentry Pack from HALO: Reach
The SCION Orbital Drop Suit from Roughnecks: the Starship Troopers Chronicles
These orbital drop suits were seen being used during the drop on Klendathu in the short-lived SST animated series. The Roughnecks were shot out of dorsal mounted drop tubes on the MI tactical transport vehicle towards the surface of the bug central. Very little is actually discussed about these suits or why this form of drop capsule is humanoid in shape. However, the original concept art does shed a light on the reason: they were much more than meets the eye. The SCION orbital drop suits were more like CLASS-II powered armor with an MI trooper in their CLASS-I powered armor snuggled inside, and the armor shell was outfitted with greater offensive and defensive abilities than just being a reentry protective suit. During the chaos of a drop with bugs rushing the DZ, these heavily armed suits would give the MI troopers the edge to establish a beachhead. Soon, FWS will discuss this animated series on a future Military Sci-Fi Oddities blogpost.
Next Time on FWS...
In 1981 a unique science fiction film that took cues from High Noon would be released and barely make back its money in the theaters despite a solid story, wonderful set design, and starring the immortal Sean Connery. That film is Outland and it high time that FWS discuss this important and forgotten 1980's science fiction