Guns in space are cool when it comes to Han Solo, Captain Kirk, or Ellen Ripley, but otherwise, most people agree that space should be kept weapon-free. That was a big focus of John F. Kennedy’s moonshot speech, as he intimated over and over that the USSR might use space as a “terrifying theater of war.” Space technologies have militaristic uses and connotations, even if they’re not designed for anything of the sort, which was why Russia’s successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 kicked the Space Race into high gear. The U.S. knew that if they had a rocket powerful enough to launch a satellite, they could also launch nukes. Plus, satellites can be used to spy. That’s part of why the U.N. and other countries approved the Outer Space Treaty, which, among other things, restricts the use of weapons of mass destruction in space, as well as using space for military bases or weapons testing (“The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes”). Despite all this, it used to be common practice for cosmonauts to have access to a gun in the emergency kit of all Soyuz capsules.
Apparently, this all started in 1965 when a return Soyuz flight landed off-course, prompting survival stories that boasted bears, wolves, and other dangerous Siberian wildlife that warranted protection. Though the cosmonauts never actually had to fight anyone or anything and were quickly rescued, the idea had been born that certain situations astronauts encounter could be dangerous enough to warrant a gun. Even after the formation of the ISS, the practice continued.
The gun contained in the Soyuz survival kit is a TOZ 82 three-barreled pistol, which also has an unfolding machete and can be used as a shovel. It’s attached to an ammunition belt with flares, shotgun shells, and rifle bullets. After the ISS was created, NASA also trained its astronauts in using this gun, but did so only on Earth. NASA and American astronauts insist that they’ve never brought a gun into space. The space agency hasn’t publicized any training photos, but private space tourists Mark Shuttleworth (is that a perfect name or what?) and Anoushah Ansari have.
Right now, the pistol isn’t in the kit at all. According to future ISS astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, the pistol remains on the “official list of kit contents,” but before any flight gets off the ground the Soyuz review committee votes to take it out, perhaps because the cosmonaut training center is no longer under military control. Given the psychological effects of isolation and other aspects of space travel, making a gun accessible to station-bound astronauts doesn’t seem like a great idea, and IEEE Spectrum writer James Orberg suggests keeping a gun in a compartment accessible only from the outside of the craft, to limit its use to the intended purpose—something going wrong at landing.