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"Generally, the human race avoids doing anything radical until forced into it."
- Frederik Pohl

Space Capsule  
  A minimal space craft.  

When a Sun and planets are observed to be approaching conditions suitable for the evolution of intelligent life based on carbon atoms, the system is visited by our ships. As the development of planets is dependent upon so many factors, however, these ships merely make a survey, and pass on, leaving behind a space capsule containing a unit such as this you now see.
From Space Capsule, by E.R. James.
Published by New Worlds Science Fiction in 1954
Additional resources -

As far as I know, this is the earliest use of the phrase "space capsule".

Compare to the escape pod from the 1976 novel Star Wars by George Lucas.

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