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"My feeling is that the chance of our surviving into the twenty-first century as working civilization is less than fifty percent but greater than zero."
- Isaac Asimov

Survey Craft  
  Light duty ship for use in atmosphere, to explore planets.  

As far as I know, this is the first use of this phrase in science fiction. It's meaning evolves over time.

It was at that point that he saw the other boat, above and somewhat to his left, approaching the tableland. He glanced up at it — and froze where he was, torn between two opposing purposes.

(Survey Craft from 'The Rull' by AE van Vogt)

His first impulse, to run for the lifeboat, yielded to the realization that the movement would be seen instantly by the electronic reflexes of the other ship. For a moment, then, he had the dim hope that, if he remained quiet enough, neither he nor his ship would be observed.

Even as he sat there, perspiring with indecision, his tensed eyes noted the Rull markings and the rakish design of the other vessel. His vast knowledge of things Rull enabled him to catalogue it instantly as a survey craft.

A survey craft. The Rulls had discovered the Laertes sun.

Technovelgy from The Rull, by A.E. van Vogt.
Published by Astounding Science Fiction in 1948
Additional resources -

Gregory Benford uses this phrase in a similar manner in his 1980 short story Titan Falling:

Bradley searched the sky. No winking lights of a copter, no dot of a flying survey craft. On the rolling horizon the volcano’s funnel belched steaming brownish clouds. Black specks danced in the plume . . .

Ben Bova uses this phrase to describe spacecraft with a different purpose in an essay in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1995:

Meteoric bombardment has been well known to astronomers for well over a century. Sf authors, always game for a bit of catastrophe, started using the idea half a century ago.

The notion seems to have emerged because the striking photos from our planetary survey craft of the '60s and '70s underlined how many bodies in the inner solar system were riddled with impact craters...

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Rull
  More Ideas and Technology by A.E. van Vogt
  Tech news articles related to The Rull
  Tech news articles related to works by A.E. van Vogt

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