11 November 2016

The Barracks: Space Drop Paratroopers and Drop Pods/Capsules

"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
Before we discuss space parajumpers leaping out of orbital spacecraft or being fired out of starships encased in drop pods and raining death from above to alien enemies, we have to examine why military organizations use parachute infantry. Airborne units were developed to deploy specially trained light assault infantry on mass rapidly from an airplane to assault certain objectives behind enemy lines as a prelude to a full-scale attack or conduct a low-profile Special Operations mission. The key advantage of Airborne units is their ability to get to an objective that would be inaccessible via overland transport and to rapidly hit the objective from the sky allows for greater shock-and-awe psychological effect on the enemy.
With the striking from the sky, paratrooper can (at times) avoid the defenses of the objective and overtake the enemy rapidly. This landing of paratroopers behind enemy lines is also a way to sow confusion and fear into the enemy as it appears that the enemy is all around them. Massive paratrooper drops are rarer now with air mobile assault units that use helicopters and tilt-rotors are more common, but there are still active Airborne units around the world. One of the common users of all types of parachuting methods is Special Operation Forces for clandestine insertions that allow for maximum speed and surprise.

What is are the "Spaceborne"?
Airborne paratroopers have been a fixture of modern warfare since around the 2nd World War with the first combat use of paratroopers coming in 1940 with the Fallschirmjagers seizing the Aalborg airfield in Denmark. These specialized light infantry units are often the vanguard of the main assault and tasked with holding or capturing highly valued targets. The science fiction space assault paratrooper is often deployed from an orbiting warship via a reentry suit or drop pod, and acts as rapid assault element, pathfinder, recon element, LZ securing force, or all four. Spaceborne soldiers, like their Airborne brethren, would be considered a branch of Special Operations with the selection and training to match the risky missions they would be called on to mount with limited resources and support.
With being a trained military parachutist a hallmark of elite soldiers around the globe, sci-fi creators often add the ability of their own fictional Special Operations units to conduct these types jumps. Often powered armor and mecha can be incorporated with these orbital drop pod soldiers to enhance their offensive power and survivability in those furious engagements. This could make the Spaceborne one of the few military units to be outfitted in such expensive equipment. At other times, there is no drop pod, and it seems more like a space free-fall dive. In its place, specialized armor or attachment can be used or worn for the Spaceborne assault troopers to make the drop, as seen with the M-Spec reentry pack from HALO: Reach and the orbital drop suit for the normal powered armor from Roughnecks: the Starship Troopers Chronicles. In the end, the Spaceborne trooper shares a great deal with the historic paratroopers of the 2nd World War, it is just that they have better toys, bigger balls, and they jump further up.

Other Terms for Space Drop Soldiers and Tactics:
  • Meteoric Assault
  • Orbital Skydive
  • Space Jumpers
  • Spaceborne
  • Space Paratroopers
  • Capsuleers
  • Drop-Troop
  • "Coffin Humpers"
  • Reentry Infantry
  • Space Assault 
  • Space-to-Planet Assault
  • Space Shot
  • Helljumpers
  • Reentry Infantry
  • Fallers
  • Orbital Assaulters
What are Drop-Pods?

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.
 Some have also compared sci-fi drop pods with the Gliders of World War II in terms of function and ability. Not all drop pods are single use, dumb flight modules. The Imperium Deathstorm drop pods, the ODST SOEIV, and the Covenant Type-53/Type-54 drop pods are shining examples of more complex drop pods with some being fitted with offensive and defensive systems, flight/VTOL capability, and computer or manual controls. A few of these even a multi-use…in theory. Often drop pods are packed with limited supplies to allow Spaceborne paratroops to keep up the fight to secure a landing zone so that reinforcements can arrive and expand the planetary invasion.

Other Terms for Drop Pods:
  • Drop Module
  • Drop Capsule 
  • Orbital Reentry Vehicle
  • Drop box
  • Coffin
  • Capsule
  • Egg
  • Reentry Sled
  • Drop Cocoon
  • Slip Pod
The Advantages of Space Drop Troops
When we examine the realities (hard science) of deploying soldiers via orbital reentry vehicles for combat operations on exo-planets of various environments there is one key advantage of using this method: economics. Military SF is deeply populated with dropships and tactical transports that ferry soldiers from ship-to-shore and back again...but that eats up time, resources, and fuel. Drop modules could be a "fire-and-forget" delivery system that easily gets a number of space marines down planet-side without the hassle of using combat space shuttles.
This is more economical for orbital warship and could rapid deploy en mass a number of soldiers to begin the planetary invasion operations faster than using transport vehicles. Of course, it could be more economical in terms of the price tag of drop capsules over tactical transports. For more low-profile missions, small reentry vehicles have been cited as a way to insert Special Operations units without alerting the locals. This largely depends on the sensor systems used by the enemy/target destination. Another advantage is the ability to "shoot-and-scoot". Dipping near the target planet, then launchung  a salvo of space marines via drop pods and then for the Roger Young to get the hell out of Dodge before orbital defenses or interceptors could attack the Roger Young while trapped in orbit.

The Disadvantages of Space Drop Troops
When we examine the hard science use of Spaceborne troopers for off-world warfare there are some issues. Dropping paratroopers inside a drop module from orbital distances is going to take them a good amount of time to cover that distance from orbit-to-surface. The current Russian Soyuz capsule, traveling at 20,000 MPH, takes about 20-30 minutes with temperatures reaching 4,000 degrees during the reentry phase. That is a great deal of time for enemy Tripe-A to intercept the speeding capsule(s) and slaughter the drop troopers prior to their landing. Some believe limiting the sensor profile of the reentry vehicle by using orbital reentry suit. This would require much more training and limit the number of soldiers capable or willing to commit to just such a jump and drop through the burning hell of reentry operations. Spaceborne paratrooper recruits would need balls and nerves of steel to brave that.
One issue associated with Airborne operations is the scattering of the paratroopers across the DZ creating a need to regroup and then assault the target. While this is lessened in modern jumps, it still is a risk and could be magnified by orbital drop distances. Reentry is always a risk, and as we tragically learned in 2003, any damage to the thermal protect can result in the loss of the vehicle and the crew. Dropping massive amount of paratroopers through the burning hell of the atmosphere can place any of occupants of the drop module to risk to a fate similar to the Columbia. This is why a shatter-shot of kinetic shot or Kitty Litter could result in counting a mass orbital drop.

The Realities and Feasibility of Space Drop Tactics
Space 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?
Could we combine drop pods and space diving into a hybrid system that used the best of both worlds? In the pages of Starship Troopers, the thermal capsule  of the Mobile Infantry, the M2 Trojan, was an ablative protection and could be jettison, allowing the APS clad M.I. trooper to float down to the DZ via parachutes. This is likely how a one-person drop pods would be unitized: a reentry vehicle coupled with a parachute system. This would present one major issue: training. In a fully controlled drop module, the computer does the work and the soldiers are along for the ride, allowing for normally trained space marines to be orbit dropped without further training. In the hybrid/free-fall system, the space marines would have to be trained for that kind of jump, limiting the number of troops capable of making that kind of operation.

The Orbital Drop Reentry Suit
Another type of sci-fi drop module that protects the wearer from fury of reentry is the massive orbital drop suit. Seen in the American animation Starship Troopers television show, this giant CLASS-III protective suit encased an M.I. Trooper wearing CLASS-I powered armor and it was shed once the paratrooper reached the planetary DZ. Why the humanoid form of the orbital drop suit reentry armor seen in sci-fi? We can assume that the design was chosen to utilize the arms and feet once on the ground beyond it just being a reentry shell. This could be a type of heavy weapons support worn by the space paratroopers for the chaos of the dropzone, allowing the paratroopers a greater chance to capture and secure the DZ. This could be special suits for special missions rather than the common drop pod.

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?
Airborne infantry units are specially trained to carry out parachute operations combined with certain combat operations tailored to their talents and abilities as well. However, what happens AFTER the parachute drop? While airborne paratroopers are celebrated and featured for their bravery in jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and assaulting the enemy from within their own lines, a paratrooper may only make a few combat jumps in their entire military career. When the jump is complete and the paratroopers are in the field, they are treated as more or less normal combat infantry units by the command staff. It is highly likely the same would be true of Spaceborne forces. Once they assault through the atmosphere and hit dirt-side, they will be grouped into other ground units for continued combat operations by the command staff. It is unlikely that the spaceborne troopers would be shuttled up to orbit warships to mount fruther drop operations.

Powered Armor and the Orbital Drop Connection
Two foundational elements of military science fiction were laid down by Robert Heinlein's 1959 novel: powered armor infantry and space capsule deployment. This concept has endured to this day with even myself not being immune. In my own military SF novel featuring CLASS-II mecha being dropped planet-side via drop module. Why the connection? Full encased future soldiers in powered battle armor is a way to separate your future warfighters from contemporary soldiers and the same is true of dropping in paratroopers from orbit rather than from a few hundred or a few thousand feets in altitude. Much like many things in science fiction, where cars fly, guns shoot deadly light beams, and paratroopers land from outer space, it is all about taking everyday common elements and moving it up another peg. It is ice cream on the cake for those orbital paratroopers to be wearing powered armor and carrying laser blasters or be encased in mecha. We must really thank for this is Mr. Heinlein who gifted us both concepts wrapped in a continuously celebrated story of future war.

Why are Space Drop Paratroops so Popular in Sci-Fi?
When addressing the wide scale appearance of Spaceborne assault infantry and drop pods in science fictions in all forms of media, there are two likely answers: the "Rule of Cool" trope and the assumed tactical application of Airborne tactics to outer space wars. In most military organizations, one of the marks of elite forces is being an accomplished and certified combat parachutists with those tabs being worn proudly on their uniforms. As with all things related to Special Operations Forces, it makes paratroopers automatically cool and badass. Helping the case of paratroopers being cool in the minds of the general public is heroic and spectacular Airborne operations of military history, such as the Operation NEPTUNE and Operation ENTEBBE.You do not have to look further than Band of Brothers to see this in practice and the explosion in interest with  World War II Airborne afterward.
Part of this public fascination with paratroopers is due to their steel-hearted courage and ability to propel themselves willingly out of a perfectly good aircraft and fall towards the ground. Most normal civilians will not be willing jump out of an aircraft (I won't!), and often worship what they cannot or will not do themselves. This Rule of Cool applies to Paratroopers themselves who believe that legions of these specialized light infantry units dropping in from the sky is the tactical solution to a battlefield problem. This was true of the 101st Airborne's 187th Infantry Regiment, the "Rakkasans" involvement during Operation ANACONDA when the Rakkasan commander Wiercinski believed that his Airborne forces should fall from the sky and crush the skulls of AQ and Taliban forces in the valley (Death from Above!). Part of the reason for Wiercinski wanting this type of assault tactic comes from the Rakkasan history and tradition, this would allow another page to be added to their alushious combat history.
This brings us to the second answer to why Spaceborne forces are popular in science fiction: the assumed tactical application of Airborne light infantry tactics to off-world combat scenarios. While E.E. Doc Smith is the father of Space-Drop soldiers in his 1934 book Triplanetary, it was the use of military drop capsules from the original Starship Troopers novel that combined space diving with World War II/Korean War Airborne tactics that became a familiar trend in military sci-fi.
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.
Live-action space paratroopers and drop pods are rare due to the special effects cost and they are more seen more recently with the cheaper cost of CGI SFX. One of the more recent harbingers of both concepts is the UNSC ODST Special Operations space assault unit that continues to be a fan favorites and even got their own game in 2009. Without a doubt with real-world space diving being in the news and with companies actively exploring the possible of mounting commercial space diving operations, the Spaceborne and their orbital reentry vehicles will endure in sci-fi.


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 concept of specialized space paratroopers was revived when the UNSC colonial civil wars emerged and since then, the ODST have been dropping feet first into hell via drop pods. The finest hour for the ODST divisions was the Human/Covenant War, where there thousands of special operations undertaken by the ODST during that long and bloody war. Not only were the ODSTs tasked with spaceborne assaults, but also boarding Terran vessels to purge the data on the location of Earth, under the Cole Protocol, along with being the special assault unit during planetary campaigns and were known to work closely with air vehicle crews.
This made the ODSTs not only a space-drop unit but also an air assault specialized infantry unit. Often, other UNSC SOF units were not in theater for planetary operations, causing the ODSTs to be the stop-gap. This deepened their skills and increased their sense of being badass operators. This has caused people like me to compare the ODSTs to the US Army 75th Ranger Regiment. During the war, they also worked with the new SPARTANs super-soldiers, serving as QRFs or extra muscle. Another dangerous task undertaken by the every expanding ODST divisions was the VBSS of alien spacecraft. This was considered their most daring and deadly mission. During the war and given their CQC engagements, several unique armaments were added to the ODST armory: the sound suppressed M7 PDW and the upgraded Magnum SOCOM pistol. Specialized gear was also seen in the body armor of the ODSTs that is rated for 15 minutes of EVA and of course, the SOEIV drop pod. After the war, the ODSTs were still critical for the unstable galaxy with the Helljumpers being used on special missions and being a recruitment pool for the new SPARTAN-IV Program, with noted ODSTs Sarah Palmer and Edward Buck transforming into SPARTANs.
ODSTs are very popular among fans of the HALO universe, and since their first appearance in HALO 2, fans have desired an stand-alone game featuring the Helljumpers. That wish materialized in 2009 with HALO 3: ODST. Comic books, books, animated shorts, and even action figures have been cracked out to feed the desire for ODSTs. With this popularity among fans and even the staff at Bungie, the ODSTs have been featured in one form or another along the history of the HALO since 2004...however, that is no so in the 343 HALO new trilogy. The ODST are notably absent from HALO 4 and HALO 5, which they would fit perfectly into several portions of both of those games. Instead, 343 decided to focus more on the SPARTAN-IVs than the ODSTs. Pity. Here is hoping that ODSTs are featured in HALO Wars 2 and HALO 6: We're Sorry! Bungie has publicly stated that the ODSTs were directly influenced by the Starship Troopers book and the real-world Special Operations units of the SAS and the USMC Recon. To me, the ODSTs present more like the US Army Rangers.

The UNSC SOEIV Drop Pod from the HALO Universe
Since the first appearance of the Orbital Drop Shocktroopers in 2004's HALO 2, we have seen their preferred method of transportation: the Single Occupant Exoatmosphere Insertion Vehicle (SOEIV) drop pod. For thirty years, the Ushuaia Armory company has been manufacturing and modifying the SOEIV for UNSC use...mostly by the ODSTs. This single use, single occupant drop pod is heavily reinforced for crash landings at high velocities and even penetration of enemy ship hull armor. These reentry vehicles have been known to ram into buildings without killing the paratrooper.
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
In the WH40K universe, the drop pods used by the Space Marines Chapters to deploy a dozen fully armored and armed space marines, or a single Dreadnought, or even an Thunderfire artillery cannon. Due to the high speed used by the drop pods to overcome interception fire, landing is so violent with the retro-rockets, only members of the Adeptus Astartes can survive Unlike many of the sci-fi drop pods mentioned here, the Imperial drop pod is armed. When the four arms of the pod pop open, like a flower, and expose crew-served heavy bolter machine gun or missile launchers. There is a variant, the Deathstrom pattern drop pod is only fitted with automatic weaponry to clear an DZ for the Space Marine drop pods. In actual game play, the drop pod is covered under the "deep strike" rule that allows certain units to being placed on the table directly and not come in from the corners. Current GW rules preclude the possible of using the used drop pods as a form of cover to shield the new units from incoming fire or keeping the Space Marines inside the pod until the situation cools off.  Nice to see that there is no sense of reality with space drop tactics in the 40K universe. BTW: on the Games Workshop online store, a single Space Marine drop pod sells for $37.

The SMC Drop Pod from the QUAKE Universe
The plot of the original 1996 Quake game was a fantastical gothic Lovecraftian theme shooter with the hero was transported to the alien battlefields via a portal. In the more military sci-fi 1997 sequel that was only a Quake game in name only, our brave space marine is dropped on the Strogg homeworld via a personal rocket shed that had some flight capability. Some of these SMC drop pods are seen in other levels as a witness to the massive scale of the SMC drop on Stroggland. In the fourth game that was a direct sequel to the second game, after Space Marine Kane is transformed into a Strogg ground troop form, he is transported up to the carrier ship and then launched on a desperate risky assignment via the drop pods seen from the second game. Much like the second game, the alien triple-A takes a heavy toll on the drop pods, but the sturdy design of the SMC drop capsules is able to withstand one hell of an impact.

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"
Before I wrote books, short stories, and fan-fiction, I was a kid obsessed with a number of sci-fi properties that spanned all media. During this time, I developed my own sci-fi universe that spanned millions of years of history, within that time period, I develop an ancient human-like race called the Tay-Jawmen. They reached a technological superior civilization thousands of years prior to early humans discovered the control of fire. By the time Terrans reached the western rim of the Milky Way galaxy, the Tay-Jawmen were a shell of their former selves and they were under occupation from another alien race that used them as slave labor. Rebellious elements of the Terran frontier military rallied together to liberate the T-J in 3431 AD. In 3437 AD, the T-J formed their new government, the Unification, and they sought out their brethren on their ancient lost colonies to reunion their broken society. Given their weakened state, and the T-J being driven by survival, they recruited the best of the former freedom fighter/guerrillas that had worked with Terran Special Forces, who nicknamed them "the Stormtroopers of Death" after their direct action boldness. The SOD worked hard to become the premier Special Operations unit in the 35th century and to secure their fragile government. One of the specialized sections within the SOD was the Space and Urban Assault that was uniquely trained in space drop tactics to conduct high-risk missions of pre-invasion of planetary bodies. Namely, the SOD S-&-U section was going after the planetary defense bases and C3 centers. I was inspirited by the Star Wars Rebel Alliance Spec-Ops Infiltrator unit from the West End Games manual along with modern Israeli history and named the unit after the trash metal band of the same name that I listened to in the mid-1980's.

Orbital Skydiving  in the Star Trek Universes
Both universes of Star Trek feature orbital diving scenes, which is surprising. The first appearance of orbital skydiving was actually cut from the Star Trek Generations final cut, where Kirk is seen orbital skydiving at the opening of the film. This rough, unfinished scene was featured in the deleted sections of the Generations DVD release. The suit that Kirk wears was recycled (and taken in) for B'Elanna Torres in the 3rd episode of the 5th season ("Extreme Risks"), where she was orbital skydiving in the holodeck with the safety features switched off.  The most iconic orbital space jump scene was featured in a exciting portion of the 2009 J.J. Abrams' Star Trek film. Sulu, Kirk, and a red shirt, were deployed from a shuttlecraft to destroy a Romulan drilling platform via a space jump to prevent the destruction of Vulcan at the hands of the time-travelling Romulan miners.
This dangerous tactic was undertaken by Captain Pike during Nero's demand that Pike board his vessel. The space drop was the most low-profile mission option at the time, and the scene was a highlight of the 2009 film. It is hard science though? Some of it is, especially when you take into a account that the jump and platform are not in orbit, but rather in the upper atmosphere. Travelling at about one kilometer per second is also about right for a drop. J.J. Abrams recycled elements of the space jump scene for Star Trek: Into Darkness. 

The Capsuleers from EVE: Dust 514 video Game
In one of the most distant setting for a military sci-fi shooter game, this EVE spin-off online multiplayer shooter was set some 21,000 years in the future. The players of DUST 514 inhabited the bodies of elite space parachute infantry, the “capsuleers”. These elite space jumpers are nearly damn immortal with consciences transfer preserving the mind to be uploaded into a cloned body….Ghost in the Shell anyone?  The technology allowing them to space jump comes from starship hull material that allows the Capsuleers to jump into combat. Players could chose from a number of suits when the game was online. Sadly, Dust 514 had its servers shut down recently and the game is dead.

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.     

Low Orbit Space Diving From the Old Man's War Universe
In the 2013 ebook series that outlined the fallout from the events of The Last Colony, we see the apex of the Human Division being an emergency jump from the crumbling Earth Station that was under alien attack. Main character Harry Wilson, a member of the CDF and a normal Terran named Dani Lowen jump from the Earth Station has a despite means of escape as the space station breaks up. The super-soldiers of the CDF have experience and training in making low-orbit space diving operations with specialized nanobot backpacks that shield the wearer from the fury of reentry and deploy a "smart" parachute that adjusts to atmospheric conditions. This system is dependant on the wearer being equipped with the standard combat outfit and a BrainPal. The primary group that is tasked with making much of the CDF's combat low orbit combat drops is their Special Operations unit, "the Ghost Bridge". In a key, heartbreaking moment of the sequel to Old Man's War, members of the Ghost Bridge have their BrainPals turned off and they dropped from the sky and impact into the alien soil. The CDF's use of nanotechnology to enable it's soldiers to strike from orbital drop operations is unique and rather inventive.

The Federation Special Forces "Hell Divers" from Clearhorizon Miniatures
In the Clearhorzion line of 28mm and 15mm military sci-fi miniatures, there is the 5th Orbial Activites Division AKA ”Hell Divers”, the most elite infantry unit in the entire Federal Special Forces. Tasked with orbital insertion operations on any planetary combat bodies via drop pods, the skill of the Hell Divers is widely known. The primary armament of the Hell Diver operator is the Federal Mark IV lightweight Advanced Plasma Carbine, and this shortened variant of the standard issue plasma rifle is one of the marks of the elite space paratroopers. These rather cool miniatures were sculpted by Steve Tyler for Clearhorizon and have recived much praise for their detail on both the Hell Divers and their drop pods.

The Yautja Orbital Insertion Pod from Predator (1987)
In the opening few minutes of the classic and iconic 1987 Predator, we see a small alien starship rush by the screen and fire off a small object into the atmosphere of our little blue world. In this drop pod is the hunter that stalks the elite American Special Forces rescue team and dies at the hands of Dutch. Nothing is seen of the drop pod, and it could be related to some of the dead drop prey modules seen in Predators. Unlike the much larger Yautja hunting party in Los Angeles in Predator 2, the lone Yautja hunter of the first film is likely a lone warrior and not interested in sharing the prey with others of his kind.

The Martian Meteors from War of the Worlds
In the history of military science fiction, there is a beginning, and that is the legendary 1898 book by  H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds. Here, he tells of evil technologically superior Martians descending on England via meteor-like drop capsules that contain the alien soldiers and their walking mecha. While the 2005 Steven Spielberg film featured alien pilots riding the lightning (great album!) into their ancient buried war machines, the 1953 movie does feature the meteor drop modules. It is likely that this is the first introduction of space drop modules being used to transport space-based forces to planetary environments. 

The Armored Infantry from Section 8 Video Game
Section 8 was a two games military SF series for the PS3, the Xbox 360, and the PC that was future shooter experience mostly devoted to multiplayer action. You inhabit the body of an elite member of the 8th Armored Infantry unit of powered armor wearing paratroopers designed to drop via tactical transports at 15,000 feet up and use their suits to land safety and take the fight to the enemy. These "burn-in" drops were part of the game play mechanic, allowing players to avoid spawn points on the map and shake up the familiar gameplay. This was also seen in the Medal of Honor: Airborne game. Despite, an okay military sci-fi shooter, the look of the armored drop infantry was amazing along with the art. Too bad the game has not lived on.

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
One of the spin-off pieces of hardware developed out of the classified YSS-1000 Sabre experimental anti-ship space attack fighter project: the reentry pack. This was designed if the pilot had to pull the chicken switch and bail out of the spacecraft while in outer space. Much like NASA's MOOSE, this backpack device allowed the pilot to reentry the atmosphere. While the M-Spec was used by NOBLE-6 in a key scene in HALO: Reach, the actual operation of the backpack was never explained.
There was another reentry device developed for the SPARTAN-II program  that operated more like a back-mounted heat shield, the M-Spec is too small to operate in that manner. That older system was tested by SPARTAN-II Maria-062 along with improvements to the iconic Mjolnir-IV powered armor in a free-fall orbital jump from Cario Station to Korea. It is believed that the M-Spec generated an powered, short-term energy shield to counter the thermal load of reentry either by powering a full body shield or just the rear portion. I always wanted a playable space jump sequence in a HALO game.

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


  1. Its nothing to war :D but as kid enjoyed this one

  2. Fascinating article!
    Just out of interest, when looking at examples of space drop paratroopers did you consider any of the examples from the Infinity universe by Corvus Beli? Only there are several examples from the different factions that might have been interesting additions to the discussion - Pan-Oceanian's Akalis Sikh Commandos and Yu-Jings Tiger Soldiers, the Ekdromoi of Aleph's Steel Phalanx, the Tomcat & Hellcat units from the Nomad vessel Corregidor, and the Combined Army's Fraacta Drop Troops....

  3. I used to be a paratrooper and it still some thing I am proud off. Last 2 major mass attacks that I can think of are when the 173rd went into northern Iraq daring the invasion and Rangers taking Kandahar airfield.

    Aside from being light infantry are main strategic mission is if nothing else be ready to put boats on the ground any where in the world in a 24-48 hour time frame. Land if we can, jump if we half too. Usually to secure an airfield or port so that heavier units can then flood in.

  4. Another excellent, excellent article on the topic of Space Paratroopers. Although I am surprised that you missed the Covies drop troops and their own multitude of drop pods.

    Great work overall.

  5. When I think about drop pods I think about Cybrids raining from the sky in StarSiege and that cool QuakeII intro.

  6. Great, informative article. I like the comparison of the ODST to the Rangers. An interesting (though terrestrial) take on the drop pod is the one by the USMC in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, although for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare they bypassed the pod for a space drop.

  7. Nice article William! Yeah it's been a long time since I commented here... nice to do it again. I like the space orientated topics. XD

    I disagree with you on one point, though. Orbital drops don't make a great deal of sense on a planet without a substantial atmosphere. Aerobraking makes landing on a planet so much easier... not to mention parachutes, which as a clueless Kerbal will discover, do not work on the Mun. Spacecraft need to shed a lot of speed. The delta-V required to land on a planet parallels the amount needed to launch. The reason why we don't need giant booster rockets to land on Earth is because we can shed it through aerobraking. The Moon's low gravity eases this a bit, but the marine will need a craft more like a mini-Eagle with rocket propulsion than a "drop pod".

    Both in real life and SF, it's a lot easier to go DOWN the gravity well than UP. This actually makes the drop trooper one of the few SF concepts that makes sense IRL. Shuttles that can make the trip from space-to-ground-to-space (without refueling!) are pretty bad, hard SF wise. Look how hard SSTOs are to create. Future technology may mitigate this, but maybe not. Heat shields are cheap, environmentally friendly, and disposable, which may be of interest even to high tech spacefaring civilizations. No special landing sites or refueling are needed. If individual drop pods are undesired, a you could put a platoon of troops in a larger capsule or winged reentry vehicle instead.

    Asides from the hard-science issues with shuttles, there are other advantages to this approach. Spacecraft tend to be fragile vehicles, so operating a shuttle near a battlefield may be dicey. A lucky hit might send a shuttle full of troops down in a flaming wreck. If drop pods and shuttles are equally fragile, there may be an advantage in not putting all your eggs, or rather space marines, in a single basket. Some pods may be hit, but we'll lose only one marine.

    As a side note, I once read a plan for a real life generation starship that intended to drop the crew on the target planet in a craft not unlike the Apollo. It makes some sense–a heat shield seems more likely to work after 200 years of travel than a complicated mini-spaceshuttle. It also weighs less, too. Every gram of a STL starship will possibly be the most expensive thing we have ever payed for.

    There are disadvantages to this approach too. Troops risk being scattered over a wide area of terrain if the drop goes badly. Also, if the drop goes sour after hitting dirtside, there isn't any really easy way back up. If real life marines ever use this tactic to quell the inevitable revolt of the Mars colonies, they'll be stuck dirtside until they manage to retake the spaceports.

    All things considered, I think the space drop makes good sense for planetary assault. Unlike magic SF shuttles, they will work. The marine may be left with some serious reservations about how they get back, though!

  8. Another incredible take on drop troops is shown in a flashback in The Shattered Stars https://www.librarything.com/series/Far+Stars+and+Future+Times , by Richard McEnroe. He also addresses the extreme price to be paid when the need to rehab the "heavy metal, thunder rapers" once you no longer need them, as well as the PTSD resulting from their exploits. An excellent take on Class 1 Powered Armor, too...Check it out...

  9. Just want to add a mention to your list of shows that used some version of drop pods - the deservedly forgotten (okay, I kind of liked it but I was the only one) Space Rangers which ran on tv in (I think) 1992 or 93. In the short lived series the rangers used drop pods called bellysnappers to drop to the surface of whatever planet they had to land on.

  10. Funny enough, Space Rangers is the subject of a very upcoming blogpost!

  11. Something like a "Space VDV", dropping on small armored vehicles would probably be more logical.

  12. Late to the game but one way to negate the spread of all the troops, you can put a fire team in the drop pods. Ya they might be a bit bigger but 4 troopers working together while "lost" is better than everyone on they own.