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A lifeboat (sometimes known as an escape pod) was a small craft used to evacuate from a vessel or facility during catastrophic failure of onboard systems, external attack or threat. (DS9 reference: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Technical Manual)
The sea-going Earth ship RMS Titanic possessed lifeboats that, when the ship struck an iceberg, were put into use by the passengers and crew to escape the sinking vessel. (DS9 novelization: Trials and Tribble-ations)
One-person lifeboats were part of the auxiliary vehicle complement aboard the Constitution-class refit from the early 2270s. These were located on R-deck (level 18) and were for the use of personnel who were unable to reach the primary hull during an emergency saucer separation. (TOS reference: Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise)
The Excelsior-class refit of the 2290s had 66 lifeboat hatches in its primary hull. (TNG reference: Star Trek: The Next Generation Sketchbook: The Movies)
In 2330s a new type of lifeboat, the ASRV (Autonomous Survival and Rescue Vehicle), was introduced. It was first included in the newly constructed Renaissance-class USS Hokkaido in 2337. (TNG reference: Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual)
With the launch of the Galaxy-class starships in the 2350s came a specialised cetacean lifeboat for the whale and dolphin personnel of the crew. (TNG reference: Star Trek: The Next Generation USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D Blueprints)
By the 2360s Starfleet was using another new type of lifeboat that could accomodate six people. It was introduced as early as 2361 aboard Miranda-class starships, and was later included in the inventories of Defiant-class and Intrepid-class ships. (DS9 video game: The Fallen; ST references: Ships of the Line, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Technical Manual; VOY episode: "Year of Hell")
This lifeboat was 3.6 meters tall and had a hexagonal cross-section 3.5m across. Its environmental systems, consumables and recycling systems could keep the crew alive for up to eight months, although this could be extended if several lifeboats docked with each other in a "gaggle mode" (similar to the ASRVs' capability). Each one was equipped with impulse thrusters, an emergency subspace communication system, navigation computer, and a small phaser array. The lifeboats assigned to the USS Defiant were modified for stealth, having low-observability and minimal EM signatures due to wartime conditions. (DS9 reference: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Technical Manual)
Although they had been using lifeboats aboard their starships and space stations for some time, the Cardassian Union introduced a new lifeboat in the early 2350s. (DS9 reference: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Technical Manual)