365daysDate: June 28, 2009

Title: Space Travel in Science Fiction


Podcaster: Vance Weaver

Organization: Its just little old me, Vance Weaver from Executive Painting and Texture

Description: In this edition of the 365 Days of Astronomy, enthusiast Vance Weaver of Executive Painting and Texture in Santa Clarita, California takes us on a journey through the universe as imagined in some of the great Science Fiction novels and movies. Space Travel in Science Fiction is looked at in stories such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and Dune, and includes SCI FI authors such as HG Wells, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Bio: Vance Weaver is a handyman and a painter in Santa Clarita, California. He studied math, science and astronomy in school.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is sponsored by Joseph Brimacombe.


My name is Vance the handyman in Santa Clarita, Ca. I grew up reading every sort of Science Fiction novel I could get my hands on. I would read late into the night, trying to understand concepts like hyperspace, relativity, stellar evolution, artificial gravity, conservation of energy, F=ma and E=mc2.
The best science fiction has heroes traveling to distant stars or galaxies, shooting ray guns at evil creatures, fighting galactic wars, saving the Universe!

Some stories of space travel were written around the time of the American Civil War. Like Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon in which a group of adventurers launch themselves at the moon from a gigantic cannon.
But there is a much more ancient story of man’s dream of traveling to the stars.

In Greek Mythology, Icarus, and his father, Daedalus, build wings of wax and feathers to escape from the island of Crete and crazy king Minos. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, fearing the heat would melt the wax, and send them plunging to their deaths. Icarus, being a teenager and therefore knowing everything, ignores his father’s cautions. He was thrilled with the experience of flying, and kept going higher and higher. But as he got closer to the heat of the sun the wax began to melt, the feathers loosened and the wings fell apart. Icarus fell into the sea and drowned.

In H.G. Wells’ 1903 novel, First Men in the Moon, a pair of adventurers fashion a space craft out of a new material capable of blocking gravity waves. Not a bad trick for 1903, considering that in the year 2009 experiments to detect gravity waves are not yet conclusive. But in H.G. Wells’ imagination, blocking gravity waves propels the space craft away from the Earth, and the adventurers travel to the moon in only a few days.

I can’t think of any other SCI FI examples of space travel by blocking gravity waves. The most common method of science fiction space travel is by rocket. Who hasn’t seen the classic Buck Rodgers rocket with a pointy dart-like front end, a big smoky flame coming out of the back, and the string holding the rocket on course across the movie screen?.

There are a lot of flying saucers in SCI FI, too. Flying saucers show up in movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Mars Attacks, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Independence Day. These space ships come zipping into our solar system on trajectories impossible for comets to achieve, and either land in New York City, or crash into a remote valley disguised as a meteorite. Often these flying saucers are enormous, city sized leviathans. Their occupants look like anything from your average business man to spaghettified grey men with dark mirrored sunglasses, and they either offer to save mankind from himself, or they make short work of our military in preparation to conquering the world.

Rockets and space ships in Science Fiction evolve alongside real science. In movies today you get a fusion powered, scaffold-looking space ship being pushed through space by a glowing bank of gargantuan ion jets.

But science, or at least engineering, has also tried to keep pace with Science Fiction. Today, real spacecraft are being designed to cruise the solar system using real ion engines. NASA’s Deep Space 1 was launched in 1998, and used Xenon gas as its fuel source. DS1 accelerated xenon ions up to 88,000 mph out of the business end of the space craft’s ion engine for almost 2 years. That equates to, let’s see: xenon has 54 protons, atomic mass 131.29, 88,000 mph, carry the 4…yeah, that creates a thrust of 0.02 pounds, roughly the force of a sheet of paper resting on the palm of your hand. Doesn’t sound like much, but DS1 achieved a top speed of just under 8,000 mph over the course of its mission.

And as for bigger and better rockets for cruising the interstellar space lanes, there are a couple of ideas that have been conceived in science, popularized in SCI FI, and may one day be brought to life. One such example is the Bussard Ramjet, proposed in 1960 by American Nuclear Physicist, Dr. Robert W. Bussard, and further developed in SCI FI by such authors as Larry Niven, and Poul Anderson. The idea is to scoop up all the hydrogen atoms you can that are floating around in space, funnel them into a fusion reactor, and accelerate them out the back end as propellant at relativistic speeds.

According to Dr. Bussard, such a drive could accelerate a space craft to greater than 70% of light speed in less than a year. That could put a man (or a robot) in orbit around the nearest stellar companion to the sun, Proxima Centauri, a mere 4.2 light years away, in less than one life time.

But people flitting about the universe in science fiction need more than just raw power and faster rockets. The universe is unimaginably huge, and Einstein gave us a maximum speed limit that we can never exceed. The nearest planet of interest might be millions or billions of light years away. It could take more time than the universe has been in existence to get to the plot of some science fiction stories if it were not for alternative means of space travel.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. David Bowman escapes from HAL, the deranged computer, abandons his spaceship, and is pulled into a monolith on the surface of Iapetus, the 3rd moon of Saturn. The monolith is really a portal to a sort of Grand Central Station of the Universe, located in a star system far away from the Milky Way Galaxy. Bowman observes spacecraft from other space faring species popping out of one portal, and diving into another, crossing the universe without trekking the countless light years by using this interstellar switching station.

“Wait a minute,” you’re saying. “Iapetus? In 2010, the sequel to 2001, the abandoned space ship was in orbit around Io, the 5th moon of Jupiter and the 1st Galilean Satellite.” Well, that’s right. In the forward to 2010, Arthur C. Clarke apologetically explains that there was just too much good stuff we had learned from Voyager about the moons of Jupiter to leave the spaceship in orbit near Saturn, including active volcanoes on Io, and possibly ice covered oceans on Europa. If there could be water on Europa, it became plausible that extraterrestrial life might have evolved there. He retroactively moved the location from the 1st book, in one of SCI FI’s great examples of keeping up with real science. Proposals have since been made to place robotic submarines on Europa to search for life. But a note of caution there: in the course of the 2010 novel, we are warned that humans are not allowed to visit Europa. Life that has formed there is not to be contacted or disturbed. It’s all part of the alien’s plan to nudge life out of the primitive, and into the scientific age – just like they did for us in the prologue of 2001. Hooray for alien benefactors!

In Dune, created by Frank Herbert, Interplanetary Space Travel is accomplished by another sort of short cut – folded space… Traveling through folded space is comparable to finding the shortest path between 2 points on a piece of paper. If a piece of paper represents the 3 dimensional universe, the shortest distance between those points is a straight line…unless the paper is folded such that the 2 points touch each other through a higher dimension. In Dune, Spacing Guild Navigators fold the paper (or the universe) and pilot the ship across the fold to their destination.

One can think of this folded higher dimensional space as hyperspace. Today, String Theory predicts that there are a whole bunch of extra, or “Hyperspacial” dimensions. Not just the 3 dimensions that we’re all familiar with, not just the 4 dimensions of Albert Einstein’s space-time, but 10 dimensions, 11 dimension, maybe even 21 dimensions. I can’t keep on top of the number of dimensions predicted by String Theory. But travel through some form of Hyperspace has become a popular solution to many a science fiction story.

In the original Star Trek TV series, the starship Enterprise frequently zooms about the galaxy at Warp Speed. How this is supposed to work is somewhat disputed by fans and enthusiasts, but essentially the Warp Drive creates a bubble of Hyperspace around the spaceship. The ship is driven at essentially faster than light speed through this Warp Bubble by contracting space in the front of the bubble, making the distance traveled to the destination shorter, and therefore the equivalent speed through 4 dimensional space-time much faster.

Another fantastic method of travel in Star Trek is the Transporter. You step into the transporter, and your molecules are disassembled, teleported to some distant location, and reassembled again – hopefully in the right sequence.

But Star Trek was not the first movie in which a teleportation device was used. There have been several creative descriptions of beaming disassembled molecules through space. One of my favorites is the classic 1958 Vincent Price movie, The Fly.

In The Fly, a scientist experiments with a matter transporter, with which he is able to teleport objects across a short distance, but which he believes will revolutionize transportation. When he decides to test it on himself, he accidentally mixes his own molecules with that of a fly and becomes a horrible creature with a fly’s head and arm. “Help me…”

In The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut describes Chrono Synclastic Infundibula as “those places in space and time where all the different kinds of truths fit together. When characters enter the Infundibula, they become “wave phenomena,” somewhat akin to probability waves encountered in quantum mechanics. They exist a long a spiral stretching from our Sun to the star Betelgeuse. When a planet, such as the Earth, or Mars, or Mercury, intersects this spiral, the characters temporarily materialize on that planet.

Kurt Vonnegut didn’t care much for the details of the science, but Chrono Synclastic Infundibula sounds eerily like the multi-dimensional universe of String Theory. Vonnegut’s description of “Chrono Synclastic Infundibula” is pretty illusive and esoteric, and some would criticize his authenticity as a SCI FI author since it is not based on any current theory of cosmology. But come on – how many people really have a handle on String Theory, General Relativity, …

So the next time the Millennium Falcon engages the Hyperdrive and zooms off into the stars, remember, its only Science Fiction. Its not real…yet

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
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