Escape pods (alternative known as "lifepods", "rescue pods", "evacuation pods", and "lifeboats" but officially called autonomous survival and recovery vehicles [ASRVs]) are small, self-sustaining vessels that allow the crew and passengers to abandon a ship or station in event of a critical emergency situation. Pods were installed on ships as early as the NX-class, but Starfleet moved away from incorporating them through most of the 23rd Century. Crews then had to rely on auxiliary ships (shuttles and shuttlepods) and emergency beam-outs to get off a dying ship or station. However, the shear number of crew to be rescue, limited time, and the location of shuttlebays meant very few survived a catastrophic event aboard ship. Starfleet again toyed with the idea of escape pods in the early 2300s, and successfully re-implemented them aboard the USS Hokkaido in 2337. All Federation and Starfleet vessels are now required to have enough escape pods to evacuate its entire compliment of crew and passengers should the need arise.
The design and capabilities of lifeboats tend to vary from ship to ship, although engineers at Starfleet's Advanced Starship Design Bureau have attempted to standardize these for all classes over the last few years. Often pods are flush-mounted to a ship/station's hull, or housed in special bays with retractable hatches. Older ships still in service like the Miranda class have pods retrofitted inside their Shuttlebays and Cargo Bays. Some pod shapes include: square (Ambassador, Galaxy and Nebula class), hexagonal (Intrepid and Defiant class), and triangular (Sovereign and Akira class).
Escape pods are constructed using tritanium and trumium monocarbonite, allowing for structural integrity and survivability to exposure to space and the extreme heat associated with re-entry. The first "square"-type pods installed on the Hokkaido (and still found on the Ambassador and New Orleans class ships) could only carry four people and enough power to operate for fourteen days in space. If a pod managed to land, on-board supplies could last for 86 days. Most lifeboats built today carry six, eight, or ten passengers and can stay in space for 3 months. They also are equipped with replicator/reclamation equipment, allowing for periods of survival between eight and twelve months if the pod can make planet-fall.
No matter the size or compliment of an escape pod, each has similar basic components:
- Ejection initiator---used to eject the pod clear of the ship or station
- Impulse engine or microthrusters---for propulsion
- Reaction Control System---for flight control
- Gravity/inertial damping field generator
- External sensors---these include navigational processors
- Entry/docking hatches
- Environmental system
- Survival gear/consumables storage
- Emergency subspace communications & automatic distress beacons
- Acceleration seats
- EVA suits
Once the order to abandon a ship or station is given, every effort is made to get civilians and families of the crew into lifeboats first. Early pods had to be piloted, but advances have created pods that are programmed to get as clear from the ship or station as possible, without much input from evacuees. Typically, a set of coordinates will be broadcast for the pods to rendezvous to but in some situations (such as an ongoing battle), pods may have to escape the best way they can. Protocols state that pods should attempt to find a friendly vessel or habitable planet to land on as soon as possible. The longer a pod is forced to stay in open space, the fewer chances of survival.
One tactic that lifeboats caught in open space can utilize is called the "gaggle mode". Pods can readily dock with one another, allowing for the sharing of power and provisions as well as giving the sick and wounded access to medical care. Pods, however, must be separated before entering a planet's atmosphere as the stresses from a larger formation would exceed the pod's structural strength.