of the fictional plot devices often used in science fiction is called
the “inertial damper”. It’s a single switch that an author can
throw and get around the nuisance of not having any gravity in a space
story. Writing a realistic plot without gravity is nearly as
problematic as living in it for real. So they just throw the
inertial damping switch and the problem goes away. Well – as
a writer, I think that’s cheating! So did Arthur C. Clarke.
And so did he and Kubrick’s in the timeless classic, 2001-A
Space Odyssey where he designed the magnificent Discovery
– a long distance space voyager that produced artificial gravity for
real. The movie still stands head and shoulders above any made
since as the most dramatically realistic space venture ever conceived.
And as far as space ships go, the Discovery is unmatched not only
in its beauty but also in its realistic functionality as well.
As a matter of fact, if the Discovery were built as Clark conceived
it, it could fly to Jupiter today!
did you know that artificial gravity is most certainly NOT a scifi
gimmick? It is very real and it is very easy to back it up with
real world physics! In fact, the most interesting aspect of
the Discovery was its artificial gravity generator that will actually
before we get into that, let us digress just two decades before the
Clarke-Kubrick team filmed the Discovery on a movie set. And
so, now returning to an earlier time and a less dramatic (and expensive)
set, we enter into the study of Albert Einstein. Because he had
no money or way to set his experiment up and run it, he set it up
and ran it in his mind. It was a process he called the “thought
experiment”. This experiment he called the “Demonstration of
the Principle of Equivalence”. Here Einstein put a man in an
elevator in deep space and sealed him up so that there was no way
he could see out. Then he placed another man in an identical
sealed elevator on the surface of the earth. Then he accelerated
the elevator in space to 9.8 meters/second/second. Then he asked
each man inside each elevator car to conduct a definitive experiment
to prove whether they were in space or on the surface of another planet.
Each occupant then conducted various experiments, but, alas, neither
could tell whether they were merely moving in linear acceleration
or sitting still inside a gravity well on the surface of a planet!
Dr. Einstein thereupon concluded there was absolutely no difference
between the two – that mass in acceleration or a static mass in a
gravity field were physically the same in reference to gravity – the
principle of equivalence!
holding tightly to that thought, let us now go outside to my gorgeous
1977 Corvette. Getting inside, we strap in, point it down the
street and jam all the way down on the accelerator. What have
we here? Well, we have a gravitational drive! Or we have
an inertial damper, or we have a gravitational generator or we have
an artificial gravity machine! According to the principle of
equivalence, there is absolutely no difference. If I strapped
a g-meter to my vest, it would definitely record rising g’s as my
Corvette screamed down the street. I have created artificial
gravity – or in the truest sense of Einstein’s brilliant thought experiment,
I have not created artificial gravity at all – but real gravity right
there in my classic car! Indeed, there is nothing artificial
about it at all – as my body presses back against the seat, as my
coffee turns over and spills on my lap, as the crystal ball hanging
form my mirror bends toward me, the gravity I have created is very,
very real indeed and there is no experiment that could differentiate
it from the earth’s gravity.
onto that thought, let us now go back to space. All we need
to do to correct weightlessness is spin our spacecraft and – presto-chango
– weightlessness disappears! And it wasn’t even magic or sloppy
scifi scicobabble – it was just basic, first semester physics.
Mass in acceleration is equivalent to gravity. Now if we match
up another fascinating physical principle we can have our gravity
and not have to expend constant energy. For according to the
principle of centripetial force, a rotating object is always
in acceleration and the only energy we have to spend is the start
up energy! After that we can have our constant acceleration
for free if nothing (like friction) acts to slow it down! If
you are not a math freak, skip the next line and go on to the next
paragraph. If you are, here’s how that works: a=v^2/r
and F=m1m2/r^2. Awesome!
is how incredibly powerful that idea really is. We have struggled
for decades now to try and figure out how to solve a growing list
of 10,000 engineering, biological, physiological and ergonomic problems
associated with microgravity. Instead, all we need to solve
is a single engineering problem which Clark and Kubrick already solved
for real – spin our spacecraft. Now we can rid ourselves of
the curse of microgravity forever. Merely spinning a spacecraft
isn’t exactly difficult science.
(if you can actually believe this) there are actually opponents of
artificial gravity out there hiding in the various academic and engineering
bushes. The most prevalent argument used against employment
of artificial gravity has been the added mass it will take to spin
a spacecraft because a structure in constant acceleration must be
stronger than a static structure. This is true. But in
a paper published at Princeton Space Studies Institute in the 1970’s
provided ample evidence that the mass penalty is only 25% - which
in the long run is actually less than the mass penalty for
the accumulated added mass of speculated engineering gadgets required
to make up for the lack of gravity! Others have complained about
the various inductions of Coriolis force by an artificial gravity
generator. (That describes secondary forces induced by rotation –
which accounts for rotation of air masses on earth.) It is true
that these forces may be inconvenient – but at least they aren’t debilitating
or deadly like exposure to long term microgravity.
In another study by
the Case for Mars group, it was demonstrated that a manned spacecraft
configuration can be spun around using a tether – certainly the poor
man’s artificial gravity –but it works just fine!
I must end this by digressing to the wonderful and even ingenious
design of the Discovery. The Discovery is simply the most functional
and beautifully designed spacecraft in human thought. Not only
is it striking to the eye, it is also astonishingly functional in
that its main living structure is a spun cylinder situated inside
of its bulbous forward end. If I were going to design and build a
spacecraft for long term missions, it would look so much like Discovery,
I would have to give the Clarke-Kubrick team due credit. Believe
me – there is simply no other way to fly in space!