Here’s what it will be like to travel through space, in the words of an expert on interplanetary travel
IN the fall of 1942 two events occurred which set Man’s feet firmly on the road to the stars. The first V-2 climbed to the limit of the atmosphere, ushering in the age of rocket propulsion—and beneath a squash court in the University of Chicago, atomic energy crept secretly into a world totally unprepared for it.
During the next fifty years, building on this foundation, we will acquire the knowledge and techniques necessary to take us beyond the atmosphere—the know-how of space flight. Chemical fuels are already available which can establish the “artificial satellite,” our first stepping stone into space. They may even be sufficient for scientific reconnaissances of the Moon and nearer planets, though at enormous expense. Truly practical space flight, however, must await the harnessing of the atom to rocket propulsion. Already at least two ways of achieving this are known, in theory; and when a thing can be done in theory, it is only a matter of time before it becomes reality.
The conquest of the air has become history; the conquest of space is just beginning. Where Man has already sent his robot messengers, he himself will soon be traveling. It is not too optimistic to suppose that, a century from now, the first pioneering flights will be over, and we will have obtained a firm foothold on the Moon and the nearer planets. Interplanetary travel will no longer be a fabulous scientific stunt—an achievement as headline-catching as the first Atlantic flights. It will be becoming as routine as is the hourly departure of the Constellations and Stratocruisers from Idlewild today.
We can only guess what our great-grandchildren will discover upon the enigmatic face of Mars, or beneath the eternal clouds of Venus. For a long time—perhaps for decades—there will be no room on the planets for anyone save the hardy pioneers, the scientists and engineers who will he shaping Man’s new worlds and uncovering their secrets. Then will come the colonists, wrestling their livelihood from strange and stubborn environments. And then, inevitably, the tourists.
They will he seeking an escape from an Earth shrunk to a vanishing point, an Earth where the last frontiers were reached a century before. They will go across space to refresh their imaginations on worlds where the very rocks, and not merely the life-forms, are totally alien. Perhaps they will go to see the wrecks of civilizations that were old when Man was young. Some may even go for reasons of health, to live long and active lives on worlds where their weight would be only a fraction of that on Earth. But the greatest wonders which must lie out there we can imagine today no more than Columbus foresaw the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, or Niagara Falls. We can only be sure they are there—and that once discovered, men will go to pay them homage.
So you’re going to Mars? That’s still quite an adventure—though I suppose that in another ten years no one will think twice about it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the first ships reached Mars scarcely more than half a century ago, and that our settlement on the planet is less than thirty years old.
You’ve probably read all the forms and literature they gave you at the Department of Extraterrestrial Affairs. But here are some additional pointers and background information that may make your trip more enjoyable. I won’t say it’s right up to date—things change so rapidly, and it’s a year since I got back from Mars myself—but on the whole you’ll find it pretty reliable.
Presumably you’re going just for curiosity and excitement; you want to see what life is like out on the new frontier. It’s only fair, therefore, to point out that must of your fellow passengers will he engineers, scientists or administrators traveling to Mars— some of them not for the first time—because they have a job to do. So whatever your achievements are here on Earth, it’s advisable not to talk too much about them, for you’ll be among people who’ve had to tackle much tougher problems.
If you haven’t booked your passage yet, remember that the cost of the ticket varies considerably according to the relative positions of Mars and Earth. That’s a complication we don’t have to worry about when we’re traveling from country to country on our own planet, but Mars can be seven times farther away at one time than at another. Oddly enough, the shortest trips are the most expensive, since they involve the greatest changes of speed as you hop from one orbit to the other. And in space, speed, not distance, is what costs money.
The most economical routes go halfway around the Sun and take eight months, but as no one wants to spend that long in space they’re used only by robot-piloted freighters. At the other extreme are the little super-speed mail ships, which sometimes do the trip in a month. The fastest liners take two or three times as long as this.
Whether you’re taking the bargain $30,000 round trip or one of the de luxe passages, I don’t know. But you must be O.S. physically. The physical strain involved in space flight is negligible, but you’ll be spending at least two months on the trip, and it would be a pity if your appendix started to misbehave.
You’re probably wondering how you can possibly manage on the weight allowance you’ve got. Well, it can be done.
The first thing to remember is that you don’t need to take any extra suits. There’s no weather inside a spaceship—the temperature never varies more than a couple of degrees over the whole trip, and since it’s held fairly high, all you’ll want is an ultra-lightweight tropical kit. When you get to Mars you’ll buy what you need there, and dump it when you return.
Another thing—take only the stuff you actually need on the ship. I strongly advise you to buy one of the approved travel kits—most of the big stores like Abercrombie & Fitch can supply them. They’re expensive, but save you money on excess baggage charges.
Take a camera by all means. There’s a chance of some unforgettable shots as you leave Earth and again when you approach Mars. But there’s nothing to photograph on the voyage itself, and I’d advise you to take all your pictures on the outward trip. You can sell a good camera on Mars for five times its price here—and save yourself the cost of freighting it home. They don’t mention that in the official handouts.
Now that we’ve brought up the subject of money, I’d better remind you that the Martian economy is quite different from Earth’s. Down here, it doesn’t cost you anything to breathe. But on Mars the very air has to be synthesized—they break down the oxides in the ground to do this—so every time you fill your lungs someone has to foot the bill. Food production is planned in the same way. Each of the cities, remember, is a carefully balanced ecological system, like a well-organized aquarium, and everyone has to pay a basic tax which entitles him to air, food, water and the shelter of the Domes. The tax varies from city to city, but averages about $10 a day. Since everyone earns at least five times as much as this, they can all afford to go on breathing.
You’ll have to pay this tax, of course—and you’ll find it rather hard to spend much more money than this. Once your basic needs for life are taken care of, you’ll find few luxuries on Mars. After they’re used to the idea of having tourists around, no doubt they’ll get organized. But as things are now, you’ll find that most reasonable requests cost nothing. However, you should make arrangements to transfer a substantial credit balance to the Bank of Mars, if you’ve still got anything left. You can do that by radio, of course, before you leave Earth.
So much for the preliminaries: now some points about the trip itself. The ferry rocket will probably leave from the New Guinea field about two miles above sea level on the top of the Orange Range. People sometimes wonder why they chose such an out-of-the-way spot. That’s simple: it’s on the Equator, so a ship gets the full thousand-mile-an-hour boost of the Earth’s spin as it takes off and there’s the whole Pacific to catch jettisoned fuel tanks. Besides, if you’ve ever heard a spaceship taking off, you’ll understand why the launching sites have to be remote from civilization. . . .
Don’t be alarmed by anything you’ve been told about the strain of blast-off. There’s really nothing to it, if you’re in good health—and you won’t be allowed inside a rocket unless you are. You just lie down in the acceleration couch, put in your ear plugs, and relax. It takes over a minute for the full thrust to build up, and by that time you’re quite accustomed to it. You’ll have some difficulty in breathing, perhaps—it’s never bothered me—but if you don’t attempt to move you’ll hardly feel the increase of weight. What you will notice is the noise, which is slightly unbelievable. Still, it lasts only five minutes, and by the end of that time you’ll be up in the orbit of the space station and the motors will cut out. Don’t worry about your hearing; it will get back to normal in a couple of hours.
You won’t see a great deal until you get aboard Space Station One, which is a man-made satellite and, like a second moon, revolves around the earth in its own orbit. There are no viewing ports on the ferry rockets, and passengers aren’t encouraged to wander around. It usually takes about thirty minutes to make the necessary steering corrections and to match speed with the space station. You’ll know when that’s happened from the rather alarming “clang” as the air locks make contact, and the rocket is moored to the space station. Then you can undo your safety belt. Of course you’ll want to see what it’s like being weightless. . . .
Now, take your time and do exactly what you’re told. Hang on to the guide rope through the air lock and don’t try to go flying around like a bird—there’ll be plenty of time for that later. If you attempt any tricks you’ll not only injure yourself but may damage the equipment as well.
Space Station One, where the ferry rockets and the liners meet to transfer their cargoes, takes just over an hour and a half to make one circuit of the Earth. It’s roughly spherical, but has so many radio antennas, air-lock connectors and so on sticking out of it that it always reminds me of some prickly deep-sea fish. You’ll spend all your time in the observation lounge; everyone does, no matter how many times he’s been out into space. I won’t attempt to describe that incredible view. I’ll merely remind you that in the ninety minutes it takes Station One to complete its orbit, you’ll see the Earth wax from a thin crescent to a gigantic, multicolored disc—and then shrink again to a black shield eclipsing the stars. As you pass over the night side you’ll see the lights of cities down there in the darkness, like patches of phosphorescence. And the stars! You’ll realize that you’ve never really seen them before in your life.
Enough of these purple passages. Let’s stick to business. You’ll probably remain on Space Station One for about twelve hours while the cargo’s taken aboard and all the final instrument checks are made. This will give you plenty of opportunity to see how you like weightlessness. It doesn’t take long to learn how to move around. The main secret is to avoid all violent motion, otherwise you may crack your head on the ceiling. Except, of course, that there isn’t a ceiling, since there’s no up or down any more. At first you’ll find that confusing. You’ll have to stop and decide which direction you want to move in, and then adjust your personal reference system to fit. After a few days in space it will be second nature to you. Don’t have anything to do with the quack drugs you see advertised. They’re not necessary. If you do have any trouble, the steward will give you a pill—but space-sickness is just about as rare as air-sickness nowadays.
Another thing worth watching from the Station is the provisioning of your ship. When the freight rockets climb up from Earth, they dump much of their cargo in space, as it would be a waste of time bringing it aboard the Station. So you’ll see a pile of crates and cans, all bearing the green “MAY BE STOWED IN VACUUM” sign, floating together outside the observation port. Then a couple of men will go out in spacesuits and push the stuff through the ship’s hatches, blowing themselves along with their jet pistols in a kind of slow-motion ballet that’s quite fascinating to watch.
Don’t forget that Station One is your last link with Earth. If you want to make any final purchases, or leave something to be sent home, do it then. You won’t have another chance for a good many million miles.
You’ll go aboard the liner when you’ve had your final medical check, and the steward will show you to the little cabin that will be your home for the next two or three months, depending upon the distance from Earth to Mars. Don’t be upset because you can touch all the walls without moving. You’ll only have to sleep there, after all, and you’ve got the rest of the ship to stretch your legs in.
If you’re on one of the larger liners, there’ll be about a hundred other passengers and a crew of perhaps twenty. You’ll get to know them all by the end of the voyage. There’s nothing on Earth quite like the atmosphere in a spaceship. You’re a little, self-contained community floating in vacuum millions of miles from anywhere, kept alive in a bubble of plastic and metal. If you’re a good mixer, you’ll find the experience very stimulating. But it has its disadvantages. The one great danger of space flight is that some prize bore may get on the passenger list and, short of pushing him out of the air lock, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Unlike the take-off of the ferry rocket from Earth, the break-away of the liner from its satellite orbit is so gentle and protracted that it lacks drama. When the loading and instrument checks have been completed, the ship will uncouple from the space station and drift a few miles away. You’ll hardly notice it when the atomic drive goes on just the faintest of vibrations and a feeble sensation of weight. The ship’s acceleration is so small, in fact, that you’ll weigh only a few ounces, which will scarcely interfere with your freedom of movement at all.
It won’t take you long to find your way around the ship and to get used to its gadgets. Handling liquids is the main skill you’ll have to acquire; your first attempts at drinking are apt to be messy. Oddly enough, taking a shower is quite simple. You do it in a sort of plastic cocoon, and a circulating air current carries the water out at the bottom.
At first the absence of gravity may make sleeping difficult—you’ll miss your accustomed weight. That’s why the sheets over the bunks have spring tension. They’ll prevent your drifting out while you sleep, and their pressure will give you a spurious sensation of weight.
But learning to live under zero gravity is something one can’t be taught in advance. You have to learn by experience. I believe you’ll enjoy it, and when the novelty’s worn off you’ll take it completely for granted. Then the problem will be getting used to gravity again when you reach Mars!
Although the liner’s acceleration is so small that it will take hours to break away from any appreciable attraction of the Earth and head out into space, after a week of continuous drive the ship will have built up a colossal speed—well over 100,000 miles an hour, I believe, on the fastest runs. Of course, you’ll be no more aware of it than you are of the 70,000 miles an hour the Earth’s doing around the Sun right now, but it’s a nice statistic to impress your friends. Then the motors will be cut out, and you’ll carry on under your own momentum until you reach the orbit of Mars and have to start slowing down.
Whether your weeks in space are boring or not depends very much on you and your fellow passengers. Quite a number of entertainments get organized on the voyage, and a good deal of money is likely to change hands before the end of the trip. (It’s a curious fact, but the crew usually seems to come out on top.) You’ll have plenty of time for reading, and the ship will have a good library of micro-books. There will be a radio and TV contact with Earth or Mars for the whole voyage, so you’ll be able to keep in touch with things. . . if you want to.
On my first trip, I spent a lot of my time learning my way around the stars and looking at clusters and nebulae through a small telescope I borrowed from the Navigation Officer. Even if you’ve never felt the slightest interest in astronomy before, you’ll probably be a keen observer before the end of the voyage. Having the stars all around you—and not merely overhead—is an experience you’ll never forget.
As far as outside events are concerned, you realize, of course, that absolutely nothing can happen during the voyage. Once the drive has cut out, you’ll seem to be hanging motionless in space; the only evidence of your velocity will be the slow movement of the nearer planets against the background of the stars—and you’ll have to watch carefully for a good many hours before you can detect even this.
By the way, I hope you aren’t one of those foolish people who are still frightened about meteors. They see that enormous chunk of nickel-steel in the New York Natural History Museum and imagine that’s the sort of thing you’ll run smack into as soon as you leave the atmosphere, forgetting that there’s rather a lot of room in space and that even the biggest ship is a mighty small target. You’d have to sit out there and wait a good many centuries before a meteor big enough to puncture the hull came along. It hasn’t happened to a spaceship yet.
One of the big moments of the trip will come when you realize that Mars has begun to show a visible disc. The first feature you’ll be able to see with the naked eye will be one of the polar caps, glittering like a tiny star on the edge of the planet. A few days later the dark areas—the so-called seas—will begin to appear, and presently you’ll glimpse the prominent triangle of the Syrtis Major. In the week before landing, as the planet swims nearer and nearer, you’ll get to know its geography pretty thoroughly.
The braking period doesn’t last very long, as the ship has lost a good deal of its speed in the climb outward from the Sun. When it’s over you’ll be dropping down on to Phobos, the inner moon of Mars, which acts as a natural space station about four thousand miles above the surface of the planet.
Though Phobos is only a jagged lump of rock not much bigger than some terrestrial mountains, it’s reassuring to be in contact with something solid again after so many weeks in space.
When the ship’s settled down into the landing cradle, the airlock will be coupled up and you’ll go through a connecting tube into the Port. Since Phobos is much too small to have an appreciable gravity, you’ll still be effectively weightless. While the ship’s being unloaded, the immigration officials will check your papers. I don’t know the point of this: I’ve never heard of anyone’s being sent all the way back to Earth after getting this far!
There are two things you mustn’t miss at Port Phobos. The restaurant there is quite good; it’s very small, and only goes into action when a liner docks, but it does its best to give you a fine welcome to Mars. And after a couple of months you’ll have got rather tired of the shipboard menu. . . .
You realize, of course, that every scrap of food on Mars—except a few expensive luxuries—is produced locally in the hydroponic farms or the big protein tanks. The native life forms aren’t edible; having evolved in an oxygenless atmosphere, their chemistry differs too violently from ours. But you needn’t feel sorry for the starving colonists. They’ve done wonders, and I’d defy you to prove that the Port Phobos escalope had never been within thirty million miles of a cow.
The other item is the centrifuge: I believe that’s compulsory now. You go inside and it will spin you up to half a gravity, or rather more than the weight Mars will give you when you land.
It’s simply a little cabin on a rotating arm, and there’s room to walk around inside so that you can practice using your legs again. You probably won’t like the feeling; life in a spaceship can make you lazy.
The ferry rockets that will take you down to Mars will be waiting when the ship docks. If you’re unlucky you’ll have to hang around at the Port for some hours, because they can’t carry more than twenty passengers, and there are only two ferries in service. The actual descent to the planet takes about three hours; it’s the only time on the whole trip when you’ll get any impression of speed. Those ferries enter the atmosphere at over five thousand miles an hour and go halfway round Mars before they lose enough speed through air resistance to land like ordinary aircraft.
You’ll land, of course, at Port Lowell, named after the famous American astronomer who devoted so much of his life to mapping the planet, back in the 19th Century. Besides being the largest settlement on Mars, it’s still the only place that has the facilities for handling spaceships. From the air the plastic pressure domes look like a cluster of bubbles—a very pretty sight when the sun catches them. Don’t be alarmed if one of them is deflated. That doesn’t mean that there’s been an accident. The domes are let down at fairly frequent intervals so that the envelopes can be checked for leaks. If you’re lucky you may see one being pumped up—it’s quite impressive.
After two months in a spaceship, even Port Lowell will seem a mighty metropolis. (Actually, I believe its population is now well over twenty thousand.) You’ll find the people energetic, inquisitive, forthright, and very friendly, unless they think you’re trying to be superior. They come from every part of Earth, but like all planetarians, they’ve left their nationalities behind them.
Port Lowell has practically everything you’ll find in a city on Earth, though of course on a smaller scale. You’ll come across many reminders of “home.” For example, the main street in the city is Fifth Avenue but, surprisingly enough, you’ll find Piccadilly Circus where Fifth crosses Broadway.
The Port, like all the major settlements, lies in the dark belt of vegetation that roughly follows Mars’ equator and occupies about half the southern hemisphere. The northern hemisphere is almost all desert. Some of these desert regions, composed of the red oxides that give the planet its ruddy color, are very beautiful. Furthermore, they’re far older than anything on the surface of our Earth, because there’s been little weathering on Mars to wear down the rocks—at least since the seas dried up, more than five hundred million years ago.
You shouldn’t attempt to leave the city until you’ve become accustomed to living in a low-pressure atmosphere of almost pure oxygen. You’ll have grown fairly well acclimatized on the trip, because the air in the spaceship will have been slowly adjusted to conditions inside the domes.
Outside them, the pressure of the natural Martian atmosphere is about equal to that on the top of Mount Everest—and it contains practically no oxygen. So when you go out you’ll have to wear a helmet, or travel in one of those pressurized Jeeps they call “Sand fleas.”
Wearing a helmet, by the way, is nothing like the nuisance you’d expect it to be. The equipment is very light and compact, and so long as you don’t do anything silly is quite foolproof. As it’s most unlikely that you’ll ever go out without an experienced guide, you’ll have no need to worry. Thanks to the low gravity, enough oxygen for twelve hours’ normal working can be carried quite easily, and you’ll never be away from shelter as long as that.
Don’t attempt to imitate any of the local people you may see walking around without oxygen gear. They’re second-generation colonists and are used to the low pressure. They can’t breathe the Martian atmosphere any more than you can, but like the old-time native pearl divers they can make one lungful last for several minutes when necessary. Even so, it’s a silly sort of trick and they’re not supposed to do it.
As you know, the other great obstacle to life on Mars is the low temperature. The highest thermometer reading ever recorded is somewhere in the eighties, but that’s quite exceptional. In the long winters and during the night in summer or winter, it never rises above the freezing point. And I believe the record low is minus one hundred and fifty degrees Fahrenheit.
Well, you won’t be outdoors at night, and for the sort of excursions you’ll be taking all that’s needed is a simple thermo-suit. It’s very light, and traps the body heat so effectively that no other source of warmth is needed.
No doubt you’ll want to see as much of Mars as you can during your stay. There are only two methods of transport outside the cities—Sand fleas for short ranges, and aircraft for longer distances. Don’t misunderstand me when I say “short ranges,” for a Sand flea with a full charge of power cells is good for a couple of thousand miles, and it can do eighty miles an hour over good ground. Mars could never have been explored without them: you can survey a planet from space, but in the end someone has to be there to fill in the map.
One thing that few visitors realize is just how big Mars is. Although it seems small beside the Earth, its land area is almost as great, because so much of our planet is covered with oceans. So it’s hardly surprising that there are vast regions that have never been properly explored, particularly around the Poles. Those stubborn people who still believe that there was once an indigenous Martian civilization pin their hopes on these great blanks. Every so often you hear rumors of some wonderful archaeological discovery in the wastelands, but nothing ever comes of it.
Personally, I don’t believe there ever were any Martians—but the planet is interesting enough for its own sake. You’ll be fascinated by the plant life and the queer animals that manage to live without oxygen, migrating each year from hemisphere to hemisphere, across the ancient seabeds, to avoid the ferocious winter. The fight for survival on Mars has been fierce, and evolution has produced some odd results. Don’t go investigating any Martian life-forms unless you have a guide, or you may get some unpleasant surprises. . . .
Well, that’s all I’ve got to say, except to wish you a pleasant trip. Oh, there is one other thing. My boy collects stamps, and I rather let him down when I was on Mars. If you could drop me a few letters while you’re there—there’s no need to put anything in them if you’re too busy—I’d be much obliged. He’s trying to collect a set of space-mail covers postmarked from each of the principal Martian cities, and if you could help—thanks a lot! ◊