In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Kirk and crew time travel to the 1980s and bring in to the 23rd century some humpback whales. Upon their return to Earth the alien probe promptly drains the power from their Bird of Prey, causing them to splash land in the San Francisco Bay.

At this point everyone evacuates, except Kirk who swims into the hold of the ship to free the whales. He does this by activating what looks to be a manual throw switch. This sets off (what I have always thought were) small explosives, detonating along the hull, cracking the ship open like an egg and releasing the whales.

I assume whatever Kirk did did not require any massive amount of power (such as opening a cargo bay door or using the transporter) as the ship was rapidly losing energy. But if they were explosives, when were they put there? Do Klingons often lace their ships with explosives that when set off would kill a large part of the crew whilst disabling the ship? Or was some other method used to get the whales out of the ship?

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    Side-along Apparation. Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 15:33
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    self sealing stem bolts
    – user11521
    Commented Jun 7, 2016 at 2:38

1 Answer 1


Explosive hatches (or hatches with Explosive Bolts and/or Frangible Nuts) for space vehicles are nothing new, especially if they need to be possibly triggered under no-power or other emergency conditions. They actually have them on airplanes right now; ever wonder about how the canopy is released in a fighter jet? Even the doors on some of the Passenger Planes use a related system (just no explosive.)

Some examples:

  1. An article on putting them on the Shuttle (from 1987)
  2. Liberty Bell 7, the first US space vehicle with one
  3. Explosive hatch search on Wikipedia lists bunches of ships that used them

They've shown up in both fiction (for example, 'Dark Star' in the classic Elevator scene) and RL for quite a while -- escape when the power goes down has been a concern for almost as long as space flight has been a possibility.

It's fairly likely that this is the technology Kirk made use of; from the script:

KIRK: The whales...?!
SCOTTY: No power to the bay doors.
KIRK: The explosive override -- ?
SCOTTY: It's under water! There's no way to reach it..

This would suggest a common type of escape hatch -- one secured with explosive bolts and a using a local power source. (Often this is a pull down lever or some other device that generates a small charge to set off the explosion; same idea as the old Plunger style ignition devices. It CAN be done with stored energy, tho, such as a battery.)

Either the bolts hold the hatch against a mechanically induced strain (such as a spring), or there can be an additional explosive that is triggered after the bolts to 'blow' the hatch out. In this case, it looks like a simple mechanical strain; release the bolts and the hatch comes open on it's own.

  • A good point I hadn't considered. Do you know if there is any clear information (production note, director interview etc) that states this as what was used in-universe in the movie?
    – Xantec
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 15:12
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    One gripe here: The bit about passenger plane doors being "armed" has nothing to do with explosives. What they are arming or disarming is the evacuation slides. When the slide is armed it will deploy if the door is opened. Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 21:06
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    @Loren Pechtel --You are quite correct.. This is what happens when you do too many edits in sequence; I was overlapping descriptions moved from start to end of my post (I was struggling to explain a physical strain used to initiate a door being kicked out/open, and the slides lept to mind). To clarify, the Slide is armed, and has a physical release against a mechanically induced strain (well, most do), but unlike the explosive units, it's release is triggered by a pin (or similar item) being pulled, not blown to pieces :) Editing AGAIN to clarify that. :)
    – K-H-W
    Commented Jan 27, 2012 at 22:09
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    @K-H-W: "but safer than NOT being able to get out in an emergency" - I am not convinced this reasoning would be used by Klingons, who, at one point, are said to not have escape pods on their ships. Also, that an escape hatch (for the usual crew of a vessel) makes sense does not really imply that a mechanism/opening sufficient to let a whale escape from a tank stored in the ship's cargo bay would be in place. Commented Jan 21, 2018 at 13:54
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    @O.R.Mapper- A very good point, and I think the REAL answer is that this is a plot hole -- they just never thought of that aspect, since it's a well know aspect of OUR technology. That said, I can easily see a few answers they could have (but so far as I know, haven't) given -- perhspd Scotty retro-fitted them when putting the tanks in (automatically bringing them compliant to Federation standard).. But to think more Klingon-esque.... The same bolts that would allow for rescue in water could ALSO be used to scuttle the ship, if used in space.
    – K-H-W
    Commented Jan 22, 2018 at 2:28

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