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"...being predictive, being right about the future, is not the point of any given story or novel. The point is about exploring as wide a range of possibilities as possible."
- Peter Watts

Lifeboat  
  A small space-worthy craft that can be jettisoned from a larger ship, to save its crew.  

The earliest mention in science fiction that I know about; in common use on Earth.

At a signal from Captain Csuv the pilot of each lifeboat shot his tiny craft out into space and took his allotted place in the formation following closely behind the Bzarvk, flying toward Europa, now so large in the field of vision that she resembled more a world than a moon. Captain King, in the Callistonian vessel, transmitted to Breckenridge the route and flight data given him by the navigator of the winged craft. The chief pilot, flying “point,” in turn relayed more detailed instructions to the less experienced pilots of the other lifeboats.


(From Lifeboats from 'Spacehounds of IPC')

From Spacehounds of IPC, by E.E. 'Doc' Smith.
Published by Amazing Stories in 1931
Additional resources -

John W. Campbell used it in The Derelicts of Ganymede:

"...Get your stuff together and pile it in Lifeboat Seven, that'll be whole, and it's the biggest...

Duke Stetson pulled the releasing lever. Automatic doors opened, and a powerful spring gear drove the little twenty-foot ship clear of the gleaming monster.

Eando Binder used this phrase in Murder on the Asteroid in 1933:

In the wall nearest the hull was an air seal. He opened this. In the tiny chamber revealed rested a small ellipsoid metal object with a bulge of steel-glass on its top surface — the “life boat.”

Due to the constant dangers of meteors in space which might at any moment crash through an ether boat, each space vehicle carried one or more of the life boats. They were simply little one-man ether boats, miniature models of the larger craft, equipped with small but efficient rocket motors. If for any reason the larger boat became unmanageable, damaged, or useless as a vehicle, the passenger could then embark in the life boat and propel himself within reach of rescue. Each life boat was equipped with a radio. They also carried food, oxygen, and heating apparatus.

Hanson, holding the little man in his arms, smirked as he saw the dull metal ellipsoid boat, for it entered his plans of the moment. On its side was emblazoned the same number as was on the outside hull of the bigger boat — P-322-M-505.

Doc Smith used this phrase just a year later in Triplanetary:

Through the airlock, down through several levels of passenger's quarters they hurried, and into a lifeboat.

Compare this very early use of the concept with a more famous descendant, the escape pod from George Lucas' 1976 story Star Wars.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Spacehounds of IPC
  More Ideas and Technology by E.E. 'Doc' Smith
  Tech news articles related to Spacehounds of IPC
  Tech news articles related to works by E.E. 'Doc' Smith

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