When the Space Shuttle was being first bandied about in the 1970s, mission planners were looking at the largest crews that would ever be in space up to that time. A number of ideas were bandied about on how to preserve crew safety in case of disaster, and one of these concepts became the rescue ball.
The concept was relatively simple. In case of an emergency where personnel would have to abandon a ship or station, or in case of a sudden depressurization, a crewmember would be sealed into a flexible sphere of spacesuit-grade fabric. The sphere would inflate and pressurize from an air supply, either attached to the bubble or carried in by the crewmember. This would include both a tank of breathable air as well as a CO2 scrubber. This would give the crewmember inside an hour of life support while he waited to be rescued. Handles and rings were attached to the outside so astronauts wearing space suits proper could easily handle the ball and bring the crewmember to safety. There were even provisions to ferry multiple balls between ships via tether.
Rescue balls were carried on the Shuttle in its first few years of operation. However, after the Challenger disaster many emergency systems were re-evaluated. It was realized that in the case of an orbital disaster, in the post-Challenger program of much more restricted missions, there would be no one who could rescue the stranded astronauts, so rescue balls were phased away as redundant equipment.
However, in futures and settings where there are extensive orbital and deep space infrastructures, rescue balls could become a practical and life-sustaining technology. Numerous improvements can be made to the minimalist NASA design.
Future rescue ball designs would likely take much more of a "life raft" approach as opposed to NASA’s more utilitarian stop-gap survival ball. In other words, the balls would be designed to keep it occupant alive as long as possible in case rescue is delayed longer than expected. The outer shell of the ball would be tough and radiation resistant and heat reflective, just like the material of modern space suits, and would probably be placed several layers thick.
A more extensive life support system may be attached directly to the bubble, with long-enduring batteries, to allow survival for a number of hours or even days, depending on its tech level and sophistication. A distress beacon and a means of short-range radio communication could also be a mandatory pieces of equipment. The outer skin of the bubble may be coated with high-efficiency flexible solar cells, to ensure at least the minimal power needed to keep the beacon running.
Inside the bubble would include a first aid kit, sealable baggies for bodily waste, rations, and a small computer display or hardcopy that could detail how to use the bubble and the best courses of action in common emergency situations. One or more small windows may be built into the bubble to make sure the crewmember can see his environment and possible help direct rescuers to his location.
Large, multiple-person bubbles are possible, and may be used in the absence of actual lifeboats. Large versions may be equipped with multiple-zipper/sealant layer systems to allow for crude airlock-like egress.
When not in use, rescue balls are stored deflated, and will probably take up much less room than standard space suits.
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