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Space Travel, Part 6 — No Really, Rockets are Incredibly Stupid 
5th-Nov-2013 03:28 am

(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.

No, where Star Trek — along with everybody elseactually 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).


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...

"Aye, captain."

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."

Flick. "Engineering?"

"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

5th-Nov-2013 02:56 pm (UTC)
That's why Larry Niven's in-system maneuvering thrusters are "reactionless drive". If you're going to mess with the laws of physics to make a good story, at least mess with them usefully.
5th-Nov-2013 06:46 pm (UTC)
Also, thankfully, impulse engines (particularly in TOS) are very specifically not rockets, for all the same reasons. (Roddenberry made a big point about this early in show production. No rockets. None.)

I don't know whether what they actually are has ever been stated. I've been kind of thinking some sort of gravity control (antigraviton plates?) since we know they have artificial gravity and it's apparently some sort flat source (since it's so even throughout the ship despite all the disparate parts) and so on.
5th-Nov-2013 10:40 pm (UTC)
hm, I didn't realize Roddenbury had actually made a pronouncement about it. bleah. But that doesn't excuse the others (BSG, I'm lookin' at you...)

and yes, it's true that if you can arbitrarily mess with gravity that opens the door for all kinds of magic. But that only underscores it; if you have that kind of magic available, you're definitely not going to be using rockets.

Edited at 2013-11-05 11:47 pm (UTC)
6th-Nov-2013 06:37 am (UTC)
Oh yeah. From the very beginning, before they even had any idea what the ship would even look like. He'd latched onto Einstein's commentary that space could in theory be warped, and wanted no rockets, no jets, no expelled material - none of it.

People kept trying to put that shit back in, too:

1967 edition, Star Trek script adaptations

...and he'd raise hell every time. NO ROCKETS!
7th-Nov-2013 06:23 pm (UTC)
So what about ramscoops and other ways to acquire more mass to eject out the back? Maybe they only work at significant fractions of C and so it costs way too much to get up to operating efficiency.
9th-Nov-2013 03:51 am (UTC)
Actually, I imagine they only work at relatively low velocities. I.e., yes they need to be going a certain minimum velocity to work at all, but I think you'll have a hard time getting anywhere near lightspeed with them.

what changes from the straight-up rocket scenario that is instead of having a suitcase of baseballs, you're just sliding along the ice by yourself, baseballs happen to be scattered about, and you're picking them up and throwing them as soon as you encounter them.

Problem number one is that the stuff you're picking up slows you down (i.e., the scoop will have drag), and if you can't throw it away at least as fast as you caught it, your velocity can't increase, which then means you can never get going faster than your throw (exhaust) velocity w.r.t. the cloud of baseballs.

The solar wind moves outwards, so that helps a bit both with leaving the system and with braking on arrival, but it's only 500km/s, less than 0.2% of the speed of light.

which means you badly need the ion-engine or gamma-laser that's throwing shit at or near the speed of light. You also need energy to power it (along with the scoop). If we're relying on antimatter that we've brought with us, then we're mostly back to rocket economics (The Suck).

But if you think you're going to fuse the hydrogen you're collecting to get the energy you need, then you need to know that most interstellar hydrogen is protium (i.e., no neutrons at all), which tends not to fuse very well (hint:  How often do you see He2 in the wild?) and thus sucks for generating energy when you don't have massive quantities of the stuff and stellar gravity at your disposal. Non-stellar fusion reactors really need deuterium or tritium which tend to be much less abundant.

. . . unless it's possible for an artificial reactor to use the carbon cycle, the much-higher-yield process that the stars much bigger than our sun use. On the other hand, there's probably a reason you only see that process in the big stars, e.g., you need lots of compression. So... I'll believe that when I see it.

It also turns out estimates of the density of interstellar hydrogen are quite a bit lower than what was current when Bussard did his original paper. And we're most likely completely screwed for intergalactic travel.

So I'm not really optimistic about this at all.
13th-Nov-2013 05:54 pm (UTC)
What about a matter fabricator (replicator)? Can the rocket be fueled by tea, Earl Grey, hot? Or is that basically magic anyway?

Edited at 2013-11-13 05:55 pm (UTC)
13th-Nov-2013 11:58 pm (UTC)
Replicators/transporters are insanely magical (at least as compared with everything else the Federation has available in the ST universe)
13th-Nov-2013 05:57 pm (UTC)
(A link to Part 7 from Part 6 would be nice.)
13th-Nov-2013 11:31 pm (UTC)
it was there, but I made it more obvious.

oh wait, I see... you mean a link from Part 7 to Part 6.

Edited at 2013-11-14 01:42 am (UTC)
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