Monday, March 11, 2013

A Trip Into Space - Launch

This week I am going to have some fun describing life in space.

However, this will not be a frivolous waste of time. There are certain facts about living and working in space that have important implications for how we spend resources on that project. Some of these facts are ignored in our our current space program.

For example, we should be working towards an equatorial space station (a space station on an orbit directly over the equator).

One of the relevant facts is that we do not want to be making any turns in space.

An object in near-earth orbit is moving approximately 7.7 kilometers per second (about 17,500 miles per hour). Making a right turn requires twice as much energy as it took to get that object moving at this speed to start with (minus the effort taken to lift it). To turn an object 90 degrees to the right, one must reduce its forward speed from 7.7 km/s to 0.0, while increasing its speed to the right from 0 to 7.7. In an atmosphere, one can use drag and lift to bring about these effects. To reduce the need to turn, we should build things in their most useful orbit - and for big projects that is an equatorial orbit.

Another of these relevant facts is that the least expensive route from space into orbit starts with flying east along the equator on earth and ends at a space station in low earth orbit over the equator.

The reason is because an object flying east at, let us say, 350 miles per hour picks up another 1000 miles per hour just from the spin of the earth. This is how fast a spot on the equator is moving as the earth spins. This gives you your first 0.6 of the 7.7 km/s at a low cost.

These facts, and others argue that we should be investing in an equatorial space station - and that whomever does so first will have an advantage in controlling the gateway to space.

Given this fact, your trip into space will start at a space port near the equator. You will board what will be recognizable as a standard conventional airplane - wings, engine. You will take your seat, and extra emphasis will be placed on everything being secured. You will likely be required to put on a certified flight suit (overalls) before boarding - and may be at least advised to wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth.

You will take off, fly to the equator, and turn east - and climb.

Do not expect to be served anything on your flight that might produce crumbs or might spill.

When you are going as high and as fast as the plane can get you, you will be warned to prepare for launch. A last check will be made that everything is secure and everybody is fastened in their seats. There will likely be a countdown.

When the countdown reaches 0 you will become instantly weightless as the rocket separates from the airplane. While you drop, the plane that brought you climbs up and away. When you are clear of the plane, the rockets fire, pushing you back into your seat as if somebody sat a bag on your chest that weighs twice as much as you do.

This will last about 4 minutes. During that time the sky outside the window grows black, and the curve of the earth grows noticeable below you.

Then comes main-engine cut-off, and you will be weightless. The seat will actually push you up into your straps.

Anything that was not secured will start to float about the cabin. This actually creates a risk - since these things can be inhaled. The flight suit and mask are to both keep loose things from floating around the cabin, and to prevent people from inhaling things that are missed.

You will also likely be expected to wear a pair of diapers during your space flight. Leaving your seat to go to a weightless bathroom is going to be a real bother - and, in fact, create a risk for yourself and others. It would be best not to bother. Astronauts today are already accustomed to this. It is a very simple solution to a human need - and one where embarrassment is out of place.

Another problem that the space industry will have to deal with is the fact that this sudden change from 1G to 0G to 3G to 0G - with an extended amount of time in 0G - is not going to set well with some people's stomachs. Barf bags may be sufficient - though some people will not complete this maneuver successfully.

Science fiction has the luxury of simply ignoring unpleasant realities it does not want to deal with. Real space travel will not have that option. When people really go into space on a regular basis - these will be some of the realities they will have to deal with.

Well, you are in orbit now, with your fellow passengers. You are weightless. You will probably be free to move around the cabin, look out the window, and enjoy your flight. It will take several hours to rondezvous with the space station.


David Evans said...

Mary Roach's "Packing For Mars" is an enjoyable introduction to many of the unpleasant realities you refer to.

I would not assume that the journey starts with a conventional plane. If SpaceX's plans for a completely re-useable rocket stage are successful, that may be the way to go.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

SpaceX would need a launch base on the equator. "Sea Launch" provides a solution to this problem, but it adds significantly to the cost. This may be the way that bulk cargo gets into space - but it is a less viable option for passenger travel.