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In my world, a web of space stations was built around the planet to save humanity from ~as of yet unspecified horrible disaster~. Now, it's been a thousand years, and the space stations have begun to disintegrate.

If my protagonist gets trapped inside a module which falls from the sky to earth, would there be any way he could survive reentry? Perhaps the stations are not too far from the surface (but then, they would have all long come down). Perhaps it falls into the water (but he probably can't swim, so perhaps it was shallow water?) Perhaps the module is very heavily built? I'm up for anything that doesn't completely beggar belief.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site. $\endgroup$ – James Jul 31 '15 at 2:55
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    $\begingroup$ Definitely yes else what have they been doing for the last millennium? $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jul 31 '15 at 4:53
  • $\begingroup$ @user6760 coming down in Space Shuttles and Soyuz capsules. Definitely not in the modules themselves. $\endgroup$ – ApproachingDarknessFish Jun 2 '16 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ Remembers me of the en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_(2013_film) $\endgroup$ – hitchhiker Dec 19 '18 at 22:55
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Unless the module was designed to survive reentry, then no. Not even by accident.

Surviving reentry from space not only requires the module to survive but it also requires the capsule to be gently decelerated before it slams into the ground. So far we've only figured out how to do this with only aerodynamic forces on wings or parachutes OR aerodynamic forces combined with last minute retrorocket thrust.

So unless those systems were built into the capsule, along with the control mechanisms to activate at the appropriate times, your protagonist would end up as a pile of unattractive goo at the bottom of the capsule even if the capsule survived.

But if your space stations were built centuries ago, then perhaps everyone forgot that certain modules were intended to be used as emergency reentry capsules.

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    $\begingroup$ this is a good concept and good storytelling imo. $\endgroup$ – James Jul 31 '15 at 2:25
  • $\begingroup$ I think this is the only realistic way to do it. Have some modules specifically designed to survive the re-entry and the survivors can either deliberately or through luck be on those modules. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Jul 31 '15 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer. It is relevant to recall the Soyuz-1 mission, wherein the capsule survived reentry (as it was designed to do) but the parachutes failed to deploy. The spacecraft slammed into the ground at 89mph/140kph, killing cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov in the first ever spaceflight fatality. I love the idea of the modules having a forgotten double-purpose; the best kinds of answers are the ones that make the impossible possible in an interesting way. $\endgroup$ – ApproachingDarknessFish Jun 2 '16 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ Many modules have engines, for change of orbit, fixing orbit deterioration, collision avoidance... Rocket thrust is not an issue. Control of it may be. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jun 3 '16 at 9:43
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    $\begingroup$ Useful term to know: lithobraking. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jun 3 '16 at 9:57
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I disagree with the accepted answer. Survival is possible albeit extremely unlikely. There are two aspects to the survival:

1) Surviving the fire. This is not going to be possible for anything that we have currently put into space but you are indicating a far greater space presence. There might be something big enough to shield you on the way down--say, perhaps, a piece of radiation shielding made from mining slag?

2) Surviving the landing. There have been cases of wreckage-riders that survived landings at terminal velocity, albeit with serious injuries. There has also been a case of a true free-faller surviving with apparently no injuries. (He was injured when he jumped and had blacked out on the way down so we don't know exactly what happened. It appears he hit a pine tree just right and then deep snow.)

Thus your protagonist could ride a piece of radiation shielding through the fire, then fly away on his own (note: this assumes he has skydiving experience!!) and get extremely lucky in where he comes down. (I'm saying to get away from what you rode down because it's going to be much harder to slow down. The pine tree that saved the tail gunner above would be of no help if you're riding something big.)

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  • $\begingroup$ If you assume that there are no people (no friendly beings who understand human physiology might be a better more general way to put it) on earth... then suffering any major injuries on landing would likely be terminal. Could your hero survive with serious injuries and no assistance? $\endgroup$ – matt Jun 8 '17 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ @matt Likely be--note that I was pointing out a possible but extremely improbable scenario. The tail gunner does not have appeared to have suffered any injuries in his fall from 18,000'. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Jun 9 '17 at 0:01
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Anything is possible.

That said, riding the module down to earth is probably suicidal, as it will hit land or water hard enough to kill anyone, assuming that the heat of re-entry doesn't do the job first.

The most likely means of survival is to get into a space suit equipped with a parachute and bail out before the module gets below the upper atmosphere. We can assume that the builders of the space stations anticipated an emergency that might require that the occupants return to earth without benefit of a spacecraft.

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The space station manufacturer did include airbags..... didn't they? ;-)

Translated - it completely depends on the safety features built into the space station and environs, and nothing else. The question is a bit like asking "can a person survive <some kind of collision/fall/failure> of any manufactured object they happen to be in." It depends on the safety mechanisms the manufacturer built in, and/or any other sources of safety/mitigation that might exist, and not at all on where it falls from (space or any other location).

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  • $\begingroup$ @Stilez, we like answers to be more comprehensive. My earlier comment is automatically generated by the review queue when you tell it a response was more suited to being a comment than an answer. Now you have expanded on your initial response I am happy to retract that statement. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Jun 3 '16 at 8:05

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