One important difference this story shows between life on Earth and life in space is that on Earth, there is room to make mistakes and rules are not so harsh. On Earth, people are allowed to try again if they fail at something. If we make a miscalculation, we have the opportunity to retrace our steps and start over. We can come up with creative solutions to difficult problems that might seem to have only one answer from the start. In space, however, the rules are much more harsh and strict. Because of the risk that comes with space travel, there is only one chance, one answer, and no room for error.
In “The Cold Equations,” the space ship on which the story takes place is equipped with exactly the right amount of fuel to complete its mission, which involves transporting medical supplies. When the pilot of the spaceship, Barton, discovers the stowaway, Marilyn, he is faced with a choice. Her weight was not part of the calculation when they fueled the ship, so it’s going to throw off the mission. The only option is to get rid of the stowaway, which will mean ending Marilyn’s life. Failure to eject Marilyn will cost the life of the colonists who are awaiting the medical supplies.
If this situation were to happen on Earth, it might have a much rosier outcome. When Barton first finds Marilyn and she expects to simply have to pay a fine as a stowaway, he thinks:
In a way, she could not be blamed for ignorance of the law; she was of Earth and had not realized that the laws of the space frontier must, of necessity, be as hard and relentless as the environment that gave them birth.
This line epitomizes the difference between Earth and the space frontier. Where Marilyn comes from, rules are made to be broken, and she expects to discover a similar attitude when she is found on the ship. Sadly, though, there is absolutely nothing Barton can do to save her, and they both must face the cold, hard facts of reality.