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Editor's Blog

Beyond Ares 1-X: The problem with long-term space missions

By / October 27, 2009



In his 1901 novel “The First Men in the Moon,” H.G. Wells took care of the big problem of spaceflight. He invented antigravity, which he called “cavorite.” No explosive fuel tanks. No fiery ascents. No muss. No fuss.

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Reality is different. Walk up to the Redstone rocket parked on the lawn of the Johnson Space Center in Houston and it is hard to believe that this oversized bottle rocket – a repurposed missile based on the German V-2 design – carried the first American astronaut into orbit 48 years ago. Diminutive and primitive, there is little mystery to how it worked: Astronaut at top; flame at bottom.

Alan Shepherd summed up the experience while idling aboard Freedom 7. “Solve your little problems and light this candle,” he urged Mission Control.

The space shuttle is far more complicated than the Redstone, but it operates on the same Fourth of July principle. So do the new Ares, the European Ariane, the Russian Soyuz, the Chinese Long March, the Japanese H2, and every other spacecraft on Earth: three, two, one, ignition.

In a Monitor special report (read it here), you can see the astounding cost and complexity of spaceflight. Can one nation afford open-ended exploration? Can the world join together on this? National interests, economics, and politics play a role in answering those questions. Physics plays the biggest role.

Gravity holds us back. And then, when we’ve finally beaten gravity by lighting the enormous, upside-down candle, gravity is suddenly missing where we most need it. Floating around in a spacecraft may look amusing, but it’s a bigger problem than blastoff. The human body was built for 1G, the gravity of our home planet. Without gravity, strange things happen.

Scientists have been studying the problem for years. Consider the small annoyances. We are used to looking down when we drop things. You have to check the ceiling in zero G. Velcro, sealed dinners, and zero-G toi- lets are necessities. No showering either. The bigger concern is that human anatomy functions best on Earth’s surface.

Humans can adapt in space, perhaps morph into blobby creatures of weightlessness, but then landing on another planet or returning home will be a challenge. Even short spaceflights force astronauts to rely on physical assistance when they touch down.

The only solution so far has been to substitute centrifugal force for gravity. You’ll be familiar with this from movies such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” in which travelers inhabit huge, rotating space stations. These giant Ferris wheels come with problems of their own.

In the interests of science, I’ve taken a ride in the rotating room at Brandeis University’s Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory. It is disorienting. Normal functions like touching your nose are difficult because of the Coriolis force, a side effect of rotation, although with a little practice you can retrain yourself.

“I’m convinced that most of the physical problems of long-term missions are solvable with workarounds,” says Paul DiZio, associate director of the Graybiel lab. Radiation exposure is the hardest problem to solve. “You’d need more lead than you can launch.” Nutrition, isolation, and other factors also need attention.

But centrifugal force, he says, can “mostly do away with the effects of gravity” – if you don’t mind life inside a barrel rolling through space.
Deep space missions will never be as easy as they look in the movies. You can appreciate why Wells and other science-fiction writers breeze past problems like gravity. They slow down the plot.

Until we patent cavorite, our future space-faring might be accomplished by building better robots – indifferent to gravity, radiation, and other extraplanetary punishments – while we work the remote controls at a very comfortable 1G on Spaceship Earth.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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