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The year is 2267 A.D. Humanity has colonized Prima Centuari system. A federal government is established; the population is expected to grow at an exponential rate to reach 1 billion by 2300 A.D.

A self-destruct button is self explanatory: you punched the button to start the countdown sequence. When the number reaches zero... kaboom!

The Emergency Off or EMO button is more forgiving. It simply cuts off the primary power supply and leaving the ship's circuits deadish! However, crew can then manually reset the button to allow current to flow through again. There is nothing lost but time.

I am wondering why new non-military starship blueprints would include a self-destruct module and have the EMO button taken out? Note: in my story, self-destruct and EMO are mutually exclusive! No FTL.

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    $\begingroup$ Did you mean Proxima Centauri or is Prima a fictional name? $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Feb 5 '17 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ I presume that ships have generally had EMOs up until now, but for some reason, self-dest becomes popular... you want reasons why that is happening? I have some ideas, but I'd like to know why the EMO and self-destruct are mutually exclusive. Most of the ideas I've got would prefer to have both. $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Feb 5 '17 at 6:46
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    $\begingroup$ "Instead of"? Why not both? Just handwavium? $\endgroup$ – Spencer Feb 5 '17 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ Presumably cutting the power to the magnetic bottle holding your fusion reaction/anti-matter core will functionally be the same thing as a self-destruct :) And MANY computer systems/mechanical devices can't simply be turned off and restarted reliably. $\endgroup$ – Jason K Feb 6 '17 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see why being emo and self destructive would be mutually exclusive... $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Feb 6 '17 at 21:25
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Self destruction destroys stuff, which can be a good thing.

  • Secrets must be kept. Just shutting off or even "wiping" a hard drive can be reversed. Utter destruction of data and those who understand it will ensure all secrets are kept if the ship is about to be captured or scanned by the enemy.
  • Clone missions must end. In a setting where human clones are possible, there may be reason to destroy extra copies. For instance, you may upload yourself onto a body and board a one-way probe to explore an uncharted system. The mission needs your experience, but you don't actually want to be there. When you're done, you can effectively annihilate the clone so there aren't two of you.
  • Sabotage or violence may occur. While less of an engineering reason, ships can self-destruct for the sake of plot. If someone wants to kill everyone on board, this works.
  • Sterility is law. We clean and, if we have to, intentionally destroy spacecraft to avoid polluting habitable worlds. If there is some interstellar treaty in place to protect certain planets, perhaps blowing yourself up is the only way to adhere to the law.
  • Torture is imminent. Cyanide pills and other covert methods of suicide have been used historically by captured spies. While protecting information, as stated above, is one reason for destruction, the other could be potential unpleasantness awaiting.
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  • $\begingroup$ Reminds me of Destination: Void $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Feb 5 '17 at 8:43
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz At least, they aren't trying to create an artificial consciousness -- or die. That artificial consciousness concept had me worried until I realized it was only a machine intelligence. Apart from the literal deus ex machina ending. $\endgroup$ – a4android Feb 5 '17 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Destination: Void is one of my favourite Frank Herbert novels. Though the sequels didn't really cut it. Although The Dragon the Sea I think is his best. Actually Destination: Void really is the type specimen for the OP's scenario. $\endgroup$ – a4android Feb 5 '17 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ I like the torture idea. The 2016 short YA novel, “Dark Energy” by Robison Wells hits on similar themes. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Feb 6 '17 at 23:15
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Expanding on what Zxyrra said:

  • Imagine the ship meets something nasty and the best solution is not to come home again. Here there be dragons, and all that. Perhaps they meet a hostile, sentient species, or they contract an alien plague. Should the suicide be left to each individual crewmember, or is that something the command staff decides for all.
  • A non-FTL, interstellar craft is a deadly kinetic energy weapon. A self-destruct which literally vaporizes the craft (should be possible with the energy levels of interstellar flight), a near-c projectile becomes an expanding near-c cloud. This could be less of a hazard to systems in the way.
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Different Reactor/Propulsion/Fusion Core Designs

This is basically the difference between "fail-safe" and "fail-fail". If a "fail-safe" system malfunctions, it does so in a safe manner. A "fail-fail" system does not. So maybe the older ships used a propulsion or power generator method that had a "fail-safe" emergency shutdown mode. Then when a new generation of propulsion/powerplant is introduced, the same emergency shutdown mode is provided. In the lab and the prototypes, everything works correctly, but in field conditions/the production model, something seemingly inconsequential is different, and the new design does not shut down cleanly, turning "emergency off" into "self-destruct".

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You might not want them following you home

You never know what you might run into out in the deep of space. If you come across a new civilization that would pose an imminent threat to humanity, such as the xenomorphs from Alien, the Prime from Peter F. Hamilton's commonwealth, etc. then you'd be better off destroying the ship than risk someone trying to go home and bring trouble with them. Self preservation is a very strong instinct, and so having a way to override it is important.

If the universe is a dark forest then anyone going out into it has a duty to humanity to have a way to ensure that trouble stays out there.

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The Emergency Off or EMO button is more forgiving. It simply cuts off the primary power supply and leaving the ship's circuits deadish! However, crew can then manually reset the button to allow current to flow through again. There is nothing lost but time.

If the Crew can reset this button, then so can an attacker. If he can't figure it out himself, he can always capture fleeing crew members and "persuade" them to give him the information on how to reset the button.

There are a few reasons to destroy a craft. The first and foremost reason is to protect secrets - both data contained within the data storages on the ship, as well as technological data. If you can get your hands on a brand new F-35 it would be awesome.

It could be that up until know, humanity was either alone and they have found a new enemy, or humanity was united before and now there are factions. Self destruct was not neccessary because there was no enemy from which to hide data/technology. Now there is. Self-destructs become mandatory for all new ships, and old ones must be retrofitted within the next X months.

Maybe it becomes illegal to completely shut off the ship because that way it would be too easy to board (automated defenses are now required, and they need to be powered). This means ships that become retrofitted with the self-destruct also get fitted with automated defensed, and a complete shutdown is not longer possible because power generation must stay on, as well as targeting systems, a rudimentary attitude control, and the automated defenses.

Maybe the retrofiiting process takes longer then required, and some ships can avoid getting retrofitted for years. This would be ample time for a storyline with both types of ships to happen.

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The ships were never designed with a self-destruct system, why would anyone do that? But after the first attack the recovery teams looking for survivors found *censored for the wellbeing of readers*, there were no survivors. It was obvious that a quick death was a far better option than being captured.

The self destruct simply removes the safety controls from the drive and dumps fuel in, the countdown a matter of how long it would take to blow.


This of course is highly dependent on what is happening in your universe. The choice to self-destruct is a question of what the other option is and if it's worse to be captured then self-destruct is viable. If it's simply a matter of not letting certain technologies get into the hands of the enemy, then it's going to be hard to get ordinary crew members or passengers to go along with it.

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  • $\begingroup$ if it is about certain technologies there is no need in total self destruction - just destruction of those technologies implementations and distress signal. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Feb 6 '17 at 11:40
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg, that's a matter of targeted destruction, normally when I think of a self-destruct system it means all that's left is shrapnel. We attacked them and the main drive went pop but left the ship otherwise intact doesn't quite fit the concept. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 6 '17 at 11:46
  • $\begingroup$ "intact doesn't quite fit the concept." - I guess it is what OP probably meant, so I agree on that, and because of that the argument of not letting certain technologies in enemy hands seems a bit weak for me, or at least it is not that general to justify total self destruction, and that was point of my comment. I guess there can be some top notch/secret technologies which are so evenly distributed over the construction that self destruction is the only option, but I bet not a lot of people can suggest some examples of such. But first part of your answer is just excellent. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Feb 6 '17 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ oh, and forgot to say, it have to me plasma not shrapnel, because shrapnel can be kinda reassembled, I mean it isn't that good at erasing the secrets. And taking in to account energies needed to move a space ship, making plasma from it is not that hard, there should be a plenty of energy available. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Feb 6 '17 at 11:56
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In Harry Harrison’s The Daleth Effect the new spaceliner had a self-destruct and the flight crew had a habitat that did connect to the main passenget area. This was to protect the highly-propietary technology used in the drive. They would rather blow it up than allow it to be hijacked—and publicising this fact was intended to let would-be espionage agents know not to try.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah! Great idea. I'll bet that brought passengers in droves -- unless they had discounts for tour groups of espionage agents. $\endgroup$ – a4android Feb 5 '17 at 10:57
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Reactor Design

It doesn't have to be a mistake. It can be a necessary part of something else that is a feature.

If the basic recipe for nuclear fusion propulsion is to have a nuclear fusion bomb-like chain reaction and the only thing that normally prevents it from destroying the ship is an active containment system that "squeezes" the reaction so that it happens more gradually, turning off the control mechanism while the chain reaction is in progress will blow up the ship.

But, you might have an manual override for the containment system, because sometimes engines experiencing multiple chain reactions of nuclear explosions need some repairs and the idea would be to do so normally, when the fuel for the fusion drive is exhausted, so that the containment system itself doesn't kill the repair crew. It needs to be manual because one of the things that can break is the sensor that says a reaction is still going when actually, the fuel is exhausted (which would otherwise be the fail safe to prevent a shutoff of the containment system when it could self-destruct). Indeed, that's one of the most fragile parts in the system (just like the warning indicators in my car).

But, once you have a manual override, you have a manual override and it can be used at inappropriate times, turning an EMO into a self-destruct system.

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