Stepping from the heavens

What does humankind hope to glean from venturing to the stars?

Illustration by Chloe Aitken

I know the whole world is watching now. I wish you could see what I can see. Sometimes you have to get up really high to understand how small you are… I’m going home now.”

 

With these words, on the 14 October 2012 Felix Baumgartner let go of the handles of his capsule and hurdled into history. As he fell from Earth’s stratosphere towards the ground below, over 24 million eyes watched the Austrian skydiver reach speeds of over 843.6 miles per hour, not least of which were those of his own mother’s, filled with tears and fear . In doing so, not only was he the first person to break the sound barrier without the assistance of a vehicle, but he was joining those in history who risked their lives to push the boundaries of what is possible. Chuck Yeager did the same 65 years earlier when he reached Mach 1 in a plane for the first time. So, too, did they join the likes of Charles Lindbergh making the first transatlantic flight, or Yuri Gagarin as he journeyed into outer space.

 

What possesses humans to risk their lives for the unknown? As with Yeager and Gagarin, scientists had no idea what the journey would do to the body of Baumgartner. Every possible preparation and simulation had been made, but it was limited to just that: simulation. Eventually, someone had to be chosen to venture into the unknown and take that step over the edge.

 

Trinity looks to the stars

Hoping to better understand the technicalities and considerations involved in pushing these boundaries, I contacted the Trinity Space Society. The Chair,  Maggie Goulden, and Rocketry Officer, Ian Finnegan, sat down with me in the Science Gallery Café to discuss how we travel into space and why. Smiling, Goulden asked if I wanted a philosophical answer or a business one. When I chose the former, she simply responded “Well, it’s there, and we’re human and that’s what humans do. We go to things just because they’re there.”

 

As the three of us considered these words, I couldn’t help but wonder if these explorations detract from other efforts. How could we justify world hunger and disease while turning our eyes to the stars? Finnegan offered his perspective: “We’re just quite nosy people, as a species. Every species is nosy, but we have the ability to comprehend what it is and direct it. And there are those among us who have directed their nosiness and ability towards poverty alleviation, and those who have geared our abilities towards answering questions and scientific endeavours. I don’t particularly think one supersedes the other because they’re both noble causes. The search for knowledge, understanding who we are, why we are, where we came from and then on a more local level how do we fix problems on Earth, whether it’s poverty or whether it’s anything other.”

 

Goulden agreed, pointing out we’re capable of tackling multiple problems at once, and furthermore, the two feed into each other: “You also have the argument as we go to space and move away from the Earth, it brings us together as a species” This, she pointed out, puts us in a better space and political environment that can tackle problems at home on Earth. “If you bring people together, you’re one step closer to solving the problem.”

 

Making it happen

Wanting and being willing to go into space isn’t enough, however. Aside from the bureaucratic issue of establishing funding, which Goulden cited as the main barrier to accomplishing space exploration, there seemed to be a plethora of mathematical and scientific considerations. These, she assured me, weren’t as difficult as one might imagine and were fairly simple. When met with a cautious “Well…” from Finnegan, she expanded: “If it’s something you can do by hand, it’s simple.The physics is basic Newtonian mechanics.”

 

Explaining further, she talked about how making the necessary calculations involved considering various factors and adding them into the appropriate equations. Finnegan gave the following example: “In terms of fuel, it’s just flow dynamics, how much fuel you need per kilogram of a system to move a certain speed”. This requires a differential equation to account for the decreasing weight of the object as fuel is used (not to mention the changing value of gravity as you leave the Earth). While the vehicle starts with 10 kilograms of fuel , by the time you’re halfway through the journey it is only necessary to calculate for 5kg, and so on. While this may sound complicated, she said these could be, and are, asked at a Junior Freshman exams. Compared with other calculations that can only be done with the aid of a computer, these are rudimentary.

 

As the two continued to talk it was clear they were more than capable of not only tackling any questions I had but of simplifying it to a level I could understand. Despite this, my mind became increasingly boggled as we went on. To try and have a concrete example in my mind, I asked what was involved in putting a man on the moon. Before discussing the physics, Goulden first pointed out it would be much simpler to put a woman on the moon, and the only reason men were chosen was because of the gender politics of the 20th century. With smaller frames and lighter masses, women were, and are, easier to fit into the cramped cockpits of space vehicles.

 

Once you had chosen a suitable candidate then, multiple factors were involved in the calculations. Pointing out not only is the Moon orbiting the Earth, but both are orbiting the Sun and furthermore, are rotating independently. “So what you’ve got now is two spinning bodies that are moving around each other and you’ve got to launch from one to land on another.”

 

The orbit of the Moon presents another issue in that it’s a moving target. Rather than fly towards the moon, it is necessary to calculate where the moon will be when you want to arrive, and fly for that destination instead. This, Goulden explained to me with a glimmer of amazement in her eye was what inspired her: “That’s the bit that astounds me most, they know so well where the moon is going to go. You could plot it out infinitely for the entire future of the planet.”

 

Inspiring humankind

It was this astoundment and admiration that had connected the early moon flights and Baumgartner’s jump in my mind. Watching the livestream on my computer, I had a sense of what it must have been like as the Earth held it’s breath watching Armstrong descend the ladder of the lunar module onto the surface of the moon. This fascination with the stars seemed to have decreased as the century drew to a close, which Goulden confirmed “People did not idolise astronauts like they once did.Things really went downhill after you had a couple of bad accidents with NASA like the Challenger.”

 

The businessman Elon Musk, they pointed out, has done wonders for a revival in interest in space however. Goulden explained  “His specialty is being able to focus everyone on believing the impossible can be done and then using that to do not the impossible, but doing something that wouldn’t have been done had they just been aiming for the possible. If you set the bar really high, and fall below that, you’ll be grand.”. While she had some trepidation surrounding Musk, particularly concerning his views with life on other planets, Goulden did seem to approve of what he was doing for the space industry.

 

Closing our interview, Goulden reiterated that the biggest issue of space travel isn’t bravery, mathematical considerations or avoiding cosmic rays “It’s just getting the money to do it. If someone gave NASA all the money to fund all their programs tomorrow, we’d probably be at Mars in 10 or 20 years. The biggest hurdle is money”. Finnegan insisted on the importance of this investment: “I do believe it’s an effort, and let’s go really grandiose, it’s an effort for the good of humanity. Not only is it unifying us into some exploration of the world, but its unifying us in teaching  how to ask questions. To ask what is out there, and why it’s out there, and pushing that boundary of science that little bit more.” This is what Baumgartner aimed to do in venturing from his helium balloon, and what Yeager hoped to achieve sitting in his plane as it rattled towards the unknown. Humans constantly seek to find what is over the horizon, sometimes stepping out blindly just to answer “What will happen next?”.

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Harriet Bruce
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