Fifty years ago today, a Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 mission launched from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. Four days later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon for humanity’s first time. This was the peak of the “Space Race” and a remarkable achievement for the human race. It also represented yet another example of science fiction becoming science reality: writers have told stories of people going to the moon for millennia.
The first science fiction narrative in history (A True Story, written in the second century by Syrian author Lucian of Samosata) tells the tale of travelers carried to the Moon by a whirlwind. In The Man in the Moone (Francis Godwin, 1638), a Spanish fugitive is carried to the moon by a giant swan. Cyrano de Bergerac’s character in The Other World (1657) reaches the Moon via a firework-powered machine.
We might consider Jules Verne as one of the first authors to put some science into his moon-landing tale. His 1865 novel From Earth to the Moon, describes the construction of a massive “Columbiad” cannon that fires a manned projectile toward the Moon. The effort requires massive public fundraising and international cooperation. Intriguingly, the requirements for the cannon were based on detailed calculations that Jules Verne made regarding the angle and velocity. Some of his figures are remarkably accurate by modern standards. Prophetically, the Columbiad was constructed in Florida in the United States, a location that saw the actual Apollo 11 launch some 104 years later.
If you’re an author who aspires to write about Moon landings or space travel — and you really should be — many of the articles in my Science in Sci-fi blog series will be useful reading.
Getting Into Space
We should begin with 9 Misconceptions About Space Travel by rocket scientist Jamie Krakover, which was the first-ever #ScienceInSF blog post. It’ll get your feet wet by debunking some common myths, such as the belief that things “blow up” in space or that such events would be accompanied by a big BOOM.
Having covered the 101 stuff, it’s time to build our spaceship. Practical Spaceship Design for Writers by engineer Eric Primm will help authors design ships that take realistic considerations like stress fractures and window placement into consideration. In other words, you should read that if you want a ship that might actually survive in space.
Once we have a ship, the first obstacle is the force that keeps our feet on the ground. Gravity Basics for Sci-fi Authors by physicist Dan Allen will teach you the fundamental principles of this force, how it works, and what’s required to defeat it to put a spaceship into orbit. Especially useful is his section on extrapolating figures (like escape velocity) for imaginary planets the easy way — by using Earth as a reference point.
Space Flight in Science Fiction by pilot and aviation writer Sylvia Spruck Wrigley is required reading for anyone writing stories that involve space travel. Everything you think you know about flying in space is probably wrong, because your basis of knowledge is probably airplane flight or Star Wars. Her article tells you how it really works and illustrates the serious challenges that NASA scientists faced when planning the Apollo missions.
Surviving in Space
There’s more to space travel than escaping the atmosphere. If you want your characters to stay alive, you should read Philip Kramer’s Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support in Sci-fi. For long space voyages especially, you’ll want to consider things like water reclamation and even waste recycling. If the latter topic is your jam, you’ll enjoy Waste Management on Spaceships by expert Gareth Jones, who’s been in the “business” for about two decades.
If you fail to consider the waste management, you should probably read up on Microbes in Outer Space, with microbiologist Mike Hays. He shares some rather frightening studies of microbial contamination and evolution in man-made space ships. These are just the microbes we know about, too. Mike would probably want me to point out that not all space bugs are bad. Some microbes — like the symbiotic bacteria in the human gut — will be more or less guaranteed seats on humankind’s eventual interstellar voyages.
SpaceCom: Space Communications
Communication is always a problem, am I right? Increasing the distance between two parties with rocket fuel only makes it more challenging. To cover your comms, you might start with Radio Waves for Sci-fi Authors by expert Candida Spillard. But radio waves only reach so far. If your spaceship can really move, you might need SB Divya’s guide to the Future of Communication for some ideas on far-flung chit-chat.
Visual communication is important, too. You might have seen last week’s post by Judy Mohr with the basics of GPS systems, those lovely satellites around our planet that help citizens (and missiles) find their destinations. Judy also tackled Imaging Over Long Distances, which offers some useful guidance for capturing and processing images from extreme distance. That will come in handy, if your planet-bound characters intend to watch their spaceships zoom off into the abyss.
The Future of Space Exploration
Many of us dream about the future of space exploration, including the possibility of finding and colonizing other planets that can support life. Our planet’s great and all, but it sure would be nice to have a backup. If you’re writing stories along these lines, I refer you to Lynn Forest’s guide to Habitable Atmospheres for Authors, which outlines some minimum requirements for a planet that won’t kill us immediately. You’ll learn about the importance of gravity and a magnetic field, plus the age-old chestnut of “what’s in breathable air.”
Are there suitable planets out there? It seems likely, especially given the huge number of planets outside our solar system that have been identified. Exoplanets and Habitability for Writers by physicist Jim Gotaas offers insights into recently discovered planets and the search for the perfect one. It’s a great introduction to the cutting-edge astronomy that enables us to find planetary bodies that are so far away.
And they are far. Like, really really far. Space is huge, and the actual science related to our ability to cross its vast distances can be daunting. Relativity: Did Einstein Kill Steampunk by physicist Dan Allen delves into the topics of special relativity and space-time, for authors who really want to ponder these questions. If you’re less interested in the intimidating scientific theories and just want to write about warp speed, check out Faster-than-light Travel in Science Fiction by Jim Gotaas, which offers some advice for making your (not entirely plausible) FTL travel sound more convincing.Please share this article:
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