Saturday, January 26, 2013

Space Colony Tool Loadout

Does anybody out there remember the movie with Sean Connery called Outland? He plays a future cop on one of the industrialized mining moons of Jupiter. If you haven't seen the movie its pretty good. Its also what my mental picture of the distant future of space travel once it moves out of the scientific and into the industrial. Once companies figure out how to make a profit on another planet it will become a reality.

Its been quite a while since I've seen the movie but I have been thinking about what tools I would want to have with me if I moved to a different country, or worse a different planet. My first answer would be all of them but that really isn't practical because I would need an ocean container to haul it all in.

As a fun mental exercise I started to imagine what tools I would take if I was leaving earth and going to colonize another planet. It turns out there are all kinds of what if questions that come up so I had to set some basic rules to help define the problem and scope.

 The following description sets the stage for the basic tools of the colonization mission.

You are part of a team of explorers sent on a one way trip to colonize a distant habitable planet. The information available on the target planet is limited. We know the basics. The temperature, atmospheric composition, gravity, radiation, land masses, oceans. And we also know it harbors carbon based lower life forms of plants and animals. All of the data we have is from long range high speed probes that surveyed the system from orbit. Unfortunately we don't have any hard surface data because of the limited sensor capability of the fast probes. Our best guess from the available data is the target planets are very earth like but without any other higher humanoid life forms.

This is a one way mission. There is no fuel and stores for any type of return flight. We anticipate enough fuel on arrival to survey two of the most likely planets in the extrasolar system for the colonization team to make a final site decision. Re-supply of any sort will not be possible. The spacecraft itself is approximately the mass and composition of a semi truck and trailer. All of the materials of the spacecraft are available for recycling and use for the colonization at the discretion of the crew. Communication with earth will be possible for one year after the spacecraft lands. However any signal will take a month to reach the earth and a month to come back. In other words the spacecraft will have computer, electrical power and communication for one year. After that the colonization team is on its own. Forever. No McMaster, no Craigslist, its Sink or swim.

As the sole representative for the skilled trades on this colonization mission you have been given the responsibility to recommend and pack the tool kit for the mission. Space and weight are severely limited. All available space is dedicated to fuel and food stores for the crew. The allotted weight and volume for the toolkit are 10kg and 60 liters volume maximum. Approximately 22lbs and roughly the volume of two five gallon buckets. The requirements for the toolkit are that it must have the capability to service and maintain the spacecraft during the interplanetary flight and be useful for the establishment of a colony on the planet surface. You have less than two weeks to choose and pack the kit for the flight.
 As you can see the tool choices we make are pretty important. This is the type of thought exercise that NASA could spend half a million dollars on just defining the color of the toolbox.

Is this realistic? Not really. The ship would have at the very least a way to produce energy either solar or nuclear to power the computers and other equipment aboard. However it doesn't make as good a story if the ship will sustain the colonists for a long period of time. I would much rather think about taking a spacecraft apart with my tool kit and building all kinds of things from the materials. I can't take a chainsaw and a cutting torch so I will have to make due with some good hand tools and elbow grease.

My first thoughts are centered around general tool making. I expect to find raw materials on the planet but I don't have much information on what to expect. I'm not going to pack a blast furnace and a rolling mill so I will need to figure out a generic enough set to get me going no matter what I find. The first and easiest source of materials will be the space craft itself. It will probably be a shelter initially but will eventually be consumed to make to make tools and machines we will need to process the available raw materials on the planet. 

Twenty two pounds is not much of a tool kit for the rest of your life. If you think about it everything we have today comes from the guys that learned how to make stone tools so theoretically we don't need anything. Those ancient tool makers are the beginning of human tool making history. We could start again from square one with stone tools but with our knowledge and source of high grade raw materials from the space craft our new civilization has a major head start. It also makes a better article to read.

So I started a list of tools, gathered them up and weighed them. Right away I see that the volume is not the problem but the weight is. Anybody knows who has picked up a working persons tool box that tools are heavy. I chose tools that I thought have multiple uses. Tools that have too many functions usually don't do any of the functions very well. The example I use is the knives they had for camping that had everything on them including a fork and a spoon. They really didn't do anything very well. Better to distribute that weight over a couple of single or dual purpose tools that perform well. Since I could only choose what I have in the shop we will have to make some assumptions about how much each tool could be optimized for the trip.

Toms list of tools for trip. Not in any order of preference.
  1. Tongue and groove pliers. (Channelocks) These are general purpose pliers that fill a wide range of holding and turning jobs.
  2. Vise Grip pliers. Curved jaw with wire cutter. Clamping pliers useful for holding and clamping.
  3. Four way screwdriver. Has two sizes of both phillips and flat blade drivers.
  4. Pipe wrench 14 inch aluminum. I didn't have an aluminum one to weigh so I estimated it at one third of the weight of a standard steel model. Heavy duty turning and holding tool.
  5. Hammer. Initially I chose a ball pein but when is the last time you used the ball end? I switched this to a claw hammer which is more versatile.
  6. Adjustable wrench six inch. Can't go anywhere without an adjustable wrench. 
  7. Diagonal cutters. I seem to use these all the time. Wire cutting, nail pulling, crimping, etc.
  8. Multi tool. I have a SOG brand tool with a long list of accessories.These particular ones have a needle nose pliers in them.
  9. Tweezers. Try getting an alien out of your finger without them.
  10. Allen wrenches. I usually hate the folding hex key type but they are lighter and not as easy to loose an individual wrench in the dirt.
  11. Electrical multimeter. Mine is heavy at 1.3 lbs. I'm guessing this could be reduced by a factor of ten with a smaller lighter model.
  12. Hacksaw. Cuts almost any metal and or wood.
  13. Jab saw. 
  14. Coping saw. 
  15. Tungsten carbide grit hacksaw blade. Flat and wire type. Now I can cut hardened steel and other tough materials.
  16. EMT scissors. These will cut sheetmetal and a variety of other thin materials.
  17. Diamond abrasive sticks.
  18. Half round file.
  19. Flat file
  20. Round file.
  21. Combination square set. This fills a couple of needs. I get a good right angle reference, a level, an accurate length standard, and an angle standard.
  22. 12 ft tape measure. 
  23. Pocket reference book. I can remember a lot but not all this useful stuff.
  24.  Large locking blade knife. May have to process some of those tasty off world animals while were there.
  25. Hemostat clamp.
  26. Cold Chisel
  27. Dividers
  28. Small sharpening stone.
  29. Magnifier.
  30. Small screwdriver set. Jewelers type.
  31. Two or three foot length of band saw blade. 3/4 wide coarse pitch. This is to make a bow saw out of to help process wood or whatever plant based building materials we find.
So far what I have listed is a little over fifteen pounds and easily fits in one of the buckets.
 I subtracted the weight advantage I would gain from going to an aluminum pipe wrench and a small compact multimeter. I still have seven pounds allotment left and six or seven gallons volume left. As I looked at the growing pile of tools I started thinking about reference standards. A new civilization would need to establish standards for weights and measures as well as time. These standards would be helpful to measure and modify our new environment. But since its my choice I decided to add more tools and leave the scientific stuff to the scientists.

What other multi use tools should I add? I was thinking about some force multipliers like a screw or hydraulic jack, or a prybar of some sort. Some useful additions might be,
  • Socket wrench set. 
  • Torx wrenches
  • Needle files
  • Soldering Iron. What fuel source? Electric on the ship but its dead weight after that.
  • Mirror
  • Drill bits
  • Hand crank drill or brace
  • Wood Chisel
  • Pin punches
  • Tapered Drift punch
  • Sewing needles
  • Lightweight come along 
  • Magnet
  • Magnesium Fire starter.
What I imagine as the most versatile setup would be what you might have found at a country blacksmiths shop back in the early nineteenth century. These guys were the local toolmakers before electricity and huge manufacturing took over. All they needed were some hammers, a source of heat and a decent source of fuel to work. The tools of the general blacksmith could re-process many of the materials of the spacecraft into additional tools and articles for the colonization. These guys were the ultimate early recyclers. I can imagine that some heavy part of the spacecraft could function as an anvil for the new town blacksmith. We do know there are plants and organic matter on the destination planet so these might function as fuel for the forge.  
An early colonial blacksmiths shop. With a similarly equipped shop we could make short work out of the spacecraft. What would be our tool need priority? If we plan on using the spacecraft to build our colony I would say that shelters of some sort would be the highest priority for the colonists. We are pretty sure there are plants on the destination planets so cutting down trees and making durable shelters might be high on the list. Or perhaps boats or wheeled carts for exploring the planet surface more efficiently. 

Doing some internet searches I looked at some tool kits for people traveling off the beaten path. The key common element is self sufficiency. I was happy to see that some of these guys agree with my selections. Open ocean sailors, back country off roaders, and astronauts all seem to pack a similar kit. 
 Toolkit for the Apollo space mission. Great minds think alike. See the 10 inch adjustable wrench. I bet the Crescent company fell all over itself to make sure its wrench was on the mission. This kit sold at auction recently for $76,000. Check out the cool blue handled ratchet at the bottom. It has an oversize thumb lever so it can be operated with spacesuit gloves on.

I wanted to get some other peoples opinions So I showed my off world tool loadout to my wife and Jeff from MLS After explaining the basic idea and general rules they both ripped into my tool selections like a couple of wood chippers.I admit I didn't have a leg to stand on with the dividers.......
Here are the tools they wanted out of the kit. This reduced the overall weight considerably. They chose to add it back and then some with the addition of a heavier hammer, a larger 10inch adjustable wrench, and a sharpie. They gave me crap about the magnifying loupe. My comeback was that they would be crying like babies when they got a metal sliver in their hand and I was the only one with a magnifier and some tweezers. 
When I mentioned that the colonists would be dismantling the spaceship a pry bar, drill bits and a better pair of snips quickly got on the list.
Here's where were at after the suggestions. Total weight is almost seventeen pounds. This leaves about five pounds we can add.

There are many other things I would want along on a trip like this but they fall under the heading of consumables. Things like cord and wire, zip ties, duct tape deck screws, nails etc all fall under this heading. For the purpose of this thought exercise lets stick to durable tools or at least ones that can be sharpened and reconditioned.

After my wife and Jeff added their choices to the load out we now have some drill bits. We could add one of the old school brace type drill drivers.
This gives us a head start with hole making. Incidentally hole making is the most common machining operation of all machining operations so I'm sure it will be in the new world. I also hate the thought of having to make my own drill bits from some piece of space junk so I was happy to see them added to the kit. Guessing at the weight of this I'll say something like 2.5 lbs.

So my additions to top off the kit are, brace bit driver, one inch wide wood chisel, needle files, larger selection of drill bits, a mirror, and a magnet. Obviously we could custom make most of these tools and loose more weight but how much? It all related to how much time you have to spend optimizing. Even the Apollo guys opted for a few off the shelf commercial items and its a safe bet they had more than two weeks to decide what to take.
So I think I'm ready to load up and head to the job site unless you have some suggestions for improving the kit. I'm right at 22 lbs total for everything on the scale and in front of it. Lots of volume left. This all fits comfortably in one of the buckets. I might add a foam pad to kneel on and a couple of pairs of the magic gloves. Not much weight and pretty damn useful.

Post a comment if you think you have a worthy improvement. Thanks for looking.


  1. I would need a pair of Klein lineman pliers; cut wire, strip wire, and makes a good hammer too. By the by, keep posting, really admire your work.

  2. I would throw a roll of duct tape in there. While not a tool, you can fix a lot of stuff with that. And possibly a small roll of wire or two. Unless you count that as general supplies on the ship that someone else will cover.

    1. Hi Brass builder,

      Duct tape and wire fall under supplies. I agree that some good duct tape and a can of nice safety wire are definitely worth their weight. When I go backpacking I have some duct tape and safety wire wound around my walking poles. Comes in handy for all kinds of things. It works better than moleskin for hot spots on the feet and it stays put. I really like the gaffers tape from McMaster Carr. 7612A97. Its expensive, but if your going to another planet its worth it.



  3. Hi Hulk,

    Lineman pliers. I'm thinking you are an electrician. I see lots of electrical guys using these pliers for lots of different things. I think we have the function of the lineman pliers covered with some other tools. What would you take off the list to make room for the lineman pliers? I'm guessing they weigh at least a pound. What are you willing to give up to get them on the ship?

    Thanks for posting.


    1. Hey Tom

      You are thinking right, I'm a proud IBEW Member, and nice work on the lathe electrical hook up. Good conduit bending is truly an art, and fully understand your take on it. Although most job sites don't have a vice to clamp your bender in.
      I would ditch both the dykes and the needle nose pliers. Lineman's will anything those tools do. The hemostats are way better than the needle nose pliers, for detail work. The diagonal cutters, are replaced by the tin snips, EMT scissors and jaanus's ax.

  4. Hi, greetings from Estonia, would replace that heavy hammer with god all round axe, and ditch most of handles for files and saws, and would take more blades with me. With god ax and set of drill bits you can any handle you'll ever need. I have thought about similar stuff, while reading books abot WW II, and soviet occupations in Europe, when people were moved to Siberia with 20 minutes of notice, and Siberia is almost like another planet in early 40's almost nobody lived there.
    From the bright side, thank You for nice blog and keep up the good work. Thanks

  5. Hi Jaanus,

    Great comment. The Ax is an excellent improvement to the kit and will be included for sure. I can see lots of uses for it right away. I took a quick look on the web and saw some handy looking ones that have hammer heads on the opposite end. I don't use an ax much so it wasn't on my tool radar. I can tell you now I going to buy one. Do you use an ax in your work?

    Thanks for posting.

    Tom Lipton

  6. Quick question, why do astronauts need 3 jackscrews?

  7. Hi Hulk,

    Thanks for the gentle words on my electrical skills. I'm no electrician by any stretch but I still try to do it correctly. You would love my shower curtain enclosure. Its made from 3/4 EMT and Unistrut fittings. Had to come up with a field expedient solution or take a sponge bath in a bucket. I'm going to go and look at all my lineman's pliers and see what I have.


    Tom Lipton

  8. Tom,

    Sorry to be commenting on a 17 month old posting, but I only recently found your blog (I'm loving it, btw).

    Couple of things-- 22lbs isn't a lot (though I would find 10x that restrictive) and there are a great deal of unknowns in this trip. That said, I would not limit myself to commonly available off the shelf tools and I would seek to make each tool as durable and as lightweight as possible. i.e.--the steel prybar becomes a titanium one, and the wooden hammer handle becomes, say, carbon fiber. Fortunately, you didn't mention any budget restrictions.

    Also, it is my hope that the vehicle is designed in a modular fashion using a small number of standardized fasteners requiring only a few lightweight tools for everything from routine maintenance to complete assembly and dis-assembly. How cool would it be to completely take apart a tractor-trailer with just a few tools on a tool belt?

    That said, my kit would look a lot like yours. Things I would add--an axe, cold chisels, a blacksmith's hardy and some clamps.

    Thanks for the brain-stretcher,


    1. Hey Andy,

      Better late than never. This was a really fun mental exercise to think about what you would want to take along for the rest of your life. Blacksmith's hardy. Now there is a new one to the list. How would you envision using that compared to a cold chisel. I assume you mean something like a cold or hot cut bottom tool. Thanks for the comment and participation.

      All the best,


    2. Hot cut bottom tool--exactly. The difference, of course, being the words "hot" and "cold". My black-smithing experience is very limited, but given a choice between using a hardy on hot metal and a cold chisel on cold metal, I'll take the hardy any day. With a hammer, tongs (pliers), anvil (I had assumed a piece of the ship), a hardy, fire and metal well, you mentioned blacksmiths yourself. I'd still like more than 22 lbs.

      Thanks again,


  9. I read somewhere, that Charles Lindbergh took only a Crescent wrench and ChannelLocks when he flew solo across the Atlantic. He said, if it took more than that, he would have crashed before he finished working.

    1. Hi Szigy,

      That's pretty cool. Now I want to know when Crescent wrenches came out. I thought they were a much newer product. Thanks for the comment.



    2. As you would need to start fires for a long time, a piston fire starter made of aluminum tubing is something I would consider. Lightweight, small, waterproof. It sucks to be on a hike after months on an alien planet and not to be able to start a fire when you need one. The magnesium block would last quite a while too, but a backup fire source would be nice.