The space environment is so inconvenient for human beings. There is so much that one has to bring along to keep them alive.
Life Support has to supply each crew member daily with 0.0576 kilograms of air, about 0.98 kilograms of water, and about 2.3 kilograms of (wet) food (less if you are recycling). Some kind of artificial gravity or a medical way to keep the bones and muscles from wasting away. Protection from the deadly radiation from solar storms and the ship's power plant and propulsion system. Protection from the temperature extremes in the space environment. Protection from acceleration. Medical support. And then there are the psychological factors.
Recently John Lumpkin and I were allowed the rare privilege of submitting questions to NASA astronaut Captain Stephen G. Bowen a couple of questions about life in the space environment.
The bottom line seems to be the acceleration should be limited to 4g or less if you want the astronauts capable of using their hands on controls, and limit it to 17g while sitting down or 30g while lying flat to prevent serious injury to the astronauts. But only for less than 10 minutes or so, see graph below for details. This is usually not a problem unless you are dealing with a torchship. Conventional spacecraft cannot accelerate at that rate for much longer than 10 minutes before their propellant tanks run dry.
Note that the piloting controls will need to be specially designed to be used under 4gs, you ain't gonna be able to do fussy fine control when your arms weighs 20 kilograms each.
In the science-fictional role playing game Universe, people with enough money can have an "internal gravity web" surgically implanted. This is a series of strong nets anchored to bone that support the internal organs. It allows the person to undergo accelerations larger than 2.5g indefinitely with no ill effects.
|Transverse forces supine||+Gx||Lying on your back||Eye Balls In||Recommended high acceleration position|
|Transverse forces prone||-Gx||Lying face down||Eye Balls Out||Second-best high acceleration position|
|Positive longitudinal||+Gz||Sitting with head above heart||Eye Balls Up||Third-best high acceleration position|
|Negative longitudinal||-Gz||Standing on your head||Eye Balls Down||Really stupid|
I would have thought that lying prone was a bad way to take high acceleration, because you can't breath. But then I saw the image above.
When it came to piloting aircraft, both prone and supine allowed the pilot to take much higher acceleration than sitting normally. This is because in the sitting posture the body and legs are a long distance below the brain, and acceleration drags all the blood in the pilot's body downward; i.e., out of the brain causing blackout. Prone or supine means the blood cannot be yanked very far downward from the brain.
But prone made it very difficult for the pilot to look upward, and supine made it very difficult to look downward. So prone with a bubble window was better for:
- Fighter airplanes with speed superior to their opponents
- High speed reconnaissance airplanes
- Airplanes that operate or attack at angles greater than 30°
For other types of aircraft, the drawbacks of prone position outweighed the superior acceleration endurance. In particular, it is hard for a pilot to make the aircraft climb if they cannot turn their head to look upward.
After some research I stumbled over the report Human Capabilities In The Prone And Supine Positions: An Annotated Bibliography. Remember that "supine" means "eyeballs-in on-your-back" while "prone" means "eyeballs-out on-your-stomach". "Semi-prone" means prone but the knees are significantly lower than the body.
The prone position of the pilot in high-speed airplanes has certain advantages (higher g-tolerance of the pilot, reduction of drag due to decrease of frontal area, improved instrument visibility) and drawbacks (narrowing of field of vision, decrease of visual acuity, aggravation of claustrophobic tendencies, discomfort encountered in this abnormal position). A nylon bed designed in 1948 by the Aero Medical Laboratory was tested for 8 to 12 hours without apparent signs of discomfort. Three-dimensional hand control (i.e. operation of all the control surfaces by band motions only) likewise gave good test results. Restriction of vision (up to 35°) was one of the major complaints raised by the test pilots.
The paper concludes with a brief discussion of flight tests at accelerations of less than 1 g, as would be encountered in space flight. The prone pilot was instrumented for recording of heart rate and electrocardiagram. He was asked to shake his head and to nod during the runs at zero g. There were no ill effects following these movements, but after the subgravity flight there was frequent vertigo. Coordination was not impaired, although there was tendency to overreach.
Will prone flight lick high g-loads? AVIATION WEEK v. 57, n. 26, p. 21-22, 24-25, 29 Dec 1952
The changes produced by body posture on total lung capacity and its subdivisions have been reported for all positions except the prone position.
Twenty normal subjects, twelve males and eight females, had determinations of total lung capacity in the three body positions, sitting, supine and prone. Tidal volume, minute ventilation and O2 consumption were also measured.
The changes found on assumption of the supine position from the sitting position were similar to those previously reported. For the prone position, a smaller inspiratory capacity and a larger expiratory reserve volume were found. The mean values were changed, respectively, 8% and +37%. Association with these changes was a significant increase of the functional residual capacity by 636 ml.
Ventilation did not change significantly from that found during sitting, unlike the findings associated with the supine position, in which the tidal volume was decreased. Respiratory frequency remained the same for all positions.
Effect of body posture on lung volumes. JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHYSIOLOGY 16, n. 1, p. 27-29, Jan 1961.
The "B.9" is a twin engine, cantilever, low-wing monoplane of composite conotruction, stressed for an ultimate factor of 22g. The pilot is placed in the fuselage nose.
The bed on which the pilot lies is provided with fore and aft adjustment and an adjustable chin rest. There are arm rests, and the legs are slightly bent. A back parachute replaces the conventional chest-type parachute. Modified stick controls (in preference to wheel controls) are used. Brakes and rudder are controlled by the feet in the conventional manner. All secondary controls and switches are situated on the port side of the fuselage.
The prone position was considered comfortable by the pilots. Fatigue was experienced by some in the nape of the neck and the shoulders. The chin rest was considered disturbing in horizontal flijht. The relative position of the field of view, as compared to the seated position, shifted into a position with the main line of vision declined 300 below the horizon. Flight handling was not encountered difficult. The feeling of "suspension" was absent in the vertical dive. Maximum accelerations of 8.5 g in pullouts and 6 g in steep spirals were tolerated over several seconds.
Investigations of the prone position for pilots. ZENTRALE FUER WISSENSCHAFTLICHS BERICHTSWESIEN DER LUFTFAHRTFORSCHUNG (BERLIN) UM 1297, 13 May 1944.
Naturally an acceleration couch for a quadruped such as a dog or a centaur-like alien will probably be a prone couch. Think about the problems of a horse in a spaceship lying on its back with all four legs in the air and you'll see what I mean.
The relative position or orientation of the subject is of prime importance in determining tolerable levels of gravitational or acceleration force, or "g force.' As the g force is gradually increased, certain effects are observed.
Figure 5 shows the time-tolerance relationships for positive longitudinal forces and for transverse forces (either prone or supine, prone being the position of lying face down and supine being the position of lying on one's back).
For the transverse position, human subjects in Germany during World War II were subjected to 17 g's for as long as 4 minutes reportedly with no harmful effects and no loss of consciousness. The curves indicated for very long periods of time are extrapolations and are speculative, since no data are available on long-term effects. Col. John Stapp, Air Force Missile Development Center, has investigated extreme g loadings, up to 45 g's, sustained for fractions of a second; These are the kind of accelerations or decelerations that would be experienced in crash landings. For these brief high g loadings, the rate of change of g exceeds 500 g's per second.
As a matter of interest, the beaded line on the figure indicates the approximate accelerations that would be experienced by a man in a vehicle designed to reach escape velocity with three stages of chemical burning, each stage having a similar load-factor-time pattern. This curve enters the critical region for positive g's. Most individuals would probably black out and some would become unconscious. However, for individuals in the transverse position, this acceleration could be tolerated and the individual would not lose consciousness.
Gross effects of
Effects: g's Weightlessness 0 Earth normal (32.2 feet/second) 1 Hands and feet heavy;
walking and climbing difficult
2 Walking and climbing impossible;
crawling difficult; soft tissues sag
3 Movement only with great effort;
crawling almost impossible
4 Only slight movements of arms
and head possible
Longitudinal g's, short duration
(blood forced from head toward feet):
Effects: g's Visual symptoms appear 2.5 - 7.0 Blackout 3.5 - 8.0 Confusion,
loss of consciousness
4.0 - 8.5 Structural damage,
especially to spine
18 - 23
Transverse g's, short duration
(head and heart at same hydrostatic level):
Effects: g's No visual symptoms or
loss of consciousness
0 - 17 Tolerated 28 - 30 Structural damage may occur > 30 - 45
An acceleration couch is a chair that will hold an astronaut in relative comfort under several gs of acceleration. The Apollo crew's acceleration couches only had to protect the crew from a maximum of 4gs on lift-off, and about 7gs during reentry.
In The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the couches had a built-in "relief tube" (i.e., a rudimentary urinal) for use during prolonged periods of multi-g acceleration. For various reasons military crews were all stag, no women allowed.
If you have a torchship, and it is going to accelerate at more than one g for longer than a few minutes, the crew is going to need special couches to lie in. Otherwise the g forces will cause severe injury or even kill. A standard Apollo couch just ain't gonna cut the mustard. You are going to need something more fancy.
The next step up is an advanced waterbeds or flotation mattress. The astronaut lies on a big flexible plastic bag full of water. The water automatically conforms to the contours of the astronaut's body.
In Robert Heinlein's Sky Lift and Double Star these are called called "cider presses" for sarcastic reasons. The water mattress is the fruit and the astronaut is the piston.
In The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle the flotation chairs were supplemented by a few motorized acceleration couches used by damage control parties who had to move around during high gs. Such mobile couches also appeared in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.
In the real world, liquid breathing is a technique with applications to ultra-deep ocean diving. Past a certain depth the water pressure will crush a diver's lungs into pulp. But since fluid is incompressible, filling the lungs with fluid instead of gasous breathing mix will provide protection. They do not quite have the technique ready for commercial use, yet, but they are working on it. A gentleman named Arnold Lande patented a liquid breathing scuba suit in 2010.
You can see this in the movie The Abyss. The bit with the man is special effect, but the part with the rat is real.
Since multiple gravities of acceleration stress the internal organs much like water pressure, fluid breathing could provide acceleration protection as well.
Foreseeably science fiction has several choice examples of acceleration protection constructed out of pure handwavium, mostly described as some kind of magic force field. They are amusing but I wouldn't take any of them seriously.
Common scifi names include acceleration compensator, deceleration compensator, inertial compensator, deceleration equalizer, and drive compensator. Sometimes scifi misuses the term "inertial damper" which has a very different and very mundane meaning, the proper term is Inertial Negation.
In addition to the drives mentioned here, there is also the broad classs of carrot-on-a-stick drives. These avoid killing the crew by high acceleration by virtue of using handwavium paragravity for acceleration. Since gravity (or paragravity) accelerates all the atoms of of both the ship and crew evenly, the crew will be in free fall regardless of how massive the acceleration is.
These are handwavium, with the exception of Charles Sheffield's "Balanced Drive." It is more unobtainium, we can't build the blasted thing but it does not break any of the laws of physics (it is really really hard to make a disk one hundred meters in diameter and one meter thick with the mass of Mount Everest). It sure looks like a handwavium carrot-on-a-stick drive, but it isn't.
Handwavium acceleration protection includes:
The tremendous accelerations involved in the kind of spaceflight seen on Star Trek would instantly turn the crew to chunky salsa unless there was some kind of heavy-duty protection. Hence, the inertial damping field.
— Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, page 24.
For a space opera RPG setting I am considering adding inertia manipulation technology. But can one make a self-consistent inertia dampener without breaking conservation laws? What are the physical consequences? How many cool explosions, superweapons, and other tropes can we squeeze out of it? How to avoid the worst problems brought up by the SF community?
What inertia is
As Newton put it, inertia is the resistance of an object to a change in its state of motion. Newton’s force law is a consequence of the definition of momentum, (which in a way is more fundamental since it directly ties in with conservation laws). The mass in the formula is the inertial mass. Mass is a measure of how much there is of matter, and we normally multiply it with a hidden constant of 1 to get the inertial mass – this constant is what we will want to mess with.
There are relativistic versions of the laws of motion that handles momentum and inertia for high velocities, where the kinetic energy becomes so large that it starts to add mass to the whole system. This makes the total inertia go up, as seen by an outside observer, and looks like a nice case for inertia-manipulating tech being vaguely possible.
However, Einstein threw a spanner into this: gravity also acts on mass and conveniently does so exactly as much as inertia: gravitational mass (the masses in ) and inertial mass appear to be equal. At least in my old school physics textbook (early 1980s!) this was presented as a cool unsolved mystery, but it is a consequence of the equivalence principle in general relativity (1907): all test particles accelerate the same way in a gravitational field, and this is only possible if their gravitational mass and inertial mass are proportional to one another.
So, an inertia manipulation technology will have to imply some form of gravity manipulation technology. Which may be fine from my standpoint, since what space opera is complete without antigravity? (In fact, I already had decided to have Alcubierre warp bubble FTL anyway, so gravity manipulation is in.)
Playing with inertia
OK, let’s leave relativity to the side for the time being and just consider the classical mechanics of inertia manipulation. Let us posit that there is a magical field that allows us to dial up or down the proportionality constant for inertial mass: the momentum of a particle will be , the force law and the formula for kinetic energy . is the effect of the magic field, running from , with 1 corresponding to it being absent.
I throw a 1 g ping-pong ball at 1 m/s into my inertics device and turn on the field. What happens? Let us assume the field is . Now the momentum and kinetic energy jumps by a factor of 1000 if the velocity remains unchanged. Were I to catch the ball I would have gained 999 times its original kinetic energy: this looks like an excellent perpetual motion machine. Since we do not want that to be possible (a space empire powered by throwing ping-pong balls sounds silly) we must demand that energy is conserved.
Velocity shifting to preserve kinetic energy
One way of doing energy conservation is for the velocity to go down for my heavy ping-pong ball. This means that the new velocity will be . Inertia-increasing fields slow down objects, while inertia-decreasing fields speed them up.
One could have a force-field made of super-high inertia that would slow down incoming projectiles. At first this seems pointless, since once they get through to the other side they speed up and will do the same damage. But we could of course put in a bunch of armour in this field, and have it resist the projectile. The kinetic energy will be the same but it will be a lower velocity collision which means that the strength of the armour has a better chance of stopping it (in fact, as we will see below, we can use superdense armour here too). Consider the difference between being shot with a rifle bullet or being slowly but strongly stabbed by it: in the later case the force can be distributed by a good armour to a vast surface. Definitely a good thing for a space opera.
A spacecraft that wants to get somewhere fast could just project a low field around itself and boost its speed by a huge factor. Sounds very useful. But now an impacting meteorite will both have an high relative speed, and when it enters the field get that boosted by the same factor again: impacts will happen at velocities increased by a factor of as measured by the ship. So boosting your speed with a factor of a 1000 will give you dust hitting you at speeds a million times higher. Since typical interplanetary dust already moves a few km/s, we are talking about hyperrelativistic impactors. The armour above sounds like a good thing to have…
Note that any inertia-reducing technology is going to improve rockets even if there is no reactionless drive or other shenanigans: you just reduce the inertia of the reaction mass. The rocket equation no longer bites: sure, your ship is mostly massive reaction mass in storage, but to accelerate the ship you just take a measure of that mass, restore its inertia, expel it, and enjoy the huge acceleration as the big engine pushes the overall very low-inertia ship. There is just a snag in this particular case: when restoring the inertia you somehow need to give the mass enough kinetic energy to be at rest in relation to the ship…
This kind of inertics does not make for a great cannon. I can certainly make my projectile speed up a lot in the bore by lowering its inertia, but as soon as it leaves it will slow down. If we assume a given amount of force accelerating it along the length bore, it will pick up Joules of kinetic energy from the work the cannon does – independent of mass or inertia! The difference may be power: if you can only supply a certain energy per second like in a coilgun, having a slower projectile in the bore is better.
Note that entering and leaving an inertics field will induce stresses. A metal rod entering an inertia-increasing field will have the part in the field moving more slowly, pushing back against the not slowed part (yet another plus for the armour!). When leaving the field the lighter part outside will pull away strongly.
Another effect of shifting velocities is that gases behave differently. At first it looks like changing speeds would change temperature (since we tend to think of the temperature of a gas as how fast the molecules are bouncing around), but actually the kinetic temperature of a gas depends on (you guessed it) the average kinetic energy. So that doesn’t change at all. However, the speed of sound should scale as : it becomes far higher in the inertia-dampening field, producing helium-voice like effects. Air molecules inside an inertia-decreasing field would tend to leave more quickly than outside air would enter, producing a pressure difference.
Momentum conservation is a headache
Changing the velocity so that energy is conserved unfortunately has a drawback: momentum is not conserved! I throw a heavy object at my inertics machine at velocity , momentum and energy , it reduces is inertia and increases the speed to , keeps the kinetic energy at , and the momentum is now .
What if we assume the momentum change comes from the field or machine? When I hit the mass machine with an object it experiences a force enough to change its velocity by . When set to increase inertia it is pushed back a bit, potentially moving up to speed . When set to decrease inertia it is pushed forward, starting to move towards the direction the object impacted from. In fact, it can get arbitrarily large velocities by reducing close to 0.
This sounds odd. Demanding momentum and energy conservation requires (giving the above formula) and , which insists that . Clearly we cannot have both.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather keep energy conserved. It is more obvious when you cheat about energy conservation.
Still, as Einstein pointed out using 4-vectors, momentum and energy conservation are deeply entangled – one reason inertics isn’t terribly likely in the real world is that they cannot be separated. We could of course try to conserve 4-momentum (), which would look like changing both energy and normal momentum at the same time.
Energy gain/loss to preserve momentum
What about just retaining the normal momentum rather than the kinetic energy? The new velocity would be , the new kinetic energy would be . Just like in the kinetic energy preserving case the object slows down (or speeds up), but more strongly. And there is an energy debt of that needs to be fixed.
One way of resolving energy conservation is to demand that the change in energy is supplied by the inertia-manipulation device. My ping-pong ball does not change momentum, but requires 0.999 Joule to gain the new kinetic energy. The device has to provide that. When the ball leaves the field there will be a surge of energy the device needs to absorb back. Some nice potential here for things blowing up in dramatic ways, a requirement for any self-respecting space opera.
If I want to accelerate my spaceship in this setting, I would point my momentum vector towards the target, reduce my inertia a lot, and then have to provide a lot of kinetic energy from my inertics devices and power supply (actually, store a lot – the energy is a surplus). At first this sounds like it is just as bad as normal rocketry, but in fact it is awesome: I can convert my electricity directly into velocity without having to lug around a lot of reaction mass! I will even get it back when slowing down, a bit like electric brake regeneration systems. The rocket equation does not apply beyond getting some initial momentum. In fact, the less velocity I have from the start, the better.
At least in this scheme inertia-reduced reaction mass can be restored to full inertia within the conceptual framework of energy addition/subtraction.
One drawback is that now when I run into interplanetary dust it will drain my batteries as the inertics system needs to give it a lot of kinetic energy (which will then go on harming me!)
Another big problem (pointed out by Erik Max Francis) is that turning energy into kinetic energy gives an energy requirement dK/dt=mva, which depends on an absolute speed. This requires a privileged reference frame, throwing out relativity theory. Oops (but not unexpected).
Energy addition/depletion makes traditional force-fields somewhat plausible: a projectile hits the field, and we use the inertics to reduce its kinetic energy to something manageable. A rifle bullet has a few thousand Joules of energy, and if you can drain that it will now harmlessly bounce off your normal armour. Presumably shields will be depleted when the ship cannot dissipate or store the incoming kinetic energy fast enough, causing the inertics to overload and then leaving the ship unshielded.
This kind of inertics allows us to accelerate projectiles using the inertics technology, essentially feeding them as much kinetic energy as we want. If you first make your projectile super-heavy, accelerate it strongly, and then normalise the inertia it will now speed away with a huge velocity.
A metal rod entering this kind of field will experience the same type of force as in the kinetic energy respecting model, but here the field generator will also be working on providing energy balance: in a sense it will be acting as a generator/motor. Unfortunately it does not look like it could give a net energy gain by having matter flow through.
Note that this kind of device cannot be simply turned off like the previous one: there has to be an energy accounting as everything returns to . The really tricky case is if you are in energy-debt: you have an object of lowered inertia in the field, and cut the power. Now the object needs to get a bunch of kinetic energy from somewhere. Sudden absorption of nearby kinetic energy, freezing stuff nearby? That would break thermodynamics (I could set up a perpetual motion heat engine this way). Leaving the inertia-changed object with the changed inertia? That would mean there could be objects and particles with any effective mass – space might eventually be littered with atoms with altered inertia, becoming part of normal chemistry and physics. No such atoms have ever been found, but maybe that is because alien predecessor civilisations were careful with inertial pollution.
Another approach is to say that we are manipulating spacetime so that inertial forces are cancelled by a suitable gravity force (or, for purists, that the acceleration due to something gets cancelled by a counter-acceleration due to spacetime curvature that makes the object retain the same relative momentum).
The classic is the “gravitic drive” idea, where the spacecraft generates a gravity field somehow and then free-falls towards the destination. The acceleration can be arbitrarily large but the crew will just experience freefall. Same thing for accelerating projectiles or making force-fields: they just accelerate/decelerate projectiles a lot. Since momentum is conserved there will be recoil.
The force-fields will however be wimpy: essentially it needs to be equivalent to an acceleration bringing the projectile to a stop over a short distance. Given that normal interplanetary velocities are in tens of kilometres per second (escape velocity of Earth, more or less) the gravity field needs to be many, many Gs to work. Consider slowing down a 20 km/s railgun bullet to a stop over a distance of 10 meters: it needs to happen over a millisecond and requires a 20 million m/s^2 deceleration (2.03 megaG).
If we go with energy and momentum conservation we may still need to posit that the inertics/antigravity draws power corresponding to the work it does . Make a wheel turn because of an attracting and repulsing field, and the generator has to pay the work (plus experience a torque). Make a spacecraft go from point A to B, and it needs to pay the potential energy difference, momentum change, and at least temporarily the gain in kinetic energy. And if you demand momentum conservation for a gravitic drive, then you have the drive pulling back with the same “force” as the spacecraft experiences. Note that energy and momentum in general relativity are only locally conserved; at least this kind of drive can handwave some excuse for breaking local momentum conservation by positing that the momentum now resides in an extended gravity field (and maybe gravitational waves).
Unlike the previous kinds of inertics this doesn’t change the properties of matter, so the effects on objects discussed below do not apply.
One problem is edge tidal effects. Somewhere there is going to be a transition zone where there is a field gradient: an object passing through is going to experience some extreme shear forces and likely spaghettify. Conversely, this makes for a nifty weapon ripping apart targets.
One problem with gravity manipulation is that it normally has to occur through gravity, which is both very weak and only has positive charges. Electromagnetic technology works so well because we can play positive and negative charges against each other, getting strong effects without using (very) enormous numbers of electrons. Gravity (and gravitomagnetic effects) normally only occurs due to large mass-energy densities and momenta. So for this to work there better be antigravitons, negative mass, or some other way of making gravity behave differently from vanilla relativity. Inertics can typically handwave something about the Higgs field at least.
This leaves out the gravity part and just posits that you can place force vectors wherever you want. A bit like Iain M. Banks’ effector beams. No real constraints because it is entirely made-up physics; it is not clear it respects any particular conservation laws.
Other physical effects
Here are some of the nontrivial effects of changing inertia of matter (I will leave out gravity manipulation, which has more obvious effects).
Electromagnetism: beware the blue carrot
It is worth noting that this thought experiment does not affect light and other electromagnetic fields: photons are massless. The overall effect is that they will tend to push around charged objects in the field more or less. A low-inertia electron subjected to a given electric field will accelerate more, a high-inertia electron less. This in turn changes the natural frequencies of many systems: a radio antenna will change tuning depending on the inertia change. A receiver inside the inertics field will experience outside signals as being stronger (if the field decreases inertia) or weaker (if it increases it).
Reducing inertia also increases the Bohr magneton, . This means that paramagnetic materials become more strongly affected by magnetic fields, and that ferromagnets are boosted. Conversely, higher inertia reduces magnetic effects.
Changing inertia would likely change atomic spectra (see below) and hence optical properties of many compounds. Many pigments gain their colour from absorption due to conjugated systems (think of carotene or heme) that act as antennas: inertia manipulation will change the absorbed frequencies. Carotene with increased inertia will presumably shift its absorption spectra towards lower frequencies, becoming redder, while lowered inertia causes a green or blue shift. An interesting effect is that the rhodopsin in the eye will also be affected and colour vision will experience the same shift (objects will appear to change colour in regions with a different from the place where the observer is, but not inside their field). Strong enough fields will cause shifts so that absorption and transmission outside the visual range will matter, e.g. infrared or UV becomes visible.
However, the above claim that photons should not be affected by inertia manipulation may not have to hold true. Photons carry momentum, where k is the wave vector. So we could assume a factor of or gets in there and the field red/blueshifts photons. This would complicate things a lot, so I will leave analysis to the interested reader. But it would likely make inertics fields visible due to refractive effects.
Chemistry: toxic energy levels, plus a shrink-ray
One area inertics would mess up is chemistry. Chemistry is basically all about the behaviour of the valence electrons of atoms. Their behaviour depends on their distribution between the atomic orbitals, which in turn depends on the Schrödinger equation for the atomic potential. And this equation has a dependency on the mass of the electron and nucleus.
If we look at hydrogen-like atoms, the main effect is that the energy levels become
where is the reduced mass. In short, the inertial manipulation field scales the energy levels up and down proportionally. One effect is that it becomes much easier to ionise low-inertia materials, and that materials that are normally held together by ionization bonds (say NaCl salt) may spontaneously decay when in high-inertia fields.
The Bohr radius scales as : low-inertia atoms become larger. This really messes with materials. Placed in a low-inertia field atoms expand, making objects such as metals inflate. In a high inertia-field, electrons keep closer to the nuclei and objects shrink.
As distances change, the effects of electromagnetic forces also change: internal molecular electric forces, van der Waals forces and things like that change in strength, which will no doubt have effects on biology. Not to mention melting points: reducing the inertia will make many materials melt at far lower temperatures due to larger inter-atomic and inter-molecular distances, increasing it can make room-temperature liquids freeze because they are now more closely packed.
This size change also affects the electron-electron interactions, which among other things shield the nucleus and reduce the effective nuclear charge. The changed energy levels do not strongly affect the structure of the lightest atoms, so they will likely form the same kind of chemical bonds and have the same chemistry. However, heavier atoms such as copper, chromium and palladium already have ordering rules that are slightly off because of the quirks of the energy levels. As the field deviates from 1 we should expect lighter and lighter atoms to get alternative filling patterns and this means they will get different chemistry. Given that copper and chromium are essential for some enzymes, this does not bode well – if copper no longer works in cytochrome oxidase, the respiratory chain will lethally crash.
If we allow permanently inertia-altered particles chemistry can get extremely weird. An inertia-changed electron would orbit in a different way than a normal one, giving the atom it resided in entirely different chemical properties. Each changed electron could have its own individual inertia. Presumably such particles would randomise chemistry where they resided, causing all sorts of odd reactions and compounds not normally seen. The overall effect would likely be pretty toxic, since it would on average tend to catalyze metastable high-energy, low-entropy structures in biochemistry to fall down to lower energy, higher entropy states.
Lowering inertia in many ways looks like heating up things: particles move faster, chemicals diffuse more, and things melt. Given that much of biochemistry is tremendously temperature dependent, this suggests that even slight changes of to 0.99 or 1.01 would be enough to create many of the bad effects of high fever or hypothermia, and a bit more would be directly lethal as proteins denaturate.
Fluids: I need a lie down
Inside a lowered inertia field matter responds more strongly to forces, and this means that fluids flow faster for the same pressure difference. Buoyancy cases stronger convection. For a given velocity, the inertial forces are reduced compared to the viscosity, lowering the Reynolds number and making flows more laminar. Conversely, enhanced inertia fluids are hard to get to move but at a given speed they will be more turbulent.
This will really mess up the sense of balance and likely blood flow.
Gravity: equivalent exchange
I have ignored the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass. One way for me to get away with it is to claim that they are still equivalent, since everything occurs within some local region where my inertics field is acting: all objects get their inertial mass multiplied by and this also changes their gravitational mass. The equivalence principle still holds.
What if there is no equivalence principle? I could make 1 kg object and a 1 gram object fall at different accelerations. If I had a massless spring between them it would be extended, and I would gain energy. Beside the work done by gravity to bring down the objects (which I could collect and use to put them back where they started) I would now have extra energy – aha, another perpetual motion machine! So we better stick to the equivalence principle.
Given that boosting inertia makes matter both tend to shrink to denser states and have more gravitational force, an important worldbuilding issue is how far I will let this process go. Using it to help fission or fusion seems fine. Allowing it to squeeze matter into degenerate states or neutronium might be more world-changing. And easy making of black holes is likely incompatible with the survival of civilisation.
[ Still, destroying planets with small black holes is harder than it looks. The traditional “everything gets sucked down into the singularity” scenario is surprisingly slow. If you model it using spherical Bondi accretion you need an Earth-mass black hole to make the sun implode within a year or so, and a kg asteroid mass black hole to implode the Earth. And the extreme luminosity slows things a lot more. A better way may be to use an evaporating black hole to irradiate the solar system instead, or blow up something sending big fragments. ]
Another fun use of inertics is of course to mess up stars directly. This does not work with the energy addition/depletion model, but the velocity change model would allow creating a region of increased inertia where density ramps up: plasma enters the volume and may start descending below the spot. Conversely, reducing inertia may open a channel where it is easier for plasma from the interior to ascend (especially since it would be lighter). Even if one cannot turn this into a black hole or trigger surface fusion, it might enable directed flares as the plasma drags electromagnetic field lines with it.
The probe was invisible on the monitor, but its effects were obvious: titanic volumes of solar plasma were sucked together into a strangely geometric sunspot. Suddenly there was a tiny glint in the middle and a shock-wave: the telemetry screens went blank.
“Seems your doomsday weapon has failed, professor. Mad science clearly has no good concept of proper workmanship.”
“Stay your tongue. This is mad engineering: the energy ran out exactly when I had planned. Just watch.”
Without the probe sucking it together the dense plasma was now wildly expanding. As it expanded it cooled. Beyond a certain point it became too cold to remain plasma: there was a bright flash as the protons and electrons recombined and the vortex became transparent. Suddenly neutral the matter no longer constrained the tortured magnetic field lines and they snapped together at the speed of light. The monitor crashed.
“I really hope there is no civilization in this solar system sensitive to massive electromagnetic pulses” the professor gloated in the dark.
Model Pros Cons Preserve kinetic energy Nice armour. Fast spacecraft with no energy needs (but weird momentum changes). Interplanetary dust is a problem. Inertics cannons inefficient. Toxic effects on biochemistry. Preserve momentum Nice classical forcefield. Fast spacecraft with energy demands. Inertics cannons work. Potential for cool explosions due to overloads. Interplanetary dust drains batteries. Extremely weird issues of energy-debts: either breaking thermodynamics or getting altered inertia materials. Toxic effects on biochemistry. Breaks relativity. Gravity manipulation No toxic chemistry effects. Fast spacecraft with energy demands. Inertics cannons work. Forcefields wimpy. Gravitic drives are iffy due to momentum conservation (and are WMDs). Gravity is more obviously hard to manipulate than inertia. Tidal edge forces.
In both cases where actual inertia is changed inertics fields appear pretty lethal. A brief brush with a weak field will likely just be incapacitating, but prolonged exposure is definitely going to kill. And extreme fields are going to do very nasty stuff to most normal materials – making them expand or contract, melt, change chemical structure and whatnot. Hence spacecraft, cannons and other devices using inertics need to be designed to handle these effects. One might imagine placing the crew compartment in a counter-inertics field keeping while the bulk of the spacecraft is surrounded by other fields. A failure of this counter-inertics field does not just instantly turn the crew into tuna paste, but into blue toxic tuna paste.
Gravity manipulation is cleaner, but this is not necessarily a plus from the cool fiction perspective: sometimes bad side effects are exactly what world-building needs. I love the idea of inertics with potential as an anti-personnel or assassination weapon through its biochemical effects, or “forcefields” being super-dense metal with amplified inertia protecting against high-velocity or beam impact.
The atomic rocket page makes a big deal out of how reactionless propulsion makes space opera destroying weapons of mass destruction (if every tramp freighter can be turned into a relativistic missile, how long is the Imperial Capital going to last?) This is a smaller problem here: being hit by a inertia-reduced freighter hurts less, even when it is very fast (think of being hit by a fast ping-pong ball). Gravity propulsion still enables some nasty relativistic weaponry, and if you spend time adding kinetic energy to your inertia-reduced missile it can become pretty nasty. But even if the reactionless aspect does not trivially produce WMDs inertia manipulation will produce a fair number of other risky possibilities. However, given that even a normal space freighter is a hypervelocity missile, the problem lies more in how to conceptualise a civilisation that regularly handles high-energy objects in the vicinity of centres of civilisation.
Not discussed here are issues of how big the fields can be made. Could we reduce the inertia of an asteroid or planet, sending it careening around? That has some big effects on the setting. Similarly, how small can we make the inertics: do they require a starship to power them, or could we have them in epaulettes? Can they be counteracted by another field?
Inertia-changing devices are really tricky to get to work consistently; most space opera SF using them just conveniently ignores the mess – just like how FTL gives rise to time travel or that talking droids ought to transform the global economy totally.
But it is fun to think through the awkward aspects, since some of them make the world-building more exciting. Plus, I would rather discover them before my players, so I can make official handwaves of why they don’t matter if they are brought up.
The ability to put crew members to sleep for months at a time would be an awfully convenient thing to have. Such crew members would use air and food at a much reduced rate and would not be prey to interplanetary cabin fever or space cafard.
Hibernation or "cold-sleep" would mimic what bears and squirrels do in the winter. The crewmember would sleep and breath slowly. Food would be administered by an intravenous pump or the body's internal fat could be used. The crew member still ages, abet at a slighly slower rate.
Suspended animation, cryo-freeze, or cryogenic suspension is more extreme. The crewmember is frozen solid in liquid nitrogen. They do not breath, eat, nor age. Special techniques must be used to prevent the ice in the body's cells from freezing into tiny jagged knives shredding the organs. This is naturally more dangerous than mere hibernation. It is generally used for slower-than-light interstellar exploration (where the travel time is much longer than average human life span), or to put a crewmember with an acute medical condition into stasis if the ship cannot arrive at a hospital for some months.
In Doppelgänger the astronauts spent the three week trip plugged into a "Heart Lung Kidney" machine via veins in their wrists. This kept them oxygenated, fed, and sedated into a deep sleep for the entire trip.
In William Tedford's Silent Galaxy, interplanetary fighter pilots would sometimes find themselves out of fuel and on trajectories that would take years to return to a spot where they could be rescued. They would use hibernation to stretch their consumables and to sleep the time away.
Hibernation and suspension is often encountered in SF novels where large numbers of people have to be shipped, e.g., troop carriers, slave ships, and undesirable persons shipped off as involuntary colonists to some miserable planetary colony. Some passenger liners will have accomodations of First-class, Second-class, and Freeze-class (instead of Steerage). There is often a chance of mortality associated with hibernation and suspension. In some of the crasser passenger ships there will sometimes be a betting pool, placing bets on the number of freeze-class passengers who don't make it.
Poul Anderson noted that there is probably a limit to how long a human will remain viable in cryogenic suspension (in other words they have a shelf-life). Naturally occuring radioactive atoms in the body will cause damage. In a non-suspended person such damage is repaired, but in a suspended person it just accumulates. He's talking about this damage happening over suspensions lasting several hundred years, during interstellar trips. This may require one to periodically thaw out crew members and keep them awake for long enough to heal the damage before re-freezing them.
SpaceWorks Engineering is working on a cold-sleep system for a NASA mission to Mars. You can read their report here. This is for a cold-sleep/hibernation system, since we are no where near knowing how to do full suspended animation.
Having the astronauts pass the journey in cold-sleep has many benefits, but the most remarkable one is the huge payload mass savings. In the table below, the habitat module from the NASA Mars Design Reference Architecture (DRA) 5.0 study is compared to the same module using cold-sleep technology. The mass savings is a whopping 52% !
|TOTAL MASS IN LEO||41,330||19,860||-52%|
The report lists the following benefits:
- Reduction in required amount of consumables
- Reduction in required pressurized living space volume
- Elimination of many ancillary crew accommodations (galley, kitchen, exercise equipment, entertainment, etc.)
- Reduction of psychological challenges for crew
And the Hab Module mass savings can be used to increase payload, increase delta V, expand launch windows and mission options, increase radiation shielding, reduce the number of heavy-lift launches, reduce number of on-orbit assembly operations, increase subsystem mass margins (to improve redundancy, reliability, and safety).
The report focuses on Therapeutic Hypothermia (temperature-based hibernation) as the method of choice to induce cold-sleep. Mostly because it has actually been used medically to treat ailments such as cardiac arrest, ischemic stroke, traumatic brain injury, etc. Chemical/Drug-based (hydrogen sulfide or activating adenosine receptors) and Brain Synaptic-based hibernation are much less mature technologies. The report assumes that therapeutic hypothermia can be advanced to the point where the astronaut's metabolism can be reduced from normal to somewhere between moderate and significant reduction (but not to actual total metabolic stoppage), for periods of many months. Black bears and some rodents can do it, so we know it is possible.
- Invasive: cooled intravenous fluids, e.g., CoolGard 3000Rtm with IcyT catheter by ZOLL Medical
- Non-invasive: evaporative gases in the nasal and oral cavity, e.g., RhinoChill Systemtm
- Passive: conductive cooling (and rewarming) with gel pads placed on the body, e.g., KOALA Systemtm
All three methods are low mass, low power, and easily automated.
The astronauts will be fed by Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN), which means fed intravenously. The nutrient fluid is a mixture containing lipids, amino acids, dextrose, electrolytes, vitamins, and trace elements; all the essential nutrients needed for a human body to function.
- Delivered via a tunneled central venous catheter or a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC)
- Administered through pump or gravity IV, usually given at around 50 ml per hour with supplemental maintenance fluids.
- Bypasses the usual process of eating and digestion; digestive tract is inactive.
There are some medical challenges to solve, such as blood clotting, bleeding, infection, electrolyte imbalances, fatty liver, liver failure, bone demineralization, hypo/hyper glycemia, bile stasis, and others. The chosen method must have little or no long-term effects, no effects on crew functional abilities, and there should be some protocol for an accelerated warming/wakeup in case of emergencies
There are some maladies that afflict people who spend prolonged periods in microgravity, exposed to space radiation, and exposed to radiation from nuclear propulsion. These could be characteristic signs of space traveling old-timers.
Maladies from Microgravity
The most obvious effect of microgravity is the astronaut's muscles atrophy and the shedding of calcium by their bones (1% to 1.5% per month, like osteoporosis). Being weak with brittle bones isn't lethal but presumably the astronauts at some point want to return home to Terra and still be able to walk. Science fiction literature is full of mandatory exercise to combat this, with "exercise credits" awarded for time spent under acceleration and in centrifuges. NASA astronauts on the International Space Station have to exercise two hours a day for this reason. Some astronauts (or colonists of low gravity planets and moons) might require man-amplifier prosthetics in order to walk under a full Terran gravity.
Naturally such space osteoporosis can lead to kidney stones, the agony of which is the closest a male will ever come to the sensation of giving birth. Space osteoporosis can also be combated by exercise.
Astronaut's eyes are especially vulnerable. Recently NASA made the horrible discovery that exposure to microgravity for six months or longer causes permanent damage to the eyes, similar to idiopathic intercranial hypertension. There is some evidence that this is due to enzyme polymorphisms that increases astronaut vulnerability to bodily fluid shift in free fall.
Astronauts may appear to be older than they actually are, because microgravity accelerates aging.
And a science fictional favorite is the microgravity adapted astronaut who when on Terra has a tendency to let go of glasses of water in mid air, expecting them to float.
Maladies from Radiation
The two main effects of radiation on an astronaut are  cancer and  death by radiation sickness. You are unlikely to encounter an old astronaut suffering from  unless you like to visit graveyards. But the probability is high that most old astronauts will have undergone treatment for cancer at one time or another. Probably several times. NASA tries to avoid this by ensuring that there are no old astronauts. NASA has strict career limits on astronaut radiation exposure.
Secondary effects of radiation are skin ulceration and blindness due to cataracts scarring. High-mass, high-charged (HZE) cosmic rays might accelerate the development of Alzheimer's disease. Radiation also lowers the immune system (chromosomal aberrations in lymphocytes), but it can recover.
Atomic rocketeers on board an atomic rocket will also without fail have a package of potassium iodide tablets on their persons at all times. Why? If the reactor core is breached, the mildly radioactive fuel and the intensely radioactive fission fragments will be released into the atmosphere. While none of the fission fragment elements are particularly healthy, Iodine-131 is particularly nasty. This is because ones thyroid gland does its level best to soak up iodine, radioactive or not. Thyroid cancer or a hoarse voice from thyroid surgery might be common among atomic rocket old-timers. The tablets prevent this by filling up the thyroid first, before the Iodine-131 arrives. The instant the reactor breach alarm sounds, whip out your potassium iodide tablets and swallow one.
Miscellaneous other Maladies
Astronauts who eat more than fifty grams per day of spirulina algae from your closed ecological life support system run the risk of developing gout. That could be Old Poor Astronaut Syndrome.
Old astronauts might have deformed fingernails due to space suit gloves.
Old astronauts might tend to become alarmed when they feel a breeze. To an astronaut, moving air means you have a hull breech.
Old astronauts might dislike hissing noises. To an astronaut, such noises means your spacesuit has sprung a leak.
Old astronauts might be anal-retentive about having every object either in its holder or tied down. In a spacecraft, unexpected acceleration converts any free-floating object into a deadly missile.
Old astronauts might tend to become alarmed of the building or vehicle they are in shudders. Because spacecraft never shudder unless they are lifting off from a planet's surface or about to disintegrate into fragments.
In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, belters do NOT perform any hand gestures at all. This is because Niven's belters fly in very small spacecraft called "singleships". The habitat module is only slightly larger than a coffin. Which is also the control cabin, i.e., there are controls on almost every surface.
Closed ecological life support systems are dynamite on paper. Instead of the spacecraft being forced to drag along tons of air, food, and water the CELSS can take sunlight or other energy source and magically produce the needed elements.
One little problem: novice spacecraft passengers tend to throw temper tantrums when you tell them they'll be eating and drinking recycled urine and faeces. The disgust reflex kicks in at the thought of drinking purified pee and reconstituted poop.
The problem is magnified by the fact that disgust is a powerful pro-survival trait favored by evolution. Creatures with disgust do not die as quickly, so it is a pretty fundamental reflex. You can try to explain to the passengers until you are blue in the face that the CELSS algae has totally transformed and sterilized the feedstocks into sparkling pure water and nutritious food, but they will stubbornly tell you they ain't gonna eat that crap. This can also be a predictor of a person's political orientation but I digress. Or maybe not; a science fiction author could use this fact for, say, an undercover agent inadvertently revealing themselves.
Researchers and engineers are facing this in the real world. There is a global shortage of potable water which could be solved by reclamation equipment transforming waste water into pure water. But the people who could be helped would rather die of thirst. Scientists call it the "toilet-to-tap" problem.
This is a problem that needs to be fixed by a psychologist, not an engineer.
As a mental model, disgust about recycled water and food tends to mirror "magical thinking" used by pretechnological cultures. The four elements are:
- Physical contact is necessary for contagion to be effective.
- Permanence: Once magical contamination has occurred, it tends to be permanent. Neither time nor spatial distance reduce the effect substantially.
- Dose insensitivity: Very brief contact with a disgusting entity is sufficient to endow a target entity with disgust properties, cf. childhood bullying called "catching Cooties"
- Resistance of contaminated entities to purification. This amounts to indelibility of contamination for some contaminants and some individuals.
The sad fact of the matter is that even though the above magical thinking elements are totally untrue in the realm of science, most people are convinced that these elements are the true reality.
A closely related problem is a CELSS generating food in the form of insect protein. From a scientific standpoint this is an admirably efficient way to make food. From a human standpoint most people from western cultures will turn a little green around the gills at the thought of eating a plate of bugs. The disgust mechanism kicks in because it is trying to protect a person from infection. Insects and other vermin are associated with unhygienic conditions almost as strongly as urine and faeces.
Space Adaptation Syndrome aka "drop sickness" is a kind of motion sickness caused by weightlessness. Outer space sea-sickness, so to speak. Symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and an inability to care about anything but your own private world of pain. The joke is drop sickness makes you feel like you are going to die, and you are actually looking forwards to it.
About half of new astronauts suffer from drop-sickness when they first travel into space. Of those who suffer, 50% have mild symptoms, 40% have medium, and 10% have severe. The most severe that NASA ever recorded was that of Senator Jake Garn in 1985. They jokingly use the "Garn scale", where 1.0 Garn is the worst.
Drop sickness usually goes away after two to four days exposure to free fall. Occasionally there is a relapse, which can happen at any time. When suffering from drop sickness, be careful not to rapidly turn or shake your head. This will make the fluid in the inner ear slosh and make things much worse.
Novice NASA astronauts do not take motion-sickness medication on their first trip into orbit. It is considered better for them to be miserable for a day or two but actually adapt to become immune. This is also the reason NASA never schedules EVAs for the first two days of a mission.
Having said that, NASA astronaut always put on a transdermal dimenhydrinate anti-nausea patch when suiting up in a space suit, because throwing up inside a suit can be fatal. A little dramamine is much better than suffocating to death in a vomit-filled helmet.
Drop sickness can be avoided if the spacecraft or station has artificial gravity, though that creates more problems. And "disabled" persons with malfunctioning inner ears are immune to drop sickeness.
In a couple of Robert Heinlein novels free-fall newbies are issued "sick-kits." These are cloth barf bags that strap over your mouth. In other novels spacecraft with large numbers of passengers are equipped with vomit vacuums that stewards use to suck blobs of vomitus out of the air before they splash on something or somebody.
In some old science fiction novels the writers like to pull that tired old joke. The protagonist is offered an anti-drop-sickness pill before lift-off, and they decide to be all macho and decline the pill. Which results in projectile vomiting hilarity. Except in Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky, the port officials make quite sure that the young protagonist takes all his pills.
Ain't no gravity in space.
So when you cry in space, your tears accumulate over your eyes in large liquid balls. If you head moves the tear balls may detach and float around the room until they are sucked up by the ventilator grates. This stings and makes it very hard to see things.
Several SF novels point out the dangers inherent in cooping up people in a tin can surrounded by vacuum for months at a time. They will be prey to "space cafard" (i.e., deep space cabin fever, what the French Foreign Legion called "the beetle").
It can be even worse if the tin can is a little too cramped.
The only solutions seem to be [a] put them in the suspended animation freezer, [b] drug them, or [c] keep them busy, busy, busy! (a
bitching, er, ah complaining spacer is a happy spacer) The first officer can assign some worthless busy-work, like a once daily nose to stern ship inspection for micro-meteor holes.
One might think that the same problem would be faced by the crew on a military submarine, but as it turns out the analogy is inexact. Christopher Weuve says: A long submarine mission is six months, and keeping people sane is an issue, solved in part through over-work (which I think helps in the short run) and very careful screening.
A more constructive approach (for officers) is a huge stockpile of study-spools and daily home-work in such topics as higher mathematics, astronavigation, and nuclear physics. Plus other non-space related subjects just to keep the mind flexible. There will also be an active schedule of cross-training, e.g., the astrogator learning how to maintain an atomic drive unit. You never know when knowledge of a job outside of your specialty could prove vital in an emergency.
The sergeant in charge of the enlisted men will have to know when to turn a blind eye to the home-made moonshine "still" hidden on Z deck and the floating poker and dice games. Gambling and rocket-juice will combat boredom.
Last but not least is locally hosted internet games (local because a latency of 24 minutes makes real-time games impossible). However, such games might be restricted to cooperative games. Competitive games are too vulnerable to Griefers. If you have a bunch of crew whose nerves are already on edge due to living in a sardine can for the last eight months, the last thing you want is some sociopath deliberately enraging everybody. Tempers will flare while blood and body parts accumulate on the air intakes.
The other danger is internet games that are a little too immersive. Given the the choice between the real world of sensory deprivation inside the spacecraft and the fantasy world full of adventure and excitement, the crew might lose touch with reality. This was the topic of Poul Anderson's The Saturn Game.
In Anne McCaffrey's novel Dragonsdawn it states that the first two things human colonists always do on a new world are:
Here on Terra coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world, and there are many who cannot fully wake up and do work until they've had their morning cup of java. Particularly the various branches of the military. There are many who say that the US Navy runs on coffee. Furthermore it is hard to exaggerate the effect coffee houses had on merchant trading and shipping. Ship-owners, merchants, and insurance houses made deals in the coffee houses over cups of "the new black liquor from Turkey".
In a science fictional future, spacecraft crew may be forbidden tobacco to avoid death by asphyxiation but you can bet your last rocket they will have some sort of caffeinated beverage.
But since science fiction authors can't resit using the old Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp" trick, they will have all sorts of strange names for coffee in a desperate attempt to convince the reader that they are not in Kansas anymore. Occasionally in science fiction you will find species of deadly hyper-coffee with extreme effects.
In The Beast Master they drink Swankee, King David's Spaceship has Chickeest, the Sten novels have Caff, Warhammer 40K has Recaff, the Wheel of Time novels have Kaf, The Pern novels have Klah, and the Helmsman saga has Cvcesse. In Derelict for Trade they have Jakek which is a syntho coffee substitute the crew makes do with when times are lean.
More realistically the previously mentioned human colonists will find that coffee refuses to grow on their new world so they will frantically have to find a replacement. Authors are fond of having new colonists complain about how disgusting the local ersatz coffee is and how they miss the real stuff. Second and subsequent generations of colonists have never tasted honest-to-Joe coffee so they are satisfied with the substitute as long as it has plenty of caffeine.
While most illegal drugs and other controlled substances are rather difficult to manufacture in the space environment, good old alcohol is relatively easy. After all, convicts manage to make Pruno in prison; even with limited access to raw materials, workspace, and privacy from prison guards.
In most cases, the actual production of alcohol from sugar is done by yeast cultures. These cultures are almost impossible for the authorities to keep out of the hands of illegal brewer-masters of contraband alcoholic beverages. In the case of making wine, the yeast can be conveniently found already living on the grape skins.
And if the CELSS is using yeast to make single-cell protein, there is no way to prevent moonshiners from obtaining a supply. In 2015 the Australian government was considering making the national staple food Vegemite a controlled substance (inspiring howls of outrage). Apparently home-brewers in remote areas were purchasing Vegemite in bulk and using it to make moonshine. After all, the main ingredient of Vegemite is leftover brewers' yeast extract (not baker's yeast, brewers' yeast). In Australia there has already been a ban on Vegemite in prisons since the 1990's for the same reason. Controlling it outside of prison is going to be an uphill battle.
Note that when traveling, if the bacterial content of the local water is questionable, it is much safer to drink the local beer instead of the water. Use beer to brush your teeth as well. An ancient Egyptian tomb inscription boasted about the dear departed's generosity by saying "I gave bread to the hungry and beer to the thirsty".
Some anthropologists have a theory that early man invented agriculture not to increase the supply of food, but to increase the supply of beer.
Alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream slowly in the stomach, but the rate can be increased if the beverage is carbonated. This is why strong people who are apparently unaffected by a shot of whisky will sometimes start to giggle if they drink bubbly champagne (carbonated wine). Beer is carbonated, but it is so weak it needs all the help it can get. Champagne has more of a kick than non-carbonated wine. And a cocktail that includes some sort of carbonated mixer is most potent of all.
Keep in mind the drawback of carbonated beverages in free fall. You see, you cannot burp in space, not just burp gas at any rate. Here on Terra the gravity allows the gas to separate from the solids and liquids, so the burp contains only gas. But with no gravity, there is no separation, so a burp is more like projectile vomiting. Some astronauts called the "Bomit". This is bad enough, but it gets worse. Since the gas cannot exit the mouth via a burp, it has to find another way out…
Some old SF novels call space hooch "rocket juice", as a tribute to the torpedo juice from WW2. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk liked his Saurian Brandy, and McCoy was fond of Romulan ale. And of course Scotty is partial to scotch, even mixed with theragen.
It is also possible to have an alcoholic beverage as the focus of a science fiction story. I highly recommend Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy by Catherynne M. Valente
Needless to say, becoming drunk in an inherently dangerous environment such as deep space is a quick way to get yourself killed. In the US the legal drunk driving limit is 0.08% Blood Alcohol Content (other nations have different standards). A general rule is that one standardized "drink" = one hour = no exceptions (that is, if you had three drinks, wait three hours before driving). For private airplane pilots, the general rule is Eight Hours Bottle To Throttle.
In the U.S. (wet) Navy, drinking alcohol is not allowed while aboard a ship (since the passage of General Order No. 99 in 1914), and off ship it is forbidden if the person is on duty or under-aged. In the U.K., which has a tradition of a daily rum-ration for sailors, crew is limited to consume no more than 35mg of alcohol per 100ml when they are on safety-critical duty (same as the U.K. drink-drive limit). For U.K. naval crew handling weapons the limit is 9mg per 100ml. The U.K. Armed Forces Act of 2011 prohibited the consumption of more than five units of alcohol 24 hours before duty and no alcohol was to be consumed in the 10 hours before duty.
In Jerry Pournelle's Falkenberg's Legion series of science fiction novels the CoDominium navy and marines have no regulations against drinking alcohol, even on duty. But there are severe penalties for rendering oneself unfit for duty (penalties up to execution by firing squad). When deployed, CoDominium marines were commonly given a daily wine ration of half a liter per person.
A "wine" is an alcoholic beverage produced by yeast converting the sugar in fruit juice into ethanol. At some point the ethanol level rises high enough to kill off the yeast, halting production. This limits the proof of wines, usually 9%–16% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 18—32 proof.
A fortified wine is a wine with the alcohol content increased by adding some distilled spirits (generally brandy, which is distilled wine). If the brandy is added before the wine fermentation is completed the resulting fortified wine will be sweet. This is because the brandy kills off the yeast before all the sugar is consumed. Fortified wines can be up to 20% ABV (40 proof).
Some anthropologists have a theory that wine was discovered by some cave-man who took a drink out of a puddle full of rotting fruit.
A "beer" is an alcoholic beverage produced from grain, usually barley or wheat. First the grain is "malted": germinated in hot water, then dried. The malting process creates enzymes which can convert starch into sugar.
The malt is mixed with hot water to create what brewers call "wort" but we can call "yeast food." This allows the enzymes to convert the starch in the grains (which yeast cannot eat) into sugar (which yeast will merrily convert into alcohol). See "saccharification of starch".
After about two hours the malt enzymes has converted most of the starch into sugar, and the wort is boiled to get rid of some of the water. After the wort is cooled, it is put in a fermenter along with hungry yeast. The yeast put on their bibs, whip out their knives and forks, and start gobbling sugar while excreting ethanol. Yes, beer is yeast pee. As if that will stop you from drinking it. Beer is generally 2%—12% ABV (4—24 proof).
Since people have a tendency to be min-maxers, they looked for ways to increase the ethanol levels in their product. The tried and true method is to use a distillery rig, aka a moonshine "still". Such items have to heat up the source alcoholic beverage using fire, but in space the abundantly available vacuum can be used instead.
John Reiher notes that you do NOT want to use a vacuum still on beer or any other mash containing hops. One of the essential hop oils, Myrcene, has a boiling point of 63.9° C, which is under alcohol's 74° C. If you're not careful, you'll end up with very hoppy ethyl alcohol (i.e., incredibly bitter).
The basic idea is to remove water from the booze, thus increasing the relative percentage of alcohol. Conventional stills take advantage of the fact that water and alcohol have different volatility. That is, ethyl alcohol boils at a much lower temperature than water.
You boil the wine or mash at a temperature (78°C) which vaporizes the alcohol but very little of the water. Then you send the alcohol vapor through a condenser to turn it back into liquid. The alcohol drips out of the condenser into a jug. The condenser is that copper spiral tube (the "worm") you see on classic moonshine stills. Copper is used because it absorbs sulfur-based compounds which would otherwise make the product taste like skunk juice.
The products of a still are called distilled beverage, spirit, liquor, or hard liquor. Typical distilled spirits are about 40% ABV (80 proof), extreme stuff is 75% ABV (150 proof), Everclear grain alcohol is about 95% ABV (190 proof) which is close to being rocket fuel.
Whiskey and the like are made with pot stills where there is lots of water in the vapor sent to the condenser. After two distillations whiskey has a 70% ABV. Moonshine is made in moonshine stills, with very little water in the vapor. It has a 95% ABV, almost suitable for use in a Rocketdyne RS-88 rocket engine.
There are many kinds of distilled spirits. A "brandy" is distilled wine. A "whisky" is distilled from grain mash (like beer's barley or wheat) except whisky can also be made from corn or rye. You can think of whisky as distilled beer without being utterly wrong. A "vodka" is generally distilled from fermented potato mash, its main feature is the almost total lack of flavorings.
A more low-tech way to increase the alcohol level is to use freeze-distillation (aka "jacking"), such as in the manufacture of applejack. Alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than water (this is why you can use it as antifreeze). So in the American colonial period, apple juice from the harvest was allowed to ferment into a sort of fruit beer (less than 10% ABV). Then during the winter, the juice was placed outside to freeze, or at least the water would. The frozen lumps of water were removed, thus raising the alcoholic content of the remainder (up to 40% ABV). This method might be popular on newly colonized Terran planets with a low tech base. A drawback to freeze-distillation is that (unlike conventional distillation) the process concentrates dangerous poisons such as methanol and fusel oil.
Back in the 1920's during Prohibition in the US, amateurs made Bathtub gin. This lead to the creation of many gin cocktails, as the speakeasies desperately experimented with sugary flavors to mask the vile taste of the poorly made gin. Everything old is new again. Enlisted spacecraft crew will also be eager to steal fruit juices from the quartermaster to doctor the foul product of their vacuum stills.
In the anime Planetes, they recognize the fact that having male and female crew members cooped up in close quarters for weeks at a time can cause certain tensions. When stocking a spacecraft for a mission, one officially required item is a selection of erotic magazines (available at spaceport chandlery). This allows the crew members to take care of the problem in solitary fashion. Fornication among the crew is generally always a bad idea. There will be all the problems common to office romances, but with the hatred turned up to 11 by stress of living in such confined quarters.
The medic can prescribe libedo-suppressing medications, though if you haven't heard already the tales of various militaries putting saltpetre or potassium bromide in soldier's food is a myth.
The actual mechanics will be quite different, as the natural recoil will tend to make the couple separate and go flying into opposite sides of the cabin. Some futurists have spectulated that a set of bungee cords will be required. Other are of the opinion that a third person will be needed as a helper, much as has been observed with some species of dolphin in the free-fall environment of the ocean
Obviously there are problems with confining too many astronauts in a too-small habitat module for prolonged periods of time with not enough sleep and practically no privacy. Add pressure from ground control to work the astronauts to death coupled with boredom and you have a real recipe for blood floating all over the module. At least in an Arctic research station a researcher close to snapping can step outside for a breath of fresh air. Not so the astronaut
Cosmonaut Valery Ryumin, twice Hero of the Soviet Union, quotes this passage from The Handbook of Hymen by O. Henry in his autobiographical book about the Salyut 6 mission: “If you want to instigate the art of manslaughter just shut two men up in a eighteen by twenty-foot cabin for a month. Human nature won't stand it.”
This was sort of hinted at by the 1999-2000 Russian Sphinx-99 experiment. This enclosed six crewmembers in a simulated space station for six months. About two months into the experiment there was a bloody fist-fight between two of the Russian crewmembers. Shortly thereafter the Canadian female crewmember (Dr. Judith Lapierre) was dragged off camera by the Russian commander and forcibly french-kissed despite her vigorous protests. In two separate incidents. The researchers reponded by giving Dr. Lapierre the only key to one section of the simulated station.
The problem of astronaut cabin fever was even mentioned in a 1964 Saturday-morning cartoon called "Jonny Quest", in an episode entitled "Double Danger". Dr. Quest is looking for solutions to the cabin fever problem. He plans to visit Thailand to scout some hallucinogenic plants as a possible treatment or cure (the Jonny Quest producers didn't want to come out and openly say "marijuana" or "LSD" on a kid's TV show). Unfortunately for Dr. Quest, his arch-enemy the evil Dr. Zin wants to get his sinister claws on the plants. Apparently they can be used to make a tranquilizing drug capable of immobilizing entire cities. Mwah-ha-ha-ha!
And then there is the Break-Off effect. This was first reported before the dawn of space travel, by high altitude military airplane pilots. It was a type of psychological dissociative anomaly, a feeling of detachment. Most pilots felt peaceful, a few euphoric, and about a third were panic-stricken.
It was thought this would also happen with astronauts. But in the 1970's when cosmonauts and astronauts actually started flying the problem seemed to disappear.
It wasn't until recently that it became clear the Break-Off effect did not disappear in astronauts. What disappeared was the astronauts reporting it. Astronauts are in constant terror of being grounded, so they developed a "lie to fly" culture. The last thing they are going to do is report to the flight surgeons some scary mental breakdown that will get them grounded faster than a teenage girl staying out five hours past her curfew.
During the Apollo missions, some astronauts reported how the vision of Earth as the big blue marble caused a sudden cognitive shift in awareness. They suddenly saw Earth as a fragile ball of life where national boundaries became unimportant. A writer named Frank White coined the term The Overview Effect, and wrote a popular book on the topic in 1987. You can find some quotes about the effect here. Some have pointed out a similarity to the Japanese aesthetic of Yūgen.
And there are some psychologists who suspect that the Break-Off Effect and the Overview Effect are one and the same.
The US wet Navy crams twelve enlisted men into 100 m3, or 8.3 m3 per man. For deep space missions of 5 months or longer, this NASA report (Minimum Acceptable Net Habitable Volume for Long-Duration Exploration Missions) recommended a minimum acceptable Net Habitable Volume of 25 m3 (883 ft3) per person.
For more details go here.
Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are satirical fantasy for thinking people. While they are comedy, many of the jokes require a bit of scientific knowledge on the part of the reader. Which explains why I find them so entertaining. My personal favorites are The Truth (the invention of the newspaper), Going Postal (post office vs the Victorian internet), and Raising Steam (the invention of the steam locomotive).
Anyway like many fantasy novels the Discworld has a race of dwarfs. They spend most of their time in cramped mines in very close quarters with other dwarfs. Things can get tense.
Much like spacers on a prolonged deep-space mission in a tiny hab module, actually. Or asteroid miners.
As a sort of social network to reduce tensions Discworld dwarves use something called "mine signs", a species of graffiti. I am wondering of the idea can be adapted to a rocketpunk universe. Imagine Banksy using Spacers Runic
On a spacecraft it might be considered a bit ghetto-like to spray-paint Dwarf Mine Signs on the corridor walls to blow off emotional steam, even if you are using Spacer's Runic. Especially if this is a military spacecraft.
A more sophisticated method to deal with crew getting cabin fever would be to use a shipboard version of social media (space twitter) sending hashtags as a reflexive meta-commentary ( #THEFOODSTINKS! ). The main thing is that the messages have to be sent anonymously. Just like graffiti.
There was something like that in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Songs of Distant Earth, called "Shipnet."
A NASA technician said "If you treat vacuum as you would poison gas you won't go far wrong." G. Harry Stine coined the term "traumatic abaryia" which more or less means "damage caused to your body by sudden exposure to vacuum".
How does space kill you? Let me count the ways. Face it, the human body was not designed to properly function in the vacuum of space. At a rough guess a person can survive space exposure as long as they are placed back inside a pressured atmosphere within 90 seconds. After that time, death might be unavoidable. You will only have about ten seconds before you become unconscious. Dr. Geoffrey Landis has an analysis here. There are some more links on the topic of explosive decompression here.
And anybody who's seen 2001 A Space Odyssey knows that a human exposed to vacuum is not going to pop like a balloon.
In order of lethality the effects are:
The main deadly feature of space is the lack of air. Unsurprisingly, out of the six major lethal factors of outer space, four of them are due to fact that there ain't nothing to breath: Ebullism, Hypoxia, Hypocapnia, and Decompression Sickness.
Besides the fact that you can't breath, a dead giveaway which tells an astronaut that they are in a vacuum without a space suit is when the saliva in their mouth suddently starts to boil.
If you suddenly find yourself in a vacuum, do NOT try to hold your breath. The air pressure trapped in your lungs will cause pulmonary barotrauma (aka all the zillions of tiny alveoli of your lungs will start popping like balloons). This means even if you manage to make it back into a pressurized area, you'll still die since you cannot breath with exploded lungs. To be really safe you should yell to help expell every bit of your lung pressure.
And there are a couple of effects that are not actually lethal, just incredibly painful.
If you take glass of water, and lower the air pressure, the temperature point at which the water boils is lowered as well. This is why cake mixes have high altitude instructions: the watery part has a lower boiling point/maximum temperature than normal so it takes longer to cook. If you are living in a habitat module with a pure oxygen breathing mix, the pressure will be at about 32.4 kPa (80% normal Terran atmospheric pressure). Here too the cake mixes will take longer to cook since water boils at 70° C, and your tea will always be lukewarm.
What I am leading up to is the Armstrong Limit. You see, if the pressure drops to 6.3 kPa (63 mbar), water will boil at 37° C. Which just happens to be normal human body temperature. The saliva will boil off your tongue, the tears will boil off your eyes. If you become so frightened that you pee in your pants, that will boil as well. The same goes for poop but that's a horrible image I just don't want to think about.
The blood will boil in your veins too, were it not for the fortunate fact that your skin will pressurize your vascular system enough to prevent that unhappy state of affairs. This is why soft suits can get away with not pressurizing your body.
Yes, the technical name for this low-pressure boiling is ebullism, as previously mentioned.
Naturally astronauts will not commonly be constantly exposed to 6.3 kPa. Much more likly they will briefly encounter it as the pressure plummets to zero kPa, as all the breathing mix goes rushing out a deadly tear in their space suit or a major breech in the hull of the habitat module.
But in any event if your saliva starts to boil, be aware that you have only ten seconds to get to safety before you lose consiousness, and 80 additional seconds for your buddies to drag you into somewhere pressurized before you die. Be quick or be dead.
In addition: hands, feet, arms, and legs that are no pressurized will suffer an attack of Kittinger Syndrome. They will swell up to about twice normal size, with accompanying agonizing pain. Bringing back pressure will return them to normal, but if swollen for more than a few minutes there wil be aneurisms and hematomas. G. Harry Stine calls this "Vac Bite."
As a matter of interest, NASA has a rule that the International Space Station's airlock pressure has to be lowered to 3.5 kPa (35 mbar) before it is safe to open the hatch to space. Otherwise the residual air pressure inside the airlock could break the hinges.
Arguably the biggest killer in the space environment is Stupidity.
Larry Niven coined the phrase "Think of it as evolution in action".
A morbid but necessary fixture that nobody talks about will be the "C-Chute" (from the Isaac Asimov story with the same name). "C" is short for "Casualty". A dead body will quickly contaminate the air of the lifesystem, not to mention being a biohazard as it decomposes. So there has to be a way to jettison the dear departed.
Lacking a dedicated C-Chute, a spacecraft can make do with sending the corpse to the great beyond by using an airlock.
NASA doesn't want to talk about such things. NASA astronauts will make vague noises about the crew on the International Space Station storing a body in an airlock or in the coldest part of the station (where they already store garbage, to keep the smell down). If the dear departed died during an EVA, the crew would probably keep the body inside the suit. Apparently the body would decompose more rapidly inside the suit. And the suit will help keep in the noxious outgassing and unsanitary bacteria.
CONQUEST OF SPACE morale disaster
Also of concern is the effect on crew morale. Personnel will be prone to morbid thoughts while their crewmate(s) mortal remains are lying in the next cabin. There will probably be a tradition of laying the dead to rest within twenty-four hours of death.
It will be important to have an already established protocol for laying the dead to rest. In the movie Conquest of Space they did not have such an established protocol, and the results were ugly. During an EVA astronaut Andre Fodor is killed by a meteor. Not knowing what to do, they leave the body out there still on the safety line.
You can see the surviving crew start to freak out as they try to ignore their dead friend floating outside the porthole. Finally one of them cracks and starts to scream at the body. That's when the captain suddenly wakes up to the vital necessity of laying to rest the dear departed. Say a few words, and push the body off into space.
Don't bother trying to push it into collision course with the Sun, it takes far too much delta V and if the course is only a tiny bit off the body will just sling-shot around and head off to the Oort cloud.
As it turns out, NASA does not have an established protocol for dealing with unexpected dead bodies. They are going to be faced with the "Conquest of Space" scenario if they don't quit pretending that it will not happen. This is complicated by the fact that the UN space debris mitigation guidelines forbid space littering, which includes dumping dead bodies.
- Place the body of the dear departed into a special bag
- Hang the bag out in vacuum, where in an hour it will freeze-dry into the consistency of florist foam
- Bring the bag in and place it in a high-frequency vibration unit
- The body shatters into fine powder. You now have a bag full of about 23 kilograms of dust.
- Attach the bag to the outside of the spacecraft until it can be returned for proper burial
In far future and alien cultures there can be all sorts of methods for the disposal of the dead.
If the spacecraft uses a closed ecological life support system and is on a very long mission, they may be forced to recycle the body back into the system. However you'll probably find this more on a generational starship on a hundred year trip or in a space colony.
On military spacecraft, the death of crewmen will be a more common occurrence than on a NASA ship. For purposes of morale, a ship-board military funeral will be part of The Book of military regulations. Military ships cannot afford "Conquest of Space" scenarios, not with the high mortality rates common to battles. Science fiction authors are fond of such ships using their torpedo tubes to launch the dear departed to their eternal rest. In the webcomic Schlock Mercenary they use "coffinpedoes".
This was done with a lot less dignity in the movie Enemy Mine. In that movie the military was so callous and cynical about the many combat deaths that the space stations had a "funeral launcher" fed with dead soldiers on a conveyor belt, equipped with a side-magazine loaded with cheap funeral wreaths and Muzak-style funeral parlor music playing in the background. The current body in the launcher stops just long enough for the bored technicians on duty to check the deceased's religion and play the appropriate prerecorded last rites.
A popuar artistic motif is skeletons in spacesuits. But in reality a long-dead body in space is probably going to more resemble a mummy than a skeleton. They might look like the Gebelein predynastic mummies.