Sunday, March 15, 2015

Guest post by A.E. Williams: How Spaceflight and The Challenges Therein Have Been Addressed in Science Fiction

A.E. Williams has kindly agreed to write a regular column for the Speculative Fiction Showcase, based on his wealth of experience, and fascination with space travel both real and fictional.
The very first science-fiction story that is popularly recognized as having anything to do with the concept of modern space travel is probably Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon”. In this tale, the adventurers travel to the Earth’s Moon in a modified cannon shell – it is pointed at the Moon and fired, with much fanfare, from Tampa, Florida.

Oddly enough, Verne predicted much of the issues with which manned space explorers would need to contend.

With the exception of the fatal effects of the immense shock from an instantaneous acceleration to escape / orbital velocities, Verne’s idea was sound. In fact, NASA and Iraq had programs to launch satellites using cannons as recently as 1990[1]. Of course, these satellites would have had few moving parts; live payloads were out of the question.

But, Verne’s vision sparked the idea of men traveling across space to other planets.

Since that time, there have been thousands of different tales of space adventure. Science fiction has brought us every manner of device and apparatus to move people from one end of the galaxy (nay, the Universe!) to the other.

Some of these schemes were ridiculous, and played for satirical purposes, or were parodies of actual ideas.[2]

What I’d like to explore in this article, however, is how the very real problems of manned space travel were ‘solved’ to some extent by the speculative fiction authors who became very clever in just how we should proceed to move into space.

Let’s start with a few of the more famous modes of space travel:

Rockets –

Rockets follow the simplistic physical laws of ballistics, and sustained propulsion of a cylindrical tube filled with air, food, water and people has actually happened! 

In science fiction, post-Verne, there are many places where the possible issues were enumerated and addressed.

Arthur C. Clarke’s writings, including ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Robert Heinlein’s stories, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and many Golden Age authors took serious engineering minds and bent them to the task of answering thorny questions such as what actually happens to the human body in space, the effects of temperature, pressure and radiation on living entities, and the stresses of acceleration and deceleration.[3]

The mechanical engineering problems surrounding structures and forces were incorporated into many of the best hard science fiction of the times. The authors were serious in considering what actually might occur during these flights of fancy, and came up with ingenious ideas.

Heinlein went so far as to show how the Moon could be used as a launch pad for Earth-bound missiles made of mined moon rocks, and how they could be used as serious weaponry against the Mother Planet. His calculations were intended to show the scientific rationale about gravity wells, but he inadvertently illustrated one of the biggest issues facing spaceships, which is how to avoid debris while traveling around.

But it also showed the feasibility of using the Moon as a base of operations for advanced space missions.

‘Destination Moon’ was a film that used Heinlein’s musings to bring some verisimilitude to the silver screen. It showed how action / reaction would work in zero gee environments, as is shown when one of the key characters uses a fire extinguisher to fly around the room.

Other ‘Invasion’ films utilized stock footage of V2 and Redstone launches to convince audiences that these were actually alien craft, or were threats to other planets.

To say that the fictional creatures from other worlds were not much amused by our antics is putting it lightly.

The 1950’s and ‘60’s presented us with alien onslaughts on all sides, from the novel “Starship Troopers” to the flying saucers in the films “The Thing from Another World”, “Mars Attacks!” and  “Earth vs the Flying Saucers”.

A strange variation of this was “The Day the Earth Stood Still” wherein Klaatu, a traveler from another galaxy (!) comes to Earth to warn us of our hubris at combining nuclear bombs and rockets. His vehicle, a true flying saucer, was discussed in detail during some exposition in the film with the top mind of that Earth.

The relativistic effects of Einstein’s new theories on Faster-Than-Light travel may have made viewers heads spin, but the dialog was grounded in scientific roots.

These stories and approaches still mainly glossed over the incredible distances involved. Even “Forbidden Planet”, with its revolutionary saucer-ship didn’t really clearly depict the time and space parameters that we now are just beginning to understand.

To get around the problem of the actual flight-times becoming lethal, the concepts of ‘Generation’ ships were introduced. These were miniature worlds, entire ecosystems with populations that traversed the blackness at a relatively slow speed, but taking millennia to get to their final destinations.

Again, Heinlein, in “Universe” set the bar very high. The story took place on a giant spherical ship where the radiation shielding had partially failed. Mutated beings mixed it up with the normals, while the ship headed endlessly into deep space, its original purpose lost to the ravages of time.

Keir Dullea, of ‘2001’ fame, explored this more fully in the television series “The Star Lost”. Bruce Dern touched upon the idea of isolated ecosystems orbiting in space in “Silent Running”,  Niven and Pournelle spoke of Ringworlds, and good old dependable A.C. Clarke’s “Rama” capped off the idea until the advent of ‘The Borg’ reignited it. [4]

Because it was taking so MUCH time to get from point A to point B in these stories, the science fiction authors next needed to come up with ways to speed things up a bit.

Enter Faster-Than-Light travel, or FTL.

Now, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith had handled this quite well in the “Skylark of Space” and “Grey Lensman” space operas, by simply annihilating copper bars atomically, releasing all of their innate power into machines that manipulated bands or frequencies of this energy. Much like radio, television and microwaves today are used for many purposes from heating food to allowing us to read words on fluorescing screens, the heroes of these adventures took all of it in stride. 

Their facile use of these technologies involved a bit of ‘hand-waving’, such as electronic teaching machines and the like, but in the final analysis they were allowed to succeed in ignoring inertia and momentum mainly because the author simply chose a deux ex machina approach to the problem.

For an instance, let’s think about how we actually assure that our passengers will survive the long, arduous flight from one planet to another. (Interstellar travel is another breed of cat entirely, but for now, let’s take baby steps.)

Wing Commander, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and many other universes consider traditional naval vessels as models to be imitated, both in the construction of the space ships, and in how they are crewed. Think of space submarines, battleships and aircraft carriers – these are the basic craft used to convey people from planet to planet. They use impulse engines for shorter distances, and warp drives for the inevitable FTL travel. 

Some of the things brushed aside or hand-waved away include inertia, momentum, friction, impacts with space debris, and relativistic effects. Deflector fields, shields or other devices clear a path in front of any FTL spacecraft in ways that defy physics.

Think about it this way – you are driving your car down a highway, and an animal jumps out of a forest line just ahead of you. How you react to this hazard depends on many factors. 

First is your vessel. Is it small, like an Audi R8, or large, like a tractor-trailer?

How fast are you going? Are you accelerating or decelerating?

Is the animal small, like a cat, or large, like a moose?[5]

Now, the amount of damage to your vessel depends on the mass of the animal, the velocity at which you contact it, and the directions both of you are traveling.

Without getting into too much gory detail, this is the problem facing every satellite, missile, and space craft ever created.

When in flight, one does not merely change direction and swerve to avoid an obstacle. Oh, no – what one does is disintegrate that obstacle, or push it out of YOUR path.

As the speed is increased to escape velocity and beyond, even the tiniest flake of paint becomes a real danger. The film “Gravity” got much of this correct, as did “Pitch Black”.

Many other science fiction novels warn of spacesuit punctures from micro meteors, and other wear and tear that would occur.

So, science fiction authors sort of ignore the problem as having been solved by magnetic or other energy beams that push this stuff aside. You can see the issue here – in order to do so, these deflectors must travel ahead of the ship.

A recent Vsauce episode addresses the problem of light being emitted from an FTL ship, but that only spoke to photons – massless particles that can’t really move anything aside.

How can something be projected in front of the ship, with enough force to move debris, yet also not enough force to obliterate it? Think about this for a moment.

As your starship enters a solar system, at tremendous speed, and is decelerating, it encounters a satellite. What happens next?

This brings up the parallel problem of how navigation is supposed to work. Even if there is some huge AI computer that has a fourth-dimensional space map, this super-GPS[6] must be able to be updated instantaneously to accommodate the space and TIME changes that are occurring as the ship enters a given space-time co-ordinates.

Remember, for FTL travel, the time around the ship changes with respect to a frame of reference. [7]

This causes some interesting effects as well, and was the subject of much scrutiny when the recent film “Gravity” hit the theatres.

In PART TWO of this article, we will look at some other examples of science fiction authors intriguing efforts to predict how future manned space flight would unfold.

Get ready to dive deep into even more about FTL Travel – using “Star Trek”, “Star Wars”, “Interstellar”as examples. We will delve into  Hyperspace, Wormholes, black holes, etc.

And let’s not forget the really out-there concepts of space flight:

Other Space – Travel outside of relativistic space!
 The Aether – EE Doc Smith’s ideas on space travel!
Dune’s Spice Ships, ‘folding space’ 
… and other weird ideas!

See you next time[8]!


April - An Exploration of the Physics Behind Faster Than Light Travel.
May - Cyborgs, Artificial Intelligences, Trans-Humans, the Singularity and the Merging of Humans and Machine.
June - The Physics of Science Fiction Weapons.
July - The Reality of Living in an Undersea City.

A.E. Williams  March 07, 2015

                        [1] Source:
                        [2] Most of Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is about how one could travel the length and breadth of the known Universe, in time, space and hyperspace by the use of the clever ‘electronic thumb’.
                        [3] An interesting article could be written concerning gender roles and how they were presented by these authors. I may do one in the future! The general consensus seemed to be that women and men were equally subject to the laws of physics, though.
                        [4] The Generation ship is actually an idea stolen from our own human experience – we travel on such a device, every day we are alive. Think about it – a closed spacecraft that takes millions of years to travel the Universe. Food, water, life are all balanced – carefully taking billions of changes into consideration. The Earth is a star ship, but we don’t really notice, since we are always imagining new and improved ways to do things.
                        [5] A moose once bit my sister. No, really!
                        [6] Galactic Positioning System
                        [7] Interstellar” does a fair job of depicting this, as does “2001:A Space Odyssey” to some extent.
                        [8] Get it?

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