(This is Part 6. There are previous installments, though if you only made it as far as Part 3: Rockets Are Stupid, that's good enough for this one.)
Rockets are Even More Stupid Than You Thought
Meanwhile, back on the launch pad, staring at the 2500 tons of Saturn V that I've just told you how to make smaller, we can ponder what's going to be possible once our technology gets Really Good.
The theoretical absolute best we can do with rockets is if we can get the exhaust velocity up to the speed of light. This means our exhaust will be pure radiation, that we are somehow powering a huge-ass laser with 100% efficiency, since that's the only way we get all of the exhaust going the same direction.
And, boy howdy, do you not want to be following along directly behind,…
… which inspires an observation about fighting space battles, which I'm going to defer to Part 7.
Anyway, this Best Possible Rocket brings the fuel cost for getting your Winnebago-sized Command Module to the moon and back again down to a mere 327 grams.
The catch is that half of that 327 grams will need to be antimatter. This also assumes you've solved the problem of storing it in a reasonable way — and if so, the Fusion Power People would really like to hear from you; and no, they won't necessarily be obsolete, because antimatter is merely a storage medium; you still have to extract the energy from somewhere. It should be noted that the amount of energy needed to make that amount of antimatter — and what you get back when you let it recombine — is roughly that of an 8 megaton bomb.
So, if you're imagining this to be the family car, where you can just hop in and fly to the moon for a week when the kids are off school, guess again. Unless you like the idea of each of your neighbors having an 8 megaton bomb in the garage and DUI being about much more than just the occasional lamp post or pedestrian. Hell, let's just have every auto repair garage, bus station, and airport be a terrorist candy shop, where the stakes in question are not just single office buildings but whole continents and planetary habitability.
Suffice it to say, there's a whole range of social and political problems we're going to need to have completely solved before we get to any kind of ubiquitous space travel regime.
Never mind that said problems will have bitten us in the ass long before we have practical antimatter distilleries. No matter how many countries we can get to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, if you're Joe Sixpack sitting at L1 with a 6 ton rock and the right software, that's an 8 megaton bomb you can drop anywhere on earth, no nuclear tech needed.
To The Stars?
And all of that insane energy expense is just to get to the fucking moon. You want to go to the stars?
Using this theoretically perfect rocket which will never actually exist, accelerating at one g (earth gravity) for a day costs you 0.3% of your ship. That may not sound like a lot but you'll need to keep that up continuously for a year to get to 3/4 the speed of light. At which point 2/3 of your ship is now gone (which means at least 1/3 of it was antimatter to start with).
That may be good enough to reach Alpha Centauri, but to get anywhere real, you need to keep this up. Four more years (proper time) of accelerating at 1g — meaning you'll have to spend 242/243 of your original ship; picture launching one third of a Saturn V half-filled with antimatter — puts you 75 light-years out from earth, with finally enough time dilation (100 to 1) so that you can coast across some reasonable fraction of the galaxy (thousands of light-years) in a single lifetime.
Confined to a Winnebago.
And you thought space exploration was going to be fun and exciting.
Also, you better hope you picked a good destination, because, unless you happen to have a perfectly placed neutron star or black hole in your path — at which point you will then also be needing enough shielding to cope with all of the crap likely to be in the vicinity of any such object, because going at any significant fraction of light-speed means you'll need to get really, really close to make any kind of tight turn (also, good luck with the tides) — course changes will be essentially impossible once you get going fast enough.
Nor will you be able to stop anywhere along the way or even slow down at the end of the trip, unless you've arranged to be able to spend another 242/243 of your ship and allowed for another 5 years (proper time) to do it. Meaning we're now launching something 73 times the size of the Saturn V, half-filled with antimatter, and stuck in the Winnebago for a minimum of ten years, in order to be able to do any kind of interstellar travel beyond 150 light-years.
Rockets just suck.
Why I Shouldn't be Allowed to Write for SF Television
This, by the way, is something else that Star Trek and similar shows get wrong.
((Update: It seems I've done Roddenbury an injustice; he apparently did make a pronouncement about impulse engines early on. So you'll have to read this as, "What Star Trek would have been like if impulse engines were rockets." In any case, it doesn't let any of the other shows off the hook: BSG, I'm lookin' at you.))
It's not that I'm going to fault them for postulating the existence of something like Warp Drive, which you just need if you're going to do Galactic Empire stories. Nor am I going to fault them for not dealing with Relativity properly, because the sad fact is that most SF authors only understand Newtonian Universes anyway, and I'd just as soon they stay in their comfort zone and tell stories that make sense on their own terms, rather than attempt to include Relativity and make an utter, complete hash of it. The other fun thing is that if you try to have Warp Drive and Relativity in the same story, then that generally means you have a time travel story even if you don't realize it, at which point JWZ's Law probably applies.
Star Trek — along with everybody else—actually screws up is with the impulse engines, whether they're called that or "thrusters" or "reaction engines" as on some other shows, they are clearly intended to be rockets of some sort. And then they get used in every episode as a completely routine means of puttering around a planetary system.
To which I say, "Wrong." Firing a rocket is cannibalizing your spacecraft; it uses exponential amounts of fuel; you never want to do it if you have any alternative available. Rockets are the propulsion method of last resort.
Meaning if you actually had anything at all like Warp Drive, you would contrive a way to use it for everything you possibly could. You'd use it in-system, you'd install it on the shuttlecraft, you'd use it in the space dock, you'd use it for going to the grocery store. You would use it everywhere that you didn't have some other reasonable alternative (like space elevators, solar sails, tethers, whatever).
WHY? BECAUSE THAT IS HOW MUCH ROCKETS SUCK.
The only proper scene in which the impulse engines would even be brought up would be something like the Battle Aftermath Scene. In which the ship has been wrecked by Commodore Decker's planet killer or some such. They've barely eked out a victory, but half the crew is dead. Bodies are scattered everywhere. Shit is on fire. You can hardly see through the smoke. Sulu and Chekov have big nasty burns. Kirk has his shirt ripped off and is bleeding in a dozen places. McCoy and Chapel are buzzing around doing triage. Warp drive is trashed. Dilithium crystals are hopelessly fused, etc.
And now it transpires that they're spinning out of control into a planet or something. At which point we have a dramatic pause and musical cue as Kirk calls down to Engineering.
"Scotty," he says, "Ready the impulse engines."
Some of the younger bridge crew startle at this. It comes up in the training sessions but you never imagine that you'll hear it for real. Because if you do, it usually means you're about to die.
And then we have the long anguished close-up on Scotty. He looks around at the debris in the engine room and realizes the captain is probably making the right call. And finally...
His children are about to be murdered and there's nothing he can do about it. He motions two of his surviving lieutenants over and together they remove the cover and break the seal on the impulse controls. There's a huge lever there that takes three men to move.
Back on the bridge, Kirk flicks a switch on his armrest, "All hands! Jettison Stations! Level Three Emergency! Unnecessary mass into the tubes! Repeat! Level Three Jettison Emergency! Unnecessary mass into the tubes!"
Cut to scenes around the ship of surviving crew members, rummaging through every room, grabbing everything not nailed down — wreckage, equipment, random belongings — and stuffing it all into chutes specifically designed for this purpose.
"Sulu, what's our time factor?"
"We need 5000 ΔV in the next 30 minutes or we're dead."
"Impulse engines ready, Captain. You'll have 195 seconds of burn time."
"Thank you, Scotty. We'll make it count. Spock, how's our mass situation?"
"Down 23% We need to lose another 5. Another 10 minutes, 42 seconds if we can keep the jettison rate up."
"That's cutting it too close." Flick. "All hands! Level TWO Jettison Emergency! Repeat! Level TWO!" Cut to more scenes around the ship. Now they're gathering the dead bodies and stuffing them into the tubes. Cut to exterior view of the ship with expanding cloud of debris and bodies and crap.
… and so on.
Really. Rockets just suck.
Up next, Part 7: Space Battles