Tips For Your Trip To Space

Trip To Space

I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.
Neil Armstrong on looking back at the Earth from the Moon in July 1969

So, you’re planning on becoming a space pirate. Or an intergalactic bounty hunter. Or an astronaut, maybe…if you’re boring. Maybe you’ll be an entertaining one like Chris Hadfield. But things aren’t quite like the films and books. I should know: I’m a sci-fi author, after all, who doesn’t do much research. I shouldn’t have said that…

Before you climb aboard your death-trap of a spacecraft, there are some things you need to be aware of. You should probably do some research and ask a professional to accompany you. For now, here are a handful of useful titbits:

You’re Probably Going to Die

Yep. Space hates you and wants you dead. It’s a harsh and unforgiving place, much like the internet. If you go there, you might die. I don’t have the stats, but I’m going to hazard a guess that there’s more chance of you dying than not. Nevertheless, good luck out there!

Ignoring xenophobic aliens and black holes, there are some far more mundane things out there looking to kill you:

  1. Dust! Moon dust is lethal to human lungs, and it’s so fine that it can creep into your spacesuit and so abrasive that it can wear through even Kevlar-like material (and it has done – three layers of the stuff, in fact). And that’s just the moon. Other planets with little-to-no gravity might have even more dangerous, homicidal dust.
  2. More dust! But this time in orbit around Earth. Clouds of it, travelling at phenomenal speed, are enough to rip off pieces of your spacecraft and alter your course. So what about the 5000+ tonnes of space junk littering our orbit? Also pretty dangerous, funnily enough. If a cloud of dust particles can do the aforementioned damage to your craft, what do you think the leftovers of the last space mission, travelling at 17,000 mph could do? Wait…do space toilets flush stuff into space?
  3. If your chosen professional is annoying you, rub a balloon on his suit. Static electricity in the ultimate dryness of space could short-circuit said suit and he’ll die horribly. Or she – professionals can actually be ladies these days! How the times have changed. Also look out for solar storms for similar reasons.
  4. Systems failure. Explosion. Fire. Decompression. Spacesuit failure. Manoeuvring controls failure. Your spacecraft hates you, too.

Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.
Apollo 13’s John Swigert when an oxygen tank exploded on April 13 1970

Fashion Police

So the typical Michelin Man/Stay Puft Marshmallow Man spacesuit might not look cool. You might not attract any green alien women/men whilst strutting about in it. But that suit stops you freezing. It stops you overheating and suffering heatstroke. It gives you air to breathe. It stops the sun burning your skin. It’s pressurised. It lets you drink water and even go to the toilet. It also has lights and a camera to record your microgravity exploits. You can even strap into a rocket pack, kind of like a fat Rocketeer.

If, however, you fail to heed this warning, you’ll die. Permanently! You’ll lose consciousness first, luckily for you. You won’t notice, then, when you swell up to twice your size, the sun’s UVs cook you, and the various forms of radiation mutate your DNA and give you cancer.

So leave the leather jacket at home.

No Captain Kirking!

Captain Kirk

Don’t choose an attractive co-space-farer, lest you get bad ideas. Gravity changes the way blood flows. Upon contact, you could send your attractive person sailing across the spacecraft and into the airlock. But, on the plus side, they won’t be so attractive with the sticky and disgusting sweat-film that will be covering them by the time you’ve tied yourselves together and tethered to a wall.

Also, don’t get pregnant. Especially if you’re a man. Without Earth’s gravity, a baby will not develop correctly, and that’s before the issue of radiation.

The probability of success is difficult to estimate; but if we never search the chance of success is zero.
From the paper ‘Searching for Interstellar Communications’, September 1959, regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Fine Dining

(Food + drink) – gravity = problem.

But don’t let my complex scientific equations confuse you. What it means is there’s nothing keeping water in your cup. Nothing stopping particles of food, crumbs, from floating around and getting inside equipment, potentially damaging it. ‘Oh, crumbs!’, you’ll exclaim to the amusement of everyone while the electronics burst into flame. Then who’s laughing?

While the favourite pastime of throwing small items of consumable matter at each other’s mouths would be considerably easier, it poses quite the problem if you don’t want to wreck your spacecraft and get stranded in space. And die.

Assuming this is not one of your life goals, take note.

One thing to remember is that, in space, you will need more calcium and vitamin D, because your bones are WEAK LIKE LITTAL GORL. But ignore the difficulty of using the bathroom and drink plenty of water anyway, because you probably don’t want to die an agonising death by kidney-stone-induced kidney failure.

Eating in Space

You can get plenty of food freeze-dried, including ice cream. Freeze-drying was invented for space travel, after all. But not everything is edible when freeze-dried. This is where your professional can help with meal selection. Generally, it means rehydrating dehydrated food and heating it in a forced-air convection oven. Very carefully, and with special Velcro-fitted trays and the like, you can then eat the same way you would in a fancy restaurant, where people are watching you.

Water is easier, as its stored in a pouch with a straw thing.

Are You Crazy?

You will be. YOU WILL BE! Or you might be. The stress and frustration of being in a confined space for a long time, especially with someone else annoying you, can easily get to you. You may find it hard to sleep, become fatigued. The lack of gravity will be hard to get used to, may make you quite nauseous, makes simple tasks more difficult, and you might not get used to it at all.

Imbalances in your brain stuff could occur and you might have a full-blown mental breakdown and start worshipping the sun. Which is fine as long as you keep your distance. From the sun and from people.

Simple mood and anxiety issues are less simple in space, where you have few ways to relieve stress. Punch your professional.

Not to mention your insignificance. Space is quite vast, and once there, you’ll quickly realise that you are quite tiny. So tiny in comparison, that you might as well not exist. That’s not a comment on your worth, of course. But a sand grain on a beach isn’t even a good comparison.

It might be difficult to come to terms with the unending, black vastness of space. Your little mind might not be able to take it. Again, not a slight against you, really.

From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch’.
Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut, April 8 1974

Newton’s Apples

There are a multitude of things, as mentioned earlier, that you may wish to know before setting forth on your interstellar adventure/colonisation effort/Green-Lantern-cosplay-gone-to-far, but the final one from me is Newton’s Laws of Motion.

– Newton’s First Law (law of inertia):

Superman Baseball

Every object persists in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed on it.

In other words, everything Superman has thrown into space – including that baseball Mr Reeve hit – is still going, unless it has impacted with another world somewhere, causing death and destruction, and possibly its total annihilation.

In terms relevant to you, when you take off, your thrusters must have enough power to get you off the ground, push through air resistance, and into space. Once in that vast darkness, there is no resistance. All you need the thrusters for then is to reach your optimal speed. And to stop again! That’s an integral part of not dying or getting lost in space like Gary Oldman did. And he turned into a big spider-man thing and not in a superhero way.

Make sure you don’t run out of fuel getting your fat ass off the ground, because you’ll be needing it to stop when you reach your destination.

– Newton’s Second Law:

The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.

The simplified equation to go along with this is f=m*a (force = mass x acceleration).

Basically, this is how you work out what kind of energy (thrust) you need. It’s important for getting off the ground, getting into orbit and staying there, etc. Of course, the problem is that, as your fuel depletes, your mass decreases. Ask your professional for help.

– Newton’s Third Law:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The most well known. It takes two to tango. It also takes two to create a reaction. This is how you move in space. If you want to stop, you’ll want an action that will create enough of an opposite reaction to stop you. In other words, reverse thrust. This is why you need to not run out of fuel while still moving.

Some people have a hard time understanding how this works in the vacuum of space, where there is nothing for the craft to push off. It is simply that the thrusters push the exhaust gasses, created by burning fuel, in the opposite direction to where they want to go. Newton does the rest. The gasses going one way is the action, the craft going the other is the equal and opposite reaction.

This also means you have to be careful with seemingly mundane things. If your robotic sidekick runs out of batteries and you need to take out a screw to put the new ones in, you’ll need a special screwdriver so that you don’t spin instead of said screw.

Newton's Cradle Planets

So, that’s about it. You’re now less unprepared to take a giant leap for mankind. Have fun. Make us look good if you run into any aliens. Don’t forget your lessons, always ask your professional if you’re unsure, and go to the bathroom before you leave. But you’re still probably going to die.

When I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the Moon, I cried.
Alan Shepard on his time on the moon during the Apollo 14 mission, February 1971


This blog was originally written for Uproar Comics.

No Man’s Sky

No Man's Sky splashscreen

Science fiction is arguably the most freeing genre to write in. Almost any other genre can be slotted into it, and the range of hard to soft sci-fi means a writer/director/artist can do just about anything he or she wants. It’s one of the main reasons I’m drawn to write sci-fi (science fantasy, in my case).

No Man’s Sky, an upcoming game from Hello Games, seems set to relight the fire under our imaginations and renew our love of sci-fi. This isn’t the bleak dystopian or post-apocalyptic sci-fi that we’ve got used to lately. This is the colourful, vibrant frontier imagined in so many 70s and 80s sci-fi book covers. Sean Murray, the game’s creator, specifically credits the cover artwork of Chris Foss as inspiring the game. That is his view of what science fiction is.

I was watching when the game was first announced and have been looking forward to it ever since. I wrote an article about it not long after, saying:

During Spike’s VGX 2013 awards – catastrophically co-hosted by Joel McHale – a little game studio called Hello Games showed us a glimpse of their new game, No Man’s Sky. In the midst of games such as The Last Of Us, Titanfall, Grand Theft Auto 5, etc., this unknown game – from the tiny group of indie developers of Joe Danger – stole the show.

No Man’s Sky is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. We could buy the game on release day and we’ll have died of old age before we’ve explored every planet in it. A single planet could easily be the size of Earth. Think about that for a moment. Think about a game like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. It takes a while to wander around them, doesn’t it? No Man’s Sky has Earth-sized planets that you can get out of your spaceship and walk around. You could probably spend a few months exploring every inch of a single planet (on foot). There are billions and billions of these planets. Actually, I think the number is eighteen quintillion, give or take.

This is all made possible by the procedurally generated worlds. To put it simply, it would be impossible for the Hello Games team (initially 4 people) to create the galaxy and planets and lifeforms by hand the way other games are done. The team, therefore, created a system whereby they put in rough blueprints, and then the game takes those blueprints and their constraints to create unique flora and fauna, planets, terrain, weather, etc. The game does this on the fly as you play – it isn’t preloaded. And those constraints ensure that there’s a degree of realism to how and where plants grow, the physiology of animals, and so on. This results in players experiencing worlds that the developers themselves have never seen.

Most importantly to someone like me, it creates a much more real sense of exploration and discovery. You are literally, and quite genuinely, discovering these digital worlds and creatures that no one has come across before. That said, I can imagine the novelty could wear off after a while, especially when you start to recognise elements – ‘oh, look, that mouse has the same head as the dinosaur three planets ago’.

Sean Murray is reluctant to say too much about the lore of the universe and the storyline of the game. Which makes sense – it’s a game about discovery, after all. It sounds, though, like the story will be quite loose and in the background. Rather than having goals, we’ll have reasons to do things. This is where our imaginations will take over.

I’m not too sure what kind of things we’ll be able to do. We can mine, we can shoot things from our spaceship, and we can buy new ships and equipment. Other than that, it’s a bit of a mystery. My biggest concern for the game is that it will rely too much on the player’s sense of wonder and expect us to keep playing for the sense of discovery. As I said, the novelty of this won’t last long, so there needs to be actual gameplay that keeps us playing.

No Man's Sky

That said, we will no doubt end up creating our own storylines, our own narratives to go along with what we’re doing. That will be a fresh take on gaming for some people – we’re used to being told this is who you are, this is what you’re doing, and this is why you’re doing it.

I’ve said before that I hate how most games throw in a story as an excuse for shooting anything that moves, and that proper writers, like Rhianna Pratchett (Tomb Raider, Heavenly Sword, etc.), need to be employed from the start to create an immersive, properly next-gen (now current gen, I suppose) game. I might even write another post ranting about that at some point. But the equal of creating a story-rich game is perhaps to do just what No Man’s Sky seems to be doing: let us create our story.

It won’t surprise regular readers (or as regular as you can be with my infrequent ramblings) to hear that I have my own ideas for games if anyone was foolish enough to give me a game studio. No Man’s Sky is, amongst others, the kind of game I would want to make. Create a rich galaxy, a background story, and let the player do whatever they want. I want to craft a galaxy and its inhabitants and then let the player loose to make their mark on it.

Of course, I would want to go a little further – put more options and whatnot in. That would mean more funding. More funding means more constraints by a publisher. There’s a reason most games these days are so formulaic. The publishers are terrified of putting money into something that isn’t tried and tested. Much better to take a game that sold well, put a new coat of paint on it, change the name slightly, and push it out into the wide world.

Hello Games doesn’t have this problem, because they are indie developers. This is probably the only reason they are able to do what they are doing. Sean Murray worked at EA, so he knows the industry well enough to know to stay away from becoming the industry.

Anyway, there are many articles out there about No Man’s Sky, so there’s not much point in me going on and on. If you’re interested enough to have got to the end of this article, you’ve probably already read some of those other articles.

Suffice to say I am looking forward to become a frontiersman.