Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Final Frontier 4: From Earth into Space

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?


Baconsbud said...

I think a TV series like this could be very interesting but doubt you could find a large audience for it. Until people want to watch TV for education as much as entertainment it would have a hard time making it. The channels at this time that could run this type of series probably doesn't have the budget it would take to make it real enough looking.

Eneasz said...

I hate it when Trek-fans try to explain the humanoid aliens by referencing the episode that revealed how most intelligent life in the galaxy had a common ancestor. The much better, and more accepted answer, is simply to tell people that "Yes, they're all humans with cheap prosthetics, because they're working on a small budger and don't have money for crazy exotic aliens."

I've never actually seen the series, but I've heard that the physics of Babylon 5 was as close to realistic as most scifi TV has gotten.

Also, while it would be nice to have accurate physics in a TV show, too much attention to detail can detract from the story. Back in the day, my physics professor said that 2001 was probably the most physically-correct space movie he's ever seen, with so few errors he could count them on just one hand. Unfortunately, despite trying several times, I've never managed to stay awake through the first 40 minutes of the movie. :/ My experience is not unique among my friends.

And finally, too much realism can look very unrealistic on camera.
See The Coconut Effect

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Eneasz has left a new comment on your post "Final Frontier 4: From Earth into Space":

Well, yes, I do agree that the cost of depicting accurate physics is a relevant consideration.

In fact, you cannot simulate weightlessness in anything other than a weightless environment. At most one can get a few minutes of pseudo-weightlessness by a plane flying a parabolic arc. That is quite expensive when compared to shooting in a sound stage or even CGI.

However, I am not actually concerned about that level of detail.

I am more interested in the general facts about what life in space would really be like.

Babylon 5 improved on some of the physics of space flight. Firefly did a better job (spaceships were not aerodynamic unless designed to enter the atmosphere and there was no sound without air). Some of that was jarring precisely because it has been shown incorrectly for so long. However, the 'jarring' aspect did not detract from the show - it enhanced the show. The audience is started by the realization that they really would not be able to hear anything in thos circumsances.

I agree with you about 2001. I am not saying that accurate physics can save a boring movie. Nor would it guarantee the success of a television series set in the near future if it was poorly written.

However, I think it could add to the dramatic tension to know that the authors are not going to pull some unrealistic resolution out of a hat simply by having a character mumble some technical-sounding gibberish and pressing a button (queue special effect sequence).

If the author is not going to rescue the hero with magic or techno-magic, then it has to be something 'real'. Now, the audience member can even get involved. "Given what I know about this situation, given the laws of physics, what can be done?"

If some obscure fact of physics is brought in to save the day, the audience member gets not only a good ending but the satisfaction of knowing, "That could really work!".

Ultimately, a show has to be about people - whether they are crime scene investigators or the crew of a fire station or the survivors of an airplane crash - it has to be about people.

Dave Huntsman said...

My suggestion would be different: instead of trying to design something here, an entire universe has already been designed by Ben Bova. In what I call his Solar System series (others call it The Grand Tour series), he has generated a representative - and highly technically accurate - saga, that starts about 25 years from now maybe, with the first real base on the moon; and, goes outward.

It includes lots of Earth-based politics; including fundamentalist Christian/muslim takeovers of several governments on Earth; interaction of governments, UN, and lots of commercial space entrepreneurs activity - some of it very admirable, some of it less so (to be it mildly).
It is a saga of humankind expanding into the solar system, but with little of the totally fictitious stuff.

This is the single largest, most realistic saga laying out mankind's expansion into the solar system. As I've finished each one, I've brought it to my office at NASA where they sit as a group on my bookshelf to inspire me and prevent me from giving up sometimes!

The list is out below. All are also out in paperback, and they are in my local library system as well. A couple of these could be combined into a really great, more realistic yet exciting space movie that has relevance for the 21st century - if we just got off our asses.


Powersat (2005)
Empire Builders (1993)
Mars (1992)
Return to Mars (1999)
The Moonbase Saga:
Moonrise (1996) (The Moonbase Saga, volume I)
Moonwar (1998) (The Moonbase Saga, volume II)
The Asteroid Wars:
The Precipice (2001) (The Asteroid Wars, volume 1)
The Rock Rats (2002) (The Asteroid Wars, volume 2)
The Silent War (2004) (The Asteroid Wars, volume 3)
The Aftermath (2007) (The Asteroid Wars, volume 4)
Jupiter (2001)
Saturn (2002)
Titan (2006), John W. Campbell Memorial Award
Mars Life (2008)
Mercury (2005)
Venus (2000)

Martin Freedman said...

Check out the 1970s BBC series Moonbase 3

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I am not trying to design something here.

The reason for these postings is actually to try to give my readers (the only people I have the capacity to reach) an idea of what space development would be like.

I have argued for making it a virtue to teach the children to reach for the stars, but I think it is important to include within that a clearer idea of what they would be reaching for.

Dave Huntsman said...


Actually, I've been pleased with your postings; they do expose space development to a wider audience.

faithlessgod -

Tried to find Moonbase 3 on Netflix; it's not there, because it looks like it's out on VHS only (Netflix only does DVDs that have been released in the U.S.). Libraries carry a surprising number of VHS's, I've found; but I just did a search of all public and university libraries in Ohio, where I live, and no one ever stockpiled that one. Oh, well.