Saturday, January 3, 2015

Why A Jetplane NOT a Spaceship, Part I

The excitement  in science fiction stories is heightened when writers heed the problems of space travel and offer stories using novel solutions for survival outside of Earth’s atmosphere and gravity.

Too often, our sci-fi stories and space operas are merely World War I and II naval battles or wild west yarns with ray guns. In reality (pun intended), an interplanetary or interstellar transport is not a jetplane nor an aircraft carrier. Spacecraft do not zoom and swish in the vacuum of space. They don't bank and do barrel rolls. Battlestar Galactica's titantic fleet battles between the robotic Cylons and human colonists  are merely reproductions of warship engagements in the South Pacific. Sci-fi also frequently invokes images of solitary clipper sailing vessels seeking distant ports such as in Star Trek’s Voyager explorations or even the 1960’s Lost In Space

On 18th century Earth, humans perceived a voyage from England to China as we would ponder crossing the void to Alpha Centauri — our closest stellar neighbor. It can be considered hard and dangerous.

I would be the last person to bemoan that science gets in the way of creating entertaining and thought-provoking sci-fi, but there are opportunities to make the science of space travel just as intriguing and dramatic as the main storyline.  For instance, Sci-fi fandom easily can embrace Scotty’s frequent  lamentation, “Captain, she’s breaking apart, we can’t go any faster! The warp field is collapsing.” Likewise, in Star Wars, there was a dramatic moment when the Millennium Falcon’s hyper drive malfunctioned thus endangering a clean escape away from the enemy. We don’t need to understand all the “nuts and bolts” but the technology should be included in the storyline.

We can cheer for the hero, curse the villain and be astonished by the tech that drives the story. The proper use of science elements disquishes a mediocre tale from an inspiring sci-fi adventure. 2001, A Space Odyssey was one of the best films ever produced to combine fiction with emerging technology.  HAL, a mechanical device dominated the climax of the story.  

Therefore, writers should understand why a spaceship is not an atmospheric bi-plane nor a deep sea submarine nor a Pacific battleship riding the waves.  The incorporation of the physics, machinery and intricacies of space travel can create richer stories that readers will appreciate and buy.

The first aspect is propulsion — you have to get off a planet and travel ginormous distances to reach your destination that could take centuries with conventional means. So, we have to expand our intellectual horizons. Moving the plot forward, means moving the spaceship faster than the speed of light. Or, allow a ship to crawl between destinations — perhaps for hundreds of years. What happens to the crew and passengers trapped inside a metal can? Ark and generational spaceships are a staple among sci-fi writers.

People first used rafts or canoes using human power (paddling) to cross the river; later, cloth sails captured the wind to traverse lakes and seas. Eventually, steam engines, internal combustion (gasoline/diesel) and nuclear energy were used to roam the globe from pole to pole. Columbus took months to reach the new world. Today, New York to Paris is only a few hours in a soft, reclining seat.

Jules Verne launched his intrepid astronauts to the moon using a giant cannon in 1865. The energy involved would have pulverized the crew but it was good reading. There was a plan in 1961 (Project HARP) to launch satellites into earth orbit using a sophisticated space gun.  The U.S. government was very serious about tossing fission bombs out of the tail end of a spaceship to achieve a tiny fraction of light speed. The recent SyFy TV series,  Ascension,  was inspired by the real-life Project Orion. Scientists put their faith on enormous liquid fuel rockets to get to the moon.

The world’s spacefaring governments are examining exotic and safer means to travel the distance between the planets and eventually reach the stars. A blackhole could be used to power a spaceship.  Antimatter propulsion is being investigated. The trip to Mars could be reduced from years to days. Mae Jamison’s 100 Year Starship program held a symposium in September 2014 to discuss the possibilities of reaching our closest stellar neighbors. The era of big, noisy chemical rockets will soon be over. 

That is how Sci-Fi writers can inspire us.

In this blog series, “A Spaceship is not a Jetplane”, I will explore the technologies of futuristic space propulsion and offer a fictional tale that incorporates the dangers and benefits of that technology.

The first sci-fi tech/tale is called “Riding a Nuclear Pulse” — using atomic bombs as the primary energy for a spaceship.

So, what would have happened if America had decided to launch space rockets using atomic weapons?  Would it poison the planet? Read about the consequences in Part II: A Spaceship is Not a Jetplane.


The Hybrid Librarian —