Life Aboard a Space Ship (Jan, 1956)

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Life Aboard a Space Ship

Eating, washing and sleeping will be tough problems for passengers on the first flights to outer space.

By Willy Ley, World-Famed Rocket Authority

NEVER doze off without tying yourself down or you’ll crack your head on something. If you feel a sneeze coming, hang on to something or you’ll slam into the bulkhead. Don’t try to pour from a bottle and don’t smoke without turning up the air conditioner.” This advice may well be given to a space cadet in about 1980 by an experienced hand. All of it refers to the little tricks men will have to learn if they want to survive a trip through space and be reasonably comfortable while doing so. Reasonably comfortable; real comfort is not likely to come to the space lanes for many years.

Most of the discomfort to be expected can be blamed on the condition laymen call “weightlessness” while engineers and physicists prefer to call it “zero-g,” meaning zero gravity. The condition can occur close to the earth’s surface as well as out in space; zero-g depends on what you do, not where you are.

When you sit reading and smoking in your chair, not making any movement worth mentioning, you are opposing gravity. You are supported by your chair, your chair is supported by the floor, the floor by the walls and the walls by the ground. Because you are supported you do not follow the pull of gravity, and not following the pull means to resist it. This act of resisting the pull of gravity you feel as weight; you are unable to feel the presence of gravity. If a vertical tunnel should suddenly open under your chair you would follow the pull of gravity but you would be under no gravitational strain —as long as you are falling you are weightless.

When you merely resist the pull of gravity (as when sitting still) you are said to be under one g, the g standing for gravity, of course. But a rising rocket does not just resist gravity, it accelerates in the opposite direction. A man in a rocket would feel a strain of about two g at take-off and more the faster the rocket accelerates. When the rocket motor stops burning there is no longer any opposition to gravitational pull. Hence the rocket and everything in it suddenly experiences zero-g, even though the rocket is moving away from the earth because of the high speed it acquired while the motor was burning. This may sound as if it did not “follow” the gravitational pull, but actually it does by losing a little speed every second.

If you boarded a rocket ship for a flight to the space station you would experience the changes in g in a rather spectacular manner. Up to the moment of take-off you’d be under the one g that you have experienced all your life. Then, as the rocket motors roar, you feel how the acceleration increases, beginning with about twice what is normal. The maximum would be 8g for a few seconds. Fortunately this can be imitated on the ground by means of large centrifuges and we already know that a healthy person can stand it. After one or two trials it is not even very hard to take.

This period of high acceleration will last only eight or nine minutes, then the rocket ship will have the necessary speed of 18,000 mph to carry it to the space station. It will get there some 50 minutes after the motors stop firing and during these 50 minutes zero-g will prevail.

When it comes to such high speeds in the upper atmosphere you find a situation quite similar to the one just discussed with regard to gravity.

You cannot feel speed!

What you think you feel as speed on the highway consists of visual impressions, like trees flashing by and of impressions like bumps in the road, engine vibration, air hitting you in the face and so forth. In a fast-moving airplane nothing of all this is left but the engine vibration. In a rocket, after the motor has been shut off, all the speed sensations will be missing, you won’t even be able to tell whether you are moving or not.

But you will feel grateful for the straps holding you down in your seat. They will help to overcome the falling sensation. Unfortunately this will be the overall impression, for in ordinary life you experience zero-g only when falling; the body is in the habit of interpreting zero-g as falling. This misinterpretation will have to be overcome by practice and experience. But there will be no sensation of movement until the ship comes close enough to the space station so that you can watch it grow larger.

The trip to the space station is only a weak foretaste of conditions in a real spaceship. After all, during a one hour flight you can just sit in your chair, held down by the straps, and wait to arrive at the station.

Whatever trouble zero-g may cause on your first flight, it will all be over once you get there. In the space station there will be a “synthetic gravity” produced by spinning the station around its center. Such a spin will, of course, produce centrifugal force and the effects will be the same that we experience every day on the ground.

It may be remarked in passing that a similar solution has been suggested for space ships which set out on really long distance journeys, for example a trip to Mars. One suggestion is to build such a ship so that it comes apart near its middle. The two portions of the ship would then be connected by a long steel rope and be made to spin around each other.

Another suggestion is to build an “orbit-to-orbit ship”—a craft which never enters an atmosphere at either end of its voyage but carries landing boats for this purpose— in the shape of a long dumbbell. One ball of the dumbbell would contain the pilot’s cabin and the crew’s quarters while the other holds the machinery and the fuel. The handle of the dumbbell would simply be an access tube for purposes of inspection and repair. Such a ship could also be sent spinning in order to eliminate zero-g in the living quarters.

But we can be certain that the early ships will lack such elaborations. The first trip beyond the space station will no doubt be a voyage around the moon without landing. The round-the-moon ship, which does not need streamlining of any kind, would be assembled near the space station, go to the moon and circle it close enough to take detailed pictures of the lunar surface. Then it would go earthward again and re-join the space station in its eternal path around the earth. The whole maneuver will take ten days. And except for a few brief periods where the rocket motors are burning the ten days of the journey will be ten days of zero-g. If they’re a strain they’ll be a nervous strain only.

They cannot be a strain on the body for the term zero-g means “no strain.” The human body, surprisingly enough can function normally under zero-g. But the novice spaceman will experience countless mishaps until the strangeness of this condition wears off. For example: you’ll have absolutely no problem swallowing a mouthful of food but you will have a problem maneuvering it from its container into your mouth.

Let’s begin with an activity as elementary as breathing. Under zero-g the air, of course, has no weight. Breathing is not influenced by that fact. When you inhale you expand your chest so that the air pressure inside is lower than the air pressure outside. Naturally, the air will go into the lungs, whether it has weight or not. Likewise in exhaling it is muscle pressure that forces the air out. But on the ground the exhaled air, being warmer than the surrounding air, will rise because it is fighter. Under zero-g, warmer air and colder air weigh precisely the same: nothing. Hence there is no reason for the exhaled air to rise. It will stay with you and you will inhale the same air you have just exhaled. To get rid of it you will have to blow it out forcibly. Fortunately this problem can be solved by the engineer, by installing air conditioners with a noticeable draft.

Other items of the daily routine are a little less simple. Let’s say that you want to go to sleep. Since you weigh as much as the air in the cabin you could just assume any comfortable position in mid-air and doze off. But every time you inhale your body will move in one direction, every time you exhale you produce a weak air jet which will propel you in the opposite direction. Sooner or later—bump! Hence there will be sleeping bunks with straps to hold you down. (It may also feel more comfortable to be held down by something.) But now the time signal has told you that you have to get up. You unstrap yourself and propel yourself across the cabin by means of a soft push against the bunk, a trick you have learned already. Maybe ship’s discipline does not require shaving. If it does it will be one of the simpler jobs.

You can moisten your face easily enough with a sponge. Your shaving cream has enough consistency to stick to your skin. Using the razor is just a question of skill; though it weighs nothing you can feel its pressure against your skin.

Brushing your teeth will be harder. There is no problem in getting water into your mouth; you use a straw. The toothpaste will stick to the tooth brush and the scrubbing action is the same as usual. But what do you do then with the mouthful of foam and water? Try just spitting it out— it will hit the wall and splash off and the drops will sail back and forth across the room. Until somebody thinks up a better method you’ll use a paper bag.

Washing is even trickier. If there were a shower stall the water would splash nicely against your body because it’s under pressure. But it would go on splashing. In the end the mixture of water and air in the shower stall would be so intimate that you might drown in it. The trouble is that the water weighs as much as the air and has no reason to run off your body. You’ll have to settle for a sponge bath. Your Turkish towel will absorb quite normally.

Now to dress. First time you’ll probably get all tangled up and you are likely to make a few weightless somersaults in the air, but this you overcome with practice.

Comes breakfast.

The liquids are easy. You drink from closed containers with suction tubes. Swallowing is a muscular contraction, unaffected by zero-g. With solid food the problem is getting it into your mouth. Spoons will be useless in space. Forks will be all right for something like potatoes or Hungarian goulash that you can spear. But you may have to use two forks, one as a backstop when you spear the food. Perhaps tongs will be the solution.

Digestion, of course, is a matter of chemistry and does not depend on weight. How about elimination? Again, this is not a matter of weight but a matter of muscular contractions. But to avoid splashing, paper or rubber bags are called for.

Now you are ready for work. This should be a positive relief. Paper will stay in place when held down by clipboards. Pencils and ball-point pens (fountain pens are out; they’ll either refuse to flow or overdo it) all have small magnets so that they stick to the metal desk. Tape recorders and radio telephones, if at all influenced by weightlessness, can easily be re-designed to overcome it.

When science fiction writers try to enumerate the dangers of space flight they usually pick a few wrong ones and forget the big one. They pick on meteorite impacts, which will be so rare that the one which may actually occur after years of space travel will make headlines everywhere. They speak about cosmic rays which may be harmful after long exposure to them, much longer than is likely during the early decades of the conquest of space. But they fail to mention the boredom which must arise with only a few people shut up in a rather tight space, subjected to a virtually unchanging scenery and a negligible amount of routine work.

Boredom will not be a problem for the short, fairly busy round-the-moon trip. The boredom will lie beyond the moon, and also farther in the future. Until then, we can brave the challenge of space with the firm conviction that it is something we can conquer.

1 comment
  1. jayessell says: August 27, 20079:27 am

    Great article Charlie!

    To us in the 21st Century, we wonder why the confines of a spaceship would not be declared a “No Smoking Zone”.

    And with 20-40 hindsight, we know the biggest danger to a spaceship crew is that any one of the dozens of machines keeping them alive might fail.

    Dang! No Space Academy yet? I want my Red Shirt!

    Hey! Isn’t that Becker’s apartment superintendant?

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