hand-to-hand combat---in space!
October 24, 2010 11:00 AM   Subscribe

How would people fight in microgravity, either in an enclosed space with walls to push off of, or completely free-floating with nothing except each others' bodies?

This would be a military scenario (I dabble in military sci-fi), so the techniques don't have to be safe to execute but they do need to be safe to practice. The difference is, stabbing people is deliberately unsafe to execute but can be safe to practice if, say, you use fake knives. On the other hand, spinal locks are both unsafe to execute and apparently also unsafe enough to practice that the US Army excludes them from its combatives courses.

Let's say it's not hard to simulate microgravity in a practice room.

I thought the answer would be grappling, but after talking to a couple of wrestlers and judo students, it seems like most of the techniques rely on bracing against a floor or using weight or falls to get into position. So there are some ways for people to hurt each other just by the leverage between their bodies (e.g., full Nelson, armbar, some chokes) but nobody I asked could imagine how he would get into position for those if he didn't have gravity and a floor.

I also looked into combat divers' techniques. From what little I could find, it seems there's a lot of pulling people's breathing masks away and other SCUBA-specific stuff that wouldn't translate well to people in spacesuits or just regular clothes breathing in a pressurized chamber.

I'd appreciate any thoughts or reading material or pointers to better places to ask.
posted by d. z. wang to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
'Ender's Game' has some great descriptions of zero-g combat and the implications thereof. (for one, "up" and "down" all become relative.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:06 AM on October 24, 2010 [4 favorites]

In Ender's Game, however, they had paintball guns. And the ultimate tactical stroke of genius was to play dead and then shoot unsuspecting enemies.
posted by rainy at 11:24 AM on October 24, 2010

I'm thinking it would be all about weapons (guns, knives, batons) or strikes and collisions. The two combatants would be pushing off of surfaces to give them some momentum and then colliding like billiard balls. Think like that pro wrestling move where one wrestler throws the other into the ropes. The opponent springs back and then (pretend) rebounds uncontrollably, right into an elbow or clothesline or something. You would probably see a lot of "hits" and checks like NFL tackles or hockey checks into the walls.

That's not to say grappling wouldn't work at all. In fact, that would probably be the only way a fight could end conclusively if forcing the enemy to disengage and flee weren't an option (i.e, if the other guy was going to go call for help, rather than if you were defending a doorway from access or comething.) Chokes like the "sleeper hold" would still work.

There would have to be a whole new art of wrestling, one based on manipulating the opponent's body with your hands/body floating in front of you while they attempted to resist/do the same to you. It would involve a lot of grabbing on, since any pushing would disengage the two fighters. There may be a move where you would hold someone's wrist or ankle and push away their body mass, which would make them swing back toward you, right into an elbow strike to the FACE or something. Meanwhile, while you're holding their ankle, you're giving them an anchor for leverage to do something to you, like kick or punch.

Awesome question. I'd watch me some zero-g wrestilng. Maybe even try it.
posted by ctmf at 11:43 AM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is an awesome question!

Remember that objects in zero-g don't have weight, but they do have inertia. So if you brace yourself on the floor and get a heavy object moving (eg frying pan, baton, nunchucks, sword) it could still really hurt someone. You could briefly smash someone against a wall by pushing off and slamming them with your own body, but they wouldn't stay there.

Wrestling would be harder. You could put someone in a hold, but grappling them against a floor or wall would be pretty much impossible. So you need another choice for the conventional end of a round. Maybe in space-wrestling, one complete swing of your opponent around by their arms or legs could signal the end of a round?
posted by miyabo at 11:58 AM on October 24, 2010

You would just need an anchor of some sort for every strike. Hold onto the guys shirt while you punch him in the face, push him downward into your knee, etc.

Giving yourself some angular momentum by pushing off of him in a spin, then extending your fist in a roundhouse-type punch might work, but probably not. The extension would slow down your rotational motion and just land kind of feebly. Plus, if you missed, you'd have no way to stop yourself from spinning in place and being an easy target.

Two guys grappling and floating together toward a wall surface would be interesting - you'd want to position yourself in advance so that you could touch the wall and prevent the other guy from doing so, to keep the initiative in what's going on. I'm thinking of a well timed swimmers' kick-off the wall into a head butt or elbow/shoulder to the face of your opponent.
posted by ctmf at 12:00 PM on October 24, 2010

Heh, in the movie fight scene, you could even get in some exposition if you had the fighters separate to just past arm length so neither could reach the other, floating slowly toward a wall. Who's going to reach the wall first? Good time for the "We're not really so different, you and I" speech.
posted by ctmf at 12:09 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is sounding more and more like an award-winning movie fight scene. Large floating globs of blood? Awesome. Fight club + Matrix + Crouching Tiger.

Speaking of Crouching Tiger, a couple of the fight scenes might give you some ideas. I remember one in particular toward the beginning where the mystery sword thief was trying to flee by doing that jumping/flying thing but the hero kept pulling her back down. There was also some pushing off of walls, etc.
posted by ctmf at 12:14 PM on October 24, 2010

I would think a person would want to avoid close contact combat if possible. So using a sniper rifle seems the best bet.

For easy carrying around while in zero g, maybe a rapidly telescoping/ pole, something similar to a umbrella, with a lethal point on the end. Maybe a sharp point or taser? You'd still be out of reach of the enemy while still being able to harm them.

If you have to come into contact, then some sort of mesh suit or exoskeleton which could give a taser like shot to the enemy would be quickest. Having to draw a knife would take longer than simply being abel to touch them.

Perhaps a system of telescoping magnetic tipped cables worn on wrist and ankle bracelets? Yes, think Spider-Man. If one is able to fire one of these and it connects to whatever surface, then they can pull themselves to a surface point to provide leverage or sniping ability? or maybe use them in a way to "swing" from point to point?
posted by nomadicink at 12:15 PM on October 24, 2010

Large floating globs of blood? Awesome. Fight club + Matrix + Crouching Tiger.

Check out Inception's fight scene also and perhaps Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. The Thunderdome fight has an interesting look and feel for propelling the body around, though admittedly it has gravity. Interestingly, in both of these scenes, once the fighters are directly grabbing and wrestling with no physical wall or floor to support them, it becomes very much how Burhanistan describes.
posted by nomadicink at 12:22 PM on October 24, 2010

You'd want two weapons: one a very long low-mass sword, and the other a very massive shield. The inertia of the massive shield then lets you swing the sword. Actually, if you had a short chain connecting you to your shield, you could get some interesting physics going... Or, make the sword an almost massless monofilament blade hundreds of feet long, or make it a cutting laser and the shields convex mirrors... lots of possibilities!
posted by nicwolff at 12:27 PM on October 24, 2010

It's going to be pretty dirty fighting, where the grip I have on you anchors the blow. So I have grabbed your face, zero-g or no, I can get my thumbs in your eyes from there. I've got your hair, well here comes my knee. Headbutts, biting, all work quite nicely once I am in reach of you.
posted by Iteki at 12:47 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

First, let me add my voice to the "what an awesome question" chorus. I would totally watch this movie (as long as it isn't as pessimistic as most sci-fi). Since Bigelow is launching its line of commercial space stations in the not-too-distant future, and the entertainment industry is one of their anticipated customers, who knows? You might actually be able to sell this as a script.

I would guess that you would end up with something that looks a lot like a fight scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Pushing off of surfaces, flying straight at one another at uniform speed, delivering blows almost like some kind of hand-to-hand jousting match, and bouncing off. Some scenes in anime series like Naruto also spring to mind. The Uzumaki Naruto combo would work a lot better in space than real life, I think. So yeah, I would definitely look at martial arts films and TV shows for inspiration on this one.
posted by Xezlec at 12:50 PM on October 24, 2010

Not zero G, but hockey fights get very close since there's little almost no resistance between skates and ice, forcing the players to hold onto each other and creating an orbit from the inertia, otherwise known as "the dance"). But as you can see, once you've got hold of your opponent, the pummeling is pretty frank.
posted by furtive at 12:51 PM on October 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

A long pike or halbard with pike end would be good at:
a. keeping enemies at a distance
b. harming enemies at a distance
c. grabbing/retrieving escaping enemies
d. won't compromise the hull of your ship
e. easily move around in all directions/axis
f. if double ended would even work in narrow shafts

I'd definitely go for double ended. If it can shoot bolts of electricity or electric darts (think tazer) then all the better.
posted by furtive at 12:58 PM on October 24, 2010

In Ender's Game, however, they had paintball guns.

There's at least one scene where hand-to-hand combat takes place. (umm, spoiler alert, I guess?)
Fortunately, they knew as little about nullo fighting as he did, and the few that tried to punch him found that throwing a punch was pretty ineffective when their bodies moved backward just as quickly as their fists moved forward. But there were some in the group who had bone-breaking on their minds, as Ender quickly saw. He didn't plan to be there for it, though.

He caught one of the punchers by the arm and threw him as hard as he could. It hurled Ender out of the way of the rest of the first onslaught, though he still wasn't getting any closer to the door. "Stay there!" he shouted at his friends, who obviously were forming up to come and rescue him. "Just stay there!"

Someone caught Ender by the foot. The tight grip gave Ender some leverage; he was able to stamp firmly on the other boy's ear and shoulder, making him cry out and let go. If the boy had let go just as Ender kicked downward, it would have hurt much less and allowed Ender to use the maneuver as a launch. Instead, the boy had hung on too well; his ear was torn and scattering blood in the air, and Ender was drifting even more slowly.

I'm doing it again, thought Ender. I'm hurting people again, just to save myself. Why don't they leave me alone, so I don't have to hurt them?

Three more boys were converging on him now, and this time they were acting together. Still, they had to grab him before they could hurt him. Ender positioned himself quickly so that two of them would take his feet, leaving his hands free to deal with the third.

Sure enough, they took the bait. Ender grasped the shoulders of the third boy's shirt and pulled him up sharply, butting him in the face with his helmet. Again a scream and a shower of blood. The two boys who had his legs were wrenching at them, twisting him. Ender threw the boy with the bleeding nose at one of them; they entangled, and Ender's leg came free. It was a simple matter then to use the other boy's hold for leverage to kick him firmly in the groin, then shove off him in the direction of the door. He didn't get that good a launch, so that his speed was nothing special, but it didn't matter. No one was following him.

-- Orson Scott Card, 'Ender's Game'
posted by chrisamiller at 1:04 PM on October 24, 2010

Metafilter's own™ Nyrath writes in Project Rho:
As a final note, Joshua Whalen is of the opinion that when it comes to microgravity hand-to-hand combat, punching your opponent is worse than useless. However, techniques derived from JuJitsu or Tai Chi/Pa Qua will work. Fisticuffs fall afoul of Newton's third law, but an elbow breaking arm lock or a choke hold still works just fine. You might want to do some research on the hand-to-hand combat techniques used by Navy Seals when both they and their opponent are underwater in SCUBA gear.

And obviously cutting your opponent's air hose works just as well in space as it does underwater.
posted by autopilot at 1:43 PM on October 24, 2010

Any strike you make on your opponent is going to push you away too, so you have to make strikes count. One thing that is available to in this environment that us heavies can't use is uncontrolled rotation. If you can get your opponent to spin uncontrolled they'll have a hard time striking back. Doing this without spinning yourself would be hard but probably not impossible. Consider, for example, punching someone in the shoulder while pulling their leg toward you, resulting in a both a summersault and a spin.

Can you ask the guys on the space station? They must have thought of this. There's a whole new branch of martial arts waiting to be created here.
posted by chairface at 3:13 PM on October 24, 2010

chrisamiller: you're right, I've forgotten much of the book, including, obviously, the hand-to-hand combat scenes.
posted by rainy at 3:19 PM on October 24, 2010

Another interesting idea: maneuvering yourself behind the enemy, holding him by the back and punching from behind would be very effective, he can't really do anything as long as he's floating in space. With gravity, you can always keep pushing in different directions using earth as anchor, or drop to the floor and try to swing the opponent over yourself; in zero-g if someone's got you from behind there's almost nothing you can do, I suspect there would be specialized weapons to counter that, something like a hooked club or blade, or some modification of clothes where you could "shed" the back portion instantly.
posted by rainy at 3:27 PM on October 24, 2010

If this is military sci-fi taking place in a universe where this sort of encounter is expected, I'd imagine that some sort of small thrusting device would be a regular piece of gear. One could use it not only to maneuver without needing a solid surface to push off of, as well as pushing attackers around if one does have a solid surface.

Such a device could make for a number of interesting techniques, such as grappling an opponent and accelerating towards a wall, then stopping oneself and letting his inertia send him hurtling into it.

Barring that, with two people free-floating, I imagine it would, as others have pointed out, mostly involve trying to get into position for a choke hold of some sort.
posted by Durhey at 3:57 PM on October 24, 2010

How about micro-rocket-engines on the combat suit. Kind of like the squibs they use in the movies to fake a bullet in the chest, strong enough to give a punch some thrust, but not enough to break the person. Micro controllers could sense as a punch is thrown and kick-in to counter the reverse action and add an amount of kick.
posted by sammyo at 4:18 PM on October 24, 2010

I'm wondering if knives and other implements would be very practical since if you sliced up an opponent there would be large floating globs of blood everywhere.

If I was in a fight to the death, I'd rather be alive with some mess to clean up than dead with no mess to clean up.

Of course, if you're allowed your choice of weapons, why not use a gun? Sure there would be recoil, but you could just float to a wall and fire from there. Or fire a bullet in the opposite direction to cancel it out. Or have a gun-sized rocket launcher, with the rocket-bullets' recoil applied to gasses, not the gun body.

maneuvering yourself behind the enemy, holding him by the back and punching from behind would be very effective, he can't really do anything as long as he's floating in space.

Most current space vehicles are very compact; there aren't that many indoor spaces so large that you'd be unable to touch one or two walls at a time. Of course, the sci-fi author could add in such spaces for fights to take place in.

In a compact space, I think you'd propel yourself using handles - feet first might be safer than head first - and you'd probably end up grabbing each other and punching.
posted by Mike1024 at 4:28 PM on October 24, 2010

Yes, great question. I wonder if some sort of conditional glue or "Velcro" on the fighters' clothing would be good... something that would be sticky and then not-sticky, in an instant. (I dunno how it would be controlled; electrically?) Grappling becomes easier, and so does release. Depending on the situation, you might or might not meant to be "stuck" together to deliver blows... also depends on the surroundings. Enclosed? More open? Partially virtual, so that you can't tell real stanchions from fake ones, for example? Lots of possibilities, to my mind! (Also an sf writer.)
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 4:43 PM on October 24, 2010

Mike1024: If we're talking tight spaces like current stations, then this question is not interesting anymore! You brace your feet against nicks and crannies and then you punch just like you normally do (not saying it's normal for me to punch people..). Otherwise you grab something and punch with the other arm. The only difference is that it's a bit easier to disengage because you just let go of your bracing and let the next blow propel you away, but that in itself doesn't make that much difference because if you're beat up really bad it'd be hard for you to judge the right moment to disengage and to get away quickly, and if you're not beat up then why are you running away? Fight!

This question is really only interesting in fairly open spaces, on more or less smooth surfaces. The scenario is: an area normally with some rotational gravity, one side stops the rotation because they're better trained in zero-g, and they fight in a large hall with a regular, smooth floor.
posted by rainy at 5:01 PM on October 24, 2010

I think the most extensive discussion of moving in pretty open areas in microgravity that I've read was Spider & Jeanne Robinson's "Stardance" trilogy. It's been a while, so my recollection is hazy, but I'm pretty sure there was some microgravity hand-to-hand combat in the 2nd or 3rd books. (They were working on a movie, but then Jeanne died and I'm not sure what happened.) Not being an astronaut, I couldn't tell you if it was accurate, but it did look like they'd put a lot more thought into it than anything else I've read.
posted by galadriel at 6:17 PM on October 24, 2010

This is something I've thought about because, well, you never know when these situations will come up.

Remember that objects in zero-g don't have weight, but they do have inertia.

But what if they don't have inertia? What if, as a result of a careful push off by one person, the other person's inertia ends up zero? Then they are stuck in the middle of the ship unable to do anything. They could wave there arms and legs, but they'd just be stuck there, helpless. I guess he could take off his shoes and throw them, giving him a bit of momentum toward a wall, or even just blow really hard. In the mean time you could get a big stick and start wacking them with it. Just don't let them grab the stick, or get them moving too fast in one direction.

posted by eye of newt at 6:24 PM on October 24, 2010

Check out Mary Roach's new book, "Packing For Mars." It covers the physics of weightlessness in detail, and is wonderfully fun and readable as well (just like Roach's other books).

Granted, most of her discussions of weightlessness are with regards to eating, using the toilet, and sex. But there should be plenty in there for you to get a visceral feel for what it would be like.

If you're talking about some kind of space ninja, I think the key "weapon" would be some sort of harpoon. A lightweight thing that would work as an anchor, with a rope attached. Wrapping the far end of the rope around your wrist would give you the leverage you would need to launch a physical attack.
posted by ErikaB at 6:43 PM on October 24, 2010

In Ender's Game, however, they had paintball guns. And the ultimate tactical stroke of genius was to play dead and then shoot unsuspecting enemies.

That's incorrect on both counts - they had laser/light guns, which deactivated the suits that they were wearing to immobilise the participant. The suits had integrated lighting, which would turn off when the participant was 'killed' (so you couldn't play dead), or when part of the suit (like a limb) was hit and disabled (i.e., for non fatal shots).

The laser weapons didn't appear to produce any recoil, so they didn't have to worry about that issue (/pedant).

Seconding the ideas of knives - punching someone in zero gravity, unless you're braced against a wall or something, is not going to be terribly effective. However, when you stab someone, they stay stabbed.

As autopilot syas, choke holds and joint manipulation attacks (i.e., bending wrists back, elbow locks...etc.) would still work. Actually, I imagine that ctmf's code of zero-g grappling might incoporate such elements.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:11 PM on October 24, 2010

His thoughts: well, for the sake of this question, it doesn't matter if it's a light gun or paintball gun, the point being that it's aim and shoot, zero-g playing no role. And I do distinctly remember that at one point he played dead and won, the episode being played up as more cunning than Hannibal and Caesar rolled into one would ever think of.. that was actually a recurrent theme in the book, which made it less than enjoyable read.. but I digress.
posted by rainy at 7:21 PM on October 24, 2010

(btw I hope someone can confirm that he did do the 'play dead' trick.. I know I didn't dream it!)
posted by rainy at 7:23 PM on October 24, 2010

Steven Barnes's Street Lethal has something called "null-boxing".
posted by Mister Moofoo at 7:44 PM on October 24, 2010

IIRC, one of Ender's gambits was to shoot his own legs and then go leg-first toward the enemy (or the goal, or something); all they could see was the legs and he wasn't moving, so they assumed he was entirely out.
posted by galadriel at 8:12 PM on October 24, 2010

I'd want my knives to have serious barbs on them, to dig into the flesh inside the body and allow me to throw my victim around as much as I like. Retractable would be nice, but even old style harpoons would do it. That hurts like hell, too, so I can then disable my victim at my leisure. Maybe with a neurotoxin on it, too, so one hit = one kill.
posted by Jilder at 9:14 PM on October 24, 2010

There would be a lot of Brazilian JiuJitsu that would be applicable - as others have mentioned - chokes and joint locks are pretty gravity-independent once you have a hold of your opponent. My guess is getting and keeping that hold would become 'the game' - minus any weaponry.
posted by jopreacher at 9:40 PM on October 24, 2010

Ba Gua is an interesting example - not only is it heavily joint-lock and choke oriented, it's also structured around a 360 degree field of attack/defense - surely a useful characteristic of null-gravity fighting. What if, for instance, fighting effectively involves generating enough rotational momentum with a setup strike to power a follow-up strike? From there on it's core muscle groups to flex while spinning to avoid incoming attacks, or, indeed, to absorb them to add to your own momentum...

If I were a space marine, and in this situation, I'd want some kind of weapon that has an anchor on one end. (Electromagnetic baton? Old-fashioned harpoon? Bat-grappling-hook?) Being able to anchor either to a wall or an opponent gives you quite a bit more leeway in building your own momentum effectively, and controlling your opponent's.

Or something like Daredevil's baton-and-string? One can only imagine the kinds of tricks you could pull with an electromagnetic rope-dart in zero gravity...
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 2:23 PM on October 25, 2010

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