I have a wish . . . something I would like to see. I would like to see a science fiction series, set in the near future, where the producers resolve that they will get the science right. Whatever plot governs the show, one of the background conditions is that the series will attempt to depict life in space the way it will most likely be lived.
For example, in one of the first episodes, our main character is making her first trip into space. Let us say, for the purposes of discussion, that she is going to take over a satellite repair facility. I will get to the details of the facility a little later. First, we have to get our heroine to her new home.
She will board what almost appears to be a normal looking airplane at Los Angeles International Airport (or, perhaps, Houston or Miami). Mass is important. Every gram of mass that a passenger takes with her will have to be accelerated to 17,000 miles per hour 200 miles above the earth’s surface. That takes a lot of fuel, which is expensive. So, there will be a lot of economic pressure to reduce mass.
Space travelers can be expected to be permitted to take few personal items. They may be given a weight allowance of, at most, 5 kilograms.
For the same reason, businesses transporting people into space will have a preference for smaller and lighter crew members. If we have two equally qualified job applicants, and one weighs (has a mass of) 25 kg less than the other, then the business can either ship the heavier candidate into space, or the lighter candidate plus 25kg of material.
Another alternative would be to simply give the passenger a total weight requirement. The passenger and his or her equipment is weighed at the start of the trip. The total weight allowance (for example) can be set at 100 KG. Passengers who lose weight would be permitted to take more personal gear.
This conflict will affect what passengers will be wearing during their trip. Will they have protective space gear (which is bulky), or will they be wearing light weight (paper) flight suits that have virtually no mass.
Our television series can have an antagonist who is always concerned about the cost of getting people and equipment into space and who appears to care very little about the fact that these are people with their own values and who could die.
Once our passenger is on the airplane it takes off and flies south. When it gets to the equator, it turns east. It climbs as high and as fast as it can. Then, the wings, engines, fuel tanks, and whatever airplane structure that supports them falls away. This part of the plane will land in Panama for refueling and returning back to Los Angeles.
The passengers will suddenly feel a few moments of near weightlessness during separation. Then, the rockets on board the part of the ship that remains will kick on. The passengers will be pressed back into their seats as they are accelerated to orbital velocity.
A few minutes later, those engines will kick off and the passengers will experience weightlessness for more than a few seconds. The rocket will have to rendezvous with the space station – a process that could take several hours.
Our bodies evolved in a gravity field. We have mechanisms that push our body fluids from our legs to our heads, fighting gravity. In space, these mechanisms still work. The face swells as the legs lose mass.
About half of the passengers will experience some sensation of space sickness – a feeling of nausea. The sensation if weightlessness is substantially the same as the sensation of falling. The body reacts with adrenaline, the agent loses orientation, and one of the results is vertigo and nausea until the body becomes acclimatized. This will be expected, and passengers will be told how to handle any space sickness they might experience. Of course, some people follow instructions better than others.
Eventually, our passengers will catch up to a space station in a low-earth equatorial orbit.
This path – from an airplane flight traveling east as high and fast as possible over the equator, to a space station in low earth orbit – is the cheapest path into space. Every other option requires more energy, which requires more fuel and more expense. Tourists and governments might prefer a more expensive orbit that has a high inclination (it moves several degrees away from the equator), but businesses will go with what is least expensive.
In this case, there is no tradeoff – it is not the case that saving money increases risk or denies some basic human need. There is no reason for those concerned with the bottom line not to win this fight. The corporate docking station for business cargo entering space will almost certainly be a station that orbits the earth at the equator.
This means that the International Space Station, with its high-inclination orbit, is not helping the commercial development of space. The type of space station we need – the type of station that makes the most economic sense – is the equatorial orbiting station I mentioned above. The only problem is, the best place to launch a rocket to put a station in an equatorial orbit is to do so from a launching platform that is, itself, on the equator.
So, we have gotten our newest space citizen into space and looked at some of the issues that are involved. Next, I want to take a look at this orbiting station. What does it look like? How does it function?