As promised in the June newsletter the Becoming Martian Patreon Giveaway is now underway! Check out the video above for a quick glimpse at some of the goodies in the mix, and as always the rules are very simple – just sign up to be a supporter on Patreon! Every supporter gets something completely random in the giveaway, plus higher level supporters also receive:
$10/month – An electronic copy of Becoming Martian as soon as it publishes on August 12 in your choice of ebook format, along with a thank you note for your support
$25/month – A signed physical copy of Becoming Martian as soon as it publishes on August 12, along with an acknowledgement of your amazing support in every copy of the book!
Not only will you get all the exclusive content I only share with Patreon supporters, but you’ll also be the first people to read my very overdue book! Prize giveaway will be held on August 12 to coincide with Becoming Martian being published.
If you’re already a Patreon supporter, firstly THANK YOU! Secondly, you don’t need to do anything – just sit back, because you’ll automatically have things coming your way on August 12! But if you’re not a supporter yet and thinking about becoming one then this is definitely the time to do it!Very proud to say I’ll also be back in Sydney during National Science Week to support an amazing event at the Sydney Opera House August 17th… which is also my birthday!
They say the hardest thing is just to begin… but I’m pretty sure that’s utter crap because I “began” writing a book nearly 3 years ago, wrote the first draft in 26 days, and barely touched it again until recently. These days I’m certain the hardest thing is just getting things DONE: don’t pour constantly over it trying to make it perfect, putting off working on it till you feel “inspired”, or waiting for someone else to come along and finish it for you. Just. Get. It. Done.
So with that in mind, I’ve spent the last week housesitting, watching Netflix, playing ukulele, running and generally finding anyway I could to procrastinate in every way possible to avoid editing and finishing my damn book.
There is some truth to the “hardest thing is to begin” thing though, because as soon as I ran out of things to watch and actually opened up the old book draft documents I started to immediately pick it apart and edit – change a phrase here, update with new research there, cut a section because it doesn’t fit with the overall message, ect. There’s also the added bonus of knowing that you’ve fallen way behind on all your Patreon commitments this month, but there is an absolute mountain of content already written in your book drafts that you can share.
So with that in mind I give you the first draft of the first 3000 words of “Becoming Martian” – my long overdue book about how colonising Mars humans will change physiologically (body), psychologically (mind), and culturally (spirit). Don’t get too attached to any of this – it’s just a draft. And for Patreon-supporters, you can expect to be inundated with more drafts for the rest of the book over the next 3 weeks of my housesit while I write, re-write, edit, tear out my hair, wonder how I could have written something so stupid, consult a thesaurus to find a 4th way to say “crap in a plastic bag”, scribble inane pictures because I can’t find creative common images of what I’m describing, and generally have the same nervous breakdown each writer has trying to publish their first book.
Sitting on the edge of the couch, mouth agape, I was staring at the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She smiled gently back, floating ceaselessly in front of me like a flame-haired goddess. Suddenly another passenger appeared from the right of the screen, seemingly on a collision course this perfect being, but with just the slightest push of her finger she sent him sending him spinning away again into the distance. This floating ginger Diana turned back to me, smiled that most glorious of smiles, then effortlessly sailed away out of frame like a dream. Abruptly the scene jumped to a shot of strangers in blue jumpsuits bouncing weightlessly around inside a padded aircraft, with the sounds of angels singing in my head slowly fading back to the overly enthusiastic American narrator describing parabolic flight training… and she was gone.
For weeks I’d been tirelessly working my way through a documentary series on the challenges of sending humans to Mars, and to be honest the eye-candy was generally dismal. No disrespect to the likes of Professor Paul Delaney or Dr Robert Zubrin, but after literally hours of watching aging white men talk to the camera about the finely-tuned personality dynamics required for deep space exploration, I was yet to see much evidence of this “mixed gender crew” everyone was so keen to send to Mars. My initial primal “Who are you and will you bear my children?” response to the floating redhead subsided however, and as I picked myself up from the puddle I’d formed on the floor there was a horrible, dawning realisation: If I were ever to actually meet this majestic space unicorn, it’d probably be while I was stuck to the floor of an aircraft during a 2g climb, hurling up breakfast into one of those sarcastically labelled “Motion Sickness Discomfort Bags”, impotently waving my arms around like a sea turtle stranded on it’s back and while she told she didn’t date other gingers because of the in-flight fire hazard.
You see weightlessness isn’t all champagne, floating red hair and Strauss’s Blue Danube. You might gape slack-jawed at the wondrous freedom of micro-gravity from the comfort of your lounge room, but modern humans have also spent the last 2.3 million years eating, shuffling and shagging in the consistent pull of Earth’s gravity. So while your mind is buzzing at the idea of zero-g backflips, the rest of your body should immediately start screaming “AHHHHHHHH!!! WHY?! Hang on, is that… wait, I think I’ve got… NOPE – MOTHER OF MONKEY ZEUS, WHAT EVEN IS THIS? WHY CAN I TASTE PURPLE RIGHT NOW? AHHHHHHHHH!!!”
At the start of the 1950’s Gemini program, NASA wanted it’s future astronauts to have a tiny taster of what micro-gravity is like. The idea was so they could get a sense of how to move themselves and equipment around without the binding embrace of gravity, while also observing how their bodies reacted to the changing forces. So they ripped all the seats out of a C131 Samaritan military cargo plane, covered the cabin with white cushions so it looked like a padded white cell with a curved roof, then started flying this winged roller-coaster through the sky on what was benignly referred to as “parabolic flights”.
Just seconds from filling their helmets with carrots & peas [Credit: NASA]
Each parabola is broken into two parts that are filled with wildly different levels of joy & despair. For the first 90 seconds the aircraft climbs at a rather aggressive 45 degrees, where you’ll be stuck to the floor with nearly twice the force of gravity trying to force your stomach out through your back. But as the aircraft reaches ~35,000ft, the pilot gently arcs the plane out of the climb and straight into a 45 degree dive, so that for about 25 to 30 seconds your body is still going up while the plane arcs downwards. Done at the right speed, you and your fellow passengers will be weightless. Which is great, because now instead of your stomach trying to come out your back it’s lurching forward trying to float in front of you. Delicious. Then you go back into a 45 degree climb to do it all again – over a standard 2 to 3 hour NASA training flight, the aircraft will do 40 to 60 of these parabolas. Which is why 60 years later astronauts still call it the “Vomit Comet”.
Motion sickness in a deliciously nifty diagram [Credit NASA]
In the mid 70’s NASA replaced the original aircraft with two KC-135 Stratotankers that stayed in service till 2004. And like everything that survived the 80’s, NASA even tried slapping on some shoulder pads and skin-tight lycra by renaming them the “Weightless Wonders”, but to no effect. The “Vomit Comet” nickname has lived on like the Dread Pirate Roberts of motion sickness. There was even an attempt later to call the aircraft “Dream Machines” during the 90’s as part of another sexy re-branding, but unless your idea of a sexy dream resembles a David Lynch-esque nightmare where re-tasting the pasta linguine you had a few hours earlier forms an important part of a bizarre erotic fantasy involving the Log Lady… chances are you’re still going to have a bad time no matter what the aircraft is called.
Not that sexy re-branding is a bad thing when it might genuinely reduce passenger fears. According to John Yaniec – lead test director for 15 years to NASA’s Reduced Gravity Program – anxiety is the biggest contributor to airsickness among passengers, and the chances of re-visiting lunch seem to follow a rule of thirds: “one third violently ill, the next third moderately ill, and the final third not at all”. Which also matches up pretty closely to how Ron Howard and the stars of Apollo 13 fared filming the movie’s weightless scenes. Over 10 days, 612 parabolas and 4 hours of cumulative weightlessness, the scorecard finished with Gary Sinise and Kevin Bacon regularly filling their vomit bags, and Tom Hanks and Ron Howard feeling green but managing to keep it all down. But Bill Paxton? He was zooming around grinning without a care on every parabola, and I can only hope he was also having flashbacks to playing Private Hudson in Aliens and occasionally screaming “WE’RE ON AN EXPRESS ELEVATOR TO HELL, GOING DOWN! WOOOO HOOOO!”.
You are really not helping the situation here Bill… [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
So it’s not all airborne despair. Nor do you have to be a trainee astronaut or a Hollywood star to experience weightlessness on a parabolic flight. For every day civilians wanting to get a tiny taste of space, a 90-100 minute flight aboard Zero-G Corporation’s “G-Force One” might be as close to the full physiological nightmare of weightlessness as you might want. Founded in 2004 by Peter Diamandis, astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and NASA engineer Ray Cronise, the Zero-G corporation offers regular parabolic flights all over the US for a cool $5000US per person. And thankfully, they also do it with a surprisingly low vomit ratio. It seems most people are okay for about the first 15 parabolas, but then start to go green at around 20, and the cascade hurling is usually in full force by the 25th. So instead of subjecting paying customers to a 3-4 hour flight involving 40-60 parabolas like NASA does to it’s astronauts, Zero-G avoids the dry-cleaning by only performing 12-15 parabolas over a flight. It might only equate to about 5-6 minutes of weightlessness, but a slew of ex-girlfriends will attest this is plenty of time for someone like me to have fun and make an idiot of out myself in front of dozens of people we don’t know. Unfortunately I’m yet to experience a parabolic flight myself though, because if I had I probably wouldn’t be writing a book about going to Mars, I’d be sitting on a back porch playing banjo and enjoying domestic bliss with my curly-haired ginger wife and our half dozen soulless ginger children.
Medically speaking the nausea of motion sickness stems from a mis-match between what we’re seeing, and what the tiny loops of fluid in our inner ear – the vestibular system – are telling the brain. If your inner ear is saying you’re spinning & bouncing around but your eyes say you’re not moving (like when you’re inside a parabolic aircraft), then your brain thinks you’ve been poisoned and gets your hurling reflex cranking. Likewise if your inner ear says you’re standing perfectly still but your eyes believe the world has been flipped upside down you’re also probably going to be tasting lunch twice too.
There’s one of these in each of your ears telling you which was is up [Credit: NASA]
The quickest and easiest way to ease the nausea and re-establish some sense to your world is to simply find a window and look out to the horizon. Not only does this give your visual system a fixed frame of reference that will partially subdue the vertigo, it also provides a psychological “horizon” that you can pin your hopes and dreams on. But as an ex-girlfriend once told me there’s no “horizon” when one of you is going to spend 7 months hurtling through the darkness of interplanetary space on a one-way trip to Mars. With nowhere to look to but the yawning abyss to subdue your motion sickness and relationship issues, the best option is legitimately curl up in a ball to cry yourself to sleep. The actual tears themselves do very little, but closing your eyes stops the visual element from confusing your brain’s balance system, and if you do actually manage to sleep you’ll get a few hours bliss to forget about motion sickness and instead dream of giant hammocks, bouncy castles and emotional security.
Also like an emotional, wailing infant you’ll find chewing on things can ease the nausea too. Obviously you don’t really want to eat anything substantial out of fear of adding to the washing machine that has replaced your stomach, but light snacks and chewing gum appear to help at least distract nausea sufferers. There’s also evidence that ginger can help: chewing ginger root or drinking ginger-infused tea won’t stop the raw sensation of nausea, but it’s been proven to be an effective herbal remedy to reduce vomiting. Chewing on an actual ginger person however will likely result in physical violence by making them “rangry”.
Even if you’re Bill Paxton you’ll still want to take some sort of medication to ease the trauma of bouncing around inside an airborne roller-coaster though. After a few days filming inside the vomit comet for Apollo 13, Tom Hanks got a little too confident one morning and decided to skip his daily dose of Dramamine to see what it would be like un-medicated – this was not a mistake he would repeat. While there’s plenty of remedies that claim to treat motion sickness that are “all natural with no drugs, artificial additives or stimulants” and contain “only the freshest, highest quality Chamomile, Lavender and Frankincense oils”, most space agencies like to give their trainee astronauts medication that actually works, instead of simply leaving them smelling like vomit and potpourri. Same goes with those band things that put pressure on your forearm’s “Nei-Kuan” point: by all means give it a go, but the scientific consensus is that pharmacology & psychology are more likely to win the nausea battle.
By far the most commonly prescribed motion sickness medication is Dimenhydrinate, more commonly known as Dramamine. Combining a nausea-quelling antihistamine with a stimulant not dissimilar to caffeine, Dramamine WILL help reduce the nausea associated with motion sickness… but it might also knock you out in the process. While other medications such as Meclizine may not put you in the land of nod quite as quickly, all current motion sickness medications make people at least a little bit drowsy because they work by telling your central nervous system to calm down instead of freaking out and bringing up breakfast. Which is why most aviation authorities worldwide prohibit pilots in command from using motion sickness medication at all, and why the boxes recommend not to take it and operate heavy machinery. Warnings that I’m guessing probably also apply to flying a multi-billion dollar spaceship to Mars…
There’s also the minor issue that when these drugs start to mess with your central nervous system they can also make you trip harder than Ringo Star writing Yellow Submarine. In sufficient doses Dramamine acts as a deliriant, with recreational users talking about “Dramatizing” or “going dime a dozen”, and giving the drug a whole series of different street names like “dime”, “D-Q” and “drams”… all of which I just pulled straight off Wikipedia because I have no experience with Dramamine-induced delirium what so ever. But my Mum does! A few years ago my parents went on a scuba diving trip out to the the Rowley Shoals: a series of atolls about 260km out from Broome on the Australian north-west coast. While Dad has always prided himself on his cast-iron stomach, the 8 hour boat trip to the shoals took it’s toll on Mum. Luckily though there were some friendly Germans on the boat too, and rather than indulging in their national past time of Schadenfreude by laughing at her suffering, they gave her a couple of tablets that they assured would help the nausea… and it worked! Mum didn’t feel an ounce of nausea while she chased non-existent “molecules” around the deck of the boat for the next few hours, trying to scoop them up gently in her hands and showing them to everyone on board. So the Germans had their Schadenfreude after all, only with less “projectile vomiting” and more “Australian mother of two hilariously tripping her face off while hundreds of kilometers into the Indian Ocean during in heavy seas”.
While Dramamine might be the solution for parabolic flights and regular car/seasickness, the best option for astronauts seems to be the far stronger and longer lasting Scopolamine. Usually coming in the form of a VERY sexy* trans-dermal patch that gets stuck behind your ear like a leech (*not sexy at all), Scopolamine patches slowly administer the drug over several days and provide astronauts nausea relief during their initial adapting to life in space. Just make sure you wash your hands if you touch the patch though, as it’ll cause blurred vision if you manage to get it in your eyes. Scopolamine still causes drowsiness though, so the military found a solution for their fighter pilots: “Scop-Dex”, or Scopolamine mixed with dextroamphetamines. That’s right: the air force took heavy-duty motion sickness medication, and mixed it with the pills your friends used to buy/steal from the ADHD kid in high school before dancing to Moby. Scientists didn’t believe it was even possible to dance to Moby, but the kids you went to school with proved it, while the ADHD kid just bounced awkwardly in the corner as the un-medicated control sample.
Space agencies are obviously keen to avoid having astronauts a) vomit on expensive control panels, b) doze off at the flight panel, or c) throw out all the supplies to make room for an all-night space rave. As a result, a huge amount of research is continuing into how nausea from motion sickness can be minimised in space without medication. One of the most promising technologies currently being investigated by NASA is the use of strobe lighting and LCD shutter glasses that flicker at a sufficiently high frequency to not interfere with your vision. Initial experiments with participants on the ground and during parabolic flights have now shown that a short duration flash 4 to 8 times per second significantly reduces the symptoms of motion sickness. So while I might not be drowsy or vomiting into a paper bag when I finally meet that ginger sky unicorn on a parabolic flight, but I’ll probably be suffering the indignity of having to wear NASA-designed shutter shades and feeling like I’ve helped Kanye West get into space.
Atleast Daft Punk have moved on from the full-size helmets [Credit: New Scientist]
Speaking of indignities, if you were hypothetically to type “zero g corporation redhead” into google image search, Jake Gyllanhal is the 8th picture you’d see. Probably. When you eventually found your ginger space unicorn on the 14th page of results, it’d also be instantly obvious she’s not really a red-head, and all your ginger militia-founding hopes instantly disintegrate right there. In retrospect though if I’m falling in love with a women based on about 8 seconds of footage from a documentary series made in the late 90’s, I’m probably not in the right place emotionally to be contributing to the gene pool anyway.
But for all the wonder and inspiration of space, all the spiritual awakening that astronauts report seeing our beautiful, fragile planet from a perspective that doesn’t see borders, racial or religious differences, just one Earth… chances are you’re STILL going to be tasting your own stomach acid. Your life-altering spiritual experience is being tainted by a little thing space medicine experts casually refer to as “S.A.S.” or Space Adaptation Syndrome. And we can’t talk about Space Adaptation Syndrome without talking about Senator Jake Garn…
May the 4th wasn’t just about Star Wars Day this year either – I spent May 4 getting through a very full-on day filming something pretty special with the Sydney Opera House, and pushing on into the night filming something else very fun with Andy Park from ABC’s “The Link”. I can’t wait to share both videos with all of you very soon, but in the meantime here’s a photo of me in a spacesuit with a David Bowie impersonator to whet your appetite!
All the chaos was grouped into the last week or two though, so prior to that I managed to have one of the most productive writing months I’ve had in a long time! While the next week or two are still going to be pretty full-on with school visits and other filming, I’m looking forward to spending a month out in country New South Wales house-sitting a gorgeous black Labrador from May 22nd!
It’s going to be great being squirreled away till July 17th to make really serious progress on my book editing, getting ahead with my regular Patreon and website posts, as well as getting some fresh air along the walking trails in Mudgee! It’s ideal timing too, giving me some breathing space ahead of several major speaking engagements in late June, a 3 week trip through the US and Europe in July, as well as all the soon-to-be-announced chaos of National Science Week in August too!
Speaking of productive writing months, it’s been a particularly good month to be a supporter on Patreon!
Reading, Watching & Listening – May 2017 With less travel and more opportunity to write I’ve also had a better chance to diversify what I’ve been reading, watching & listening to this month, so this is a particularly interesting post on all the different things I’ve had influencing my writing
Personal – April 19 – A deeply personal & Patron-only post about why I’ll never work in the mining industry again, and why I bounce back so quickly from setbacks now. I’ve shared tiny fractions of this story on-stage before, but this is the first it’s been written about in full.
Personal – Mars One Preparation Journal Covers – To accompany my post about my personal preparation for Mars One’s final selection phase later this year, I’ve shared the two print-outs I keep glued to my journal and use as daily reminders to remain focused.
[Journal] Cosmic Nomad – 12 July 2015 – A journal entry from mid 2015 when I had the core messages of Cosmic Nomad developed, but hadn’t started to live the things I was saying in the show. This was interesting time of tension between knowing I needed to end a relationship to move forward, but not being ready to admit it.
Coupled with the exclusive content on Patreon, there’s also been the regular posts on my website!
Personal – Mars One Preparation List – After a lot of recent interviews asking “Are you training to prepare for Mars One?” I’m sharing my plan for preparing for the final selection phase later this year, breaking it all down into 4 areas of personal development: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual
Space – Getting To Mars Part 3: Propulsion – Likely to be the post I’ll get the most hate mail for from overly wound-up space nerds, I go through the propulsion technologies that plenty of folks want you to believe will take humans to Mars, comparing them to technologies that will actually do it. Safe to say I won’t be looking for a job with an “old space” aerospace company in the near future after publishing this..
The last prize from the March Patreon giveaway was delivered to fellow Mars One candidate Diane McGrath last week, but I’m already putting together a pile of goodies for the next giveaway in June! The first giveaway included everything from t-shirts to remote control BB-8 units, and I’m excited to announce in the next newsletter what I’ll be sending to Patreon supporters in the June giveaway.
If you missed out last time don’t despair – sign up to become a Patreon supporter from just $5 a month, and besides early and exclusive access to my articles you’ll automatically be in the running for the next giveaway!
With a huge event tomorrow night at Questacon speaking about the future of the Australian and American space industry, radio interviews, corporate keynote briefings, and school talks from country Victoria to Vietnam this month, May is certainly going to have it’s fair share of chaos.
Of course because every armchair expert has their own pet propulsion project they think is critical to the future of space exploration, this is probably the article I’ll have to delete the most hate-mail for. That’s right – I don’t even read your unsolicited and poorly-spelled bullshit before deleting it, but thank you for reading all of mine! And if you haven’t already figured it out this is also the article you’re probably going to get me at my snarkiest, because there are three phrases I hear on a fairly regular basis that genuinely get under my skin and strangely all three are connected in some way to spacecraft propulsion…
#2 “It’s not rocket science” – The sarcastic accusation that something you’re struggling with isn’t really that difficult. You know, instead of helping you, someone will suggest you’re an idiot. Here’s something for all of you unhelpful jerks: Rocket science is not difficult. Rocket science can be explained with literally ONE equation (aptly called the “Rocket Equation”) that’s not even remotely complex. Ready for it? Where is the change in the spacecraft’s velocity, is how fast things are being shoved out the back of your spacecraft (eg. the rocket exhaust), and you multiply that by the natural logarithm () of your spacecraft’s initial mass () over it’s final mass (). You can also express the same equation in terms of specific impulse, but if it’s all feeling too complex just remember you go faster if you throw bits of your spaceship out the back really fast to make it lighter.
Rocket science is not difficult, however rocket engineering is ludicrously complex and exceptionally challenging*. So next time you decide to be an obnoxious and holier-than-thou wanker to someone trying to do something they’re struggling with, how about at least getting the terminology right?
*For why I still refuse to say rocket engineering is “hard”, see point 1 above
#3 “We need to develop better solar electric propulsion to get to Mars” – I’ll get to why you’re what’s wrong with the space industry a little later, but for now lets just say you’re a piece of shit and I can prove it mathematically.
Spacecraft propulsion can be broken down into two big categories: Thermodynamic (using heat to move gas) and Electrodynamic (using electricity/magnetism to move gas).
Rockets are also ridiculously expensive and absurdly inefficient at getting things to space. The Saturn V that launched men to the Moon* weighed nearly 3 million kilos on launch, but only 5,560kg of that was left by the time the Command Module splashed down in the ocean. To put it in context, 0.185% of the original rocket’s mass came back to Earth and the other 2,964,440kg was either burnt as fuel, dumped in the ocean/space, or left on the Moon. Considering each Saturn V launch cost about US$1.16 billion in 2016 figures, that’s a whole lot of specialised and expensive stuff to be just throwing away. * Don’t even start with me Moon Hoaxers – I will destroy you
I’d talk about how NASA’s “Space Launch System” is supposed to (eventually) be more powerful than Saturn V… buuuuuuuut since SLS & the Orion capsule are basically the worst parts of the Bush-era Constellation program that have already cost US$18 billion and are now projected to reach US$35 billion in 2025, at this point it really looks like it’s just a pork-barreling jobs program for a bundle of US Senators through the old conservative aerospace manufacturers. A jobs program which is also takes funding away from real exploration opportunities (like the underfunded Commercial Crew Program) to build a rocket that’s going anywhere. #NotEvenSorry
I currently have a bet with a fellow space geek about SLS: I’m convinced it will be cancelled before it ever flies, whereas she thinks it’ll fly once before it’s cancelled. The loser has to buy the other a ticket to Mars aboard this…
Did you see that gigantic rocket flying itself back to the launch pad to refuel and launch again? That’s SpaceX’s “Interplantary Transport System”, and once it’s up and running in the 2020’s there will be several of these taking 100 to 200 people to Mars every few years for about US$200,000 each – return trip included. They can afford to talk about sending people to Mars and back for less than the median cost of a house in the US (or 1/4 of a house in Sydney) because they’re not dumping most of their rockets into the ocean every time they launch – they’re landing them, refueling them, and launching them again. Building better rockets and not throwing most of them away after a launch means the cost of getting stuff to orbit has decreased dramatically in recent years.
We’ve never used rockets for their efficiency though – we use them because they produce a huge amount of thrust. If you have to get something from the ground into Low-Earth Orbit, it needs to push through the air with enough raw power and velocity to break free of the atmosphere and start falling around the Earth with enough velocity not to hit it again. Right now the only thing we’ve got that can push hard and fast enough to reach orbit is rockets, and no matter whatever weird propulsion system other folks might be dreaming about this is also the only way we’re going to get to Mars in the next 15-20 years*.
*Bring it on Solar Electric Propulsion people – I’ve got your number at the end of this article.
That’s not to say all rockets are the same though – we’ve got all sorts of different ways of making things go boom to get somewhere fast:
Solid Rockets – Basically really big and complex versions of the little gunpowder rocket engines you can buy at a hobby store. They’re cheap, powerful, and easy to make – perfect for launching things like cargo and probes into space.
Liquid Rockets – Pumping flammable liquids into a chamber and having them explode in a specific direction. While the Chinese were the first to get serious about solid rockets back in the 1200’s, it wasn’t until the 1900’s that a guy called Robert Goddard started to set fire to liquids to push rockets around. Unfortunately the US’s scientific community and the New York Times just made fun of him for suggesting rockets could work in space.
Correction the New York Times published 3 days before Apollo 11 launched (on liquid rockets) to the Moon… and 24 years after Goddard had died.
Fortunately some people payed attention to Goddard’s research into liquid rockets. Unfortunately those people were also the Nazis, who then used that research to bomb Europe with these:
Liquid rocket engines are way more complex than solid rocket engines essentially because the fuel is sloshing around and needs to be pressurised through tanks & fuel lines for them to keep flying. Going back to my earlier “rocket science is easy, but rocket engineering is hard” – the national security restrictions imposed by each country on who can work on their rocket technology often has little to do with the rocket itself, and is almost entirely about protecting the technology behind the turbopumps that push the fuel and oxidiser at high speed & pressure into the engine bell.
Liquid rockets generally get broken down into two further categories depending on their fuel too. Bipropellants are what you see in a usual rocket launch where an oxidiser (usually liquid oxygen) and a fuel (kerosene, liquid hydrogen, methane, ect) burn to produce thrust. Monopropellant is a single liquid that ignites when it touches a catalyst, and is often used once you’re in space to turn your spacecraft around or give it a gentle push. It’s also usually made of hideously toxic, carcinogenic and explosive liquids like Hydrazine, that apparently smells like fruity-ammonia if you live long enough to tell someone.
Hybrid Rockets – A surreal mix of a solid and liquid rocket. The most obvious and well-known example of a hybrid rocket powers this:
Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two
Hybrid engines have a liquid/gas oxidiser that runs through channels in the solid fuel to burn it. They avoid the complexity of liquid rocket engines, and unlike a solid rocket you can stop them once they’re lit by cutting off the oxidiser supply. The downsides are they’re not as efficient as solid or liquid rockets, and most of them are filthy polluters. The fuel going into hybrid engine in Spaceship Two has been changed a lot, but it’s usually nitrous oxide burning rubber. So pumping soot directly into the upper atmosphere isn’t exactly fantastic for things like Global Warming…
Nuclear Propulsion – Launching tonnes of hot, radioactive material into space because it’s really good at getting you places fast… provided it doesn’t explode on the way.
Now I’m only including this because it is a form of thermodynamic propulsion, people have talked about for more than 60 years, folks like NASA & the Soviets have designed entire working systems around it… and even at it’s absolute safest it’s still fairly insane.
Nuclear rockets are outrageously powerful – even the most basic designs are twice as powerful as what’s possible with a chemical rocket. There are dozens of different (theoretical) varieties, however only two have ever been developed properly: NASA’s NERVA and the Soviet Union’s RD-0410. NASA actually had the closed-cycle NERVA XE flight ready and deemed suitable for a Mars mission in 1969, right before NASA’s funding was cut because it was clear the US was going to win the race to the Moon. Both the NASA and Soviet systems still involved using a flying nuclear reactor to super-heat hydrogen in space, however they were designed to be comparatively safe “closed cycle” systems.
I say comparatively, because you have to compare it to the other crazy shit other people were suggesting in the 1960’s. Fun things like “open cycles” designs that used weapons-grade radioactive material and deliberately spewed out clouds of radioactive exhaust.
See the bit saying “Uranium 235 T~55,000 K” leading to an open nozzle? Because fuck everyone else on the planet, right?
Then there’s the folks who designed Project Orion, who clearly felt the only thing better than using a nuclear reactor in space would be to use actual nuclear weapons. Project Orion was about literally firing a nuclear weapon behind your spaceship to propel it in the other direction: for anyone who’s ever played Quake or Team Fortress 2 this is basically a rocket-jumpbut with a nuke.
We’re not talking about just one nuke either: the idea was to have one going off every second, and some of the interstellar designs called for a spacecraft 20km long that carried 300,000,000 1-Megaton nuclear weapons, or “pulse units” as they were so eloquently renamed. Strangely enough Project Orion pretty much ended when most of the world signed the “Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water” (aka the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty) in 1963.
The fever dreams of Dr Strangelove
Chances are we’ll need some sort of nuclear propulsion in the future to take humans beyond Mars though. Jupiter barely gets 4% of the sunlight the Earth does, so the diminishing light from the Sun makes solar power a lot less viable. It’d also be a great way to reduce the nuclear stockpiles we have, and there’s even some semi-reasonable arguments for taking small nuclear power plants to provide electricity to a colony on Mars – the big issues are obviously what do you do with the waste and what if something breaks?
Nuclear propulsion isn’t completely insane… but do we need to take the risk, when we can get to Mars just fine using conventional chemical rockets? No.
Do you know what else we don’t need to get to Mars? Solar Bullshit Electric Fucking Propulsion.
Maybe you’ve heard on the news about some crazy space propulsion system that uses lasers, ions, or something else that sounds really complex and weird. Chances are it’s either a solar sail (which are slow but cool in their own “Star-Surfing with Sagan” kind of way) or you’ve heard about some variant of an ion drive (which are also slow but cool in their own “Star Trekking with William Shatner” kind of way too).
Essentially ion drives use electric fields to accelerate a gas (usually Xenon) out an exhaust at incredibly high velocities to produce a tiny thrust. The high exit velocity (aka “Specific Impulse”) means ion drives are insanely efficient and capable of reaching much higher maximum velocities than any rocket ever could, and there’s been some really exciting improvements… but because ion drives only throw out only a tiny bit of gas (eg. roughly the same amount of force you feel blowing on the back of your hand) they’re also incredibly slow to accelerate up to those high velocities.
How slow? NASA’s Dawn mission has three Xenon ion thrusters capable of 90mN of thrust (about the same force as the weight of a postage stamp) that can accelerate the probe from 0 to 100km/hr over four days.
Ion drives absolutely have their place, but no matter what bullshit spin some of the old aerospace players might try to pull that place is not getting people to Mars. Ion drives are improving, but unless VASIMR unexpectedly gets a demo flight and proves it actually works electrodynamic propulsion simply won’t be powerful enough to shorten the trip to Mars for humans any time in the next few decades. Especially if you’re only using solar power.
Improved ion drives that run on solar power will be really useful however for… getting communication satellites from Low-Earth Orbit into a Geo-stationary orbit.
Here’s a fun fact: the global satellite communication industry generates over US$200 billion in revenue each year, and makes up nearly 2/3’s of the entire space industry. Reaching Low-Earth Orbit (160km to 2000km altitude) with a rocket is relatively simple, however getting to Geo-stationary orbit (~36,000km and where almost all large communication satellites need to be placed) is much harder, requires far greater velocities, and usually needs an additional stage on the rocket. This extra velocity and additional staging brings greater risks of things going wrong, so naturally launching something to such a high orbit is also a lot more expensive.
No shit – the satellite communication industry is boring, but it’s also really big money. Do you know what is not boring, but also means risking lives for something that won’t make anywhere near as much money? SENDING PEOPLE TO MARS.
Which is why there’s a huge amount of money and research going into solar electric propulsion at the moment, and why I roll my eyes obnoxiously at everyone who tells me it’ll “help with NASA’s #JourneyToMars”. Because they either don’t understand how weak solar electric propulsion currently is, or they’re trying to bullshit me and others into believing a technology being developed to reduce the cost of deploying communication satellites around Earth will somehow get me to Mars.
I’m happy to be proven wrong on all of this, and I’m certain in the far future we’ll use ion drives to zip between Earth and Mars. I’m even sure some of them will even use solar power. They’ve been trying since 1971, but maybe Ad Astra will finally get somewhere with VASIMR afterall. Maybe the EM Drive will be completely validated and change everything. But don’t tell me we to need to pour billions more into solar electric propulsion research to get to Mars – chemical rockets have been getting things there just fine for decades.
In the meantime, Mars One was founded with the express purpose of permanently colonising Mars, and SpaceX was founded with the express purpose of establishing a sustained human presence on Mars too. Do you see either of them talking about needing further research into solar electric propulsion? No? Just using conventional liquid rockets you say?
There’s a common misconception among the general public that physics is boring, yet nothing could be further from the truth. As a physicist I can say with confidence physics is awesome, it’s just physics teachers that are boring. I hesitate to say all physics teachers are boring, because I’ve met a few really exceptional ones… but there’s also been plenty of others who some how manage to suck all the colour and joy out of the incredible relationships that govern our universe. So with this in mind we’re going to tackle arguably one of the most abstract, mathematically complex, and potentially boring concepts in Newtonian physics – Orbital Mechanics – and we’re going to make it awesome instead.
Also I don’t mean in that fake-smiling “YAY!!! ISN’T THIS FUN KIDS?!” way where you’re desperately trying to convince yourself and others that your entire life’s work means something, while your soul slowly crumples inside as you fight the creeping existential dread that the universe is unloving and ambivalent to your existence and everything you do… I mean in a “Holy crap the universe is ridiculous, awful and weird, and I need to know more!” equation & jargon-free kind of way to explain how we’ll get to Mars.
Which I think we can all agree is a lot more fun than reading Nietzsche and embracing nihilism over a cup of tea.
Firstly some basics. If you want to go anywhere in space, you either need to a) increase your spacecraft’s velocity using a rocket or other propulsion system (we’ll cover propulsion in the next article) for a little to increase the size of your orbit and coasting through space as gravity to pulls you around on a curved path, b) have a ludicrously powerful propulsion system to brute force a straight line to wherever you want to go, or c) travel at 88mph and use 1.21 Gigawatts of energy to tear a hole through the fabric of space-time and pop out wherever/whenever you like.
Because we don’t yet have anything even remotely powerful enough to brute force a straight line through space, and neither Doc Brown or Sam Neill have been opening any portals to hell recently, that leaves firing a rocket for a bit to increase the size of our orbit and letting gravity do the rest of the work. The most fuel-efficient way to do this is called a “Hohmann Transfer”, where you increase your velocity just enough to reach where you’re going. When you’re trying to get from Earth to Mars that means burning your rockets when your spaceship is closest to Earth (to get the most out of the rocket thrust) and after coasting for 8.5 months you arrive at Mars at the slowest point of your new orbit.
Burn your rocket when you’re travelling fastest at #1 (Earth), slow down as you travel along the yellow line, arrive at #3 (Mars) when you’re at the slowest point of the new orbit
But “fuel-efficient” is slow and boring – the space exploration equivalent of having sex while listening to Enya. It’s fine if you don’t have anything better to do with your afternoon – or if you want to launch cargo to Mars that can take 8.5 months to get there – but the longer you spend in deep space the more cosmic radiation (and Enya) you’re being exposed to. Humans also need food and water and oxygen and a bunch of other nonsense robots and cargo don’t, so Hohmann transfers aren’t ideal for sending humans to Mars unless you really hate them.
Getting to Mars in less than the 8.5 months means we have to leavefaster. Sounds simple, but this gets ridiculously complicated really quickly. The three things to remember though are the more you accelerate:
The straighter you’ll travel and faster you’ll get there (which is awesome)
The more you’ll have to de-accelerate at the other end (which sucks – you now need extra fuel to slow down, or take a mega heat shield to slow down using Mars’s atmosphere and risk skimming off it and into the cosmic abyss)
The exponentially more fuel and energy you need (Newton’s 3rd law: to go somewhere you have to throw stuff in the opposite direction)
We’ll talk more about propulsion systems in the next post, but right now using traditional chemical rockets the quickest we can get to Mars is about 6 months. Which looks something like this:
Interplanetary transfer for the Mars Odyssey probe in 2001
Obviously you also don’t aim for where Mars is when you’re launching from Earth, because it won’t be in the same place you were aiming for 6 months later. Like throwing a water-bomb at a toddler you aim ahead to where your target will be in the future, letting gravity and the easily predictable path of a planet or under 5 do the work for you.
Because Earth orbits the Sun once every 365.25 days and Mars orbits the sun once every 687 Earth days*,they only line up for this kind of transfer once every 22 Earth months.
*Mars has a “day” of 24 hour and 36 minutes called a “Sol”, so 1 year on Mars is 668.6 sols
Alright, enough already
There a couple of other little tricks of gravity we can also use to get to Mars quicker and with less fuel too, namely Orbital Slingshots and Ballistic Capture.
Turns out you can actually use an entire planet to speed up your spacecraft if you’re willing to swing in close enough. The gravitational attraction between a planet and a spacecraft doesn’t just move the spacecraft – it also moves the planet a tiny fraction too! So by flying up behind a planet as it orbits and letting gravity swing your spacecraft towards it you’ll slow the planet down (increasing it’s “year” by a few nanoseconds) but massively increase the velocity of your spaceship!
The last diagram, I swear
This is actually what they use in The Martian to get the Hermes back to Mars and save Mark Watney. While Donald Glover is being a mentalist with a stapler in a NASA boardroom, he’s describing an especially powerful orbital slingshot. The speed boost the Hermes gets swinging around Earth is the reason they can get back to Mars so quickly, but it’s also why they’re going so fast at the other end.
Kristen Wiig will have none of your swingline shenanigans
Recently we’ve discovered another way to get things from Earth to Mars that doesn’t require you waiting nearly 2 years for an alignment or having Sam Neill take you through a portal to Hell… but it’s even slower than the “Enya-Space-Sex” Hohmann Transfer. This “Ballistic Capture” approach involves getting just close enough to a planet or moon that it’s gravity slowly pulls your spacecraft into it at low velocity without needing any extra fuel to slow down. It’s just like knocking a pool ball towards a pocket and having it stop right on the edge: it’ll either roll in on it’s own after a few seconds, or you give the table a little bump to help it in.
Ballistic capture was used by the Japanese probe “Hiten” to orbit the Moon in 1990, but until recently it was believed that Mars was too small and too far away for ballistic capture to work. Some clever folks with a super computer recently worked out though that you can launch towards Mars anytime as long as you don’t mind taking up to a year to get there. For a human crew this would be like having sex to Enya playing at half tempo, so you might prefer the trip through actual Hell with the Event Horizon instead.
Before you realise Sam Neill is playing Enya through the PA too
For someone like Mark Watney though – slowly starving on Mars because his potato crops were suddenly freeze dried – this would have been pretty handy. Building a new probe full of food, testing it properly (rather than just glancing at it and saying “Yeah mate, she’ll be right”) and launching it on a 1 year trajectory using a ballistic capture would have been considerably quicker and safer than the mentalist orbital slingshot the Hermes crew do in the film. Although I guess staying put and eating potatoes for a few more years isn’t as “Hollywood” as:
Surviving 20 Gs while riding into space on a rocket with the front half of the capsule removed, using a canvas tarp over the holes… for decoration?
Explosively decompressing the pressurised living area of an inter-planetary spaceship (full of critical life support systems that can’t operate in a hard vacuum) to slow down
Instantly cutting through the dozen layers of rubber, canvas, Kevlar and Mylar in a spacesuit glove, then using the minuscule pressure in a space suit (less than what’s in a football) to “Be Ironman” and fly to safety…
For the last few years I’ve structured my school visits and public talks primarily around answering questions about the Mars One project, rather than lecturing. For an average 90 minute school visit for example I’ll usually only speak for the first 10-15 minutes – with plenty of images of Mars and no text on the slides – before spending the next 75-80 minutes answering every question under the Sun about life on Mars. School visits in particular are incredibly entertaining, mostly because kids have absolutely no shame and no chill – they will ask absolutely every obscene thing you could ever imagine, while literally bouncing up and down in their chair with excitement, and I have to try to honestly answer their question about how sex, death, shitting, and/or cannibalism will be different on Mars than it is on Earth while their teachers look on in horror.
“Mr Richards, what would you do if there was an ACCIDENTAL fire in your Mars house?” *giggles*
When people hear about Mars One though, their questions almost always focus on what it would be like a) leaving Earth behind, and b) living on Mars without any prospect of coming back. Besides “how long will it take to get there?” though, I don’t usually get a lot of questions about the journey to get there itself. Kids want to know how you shit in space, and they understand the idea of living in a special “house” on Mars… but drifting for months through the inky darkness of interplanetary space to get to your new home is a concept so far removed from their regular lives they don’t even know where to start with questions.
And if kids won’t ask questions about the trip to Mars, you can be damn sure that adults won’t… unless they’re a massive space geek, in which case it’s 50/50 if they’re asking a question because they’re really excited about what you’re doing, or if they’re trying to “correct” you to show off their own knowledge.
So with all of this in mind, I’ve decided to write a series on how we’ll actually get to Mars. I’ll inevitably follow it up with another series on how we’ll live on Mars once we get there, but there’s definitely a huge knowledge gap in comprehending just how difficult (but perfectly achievable) the journey itself is.
Orbital Mechanics & Interplanetary Transfers
Contrary to what most kids (and plenty of adults) might think, you can’t just point your rocket at Mars and hit “GO!” (as awesome as that would be). With Earth and Mars orbiting the Sun at different distances, inclinations and orbital velocities; going from one to the other involves a lot more swinging and looping than people expect, and orbital mechanics has a great way of messing with people’s heads.
The short story is it will take us roughly 7 months to get to Mars, but because of the alignment of Earth, Mars and the Sun we can only launch things to Mars every two years or so. I can already hear the angry space geeks mashing their keyboards at that sentence alone… but if you can hold off for a few weeks from sending me hate-mail filled with delta-V equations and screaming in all-caps about “BALLISTIC CAPTURE”, I’m going to delve deep into orbital mechanics. As always I’ll be writing equally for comedy AND science-communication, so don’t panic if you’re the type who doesn’t break out into an excited sweat at the sight of a Hohmann Transfer equation – I”l be aiming to help you understand why there’s no straight lines when you’re trying to get anywhere in space, but without you needing to become a full-blown pocket-protector-wearing nerd in the process.
Launch Vehicles & Propulsion
There’s no shortage of folks gushing about how you’ll need a “big rocket” to get to Mars (don’t talk to me about SLS, I’m only going to sigh at you) but there’s a lot more to rockets than just “burn lots of fuel really fast to make things go up”. Payload fairing size, solid vs liquid fuels, payload harmonics, staging, crew/cargo separation – it all gets pretty complex pretty quickly. I cringe any time someone sighs and tells me “Space Is Hard”, but using rockets to get places is definitely expensive, risky, and utterly unforgiving if something goes awry.
It’s also not just the “getting out of the atmosphere without being ripped apart” bit you need to worry about either – between ion engines, solar sails, Neumann Drives and nuclear propulsion (if anyone mentions “Solar Electric Propulsion” I will scream at you), there is a mountain of different ways to move between planets without an atmosphere to contend with that are a lot more efficient than just firing up a hypergolic rocket like the US used in the Apollo program to get to the Moon (DO NOT EVEN START WITH ME, MOON HOAX PEOPLE. I’M ALREADY PISSED OFF ABOUT SLS AND SOLAR ELECTRIC PROPULSION – I WILL DESTROY YOU).
Life Support & Psychology
If you’re putting people in an aluminium can and launching them for 7 months to live on a cold, desolate planet for the rest of their lives…. you kind of want them to survive the trip. While there’s still a lot of discussion about the design of Mars One’s transit habitat, we already know it will face unique challenges that nothing rated to carry humans in space has ever had to contend with. Operating somewhere between the space shuttle (which never spent more than 18 days in space) and the International Space Station (which has so far spent more than 18 years in space), the Mars One transit habitat will need to keep four astronauts fit and healthy during the trip to Mars, but once it reaches Mars orbit it also won’t ever need to be used again… so life support systems that are reliable for 7+ months, but also can’t be repaired with critical supplies from Earth.
There’s also that little factor of how do you keep the crew from going bonkers and opening the airlock – preferably by not taking a suicidal British botanist for starters. While I’ve already talked about how to use Ernest Shackleton’s approach to crew selection as a template when selecting a Mars crew, the psychology of space exploration is a particularly fascinating topic generally so get ready to be bombarded with discussions on Breakaway Syndrome, the 3/4 Factor, the Overview Effect, and Facebook use during Antarctic over-winter studies!
Because realistically the biggest hurdle to getting people on Mars has always been…
Entry, Descent & Landing (EDL)
A fractionally elevated risk of cancer and/or heart-attack is nothing in-comparison to the risk of hitting the top of the Martian atmosphere at 9km/sec without bouncing off into deep space, using your spacecraft as a brakepad as it heats up to glow white-hot while ripping through the atmosphere, firing a rocket engine into the hypersonic winds to try and slow down, and then using those rockets and their highly limited fuel to land without becoming an impact crater.
The challenges of Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) is why the heaviest thing anyone has successfully landed on Mars to date is Curiosity Rover at around 900kg. If NASA wants to send astronauts to Mars and bring them back, they need to be able to land a Mars Return Vehicle that will weigh roughly 30,000 to 40,000 kg. For comparison though Mars One’s Environmental Control and Life Support System is the single heaviest component that needs to reach the surface of Mars safely at 7,434 kg, while SpaceX is talking about being able to deliver 13,600 kg to Mars with Falcon Heavy.
Above all else not being able to land heavy stuff on the surface has been the biggest engineering hurdle faced in the race to Mars, but it looks like the folks at SpaceX are up for the challenge.
So there you have it! I’ve been looking forward to hooking into some serious space engineering and psychology posts to off-set the more personal posts I’ve been working on lately, and I’m really interested to seeing what I can feed from these new posts back into “Becoming Martian” as I continue to edit it.