Tom Godwin’s science-fiction story “The Cold Equations” takes place entirely aboard the Stardust, an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother, a colonist on Woden, and is not aware of the law. When boarding the Stardust, Marilyn sees the "UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!" sign, but thinks she will simply have to pay a fine if she is caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission and will result in the deaths of the colonists. He is forced to eject her into space.
The story, first published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding, has been widely anthologized and even dramatized. It is in the form of a cautionary tale, which commonly has three parts. First, a cautionary tale presents a restraint or restriction, in which something is said to be taboo, dangerous, or forbidden. The story's fifth paragraph sets up the first part by including a quotation from "Paragraph L, Section 8, of Interstellar Regulations: Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery." Second, the story introduces a hero figure who disregards—wittingly or unwittingly—the restriction. Readers of "The Cold Equations" learn that Marilyn has not seen her beloved brother for ten years, and because she has not traveled before, she is unaware that "the laws of the space frontier must, of necessity, be as hard and relentless as the environment that gave them birth." The third part of a cautionary tale consists of the transgressor coming to a tragic end. In "The Cold Equations," Marilyn realizes that nothing can be done to save her. She accepts her fate and is ejected into space.
Despite its status as a classic science-fiction story, "The Cold Equations" has engendered some controversy. A similar tale involving a female stowaway who must be jettisoned, "A Weighty Decision," appeared in a 1952 issue of the comic book Weird Science, written by Al Feldstein and drawn by artist Wally Wood. Interestingly, an even earlier story may have influenced Feldstein: Precedent by E.C. Tubb, from 1949. Again, a stowaway is ejected from a spaceship because there is not enough fuel. In all three cases, the form is of a cautionary tale, and the basic theme is that an individual must be sacrificed so that others survive.