Can you shoot a gun on the moon?

I am a “science ambassador.”  Been to Turin, wore the purple T-shirt. I, along with my five fellow ambassadors, first, had to endure a rather gruelling interview process however. Having reached the final elimination stage, we were subjected to NASA’s moon landing exercise. Ok, I’m being a bit overdramatic here, it was actually quite fun…

Anyway, these are the instructions to the exercise:

“You are a member of a space crew scheduled to rendezvous with a mother ship on the lighted surface of the moon. However, due to mechanical difficulties, your own ship was forced to land at a spot 200 miles from the rendezvous point.

During re-entry and landing, much of the equipment aboard was damaged and, since survival depends on reaching the mother ship, the most critical items available must be chosen for the 200-mile trip.”

Box of matches Food concentrate 50 feet of nylon rope
Parachute silk Two .45 caliber pistols One case of dehydrated milk
2x 100-pound tanks of oxygen Stellar map Self inflating life raft
Magnetic compass Five gallons of water Signal flares
First aid kit containing injection needles Solar powered FM receiver Portable heating unit


I’m guessing the guys and gals at Discover Science and Engineering, our then future employers, where looking for character traits but also:

  • Decision-making processes
  • Differences between individual and group decision-making
  • Leadership in groups
  • Conflicts in groups facing a competitive task

So, armed with everything from magnetic compasses to first aid kits we began the discussion; how to get to that meeting point…

I made a joke about missing that episode of “Bear Grylls, Born Survivor.” Nobody laughed; they must not be fans of the Discovery Channel. Ok. I thought, I know, I’ll go old skool with them; “what would Macgvver do?” No response, uh oh, bad start.

The box of matches where struck off the list (the lack of oxygen made them redundant) as was the first aid kit (as we decided no area of naked skin could be exposed, our anti-radiation space suits would make administering first aid difficult.)

Then we came to the guns. What potential uses are there for guns? Would bullets fly in a zero gravity environment? Would we have bullets? Why would we even need the bullets?? Shooting scary aliens? No. Shooting each other and indulging in a spot of cannibalism? No. Someone suggested using them as a metaphorical smoke signal… shoot the gun if we get lost, others will hear and come find us. No, the vacuum distorts/eliminates sound and inhibits it from travelling.

The group then decided that due to the absence of oxygen, the internal combustion which occurs in the gun chambers could not occur. It was decided that oxygen would be required to spark the mini explosion i.e. to shoot the gun.

Having decided unanimously that the guns served little purpose and the majority agreed that they wouldn’t function anyway; we drew a big X through them and moved onto the next item.

Call me crazy, but two months on and the question remains in my head, can you shoot a gun on the moon?

So, it was time to get to the bottom of this pressing issue, time to free my mind of this torment which had been left to linger. I did some research…

Bullets carry their own oxidising agent in the explosive of the cartridge (which is sealed, anyway) so there’s no need for atmospheric oxygen to ignite the propellant i.e. shoot the bullet. But, without the stabilising effect of the atmosphere, the wide temperature variations in space might be a problem. Direct sunlight might make the gun hot enough for the ammunition to explode spontaneously, whereas a gun kept in the shade would eventually become so cold that the primer in the firing cap might not go off at all. At very low temperatures, metals also become brittle and can stick together, which might cause the moving parts to jam.

So, my recommendation; next time you are travelling to the moon, leave your firearm at home. Lightsabers are so much cooler anyway.