The space environment is so inconvenient for human beings. There is so much that one has to bring along to keep them alive.

Life Support has to supply each crew member daily with 0.0576 kilograms of air, about 0.98 kilograms of water, and about 2.3 kilograms of (wet) food (less if you are recycling). Some kind of artificial gravity or a medical way to keep the bones and muscles from wasting away. Protection from the deadly radiation from solar storms and the ship's power plant and propulsion system. Protection from the temperature extremes in the space environment. Protection from acceleration. Medical support. And then there are the psychological factors.

Recently John Lumpkin and I were allowed the rare privilege of submitting questions to NASA astronaut Captain Stephen G. Bowen a couple of questions about life in the space environment.

Me: My main interest are those details about living in a space environment that are "surprising", that is, not intuitively obvious to us earth-bound folk.

Captain Bowen: The most surprising thing is how quickly you adapt to being in the microgravity environment. In addition to floating around the rest of the body adapts pretty quickly (after about 4 days all systems are good). The fluid shift resolves and you lose the puffy face in week. The ISS crewmembers say at about the 6 week point it feels normal to live in space (consequently it takes 6 weeks before earth feels normal). Other than that it takes a while to realize that you can't just put things down and instead of looking down for things you lose you have to look all around.

John Lumpkin: I guess I'd be curious about the little things of life in freefall. Stuff he has to get used to in terms of eating, sleeping, changing clothes, moving around, and so on. Is it easy to hit your head on things? To fly into other people? What are some things that work on Earth but don't in freefall ... Particularly things most people might not think of? This sort of thing makes nice color for antigrav-free science fiction stories.

Captain Bowen: One of the interesting things once you do get adjusted in space is how you think you know how to float and translate. On the Shuttle your never very far from anything so you get really good in a couple days. Once you dock to the ISS however, it is huge. You quickly realize that your not that good and it takes a while to get good at translating 40 feet or so without bumping off the walls (experiments, cables etc...) with different body parts (feet, head, back...) Additionally you can actually try and get yourself into a position where you are stationary and can't reach anything -that is an interesting feeling since swimming in air to get someplace is very inefficient. Other interesting things - you can eat your tea with chopsticks, you can sleep in any configuration, and since dust and debris don't fall it all collects on the intakes of the fans (for the most part but it is odd to watch such things just floating about). One night the ISS bell floated down from the ISS to the middeck of the Shuttle (right past me) without anyone noticing till we woke up the next morning.

John Lumpkin: The Russian/Chinese philosophy on spacecraft design is to make the re-entry capsule small, allowing for less of the total launch mass to be devoted to re-entry protection. This frees up mass for use in the non-re-entering work module, allowing greater capability there. The US philosophy, for both Apollo and Orion, is to put the entire crew area within the re-entry capsule. I understand the advantages to the Russian/Chinese approach -- what compelling advantages are there to the US approach?

Captain Bowen: I've not been a part of the design work. My one input was to get rid of windows. Both Apollo and Orion while more spacious are actually not designed for long term living. Apollo had the additional space once the Lunar module was attached and Orion will have a docked module launched separately for transit to the Moon. For shorter missions (such as going to the ISS) you won't need the extra space. Orion is really sized for launch and reentry of 6 suited astronauts with a specific blunt body shape. We also don't have the same size restrictions the others have for astronauts. Everything else is squeezed around the seats, and for the moon the crew size is reduced to provide more room. I really haven't thought about the size relative to Soyuz other than Soyuz is really tight.

John Lumpkin: How hot can you make that coffee in a microgravity environment? How hot is the food? Do you sleep better (microgravity) or worse (noise) in orbit? How much time do you spend on maintenance? How well do international partners get along in space? Do the people in space get along better than the two ground stations (US and Russia)?

Captain Bowen: The pressure on the ISS and Shuttle are 14.7 just like here. Although the Hubble mission will be at 10.2 for its entire mission for EVA reasons. The hot water does get really hot. The convection oven is pretty hot as well. I averaged about an hour more sleep on orbit than on earth. We all get along really well. The ISS crews train for years with their crewmates and we've all worked with them as well. Some of the ESA and JAXA and CSA astronauts are permanently stationed in Houston. The Cosmonauts we see in Russia and occasionally as they pass through Houston. Yes I think we get along better in space - but then again we know each other better than the ground teams do.


What are the psychological and physiological effects of being on a long cruise in a nuclear submarine? To clarify, not effects of exposure to radiation, but lack of sunlight and fresh air.


Ok lets break this apart into a few catagories.

No exposure to sunlight:

     The most immediate and obvious implication of no exposure to sunlight is Vitamin D deficiency.
     Most submariners take Vitamin D supplements underway with them to prevent the negative effects of a lack of Vitamin D. The Eggs and Milk on board are usually Vitamin D fortified as well to help offset the lack of sunlight.
     The more subtle psychological side effects of no exposure to sunlight have to be combined with the constant exposure to nothing but fluorescent lighting for up to several months at a time. These two particulars don't bother most submariners as they are all psychologically screened in advance.
     To clarify more on that last point, while there are exceptions (I have met many athletes in the submarine service) there is a larger representation of people who tend to prefer indoor activities. The most popular hobbies of submariners tend to be books, video games, board/card games, movies (both obscure and mainstream) and learning (many submariners take distance learning courses or learn new languages or tradeskills).

Long work hours and rotating shifts

     Without the sun to guide your internal clock, combined with 18 hour days, time can almost become irrelevant underway. Due to space restrictions on manning, a submarine mans a nominal 3-section watch rotation with 6 hour watches. This means that the typical submariner works on an 18 hour day schedule. This may seem quirky, and it kind of is. However, after 2-3 days of this 18-hour schedule it becomes second-nature, and without the sun to guide you, time of day is irrelevant.
     What all the documentaries and other sources don't get into (due to lack of personal experience with this) is the fact that the people that do all the planning and operations do not work the 18-hour watch rotation. These include the Captain, XO, Chief of the Boat, and if they're lucky the Department Heads and Senior Chiefs. These guys plan out an operational schedule on a 24 hour clock, so the 6 hours of your 18 hour day that are allotted to sleeping/relaxing are filled with drills and/or training about half of the time.
     I know this is hard to imagine, and it is, and only until a person undergoes this process for a few months do they really begin to appreciate its ups and downs.
     Down sides are fits of sleep. You might work for 24-36 hours at a stretch with only breaks to eat a 30 minute meal once every 6 hours, and no time to sleep. But when that odd day comes around (happens once every 3 normal days) your allotted 6 hours of rest and relaxation fall onto that mid-shift (midnight to 0600) and you can usually get a solid 6 hours of sleep down to make up for the previous 2 days of working straight.
     Up sides are that the worst shift (midshift) is distributed evenly across the 3 sections so that no one section is getting excessively cycled more than the others. Also, the shorter 6 hour watches are easier to focus during than a longer 8 hour shift that surface ships usually employ.
     The lack of sleep really grinds people down, and many guys find themselves waking up several times throughout their first few nights at home.
     Words cannot express the feeling that you get when you lay down and know that you will not have to wake up in over 6 hours.

Fresh Air

     There are a large number of air contaminants that the air filtration system on a submarine are not equipped to remove. These are forbidden and are all taken off the submarine just prior to deployment.
     Common air contaminants underway are:

     CO2: Caused by personnel breathing. Higher activity levels cause this to rise much faster (ie during drills or casualties, or when the entire crew is awake and active for some reason). This is removed by Monoethanolamine scrubbers. MEA or "Amine" absorbs CO2 when cold, and releases it when hot. This peculiar property of the fluid is used to strip CO2 out of the atmosphere and send it overboard.
     CO: Caused by combustive process with hydrocarbons. This is primarily the ship's Diesel which is run anywhere from daily (on a diesel submarine) to once every few months (nuclear submarine). Cigarette smoke also produces small amounts of CO, however smoking is now not allowed on board United States submarines, as many of the other air contaminants linger in the air and are not effectively removed by the ship's air regeneration system.
     CO is removed by the ship's "burners" where they are combined with Hydrogen in an auto-catalytic process to produce CO2 and water. The CO2 is removed by the scrubbers and sent overboard.

     H2: Hydrogen gas is produced only by the batteries, and is removed in the burners along with CO.

     Oxygen is produced by running high electrical currents through pure water adulterated by a "caustic" electrolyte. The Hydrogen produced by this process is pumped overboard and the Oxygen is released into the submarine to be breathed
     There are few if any negative effects of submarine atmosphere on human's respiratory systems. In fact, people with minor allergies such as hay-fever demonstrate no allergy symptoms while underway due to the sterile environment.
     Amine, diesel fuel oil, lube oil, and diesel exhaust permeate the inside of a submarine and let off a very pungent "submarine" smell. Words cannot describe, it must be experienced. These are not harmful to humans though and merely release a strong foul odor.

Roy Gilbert, I worked on a submarine for 3 years

     PSYCHOLOGICAL: The submarine force screens out people who cannot deal with stress or tight quarters, and there is a certain amount of self-selection. Submarine duty can be stressful, but it can also be tedious for long periods. For me personally, the most marked effects for my colleagues was an ability to deal well with stress and boredom -- and a strong propensity for gallows humor. Like any small office or organization, team members have to learn how to work well together, and put up with each others' indiosyncracies.

     PHYSICAL: This was more interesting. Lack of exposure to sunlight makes you very pale (duh); it is very hard to get exercise in tight quarters; and your skin begins to smell like diesel fumes because of the diesel generator that every submarine has onboard.
     The air is highly purified — nuclear submarines can make their own air by electrolyzing seawater, and there is someone monitoring the composition of the air 24 hours per day. Except for the diesel stink, it is as pure as it gets. In fact, after being submerged for a couple of months, when you suck in "fresh" air with the submarine snorkel mast, it tends to have a gnarly putrid odor. Your nose adjusts in a few minutes but it can be overwhelming at first.
     The most interesting effect to me was a loss of ability to perceive distance. When I came home after a long deployment, I found driving very difficult for a few days because I had a tough time judging the distance to other cars.
     Submariners are generally sleep-deprived with rotating shifts, but most of us developed a life-long ability to sleep whenever we need to. If you see a submariner on a long flight, you can be sure that he can fall asleep right at takeoff.

Don Bishop, Spent many years aboard subs and sub support vessels

     You will develop an extreme longing for the feel of sunlight and a fresh breeze. The lighting on a sub is flouro and is dim (at least it was to me). You would begin to develop a closed in cramped feeling and at times the sight of another person was the last thing you wanted. And of course the smell. Don't now how to describe it. It has to be experienced. After a few days under way you don't notice the smell you become nose blind, but just before turnover to the other crew you would cram all your gear into your bag and seal it up. You would take it to wherever you called home and split for R&R. Since you had just worked 14 weeks without a day off the Navy owed you 14 weeks worth of Saturdays and Sundays or 28 days. Free and clear only required to check in once a week to verify you still lived. After R&R it was time to open "The Bag" and do the laundry. The smell cannot be described it has to be experienced. A mixture of JP5 jet fuel, synthetic lube oil, dead marine life, body odor, foot odor, body waste odor, and ammonia. These are just the major contributors. When you open the bag that smells hits you in the nose with the force of a sledge hammer. Try the Vicks trick it helps.
     Now I don't know if everyone had this issue. The longest line of sight that could be seen was 95 feet down one of the compartments port passageway. After 12 - 14 weeks of this I had difficulty focusing on objects in the distance and my depth perception was way off I would find myself stopping 5 car lengths from the car ahead of me at traffic lights. It would take a couple of weeks for this to clear up.

Acceleration Protection

The bottom line seems to be the acceleration should be limited to 4g or less if you want the astronauts capable of using their hands on controls, and limit it to 17g while sitting down or 30g while lying flat to prevent serious injury to the astronauts. But only for less than 10 minutes or so, see graph below for details. This is usually not a problem unless you are dealing with a torchship. Conventional spacecraft cannot accelerate at that rate for much longer than 10 minutes before their propellant tanks run dry.

Note that the piloting controls will need to be specially designed to be used under 4gs, you ain't gonna be able to do fussy fine control when your arms weighs 20 kilograms each.

In the science-fictional role playing game Universe, people with enough money can have an "internal gravity web" surgically implanted. This is a series of strong nets anchored to bone that support the internal organs. It allows the person to undergo accelerations larger than 2.5g indefinitely with no ill effects.

Acceleration Positions
Transverse forces supine+GxLying on your backEye Balls InRecommended high acceleration position
Transverse forces prone-GxLying face downEye Balls OutSecond-best high acceleration position
Positive longitudinal+GzSitting with head above heartEye Balls UpThird-best high acceleration position
Negative longitudinal-GzStanding on your headEye Balls DownReally stupid

Prone Acceleration

I would have thought that lying prone was a bad way to take high acceleration, because you can't breath. But then I saw the image above.

When it came to piloting aircraft, both prone and supine allowed the pilot to take much higher acceleration than sitting normally. This is because in the sitting posture the body and legs are a long distance below the brain, and acceleration drags all the blood in the pilot's body downward; i.e., out of the brain causing blackout. Prone or supine means the blood cannot be yanked very far downward from the brain.

But prone made it very difficult for the pilot to look upward, and supine made it very difficult to look downward. So prone with a bubble window was better for:

  • Fighter airplanes with speed superior to their opponents
  • Bombers
  • High speed reconnaissance airplanes
  • Airplanes that operate or attack at angles greater than 30°

For other types of aircraft, the drawbacks of prone position outweighed the superior acceleration endurance. In particular, it is hard for a pilot to make the aircraft climb if they cannot turn their head to look upward.

After some research I stumbled over the report Human Capabilities In The Prone And Supine Positions: An Annotated Bibliography. Remember that "supine" means "eyeballs-in on-your-back" while "prone" means "eyeballs-out on-your-stomach". "Semi-prone" means prone but the knees are significantly lower than the body.

The prone position of the pilot in high-speed airplanes has certain advantages (higher g-tolerance of the pilot, reduction of drag due to decrease of frontal area, improved instrument visibility) and drawbacks (narrowing of field of vision, decrease of visual acuity, aggravation of claustrophobic tendencies, discomfort encountered in this abnormal position). A nylon bed designed in 1948 by the Aero Medical Laboratory was tested for 8 to 12 hours without apparent signs of discomfort. Three-dimensional hand control (i.e. operation of all the control surfaces by band motions only) likewise gave good test results. Restriction of vision (up to 35°) was one of the major complaints raised by the test pilots.

The paper concludes with a brief discussion of flight tests at accelerations of less than 1 g, as would be encountered in space flight. The prone pilot was instrumented for recording of heart rate and electrocardiagram. He was asked to shake his head and to nod during the runs at zero g. There were no ill effects following these movements, but after the subgravity flight there was frequent vertigo. Coordination was not impaired, although there was tendency to overreach.

Will prone flight lick high g-loads? AVIATION WEEK v. 57, n. 26, p. 21-22, 24-25, 29 Dec 1952

The changes produced by body posture on total lung capacity and its subdivisions have been reported for all positions except the prone position.

Twenty normal subjects, twelve males and eight females, had determinations of total lung capacity in the three body positions, sitting, supine and prone. Tidal volume, minute ventilation and O2 consumption were also measured.

The changes found on assumption of the supine position from the sitting position were similar to those previously reported. For the prone position, a smaller inspiratory capacity and a larger expiratory reserve volume were found. The mean values were changed, respectively, 8% and +37%. Association with these changes was a significant increase of the functional residual capacity by 636 ml.

Ventilation did not change significantly from that found during sitting, unlike the findings associated with the supine position, in which the tidal volume was decreased. Respiratory frequency remained the same for all positions.

Effect of body posture on lung volumes. JOURNAL OF APPLIED PHYSIOLOGY 16, n. 1, p. 27-29, Jan 1961.

The "B.9" is a twin engine, cantilever, low-wing monoplane of composite conotruction, stressed for an ultimate factor of 22g. The pilot is placed in the fuselage nose.

The bed on which the pilot lies is provided with fore and aft adjustment and an adjustable chin rest. There are arm rests, and the legs are slightly bent. A back parachute replaces the conventional chest-type parachute. Modified stick controls (in preference to wheel controls) are used. Brakes and rudder are controlled by the feet in the conventional manner. All secondary controls and switches are situated on the port side of the fuselage.

The prone position was considered comfortable by the pilots. Fatigue was experienced by some in the nape of the neck and the shoulders. The chin rest was considered disturbing in horizontal flijht. The relative position of the field of view, as compared to the seated position, shifted into a position with the main line of vision declined 300 below the horizon. Flight handling was not encountered difficult. The feeling of "suspension" was absent in the vertical dive. Maximum accelerations of 8.5 g in pullouts and 6 g in steep spirals were tolerated over several seconds.

Investigations of the prone position for pilots. ZENTRALE FUER WISSENSCHAFTLICHS BERICHTSWESIEN DER LUFTFAHRTFORSCHUNG (BERLIN) UM 1297, 13 May 1944.

Naturally an acceleration couch for a quadruped such as a dog or a centaur-like alien will probably be a prone couch. Think about the problems of a horse in a spaceship lying on its back with all four legs in the air and you'll see what I mean.


The relative position or orientation of the subject is of prime importance in determining tolerable levels of gravitational or acceleration force, or "g force.' As the g force is gradually increased, certain effects are observed.

Figure 5 shows the time-tolerance relationships for positive longitudinal forces and for transverse forces (either prone or supine, prone being the position of lying face down and supine being the position of lying on one's back).

For the transverse position, human subjects in Germany during World War II were subjected to 17 g's for as long as 4 minutes reportedly with no harmful effects and no loss of consciousness. The curves indicated for very long periods of time are extrapolations and are speculative, since no data are available on long-term effects. Col. John Stapp, Air Force Missile Development Center, has investigated extreme g loadings, up to 45 g's, sustained for fractions of a second; These are the kind of accelerations or decelerations that would be experienced in crash landings. For these brief high g loadings, the rate of change of g exceeds 500 g's per second.

As a matter of interest, the beaded line on the figure indicates the approximate accelerations that would be experienced by a man in a vehicle designed to reach escape velocity with three stages of chemical burning, each stage having a similar load-factor-time pattern. This curve enters the critical region for positive g's. Most individuals would probably black out and some would become unconscious. However, for individuals in the transverse position, this acceleration could be tolerated and the individual would not lose consciousness.

Gross effects of
acceleration forces
Earth normal (32.2 feet/second)1
Hands and feet heavy;
walking and climbing difficult
Walking and climbing impossible;
crawling difficult; soft tissues sag
Movement only with great effort;
crawling almost impossible
Only slight movements of arms
and head possible
Longitudinal g's, short duration
(blood forced from head toward feet):
Visual symptoms appear2.5 - 7.0
Blackout3.5 - 8.0
loss of consciousness
4.0 - 8.5
Structural damage,
especially to spine
18 - 23
Transverse g's, short duration
(head and heart at same hydrostatic level):
No visual symptoms or
loss of consciousness
0 - 17
Tolerated28 - 30
Structural damage may occur> 30 - 45

a. Upward Acceleration Effects (+ Gz) (In Seated Posture)

1 Gz
Equivalent to the erect or seated terrestrial posture
2 Gz
Increased weight; increased pressure on buttocks; drooping of face and body tissue
2.5 Gz
Difficult to raise oneself
3 - 4 Gz
Impossible to raise oneself; difficult to raise arms and legs; movement at right angles impossible; progressive dimming of vision after 3-4 seconds; progressive tunneling of vision
4.5 - 6 Gz
Diminution of vision; progressive blackout after about 5 seconds; hearing and then consciousness lost if exposure continued; mild to severe convulsions in about 50% of the subjects during or following unconsciousness, frequently with bizarre dreams; occasionally paresthesias, confused states, and rarely, gustatory sensations; no incontinence; pain not common, but tension and congestion of lower limbs with cramps and tingling; inspiration difficult; loss of orientation of time and space for up to 15 seconds post-acceleration

b. Downward Acceleration Effects (- Gz) (Standing On Head )

-1 Gz
Unpleasant, but tolerable, facial suffusion and congestion
-2 to -3 Gz
Severe facial congestion; throbbing headache; ori-gressive blurring, , or graying, or occasionally reddening of vision after 5 seconds; congestion disappears slowly; may leave petechial hemorrhages, edematous eye-lids
-5 Gz
Five seconds is limit of tolerance rarely reached by most subjects

c. Forward Acceleration Effects (+ Gx) (Lying On Back)

2 - 3 Gx
Increased weight and abdominal pressure; progressive slight difficulty in focusing and slight spatial disorientation, each subsiding with experience; 2 Gx tolerable for at least 24 hours; 4 Gx tolerable up to at least 60 minutes
3 - 6 Gx
Progressive tightness in chest, chest pain; loss of peripheral vision; difficulty in breathing and speaking; blurring of vision, effort required to maintain focus
6 - 9 Gx
Increased chest pain and pressure; breathing difficult, shallow respiration from position of nearly full inspiration; further reduction in peripheral vision, increased blurring, occasional tunneling, great concentration required to maintain focus; occasional lacrimation; body, legs, and arms cannot be lifted at 8 Gx; head cannot be lifted at 9 Gx
9 - 12 Gx
Breathing difficulty severe, increased chest pain, marked fatigue, loss of peripheral vision, diminution of central acuity, lacrimation
15 Gx
Extreme difficulty in breathing and speaking, severe viselike chest pain; loss of tactile sensation, recurrent complete loss of vision

d. Backward Acceleration Effects (- Gx) (Lying Prone)

Similar to those of + Gx acceleration with modifications produced by reversal of the force vector. Chest pressure reversed, hence, breathing is easier; pain and discomfort from outward pressure toward restraint harness manifest at 8-Gx; forward head tilt cerebral hemodynamic effects akin to Gz; feeling of insecurity from pressure against restraint.


      The heavy battle cruisers formed up. Like a huge swarm of another continuum gnats, the cruisers grouped themselves in the center of the battle formation. Around them, making one vast encircling flank, were the destroyers. Behind this shield of metal and paraglas, of flesh and bone, ranged the carriers, their great ports open, tiny two-man interceptors ready to leap out into space once Abli Juliene, Grand Admiral of the Federation Expeditionary Force, gave his commands.

     Those commands came. One after another two dozen interceptors burst from their mother ships, jetted forward ahead of the fleet at “max ack,” and vanished into the grayness lying before the starships from Earth.

     Despite the anti-acceleration forces of Contra-grav, Major Evan Branchi, pilot of the Wanda Love, commander of the TFEF “probe squadron,” lay crushed against his acceleration cot as the tiny interceptor’s plasma jets blasted into the grayness. Drugs circulating in his blood kept him awake despite the fierce acceleration that tried to steal consciousness from him. His eyes stayed open, peering at the screens and dials before him, watching the chronometer tick away the seconds.

     Here we go, Branchi thought, and here they come. They can’t be far away now.

     The chronometer reached its cutoff point. A signal was sent through the interceptor, back to the plasma jets that threw it forward. The jets suddenly ceased their atomic flaming. The Wanda Love fell forward.

From THE SKY IS FILLED WITH SHIPS by Richard C. Meredith (1969)

"Alex, how long?" Holden asked for the third time in ten minutes.

"We're over an hour out. Want to go on the juice?" Alex said.

Going on the juice was pilot-speak for a high-g burn that would knock an unmedicated human unconscious. The juice was the cocktail of drugs the pilot's chair would inject into him to keep him conscious, alert, and hopefully stroke-free when his body weighed five hundred kilos. Holden had used the juice on multiple occasions in the navy, and coming down afterward was unpleasant.

"Not unless we have to," he said.

(ed note: if the apparent body weight is 500 kg, I figure the acceleration is on the order of seven gees)

Q: What is in the juice they take on the Roxinante (sic), and what is it doing?

DANIEL ABRAHAM: What it's doing is controlling blood pressure and the elasticity of blood vessels to try to keep you from stroking out. That's the big thing it's doing. The hardest thing about long, sustained high-G burns is that humans aren't used to them. So, it's something that will make sure that your blood pressure stays high enough so that you're getting blood all the way to your brain and that you're remaining elastic enough that you don't just pop like a balloon.

(ed note: there is also a second form of the juice that includes a sedative. This puts you to sleep for either hibernation or to knock you out for the duration of the burn. The first type of juice includes a stimulant to keep you from blacking out.

The writers of the TV version of The Expanse forgot to include the juice, but actor Cas Anvar thought the concept was cool and got it added in.)

From LEVIATHAN WAKES from The Expanse by "James S.A. Corey" 2011.

Acceleration Couches

An acceleration couch is a chair that will hold an astronaut in relative comfort under several gs of acceleration. The Apollo crew's acceleration couches only had to protect the crew from a maximum of 4gs on lift-off, and about 7gs during reentry.

In The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, the couches had a built-in "relief tube" (i.e., a rudimentary urinal) for use during prolonged periods of multi-g acceleration. For various reasons military crews were all stag, no women allowed.

Flotation Mattress

If you have a torchship, and it is going to accelerate at more than one g for longer than a few minutes, the crew is going to need special couches to lie in. Otherwise the g forces will cause severe injury or even kill. A standard Apollo couch just ain't gonna cut the mustard. You are going to need something more fancy.

The next step up is an advanced waterbeds or flotation mattress. The astronaut lies on a big flexible plastic bag full of water. The water automatically conforms to the contours of the astronaut's body.

In Robert Heinlein's Sky Lift and Double Star these are called called "cider presses" for sarcastic reasons. The water mattress is the fruit and the astronaut is the piston.

In The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle the flotation chairs were supplemented by a few motorized acceleration couches used by damage control parties who had to move around during high gs. Such mobile couches also appeared in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.


     He called Bury instead.
     Bury was in the gee bath: a film of highly elastic mylar over liquid. Only his face and hands showed above the curved surface. His face looked old—it almost showed his true age.

     "Yes, of course, I didn't mean personally. I only want access to information on our progress. At my age I dare not move from this rubber bathtub for the duration of our voyage. How long will we be under four gees?"
     "One hundred and twenty-five hours. One twenty-four, now."

     He called Sally's cabin.
     She looked as if she hadn't slept in a week or smiled in years. Blaine said, "Hello, Sally. Sorry you came?"
     "I told you I can take anything you can take," Sally said calmly. She gripped the arms of her chair and stood up. She let go and spread her arms to show how capable she was.
     "Be careful," Blaine said, trying to keep his voice steady. "No sudden moves. Keep your knees straight. You can break your back just sitting down. Now stay erect, but reach behind you. Get both the chair arms in your hands before you try to bend at the waist—"
     She didn't believe it was dangerous, not until she started to sit down. Then the muscles in her arms knotted, panic flared in her eyes, and she sat much too abruptly, as if MacArthur's gravity had sucked her down.
     "Are you hurt?"
     "No," she said. "Only my pride."
     "Then you stay in that chair, damn your eyes! Do you see me standing up? You do not. And you won't!"
     "All right." She turned her head from side to side. She was obviously dizzy from the jolt.

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

     “How high, sir?”
     Berrio hesitated. “Three and one-half gravities.”
     Three and a half g’s! That wasn’t a boost — that was a pullout. Joe heard the surgeon protest, “I’m sorry, sir, but three gravities is all I can approve.”
     Berrio frowned. “Legally, it’s up to the captain. But three hundred lives depend on it.”
     Kleuger said, “Doctor, let’s see that curve.” The surgeon slid a paper across the desk; Kleuger moved it so that Joe could see it. “Here’s the scoop, Appleby—”
     A curve started high, dropped very slowly, made a sudden “knee” and dropped rapidly. The surgeon put his finger on the “knee.” “Here,” he said soberly, “is where the donors are suffering from loss of blood as much as the patients. After that it’s hopeless, without a new source of blood.”
     “How did you get this curve?” Joe asked.
     “It’s the empirical equation of Larkin’s disease applied to two hundred eighty-nine people.”
     Appleby noted vertical lines each marked with an acceleration and a time. Far to the right was one marked: “1 g—18 days” That was the standard trip; it would arrive after the epidemic had burned out. Two gravities cut it to twelve days seventeen hours; even so, half the colony would be dead. Three g’s was better but still bad. He could see why the Commodore wanted them to risk three-and-a-half kicks; that line touched the “knee,” at nine days fifteen hours. That way they could save almost everybody, but, oh, brother!
     The time advantage dropped off by inverse squares. Eighteen days required one gravity, so nine days took four, while four-and-a-half days required a fantastic sixteen gravities. But someone had drawn a line at “16 g—4.5 days.” “Hey! This plot must be for a robot-torch — that’s the ticket! Is there one available?”
     Berrio said gently, “Yes. But what are its chances?”
     Joe shut up. Even between the inner planets robots often went astray. In four-billion-odd miles the chance that one could hit close enough to be caught by radio control was slim. “We’ll try,” Berrio promised. “If it succeeds, I’ll call you at once.” He looked at Kleuger. “Captain, time is short. I must have your decision.”
     Kleuger turned to the surgeon. “Doctor, why not another half gravity? I recall a report on a chimpanzee who was centrifuged at high g for an amazingly long time.”
     “A chimpanzee is not a man.”
     Joe blurted out, “How much did this chimp stand, Surgeon?”
     “Three and a quarter gravities for twenty-seven days.”
     “He did? What shape was he in when the test ended?”
     “He wasn’t,” the doctor grunted.

     The ship was built for high boost; controls were over the pilots’ tanks, where they could be fingered without lifting a hand. The flight surgeon and an assistant fitted Kleuger into one tank while two medical technicians arranged Joe in his. One of them asked, “Underwear smooth? No wrinkles?”
     “I guess.”
     “I’ll check.” He did so, then arranged fittings necessary to a man who must remain in one position for days. “The nipple left of your mouth is water; the two on your right are glucose and bouillon.”
     “No solids?”
     The surgeon turned in the air and answered, “You don’t need any, you won’t want any, and you mustn’t have any. And be careful in swallowing.”
     “I’ve boosted before.”
     “Sure, sure. But be careful.”
     Each tank was like an oversized bathtub filled with a liquid denser than water. The top was covered by a rubbery sheet, gasketed at the edges; during boost each man would float with the sheet conforming to his body. The Salamander being still in free orbit, everything was weightless and the sheet now served to keep the fluid from floating out. The attendants centered Appleby against the sheet and fastened him with sticky tape, then placed his own acceleration collar, tailored to him, behind his head.

     The room had no ports and needed none. The area in front of Joe’s face was filled with screens, instruments, radar, and data displays; near his forehead was his eyepiece for the coelostat. A light blinked green as the passenger tube broke its anchors; Kleuger caught Joe’s eye in a mirror mounted opposite them. “Report, Mister.”
     “Minus seven’ minutes oh four. Tracking. Torch warm and idle. Green for light-off.”
     “Stand by while I check orientation.” Kleuger’s eyes disappeared into his coelostat eyepiece.

     When the counter flashed the last thirty seconds he forgot his foregone leave. The lust to travel possessed him. To go, no matter where, anywhere go! He smiled as the torch lit off.
     Then weight hit him.
     At three and one-half gravities he weighed six hundred and thirty pounds. It felt as if a load of sand had landed on him, squeezing his chest, making him helpless, forcing his head against his collar. He strove to relax, to let the supporting liquid hold him together. It was all right to tighten up for a pullout, but for a long boost one must relax. He breathed shallowly and slowly; the air was pure oxygen, little lung action was needed. But he labored just to breathe. He could feel his heart struggling to pump blood grown heavy through squeezed vessels. This is awful! he admitted. I’m not sure I can take it. He had once had four g for nine minutes but he had forgotten how bad it was.

     Joe then found that he had forgotten, while working, his unbearable weight. It felt worse than ever. His neck ached and he suspected that there was a wrinkle under his left calf. He wiggled in the tank to smooth it, but it made it worse.

     He tried to rest — as if a man could when buried under sandbags.
     His bones ached and the wrinkle became a nagging nuisance. The pain in his neck got worse; apparently he had wrenched it at light-off. He turned his head, but there were just two positions — bad and worse. Closing his eyes, he attempted to sleep. Ten minutes later he was wider awake than ever, his mind on three things, the lump in his neck, the irritation under his leg, and the squeezing weight.
     Look, bud, he told himself, this is a long boost. Take it easy, or adrenalin exhaustion will get you. As the book says, “The ideal pilot is relaxed and unworried. Sanguine in temperament, he never borrows trouble.” Why, you chair-warming so-and-so! Were you at three and a half g’s when you wrote that twaddle?

     The integrating accelerograph displayed elapsed time, velocity, and distance, in dead-reckoning for empty space. Under these windows were three more which showed the same by the precomputed tape controlling the torch; by comparing, Joe could tell how results matched predictions. The torch had been lit off for less than seven hours, speed was nearly two million miles per hour and they were over six million miles out. A third display corrected these figures for the Sun’s field, but Joe ignored this; near Earth’s orbit the Sun pulls only one two-thousandth of a gravity — a gnat’s whisker, allowed for in precomputation. Joe merely noted that tape and D.R. agreed; he wanted an outside check.

     His ribs hurt, each breath carried the stab of pleurisy. His hands and feet felt “pins-and-needles” from scanty circulation. He wiggled them, which produced crawling sensations and wearied him. So he held still and watched the speed soar. It increased seventy-seven miles per hour every second, more than a quarter million miles per hour every hour. For once he envied rocketship pilots; they took forever to get anywhere but they got there in comfort.
     Without the torch, men would never have ventured much past Mars. E = Mc2, mass is energy, and a pound of sand equals fifteen billion horsepower-hours. An atomic rocketship uses but a fraction of one percent of that energy, whereas the new torchers used better than eighty percent. The conversion chamber of a torch was a tiny sun; particles expelled from it approached the speed of light.

     “Oh, there’s one thing I don’t understand, uh, what I don’t understand is, uh, this: why do I have to go, uh, to the geriatrics clinic at Luna City? That’s for old people, uh? That’s what I’ve always understood — the way I understand it. Sir?”
     The surgeon cut in, “I told you, Joe. They have the very best physiotherapy. We got special permission for you.”
     Joe looked perplexed. “Is that right, sir? I feel funny, going to an old folks’, uh, hospital?”
     “That’s right, son.”
     Joe grinned sheepishly. “Okay, sir, uh, if you say so.”
     They started to leave. “Doctor — stay a moment. Messenger, help Mr. Appleby.”
     “Joe, can you make it?”
     “Uh, sure! My legs are lots better — see?” He went out, leaning on the messenger.
     Berrio said, “Doctor, tell me straight: will Joe get well?”
     “No, sir.”
     “Will he get better?’
     “Some, perhaps. Lunar gravity makes it easy to get the most out of what a man has left.”
     “But will his mind clear up?”
     The doctor hesitated. “It’s this way, sir. Heavy acceleration is a speeded-up aging process. Tissues break down, capillaries rupture, the heart does many times its proper work. And there is hypoxia, from failure to deliver enough oxygen to the brain.”
     The Commodore struck his desk an angry blow. The surgeon said gently, “Don’t take it so hard, sir.”
     “Damn it, man — think of the way he was. Just a kid, all bounce and vinegar — now look at him! He’s an old man — senile.”
     “Look at it this way,” urged the surgeon, “you expended one man, but you saved two hundred and seventy.”

From SKY LIFT by Robert Heinlein (1953)

A hand grabbed my arm, towed me along a narrow passage and into a compartment. Against one bulkhead and flat to it were two bunks, or "cider presses," the bathtub-shaped, hydraulic, pressure-distribution tanks used for high acceleration in torchships. I had never seen one before but we had used quite convincing mock-ups in the space opus The Earth Raiders.

There was a stenciled sign on the bulkhead behind the bunks: WARNING!!! Do Not Take More than Three Gravities without a Gee Suit. By Order of— I rotated slowly out of range of vision before I could finish reading it and someone shoved me into one cider press. Dak and the other men were hurriedly strapping me against it when a horn somewhere near by broke into a horrid hooting. It continued for several seconds, then a voice replaced it: "Red warning! Two gravities! Three minutes! Red warning! Two gravities! Three minutes!" Then the hooting started again.

I looked at him and said wonderingly, "How do you manage to stand up?" Part of my mind, the professional part that works independentiy, was noting how he stood and filing it in a new drawer marked: "How a Man Stands under Two Gravities."

He grinned at me. "Nothing to it. I wear arch supports."


"You can stand up, if you want to. Ordinarily we discourage passengers from getting out of the boost tanks when we are torching at anything over one and a half gees — too much chance that some idiot will fall over his own feet and break a leg. But I once saw a really tough weight-lifter type climb out of the press and walk at five gravities — but he was never good for much afterwards. But two gees is okay — about like carrying another man piggyback."

She did not return. Instead the door was opened by a man who appeared to be inhabiting a giant kiddie stroller. "Howdy there, young fellow!" he boomed out. He was sixtyish, a bit too heavy, and bland; I did not have to see his diploma to be aware that his was a "bedside" manner.

"How do you do, sir?"

"Well enough. Better at lower acceleration." He glanced down at the contrivance he was strapped into. "How do you like my corset-on-wheels? Not stylish, perhaps, but it takes some of the strain off my heart.

At turnover we got that one-gravity rest that Dak had promised. We never were in free fall, not for an instant; instead of putting out the torch, which I gather they hate to do while under way, the ship described what Dak called a 180-degree skew turn. It leaves the ship on boost the whole time and is done rather qulckly, but it has an oddly disturbing effect on the sense of balance. The effect has a name something like Coriolanus. Coriolis?

All I know about spaceships is that the ones that operate from the surface of a planet are true rockets but the voyageurs call them "teakettles" because of the steam jet of water or hydrogen they boost with. They aren't considered real atomic-power ships even though the jet is heated by an atomic pile. The long-jump ships such as the Tom Paine, torchships that is, are (so they tell me) the real thing, making use of F equals MC squared, or is it M equals EC squared? You know — the thing Einstein invented.

Our Moon being an airless planet, a torchship can land on it. But the Tom Paine, being a torchship, was really intended to stay in space and be serviced only at space stations in orbit; she had to be landed in a cradle. I wish I had been awake to see it, for they say that catching an egg on a plate is easy by comparison. Dak was one of the half dozen pilots who could do it.

From DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein, 1956

Flush with the bottom deck were two acceleration couches like a pair of waiting sarcophagi, arranged almost as a "V," heads quite close together about half a metre in from the entrance hatchway, feet further apart. There was a strip of the padded deck between the two couches down to mid-thigh level, then they were seperated by an intrusive part of the solid structure that kept the crew module from collapsing at maximum gee. The flight centre was a split space, a tomb for twins, featureless except for the human shaped deep indentation in each couch, and a pair of fiat and silvery screens in the slightly sloped ceiling an arm's reach above. There were no littering control interfaces, no running readouts.

There was a handle under the upper hatch rim. When pulling gee you went in feet first and then pushed yourself legs extended into the waiting couch. In free fall it was easier—you swung in feet first and steered yourself straight down the narrow slot that belonged to you. Sandra went in first, sliding to the right. The lighting came on, triggered by Nightrider.

She dug her heels into the couch recesses before letting go of the handle inside the hatch, then with ankles gripped by the couch, she had enough purchase to slide her hands into the arm troughs and wriggle neatly into place. Getting into the couch was one of the few things that was easier when pulling gee—getting out was easier in tree fall. You fitted perfectly into the couch, flush with the padded floor. Its quilted material completely covered over your arms and legs, lapped round your sides, cupped your head so that you could only hear through the built-in earphones. Nothing pressed against you, it was like floating in a dry fluid, but the couch held you. It was essentially a water bed, an immersion tank. A layer of water a mere centimetre thick circulated around you, kept you hovering sweetly between cool and warm. The water layer could have been a millimetre thick if it wasn't for the risk of localized pinching of the immersion film because of a creased overall or a tensed elbow. Afloat was afloat. And afloat meant immunity to Nightrider's maximum ten gee.

At 10g acceleration the weight of nine additional breast­bones pressed upon your breastbones, an almost unnoticeable load. But ten times your Earth weight—your evolutionary designed weight—crushed your spine and pelvis into whatever you lay on, tugged your cheeks into your ears, clamped your tongue asphyxiatingly against the back of your throat, stressed your ribs almost until they snapped. If you were lightly muscled from your bone strength, and above all cardiac fit, then it probably wouldn't kill you unless sustained for too long, but you would pass out, which would make you useless. But immersed in a bed of incompressible fluid like water, be it only a suspending centimetre layer, the weight on your back was turned into evenly distributed pressure over your whole body. And because the human body, apart from a few air spaces, is essentially a water volume, then despite a weight gradient form breastbone and abdominal muscle to spine, the internal pressure was evenly distributed. The physical distress was largely cancelled out, you functioned the way you should.

Arms enclosed in the couch, Sandra slipped her fingers into the concealed gloves and touched the key pads, one for each hand. Each pad had five keys, you talked into it by pressing with fingers and thumb in varying patterns. All five at once meant "activate" and "space." You could talk with the left hand, with the right hand, or allegedly with both at once, holding two distinct conversations with the computers. She had yet to meet someone who had been proved to be able to do that.

She swung her arms a little out to the side, the only movement accommodated by the couch, and found the joy-stick trigger grip on the left, the attitude ball control on the right. Those were the controls for manual manoeuvring, and they would never be used. Normally you just lay there and told Nightrider what to do. Otherwise you talked instructions into a key pad and then let the computation run the manoeuver...

From NIGHTRIDER by David Mace (1985)

Liquid Breathing

In the real world, liquid breathing is a technique with applications to ultra-deep ocean diving. Past a certain depth the water pressure will crush a diver's lungs into pulp. But since fluid is incompressible, filling the lungs with fluid instead of gasous breathing mix will provide protection. They do not quite have the technique ready for commercial use, yet, but they are working on it. A gentleman named Arnold Lande patented a liquid breathing scuba suit in 2010.

You can see this in the movie The Abyss. The bit with the man is special effect, but the part with the rat is real.

Since multiple gravities of acceleration stress the internal organs much like water pressure, fluid breathing could provide acceleration protection as well.


Liquid breathing is a form of respiration in which a normally air-breathing organism breathes an oxygen-rich liquid (such as a perfluorocarbon), rather than breathing air.

Perfluorochemical (perfluorocarbon) molecules have very different structures that impart different physical properties such as respiratory gas solubility, density, viscosity, vapor pressure, and lipid solubility. Thus, it is critical to choose the appropriate PFC for a specific biomedical application, such as liquid ventilation, drug delivery or blood substitutes. The physical properties of PFC liquids vary substantially; however, the one common property is their high solubility for respiratory gases. In fact, these liquids carry more oxygen and carbon dioxide than blood.

In theory, liquid breathing could assist in the treatment of patients with severe pulmonary or cardiac trauma, especially in pediatric cases. Liquid breathing has also been proposed for use in deep diving and space travel. Despite some recent advances in liquid ventilation, a standard mode of application has not yet been established.

Proposed uses

Space travel

Liquid immersion provides a way to reduce the physical stress of G forces. Forces applied to fluids are distributed as omnidirectional pressures. Because liquids cannot be practically compressed, they do not change density under high acceleration such as performed in aerial maneuvers or space travel. A person immersed in liquid of the same density as tissue has acceleration forces distributed around the body, rather than applied at a single point such as a seat or harness straps. This principle is used in a new type of G-suit called the Libelle G-suit, which allows aircraft pilots to remain conscious and functioning at more than 10 G acceleration by surrounding them with water in a rigid suit.

Acceleration protection by liquid immersion is limited by the differential density of body tissues and immersion fluid, limiting the utility of this method to about 15 to 20 G. Extending acceleration protection beyond 20 G requires filling the lungs with fluid of density similar to water. An astronaut totally immersed in liquid, with liquid inside all body cavities, will feel little effect from extreme G forces because the forces on a liquid are distributed equally, and in all directions simultaneously. However effects will be felt because of density differences between different body tissues, so an upper acceleration limit still exists.

Liquid breathing for acceleration protection may never be practical because of the difficulty of finding a suitable breathing medium of similar density to water that is compatible with lung tissue. Perfluorocarbon fluids are twice as dense as water, hence unsuitable for this application.

Examples in fiction

  • Joe Haldeman's 1975 novel The Forever War describes liquid immersion and breathing in great detail as a key technology to allow space travel and combat with acceleration up to 50 G.
  • The James Cameron film The Abyss features a character using liquid breathing to dive thousands of feet without compressing. The Abyss also features a scene with a rat submerged in and breathing fluorocarbon liquid, filmed in real life.
  • In the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, the cockpits of the titular mecha are filled with a fictional oxygenated liquid called LCL which is required for the pilot to mentally sync with an Evangelion, as well as providing direct oxygenation of their blood, and dampening the impacts from battle. Once the cockpit is flooded the LCL is ionized, bringing its density, opacity, and viscosity close to that of air.
  • The aliens in the Gerry Anderson UFO series use liquid-breathing spacesuits.
  • In the movies Mission to Mars and Event Horizon, a character is depicted as being immersed in apparent breathable fluid before a high-acceleration launch.
  • Ben Bova's novel Jupiter features a craft in which the crew are suspended in a breathable liquid that allows them to survive in the high pressure environment of Jupiter's atmosphere.
  • In the EVE Online Universe, pilots in capsules (escape pods that function as the control center for the spacecraft) breathe an oxygen rich, nano-saturated, breathable glucose-based suspension solution.
  • In Scott Westerfeld's sci-fi novel The Risen Empire, the lungs of soldiers performing insertion from orbit are filled with an oxygen-rich polymer gel with embedded pseudo-alveoli and a rudimentary artificial intelligence.
From the Wikipedia entry for LIQUID BREATHING

      While I'm not sure how the solution using levitation would work, I'm focussing on surviving some more of the acceleration, independent of that, and propose how to handle some problems that may be relevant even with levitation available.
     Part of the problem that's killing us is that the body contains compressible parts, which will collapse.
     The problem is the air, and we should get rid of it. That's easy, because there are prooven commerial systems for breathing liquids available already.
     Sounds a little like scifi, maybe, but seems to work — after getting used to breath a liquid, that is.
     It's used for diving in deep areas of the sea under high pressure, wehere pressurized air does not work. You's breath perfluorocarbon, with some oxygen disolved in it, of course. This creates a pretty uniform pressure in the body during acceleration, which is slightly disturbed by inhomogenous density of the body.
     This seems to actually work up to 20G with perfluorocarbon, and even above 20G if a liquid of more similar density to the body could be used.
     Apart from making the body incompressible (after filling some other parts with liquids), the original purpose of liquid breathing may help us too — it is related to exchanging oxygen in the lung depending on pressure.
     As we now can stand the pressure that is caused by the acceleration, it may help us actually get oxygen into out blood if we should find a way to breath.

comment by Volker Siegel (2014)

(ed note: this is pretty much handwavium, but interesting idea)

The acceleration shells were something new, installed while we rested and resupplied at Stargate. They enabled us to use the ship at closer to its theoretical efficiency, the tachyon drive boosting it to as much as 25 gravities...

...The medic came by and gave me my shot. I waited until 1950 and hollered to the squad, "Let's go. Strip down and zip up."

The shell is like a flexible spacesuit; at least the fittings on the inside are pretty similar. But instead of a life support package, there's a hose going into the top of the helmet and two coming out of the heels, as well as two relief tubes per suit. They're crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder on light acceleration couches; getting to your shell is like picking your way through a giant plate of olive drab spaghetti.

When the lights in my helmet showed that everybody was suited up, I pushed the button that flooded the room. No way to see, of course, but I could imagine the pale blue solution—ethylene glycol and something else—foaming up around and over us. The suit material, cool and dry, collapsed in to touch my skin at every point. I knew that my internal body pressure was increasing rapidly to match the increasing fluid pressure outside. That's what the shot was for; keep your cells from getting squished between the devil and the deep blue sea. You could still feel it, though. By the time my meter said "2" (external pressure equivalent to a column of water two nautical miles deep), I felt that I was at the same time being crushed and bloated. By 2005 it was at 2.7 and holding steady. When the maneuvers began at 2010, you couldn't feel the difference. I thought I saw the needle fluctuate a tiny bit, though.

The major drawback to the system is that, of course, anybody caught outside of his shell when the Anniversary hit 25 g's would be just so much strawberry jam. So the guiding and the fighting have to be done by the ship's tactical computer—which does most of it anyway, but it's nice to have a human overseer.

Another small problem is that if the ship gets damaged and the pressure drops, you'll explode like a dropped melon. If it's the internal pressure, you get crushed to death in a microsecond.

And it takes ten minutes, more or less, to get depressurized and another two or three to get untangled and dressed. So it's not exactly something you can hop out of and come up fighting.

From THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman (1975)

      The initial invasion force included the ten heavily armed, high-acceleration speeders of Mercury Force’s Alpha Squadron.  The squadron would jump as a group into the unknown on the other side of the foldpoint.  If they found the foldpoint unguarded, nine of the ten would immediately began accelerating toward Eulysta’s second foldpoint, the one leading to the agricultural system of Carratyl.  The remaining speeder in the formation would jump back to the nebula to report to the fleet, before returning to Eulysta and beginning a long stern chase to catch its fellows…
     …The ships of Mercury Force were specially built and crewed for this one purpose.  Their crews were young, average age 22, and in superb physical condition.  They had to be.  Most of the journey would take place at up to ten gravities, and even submerged in liquid-filled acceleration tanks, the stress would take its toll on the human body.  It would also be hard on the engines.  Like cartridges in an old-fashioned chemical firearm, their cross-system dash would use up the speeders’ propulsion systems.  They would need overhauling before they could fight again…
     …“Are your people ready, Captain Parsons?” he asked the too-young face on one of his screens.
     Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Victor Parsons looked out at him and nodded eagerly.  His lips did not move.  With every cavity in his body filled with oxygenated fluid to allow him to withstand the coming acceleration, speech was impossible.   Nevertheless, a computer generated voice replied, “Ready to stomp some Ryall tail, sir.”
     “Just make sure your designated scout jumps back here the nanosecond his engines are charged.  I don’t relish sitting here in the dark without knowing what faces me any longer than I have to.”
     “Understood, Admiral.”
     “Good luck, Captain.  Give them hell!”
     “Hell it is, sir.  Mercury Asgard, out.”…

     …Lieutenant Sean Parker floated in a pool of oxygenated fluid and stared at the instruments inside his tank.  At his side, blue-tinged blood flowed through a clear umbilical cord away from his combat suit, while bright red blood flowed back through the return line.  Both lines were attached to a socket just above his left hip, and from there to his circulatory system.  Parker was not breathing.  He could not.  His lungs contained the same heavy fluid in which he was submerged.  In fact, all of his body cavities were filled with oxygenated fluid.
     “Mercury Squadron.  Report status.”
     The words in his ears were delivered in the perfect contralto tones that marked the voice that produced them as computer synthesized.  Like Parker, the speaker, his squadron commander, lay submerged in an acceleration tank, her lungs filled with oxygenated fluorocarbon, and unable to make a sound.  Her words were produced by the small inductive pickup mounted behind her right ear.  The pickup monitored the output of numerous electrodes that had been carefully implanted beneath her skull amid the valleys of her cerebral cortex.
     It was the surgically implanted enhancements, along with the long training to use them properly, that marked the elite flight crews of the Mercury Squadrons, the high acceleration craft whose mission it was to seize enemy foldpoints before the Ryall could spread the alarm.
     “Mercury Climber, ready for jump,” Parker replied, using his own implants to search among the prerecorded responses.  He had adjusted his personal simulated voice to a deep baritone to distinguish it from those of his three crewmates.”…

     …Alpha Squadron had spearheaded the invasion of Eulysta, but would not be going along this time.  They had worn out their engines during the mad dash across the system, and until overhauled, were little more than intrasystem scooters.
     This time, the duty and honor fell to the remaining three squadrons in the Mercury Force.  Beta, Gamma, and Delta Squadrons would race across the Carratyl System to the Carratyl-Spica foldpoint.  Nor was the force made up solely by armed speeders this time.  Gamma Squadron including three destroyers modified for high acceleration attack.  In addition to having engines and reaction tankage approximately quadruple the normal size, Mercury Force vessels mounted surprisingly heavy armament for ships of their class — proving that engineers can do wonders if their designs are not required to last beyond a single battle.
      “Mercury Force, ready to jump, Fleet,” came the report from Captain Danvers aboard Mercury Rocket.”
     “Very good, Mercury Force.  Your advance scouts may start charging their generators.”
     “Beta Squadron.  Begin charging your generators.”
     “Climber, acknowledges,” Parker sent.  Then on the ship’s intercom, he said, “This is it.  Strap down, it may be a bumpy ride from here on out.”
     The joke brought the requisite (and synthesized) chuckles.  Floating as they were in their acceleration tanks, with their lungs and intestines filled with the vile tasting, worse smelling fluid, they had no need to strap down.  In fact, Mercury Climber could run into a small planet at atmospheric aircraft speeds, and assuming his tank remained intact, Parker would survive the crash.  The cushioning volume of acceleration fluid would protect his internal organs against accelerations fifty times standard gravity, and impacts even higher.
     He just wished it weren’t so uncomfortable.  Worse than the surgeries and the endless hours training his body to control the implants, was the constant feeling that he was drowning.  Nor did he look forward to the spate of coughing that would be required to empty his lungs of the fluid once they secured the foldpoint and were able to de-tank…

     …On her screen, a chronometer display was clicking off the seconds to the moment when it would be their turn to begin deceleration.  She was not looking forward to that.  In order to cut off the bogey, they would be going in at twenty gravities, and even then, would not slow down to system escape velocity before they reached the foldpoint.  It was going to be one quick shot and then a long ride to infinity unless a tanker caught up with them.
     The fluid in which she floated would theoretically protect her up to hundreds of gravities.  Technology had not yet caught up with science.  In truth, the twenty gravity capability of the engines was also the physiological limit of the crew, and possibly a little above the limit.  Twenty gees would cause damage and would prematurely age her — how much, she couldn’t guess.  Elizabeth didn’t fear dying.  Her nightmares came when she saw herself as a broken down old lady of 28.
     However, as an ancient philosopher once said, “No guts, no glory.”  So, Elizabeth willed the acceleration alarms to sound in each of the tanks and said, “Okay, pull up your socks, people.  Here we go!”
     With that, she ordered engines to full power.  In seconds, her whole body was being squeezed as though in a vise.  Her vision went gray and then cleared, as the pumps increased the internal pressure in her tank to compensate.  However, there was blurriness to her peripheral vision that told her this condition was not good for her.

Handwavium Anti-Acceleration

Foreseeably science fiction has several choice examples of acceleration protection constructed out of pure handwavium, mostly described as some kind of magic force field. They are amusing but I wouldn't take any of them seriously.

Common scifi names include acceleration compensator, deceleration compensator, inertial compensator, deceleration equalizer, and drive compensator. Sometimes scifi misuses the term "inertial damper" which has a very different and very mundane meaning, the proper term is Inertial Negation.

In addition to the drives mentioned here, there is also the broad classs of carrot-on-a-stick drives. These avoid killing the crew by high acceleration by virtue of using handwavium paragravity for acceleration. Since gravity (or paragravity) accelerates all the atoms of of both the ship and crew evenly, the crew will be in free fall regardless of how massive the acceleration is. In other words, there is acceleration, but there is no acceleration differential between the ship and the crew (or between the various internal organs inside each crew member).

These are handwavium, with the exception of Charles Sheffield's "Balanced Drive." It is more unobtainium, we can't build the blasted thing but it does not break any of the laws of physics (it is really really hard to make a disk one hundred meters in diameter and one meter thick with the mass of Mount Everest). It sure looks like a handwavium carrot-on-a-stick drive, but it isn't.


      When the ship was explained to me, I decided that McAndrew didn't really see round corners when he thought. It was just that things were obvious to him before they were explained, and obvious to other people afterwards. I had been saying "inertia-less" to Mac, and he had been just as often saying "impossible." But we hadn't been communicating very well. All I wanted was a drive that would let us accelerate at multiple gees without flattening the passengers. To McAndrew, that was a simple requirement, one that he could easily satisfy—but there was no question of doing away with inertia, of passengers or ship.
     "Take it back to basics," said Wenig, when he was showing me how the Dotterel worked. "Remember the equivalence principle? That's at the heart of it. There is no way of distinguishing an accelerated motion from a gravitational field force, right?"
     I had no trouble with that. It was freshman physics. "Sure. You'd be flattened just as well in a really high gravity field as you would in a ship accelerating at fifty gee. But where does it get you?"
     "Imagine that you were standing on something with a hefty gravity field—Jupiter, say. You'd experience a downward force of about two and a half gee. Now suppose that somebody could accelerate Jupiter away from you, downwards, at two and a half gee. You'd fall towards it, but you'd never reach it—it would be accelerating at the same rate as you are. And you'd feel as though you were in free fall, but so far as the rest of the Universe is concerned you'd be accelerating at two and a half gee, same as Jupiter. That's what the equivalence principle is telling us, that acceleration and gravity can cancel out, if they're set up to be equal and opposite."
     As soon as you got used to Wenig's accent, he was easy to follow—I doubt if anybody could get into the Institute unless he was more than bright enough to explain concepts in easy terms.
     I nodded. "I can understand that easily enough. But you've just replaced one problem with a worse one. You can't find any drive in the Universe that could accelerate Jupiter at two and a half gee."
     "We cannot—not yet, at any rate. Luckily, we don't need to use Jupiter. We can do it with something a lot smaller, and a lot closer. Let's look at the Dotterel and the Merganser. At McAndrew's request I designed the mass element for both of them."
     He went across to the window that looked out from the inside of the Institute to raw space. The Dotterel was floating about ten kilometers away, close enough to see the main components.
     "See the plate on the bottom? It's a hundred meter diameter disk of compressed matter, electromagnetically stabilized and one meter thick. Density's about eleven hundred and seventy tons per cubic centimeter—pretty high, but nothing near as high as we've worked with here at the Institute. Less than you get in anything but the top couple of centimeters of a neutron star, and nowhere near approaching kernel densities. Now, if you were sitting right at the center of that disk, you'd experience a gravitational acceleration of fifty gee pulling you down to the disk. Tidal forces on you would be one gee per meter—not enough to trouble you. If you stayed on the axis of the disk, and moved away from it, you'd feel an attractive force of one gee when you were two hundred and forty-six meters from the center of the disk. See the column growing out from the disk? It's four meters across and two hundred and fifty meters long."
     I looked at it through the scope. The long central spike seemed to be completely featureless, a slim column of grey metal.
     "What's inside it?"
     "Mostly nothing." Wenig picked up a model of the Dotterel and cracked it open lengthwise, so that I could see the interior structure. "When the drives are off, the living-capsule is out here at the far end, two hundred and fifty meters from the dense disk. Gravity feels like one gee, toward the center of the disk. See the drives here, on the disk itself? They accelerate the whole thing away from the center column, so the disk stays flat and perpendicular to the motion. The bigger the acceleration that the drives produce, the closer to the disk we move the living-capsule up the central column here. We keep it so the total force in the capsule, gravity less acceleration, is always one gee, toward the disk."
     He slid the capsule along an electromechanical ladder closer to the disk. "It's easy to compute the right distance for any acceleration—the computer has it built-in, but you could do it by hand in a few minutes. When the drives are accelerating the whole thing at fourteen gee, the capsule is held a little less than fifty meters from the disk. I've been on a test run in the Merganser where we got up to almost twenty gee. Professor McAndrew intended to take it up to higher accelerations on this test. To accelerate at thirty-two gee, the capsule must be about twenty meters from the disk to keep effective gravity inside to one gee. The plan was to take the system all the way up to design maximum—fifty gee thrust acceleration, so that the passengers in the capsule would be right up against the disk, and feel as though they were in free fall. Gravity and thrust accelerations will exactly balance."
     I was getting goose bumps along the back of my neck. I knew the performance of the unmanned med ships. They would zip you from inside the orbit of Mercury out to Pluto in a couple of days, standing start to standing finish. Once in a while you'd get a passenger on them—accident or suicide. The flattened thing that they unpacked at the other end showed what the human body thought of a hundred gee.
     "What would happen if the drives went off suddenly?" I said.
     "You mean when the capsule is up against the disk—at maximum thrust?" Wenig shook his head. "We designed a safeguard system to prevent that, even on the prototypes. If there were a sign of the drive cutting off, the capsule would be moved back up the column, away from the disk. The system for that is built-in."

     The Dotterel worked like a dream. At twenty gee acceleration relative to the Solar System, we didn't feel anything unusual at all. The disk pulled us towards it at twenty-one gee, the acceleration of the ship pulled us away from it at twenty gee, and we sat there in the middle at a snug and comfortable standard gravity. I couldn't even feel the tidal forces, though I knew they were there.

From MOMENT OF INERTIA by Charles Sheffield (1980)

Handwavium acceleration protection includes:


An inertia damper is a device that counters or damps the effects of inertia and other forces and motion. The damper does not negate the forces but either absorbs or redirects them by other means. For example, a large suspended mass may be used to absorb several short-duration large forces, and to reapply those forces as a smaller force over a longer period.

The phrase inertial damper is actually misused in science fiction to describe a device that negates inertia and removes it from surrounding mass. It is more properly described as inertia negation.

From the Wikipedia entry for INERTIA DAMPER

Inertia negation is a hypothetical process causing physical objects with mass to act as if they were of lower mass or were massless. The effect is the opposite of adding ballast. No such process is known to exist in the real world: if current understanding of physics is correct, such a process would be impossible. There is currently no known material or technology that is able to eliminate or negate the effects of inertia that all objects with mass possess.


According to Newton's first law, "A body will continue in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless compelled to change that state by a net force." Inertia is the resistance against changes in the motion of an object. Objects within objects each possess their own inertia, and will collide with each other when the containing object is moved.

A device that would be capable of inertia negation is described as being capable of reducing the inertia of both the larger containing object, and of all contained objects within, so as to make changes in motion easier, and to reduce or prevent damage due to internal collisions. The inertia is not absorbed or redirected but simply ceases to have a physical effect.

Antimatter, while being the opposite of matter, has the same kind of inertia, with the forces oriented in the same direction, as normal matter. Thus, storing antimatter on board a vehicle made of matter would not achieve any kind of inertia negation.

Inertia negation in fiction

Inertia negation is a commonplace technology in numerous science fiction series. It is used as an explanation as to why the crew of starships can withstand complex maneuvres or acceleration to FTL speeds.

Notable appearances include the Star Trek franchise, where inertial dampers protect the crew from the dangers of sudden accelerations. Another example is in the movie Alien.

In the fictional Mass Effect universe dark energy fields are used ubiquitously to modify mass of objects, e.g. of weapon projectiles to allow use of compact mass accelerators in order to achieve higher muzzle velocity, or even negate the mass of entire spaceships in order to enable FTL travel.

Inertial damper as shock absorber

Inertia negation is used to counter the effects of sudden acceleration that would impart structural stresses on star ships when suddenly accelerating to or decelerating with the impulse drive, and which would cause passengers to be thrown against walls and crushed by the inertial effects of the vehicle suddenly accelerating or slowing.

Such a device does not need to negate or alter inertia – a similar effect can be achieved by creating a gravitational field opposing the acceleration of the vessel. Such technology, while still nonexistent at the present time and considered unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future, is by far more realistic than manipulating inertial mass.

From the Wikipedia entry for INERTIA NEGATION
Lt. Ford: It's strange not pulling any G-s.
Maj. Sheppard: Yeah... Kinda miss it. Although at this rate of acceleration, we'd be dead by now.
Lt. Ford: Yeah?
Maj. Sheppard: Oh yeah. Without inertial dampening, we'd be hit by so many G-s, our eyes would pop, the skin would pull away from our faces, our brains would squish up to the back of our skulls, and our internal organs would be crushed into these chairs. What about that sandwich?

Inertial Dampening (or "Damping", if you prefer your inertia dry) is a piece of Applied Phlebotinum, designed to allow humans to accelerate and decelerate at high rates without becoming humorously colored paste on the walls.

(note: In Real Life, "inertia dampers" refer only to devices or processes which remove the effects of inertia, not the inertia itself (seeing as how the latter is impossible according to the currently-understood laws of physics). Many of the examples on this page would thus be more correctly referred to as "inertial negation".)

Its intention is to "take away" inertial effects; i.e., when accelerating, you are not pressed back into your seat (or liquefied and wedged into your seat.) For the most part, it's an invisible seatbelt substitute for crew and cargo.

Sometimes Inertial Dampening has a "lag", where a sharp turn or quick deceleration will momentarily cause a reaction (quick fall into the console or press back due to high accelerations).

Inertial Dampening is generally not Tim Taylor Technology. An overloading IDF [Inertial Dampening Field] has the opposite effect of most Applied Phlebotinum, causing a greater inertial effect, usually culminating in a Star Trek Shake. Generally, however, the Star Trek Shake has no relation to the direction of inertia; i.e., the ship is traveling forward, but the crew feels a right-to-left effect. Though often left unmentioned, Inertial Dampening is a requisite side-technology to any spaceship that can turn or accelerate more quickly than a fighter jet. It's also the reason why The Bridge has No Seat Belts. Note that the physical Hand Wave that accompanies many forms of Faster-Than-Light Travel dictate that the ship does not accelerate in the traditional Newtonian or, for that matter, Einsteinian fashion, and so the inertial dampener is mostly for maneuvering and orbit changes.

In hard Sci-Fi, especially written but occasionally not, a more realistic method is used to cushion acceleration shock. Immersion in a fluid equal in density to the body would theoretically cause buoyancy forces to act counter to any accelerations; this is sometimes coupled with cryonics. Some method to allow the subject to continue to breathe in the fluid would be required, be it oxygenated liquids or a circulatory gas-exchange system. Since people riding around in bathtubs are not interesting on-screen (except from a voyeur's point-of-view) this has only rarely trickled down to the big and small screens; the exploration ship Lewis and Clark in Event Horizon and presumably the cryonics pods in the Alien series are the exceptions.

See also Artificial Gravity.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


The tremendous accelerations involved in the kind of spaceflight seen on Star Trek would instantly turn the crew to chunky salsa unless there was some kind of heavy-duty protection. Hence, the inertial damping field.
— Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, page 24.

For a space opera RPG setting I am considering adding inertia manipulation technology. But can one make a self-consistent inertia dampener without breaking conservation laws? What are the physical consequences? How many cool explosions, superweapons, and other tropes can we squeeze out of it? How to avoid the worst problems brought up by the SF community?

What inertia is

As Newton put it, inertia is the resistance of an object to a change in its state of motion. Newton’s force law F=ma is a consequence of the definition of momentum, p=mv (which in a way is more fundamental since it directly ties in with conservation laws). The mass in the formula is the inertial mass. Mass is a measure of how much there is of matter, and we normally multiply it with a hidden constant of 1 to get the inertial mass – this constant is what we will want to mess with.

There are relativistic versions of the laws of motion that handles momentum and inertia for high velocities, where the kinetic energy becomes so large that it starts to add mass to the whole system. This makes the total inertia go up, as seen by an outside observer, and looks like a nice case for inertia-manipulating tech being vaguely possible.

However, Einstein threw a spanner into this: gravity also acts on mass and conveniently does so exactly as much as inertia: gravitational mass (the masses in F=Gm_1m_2/r^2) and inertial mass appear to be equal. At least in my old school physics textbook (early 1980s!) this was presented as a cool unsolved mystery, but it is a consequence of the equivalence principle in general relativity (1907): all test particles accelerate the same way in a gravitational field, and this is only possible if their gravitational mass and inertial mass are proportional to one another.

So, an inertia manipulation technology will have to imply some form of gravity manipulation technology. Which may be fine from my standpoint, since what space opera is complete without antigravity? (In fact, I already had decided to have Alcubierre warp bubble FTL anyway, so gravity manipulation is in.)

Playing with inertia

OK, let’s leave relativity to the side for the time being and just consider the classical mechanics of inertia manipulation. Let us posit that there is a magical field that allows us to dial up or down the proportionality constant for inertial mass: the momentum of a particle will be p=\mu m v, the force law F=\mu m a and the formula for kinetic energy K=(1/2) \mu m v^2. \mu is the effect of the magic field, running from 0<\mu<\infty, with 1 corresponding to it being absent.

I throw a 1 g ping-pong ball at 1 m/s into my inertics device and turn on the field. What happens? Let us assume the field is \mu=1000. Now the momentum and kinetic energy jumps by a factor of 1000 if the velocity remains unchanged. Were I to catch the ball I would have gained 999 times its original kinetic energy: this looks like an excellent perpetual motion machine. Since we do not want that to be possible (a space empire powered by throwing ping-pong balls sounds silly) we must demand that energy is conserved.

Velocity shifting to preserve kinetic energy

One way of doing energy conservation is for the velocity to go down for my heavy ping-pong ball. This means that the new velocity will be v/\sqrt{\mu}. Inertia-increasing fields slow down objects, while inertia-decreasing fields speed them up.


One could have a force-field made of super-high inertia that would slow down incoming projectiles. At first this seems pointless, since once they get through to the other side they speed up and will do the same damage. But we could of course put in a bunch of armour in this field, and have it resist the projectile. The kinetic energy will be the same but it will be a lower velocity collision which means that the strength of the armour has a better chance of stopping it (in fact, as we will see below, we can use superdense armour here too). Consider the difference between being shot with a rifle bullet or being slowly but strongly stabbed by it: in the later case the force can be distributed by a good armour to a vast surface. Definitely a good thing for a space opera.


A spacecraft that wants to get somewhere fast could just project a low \mu field around itself and boost its speed by a huge 1/\sqrt{\mu} factor. Sounds very useful. But now an impacting meteorite will both have an high relative speed, and when it enters the field get that boosted by the same factor again: impacts will happen at velocities increased by a factor of 1/\mu as measured by the ship. So boosting your speed with a factor of a 1000 will give you dust hitting you at speeds a million times higher. Since typical interplanetary dust already moves a few km/s, we are talking about hyperrelativistic impactors. The armour above sounds like a good thing to have…

Note that any inertia-reducing technology is going to improve rockets even if there is no reactionless drive or other shenanigans: you just reduce the inertia of the reaction mass. The rocket equation no longer bites: sure, your ship is mostly massive reaction mass in storage, but to accelerate the ship you just take a measure of that mass, restore its inertia, expel it, and enjoy the huge acceleration as the big engine pushes the overall very low-inertia ship. There is just a snag in this particular case: when restoring the inertia you somehow need to give the mass enough kinetic energy to be at rest in relation to the ship…


This kind of inertics does not make for a great cannon. I can certainly make my projectile speed up a lot in the bore by lowering its inertia, but as soon as it leaves it will slow down. If we assume a given amount of force F accelerating it along the length L bore, it will pick up FL Joules of kinetic energy from the work the cannon does – independent of mass or inertia! The difference may be power: if you can only supply a certain energy per second like in a coilgun, having a slower projectile in the bore is better.


Note that entering and leaving an inertics field will induce stresses. A metal rod entering an inertia-increasing field will have the part in the field moving more slowly, pushing back against the not slowed part (yet another plus for the armour!). When leaving the field the lighter part outside will pull away strongly.

Another effect of shifting velocities is that gases behave differently. At first it looks like changing speeds would change temperature (since we tend to think of the temperature of a gas as how fast the molecules are bouncing around), but actually the kinetic temperature of a gas depends on (you guessed it) the average kinetic energy. So that doesn’t change at all. However, the speed of sound should scale as \propto 1/\sqrt{\mu}: it becomes far higher in the inertia-dampening field, producing helium-voice like effects. Air molecules inside an inertia-decreasing field would tend to leave more quickly than outside air would enter, producing a pressure difference.

Momentum conservation is a headache

Changing the velocity so that energy is conserved unfortunately has a drawback: momentum is not conserved! I throw a heavy object at my inertics machine at velocity v, momentum mv and energy (1/2)mv^2, it reduces is inertia and increases the speed to v/\sqrt{\mu}, keeps the kinetic energy at (1/2)mv^2, and the momentum is now mv/\sqrt{\mu}.

What if we assume the momentum change comes from the field or machine? When I hit the mass M machine with an object it experiences a force enough to change its velocity by w=mv(1-1/\sqrt{\mu})/M. When set to increase inertia it is pushed back a bit, potentially moving up to speed (m/M)v. When set to decrease inertia it is pushed forward, starting to move towards the direction the object impacted from. In fact, it can get arbitrarily large velocities by reducing \mu close to 0.

This sounds odd. Demanding momentum and energy conservation requires mv = mv/\sqrt{\mu} + Mw (giving the above formula) and mv^2 = \mu m(v/\sqrt{\mu})^2 + Mw^2, which insists that w=0. Clearly we cannot have both.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather keep energy conserved. It is more obvious when you cheat about energy conservation.

Still, as Einstein pointed out using 4-vectors, momentum and energy conservation are deeply entangled – one reason inertics isn’t terribly likely in the real world is that they cannot be separated. We could of course try to conserve 4-momentum ((E/c,\gamma \mu m v_x, \gamma \mu m v_y, \gamma \mu m v_z)), which would look like changing both energy and normal momentum at the same time.

Energy gain/loss to preserve momentum

What about just retaining the normal momentum rather than the kinetic energy? The new velocity would be v/\mu, the new kinetic energy would be K_1=(1/2) \mu m (v/\mu)^2 = (1/2) mv^2 / \mu = K_0/\mu. Just like in the kinetic energy preserving case the object slows down (or speeds up), but more strongly. And there is an energy debt of K_0 (1-1/\mu) that needs to be fixed.

One way of resolving energy conservation is to demand that the change in energy is supplied by the inertia-manipulation device. My ping-pong ball does not change momentum, but requires 0.999 Joule to gain the new kinetic energy. The device has to provide that. When the ball leaves the field there will be a surge of energy the device needs to absorb back. Some nice potential here for things blowing up in dramatic ways, a requirement for any self-respecting space opera.


If I want to accelerate my spaceship in this setting, I would point my momentum vector towards the target, reduce my inertia a lot, and then have to provide a lot of kinetic energy from my inertics devices and power supply (actually, store a lot – the energy is a surplus). At first this sounds like it is just as bad as normal rocketry, but in fact it is awesome: I can convert my electricity directly into velocity without having to lug around a lot of reaction mass! I will even get it back when slowing down, a bit like electric brake regeneration systems. The rocket equation does not apply beyond getting some initial momentum. In fact, the less velocity I have from the start, the better.

At least in this scheme inertia-reduced reaction mass can be restored to full inertia within the conceptual framework of energy addition/subtraction.

One drawback is that now when I run into interplanetary dust it will drain my batteries as the inertics system needs to give it a lot of kinetic energy (which will then go on harming me!)

Another big problem (pointed out by Erik Max Francis) is that turning energy into kinetic energy gives an energy requirement dK/dt=mva, which depends on an absolute speed. This requires a privileged reference frame, throwing out relativity theory. Oops (but not unexpected).


Energy addition/depletion makes traditional force-fields somewhat plausible: a projectile hits the field, and we use the inertics to reduce its kinetic energy to something manageable. A rifle bullet has a few thousand Joules of energy, and if you can drain that it will now harmlessly bounce off your normal armour. Presumably shields will be depleted when the ship cannot dissipate or store the incoming kinetic energy fast enough, causing the inertics to overload and then leaving the ship unshielded.


This kind of inertics allows us to accelerate projectiles using the inertics technology, essentially feeding them as much kinetic energy as we want. If you first make your projectile super-heavy, accelerate it strongly, and then normalise the inertia it will now speed away with a huge velocity.


A metal rod entering this kind of field will experience the same type of force as in the kinetic energy respecting model, but here the field generator will also be working on providing energy balance: in a sense it will be acting as a generator/motor. Unfortunately it does not look like it could give a net energy gain by having matter flow through.

Note that this kind of device cannot be simply turned off like the previous one: there has to be an energy accounting as everything returns to \mu=1. The really tricky case is if you are in energy-debt: you have an object of lowered inertia in the field, and cut the power. Now the object needs to get a bunch of kinetic energy from somewhere. Sudden absorption of nearby kinetic energy, freezing stuff nearby? That would break thermodynamics (I could set up a perpetual motion heat engine this way). Leaving the inertia-changed object with the changed inertia? That would mean there could be objects and particles with any effective mass – space might eventually be littered with atoms with altered inertia, becoming part of normal chemistry and physics. No such atoms have ever been found, but maybe that is because alien predecessor civilisations were careful with inertial pollution.

Other approaches

Gravity manipulation

Another approach is to say that we are manipulating spacetime so that inertial forces are cancelled by a suitable gravity force (or, for purists, that the acceleration due to something gets cancelled by a counter-acceleration due to spacetime curvature that makes the object retain the same relative momentum).

The classic is the “gravitic drive” idea, where the spacecraft generates a gravity field somehow and then free-falls towards the destination. The acceleration can be arbitrarily large but the crew will just experience freefall. Same thing for accelerating projectiles or making force-fields: they just accelerate/decelerate projectiles a lot. Since momentum is conserved there will be recoil.

The force-fields will however be wimpy: essentially it needs to be equivalent to an acceleration bringing the projectile to a stop over a short distance. Given that normal interplanetary velocities are in tens of kilometres per second (escape velocity of Earth, more or less) the gravity field needs to be many, many Gs to work. Consider slowing down a 20 km/s railgun bullet to a stop over a distance of 10 meters: it needs to happen over a millisecond and requires a 20 million m/s^2 deceleration (2.03 megaG).

If we go with energy and momentum conservation we may still need to posit that the inertics/antigravity draws power corresponding to the work it does . Make a wheel turn because of an attracting and repulsing field, and the generator has to pay the work (plus experience a torque). Make a spacecraft go from point A to B, and it needs to pay the potential energy difference, momentum change, and at least temporarily the gain in kinetic energy. And if you demand momentum conservation for a gravitic drive, then you have the drive pulling back with the same “force” as the spacecraft experiences. Note that energy and momentum in general relativity are only locally conserved; at least this kind of drive can handwave some excuse for breaking local momentum conservation by positing that the momentum now resides in an extended gravity field (and maybe gravitational waves).

Unlike the previous kinds of inertics this doesn’t change the properties of matter, so the effects on objects discussed below do not apply.

One problem is edge tidal effects. Somewhere there is going to be a transition zone where there is a field gradient: an object passing through is going to experience some extreme shear forces and likely spaghettify. Conversely, this makes for a nifty weapon ripping apart targets.

One problem with gravity manipulation is that it normally has to occur through gravity, which is both very weak and only has positive charges. Electromagnetic technology works so well because we can play positive and negative charges against each other, getting strong effects without using (very) enormous numbers of electrons. Gravity (and gravitomagnetic effects) normally only occurs due to large mass-energy densities and momenta. So for this to work there better be antigravitons, negative mass, or some other way of making gravity behave differently from vanilla relativity. Inertics can typically handwave something about the Higgs field at least.

Forcefield manipulation

This leaves out the gravity part and just posits that you can place force vectors wherever you want. A bit like Iain M. Banks’ effector beams. No real constraints because it is entirely made-up physics; it is not clear it respects any particular conservation laws.

Other physical effects

Here are some of the nontrivial effects of changing inertia of matter (I will leave out gravity manipulation, which has more obvious effects).

Electromagnetism: beware the blue carrot

It is worth noting that this thought experiment does not affect light and other electromagnetic fields: photons are massless. The overall effect is that they will tend to push around charged objects in the field more or less. A low-inertia electron subjected to a given electric field will accelerate more, a high-inertia electron less. This in turn changes the natural frequencies of many systems: a radio antenna will change tuning depending on the inertia change. A receiver inside the inertics field will experience outside signals as being stronger (if the field decreases inertia) or weaker (if it increases it).

Reducing inertia also increases the Bohr magneton, e\hbar/2 \mu m_e. This means that paramagnetic materials become more strongly affected by magnetic fields, and that ferromagnets are boosted. Conversely, higher inertia reduces magnetic effects.

Changing inertia would likely change atomic spectra (see below) and hence optical properties of many compounds. Many pigments gain their colour from absorption due to conjugated systems (think of carotene or heme) that act as antennas: inertia manipulation will change the absorbed frequencies. Carotene with increased inertia will presumably shift its absorption spectra towards lower frequencies, becoming redder, while lowered inertia causes a green or blue shift. An interesting effect is that the rhodopsin in the eye will also be affected and colour vision will experience the same shift (objects will appear to change colour in regions with a different \mu from the place where the observer is, but not inside their field). Strong enough fields will cause shifts so that absorption and transmission outside the visual range will matter, e.g. infrared or UV becomes visible.

However, the above claim that photons should not be affected by inertia manipulation may not have to hold true. Photons carry momentum, p=\hbar k where k is the wave vector. So we could assume a factor of 1/\sqrt{\mu} or 1/\mu gets in there and the field red/blueshifts photons. This would complicate things a lot, so I will leave analysis to the interested reader. But it would likely make inertics fields visible due to refractive effects.

Chemistry: toxic energy levels, plus a shrink-ray

One area inertics would mess up is chemistry. Chemistry is basically all about the behaviour of the valence electrons of atoms. Their behaviour depends on their distribution between the atomic orbitals, which in turn depends on the Schrödinger equation for the atomic potential. And this equation has a dependency on the mass of the electron and nucleus.

If we look at hydrogen-like atoms, the main effect is that the energy levels become

E_n = - \mu (M Z^2 e^4/8 \epsilon_0^2 h^2 n^2),

where M=m_e m_p/(m_e+m_p) is the reduced mass. In short, the inertial manipulation field scales the energy levels up and down proportionally. One effect is that it becomes much easier to ionise low-inertia materials, and that materials that are normally held together by ionization bonds (say NaCl salt) may spontaneously decay when in high-inertia fields.

The Bohr radius scales as a_0 \propto 1/\mu: low-inertia atoms become larger. This really messes with materials. Placed in a low-inertia field atoms expand, making objects such as metals inflate. In a high inertia-field, electrons keep closer to the nuclei and objects shrink.

As distances change, the effects of electromagnetic forces also change: internal molecular electric forces, van der Waals forces and things like that change in strength, which will no doubt have effects on biology. Not to mention melting points: reducing the inertia will make many materials melt at far lower temperatures due to larger inter-atomic and inter-molecular distances, increasing it can make room-temperature liquids freeze because they are now more closely packed.

This size change also affects the electron-electron interactions, which among other things shield the nucleus and reduce the effective nuclear charge. The changed energy levels do not strongly affect the structure of the lightest atoms, so they will likely form the same kind of chemical bonds and have the same chemistry. However, heavier atoms such as copper, chromium and palladium already have ordering rules that are slightly off because of the quirks of the energy levels. As the field deviates from 1 we should expect lighter and lighter atoms to get alternative filling patterns and this means they will get different chemistry. Given that copper and chromium are essential for some enzymes, this does not bode well – if copper no longer works in cytochrome oxidase, the respiratory chain will lethally crash.

If we allow permanently inertia-altered particles chemistry can get extremely weird. An inertia-changed electron would orbit in a different way than a normal one, giving the atom it resided in entirely different chemical properties. Each changed electron could have its own individual inertia. Presumably such particles would randomise chemistry where they resided, causing all sorts of odd reactions and compounds not normally seen. The overall effect would likely be pretty toxic, since it would on average tend to catalyze metastable high-energy, low-entropy structures in biochemistry to fall down to lower energy, higher entropy states.

Lowering inertia in many ways looks like heating up things: particles move faster, chemicals diffuse more, and things melt. Given that much of biochemistry is tremendously temperature dependent, this suggests that even slight changes of \mu to 0.99 or 1.01 would be enough to create many of the bad effects of high fever or hypothermia, and a bit more would be directly lethal as proteins denaturate.

Fluids: I need a lie down

Inside a lowered inertia field matter responds more strongly to forces, and this means that fluids flow faster for the same pressure difference. Buoyancy cases stronger convection. For a given velocity, the inertial forces are reduced compared to the viscosity, lowering the Reynolds number and making flows more laminar. Conversely, enhanced inertia fluids are hard to get to move but at a given speed they will be more turbulent.

This will really mess up the sense of balance and likely blood flow.

Gravity: equivalent exchange

I have ignored the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass. One way for me to get away with it is to claim that they are still equivalent, since everything occurs within some local region where my inertics field is acting: all objects get their inertial mass multiplied by \mu and this also changes their gravitational mass. The equivalence principle still holds.

What if there is no equivalence principle? I could make 1 kg object and a 1 gram object fall at different accelerations. If I had a massless spring between them it would be extended, and I would gain energy. Beside the work done by gravity to bring down the objects (which I could collect and use to put them back where they started) I would now have extra energy – aha, another perpetual motion machine! So we better stick to the equivalence principle.

Given that boosting inertia makes matter both tend to shrink to denser states and have more gravitational force, an important worldbuilding issue is how far I will let this process go. Using it to help fission or fusion seems fine. Allowing it to squeeze matter into degenerate states or neutronium might be more world-changing. And easy making of black holes is likely incompatible with the survival of civilisation.

[ Still, destroying planets with small black holes is harder than it looks. The traditional “everything gets sucked down into the singularity” scenario is surprisingly slow. If you model it using spherical Bondi accretion you need an Earth-mass black hole to make the sun implode within a year or so, and a 3\cdot 10^{19} kg asteroid mass black hole to implode the Earth. And the extreme luminosity slows things a lot more. A better way may be to use an evaporating black hole to irradiate the solar system instead, or blow up something sending big fragments. ]

Another fun use of inertics is of course to mess up stars directly. This does not work with the energy addition/depletion model, but the velocity change model would allow creating a region of increased inertia where density ramps up: plasma enters the volume and may start descending below the spot. Conversely, reducing inertia may open a channel where it is easier for plasma from the interior to ascend (especially since it would be lighter). Even if one cannot turn this into a black hole or trigger surface fusion, it might enable directed flares as the plasma drags electromagnetic field lines with it.

The probe was invisible on the monitor, but its effects were obvious: titanic volumes of solar plasma were sucked together into a strangely geometric sunspot. Suddenly there was a tiny glint in the middle and a shock-wave: the telemetry screens went blank.

“Seems your doomsday weapon has failed, professor. Mad science clearly has no good concept of proper workmanship.”

“Stay your tongue. This is mad engineering: the energy ran out exactly when I had planned. Just watch.”

Without the probe sucking it together the dense plasma was now wildly expanding. As it expanded it cooled. Beyond a certain point it became too cold to remain plasma: there was a bright flash as the protons and electrons recombined and the vortex became transparent. Suddenly neutral the matter no longer constrained the tortured magnetic field lines and they snapped together at the speed of light. The monitor crashed.

“I really hope there is no civilization in this solar system sensitive to massive electromagnetic pulses” the professor gloated in the dark.


Preserve kinetic energyNice armour. Fast spacecraft with no energy needs (but weird momentum changes).Interplanetary dust is a problem. Inertics cannons inefficient. Toxic effects on biochemistry.
Preserve momentumNice classical forcefield. Fast spacecraft with energy demands. Inertics cannons work. Potential for cool explosions due to overloads.Interplanetary dust drains batteries. Extremely weird issues of energy-debts: either breaking thermodynamics or getting altered inertia materials. Toxic effects on biochemistry. Breaks relativity.
Gravity manipulationNo toxic chemistry effects. Fast spacecraft with energy demands. Inertics cannons work.Forcefields wimpy. Gravitic drives are iffy due to momentum conservation (and are WMDs). Gravity is more obviously hard to manipulate than inertia. Tidal edge forces.

In both cases where actual inertia is changed inertics fields appear pretty lethal. A brief brush with a weak field will likely just be incapacitating, but prolonged exposure is definitely going to kill. And extreme fields are going to do very nasty stuff to most normal materials – making them expand or contract, melt, change chemical structure and whatnot. Hence spacecraft, cannons and other devices using inertics need to be designed to handle these effects. One might imagine placing the crew compartment in a counter-inertics field keeping \mu=1 while the bulk of the spacecraft is surrounded by other fields. A failure of this counter-inertics field does not just instantly turn the crew into tuna paste, but into blue toxic tuna paste.

Gravity manipulation is cleaner, but this is not necessarily a plus from the cool fiction perspective: sometimes bad side effects are exactly what world-building needs. I love the idea of inertics with potential as an anti-personnel or assassination weapon through its biochemical effects, or “forcefields” being super-dense metal with amplified inertia protecting against high-velocity or beam impact.

The atomic rocket page makes a big deal out of how reactionless propulsion makes space opera destroying weapons of mass destruction (if every tramp freighter can be turned into a relativistic missile, how long is the Imperial Capital going to last?) This is a smaller problem here: being hit by a inertia-reduced freighter hurts less, even when it is very fast (think of being hit by a fast ping-pong ball). Gravity propulsion still enables some nasty relativistic weaponry, and if you spend time adding kinetic energy to your inertia-reduced missile it can become pretty nasty. But even if the reactionless aspect does not trivially produce WMDs inertia manipulation will produce a fair number of other risky possibilities. However, given that even a normal space freighter is a hypervelocity missile, the problem lies more in how to conceptualise a civilisation that regularly handles high-energy objects in the vicinity of centres of civilisation.

Not discussed here are issues of how big the fields can be made. Could we reduce the inertia of an asteroid or planet, sending it careening around? That has some big effects on the setting. Similarly, how small can we make the inertics: do they require a starship to power them, or could we have them in epaulettes? Can they be counteracted by another field?

Inertia-changing devices are really tricky to get to work consistently; most space opera SF using them just conveniently ignores the mess – just like how FTL gives rise to time travel or that talking droids ought to transform the global economy totally.

But it is fun to think through the awkward aspects, since some of them make the world-building more exciting. Plus, I would rather discover them before my players, so I can make official handwaves of why they don’t matter if they are brought up.


      Example: (A familiar scene.) The Enterprise is under attack. She's hit by a photon torpedo—kaboom!—everything tilts and everybody falls out of their chairs! They climb back into them and another torpedo comes zooming in—kaboom!—again, they're knocked to the floor! A third time—kaboom!—the camera tilts and they all fall down again!
     And Scotty reports, “All defenses out, Captain. The next one will get us for sure."

     Several years ago, Bob Justman, associate producer of the show, was asked by a fan about this: "Why don’t you put seat belts on the chairs?”
     “Because.” he replied, “if we did, then the actors couldn’t fall out of them."

     —But the above scene—and Bob Justman's easy answer—are wrong. Both scientifically and dramatically. There has been little thought put into either.
     From a scientific standpoint, the scene is fallacious. Each of those torpedoes would have had to have been a direct hit in order to shake the Enterprise. If they had been misses—even near misses—the ship wouldn't have been shaken at all. Shockwaves don’t travel through the vacuum of space. Hence. in order to shake the ship. they must have been direct hits. If they were direct hits. the ship should have been destroyed three times over.

     Or try it another way. Let's assume that a near miss does have the power to jolt the Enterprise. But the Enterprise has an artificial gravity—no, not just an artificial gravity. a whole force field to neutralize the effects of momentum, acceleration. and inertia. Assuming the speed and maneuverability already postulated for the vessel, a protective force field is a necessity to keep the ship's crew from being smeared into jelly every time she makes a rapid change of direction or speed. If this is so, a near miss with a photon torpedo would no more be able to rattle the crew of the Enterprise than it would be able to dislodge a fly trapped in amber.

     (And assuming that such an artificial gravityfforce field did exist, isn't it amazing that it was never knocked to hell and gone by one of those missiles?)

From THE WORLD OF STAR TREK by David Gerrolds (1973)

The proper adjustments being made, Leonora Christine raised her acceleration a few days later.

It would make no particular difference to the cosmic duration of her passage. In either case, she ran at the heels of light. But by decreasing tau ( tau = 1/gamma ) faster, and reaching lower values of it at midpoint, the higher thrust appreciably shortened the shipboard time.

Extending her scoopfields more widely, intensifying the thermonuclear fireball that trailed her trailing Bussard engine, the ship shifted over to three gravities. This would have added almost thirty meters per second per second to a low velocity. To her present speed, it added tiny increments which grew constantly tinier. That was in outside measurement. Inboard, she drove ahead at three gee; and that measurement was equally real.

Her human payload could not have taken it and lived long. The stress on heart, lungs, and especially on body fluid balance would have been too great. Drugs might have helped. Fortunately, there was a better way.

The forces that pushed her nearer and nearer to ultimate c were not merely enormous. Of necessity, they were precise. They were, indeed, so precise that their interaction with the outside universe — matter and its own force fields — could be held to a nearly constant resultant in spite of changes in those exterior conditions. Likewise, the driving energies could safely be coupled to similar, much weaker fields when the latter were established within the hull.

This linkage could then operate on the asymmetries of atoms and molecules to produce an acceleration uniform with that of the inside generator itself. In practice, though, the effect was left incomplete. One gravity was uncompensated.

Hence weight inboard remained at a steady Earth-surface value, no matter how high the rate at which the ship gained speed.

Such cushioning was only achievable at relativistic velocities. At an ordinary pace, their tau large, atoms were insufficiently massive, too skittish to get a good grip on. As they approached c, they grew heavier — not to themselves, but to everything outside their vessel — until the interplay of fields between cargo and cosmos could establish a stable configuration.

Three gravities was not the limit. With scoopfields fully extended, and in regions where matter occurred more densely than hereabouts, such as a nebula, she could have gone considerably higher. In this particular crossing, given the tenuousness of the local hydrogen, any possible gain in time was not enough — since the formula involves a hyperbolic function — to be worth reducing her safety margin. Other considerations, e.g., the optimization of mass intake versus the minimization of path length, had also entered into computing her flight pattern.

Thus, tau was no static multiplying factor. It was dynamic. Its work on mass, space, and time could be observed as a fundamental thing, creating a forever new relationship between men and the universe through which they fared.

From TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson (1970)

"In the first place," began Astro, "hyperdrive was developed by Joan Dale back at the Academy. And it's so blasted simple, I get mad at myself for not thinking of it first!"

"Uhhh," snorted Alfie. "I respect your great talent on the power deck, Astro, but I would hardly compare myself with Dale!"

"Shut up!" barked Astro. "You'll see how simple it is! Hyperdrive is based on the idea that the thrust of the rockets acts in the exact same way on all the atoms inside the spaceship. So you can have as much thrust as you want and no one will feel a thing. Even if the ship were to accelerate a million times faster than the gravity of the Earth you wouldn't feel a thing, because all the atoms inside would be pushed along at the same time!" Astro sat back triumphantly.

(ed note: the actual principle you use to accomplish this is left as an exercise for the reader…

It also flips the bird to Einstein since it allows the spacecraft to exceed the speed of light, somehow.)

From DANGER IN DEEP SPACE by Carey Rockwell (1953)

"I submit, in the hope that you will keep your promise, since there is no alternative but death," and the awful creature, still loosely held by the attractors and carefully watched by DuQuesne and Loring, fairly tore into the task of rebuilding the Osnomian power-plant into the space-annihilating drive of the Fenachrone—for he well knew one fact that DuQuesne's hurried inspection had failed to glean from the labyrinthine intricacies of that fearsome brain: that once within the detector screens of that distant solar system these Earth-beings would be utterly helpless before the forces which would inevitably be turned upon them. Also, he realized that time was precious, and resolved to drive the Violet so unmercifully that she would overtake that fleeing torpedo, now many hours upon its way—the torpedo bearing news, for the first time in Fenachrone history, of the overwhelming defeat and capture of one of its mighty engines of interstellar war.

In a very short time, considering the complexity of the undertaking, the conversion of the power-plant was done and the repellers, already supposed the ultimate in protection, were reenforced by a ten-thousand-pound mass of activated copper, effective for untold millions of miles. Their monstrous pilot then set the bar and advanced both levers of the dual power control out to the extreme limit of their travel.

There was no sense of motion or of acceleration, since the new system of propulsion acted upon every molecule of matter within the radius of activity of the bar, which had been set to include the entire hull. The passengers felt only the utter lack of all weight and the other peculiar sensations with which they were already familiar, as each had had previous experience of free motion in space. But in spite of the lack of apparent motion, the Violet was now leaping through the unfathomable depths of interstellar space with the unthinkable acceleration of five times the velocity of light!

From SKYLARK THREE by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1930)

      Is that your idea?” Otho yelped unbelievingly. The android’s slitted green eyes were wide with amazement. “You must be spacestruck, chief. That point in the galaxy where the Birthplace is located is thousands of light-years away!”
     “How would we ever get there?” Grag chimed in. “Our Comet may be the fastest ship in the System, but its rockets would never take us across all those millions of millions of miles. Even at the fastest speed it would take centuries!”
     “Not if we used the vibration-drive we experimented with last year,” Curt retorted. “You remember — Simon and I designed it to propel the Comet by the reactive push of high-frequency electromagnetic vibrations projected from a drive-ring at the stem of the ship. We calculated it would build up velocities many times the speed of light.”
     “You calculated, yes,” replied Otho significantly. “But you didn’t dare try the vibration drive once you had it built, lest living creatures couldn’t stand such acceleration.”
     “Otho is right, lad,” rasped the Brain. “We had to give up the vibration-drive because our first tests showed that the acceleration necessary to build up to velocities faster than light would first ‘black out’ brains, then crush vital organs and finally pulp bodies.”
     “I know,” Captain Future admitted impatiently, “but you must remember that I figured out a way to overcome that objection, by throwing our bodies into a stasis of force that would protect them completely from the acceleration pressure. Before I could build and try out such a stasis projector, the case of the Magician of Mars broke, and I’ve not had a chance since then. But I’m sure it will work. And with it, we’ll be able to force the ship to speeds so many times the velocity of light that we can fly across the whole starry universe.”

     In the days that followed, the matchless scientific ability of the four Futuremen focused unceasingly upon the task of preparation. The deft skill of Otho with tools, the un-human strength and precision of Grag, the supreme technical knowledge of the Brain — these were the instruments unerringly wielded by the genius of Curt Newton.
     The underground hangar of the Comet was the chief scene of activity as the long lunar evening waned to night. The four heavy cylindrical generators of the vibration drive were installed in the cabin of the streamlined space-ship. The terbium drive-ring was fitted around the tapering stern of the craft, just forward of the tail rocket-tubes, and linked to the generators by coaxial cables.
     Captain Future himself labored upon the stasis projector. It was the very heart of their plan, for without its shield of force their bodies could not for a moment withstand the stupendous acceleration they meant to exact of the ship. He recessed the projector beneath the control-room floor, so that it showed only the fiat silver disk from which the protective force would emanate.
     “It seems to work perfectly,” Curt declared when he had tested the stasis effect. “We’ll soon know if it doesn’t work,” Otho muttered. “The pressure will splash us all over the ship if the stasis breaks down.”
     The Brain said nothing. But Curt read from his silence the doubt that still haunted Simon’s mind.

     Curt’s hand moved to the switches of the vibration drive. “All ready,” he said calmly. “Stand by.”
     “We’ll know in a few minutes whether the protective stasis works,” muttered Grag. “Feeling jumpy, Otho?”
     “What are you trying to do, you perambulating junkpile, scare me?” Otho demanded belligerently.
     Curt closed the switch. The great generators back in the cabin began throbbing in a low murmur that mounted to a loud drone.
     A dim blue force flooded the whole interior of the ship. It emanated from the silver floor-disk of the stasis projector, which was designed to go into operation automatically when the drive was turned on.
     The pervading blue force of the stasis had a strange effect upon the Futuremen. They felt as though submerged within a dense, superelastic medium, a force that tended to “fix” every atom in the ship, should cushion them against acceleration.
     “Stasis seems okay,” Captain Future murmured. “Here goes.”
     He shut a switch that turned the propulsion vibrations back into the drive-ring. The Futuremen, cradled in their stasis of elastic force, felt almost no pressure. But the pointers on the accelerometers leaped as though suddenly gone mad. The Comet, under the terrific reactive push of the vibrations streaming back from its stern, was being flung forward through outer space at a velocity nobody in the System had ever before attained.
     “One quarter light-speed already,” Curt muttered, reading the meters. “Half-light-speed now — Lord, what acceleration! And the stasis is working perfectly.”
     “It seems that my fears concerning it were groundless,” admitted the Brain. The Comet, within an unbelievably short time, was traveling faster than light itself toward the distant star-clouds of Sagittarius. Yet its velocity continued steadily to build higher. To the eyes of the awe-stricken Futuremen, they seemed hardly moving. The glittering star-streams and nebulae and clusters bunched in Sagittarius seemed as far away as ever. For the first time, Curt Newton and his comrades realized the truly awful immensity of the universe into whose great depths they were flying on their desperate and perilous quest

From QUEST BEYOND THE STARS by Edmond Hamilton (1942)

(ed note: The Macroscope is a UN project that can tune into an alien galactic broadcast. Unfortunately the main signal gives you a quick symbolic message that forces your brain to think things it cannot, resulting in a fried brain. The last victim was a scheming corrupt US senator. As the senator's political plots collapse the UN mandates that the macroscope be destroyed.

Ivo turns out to be partially immune to the alien "destroyer broadcast". He and a few others embark upon a desperate ploy to save the macroscope. They detach it from the space station and attach it to an open-cycle gas core nuclear rocket named "Joseph". As they flee, they discover they are being chased by a remotely-controlled UN rocket, armed with a laser.

Joseph could escape with a prolonged 10 g acceleration burn, but this would kill everybody on board. Ivo uses the macrosope, trying to avoid the destroyer broadcast and tune into another alien channel and learn a method to protect themselves from the acceleration)

      "Other programs. They're like radio stations, only all on the same band, and all using similar symbolic languages. You have to fasten on a particular trademark, otherwise only the strongest comes through, and that's the destroyer."
     "I follow." Groton. "It's like five people all talking at once, and it's all a jumble except for the loudest voice, unless you pay attention to just one. Then the others seem to tune out, though you can still hear them."
     "That's it. Only there are more than five, and you really have to concentrate. But you can pick up any one you want, once you get the feel for it."
     "How many are there?" Afra.
     "I don't know. I think it's several thousand. It's hard to judge."
     They looked at him.
     "One for each civilized species, you see."
     "Several thousand stations?" Afra, still hardly crediting it. "Whatever do they broadcast?"
     "Information. Science, philosophy, economics, art — anything they can put into the universal symbology. Everything anybody knows — it's all there for the taking. An educational library."

     "Yes. Several stations carry high-acceleration adaptors. But the intergalactic program has the only one we can use now. We don't have facilities for the others."
     "One is enough," Afra said.
     "But it's rough. It's biological."
     "Suspended animation? I suppose if we were frozen or immersed in protective fluid — "
     "We don't have a proper freezer, or refrigerated storage tanks," Groton said. "We can't just hand bodies out the airlock for presto stasis. And who would bring us all out of it, when the time came? Though I suppose I could adapt a timer, or set the computer to tap the first shoulder."
     "No freezing, no tanks," Ivo said. "No fancy equipment. All it takes is a little time and a clean basin."
     Afra looked at him suspiciously, but did not comment.
     "What are you going to do — melt us down?" Groton.
     "That was intended to be humorous, son."
     "It's still the truth. We'll all have to melt down into protoplasm. In that state we can survive about as much acceleration as Joseph can deliver, for as long as we need. You see, the trouble with our present bodies is that we have a skeletal structure, and functioning organs, and all kinds of processes that can be fouled up by a simple gravitic overload. In a stable situation there is no substitute for our present form, of course: I'm not denigrating it. But as protoplasm we are almost invulnerable, because there isn't any substantial structure beyond the molecular, or at least beyond the cellular. Liquid can take almost anything."
     "Except pouring or splashing or boiling or polluting," Afra said distastefully.
     "I said it was rough. But the technique is guaranteed."
     "By a culture three million years defunct?" Afra asked.
     "I'm not sure it's dead, or that far away. It might be one million — or six."
     "That makes me feel ever so much better!"
     "Well, I guess it's take it or leave it," Ivo said. "I'll have to show it to you in the macroscope, then you can decide. That's the only way you can be keyed in to the technique. I can't explain it."
     "Hold on here," Groton said. "Are you serious? About us dissolving into jelly? I just can't quite buy that, fogyish as I may be."
     "I'm serious. Its advantage over the other processes is that it eliminates complicated equipment. Any creature can do it, once shown how, and guided by the program. All you need is a secure container for the fluid, so it doesn't leak away or get contaminated, as Afra pointed out. Otherwise, it's completely biologic."

     "It is a kind of mutual contract," Ivo explained at some point. "It isn't just a matter of you seeing it; it has to see you. Not the cell-model; that's only a visual aid. The program. So it is able to key in on your cells, your body and your mind for the — transformation, once you understand and agree. You have to agree; you have to want it, or at least be acquiescent. So it can set up an individual program. This is like a delicate surgical operation, and it is the surgeon." It occurred to him that he was using a lot of simile in his discussion of the macroscosm — but there were no direct terms for it. As the universe was greater than the solar system, so the universal knowledge was greater than man's terminology.
     "Three million years old," Afra said. "I can imagine a human doctor, or an alien one, or even a robot. But a beam of pseudo-light…!"

     Groton was using the optical system again. "I have a metallic reflection. That UN ship is right on course. We'd better act soon or resign ourselves to capture. How long does a melting cycle take?"
     "Not long for the breakdown, as I understand it," Ivo said. "But the reconstitution — several hours, at least, and it can't start for at least a day, for some reason. So it could be a couple of days for the complete cycle."

     Afra lay within her basin, and the others stood by while Ivo positioned the projector directly overhead. This was nothing more than the large macroscope screen; once a person had been primed — that is, introduced to the broadcast — the existence of a certain situation and frame of mind triggered a beam of light originating within the alien channel. This bypassed the computer; it was direct contact with intergalactic science.
     Groton had somehow produced five man-sized containers. Ivo suspected that they were pirated chemical tanks sliced lengthwise. Afra, in hers, was lying in several inches of clear sterile water, spread out so that the beam could catch an entire side at once. That was all they had to do.
     Was it a horrible demolition he aimed at her? How could he be sure that this was not after all another destroyer, as Groton had suggested; more subtle than the first, set to catch the few who circumvented the first?
     Afra looked up at him. "You believed in it before. It takes a couple of minutes to warm up," Afra said. "Stand back."
     Inevitably the seconds passed. He could not stop them. "Joseph!" (the spaceship they are traveling in) he exclaimed. "Who will pilot it, while — ?"
     "Eight hours from now the macroscope computer will jump the engine to a full ten G's acceleration and modify our course accordingly," Groton said. "We have taken care of the programming. What did you think we were doing while you slept?"

     A flash; the projector came on. A thin yellow light bathed Afra's body, making it oddly sharp; the flesh tones stood out deeper than in life, the hair brighter, the irises, as the eyes dropped closed, a clearer blue. It was as though some famous painter had enhanced the predominant hues.
     He knew that this was only the surface manifestation. It was the cell that counted, that the beam was seeking out and rendering individualistic. The bulk of the radiation was invisible, acting within her substance, setting up unusual relations, breaking down lifelong bonds. A change was beginning — one unlike any experienced by the human form before.
     The epidermis — the outermost layer of the skin — dissolved. The reddish tones of the dermis intensified as subcutaneous fat departed, and out of the flowing protoplasm rose the intricate venous network, all over her body. Arms, legs, torso — it was a though she had donned a loosely knit blue leotard that was now falling apart.
     Ivo looked at Afra's face, but saw it relaxed. She was unconscious, and had probably been knocked out by the first impact of the radiation. He was glad of that.
     The skin was melting from her head, too. Body hair had gone immediately, leaving her nude and bald. Now there was a great blue branching tube descending from her forehead. It hooked into the streaming eye, crossed the cheek, and finally disappeared under the jaw muscle on its way to the throat. Whitish nerves splayed across the side of her face from the region of the ear, weaving between and through brownish muscles, and almost under the ear-hole was a tapioca mass of something he couldn't identify. Into his mind came the word "parotid," but it meant nothing to him. Upon the dome of the skull bright arteries interwove with veins and nerves, making a tripartite river gathering toward the ear.
     Already these superficial networks were eroding under the beam from space, merging with the runoff from the liquefying muscular structures. The cartilage of the nose was coming into sight and, gruesomely, the naked eyeballs. Ivo turned his gaze aside, afraid of being sick, and concentrated on the legs and feet.
     These were hardly more comforting. Skin, surface nerves and veins had gone together with much of the avoirdupois, but tendons and arteries remained, and the bulk of the great limb muscles. Slowly these diminished, and in the front of the lower leg the bone appeared, a lighter-colored island rising from the runoff. Above it the patella — the kneecap — already floated free, and it fell with a slow splash into the burgeoning fluid in the trough. Below, the incredibly long, thin foot-bones showed, loosening as the connecting ligaments yielded.
     Individually, the phalanges folded and toppled, toe-bones no more, and lay scattered in the rising sea of protoplasm. The original water Afra had lain in was no longer visible at all; the meltoff covered it. The little bones were slow to dissolve completely, and he wondered whether the process would ever finish. Perhaps the action would continue after the beam desisted, the liquid eating away at the pockets of resistance for hours and even days. That would be one compelling reason for the minimum time limit; the reconstitution could not safely proceed until all components had been processed and made available to the organism.
     At last the skeletal outline lay bare, half-submerged in brown liquor.
     Ivo followed the direction of Groton's absorption and discovered that it was the head, or perhaps the throat or thorax. The progression here had continued alarmingly. The skull was bare of flesh and vein, the ears and nose were gone; eye-sockets were empty; teeth bulged loosely from bare jawbones, gaunt in the absence of cheek or gums. If the brain itself had been affected yet, this was not apparent behind the enclosure of the fissured skull.
     But it was the neck that appalled. Here the dissolution had been more selective. It was the first evidence he had that this was not merely a melting of flesh as the conveniences of surface and hardness dictated. Fat and muscle and tendon were largely absent, but the internal jugular vein remained beside the large red carotid, servicing the brain. The small offshoots of both had been sealed over, so that they were now direct tubes. What modification of the alien program had dictated this astonishing precaution?
     Either the distant civilization had anticipated human physique and function to an impossible extent, or the program was of such versatility and sophistication that it automatically adapted to any living system. Already it had reduced the solid portion of Afra's bodily mass by half, without killing her. This was surgery beyond man's capacity, performed without physical contact — yet it was only an incidental portion of galactic or intergalactic knowledge.
     Ivo had not allowed himself to realize how complex an organism the human body was in detail. He had thought of it melting as an ingot of steel might melt in a blast-furnace; as ice cream might dissolve in sunlight; as a bar of soap might liquefy in a basin of warm water. Ridiculous! He understood now that long before the bones of the legs surrendered their calcium, the brain would die — unless precisely protected. The velocity and order of the process were critical, if life as it had been were to be preserved.
     The great spiral-banded trachea also remained intact, and air continued to pass through it. The pipe terminated at what had been the larynx, now a funnel opening upward. His gaze followed it back down to the thoracic cavity, still enclosed by the circling ribs. Though Afra's breasts were long since gone along with all other superficial processes, the important muscles of her chest were present and functioning, maintaining the circulation of air within. He could tell by the pulsing of the adjacent arteries that the heart continued its operations, too.
     The melting seemed to have halted at this stage, in this region, and he did not see how it could resume safely. The hands, arms and shoulders were deteriorating bones, all flesh taken; the head and neck had been stripped of expendable appurtenances. If the chest muscle went, the lungs would stop and the brain would drown, deprived of its oxygen; if the brain went, the remainder of the body would cease to function and would suffer damage before the slow melting could complete the job. The system had to function as a unit until there was no unit to function — a paradox.
     Beatryx was staring at the abdomen, her hand unconsciously clutching at her own. Ivo looked there — and regretted it.
     The reproductive system, like the sensory organs, had been among the earliest to go. The abdominal cavity was open, pelvic musculature absent, the guts exposed. Ivo could not have told from what he saw to which sex the carcass belonged. Above the bleakly jutting hip-bones the action was well advanced: bladder and uterus melted, large and small intestine puddled along with the digestive refuse within them. Only the two large kidneys remained, and their arterial and venous connectors, their wastes evidently dissolving as they formed. Stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, duodenum — all of it flowed away into the common sewer, leaving the vertebrae bare.
     Had these remains ever been a person? This mass of eroding bones immersed in a deepening pond of sludge?
     It was not over. Unsupported, the skull canted, causing all three observers to jump, and from its hollow earhole and empty lower eye-socket the gray-white fluid, trickled heavily. Ivo realized that the optic nerves had left their tunnels through the solid bone, and now the brain itself was dissolving. First the frontal lobes? Or one hemisphere only?
     Simultaneously there was a breakthrough in the chest cavity. The membranes lining the ribcage on the right had let go and run off; the lung collapsed, so that there was air under the bones. The muscles on that side melted, showing those ribs, and underneath them the hollow section remaining. Within this beat the heart, centered rather than situated to the left as he had thought, still pumping the red blood up the huge aortic artery toward brain and kidneys, and the blue blood up the pulmonary artery to the lungs for oxygenation. Similarly massive veins brought it back from its travels, now considerably circumscribed. Lymph nodes dotted the area, and tiny vessels enclosed the heart itself, and the nerve trunk remained leading into the skull. That, apart from the bones and minimal tissue, was all.
     The kidneys went; the second lung collapsed; the heart beat momentarily longer, then ceased. If death were the destined conclusion of this chain, it had come at last.
     Yet the process continued. The last muscles fell, the heart sagged and opened, the blood ran out as protoplasm. The skeleton lay amidst its liquid flesh, defunct.
     The beam from the projector shut off.
     Ivo looked at the other two. They looked at him. No one spoke.
     Fifteen minutes passed, and the slow action did not halt. The ridged vertebrae hung loose within their settings; the ribs sagged. Wherever the dull fluid touched, it dissolved, though it would be long before the skull and hip-bones finally disappeared.
     As the fluid became still, light from the chamber struck the surface and refracted through the forming layers, some of it reflecting back eerily. It was as though a ghost flickered where the girt had been.
     Groton stood up unsteadily. He walked to the long basin, bent over, and placed its cover upon it, cutting off the reflection-spirit. Carefully he pulled it over to the side, set it beside the prior melt, and anchored it securely to the deck. He had removed it only a few feet, since the compartment was small, but it seemed to Ivo like a tremendous distance. It was amazing how far one could adapt to the space available, so that cubic yards became as great, subjectively, as cubic rods.

     And it was, he realized now, the only way he could follow Afra. If the UN caught them now, the macroscope would be taken away, and the vats of protoplasm would, in the course of months, gradually deteriorate. A year was about the limit, for shelf-life, as he understood it. After that, reconstitution could become ugly.

     The alien beam melted down functional flesh and reduced it to quiescent cells that required little nourishment, surviving during their estivation largely upon their internal nutrient resources. The reconstitution would re-create the original individual — along with all his memories. All of it had to be in the cell — the lifetime of experience as well as the physical form. Only if that experience, right down to the most evanescent flicker of thought, were recorded in the chromosomes, the genes, or somewhere in the nucleus, of every tiny cell of the body — only thus could the complete physique and personality be restored.

(ed note: About a day later the ship had escaped the UN vessel with prolonged 10 g acceleration. Then the broadcast reforms the tank of liquified Ivo back into a human being.)

     "…come." Ivo opened his eyes.
     He was lying in the container, uncovered, bathed in lukewarm water. He felt fine. Even his hand was whole again.
     He sat up, shook himself dry, and donned his clothing. Then he brought over the next coffin, able to tell by its weight and his own that gravity was 1 G, and removed the cover.
     Inside was an attractive, vaguely layered semifluid. No bones showed. He withdrew.
     The beam came on, illuminating the jellylike substance. The protoplasm quivered, but nothing obvious happened at first.
     Patience, he told himself. It worked before.
     Gradually a speck developed within its translucent upper layer; a mote, a tiny eye, a nucleus. It drifted about; it expanded into a marble, a golf-ball. It opened into a flexing cup that sucked in liquid and spewed it out through the same opening, propelling it cautiously through the medium. The walls of it became muscular, until it resembled an animate womb perpetually searching for an occupant. Then the spout folded over, sealed across the center, and became two: an intake and an outgo. The fluid funneled through more efficiently, and the creature grew.
     It lengthened, and ridges along its side developed into fins, and one hole gravitated to the nether area. Patches manifested near the front and became true eyes, and it was a fish.
     The fins thickened; the body became stout, less streamlined. The fish gulped air through an ugly, horrendously-toothed mouth and heaved its snout momentarily out of the fluid, taking in a bubble of air. It continued to grow, and its head came into the air to stay. Its near eye fixed on Ivo disconcertingly. Now it was almost reptilian, with a substantial fleshy tail in place of the flukes, and claws on well-articulated feet. The mouth opened to show the teeth again, fewer than before, but still too many. It was large; its mass took up half the fluid at this stage.
     Then it shrank to the size of a rodent, casting off flesh in a quick reliquefication. Hair sprouted where scales had been, and the teeth became differentiated. Ratlike, it peered at him, switching its thin tail.
     It grew again, as though a suppressant had been eliminated. It developed powerful limbs, heavy fur, a large head. The snout receded, the eyes came forward, the ears flattened onto the sides of the head. The limbs lengthened and began to shed their hair; the tail shriveled; the forehead swelled.
     It was beginning to resemble a man.
     Rather, a woman: multiple teats assembled into two, traveling up along the belly to the chest. The hairy face became clear, the muscular limbs slim. The pelvis broadened, the midsection shrank. The hair of the head reached down; the breasts swelled invitingly.
     Goddess of fertility, she lay upon her back and contemplated him through half-lidded eyes.
     Age set in. Her middle plumpened; her fine mammaries lost their resiliency; her face became round.
     The beam cut off.
     "Is it over, Ivo?"
     The reconstitution had not been as alarming as the dissolution, but it had had its moments. Worst was his impression of awareness throughout. The entire evolution of the species recapitulated in —
     He checked the time.
      — four hours. It had seemed like four minutes.

From MACROSCOPE by Piers Anthony (1969)

      Acceleration compensators make me feel that way. THere's almost certainly nothing wrong but it doesn't feel that way.

     Acceleration compensators are a necessary piece of (usually) handwavium technology in any story where the spaceship is only there to get you to the story (fast!) While the FTL dingus keeps trips between stars from taking decades or centuries the acceleration compensator let's your ship accelerate rapidly allowing you to speed about like a bejeebus without turning your characters into dramatically unappealing pancakes salsa or film depending on your engine of choice.

     As an offside, one gee of acceleration will feel like you never left Terra and get you to Pluto in two weeks! Acceleration compensators are for the truly impatient who have to get to Pluto NOW!

     Anyway if your ship is pulling 2-4 gees you could probably squeak by with powered exoskeletons, high tech water beds, and meds. Any higher than that and you probably need to invent a way to freeze the humans solid and defrost them after the really hard maneuvers are done. This probably is not an optimum solution for fighter pilots and some others.
     In most science fiction acceleration compensators are assumed, especially if the spacecraft is laid out like a boat. While artificial gravity holds you to the deck, acc-comp keeps you from slamming into a wall when you put it in drive. Some drives, like the Alcubierre Warp Drive, do not actually accelerate the ship and don't need acceleration compensators for the long range journeys. They might still need rockets to enter orbit and land but this sort of thing is handled by mere humans even now without compensators.
     But say you want to blow all your delta vee at once? If you have a ship that has 500 kps delta vee you could blow it all to get to say the moon in 12.8 minutes (double the time if you want to slow down). Unfortunately the human body only can take 2-3 gees for any length of time. Accelerating to 250 kps at three gees would take over two hours and deceleration equal time and making the trip at 1 gee would take 4 hours. So acceleration compensators really don't start looking good till we have space opera style drives operating at least at tens of gees with very high maximum velocities.

     What could be some limits of compensators? Limits make characters act all inventive by sticking problems in their way.

The drive affects the entire ship somehow keeping everything in free fall. This has its own set of problems as astronauts discover everyday. Some ships spin some section of their ships to create a gravity effect.
Compensators operate over a very limited area, say one (very expensive) compensator will affect about 3-4 cubic meters. In this case we have something like the stasis tubes in Forbidden Planet that protect the occupants from some kind of deceleration on exiting FTL flight. The rest of the time they make due with strapping in and using a gentle gee acceleration.
Acceleration compensators are aligned with the thrust of the ship. Gees from lateral thrust will be fully felt and fast maneuvers to evade danger might throw people about.
Due to power configurations or whatever fancy double talk you invent you can have acceleration compensators or artificial gravity on but not both at once. If you're screaming along at five gees then you're in free fall.
Acceleration dampers don't reduce the effects of acceleration by a fixed number of gees but a percentage. A fifty percent compensator will make two gees feel like 1 gee. A ship with this sort of compensator will be laid out like a building with decks at a right angle to the axis of thrust.
The effects of the compensator quickly fall off the further you are from the compensator. Designing a ship is a delicate balance of sticking components as far from the compensator as they can stand. Moving against the axis of acceleration might be quite nauseating or result in unconsciousness at higher accelerations (like combat conditions). The bridge and living areas might be built on top of the compensators or fuel tanks if sloshing fuel is a concern. These ships will probably be built with decks at right angles to the direction of thrust.
Compensators vary just a little in their effects and it's enough to cause nausea in people especially when making hard maneuvers.
From DULY COMPENSATED by Rob Garitta (2017)

Suspended Animation

The ability to put crew members to sleep for months at a time would be an awfully convenient thing to have. Such crew members would use air and food at a much reduced rate and would not be prey to interplanetary cabin fever or space cafard.

Hibernation or "cold-sleep" would mimic what bears and squirrels do in the winter. The crewmember would sleep and breath slowly. Food would be administered by an intravenous pump or the body's internal fat could be used. The crew member still ages, abet at a slighly slower rate.

Suspended animation, cryo-freeze, or cryogenic suspension is more extreme. The crewmember is frozen solid in liquid nitrogen. They do not breath, eat, nor age. Special techniques must be used to prevent the ice in the body's cells from freezing into tiny jagged knives shredding the organs. This is naturally more dangerous than mere hibernation. It is generally used for slower-than-light interstellar exploration (where the travel time is much longer than average human life span), or to put a crewmember with an acute medical condition into stasis if the ship cannot arrive at a hospital for some months.

Hibernation was shown in the movies Alien, Doppelgänger, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

In Doppelgänger the astronauts spent the three week trip plugged into a "Heart Lung Kidney" machine via veins in their wrists. This kept them oxygenated, fed, and sedated into a deep sleep for the entire trip.

In William Tedford's Silent Galaxy, interplanetary fighter pilots would sometimes find themselves out of fuel and on trajectories that would take years to return to a spot where they could be rescued. They would use hibernation to stretch their consumables and to sleep the time away.

Hibernation and suspension is often encountered in SF novels where large numbers of people have to be shipped, e.g., troop carriers, slave ships, and undesirable persons shipped off as involuntary colonists to some miserable planetary colony. Some passenger liners will have accomodations of First-class, Second-class, and Freeze-class (instead of Steerage). There is often a chance of mortality associated with hibernation and suspension. In some of the crasser passenger ships there will sometimes be a betting pool, placing bets on the number of freeze-class passengers who don't make it.

Poul Anderson noted that there is probably a limit to how long a human will remain viable in cryogenic suspension (in other words they have a shelf-life). Naturally occuring radioactive atoms in the body will cause damage. In a non-suspended person such damage is repaired, but in a suspended person it just accumulates. He's talking about this damage happening over suspensions lasting several hundred years, during interstellar trips. This may require one to periodically thaw out crew members and keep them awake for long enough to heal the damage before re-freezing them.


      “We are leaving this star now. We have already pumped the solution back into the upper reservoir. I fear we will be hard-put this time, for the enormous radiation of this sun declines so slowly, our stored power may not last till we are safely out in the cold regions where we may enter the Sleep. We have discovered a new radioactive material whose half-life is twenty times that of element ninety-two, We are going again into the Sleep. The atmosphere above has not yet frozen, but our energy is exhausted. We have been able to freeze sufficient air in the cold rooms of the sleeping quarters to freeze our bodies. We will probably be safe enough.

     “Investigation of those who are sleeping indicates that many of them have died. Tharsarn suggests a twofold reason for this. Many of course did not survive the original action of the drugs. This was indetectable at the time. Many more have possibly been killed by the atom-smashing rays from space. Even under our Great Seal (a half-mile thick saturated solution of water and lead nitrate), and half a mile more of solid rock, in the enormous times that have passed, these rays might well have been deadly. They do not influence the machines, since machines are not as delicate as body chemistry.

     “That I have survived, Tharsarn believes to be due to a peculiar susceptibility on my part to the action of the drugs, and to the fact that during the periods of awakening I have renewed the entire chemical structure of my body, replacing the destroyed atoms with fresh material from the foods I have eaten. He says that we who awaken have a better chance of ultimate survival.

From THE INCREDIBLE PLANET by John W. Campbell, Jr. (1949)

He took out the little syringe, already loaded with the carefully prepared solution. Narcosamine had been discovered during research into animal hibernation: it was not true to say -- as was popularly believed -- that it produced suspended animation. All it caused was a great slowing-down of the vital processes, though metabolism still continued at a reduced level. It was as if one had banked up the fires of life, so that they smoldered underground. But when, after weeks or months, the effect of the drug wore off, they would burst out again and the sleeper would revive. Narcosamine was perfectly safe. Nature had used it for a million years to protect many of her children from the foodless winter.

From CHILDHOODS END by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

(ed note: The Stone family is getting ready to depart from Mars for the asteroid belt. The teenage twins Castor and Pollux are full of get-rich-quick schemes but a little deficient on morals. Their father Roger tries to correct that)

      Castor wet his lips. "The sand rats are offering fabulous prices just for cold-sleep space. We could carry about twenty of them, at least. And we could put them down on Ceres on the way, let them outfit there."
     "Cas! I suppose you are aware that only seven out of ten cold-sleep passengers arrive alive in a long orbit?"
     "Well … they know that. That's the risk they are taking."
     Roger Stone shook his head. "We aren't going, so I won't have to find out if you are as cold-blooded as you sound. Have you ever seen a burial in space?"
     "No, sir."
     "I have. Let's hear no more about cold-sleep freight."

From THE ROLLING STONES by Robert Heinlein (1952)

Space Torpor

SpaceWorks Engineering is working on a cold-sleep system for a NASA mission to Mars. You can read their report here. This is for a cold-sleep/hibernation system, since we are no where near knowing how to do full suspended animation.

Having the astronauts pass the journey in cold-sleep has many benefits, but the most remarkable one is the huge payload mass savings. In the table below, the habitat module from the NASA Mars Design Reference Architecture (DRA) 5.0 study is compared to the same module using cold-sleep technology. The mass savings is a whopping 52% !

Mass Comparison
Torpor Hab
Environ Control
Life Support
Thermal Management1,210750-38%
Power System6,2403,420-45%
EVA Systems840840-
Mass Growth
Allowance (30%)
Total Transit
Habitat Mass
(Return+Outbound Trip)
Consumables Mass
TOTAL MASS IN LEO41,33019,860-52%

The report lists the following benefits:

  • Reduction in required amount of consumables
  • Reduction in required pressurized living space volume
  • Elimination of many ancillary crew accommodations (galley, kitchen, exercise equipment, entertainment, etc.)
  • Reduction of psychological challenges for crew

And the Hab Module mass savings can be used to increase payload, increase delta V, expand launch windows and mission options, increase radiation shielding, reduce the number of heavy-lift launches, reduce number of on-orbit assembly operations, increase subsystem mass margins (to improve redundancy, reliability, and safety).

The report focuses on Therapeutic Hypothermia (temperature-based hibernation) as the method of choice to induce cold-sleep. Mostly because it has actually been used medically to treat ailments such as cardiac arrest, ischemic stroke, traumatic brain injury, etc. Chemical/Drug-based (hydrogen sulfide or activating adenosine receptors) and Brain Synaptic-based hibernation are much less mature technologies. The report assumes that therapeutic hypothermia can be advanced to the point where the astronaut's metabolism can be reduced from normal to somewhere between moderate and significant reduction (but not to actual total metabolic stoppage), for periods of many months. Black bears and some rodents can do it, so we know it is possible.

Cooling mechanisms:

  • Invasive: cooled intravenous fluids, e.g., CoolGard 3000Rtm with IcyT catheter by ZOLL Medical
  • Non-invasive: evaporative gases in the nasal and oral cavity, e.g., RhinoChill Systemtm
  • Passive: conductive cooling (and rewarming) with gel pads placed on the body, e.g., KOALA Systemtm

All three methods are low mass, low power, and easily automated.

The astronauts will be fed by Total Parenteral Nutrition (TPN), which means fed intravenously. The nutrient fluid is a mixture containing lipids, amino acids, dextrose, electrolytes, vitamins, and trace elements; all the essential nutrients needed for a human body to function.

  • Delivered via a tunneled central venous catheter or a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC)
  • Administered through pump or gravity IV, usually given at around 50 ml per hour with supplemental maintenance fluids.
  • Bypasses the usual process of eating and digestion; digestive tract is inactive.

There are some medical challenges to solve, such as blood clotting, bleeding, infection, electrolyte imbalances, fatty liver, liver failure, bone demineralization, hypo/hyper glycemia, bile stasis, and others. The chosen method must have little or no long-term effects, no effects on crew functional abilities, and there should be some protocol for an accelerated warming/wakeup in case of emergencies


That cargo is— wait for it— a load of lungfish. Gadfly's crew are not entirely certain why speed is of such essence. They're not even certain why Mars needs lungfish in the first place; that species has never been on that planet's biodiversity roster before.

At least the cargo doesn't require much in the way of special treatment. They don't even compete with the crew for hibernaculum space. Lungfish are natural space travelers, go into torpor all on their own. No need to choke their own cells with hydrogen sulfide, just to cut their metabolic requirements by ninety percent; no need to wake up with watering eyes in a capsule that smells like a Shriner convention overdosed on baked beans and laxatives. (H2S is a miracle of modern space travel, but it literally smells like ass). Torpor comes naturally to ol' Protopterus; just dry 'em out and watch them secrete their cocoons, watch them curl up and shut down and sleep away the long trip to Mars easy as you please.

They're stacked around the command deck like a bunch of boxed baked brie as the curtain rises. The crew is tucked in and at dreamless peace. The ship is running herself, cabin lights dimmed, faint telltales sparkling on a dozen control surfaces, the silence broken only by the occasional gurgle of hydraulics as some bit of plumbing makes sure that it's still in working order. Everything is humming along just tickety-boo, right up until the point at which a micrometeorite with an insanely unlikely trajectory takes out Gadfly's drive and cascade array.

From FISH TO MARS by Peter Watts (2018)

      Waking from torpor is not my favourite experience. On the scale of discomforts, I’d put it on par with a moderate hangover, or the kind of cold where your sinuses creak if you press on your face. The actual sensation feels like neither of those things. Physically, I feel a little stiff, a little weak, but otherwise fine. Waking is more of a mental discomfort, a period in which your consciousness has to reassert itself after years of dormancy. Keep in mind that medically-induced torpor is not the same as sleep. Sleep conveys the passage of time, even if you don’t dream. Not so with torpor. First you’re awake, then you’re not, then you’re back … but something’s missing. Something’s missing, and you’ll never be able to put your finger on what.

     As soon as the Merian established orbit around its first target, a signal was sent from the navigation computer to our crew’s torpor chambers. An automated system added a chemical solution to our nutrient drips, and that solution made its way to our respective brains, where it began the business of waking us up. I am told this process takes about an hour, but from my perspective, it happened in an instant. Light. Shapes. Confusion. I had to walk myself through the basics, as if I were reviewing every fact I’d learned during infancy. I have hands. I have a mouth. Those things I see are colours. I’m Ariadne. I exist. Then came memories, and context, and finally, a smile.

     We’re at Aecor.

     I began to unpack the proverbial cotton from my mind, and walked myself through protocol. First, I pulled on the tabs that freed my wrists from their soft fabric restraints, then undid the ties around my waist and ankles as well. This may sound macabre, being tied up inside what amounts to a high-tech shipping crate, but the restraints are for a good cause, and removing them by yourself is a breeze. They’re snugly attached to the sides of the torpor chamber, keeping me suspended in the middle of the container while I’m unconscious so that I don’t float into the sides. This is far preferable to waking up with bruises all over.

     Once my limbs were free, I hit the button that opened the chamber door. The light in my room was low, but I winced all the same as my eyes remembered how to adjust themselves. Torpor chambers regularly wash their occupants, but a daily spray of cleaning solution isn’t the same as a proper bath. My eyes, nose, and mouth were all crusty around the edges. Twenty-eight years without a real scrub will do that to you.

     My hair, shaved before launch, had grown well past my shoulders. My nails had reached a hideous length as well, about what you’d expect after two years of no clipping. That’s about how much I aged in twenty-eight years of transit — two years. Torpor slows you down, and interstellar travel at half the speed of light further stalls the clock, but neither presses pause entirely. Cells divide and the heart keeps beating. We buy ourselves time while in torpor, not immortality.

     I opened the hygiene kit, which some clever interior engineer had bolted to the wall within arm’s reach of my chamber. Nail clippers were the first item I retrieved, followed by a tiny collection bag. I pruned myself, returning my digits to usefulness. Curved keratin shards floated unattractively before me; I hid them away in the little bag as quickly as I could. My unruly hair would have to wait, but I took an elastic band from the kit and tied back my mermaid-like floating locks. The ground teams really do think of everything.

     One by one, I removed the electrode patches that covered me from face to feet. Their steady pulses had kept my muscles from atrophying, and for that, I was grateful. Next, I removed the nutrient drip from my arm, bandaged myself, and collected the few drops of blood that had floated free. I then took a breath, readied some therapeutic profanities, and removed the catheter from the place where catheters go.

     Ah, the glamour of space travel.

     I could hear the faint rustle of my crewmates going through the same checklist of waking. The walls aboard the Merian are thin, but there are walls, and that point’s key. I’ve seen stills from classic movies in which space-travelling crews are put to sleep, but their chambers or pods or what have you are always lined up side by side, these grim rows of morgue-like containment. Let me be clear on this point: when you’ve woken up from nearly three decades of induced unconsciousness, and every orifice has gunk around it, and your nails look like talons, and your skin smells like a cross between a freshly-washed hospital bathroom and an abandoned pen at a zoo, and you’ve just pulled a tube wet with urine out of yourself … you need a minute alone. And that’s only taking basic hygiene and vanity into consideration.

From TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE by Becky Chambers (2019)

Old Astronaut Syndrome

There are some maladies that afflict people who spend prolonged periods in microgravity, exposed to space radiation, and exposed to radiation from nuclear propulsion. These could be characteristic signs of space traveling old-timers.

Maladies from Microgravity

The most obvious effect of microgravity is the astronaut's muscles atrophy and the shedding of calcium by their bones (1% to 1.5% per month, like osteoporosis). Being weak with brittle bones isn't lethal but presumably the astronauts at some point want to return home to Terra and still be able to walk. Science fiction literature is full of mandatory exercise to combat this, with "exercise credits" awarded for time spent under acceleration and in centrifuges. NASA astronauts on the International Space Station have to exercise two hours a day for this reason. Some astronauts (or colonists of low gravity planets and moons) might require man-amplifier prosthetics in order to walk under a full Terran gravity.

Naturally such space osteoporosis can lead to kidney stones, the agony of which is the closest a male will ever come to the sensation of giving birth. Space osteoporosis can also be combated by exercise.

Astronaut's eyes are especially vulnerable. Recently NASA made the horrible discovery that exposure to microgravity for six months or longer causes permanent damage to the eyes, similar to idiopathic intercranial hypertension. There is some evidence that this is due to enzyme polymorphisms that increases astronaut vulnerability to bodily fluid shift in free fall.

Astronauts may appear to be older than they actually are, because microgravity accelerates aging.

And a science fictional favorite is the microgravity adapted astronaut who when on Terra has a tendency to let go of glasses of water in mid air, expecting them to float.

Maladies from Radiation

The two main effects of radiation on an astronaut are [1] cancer and [2] death by radiation sickness. You are unlikely to encounter an old astronaut suffering from [2] unless you like to visit graveyards. But the probability is high that most old astronauts will have undergone treatment for cancer at one time or another. Probably several times. NASA tries to avoid this by ensuring that there are no old astronauts. NASA has strict career limits on astronaut radiation exposure.

Secondary effects of radiation are skin ulceration and blindness due to cataracts scarring. High-mass, high-charged (HZE) cosmic rays might accelerate the development of Alzheimer's disease. Radiation also lowers the immune system (chromosomal aberrations in lymphocytes), but it can recover.

Atomic rocketeers on board an atomic rocket will also without fail have a package of potassium iodide tablets on their persons at all times. Why? If the reactor core is breached, the mildly radioactive fuel and the intensely radioactive fission fragments will be released into the atmosphere. While none of the fission fragment elements are particularly healthy, Iodine-131 is particularly nasty. This is because ones thyroid gland does its level best to soak up iodine, radioactive or not. Thyroid cancer or a hoarse voice from thyroid surgery might be common among atomic rocket old-timers. The tablets prevent this by filling up the thyroid first, before the Iodine-131 arrives. The instant the reactor breach alarm sounds, whip out your potassium iodide tablets and swallow one.

Miscellaneous other Maladies

Astronauts who eat more than fifty grams per day of spirulina algae from your closed ecological life support system run the risk of developing gout. That could be Old Poor Astronaut Syndrome.

Old astronauts might have deformed fingernails due to space suit gloves.

Old astronauts might tend to become alarmed when they feel a breeze. To an astronaut, moving air means you have a hull breech.

Old astronauts might dislike hissing noises. To an astronaut, such noises means your spacesuit has sprung a leak.

Old astronauts might be anal-retentive about having every object either in its holder or tied down. In a spacecraft, unexpected acceleration converts any free-floating object into a deadly missile.

Old astronauts might tend to become alarmed of the building or vehicle they are in shudders. Because spacecraft never shudder unless they are lifting off from a planet's surface or about to disintegrate into fragments.

In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, belters do NOT perform any hand gestures at all. This is because Niven's belters fly in very small spacecraft called "singleships". The habitat module is only slightly larger than a coffin. Which is also the control cabin, i.e., there are controls on almost every surface.


      A new study shows that astronauts from the Apollo missions have a rate of cardiovascular disease mortality nearly five times that of other astronauts, suggesting that even short missions outside Earth’s protective geomagnetic field have long-term health consequences. Researchers compared cause of death for seven Apollo astronauts to that of 35 astronauts who had flown in low Earth orbit, and 35 who had never flown orbital missions. Published in Nature, the study may have implications for future efforts to send humans into deep space. The authors also conducted experiments with mice to learn more about how weightlessness and deep space radiation affect the cardiovascular system. We speak with lead author Michael Delp.

ResearchGate: What were the results of your assessment of cardiovascular disease in these astronauts?

Michael Delp: The work is a study of mortality rate, so we looked at the causes of death in each of three groups: Apollo astronauts, low Earth orbit astronauts, and non-flight astronauts. The Apollo lunar astronauts are the only humans to have traveled into deep space, beyond the protective magnetosphere surrounding the Earth. We found that death due to cardiovascular disease was higher in the Apollo astronauts than the other groups.

RG: Studying the health of astronauts inherently involves a very small sample size. How should this factor into the interpretation of your results?

Delp: The small sample size is a limitation of the study. One has to use caution in drawing definitive conclusions. Despite this limitation, we thought it was important to publish these results because it is also difficult to ignore the possibility that deep space travel, including deep space radiation, may be having a much more adverse effect on cardiovascular health than previously estimated. With countries and companies like SpaceX stating planning to send humans back into deep space as early as ten years from now, there is not a lot of time to experimentally address the possible implications of these results with Apollo astronauts and answer the many outstanding questions surrounding space radiation effects on the cardiovascular system. For example, it over a year just to complete the experiments in the one mouse study we conducted for this paper. And Brookhaven National Laboratory is the only place in the US where deep space radiation exposures can be simulated.

RG: Can you tell us a bit about the mouse experiments you did to explore what’s behind your findings?

Delp: In a previous study published earlier this year, we examined the early effects of simulated weightlessness, space-relevant radiation, and a combination of the two in mice, similar to what was done in the present study. We found that the weightlessness simulation group produced an impairment of the blood vessels (via the endothelium) of the type that could predispose the arteries to the development of atherosclerotic plaque, also that the radiation produces a similar sort of impairment to the vascular endothelium, and finally that the combination of simulated weightlessness and space radiation produced and even greater impairment than either treatment alone. Please note that these studies were conducted immediately at the conclusion of the treatment period. The results suggested that weightlessness and space radiation may interact to cause greater impairment of the cardiovascular system.

In the present study, we are not looking at the early effects of spaceflight on the cardiovascular system in astronauts, but rather what happens years after their return from space. So we used the same treatment groups and repeated the earlier study, except now instead of doing the vascular experiments immediately after the treatments, we waited 6-7 months, which is the equivalent to about 20 human years. The results were that the weightlessness simulation did not show a sustained impairment of the endothelium, only the radiation treatment did. Thus, it does not appear that the cardiovascular deconditioning that occurs in weightlessness has any prolonged adverse effects. This point is supported by the low Earth orbit astronauts not having any difference in cardiovascular mortality relative to the non-flight astronauts. Only radiation seems to show a sustained impairment.

RG: Do your studies give any indication as to how radiation causes cardiovascular disease in astronauts?

Delp: Radiation damage impairing the endothelial cells lining blood vessels may be a precipitating event to the long-term development of cardiovascular disease. Healthy endothelial cells help prevent atherosclerotic plaque from forming inside the walls of blood vessels—commonly referred to as hardening of the arteries. When the endothelial cells are impaired, like we found with radiation exposure in the mice, then this could predispose these arteries to a prolonged formation of plaque. In the heart this can cause ischemia (low blood flow) and coronary heart disease, or in the brain it could cause ischemic stroke.

RG: What are the prospects for protecting astronauts traveling beyond the magnetosphere from cardiovascular disease in the future?

Delp: Improving shielding effectiveness and anti-oxidant treatment would be a couple of means to help mitigate the risk.


Since they're not walking around on the ground under the force of gravity, astronauts don't have to wear shoes in space. They usually just wear socks and layer on a second pair of warmer socks if they get cold.

But Astronaut Scott Kelly, who's spent almost a year in space, said in a Reddit AMA that this made something rather odd happen to his feet. "The calluses on your feet in space will eventually fall off," he wrote. "So, the bottoms of your feet become very soft like newborn baby feet. But the top of my feet develop rough alligator skin because I use the top of my feet to get around here on space station when using foot rails." Kelly also said in a Q&A on Tumblr that this foot phenomenon was the "weirdest thing" that had happened to him on the ISS.

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) use foot rails and loops to help hold them steady when they have to do an experiment, or just get a haircut. When they want to work out, astronauts can strap their feet into sneakers on the exercise equipment. Astronauts typically only change their socks and underwear every other day, and their shirts and pants every 10 days, according to NASA, since they don't get as dirty in space as we do here on earth. (since the astronaut and the clothing are both in free fall, they do not touch as much as they do under gravity)

Astronaut Don Pettit, who's logged over 300 days in space, said the same thing happened to his feet in a 2012 blog post. "After about two months in orbit your feet molt, and like some reptilian creature the callused skin on the bottom of your foot sheds, leaving soft pink flesh in its place," he wrote. "In the weightless environment, calluses apparently have no use, at least on the bottoms of your feet. However, the tops of your feet become red-rubbed raw and gnarly. And the bottom calluses shed faster than the top calluses can grow. Perpetually raw and hypersensitive, your foot tops can use a bit of padding to ease the pain."

But Pettit found the perfect antidote to his lizard skin, which he called "toe koozies." He accidentally grabbed a pair of small women's socks one day that only covered the top half of his foot, but they perfectly protected the part that needed it. "They are the zero-gravity equivalent to flip-flops," he wrote.


(ed note: Terra had a pacifist society for about a century. Then they were invaded by the warrior Kzinti aliens. The Kzinti captured the human colony on Alpha Centauri about fifty years ago, and make periodic attack on the solar system. General Early is briefing Captain Jonah.)

      He spoke to the computer again, and the rear wall turned to holo image. A woman in lieutenant's stripes, but with the same branch-badges as the general. Tall and slender, paler-skinned than most, and muscular in the fashion of low-gravity types who exercise. When she spoke it was in Belter dialect.

     "The subject's name was Esteban Cheung Jagrannath," the woman said. The screen split, and a battered-looking individual appeared beside her; Jonah's eye picked out the glisten of sealant over artificial skin, the dying-rummy pattern of burst blood vessels from explosive decompression, the mangy look of someone given accelerated marrow treatments for radiation overdose. That is one sorry-looking son of a bitch. "He claims to have been born in Tiamat, in the Serpent Swarm of Wunderland (Alpha Centauri III), twenty-five subjective years ago."

     "Subject is a power-systems specialist, drafted into the kzin service (i.e., enslaved) as a crewman on a corvette tender"—the blue eyes looked down to a readout below the pickup's line of sight "—called—" Something followed in the snarling hiss-spit of the Hero's Tongue (Kzinti Language).

     "Roughly translated, the Bounteous-Mother's-Teats. It took a near-miss from a radiation-pulse bomb right toward the end. The kzin captain didn't have time to self-destruct; the bridge took most of the blast. She was a big mother"—the general blinked, snorted—"so a few of the repair crew survived, like this gonzo. All humans, as were most of the technical staff. A few nonhuman, nonkzin species as well, but they were all killed. Pity."

     Jonah and the flatlander (general) both nodded in unconscious union. The kzin empire was big, hostile, not interested in negotiation, and contained many subject species and planets; and that was about the limit of human knowledge. Not much background information had been included in the computers of the previous fleets, and very little of that survived; vessels too badly damaged for their crews to self-destruct before capture usually held little beyond wreckage.

From THE CHILDREN'S HOUR by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling (1991)

(ed note: however, free-fall is not all gloom-and-doom for astronauts. There is some evidence that free-fall kills cancer cells.)

Cancer is caused by unrestrained division of cells, which in turn is caused by mutated genes. How and why such an uncontrolled cellular proliferation takes place is not fully understood; and this lack of understanding stands in the way of an effective cure. One intriguing finding about the regulation of cell growth is that gravity, or the lack thereof, has a significant effect on the process. This was the topic of a recent paper by a team of scientists from Denmark and Germany, which was reported by a number of news outlets starting with Popular Science and subsequently by newspapers including the Daily Mail. The cause of excitement was an unusual question – does a trip to space hold the secret to curing cancer?

What did the researchers say?

In their paper in the FASEB (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) journal , the authors note that exposure to micro-gravity environments (i.e., the kind of weightlessness experienced in space) has a clear effect on the secretion of cytokines, small proteins that are released by cells for the purpose of sending signals to other cells, and on the expression profiles of some types of genes. Cytokines play a key role in many cellular processes associated with cancer, especially cell proliferation, the immune response to tumours, ‘programmed’ cell death, tumor invasion, etc. So, the fact that microgravity environments slow down their secretion is a good thing. Similarly, many genes involved in the regulation of cell proliferation and metastasis (spread of cancer between cells) were ‘differentially’ expressed, i.e., this change in environment had a direct effect on them – in such a way that it slowed down the proliferation of cancerous cells.

How did they figure this out?

The experiment involved some fairly complex machinery, including a way to send some parts of the experiment into outer space! There were two phases really. The first phase, before sending cells to outer space, was to simulate the effect closer to ground, in a plane that is colloquially called the “vomit comet”. If one flies a plane really fast in a steep ascent and quickly reverses direction to come back down, there will be a brief period in between when the passengers will experience weightlessness. For those few seconds, one feels as though one is floating in space. This is what the scientists made their experimental samples do. The cell cultures made several trips in these ‘parabolic flight missions’, getting 30+ instances of weightlessness in a 3 hour period within an Airbus A300. Once they were done with that, it was time to go to space. For this, the lucky few cell cultures hitched a ride on the Shenzhou 8 unmanned space flight experiment, spending about 10 days in space. Once retrieved, the samples were processed using state of the art instrumentation for measuring gene expression and cytokine levels.

How did the media report on this?

The articles in the media focused heavily on the more sensational angles. They boldly declared that the malignant cells were being ‘tamed’. They didn’t quite go as far to argue for ‘orbital health clinics’ (can the NHS actually afford that?!), which is a good thing because actually what has been shown in the research is a rather more preliminary finding than that.

The newspapers couldn’t quite resist some generalisations and simplifications though. The Mail Online stated, “the immune system is suppressed in microgravity”. It doesn’t quite do that, although some processes do helpfully slow down. But, this does raise the important question of how healthy cells fare in these same conditions. Many treatments for cancer, e.g., chemotherapy, are very efficient in killing cancer cells, but also equally efficient at killing healthy cells! This makes therapy difficult. Similarly, it would be problematic if microgravity environments lead to an overall decline in all forms of growth, and not just a targetted effect on cancerous cells.

Also, the sensational headline about antigravity is amusing but misleading. What the cells experienced was really the absence of gravity, and not some other strange physical phenomenon.

What does it mean?

A key takeaway message from these experiments is the utility of studying such diseases in microgravity environments to understanding the underlying dynamics in different environments. For instance, in addition to this Danish study, the Mail refers to other studies at NASA which explore the fact that test cultures in petri dishes could form spatial arrangements in space, akin to what happens inside the body, whereas they end up artificially flat in our laboratories on earth.

That said, there remain many thorny issues with these experiments. For instance, although the parabolic flight missions simulate weightlessness, they require a short burst of hyper-gravity on the way to the few seconds of low-gravity. So, if we really want to understand this aspect of the phenomena, it may be necessary to dedicate more payload space to such experiments in future space missions.

Original Citation: Ma X. et al.“Differential gene expression profile and altered cytokine secretion of thyroid cancer cells in space”. The FASEB Journal, published online, doi: 0.1096/fj.13-243287.
More details here: here
From HOW DO CANCER CELLS BEHAVE IN SPACE? by Subramanian Ramamoorthy (2014)

"You noticed a habit of mine once. I never make gestures. All Belters have that trait. It's because on a small mining ship you could hit something waving your arms around. Something like the airlock button."

"Sometimes it's almost eerie. You don't move for minutes at a time."

From THE WARRIORS by Larry Niven (1966)

      Meyer towed Drake toward the airlock. He helped his captain inside, and then waited for the traditional thumbs-up signal before closing the door.
     “Ready, sir?” Drake heard over his radio.
     “Depressurize, Chief.”
     “Depressurizing now. Good luck, Captain.”
     Drake’s suit ballooned around him as the pressure in the airlock dropped to zero. He stood in the crouched stance typical of a man in a pressure suit; listening intently for the sound every spacer dreads most — the ear-popping hiss of an air leak. He heard nothing but his own breathing and the gentle hum of his backpack ventilation unit.


The city side of the airlock complex had been designed with tourists in mind. One whole wall was made up of huge view windows that canted in from the ceiling toward the floor, overlooking Amundsen SubBubble, affording a splendid vista of the bustling city below.

Except now the view windows were shattered heaps of glass on the ground and jagged knife-edges sprouting up from window frames. A sooty wind swept into the overlook chamber.

The city below looked like a war zone. Smoke billowed up from at least three separate fires, only to be caught in a violent wind that flattened it into the sky blue ceiling of the bubble. Wind.

Nothing scared a Conner more than a leak. Lucian forced the worry from his mind. Either the repair crews were handling it or they weren’t.

From THE RING OF CHARON by Roger MacBride Allen (1990)

      "Well, I can't think of any more excuses for monopolizing you, Miss Newton, so I suppose I'll have to take you back. Believe me, I've enjoyed this more than you can realize—I've...."
      He broke off and listened, every nerve taut. "What was that?" he exclaimed.
      "What was what? I didn't hear anything?"
      "Something screwy somewhere! I felt a vibration, and anything that'd make this mountain of steel even quiver must have given us one gosh-awful nudge. There's another!"
      The girl, painfully tense, felt only a barely perceptible tremor, but the computer (obsolete term for a person whose job is to do mathematical calculations), knowing far better than she the inconceivable strength and mass of that enormous structure of solidly braced hardened steel, sprang into action. Leaping to the small dirigible look-out plate, he turned on the power and swung it upward.
      "Great suffering snakes!" he ejaculated (obsolete term meaning: to utter suddenly and briefly; exclaim), then stood mute, for the plate revealed a terrible sight. The entire nose of the gigantic craft had been sheared off in two immense slices as though clipped off by a gigantic sword, and even as they stared, fascinated, at the sight, the severed slices were drifting slowly away. Swinging the view along the plane of cleavage, Stevens made out a relatively tiny ball of metal, only fifty feet or so in diameter, at a distance of perhaps a mile. From this ball there shot a blinding plane of light, and the Arcturus fell apart at the midsection, the lower half separating clean from the upper portion, which held the passengers. Leaving the upper half intact, the attacker began slicing the lower, driving half into thin, disk-shaped sections. As that incandescent plane of destruction made its first flashing cut through the body of the Arcturus, accompanied by an additional pyrotechnic display of severed and short-circuited high-tension leads, Stevens and Nadia suddenly found themselves floating weightless in the air of the room. Still gripping the controls of the look-out plate, Stevens caught the white-faced girl with one hand, drew her down beside him, and held her motionless while his keen mind flashed over all the possibilities of the situation and planned his course of action.

From SPACEHOUNDS OF IPC by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1931)

      That was when the meteorite hit the spaceship head on. Almost dead centre.
     The automatic lasers did not stop it. The outer, armoured hull barely slowed it down. It ripped its way through eighteen diflerent compartments before burying itself deep in the cargo in the centre of the drum-shaped ship.
     On its destructive course it passed through the main control-room, killing Captain Kardyd and twelve other officers and men. Sixteen passengers also died, in sudden exploding agony, and the main water tank was ruptured.
     It was very bad indeed.

     Lieutenant Donald Chase was stretched out on a bunk in the sick bay when the meteorite hit, reading a thick book entitled Bone Deterioration in Low Gravity Environments. The metal frame of his bunk vibrated, shaking the book, and for a few instants he ignored it.
     Then the significance of what had happened struck him. Vibration! There are no shocks or sudden jars in a spaceship moving through a vacuum. He dropped the book and jumped to his feet just as all the alarms sounded at once.
     A blaring horn hammered at his ears and the red emergency light blinked madly. An amplified recording thundered out, replacing the sound of the horn.


From SPACESHIP MEDIC by Harry Harrison (1970)

     When the first interplanetary war broke out in 2178, we didn't call it what the history books do now. The Interplanetary Civil War (Terran name) and The War of Martian Interdependence (Mars' preference) were latter fictions to gloss over the root of the conflict.
     No, we called that war, The Ogg-Nat War—or Nat-Ogg, depending on your side.

     The first extra-Terran colonists were volunteers. They had to be. The mid-21st Century brought freefall and shallow gravity wells to hundreds, then thousands, of colonists serving double duty as test subjects on the human body's response to low gravity. And natural selection demanded its due.
     Roughly 80% of humans who permanently settled on the Moon or Mars, fell seriously ill within 20 years of arrival. Theoretically, we could've treated many of the ailments, but stem cells and genetic repairs had their limits. Some of the more serious conditions could only be treated on Earth, which could itself prove fatal. The remaining healthy 20% were forced by circumstance to either break backs to support the colony, or let their fellow colonists—colleagues, friends, spouses—die on a strange world.
     If you ever wondered how "malapert" became synonymous with "disaster" or "massacre," look at a map of the Moon's south pole, and look for the tallest peak. There you'll find the site of the first off-world riot—and a memorial to the 117 people who perished, many of whom were already near death. The riot started with a demand for better health care, and ended with the explosive decompression and collapse of two of the base's four domes.

     Which is why, in 2061, the first Low Gravity Genomic Survey was conducted. We discovered which genes improved survival and quality-of-life when you are no longer Earthbound. By 2080, gene therapy before long-term space travel was as routine as immunizations were for international travelers the century previous—if not nearly as frequent.
     The last unmodified resident of the Moon died in 2093. Jessica Dumas, a survivor of the Malapert Base Riot, was a medic by trade, and a mountain climber by passion. Without those skill sets, she probably would have asphyxiated like the other victims of the dome collapses. Instead she saved her skin—mostly. Burn scars and rosacea plagued her, yet she refused treatment. As she often explained, "I want people to see and understand."
     Dumas became a political activist, her energies focused on improving the health of the off-world colonies. She also popularized "Selenian" as a collective noun for Lunar colonists, as pushback against the derogatory use of "Loony" by Terrans. When she died at age 59 from cancer, she was mourned by three worlds.

     In 2137, the last unmodified Martian, 106-year old Jeferson Schefer, died at Arsia Caverns Hospital. Schefer was also the last living participant in the Low Gravity Genomic Survey—and had 86% of the genes identified as useful to survival off Earth.
     It's often rumored, although easily debunked, that Schefer's genome was the basis for all low-g gene therapies. Some opponents of human genetic modification called Schefer, "Adam Sans Eve." In reality he was a botanist remembered on Mars mostly for cultivating Elysium hazel and other Mars-adapted evergreens. On Earth, however, he's sometimes mentioned along with Henrietta Lacks as an example of unethical medical research, despite Schefer's frequent public defense of the Survey.

     Great care was taken to keep ethics above-board. But that didn't stop accusations from The Light, an ostensibly interfaith conservative think tank, that low-gravity gene therapies were "eugenics." Nor did it help that some of the changes, such as increased brain blood flow to combat hypoxia, tended to make for slightly happier and more imaginative humans.
     If you put a Terran, a Martian, and a Selenian in the same room, you wouldn't notice any glaring differences in overall morphology. Martians and Selenians often had slightly larger heads, due to genes that slow the fusion of cranial sutures during development, to help offset fluid shift. They also tended to slighter, more androgynous builds. Nonetheless, their bodies were well within Terran body norms.

     But personality-wise, there tended to be starker differences.
     Martians and Selenians were... weird. They prefered oblique strategies and independent thinking, but also tended to increased intimacy and bonding. On worlds where survival was tenuous and sustainability a dream, people began to drop the dogmas of Earth life that separated Us from Them. Every person counted in the effort to make these new worlds into homes. Bigots weren't welcome anymore.
     Back on Earth, the climate was becoming more perilous, with flood and famine taking its toll. People were clinging to whatever could give them comfort, including the idea that humanity had sinned by modifying the sacred genetic code and leaving the world we were intended to live and die upon, and that was the true cause of their calamities, rather than the abundance of carbon dioxide.
     Before long, to admit that you had spent any time in space, for any reason, was enough to be labeled an augment and be accused of offending the natural order. Even if you could somehow prove that you were a "natural" human genetically. Even if such a concept truly existed.

(ed note: so in the Ogg-Nat War, the Oggs were the Augmented Martians and Selenians, while the Nats were the Natural Terrans)


     "What's you doing up here, Lucky? I thought you were on your way down to LEO Base in the Edison with Ross."
     "I was, except I didn't think Ross was in fit shape to drive," Lucky explained.
     "What's wrong, Ross?"
     The astronaut looked pained. "Had a dizzy spell during preboost checkout, and this redheaded broad, who's a big fan of yours, insisted I come and give you some business."
     "Are you still dizzy?"
     "A li'l bit." Ross' speech was thick and slurred.
     "You didn't bust Rule Three, did you?"
     "No, Doc—nothin' alcoholic in the last twenty-four hours. Just like the rule says. Why's everybody think I'm drunk or somethin'? Dammit, gettin' so nobody around here trusts me anymore!"
     There was no alcohol on Jackson's breath. "What'd you have at your last meal?"
     "Nothin'. Not hungry. Hey, can I use your lav? I gotta take a leak bad." He pushed off in the direction Tom pointed to.
     Lucky looked at Tom with concern. "Tom, I've never seen Ross this way before. It wasn't just the dizziness. We all get a little disoriented every once in a while. If it had been just that, I would've boosted with him. But not when he's in this condition."
     "I agree with you, Lucky." Tom turned to Jackson as the astronaut floated back from the lavatory. "Ross, do you have an alternate to take your flight?"
     "Okay, I'm admitting you to sick bay here for a checkup."
     "Hell, Doc, I'm all right! Just give me something for this dizziness and for my upset stomach, and I'll be good as new!"
     "You're nauseated? Stomach hurts?"
     "Yeah. Don't ground me, Doc! I've never failed my physical!"
     "I'm not grounding you, Ross. I want to check you to find out if there's anything wrong with you. If there isn't, you'll get a clean bill from me. Okay?"
     "Yeah, okay, but I'm getting damned tired of everybody pickin' on me! Jeez, I've got more time in space than any of you! I'm not gonna run off at the ears and do somethin' that'll kill me or anybody else!"
     "I know you're not. Dorothy, let's get urine and blood samples from Ross. And give him ten milligrams of prochlorperazine IM to take care of his nausea and stomach cramps."

     Tom left Jackson in Dorothy's watchful care and went to the GALEN terminal. He called up Ross Jackson's medical records.
     The former NASA shuttle pilot was forty-seven years old. The record showed he had never varied from the medical norm during his entire flying career with the Air Force, NASA, or, now, SpaceLift, Inc. Tom went back through thirty-one years of medical records to Ross' initial FAA Third Class physical exam as a student pilot. There was nothing in the man's background that would lead Tom to suspect anything abnormal.
     Was his problem something that resulted from thousands of hours spent in zero-g—the first symptoms of some syndrome that hit old-timers in space, something that would limit mankind's ability to live in space for long periods?
     Tom gave that possibility a low priority. He knew many strange maladies affected human beings. He refused to jump to conclusions until Dave Cabot finished the urine and blood analyses and came up with some concrete data on which to base a diagnosis.

     Dave was getting good at body-fluid lab work-ups. He was mastering the new tricks he had had to work out for handling liquids in weightlessness, using surface-tension effects and wetting characteristics to their fullest extent to control the liquids. It took him less than an hour to compile the complete data.
     And it didn't make sense to Tom.
     There was a slight electrolyte imbalance, but nothing beyond what he saw every day in the analysis of his staff's physiology.
     The work-up showed a slight hypoglycemia, which might presage the onset of diabetes mellitus but which was not reflected in the urine sample. Tom had thought about this possibility. Ross was of the age when the disease could manifest itself. But the other symptoms weren't present. And the man said he hadn't eaten recently, which could also explain the low glucose level in the urine sample as well as the low blood-sugar level.
     Ross couldn't be suffering from anorexia. By reputation the astronaut was something of a trencherman, and he did have difficulty keeping his body mass under control. Ross showed no tendency toward obesity; he just liked to eat well.
     Serum calcium level was 12.1 milligrams per hundred milliliters—high, but not beyond what Torn saw occasionally, usually that was because of calcium resorption in the blood resulting from calcium loss in the bones.
     Urine PH normal. Everything within normal range except for the usual suppression of steroids and increases in primary hormone levels associated with orbital living.
     "Damn!" he swore under his breath.

     Tom keyed the terminal and fed in the blood and urine data. He then typed in the observed symptoms and called for a probable diagnosis.
     As usual, GALEN was fast. Almost as quickly as he had hit the RUN key, it flashed its answer across the screen:


     "Dorothy, warm up the ECG," Tom called.
     Ross revived at this and understood what Tom was talking about. "Oh, no, Doc! Not my heart! I haven't got chest pains! I've got gut pains."
     "Don't worry, it's not your heart, but I have to check your ECG to confirm a diagnosis," Tom tried to reassure him.
     In less than five minutes, Tom had the answer.
     "There it is: shortened Q-T interval on the electrocardiogram." He showed the printout to Ross.
     "What's that mean, Doc?" The anxiety in the astronaut's voice penetrated the lethargy that the relaxant drug had caused.
     "Hypercalcemia. I'd call it the Ancient Astronaut Syndrome. You've been in weightlessness more than anyone else in GEO Base, Ross. All of us are suffering from some decalcification of our bone mass because our skeletons aren't supporting the weight of our bodies. The calcium is resorbed into the cellular fluid and then into the blood serum. You're reacting in a textbook manner to the fact your body's having trouble getting rid of the excess calcium being poured into your system from your bones."
     "Will it ground me?" Ross asked
     "I won't ground you, Ross, because I can treat this syndrome," Tom told him. "It's no more incapacitating than any endocrine imbalance, and it can be treated and controlled. People are flying airplanes all over the world with hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, hyperuricemia, and a whole list of other endocrine and metabolic disorders. Chemotherapy solves their problems and permits them to function normally. I'm going to do the same for you and put you on fifty milligrams of prednisone every day; you'll just have to take a pill every time you have breakfast. You're the first case of hypercalcemia I've seen in space. Frankly, you're going to be a guinea pig for the rest of us. For right now, I want to keep you here under observation for twenty-four hours—just to make sure I'm right. Then I'll clear you to flight status, but only for a single mission to LEO Base and back. You've got to report back here for a quick test every time you hit GEO Base. Understood?"
     "Roger your last, Doc! Hey, thanks. I know doctors who'd ground me for less than this." Relief was evident in his voice. "Doc, you can use me as a guinea pig any time you want," Ross said.

From SPACE DOCTOR by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) 1981

...but had warned him against exposing his skin to the Sun. That way he could get a very serious and uncomfortable burn. According to Mercer, the only space-tanned astronauts were the ones who appeared in TV plays. Real spacemen avoided the Sun, and if one of them got burned, it was a mark of sheer carelessness. A good spaceman learned to control himself as well as his ship, Mercer had said, and keep his mind busy and alert. Space was a very beautiful, but a very lonely and dangerous place, if one did not keep control.

From LIFEBOAT by James White (1972)

The door opened and the man who'd been missing everything came in. He had one leg, the right one; one arm, the left; and one eye, also the left. He looked to be fifty years old, and there were pale patches in the dark tan on his face and the back of his hand. His hair was patchy, steel grey what there was of it. "O'Grady, this is Mister Shipton," Wiley said. "I'm counting on you to see that he doesn't kill himself. He'll have Hoff's quarters."

"Aye aye, Skipper." O'Grady's voice was cheerful. I couldn't help staring at him, and he saw that. He grinned like a thief. "Don't let the horror show throw you, Mister Shipton. I can still get around." He gestured toward the airtight door.

He was right; he had no trouble getting around. He hopped in arcs that didn't take him far off the deck and carried him in long flights down the corridors to land just in front of the airtight doors every fifty meters or so. We went a long way, around turns and down ramps, until I was thoroughly lost. "If this is the Chief of Staff's office and quarters, why is it so far from Commander Wiley's?" I asked.

"Planned that way. We have a blowout, don't want to lose the whole top layer in one whump, do we?"

I got the picture.

Just in case I hadn't, though, O'Grady chattered on. "Lots of ways to do yourself in. Like me. Got my leg caught in an airtight as it was slammin' for a blowout. Got an arm caught in the hammer mill. That one could of happened on Earth, maybe, except it was being off the deck and no way to move that made it happen.

(ed note: mayhem is willful and permanent crippling, mutilation, or disfigurement of any part of the body. This is not willful, but it is all the rest. Just call him "peg-leg")

From BIND YOUR SONS TO EXILE by Jerry Pournelle (1976)

      ‘Come in,’ said Commander Norton absentmindedly at the quiet knock on his door.
     ‘Some news for you, Bill. I wanted to give it first, before the crew gets into the act. And anyway, it’s my department.’
     Norton still seemed far away. He was lying with his hands clasped under his head, eyes half shut, cabin light low—not really drowsing, but lost in some reverie or private dream.
     He blinked once or twice, and was suddenly back in his body.
     ‘Sorry Laura—I don’t understand. What’s it all about?’
     ‘Don’t say you’ve forgotten!’
     ‘Stop teasing, you wretched woman. I’ve had a few things on my mind recently.’
     Surgeon-Commander Ernst slid a captive chair across in its slots and sat down beside him.
     ‘Though interplanetary crises come and go, the wheels of Martian bureaucracy grind steadily away. But I suppose Rama helped. Good thing you didn’t have to get permission from the Hermians as well.’
     Light was dawning.
     ‘Oh—Port Lowell has issued the permit!’
     ‘Better than that—it’s already being acted on.’ Laura glanced at the slip of paper in her hand. ‘Immediate,’ she read. ‘Probably right now, your new son is being conceived. Congratulations.’
     ‘Thank you. I hope he hasn’t minded the wait.’

     Like every astronaut, Norton had been sterilized when he entered the service; for a man who would spend years in space, radiation-induced mutation was not a risk—it was a certainty. The spermatazoon that had just delivered its cargo of genes on Mars, two hundred million kilometres away, had been frozen for thirty years, awaiting its moment of destiny.

     Norton wondered if he would be home in time for the birth. He had earned rest, relaxation—such normal family life as an astronaut could ever know.

From RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Arthur C. Clarke (1973)

Disgusting Recycling

Closed ecological life support systems are dynamite on paper. Instead of the spacecraft being forced to drag along tons of air, food, and water the CELSS can take sunlight or other energy source and magically produce the needed elements.

One little problem: novice spacecraft passengers tend to throw temper tantrums when you tell them they'll be eating and drinking recycled urine and faeces. The disgust reflex kicks in at the thought of drinking purified pee and reconstituted poop.

The problem is magnified by the fact that disgust is a powerful pro-survival trait favored by evolution. Creatures with disgust do not die as quickly, so it is a pretty fundamental reflex. You can try to explain to the passengers until you are blue in the face that the CELSS algae has totally transformed and sterilized the feedstocks into sparkling pure water and nutritious food, but they will stubbornly tell you they ain't gonna eat that crap. This can also be a predictor of a person's political orientation but I digress. Or maybe not; a science fiction author could use this fact for, say, an undercover agent inadvertently revealing themselves.

Researchers and engineers are facing this in the real world. There is a global shortage of potable water which could be solved by reclamation equipment transforming waste water into pure water. But the people who could be helped would rather die of thirst. Scientists call it the "toilet-to-tap" problem.

This is a problem that needs to be fixed by a psychologist, not an engineer.

As a mental model, disgust about recycled water and food tends to mirror "magical thinking" used by pretechnological cultures. The four elements are:

  1. Physical contact is necessary for contagion to be effective.
  2. Permanence: Once magical contamination has occurred, it tends to be permanent. Neither time nor spatial distance reduce the effect substantially.
  3. Dose insensitivity: Very brief contact with a disgusting entity is sufficient to endow a target entity with disgust properties, cf. childhood bullying called "catching Cooties"
  4. Resistance of contaminated entities to purification. This amounts to indelibility of contamination for some contaminants and some individuals.

The sad fact of the matter is that even though the above magical thinking elements are totally untrue in the realm of science, most people are convinced that these elements are the true reality.

A closely related problem is a CELSS generating food in the form of insect protein. From a scientific standpoint this is an admirably efficient way to make food. From a human standpoint most people from western cultures will turn a little green around the gills at the thought of eating a plate of bugs. The disgust mechanism kicks in because it is trying to protect a person from infection. Insects and other vermin are associated with unhygienic conditions almost as strongly as urine and faeces.


(ed note: Protagonist Biron and company have "aquired" a small warship of the Tyranni empire. Examining the fixtures creates a bit of cultural shock.)

The water situation was the worst. Tyrann was a desert planet, in the first place, where water was at a premium and men knew its value, so none was included on board ship for washing purposes. Soldiers could wash themselves and their personal effects once they had landed on a planet. During trips a little grime and sweat would not hurt them. Even for drinking purposes, water was barely sufficient for the longer trips. After all, water could be neither concentrated nor dehydrated, but had to be carried in bulk; and the problem was aggravated by the fact that the water content of the food concentrates was quite low.

There were distilling devices to re-use water lost by the body, but Biron, when he realized their function, felt sick and arranged for the disposal of waste products without attempt at water recovery. Chemically, it was a sensible procedure, but one has to be educated into that sort of thing.

From THE STARS LIKE DUST by Isaac Asimov (1958)

His hole was on the eighth level, off a residential tunnel a hundred meters wide with fifty meters of carefully cultivated green park running down the center. The main corridor's vaulted ceiling was lit by recessed lights and painted a blue that Havelock assured him matched the Earth's summer sky. Living on the surface of a planet, mass sucking at every bone and muscle, and nothing but gravity to keep your air close, seemed like a fast path to crazy. The blue was nice, though.

Some people followed Captain Shaddid's lead by perfuming their air. Not always with coffee and cinnamon scents, of course. Havelock's hole smelled of baking bread. Others opted for floral scents or semipheromones. Candace, Miller's ex-wife, had preferred something called EarthLily, which had always made him think of the waste recycling levels. These days, he left it at the vaguely astringent smell of the station itself. Recycled air that had passed through a million lungs. Water from the tap so clean it could be used for lab work, but it had been p*ss and sh*t and tears and blood and would be again. The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve. He liked it that way.

From LEVIATHAN WAKES by "James S.A. Corey" (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) 2011.
First novel of The Expanse

(ed note: the personnel transport Eurydice has a reactor malfunction, and the passengers have to eject in little three-person lifeboats. Medical officer Mercer has to calm the passengers over the radio, so he is being coached by first officer Prescott)

      "You snore like a shuttle taking off. Mercer. Now listen. I have been doing your job for you—eavesdropping on the survivors—for the last hour. Some of them are beginning to sound worried. But before you start telling them lies, which you are very good at, I want to make sure that your lying and half-truth telling will have a tenuous connection with the real facts of the situation. I don't want you to be caught in a lie, you understand, because that could be very bad for morale. So, I am a nervous passenger. Reassure me."

     "I don't under…" began Mercer, then he cleared his throat and said, "What exactly is troubling you, sir?"
     "I'll tell you what's troubling me, mister. The smell of this overcrowded goldfish bowl is troubling me. How soon do we get out of it?"
     Mercer pulled out his book, then realized that Prescott would probably hear him flipping through the pages, and replaced it. He had a good memory.

     "You must realize, sir," he said smoothly, "that all this is largely the product of your mind and its awareness of your crowded conditions, which heightens your sensitivity to perspiration and similar odors. It is not, repeat not, due to any malfunction in your capsule air conditioning or waste disposal or reclamation systems. As for recovery, that should not be delayed by more than a few days—"
     "Wrong, Mercer. It could be delayed for more than two weeks."
     "Oh," said Mercer. But Prescott was not giving him time to think.

     "We're hungry, and it's hot in here."
     "You can increase the apparent bulk of the food by adding water, sir. There is no shortage of water."
     "We don't like the water. It stinks, too."
     "In actual fact, sir, your capsule water, recycled as it is, is much less harmful than that taken from any Earthside reservoir—there is much less pollution in it, for one thing. I'm afraid the smell is purely psychosomatic and comes from you dwelling too much on its source."

From DARK INFERNO by James White (1972)

(ed note: in the novel, starships have a piece of equipment called an "autokitchen" which is capable of producing a wide variety of different foods at a moment's notice. Much like a Star Trek replicator. Of course it needs input material, which is why it is fed from the toilet)

As for the Hindmost, he had disappeared into the hidden section. The alien had suffered repeated shocks. Louis didn't begrudge him time off for hysterics.

Needle continued to accelerate. Presently the inverse landscape was speeding past almost too fast for detail. And Harkabeeparolyn's voice was becoming throaty. Time for a lunch break, Louis decided.

A problem emerged. (On the starship's autokitchen) Louis dialed filets mignons and baked potatoes, with Brie and French bread to follow. The boy stared in horror. So did the woman, but at Louis Wu.

“I'm sorry. I forgot. I keep thinking of you as omnivores.”

“Omnivores, yes. We eat plants and flesh both,” the librarian said. “But not decayed food!”

Don't get so upset. There's no bacteria involved.” Properly aged steak, milk attacked by mold(not to mention the yeast that makes the bread rise) Louis dumped their plates into the toilet (which is connected back to the autokitchen) and dialed again. Fruit, crudités with a separate sour-cream dip which he dumped, and seafood, including sashimi. His guests had never seen salt-water fish before. They liked it, but it made them thirsty.

And watching Louis eat made them unhappy. What was he supposed to do, starve?

They might starve. Where would he get fresh red meat for them? Why, from Chmeee's side of the autokitchen, of course (Chmeee is a Kzinti, an alien species whose diet is raw meat). Broil it with the laser on wide beam, high intensity. He'd have to get the Hindmost to recharge the laser. That might not be easy, considering the last use to which he'd put it.

Another problem: they might be consuming too much salt. Louis didn't know what to do about that. Maybe the Hindmost could reset the autokitchen controls.

From RINGWORLD ENGINEERS by Larry Niven (1979)

Drop Sickness

Space Adaptation Syndrome aka "drop sickness" is a kind of motion sickness caused by weightlessness. Outer space sea-sickness, so to speak. Symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and an inability to care about anything but your own private world of pain. The joke is drop sickness makes you feel like you are going to die, and you are actually looking forwards to it.

The French term for seasickness is "mal de mer" so in his Venus Equilateral stories George O. Smith thought it would be cute to call spacesickness "mal de void."

About half of new astronauts suffer from drop-sickness when they first travel into space. Of those who suffer, 50% have mild symptoms, 40% have medium, and 10% have severe. The most severe that NASA ever recorded was that of Senator Jake Garn in 1985. They jokingly use the "Garn scale", where 1.0 Garn is the worst.

Drop sickness usually goes away after two to four days exposure to free fall. Occasionally there is a relapse, which can happen at any time. When suffering from drop sickness, be careful not to rapidly turn or shake your head. This will make the fluid in the inner ear slosh and make things much worse.

Novice NASA astronauts do not take motion-sickness medication on their first trip into orbit. It is considered better for them to be miserable for a day or two but actually adapt to become immune. This is also the reason NASA never schedules EVAs for the first two days of a mission.

Having said that, NASA astronaut always put on a transdermal dimenhydrinate anti-nausea patch when suiting up in a space suit, because throwing up inside a suit can be fatal. A little dramamine is much better than suffocating to death in a vomit-filled helmet.

Drop sickness can be avoided if the spacecraft or station has artificial gravity, though that creates more problems. And "disabled" persons with malfunctioning inner ears are immune to drop sickeness.

In a couple of Robert Heinlein novels free-fall newbies are issued "sick-kits." These are cloth barf bags that strap over your mouth. In other novels spacecraft with large numbers of passengers are equipped with vomit vacuums that stewards use to suck blobs of vomitus out of the air before they splash on something or somebody.

In some old science fiction novels the writers like to pull that tired old joke. The protagonist is offered an anti-drop-sickness pill before lift-off, and they decide to be all macho and decline the pill. Which results in projectile vomiting hilarity. Except in Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky, the port officials make quite sure that the young protagonist takes all his pills.

What is so funny about a man being dropsick? Those dolts with cast-iron stomachs always laugh — I'll bet they would laugh if Grandma broke both legs.

I was spacesick, of course, as soon as the rocket ship quit blasting and went into free fall. I came out of it fairly quickly as my stomach was practically empty — I'd eaten nothing since breakfast — and was simply wanly miserable the remaining eternity of that awful trip. It took us an hour and forty-three minutes to make rendezvous, which is roughly equal to a thousand years in purgatory to a ground hog like myself.

I'll say this for Dak, though: he did not laugh. Dak was a professional and he treated my normal reaction with the impersonal good manners of a infight nurse — not like those flat-headed, loud-voiced jackasses you'll find on the passenger list of a Moon shuttle. If I had my way, those healthy self-panickers would be spaced in mid-orbit and allowed to laugh themselves to death in vacuum.

Despite the turmoil in my mind and the thousand questions I wanted to ask we had almost made rendezvous with a torchship, which was in parking orbit around Earth, before I could stir up interest in anything. I suspect that if one were to inform a victim of spacesickness that he was to be shot at sunrise his own answer would be, "Yes? Would you hand me that sack, please?"

"Dak?" I said as he signed off.

"Later," he answered. "I'm about to match orbits. The contact may be a little rough, as I am not going to waste time worrying about chuck holes. So pipe down and hang on."

And it was rough. By the time we were in the torchship I was glad to be comfortably back in free fall again; surge nausea is even worse than everyday dropsickness.

From DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein, 1956

(ed note: Mercer is the doctor/steward on a passenger NTR spacecraft headed for the Jovian moons)

"The passengers are settled in, sir," said the darkhaired one. "All have been given medication, but you might keep an eye on Mr. Saddler and Mr. Stone, who may be trying to prove something—I think they palmed their capsules."

Mercer nodded without speaking.

"Are you comfortable, Mr. Saddler?" Mercer said pleasantly to the next in line; then he stopped. This was one of the tough guys who had not taken his medication. Mercer stared at the man's face without really seeing it while his mind sought in vain for a pleasant and friendly way of telling him to take his and-nausea pill and not be a fool. By the end of the allotted minute Mercer still did not have the answer, and he saw that the passenger's face was becoming apprehensive and that he was refusing to meet Mercer's eyes. Suddenly he wriggled sideways in his straps so that he could reach his breast pocket.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, "I nearly forgot to take my pill."

"It can happen," said Mercer pleasantly, "in the excitement."

The next couch was empty, for the very good reason that it was his own. Beyond it was the one belonging to Stone, the other passenger suspected of missing out on his pre-takeoff medication. Mercer tried the blank stare on him that had worked so well with Saddler, hoping that the man's guilty conscience would do the rest, but Stone simply stared back at him. Maybe his conscience was clear. Mercer had to be content with clearing his throat loudly and slipping a plastic bag between the other's chest straps where Stone could reach it quickly.

Mercer spent the time checking that the vacuum cleaner under his couch was handy and worrying about the period of weightless maneuvering, which would begin when they went into Earth orbit. Both the book and his instructor had painted awful pictures of weightless nausea running wild. It could become critical, they had said, a chain reaction, which could spread even to those who had taken medication, and the job of clearing the air was difficult and distasteful. An incident like that was the one thing guaranteed to sour the whole voyage.

Someone grunted and gave an odd-sounding cough. Mercer swung around to see the passenger called Stone rapidly filling his plastic bag. Stone had been a little late in getting the bag to his mouth, and some of the material was drifting above his couch where the next surge of acceleration would send it flying all over the place. With his feet still held by the webbing Mercer unclipped the sucker from the underside of his couch and went after the stuff, pulling it into the small but powerful vacuum cleaner and leaving in its place a fresh smell of pine trees and heather. Then he helped Stone until he was quite finished, sponged his face and produced a water tube and an anti-nausea pill.

"Sorry about that, Mr. Stone," he said drily, "but there are some people who seem to need double the usual medication."

As he swallowed it, Stone had the grace to blush.

From LIFEBOAT by James White (1972)

The ship's loudspeaker blatted out, "All hands! Free flight in ten minutes. Stand by to lose weight." The Master-at-Arms supervised the rigging of grab-lines. All loose gear was made fast, and little cellulose bags were issued to each man. Hardly was this done when Libby felt himself get light on his feet — a sensation exactly like that experienced when an express elevator makes a quick stop on an upward trip, except that the sensation continued and became more intense. At first it was a pleasant novelty, then it rapidly became distressing. The blood pounded in his ears, and his feet were clammy and cold. His saliva secreted at an abnormal rate. He tried to swallow, choked, and coughed. Then his stomach shuddered and contracted with a violent, painful, convulsive reflex and he was suddenly, disastrously nauseated. After the first excruciating spasm, he heard McCoy's voice shouting.

"Hey! Use your sick-kits like I told you. Don't let that stuff get in the blowers." Dimly Libby realized that the admonishment included him. He fumbled for his cellulose bag just as a second temblor shook him, but he managed to fit the bag over his mouth before the eruption occurred. When it subsided, he became aware that he was floating near the overhead and facing the door. The chief Master-at-Arms slithered in the door and spoke to McCoy.

"How are you making out?"

"Well enough. Some of the boys missed their kits."

"Okay. Mop it up. You can use the starboard lock." He swam out.

McCoy touched Libby's arm. "Here, Pinkie, start catching them butterflies." He handed him a handful of cotton waste, then took another handful himself and neatly dabbed up a globule of the slimy filth that floated about the compartment. "Be sure your sick-kit is on tight. When you get sick, just stop and wait until it's over." Libby imitated him as best as he could. In a few minutes the room was free of the worst of the sickening debris. McCoy looked it over, and spoke:

"Now peel off them dirty duds, and change your kits. Three or four of you bring everything along to the starboard lock."

At the starboard spacelock, the kits were put in first, the inner door closed, and the outer opened. When the inner door was opened again the kits were gone — blown out into space by the escaping air. Pinkie addressed McCoy.

"Do we have to throw away our dirty clothes too?"

"Huh uh, we'll just give them a dose of vacuum. Take 'em into the lock and stop 'em to those hooks on the bulkheads. Tie 'em tight." This time the lock was left closed for about five minutes. When the lock was opened the garments were bone dry — all the moisture boiled out by the vacuum of space. All that remained of the unpleasant rejecta was a sterile powdery residue. McCoy viewed them with approval. "They'll do. Take them back to the compartment. Then brush them — hard — in front of the exhaust blowers."

From MISFIT by Robert Heinlein (1939)

      From a building just beyond the platform two steel skeletons ran vertically down the face of the two-thousand-foot cliff. They looked like open frames for elevators, which one of them was. The other was a guide for the testing car during the drop down the cliff.
     Matt crowded up to the rail and leaned over. The lower ends of the skeleton frameworks disappeared, a dizzy distance below, in the roof of a building notched into the sloping floor of the canyon. He was telling himself that he hoped the engineer who had designed the thing knew what he was doing when he felt a dig in the ribs. It was Tex. “Some roller coaster, eh, Matt?”
     “Hi, Tex. That’s an understatement if I ever heard one.”
     The candidate on Matt’s left spoke up. “Do you mean to say we ride down that thing?”
     “No less,” Tex answered. “Then they gather the pieces up in a basket and haul ‘em up the other one.”
     “How fast does it go?”
     “You’ll see in a mom — Hey! Thar she blows!”
     A silvery, windowless car appeared inside one guide frame, at its top. It poised for a split second, then dropped. It dropped and dropped and dropped, gathering speed, until it disappeared with what seemed incredible velocity—actually about two hundred and fifty miles per hour—into the building below. Matt braced himself for the crash. None came, and he caught his breath.
     Seconds later the car reappeared at the foot of the other framework. It seemed to crawl; actually it was accelerating rapidly during the first half of the climb. It passed from view into the building at the top of the cliff.

     His own test group was mustered next. He and his fellows were conducted into the upper building, where a cadet explained the test: “This test examines your tolerance for high acceleration, for free fall or weightlessness, and for violent changes in acceleration. You start with centrifugal force of three gravities, then all weight is removed from you as the car goes over the cliff. At the bottom the car enters a spiraling track which reduces its speed at deceleration of three gravities. When the car comes to rest, it enters the ascending tower; you make the climb at two gravities, dropping to one gravity, and momentarily to no weight, as the car reaches the top. Then the cycle is repeated, at higher accelerations, until each of you has reacted. Any questions?”
     Matt asked, “How long is the free fall, sir?”
     “About eleven seconds. We would increase it, but to double it would take four times as high a cliff. However, you will find this one high enough.” He smiled grimly.
     A timid voice asked, “Sir, what do you mean by ‘react’?”
     “Any of several things—hemorrhage, loss of consciousness.”
     “It’s dangerous?”
     The cadet shrugged. “What isn’t? There has never been any mechanical failures. Your pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and other data are telemetered to the control room. We’ll try not to let you die under test.”

     Presently he led them out of the room, down a passage and through a door into the test car. It had pendulum seats, not unlike any high-speed vehicle, but semi-reclining and heavily padded. They strapped down and medical technicians wired them for telemetering their responses. The cadet inspected, stepped out and returned with an officer, who repeated the inspection. The cadet then distributed “sick kits” — cloth bags of double thickness to be tied and taped to the mouth, so that a person might retch without inundating his companions. This done, he asked, “Are you all ready?” Getting no response, he went out and closed the door.

From SPACE CADET by Robert Heinlein (1948)

      It was a four-hour flight to Vandenberg. The military jumper had a much different feel than the civilian launch. Most of the passengers, including Neil and the other junior officers, rode up in uncomfortable jump seats. The interior of the 70-ton craft lacked the padded, insulated walls and other amenities of a commercial flight; instead, Neil stared at exposed pipes and ductwork. Loud machine noise filled his ears as the craft powered up.
     Two USSF senior astronauts – the service’s equivalent of a corporal – delivered a safety brief and walked each cabin, obsessively checking passengers’ names against a manifest and handing out earplugs, goggles and emergency bubbles to anyone lacking them. A sense of urgency rose in Neil as the jumper prepared for launch. He wasn’t sure if anyone else shared it, but here was a feeling of doing something important. Not something you got on civilian craft, where everything was done to make it feel like blasting into orbit at 11 kilometers per second was as routine as going to the store.

     The pilot came on the intercom and enumerated the upcoming boosts and periods of freefall during the four-hour flight. “Sick kits should be within arm’s reach,” he said. “If not, let one of the crew know now; otherwise, if you don’t get it in the kit, you’ll have to clean it up. And trust me; vomit is much worse when it floats.
     Some faces in Neil’s view smiled at that; Neil felt himself laugh but couldn’t hear it over the sound of the jumper powering up.

     The flight was uneventful; everyone in Neil’s cabin who needed a sick kit found one in good time.

From THROUGH STRUGGLE, THE STARS by John Lumpkin (2011)



Sleeping in space is an important part of space medicine and mission planning, with impacts on the health, capabilities and morale of astronauts.

Human spaceflight often requires astronaut crews to endure long periods without rest. Studies have shown that lack of sleep can cause fatigue that leads to errors while performing critical tasks. Also, individuals who are fatigued often cannot determine the degree of their impairment. Astronauts and ground crews frequently suffer from the effects of sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm disruption. Fatigue due to sleep loss, sleep shifting and work overload could cause performance errors that put space flight participants at risk of compromising mission objectives as well as the health and safety of those on board.


Sleeping in space requires that astronauts sleep in a crew cabin, a small room about the size of a shower stall. They lie in a sleeping bag which is strapped to the wall. Astronauts have reported having nightmares, dreams, and snoring while sleeping in space.

Sleeping and crew accommodations need to be well ventilated; otherwise, astronauts can wake up oxygen-deprived and gasping for air, because a bubble of their own exhaled carbon dioxide had formed around their heads. Brain cells are extremely sensitive to a lack of oxygen and brain cells can start dying less than 5 minutes after their oxygen supply disappears; the result is that brain hypoxia can rapidly cause severe brain damage or even death. A decrease of oxygen to the brain can cause dementia and brain damage, as well as a host of other symptoms.

In the early 21st century, crew on the ISS were said to average about six hours of sleep per day.

On the ground

Chronic sleep loss can impact performance similarly to total sleep loss and recent studies have shown that cognitive impairment after 17 hours of wakefulness is similar to impairment from an elevated blood alcohol level.

It has been suggested that work overload and circadian desynchronization may cause performance impairment. Those who perform shift work suffer from increased fatigue because the timing of their sleep/wake schedule is out of synch with natural daylight (see Shift work syndrome). They are more prone to auto and industrial accidents as well as a decreased quality of work and productivity on the job.

Ground crews at NASA are also affected by slam shifting (sleep shifting) while supporting critical International Space Station operations during overnight shifts.

In space

During the Apollo program, it was discovered that adequate sleep in the small volumes available in the Command Module and Lunar Module was most easily achieved if (1) there was minimum disruption to the pre-flight circadian rhythm of the crew members; (2) all crew members in the spacecraft slept at the same time; (3) crew members were able to doff their suits before sleeping; (4) work schedules were organized – and revised as needed – to provide an undisturbed (radio quiet) 6-8 hour rest period during each 24-hour period; (5) in zero-gravity, loose restraints were provided to keep the crewmen from drifting; (6) on the lunar surface, a hammock or other form of bed was provided; (7) there was an adequate combination of cabin temperature and sleepwear for comfort; (8) the crew could dim instrument lights and either cover their eyes or exclude sunlight from the cabin; and (9) equipment such as pumps were adequately muffled.

NASA management currently has limits in place to restrict the number of hours in which astronauts are to complete tasks and events. This is known as the "Fitness for Duty Standards". Space crews' current nominal number of work hours is 6.5 hours per day, and weekly work time should not exceed 48 hours. NASA defines critical workload overload for a space flight crew as 10-hour work days for 3 days per work week, or more than 60 hours per week (NASA STD-3001, Vol. 1). Astronauts have reported that periods of high-intensity workload can result in mental and physical fatigue. Studies from the medical and aviation industries have shown that increased and intense workloads combined with disturbed sleep and fatigue can lead to significant health issues and performance errors.

Research suggests that astronauts' quality and quantity of sleep while in space is markedly reduced than while on Earth. The use of sleep-inducing medication could be indicative of poor sleep due to disturbances. A study in 1997 showed that sleep structure as well as the restorative component of sleep may be disrupted while in space. These disturbances could increase the occurrence of performance errors.

Current space flight data shows that accuracy, response time and recall tasks are all affected by sleep loss, work overload, fatigue and circadian desynchronization.

Factors that contribute to sleep loss and fatigue

The most common factors that can affect the length and quality of sleep while in space include:

  • noise
  • physical discomfort
  • voids
  • disturbances caused by other crew members
  • temperature

An evidence gathering effort is currently underway to evaluate the impact of these individual, physiological and environmental factors on sleep and fatigue. The effects of work-rest schedules, environmental conditions and flight rules and requirements on sleep, fatigue and performance are also being evaluated.

Factors that contribute to circadian desynchronization

Exposure to light is the largest contributor to circadian desynchronization on board the ISS. Since the ISS orbits the Earth every 1.5 hours, the flight crew experiences 16 sunrises and sunsets per day. Slam shifting (sleep shifting) is also a considerable external factor that causes circadian desynchronization in the current space flight environment.

Other factors that may cause circadian desynchronization in space:

  • shift work
  • extended work hours
  • timeline changes
  • slam shifting (sleep shifting)
  • prolonged light of lunar day
  • Mars sol on Earth
  • Mars sol on Mars
  • abnormal environmental cues (i.e.: unnatural light exposure)

Sleep loss, genetics, and space

Both acute and chronic partial sleep loss occur frequently in space flight due to operational demands and for physiological reasons not yet entirely understood. Some astronauts are affected more than others. Earth-based research has demonstrated that sleep loss poses risks to astronaut performance, and that there are large, highly reliable individual differences in the magnitude of cognitive performance, fatigue and sleepiness, and sleep homeostatic vulnerability to acute total sleep deprivation and to chronic sleep restriction in healthy adults. The stable, trait-like (phenotypic) inter-individual differences observed in response to sleep loss point to an underlying genetic component. Indeed, data suggest that common genetic variations (polymorphisms) involved in sleep-wake, circadian, and cognitive regulation may serve as markers for prediction of inter-individual differences in sleep homeostatic and neurobehavioral vulnerability to sleep restriction in healthy adults. Identification of genetic predictors of differential vulnerability to sleep restriction will help identify astronauts most in need of fatigue countermeasures in space flight and inform medical standards for obtaining adequate sleep in space.

From the Wikipedia entry for SLEEP IN SPACE

      He had been removing the splinters of carapace from the damaged area when the crash of a missile striking nearby made the floor jump. The alarm bell which indicated a pressure drop sounded a few minutes later and Murchison and the Kelgian military doctor — the entire ward staff — had hurried to check the seals on the tents of patients who were not able to check their own. The drop was slight, probably a small leak caused by sprung plating, but to Conway's patient inside the tent it could be deadly. He had begun working with frantic speed.
     But while he had striven to tie off the severed blood vessels the thin, tough fabric of the pressure litter began to swell out. It had become difficult to hold instruments, virtually impossible to guide them accurately, and his hands were actually pushed away from the operative field. The difference in pressure between the interior of the tent and the ward was only a few pounds per square inch at most, barely enough to have made Conway's ears pop, but the fabric of the litter had continued to balloon out. He had withdrawn helplessly, and half an hour later when the leak had been sealed and normal pressure restored, he had started again. By then it had been too much.

     He remembered a sudden impairment of vision then, and a shock of surprise when he realized that he was crying. Tears weren't a conditioned medical reflex, he knew, because doctors just did not cry over patients.
     Probably it had been a combination of anger at losing the patient — who really should not have been lost — and his extreme fatigue. And when he'd seen the expressions of all the patients watching him, Conway had felt horribly embarrassed.

     Now the events around him had taken on a jerky, erratic motion. His eyes kept closing and several seconds, or minutes, passed before he could force them open again even though to himself no time at all went by. The walking wounded — patients with injuries which allowed them to move about the ward and return quickly to their tents in the event of a puncture — were moving from bed to bed doing the small, necessary jobs, or chatting with patients who couldn't move, or hanging like ungainly shoals of fish while they talked among themselves. But Conway was always too busy with the newly-arrived patients, or too confused with a multiplicity of tapes, to chat with the older ones. Mostly, however, his eyes went to the sleeping figures of Murchison and the Kelgian who floated near the entrance to the ward.
     The Kelgian hung like a great, furry question mark, now and then emitting the low moaning sound which some DBLFs made when they were asleep (Kelgian aliens look like giant caterpillars). Murchison floated at the end of a snaking, ten-foot safety line, turning slowly. It was odd how sleepers in the weightless condition adopted the fetal position, Conway thought tenderly as he watched his beautiful, adult girl baby (his wife, Nurse Murchison) swaying at the end of an impossibly thin umbilical cord. He desperately wanted to sleep himself, but it was his spell on duty and he would not be relieved for a long time — five minutes maybe, or five hours, but an eternity in either case. He would have to keep doing something.

From FIELD HOSPITAL by James White (1962)

      Sleeping in zero gravity is a skill that has to be learned; it had taken Floyd almost a week to find the best way of anchoring legs and arms so that they did not drift into uncomfortable positions. Now he was an expert, and was not looking forward to the return of weight; indeed, the very idea gave him occasional nightmares.

     Someone was shaking him awake. No — he must still be dreaming! Privacy was sacred aboard a spaceship; nobody ever entered another crew member's chambers without first asking permission. He clenched his eyes shut, but the shaking continued.
     'Dr Floyd — please wake up! You're wanted on the flight deck!'
     And nobody called him Dr Floyd; the most formal salutation he had received for weeks was Doc. What was happening?

     Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. He was in his tiny cabin, gently gripped by his sleeping cocoon. So one part of his mind told him; then why was he looking at — Europa? They were still millions of kilometres away.
     There were the familiar reticulations, the patterns of triangles and polygons formed by intersecting lines. And surely that was the Grand Canal itself — no, it wasn't quite right. How could it be, since he was still in his little cabin aboard Leonov?
     'Dr Floyd!'

     He became fully awake, and realized that his left hand was floating just a few centimetres in front of his eyes. How strange that the pattern of lines across the palm was so uncannily like the map of Europa! But economical Mother Nature was always repeating herself, on such vastly different scales as the swirl of milk stirred into coffee, the cloud lanes of a cyclonic storm, the arms of a spiral nebula.
     'Sorry, Max,' he said. 'What's the problem? Is something wrong?'
     'We think so — but not with us. Tsien's in trouble.'

From 2010: ODYSSEY TWO by Arthur C. Clarke (1982)


Gravity is so useful for many things. Like when you cry, gravity yanks down your tears so they run down your cheeks.

Ain't no gravity in space.

So when you cry in space, your tears accumulate over your eyes in large liquid balls. If you head moves the tear balls may detach and float around the room until they are sucked up by the ventilator grates. This stings and makes it very hard to see things.


      Sixteen body bags, sixteen American flags wrapped around them. Only ten had occupants. Three contained what remains could be recovered of personnel whose bodies had been vaporized during the battle. The final three contained a few of the personal effects of Lieutenant Alex Rodgers, Ensign Mireya Barbaro, and Flight Specialist 1st Class Ricardo Gomez, all burned and left behind on Commonwealth. The officers had discussed going back to find their remains, but Captain Thorne, still recovering from her injuries, had put a stop to it. Their location would be noted; someone else would have to repatriate what was left of their bodies. The ship would depart Beta Canum Venaticorum as quickly as possible.

     So it was fewer than twelve hours after the battle that San Jacinto sent the body bags off the flight deck and into a decaying orbit around Commonwealth. Rafe Sato’s was among them; the survivors from the landing party wanted him buried with military honors, and Donovan did not protest.

     In freefall, tears do not fall for the dead. They pool in your eyes until your vision blurs, and you blink involuntarily, and they float away. Little bubbles of water drifted randomly around San Jacinto’s flight deck until they struck something or were caught by the air circulation system and carried to the vents.

From THROUGH STRUGGLE, THE STARS by John Lumpkin (2011)


Several SF novels point out the dangers inherent in cooping up people in a tin can surrounded by vacuum for months at a time. They will be prey to "space cafard" (i.e., deep space cabin fever, what the French Foreign Legion called "the beetle").

It can be even worse if the tin can is a little too cramped.

The only solutions seem to be [a] put them in the suspended animation freezer, [b] drug them, or [c] keep them busy, busy, busy! (a bitching, er, ah complaining spacer is a happy spacer) The first officer can assign some worthless busy-work, like a once daily nose to stern ship inspection for micro-meteor holes.

One might think that the same problem would be faced by the crew on a military submarine, but as it turns out the analogy is inexact. Christopher Weuve says: A long submarine mission is six months, and keeping people sane is an issue, solved in part through over-work (which I think helps in the short run) and very careful screening.

A more constructive approach (for officers) is a huge stockpile of study-spools and daily home-work in such topics as higher mathematics, astronavigation, and nuclear physics. Plus other non-space related subjects just to keep the mind flexible. There will also be an active schedule of cross-training, e.g., the astrogator learning how to maintain an atomic drive unit. You never know when knowledge of a job outside of your specialty could prove vital in an emergency.

The sergeant in charge of the enlisted men will have to know when to turn a blind eye to the home-made moonshine "still" hidden on Z deck and the floating poker and dice games. Gambling and rocket-juice will combat boredom.

Last but not least is locally hosted internet games (local because a latency of 24 minutes makes real-time games impossible). However, such games might be restricted to cooperative games. Competitive games are too vulnerable to Griefers. If you have a bunch of crew whose nerves are already on edge due to living in a sardine can for the last eight months, the last thing you want is some sociopath deliberately enraging everybody. Tempers will flare while blood and body parts accumulate on the air intakes.

The other danger is internet games that are a little too immersive. Given the the choice between the real world of sensory deprivation inside the spacecraft and the fantasy world full of adventure and excitement, the crew might lose touch with reality. This was the topic of Poul Anderson's The Saturn Game.


     Once the handful of novels have been read, the drama tapes have been run to death in the display tank, the music tapes have been played to boredom, once the lies have all been told and the card games have faded for lack of a playable deck, Climber people turn to studying their vessels. To what we call cross-rate training, the study of specialties other than their own.

     The days become weeks, and the weeks pile into a month. Thirty-two days in the patrol zone. Thirty-two days without a contact anywhere. There are three squadrons out here now, and the newly commissioned unit is on its way. Another of the old squadrons will be leaving TerVeen soon. It'll be crowded.
     No contact. This promises to become the longest dry spell in recent history.
     The drills never cease. The Old Man always sounds the alarm at an inconvenient time. Then he stands back to watch the ants scurry. That's the only time we see his sickly smile.
     Hell. They're breaks in the boredom.
     This is oppressive. I haven't made a note in two weeks. If it weren't for guilt, I'd forget my project.
     I think this is our forty-third day in the patrol zone. Nobody keeps track anymore. What the hell does it matter? The ship is our whole universe now. It's always day in here and always night outside.
     If I really wanted to know, I could check the quartermaster's notebook. I could even find out what day of the week it is.
     I'm saving that for hard times, for the day when I need a really big adventure to get me going.

From PASSAGE AT ARMS by Glen Cook (1985)

It takes over 12,000 hours, nearly 18 months Earth time, and there's not much to do on the way. (ed note: Terra to Asteroid Belt) I kept telling myself it wasn't so bad. I had it easier than those poor blokes on sailing ships ever did. They had storms and scurvy and they were wet all the time. They had the sea, but I had all the stars in the universe, rivers of stars, stars without number, and no atmosphere to get in their way.

But the old sailors tired of the beauties of the sea, and it wasn't long before I was sick of the stars.

We had other compensations. I had my choice of more than a hundred programmed learning courses I could take. Foreign languages, ancient history, higher math for amusement; I got a master's in engineering for professional work; I studied up on mining and manufacturing in space. It was all there, anything I wanted. Information stored in holographic chips doesn't mass very much, and if there was anything else one of us wanted they'd beam out a program from Earth. They even sent ball games and movies.

There was also the work. Nothing on the ship was automated. Any job that a human could do, we did for ourselves. Of course we could get clever and build automatic systems, and we did, but that took up time. The ships are designed that way. Space Industries doesn't want its people going stir crazy on the way out. They have too much money tied up in us. Coming back they wouldn't care...

Then there was privacy. We didn't have much. Each of us had a compartment about the size of a bunk. The partitions were as thin as they could make them. No soundproofing. If we wanted quiet, we wore earphones. Not earplugs — there were times when we needed to hear what was happening and hear it fast. Otherwise we wouldn't live to enjoy the privacy.

From BIND YOUR SONS TO EXILE by Jerry Pournelle (1976)

Since we were falling free in a 24-hour circular orbit, with everything weightless and floating, you'd think that shooting craps was impossible. But a radioman named Peters figured a dodge to substitute steel dice and a magnetic field. He also eliminated the element of chance, so we fired him.

From DELILAH AND THE SPACE-RIGGER by Robert Heinlein (1949)

Once the ship was in flight and set on course, there was little which had to be done to keep her so. Krip had early shown me that her crew did not lack occupation, however. Some of them created with their hands, making small things which amused them, or which they could add to their trade goods. Others busied their minds, learning from their store of information tapes. So did they labor to keep the ship from becoming their prison also.

From EXILES OF THE STARS by Andre Norton (1971)

"Yes," Harkaman pounced on that last. "I know of at least forty instances, on a dozen and a half planets, in the last eight centuries, of anti-technological movements. They had them on Terra, back as far as the Second Century Pre-Atomic. And after Venus seceded from the First Federation, before the Second Federation was organized."

"You're interested in history?" Rathmore asked.

"A hobby. All spacemen have hobbies. There's very little work aboard ship in hyperspace; boredom is the worst enemy. My guns-and-missiles officer, Van Larch, is a painter. Most of his work was lost with the Corisande on Durendal, but he kept us from starving a few times on Flamberge by painting pictures and selling them. My hyperspatial astrogator, Guatt Kirbey, composes music; he tries to express the mathematics of hyperspatial theory in musical terms. I don't care much for it, myself," he admitted. "I study history. You know, it's odd; practically everything that's happened on any of the inhabited planets has happened on Terra before the first spaceship."

From SPACE VIKING by H. Beam Piper (1963)

In addition, on the same level, was the tiny room where was shelved and boxed their “trade goods”, small items used to attract the attention of savages or backward civilizations — gadgets, mechanical toys, trinkets of glass, wire, enamelled metal. Dane, trying out his memorization of the store catalogue, made the rounds of the cases. He had been taken on two tours of instruction by Van Rycke, but he had not yet lost his sense of wonder at the kinds and quality of the goods, and the display of knowledge and imagination of the Cargo-Master who had assembled this collection. Here were the presents for chieftains and petty kings, the exciters which would bring the people of primitive villages flocking to view such off-world wonders. Of course the supply was strictly limited, but it had been chosen with such care, such insight into humanoid and X-Tee psychology, that it must go a long way to win customers for the Queen.

Dane tried to forget the fiasco of Limbo by applying himself to the study of the “contact” goods. Van Rycke had been patient with him on their rounds of this store house, using incidents from his own past to point up the use of each object in the cases or on the protected shelves. Some of the material, Dane gathered, was the handiwork of the crew.

Long drives through space, with the ship locked on its automatic controls, with few duties for her crew, tended to become monotonous. Boredom led to space mania and those who followed the Galactic lanes had early learned that skills of brain and hand were the answer. These could vary widely.

On board the Queen, Captain Jellico was a xenobiologist, far past amateur standing. While he could not bring back his specimens alive — save for such “pets” as the blue Hoobat now caged in his cabin — the tri-dee shots he had taken of animal life on unknown worlds had earned him fame among naturalists. Steen Wilcox, whose days were spent wrestling with obtuse mathematics, was labouring to transpose such formulae into musical patterns. And the oddest employ Dane had so far uncovered among his new companions was that of Medic Tau, who collected magic, consorting with witch doctors and medicine men of alien primitives, seeking to discover the core of truth lying beneath the mumbo-jumbo.

Dane picked up a piece of Mura’s handiwork, a plasta-crystal ball in which floated, to all examination alive, a rainbow winged insect totally unfamiliar to him.

The steward had made no effort to decorate the walls of his private quarters, and the extreme neatness of the cabin tended to have a bleak effect. But on a pull-down table rested a globe of plasta-crystal and what it contained drew Dane’s attention. A Terran butterfly, its jewelled wings spread wide, hung by some magic in the very centre of the orb, sealed so for all time, and yet giving every appearance of vibrant life. Mura, noting Dane’s absorption, leaned forward and tapped the top of the globe lightly. In answer to that touch the wings seemed to quiver, the imprisoned beauty moved a fraction.

Dane drew a deep breath. He had seen the globe in the store room, he knew that Mura collected the insect life of a hundred worlds to fashion his balls — there were two others on board the Queen. One a tiny world, an aquatic one with fronds of weed curling to provide shelter for a school of gemmed insect-fish which were stalked by a weird creature two legged, two armed, but equipped with wing-like fins and a wicked pronged spear. That was in a place of honour in Van Rycke’s cabin. Then there was the other — a vista of elfin towers of silver among which flitted nearly transparent things of pearly lustre. That was the Com-Tech’s particular treasure.

“One may create such, yes,” Mura shrugged. “It is a way of passing time — like many others.” He picked up the globe, rolled it in protecting fibre and stowed it away in a partitioned drawer, cushioned against the take-off of the Queen.

From SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

(ed note: The free trader Solar Queen has obtained the trading rights to planet Sargol. The cat-like natives trade valuable gems called Koros stones. Unfortunately the free traders had no idea what trade goods to stock up on. As it turns out, the natives covet natural perfumes, especially catnip. Sadly the traders only have a small container of nip, which had belonged to the ship's cat. If they had only known. )

"If it was," Jellico cut in, "he certainly kept it! If we had only known this earlier—"

They were all thinking of that, of their storage space carefully packed with useless trade goods. Where, if they had known, the same space could have carried herbs with five or twenty-five times as much buying power.

There was a nervous little sound of a throat being apologetically cleared. Jasper Weeks, the small wiper from the engine room detail, the third generation Venusian colonist whom the more vocal members of the Queen's complement were apt to forget upon occasion, seeing all eyes upon him, spoke though his voice was hardly above a hoarse whisper. "Cedar—lacquel bark—forsh weed—"

"Cinnamon," Mura added to the list. "Imported in small quantities—"

"Naturally! Only the problem now is—how much cedar, lacquel bark, forsh weed, cinnamon do we have on board?" demanded Van Rycke.

His sarcasm did not register with Weeks for the little man pushed by Dane and left the cabin to their surprise. In the quiet which followed they could hear the clatter of his boots on ladder rungs as he descended to the quarters of the engine room staff. Tang turned to his neighbor, Johan Stotz, the Queen's Engineer. "What's he going for?"

Stotz shrugged. Weeks was a self-effacing man—so much so that even in the cramped quarters of the spacer very little about him as an individual impressed his mates—a fact which was slowly dawning on them all now. Then they heard the scramble of feet hurrying back and Weeks burst in with energy which carried him across to the table behind which the Captain and Van Rycke now sat. In the wiper's hands was a plasta-steel box—the treasure chest of a spaceman. Its tough exterior was guaranteed to protect the contents against everything but outright disintegration. Weeks put it down on the table and snapped up the lid.

A new aroma, or aromas, was added to the scents now at war in the cabin. Weeks pulled out a handful of fluffy white stuff which frothed up about his fingers like soap lather. Then with more care he lifted up a tray divided into many small compartments, each with a separate sealing lid of its own. The men of the Queen moved in, their curiosity aroused, until they were jostling one another.

Being tall Dane had an advantage, though Van Rycke's bulk and the wide shoulders of the Captain were between him and the object they were so intent upon. In each division of the tray, easily seen through the transparent lids, was a carved figure. The weird denizens of the Venusian polar swamps were there, along with lifelike effigies of Terran animals, a Martian sand-mouse in all its monstrous ferocity, and the native animal and reptile life of half a hundred different worlds. Weeks put down a second tray beside the first, again displaying a menagerie of strange life forms. But when he clicked open one of the compartments and handed the figurine it contained to the Captain, Dane understood the reason for now bringing forward the carvings.

The majority of them were fashioned from a dull blue-gray wood and Dane knew that if he picked one up he would discover that it weighed close to nothing in his hand. That was lacquel bark—the aromatic product of a Venusian vine. And each little animal or reptile lay encased in a soft dab of frothy white—frosh weed—the perfumed seed casing of the Martian canal plants. One or two figures on the second tray were of a red-brown wood and these Van Rycke sniffed at appreciatively. "Cedar—Terran cedar," he murmured.

Weeks nodded eagerly, his eyes alight. "I am waiting now for sandalwood—it is also good for carving—"

Jellico stared at the array in puzzled wonder. "You have made these?" Being an amateur xenobiologist of no small standing himself, the shapes of the carvings more than the material from which they fashioned held his attention.

All those on board the Queen had their own hobbies. The monotony of voyaging through hyper-space had long ago impressed upon men the need for occupying both hands and mind during the sterile days while they were forced into close companionship with few duties to keep them alert. Jellico's cabin was papered with tri-dee pictures of the rare animals and alien creatures he had studied in their native haunts or of which he kept careful and painstaking records. Tau had his magic, Mura not only his plants but the delicate miniature landscapes he fashioned, to be imprisoned forever in the hearts of protecting plasta balls. But Weeks had never shown his work before and now he had an artist's supreme pleasure of completely confounding his shipmates.

The Cargo-master returned to the business on hand first. "You're willing to transfer these to 'cargo'?" he asked briskly. "How many do you have?"

Weeks, now lifting a third and then a fourth tray from the box, replied without looking up. "Two hundred. Yes, I'll transfer, sir."

The Captain was turning about in his fingers the beautifully shaped figure of an Astran duocorn. "Pity to trade these here," he mused aloud. "Will Paft or Halfer appreciate more than just their scent?"

Weeks smiled shyly. "I've filled this case, sir. I was going to offer them to Mr. Van Rycke on a venture. I can always make another set. And right now—well, maybe they'll be worth more to the Queen, seeing as how they're made out of aromatic woods, then they'd be elsewhere. Leastwise the Eysies aren't going to have anything like them to show!" he ended in a burst of honest pride (the I.S. "Eysies" megacorporation, who are trying to poach on the Queen's trade rights).

"Indeed they aren't!" Van Rycke gave honor where it was due.

From PLAGUE SHIP by Andre Norton (1956)

      Crammed a few meters away from the map was the other major feature in Sten's current life. Sitting on a fold-up field table was a very expensive mini-holoprocessor. It was the biggest expense in Sten's life, not even counting the thousands of hours of time invested in the tiny box lying next to it. The little box contained Sten's hobby—Model building: not ordinary glue-gun models set into paste-metal dioramas but complete, working and living holographic displays ranging from simple ancient engines to tiny factories manned by their workers. Each was contained on a tiny card, jammed with complex computer equations.

     Sten was then building a replica of a logging mill. He had imprinted, byte by byte, everything that theoretically made the mill work, including the workers, their job functions, their tools, and the spare parts. Also programmed were other details, such as the wear-factor on a belt drive, the drunken behavior of the head mechanic, etc. When the card slid into the holoprocessor it projected a full-color holographic display of the mill at work. Occasionally, if Sten didn't have his voila moves down, a worker would stumble, or a log would jam, and the whole edifice would tumble apart into a blaze of colored dots.

     Sten glanced at the model box guiltily. He hadn't worked on it more than a few hours since he started the job. And, no, there wasn't time now—he had to get to work.

From THE COURT OF A THOUSAND SUNS by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole (1986)

     Sten cleared off the small surface that served as his desk, turned on the pinlight/magnifiers, and eased his chair closer. He had determined that this was going to be a perfect evening—one of the rare nights he had absolutely alone to pursue his hobby.

     He had given the crews of his ships twelve-hour passes, leaving him relatively free of responsibility. He poured himself a tumbler of Stregg, swirled the crystal liquid around in the glass, and sipped. The fire lit down to his toes.

He sighed in anticipated pleasure, then lifted out the tiny black case and snapped it open. It contained a dozen or more tiny cards, each jammed with computer equations. Sten's passion was holographic models of ancient factories and scenes. One card, for instance, contained in its micro-circuits a complete early-twentieth-century Earth lumber mill, with working saws and gears and belts. Every machine in the mill was controlled by a miniature worker, who went about his individual tasks—as best as Sten could research them—exactly as he had many centuries ago. Sten had completed the mill during his last assignment on Prime World.

     He had started his latest model during flight school. It was one of his more difficult moving holographic displays. He slid the card into its slot and palmed the computer on. Small figures working in a sprawling field leapt out onto the desk. What Sten was recreating was an ancient British hops field. From his research he knew that hops—used in the beer-brewing process—were grown on towering tripod poles. When harvest time came each year, men and women were recruited from all over the country. The plants were so tall, with the fruited vines at the very top, that the workers strode through the fields on stilts to pick them.

     Thus far, Sten's display consisted of the fields of hops, most of the workers, and the ox-drawn carts used to haul out the harvest. Months of work lay ahead of him before he could complete the rest of the sprawling farm. He tickled a few keys on his computer to call up an incomplete ox cart. Then he got out his light pen to start sketching in a few more details.

     There was a tentative scratching at his cabin door. Sten felt the anger rise. For clot's sake, he had given strict orders to be left alone. Ah, well. "In!" he called.
     The door hissed open, revealing a badly frightened sentry. "Begging your pardon, sir, but…" The man started stumbling over his words. "But… uh, there's a lady."
     "I don't care if it's the Queen of—oh, never mind. Who is it?"
     "I think it's the admiral's daughter, sir."
     Clot! That was just what he needed. A drunk for company. "Tell her I'm not here."
     The sentry started to back out, hesitated, and then pushed something forward. It was a single rose and a small gift-wrapped package.
     "She said to give you this, sir," the sentry plunged on. "Said it was to say she was sorry. Uh… uh… I think she'd know I was lying, sir, if I told her what you said."
     Sten took pity on the man, accepted the gifts, and waved him out. "I'll be with her in a minute."

     He placed the rose to one side, took a hefty snort of his Stregg for courage, and slit open the package. There was a small computer card inside—identical to the ones he used in holography. What in the world… He slid it into one of the drives. A three-dimensional model of a tower jumped out on his desk. It was a perfect replica of one of the barns used by the ancient hop farmers! How had she known?

     No matter how one looked at it, this was one hell of a way to apologize.

From FLEET OF THE DAMNED by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole (1988)


Scrimshaw is scrollwork, engravings, and carvings done in bone or ivory. Typically it refers to the artwork created by whalers, engraved on the byproducts of whales, such as bones or cartilage. It is most commonly made out of the bones and teeth of sperm whales, the baleen of other whales, and the tusks of walruses. It takes the form of elaborate engravings in the form of pictures and lettering on the surface of the bone or tooth, with the engraving highlighted using a pigment, or, less often, small sculptures made from the same material. However, the latter really fall into the categories of ivory carving, for all carved teeth and tusks, or bone carving. The making of scrimshaw probably began on whaling ships in the late 18th century and survived until the ban on commercial whaling. The practice survives as a hobby and as a trade for commercial artisans. A maker of scrimshaw is known as a scrimshander. The word first appeared in print in the early 19th century, but the etymology is uncertain.

History and materials

Scrimshaw is derived from the practice of sailors on whaling ships creating common tools, where the byproducts of whales were readily available. The term originally referred to the making of these tools, only later referring to works of art created by whalers in their spare time. Whale bone was ideally suited for the task, as it is easy to work and was plentiful.

The widespread carving of scrimshaw became possible after the 1815 publication of the journal of U.S. Navy Captain David Porter exposed both the market and the source of the whale teeth, causing a surplus of whale teeth that greatly diminished their value and made them available as a material for ordinary seamen. Around this time is the earliest authenticated pictorial piece of sperm whale scrimshaw (1817). The tooth was inscribed: "This is the tooth of a sperm whale that was caught near the Galápagos Islands by the crew of the ship Adam [of London], and made 100 barrels of oil in the year 1817."

Other sea animal ivories were also used as alternatives for rarer whale teeth. Walrus tusks, for example, may have been acquired in trade from indigenous walrus hunters.

Scrimshaw essentially was a leisure activity for whalers. Because the work of whaling was very dangerous at the best of times, whalers were unable to work at night. This gave them a great deal more free time than other sailors. A lot of scrimshaw was never signed, and a great many of the pieces are anonymous. Early scrimshaw was done with crude sailing needles, and the movement of the ship, as well as the skill of the artist, produced drawings of varying levels of detail and artistry. Originally, candle black, soot or tobacco juice would have been used to bring the etched design into view. Also, ink was used that the sailors would bring on before the voyage. Today's artists use finer tools in various sizes, mostly borrowed from the dental industry. Some scrimshanders ink their work with more than one color, and restrained polychromed examples of this art are now popular.

Originating in an era when sperm whales were initially plentiful only to be hunted to near collapse, scrimshaw no longer is an artform utilizing an easily renewable animal resource, but one that is susceptible to contraband. Now, the Endangered Species Act and international conventions restrict the harvest and sale of ivory, in attempt to reverse the scarcity of ivory-bearing animals.

  • Though there are sources of ivory that are sanctioned and legal, poachers in Africa and other continents where elephants are an endangered species still kill for their ivory, Elephant ivory has been regulated since 1976 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and selling African ivory has been prohibited since 1989.
  • 19th and 20th century scrimshaw, scrimshaw crafted before 1989 (elephant) or before 1973 (sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory etc.) is legal. It is prohibited after that year for commercial import in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
  • Additionally, walrus tusks bearing the Alaska State walrus ivory registration tag, and post-law walrus ivory that has been carved or scrimshawed by a native Alaskan Indian (Eskimo), is legally available.
  • Finally, any ivory considered ancient, such as 10,000- to 40,000-year-old mammoth ivory, is completely unrestricted in its sale or possession.

Scrimshanders and collectors acquire legal whale teeth and marine tusks through estate sales, auctions and antique dealers. To avoid illegal ivory, collectors and artists check provenance and deal only with other established and reputable dealers. Scrimshaw that is found to have been illegally sourced may be seized by customs officials worldwide, dramatically loses value and is very hard to re-sell, as the limited channels through which collectible scrimshaw passes serves as a check on unscrupulous persons. As with any other fine art form, it is usually possible for experienced museums, auction houses or other experts to perceive a fake.

Scrimshaw can also be three-dimensional artifacts that are hand carved by the scrimshander. They carved useful tools such as a jagging wheel. The jagging wheel is a multi-purpose tool used to pierce and trim a pie crust. Corset busks were carved from bone or ivory.

From the Wikipedia entry for SCRIMSHAW

(ed note: I classify this as "scrimshaw" because it is a hobby pursued on-board the ship, using only locally available materials that are either worthless or abundant)

September 27, 2013— There is a dinosaur on board the International Space Station where there wasn't one before.

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, who since May has been working as a flight engineer as a member of the orbiting outpost's resident crew, revealed the toy dinosaur floating on the space station on Thursday (Sept. 26).

"Made in space!" Nyberg, an Expedition 37 crewmember, exclaimed in her caption for a photo of the toy giant lizard she uploaded to the pinboard-style photo-sharing website Pinterest. "I made this dinosaur for my son last Sunday, September 22."

The dinosaur, which resembles a Tyrannosaurus Rex, has an olive green back and a lighter green belly. It is stitched together with white thread.

Nyberg, a self-described crafter whose hobbies including quilting and sewing, packed threads, sewing needles and small fabric samples for her trip to space. But to make the dinosaur, she scavenged materials that she found around her orbital home.

"It is made out of velcro-like fabric that lines the Russian food containers [that are] found here on the International Space Station," Nyberg wrote about the doll. "It is lightly stuffed with scraps from a used t-shirt."

Astronauts have carried stuffed dolls to space before, and cosmonauts have a tradition of launching with small plush toys as talismans and "zero-g indicators." When the dolls, which are suspended from the Soyuz spacecraft's control panel, begin to float, the crew can tell they have entered orbit.

Nyberg's crew launched with a plush white dog her Soyuz commander, Fyodor Yurchikhin, had received as a gift 30 years ago and had flown into space twice before. A small black cat doll, named "Dimlar," served as the zero-gravity indicator for the crew that arrived Wednesday (Sept. 26), named after cosmonaut Oleg Kotov's children, Dima and Lara.

Nyberg's dinosaur however, may be a new breed of space toy. It may be the first stuffed animal created in space.

In addition to sewing stuffed toys for him, Nyberg keeps in daily contact with her 3-year-old son Jack, sending down short videos for him every day. Nyberg's husband, who is also an astronaut who last flew on the final space shuttle mission in 2011, sends up photos and videos of their son.

A photo Nyberg earlier shared on Pinterest revealed that Jack has his own handiwork in space, too. Hanging on the wall of her quarters is an orange and pink painting labeled "For Mommy."

Nyberg is slated to return to Earth on Nov. 11, presumably with the toy dinosaur in tow.


(ed note: in the story astronauts keep from being bored out of their skull by participating in something called "psychodramas." Nowadays we call them "virtual reality games")

Was nothing saner possible for them? Perhaps not.

If we are to answer the question, we should first review some history. When early industrial operations in space offered the hope of rescuing civilization, and Earth, from ruin, then greater knowledge of sister planets, prior to their development, became a clear necessity. The effort must start with Mars, the least hostile. No natural law forbade sending small manned spacecraft yonder. What did was the absurdity of as much fuel, time, and effort as were required, in order that three or four persons might spend a few days in a single locality.

Construction of the J. Peter Vajk took longer and cost more, but paid off when it, virtually a colony, spread its immense solar sail and took a thousand people to their goal in half a year and in comparative comfort. The payoff grew overwhelming when they, from orbit, launched Earthward the beneficiated minerals of Phobos that they did not need for their own purposes. Those purposes, of course, turned on the truly thorough, long-term study of Mars, and included landings of auxiliary craft, for ever lengthier stays, all over the surface.

Sufficient to remind you of this much; no need to detail the triumphs of the same basic concept throughout the inner Solar System, as far as Jupiter. The tragedy of the Vladimir became a reason to try again for Mercury, and, in a left-handed, political way, pushed the Britannic-American consortium into its Chronos project.

They named the ship better than they knew. Sailing time to Saturn was eight years.

Not only the scientists must be healthy, lively-minded people. Crewfolk, technicians, medics, constables, teachers, clergy, entertainers, every element of an entire community must be. Each must command more than a single skill, for emergency backup, and keep those skills alive by regular, tedious rehearsal. The environment was limited and austere; communication with home was soon a matter of beamcasts; cosmopolitans found themselves in what amounted to an isolated village. What were they to do?

Assigned tasks. Civic projects, especially work on improving the interior of the vessel. Research, or writing a book, or the study of a subject, or sports, or hobby clubs, or service and handicraft enterprises, or more private interactions, or—There was a wide choice of television tapes, but Central Control made sets usable for only three hours in twenty-four. You dared not get into the habit of passivity.

Individuals grumbled, squabbled, formed and dissolved cliques, formed and dissolved marriages or less explicit relationships, begot and raised occasional children, worshipped, mocked, learned, yearned, and for the most part found reasonable satisfaction in life. But for some, including a large proportion of the gifted, what made the difference between this and misery was their psychodramas.

(ed note: the problem is, after eight years of playing the same Dungeons & Dragons type fantasy role-playing-game, the astronauts have lost touch with reality. When they arrive at Iapetus, instead of exploring like cautious professional astronauts, they rush ahead like the foolhardy devil-may-care personas from their game. Disaster ensues.)

From THE SATURN GAME by Poul Anderson (1981)

Nature is good for us. Scientists are still working out the technical details, but so far evidence indicates that seeing sunlight, trees, and other green stuff helps your mental health.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of forests in space, and that sucks for the future astronauts we'll send to Mars and back. They'll spend about two years cooped up in a spacecraft with no option to stroll through a meadow or feel the sunshine on their skin, and that could wear on their psychological states.

Former astronaut Jay Buckey wants to see if virtual reality can help. The Dartmouth physician and his team have sent Oculus Rift headsets deep into the Arctic to test whether exposure to nature through virtual reality can help improve mood and stress levels.

When it comes to deep space exploration, "The more tools you can give people to maintain a good psychological state, the more successful the mission is likely to be," Buckey tells Popular Science.

His team has sent the virtual reality headsets to a military station in Alert, Canada. Located 500 miles from the North Pole, Canadian Forces Station Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world.

"People who live in this Alert station, they do well but it's dark all the time and it's very cold outside," says Buckey. "So it's a small group of people living in a confined space all the time. It's not like you can go out for a walk in the woods."

With the arrival of the Oculus Rift headsets, the Alert inhabitants will have the option to explore two categories of virtual scenarios. The first category includes a 360-degree view of a filmed environment—for example a spot on a beach, or a view of the mountains of New Hampshire or the Irish countryside. The views are photographical, so they look highly realistic, but viewers can only see the environment from one spot.

By contrast, viewers can actually move through the second scenario, "Virtual Wembury." This is a simulation of a lovely seaside town in the UK, and though it's computer-generated, users can navigate through it and explore.

Buckey's team is interested in seeing which type of environment users prefer, and how that affects the user's mood and stress. The experiment will last until March.

If the tech works, the team hopes to eventually test these virtual green spaces on the International Space Station as well.

From SANE IN SPACE? by Sarah Fecht (2016)

IT HAD TAKEN THEM MANY Hours to fight their way out of the Cave of the White Worms. Even now, they could not be sure that some of the pallid monsters were not pursuing them -and the power of their weapons was almost exhausted. Ahead, the floating arrow of light that had been their mysterious guide through the labyrinths of the Crystal Mountain still beckoned them on. They had no choice but to follow it, though as it had done so many times before it might lead them into yet more frightful dangers.

Alvin glanced back to see if all his companions were still with him. Alystra was close behind, carrying the sphere of cold but ever-burning light that had revealed such horrors and such beauty since their adventure had begun. The pale white radiance flooded the narrow corridor and splashed from the glittering walls; while its power lasted, they could see where they were going and could detect the presence of any visible dangers. But the greatest dangers in these caves, Alvin knew too well, were not the visible ones at all.

Behind Alystra, struggling with the weight of their projectors, came Narrillian and Floranus. Alvin wondered briefly why tose projectors were so heavy, since it would have been such a simple matter to provide them with gravity neutralizers. He was always thinking of points like this, even in the midst of the most desperate adventures. When such thoughts crossed his mind, it seemed as if the structure of reality trembled for an instant, and that behind the world of the senses he caught a glimpse of another and totally different universe…

The corridor ended in a blank wall. Had the arrow betrayed them again? No—even as they approached, the rock began to crumble into dust. Through the wall pierced a spinning metal spear, which broadened rapidly into a giant screw. Alvin and his friends moved back, waiting for the machine to force its way into the cave. With a deafening screech of metal upon rock—which surely must echo through all the recesses of the Mountain, and waken all its nightmare brood!—the subterrene smashed through the wall and came to rest beside them. A massive door opened, and Callistron appeared, shouting to them to hurry. (“Why Callistron?” wondered Alvin. “Whats he doing here?”) A moment later they were in safety, and the machine lurched forward as it began its journey through the depths of the earth.

The adventure was over. Soon, as always happened, they would be home, and all the wonder, the terror, and the excitement would be behind them. They were tired and content.

Alvin could tell from the tilt of the floor that the subterrene was heading down into the earth. Presumably Callistron knew what he was doing, and this was the way that led to home. Yet it seemed a pity…

“Callistron,” he said suddenly, “why don’t we go upward? No one knows what the Crystal Mountain really looks like. How wonderful it would be to come out somewhere on its slopes, to see the sky and all the land around it. We’ve been underground long enough.”

Even as he said these words, he somehow knew that they were wrong. Alystra gave a strangled scream, the interior of the subterrene wavered like an image seen through water, and behind and beyond the metal walls that surrounded him Alvin once more glimpsed that other universe. The two worlds seemed in conflict, first one and then the other predominating. Then quite suddenly, it was all over. There was a snapping, rending sensation—and the dream had ended. Alvin was back in Diaspar, in his own familiar room, floating a foot or two above the floor as the gravity field protected him from the bruising contact of brute matter.

Why, for example, did he not fit into the sagas? Of all the thousands of forms of recreation in the city, these were the most popular. When you entered a saga, you were not merely a passive observer, as in the crude entertainments of primitive times which Alvin had sometimes sampled. You were an active participant and possessed—or seemed to possess—free will. The events and scenes which were the raw material of your adventures might have been prepared beforehand by forgotten artists, but there was enough flexibility to allow for wide variation. You could go into these phantom worlds with your friends, seeking the excitement that did not exist in Diaspar—and as long as the dream lasted there was no way in which it could be distinguished from reality. Indeed, who could be certain that Diaspar itself was not the dream?

No one could ever exhaust all the sagas that had been conceived and recorded since the city began. They played upon all the emotions and were of infinitely varying subtlety. Some—those popular among the very young—were uncomplicated dramas of adventure and discovery. Others were purely explorations of psychological states, while others again were exercises in logic or mathematics which could provide the keenest of delights to more sophisticated minds.

Yet though the sagas seemed to satisfy his companions, they left Alvin with a feeling of incompleteness. For all their color and excitement, their varying locales and themes, there was something missing.

The sagas, he decided, never really got anywhere. They were always painted on such a narrow canvas. There were no great vistas, none of the rolling landscapes for which his soul craved. Above all, there was never a hint of the immensity in which the exploits of ancient man had really taken place—the luminous void between the stars and planets. The artists who had planned the sagas had been infected by the same strange phobia that ruled all the citizens of Diaspar. Even their vicarious adventures must take place cozily indoors, in subterranean caverns, or in neat little valleys surrounded by mountains that shut out all the rest of the world.

From THE CITY AND THE STARS by Arthur C. Clarke (1956)


In Anne McCaffrey's novel Dragonsdawn it states that the first two things human colonists always do on a new world are:

  1. Find something that can be turned into booze
  2. Find a substitute for coffee

Here on Terra coffee is one of the most popular drinks in the world, and there are many who cannot fully wake up and do work until they've had their morning cup of java. Particularly the various branches of the military. There are many who say that the US Navy runs on coffee. Furthermore it is hard to exaggerate the effect coffee houses had on merchant trading and shipping. Ship-owners, merchants, and insurance houses made deals in the coffee houses over cups of "the new black liquor from Turkey".


      Mark opened the door to the boiler room and tossed Charlie the bunch of bananas. "Mornin', monkey."
     "Mornin', freak," said the chimp with a grin. He looked up from the reader he was repairing to catch the bundle. "Whassa word?" he asked, pulling off a piece of fruit and pouring the kid a cup of coffee.
     "My dad wants me to stop seeing so much of you," Mark grumped. He took the coffee and sipped it appreciatively. "How in the hell do you make such a good cup of coffee?" he asked.
     "Old secret," winked the chimp, taking his own sip and a bite of banana. "Pinch of salt. It's called 'goat-locker' coffee."
     "Whatever," said the kid. "It's good."

In a science fictional future, spacecraft crew may be forbidden tobacco to avoid death by asphyxiation but you can bet your last rocket they will have some sort of caffeinated beverage.

But since science fiction authors can't resit using the old Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp" trick, they will have all sorts of strange names for coffee in a desperate attempt to convince the reader that they are not in Kansas anymore. Occasionally in science fiction you will find species of deadly hyper-coffee with extreme effects.

In The Beast Master they drink Swankee, King David's Spaceship has Chickeest, the Sten novels have Caff, Warhammer 40K has Recaff, the Wheel of Time novels have Kaf, The Pern novels have Klah, and the Helmsman saga has Cvcesse. In Derelict for Trade they have Jakek which is a syntho coffee substitute the crew makes do with when times are lean.

More realistically the previously mentioned human colonists will find that coffee refuses to grow on their new world so they will frantically have to find a replacement. Authors are fond of having new colonists complain about how disgusting the local ersatz coffee is and how they miss the real stuff. Second and subsequent generations of colonists have never tasted honest-to-Joe coffee so they are satisfied with the substitute as long as it has plenty of caffeine.


The Admiral spoke a few quick orders into thin air. A minute later, a steward in a white coat entered with a tray bearing four cups of coffee — actually, an (Planet) Altan substitute that many of the Founders had found unpalatable.


      The Captain wasted little time on us. He spoke with the courier briefly. The courier opened that huge case and passed over a kilo canister. The Captain handed him some greasy Conmarks. They were old bills, pre-war pink instead of today’s lilac gray. The courier shoved them inside his tunic, grinned at me, and went outside.
     “Coffee,” he explained. And, “A man has to make hay while the sun shines. A local proverb.”
     My glimpse inside the case had shown me maybe forty more canisters.
     It was an old, old game with Fleet couriers. The brass knew about it. Only their pets received courier assignment. Sometimes there were kickbacks. My companion didn’t look like a man whose business was that big.
     “I see.”
     “Sometimes tobacco, too. They don’t raise it here. And chocolate, when I can make the contacts back home.”
     “You should’ve loaded the boat.” I didn’t resent his running luxuries. Guess I’m a laissez-faire capitalist at heart.
     He grinned. “I did. Can’t deal with the Captain, though. After a while one of the sergeants will notice that nobody has patrolled that part of the plain lately. He’ll make the sweep himself, just to keep his hand in. And I’ll find a bale of Conmarks when I get back.” He hoisted his case. “This’s for special people. I sell it practically at cost.”
     “Conmarks ought to be drying up out here.”
     “They’re getting harder to come by. I’m not the only courier on the Canaan run.” He brightened. “But, s**t. There had to be billions floating around before the war. It’ll come out. Just got to keep refusing military scrip.”

     More than once the Commander tracked me down and asked me to accompany him to the wardroom.
     He makes a ritual of our visit. First he gives Kreiegshauser a carefully measured bit of coffee. Just enough for two cups. There’s been no regularly brewed real coffee since we learned we’d be on beacon-to-beacon patrol. What we call coffee, and brew daily, is made with a caffeine-rich (planet) Canaan bush-twig that has a vague coffee taste. That’s what the Commander drinks during his morning ritual. After yielding his treasure, the Old Man stares into infinity and sucks the stem of his tireless pipe. He hasn’t smoked in an age. The old hands say he won’t till he decides to attack.

From PASSAGE AT ARMS by Glen Cook (1985)

Sally snared a cup of coffee from the steward. She was learning to drink Navy coffee, which wasn't like anything else in the Galaxy.

When the room was empty he poured a large glass of wine. It was poor quality stuff brought in after the blockade, but he hardly noticed. Wine was officially forbidden on Levant, which meant that the hordes of wine sellers foisted off anything alcoholic on their customers, even wealthy ones like the Bury family. Horace Bury had never developed any real appreciation for expensive liquors. He bought them to show his wealth, and for entertaining; but for himself anything would do. Coffees were a different matter.

But Buckman liked to talk, and Bury at least had the time to listen. MacArthur was a beehive these days, frantically busy and crowded as hell. And there was room to pace in Bury's cabin.

Or, Bury speculated cynically, he might like Bury's coffee. Bury had almost a dozen varieties of coffee beans, his own grinder, and filter cones to make it. He was quite aware of how his coffee compared with that in the huge percolators about the ship.

     "We must study them." Bury's Motie sipped contemplatively at his dirty water, "We spoke of coffees and wines. My associates have noticed—how shall I put it?—a strong cultural set toward wines, among your scientists and Navy officers."
     "Yes. Place of origin, dates, labels, ability to travel in free fall, what wines go with what foods." Bury grimaced. "I have listened, but I know nothing of this. I find it annoying and expensive that some of my ships must move under constant acceleration merely to protect a wine bottle from its own sediments. Why can they not simply be centrifuged on arrival?"
     "And coffees? They all drink coffee. Coffee varies according to its genetics, soil, climate, method of roasting. I know this is so. I have seen your stores."
     "I have much greater variety aboard MacArthur. Yes and there is variety among coffee drinkers. Cultural differences. On an American-descended world like Tabletop they would not touch the oily brew preferred in New Paris, and they find the brew of Levant much too sweet and strong."
     "Have you heard of Jamaica Blue Mountain? It grows on Earth itself, on a large island; the island was never bombed, and the mutations were weeded out in the centuries following the collapse of the CoDominium. It cannot be bought. Navy ships carry it to the Imperial Palace on Sparta."
     "How does it taste?"
     "As I told you, it is reserved for the Royal—" Bury hesitated. "Very well. You know me that well. I would not pay such a price again, but I do not regret it."
     "The Navy misjudges your worth because you lack knowledge of wines." Bury's Motie did not seem to be smiling. Its bland expression was a Trader's: it matched Bury's own. "Quite foolish of them, of course. If they knew how much there was to learn about coffee—"
     "What are you suggesting?"
     "You have stores aboard. Teach them about coffee. Use your own stores for the purpose."
     "My stores would not last a week among the officers of a battle cruiser!"
     "You would show them a similarity between your culture and theirs. Or do you dislike that idea? No, Bury, I am not reading your mind. You dislike the Navy; you tend to exaggerate the differences between them and you. Perhaps they think the same way?"
     "I am not reading your mind." Bury suppressed the fury building in him—and at that moment he saw it. He knew why the alien kept repeating that phrase. It was to keep him off balance. In a trading situation.
     Bury smiled broadly. "A week's worth of good will. Well, I will try your suggestion when we are back in orbit and I dine aboard MacArthur. Allah knows they have much to learn about coffee. Perhaps I can even teach them how to use their percolators correctly."

     The night before, the dinner party conversation had somehow turned to coffee, and Bury had lost his usual bored detachment when he spoke at length on the subject. He had told them of the historic Mocha-Java blend still grown in places like Makassar, and the happy combination of pure Java and the grua distilled on Prince Samual's World. He knew the history of Jamaica Blue Mountain although, he'd said, not its taste. As dessert was ending he suggested a "coffee tasting" in the manner of a wine tasting party.
     It had been an excellent ending to an excellent dinner, with Bury and Nabil moving like conjurors among filter cones and boiling water and hand-lettered labels. All the guests were amused, and it made Bury a different man somehow; it had been hard to think of him as a connoisseur of any kind.
     "But the basic secret is to keep the equipment truly clean," he had said. "The bitter oils of yesterday's coffee will accumulate in the works, especially in percolators."

     It had ended with Bury's offer to inspect MacArthur's coffee-making facilities the next day. Cargill, who thought coffee as vital to a fighting ship as torpedoes, accepted happily. Now he watched as the bearded Trader examined the large percolator and gingerly drew a cup.
     "The machine is certainly well kept," he said. "Very well kept. Absolutely clean, and the brew is not reheated too often. For standard coffee, this is excellent, Commander."
     Puzzled, lack Cargill drew a cup and tasted it. "Why, that's better than the stuff the wardroom gets."
     There were sidelong glances among the cooks. Cargill noticed them. He noticed something else, too. He ran a finger along the side of the percolator and brought it away with a brown oil stain.
     Bury repeated the gesture, sniffed at his finger, and touched the tip of his tongue to it. Cargill tasted the oil in his hand. It was like all the bad coffee he had ever swallowed for fear of falling asleep on duty. He looked again at the percolator and stared at the spigot handle.
     "Miniatures," (alien beasties who improve machines but can destroy a starship) Cargill growled. "Take that damned thing apart."
     They emptied the machine and disassembled it—as far as it would go. Parts made to unscrew were now a fused unit. But the secret of the magic percolator seemed to be selective permeability in the metal shell. It would pass the older oils.
     "My company would like to purchase that secret from the Navy," said Bury.
     "We'd like to have it to sell. OK, Ziffren, how long has this been going on?"

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1974)

Space Booze

RocketCat sez

I've got news for all you teetotalers out there. Agriculture may have brought the rise of civilization, but archaeologists have found evidence that making beer pre-dated making barley bread by three thousand freaking years! Agriculture was not invented so people could have food, it was so people could have beer.

We've been enjoying booze for thirteen-thousand years, we ain't gonna stop any time soon.

Yeah, since then we've invented an alarming number of controlled substances, but as long as they stay controlled they will be hard to come by in rocketpunk outer space. It's gonna be real hard to make a meth lab in a spaceship without anybody noticing. Plus all the added fun if it explodes, emits toxic fumes into the limited atmosphere, or sets the ship on fire.

But as long as you can make crude hooch by simply leaving a bottle of apple juice on the radiator, alcohol will be part of space culture. It is just too easy to make. And any fool can make a moonshine still that uses vacuum instead of heat. Especially since there is an infinite supply of vacuum, right outside the hab module. The interplanetary internet will have lots of easy-to-follow tutorials.

Hopefully any idiots who venture into dangerous areas while plastered will merely cop a Darwin Award for themselves without taking along any innocent bystanders. If they just manage to kill or seriously injure others while remaining unscathed, I'm sure the surviving crew will be willing to give Darwin a hand. The survivors will just tell the first officer that it was a tragic airlock accident.

While most illegal drugs and other controlled substances are rather difficult to manufacture in the space environment, good old alcohol is relatively easy. After all, convicts manage to make Pruno in prison; even with limited access to raw materials, workspace, and privacy from prison guards.

In most cases, the actual production of alcohol from sugar is done by yeast cultures. These cultures are almost impossible for the authorities to keep out of the hands of illegal brewer-masters of contraband alcoholic beverages. In the case of making wine, the yeast can be conveniently found already living on the grape skins.

And if the CELSS is using yeast to make single-cell protein, there is no way to prevent moonshiners from obtaining a supply. In 2015 the Australian government was considering making the national staple food Vegemite a controlled substance (inspiring howls of outrage). Apparently home-brewers in remote areas were purchasing Vegemite in bulk and using it to make moonshine. After all, the main ingredient of Vegemite is leftover brewers' yeast extract (not baker's yeast, brewers' yeast). In Australia there has already been a ban on Vegemite in prisons since the 1990's for the same reason. Controlling it outside of prison is going to be an uphill battle.

Note that when traveling, if the bacterial content of the local water is questionable, it is much safer to drink the local beer instead of the water. Use beer to brush your teeth as well. An ancient Egyptian tomb inscription boasted about the dear departed's generosity by saying "I gave bread to the hungry and beer to the thirsty".

Some anthropologists have a theory that early man invented agriculture not to increase the supply of food, but to increase the supply of beer.

Note that through thousands of years of recorded history the brewing of beer was the domain of women (see "Alewife"). It wasn't until relatively recently that it became a male dominated profession.

Alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream slowly in the stomach, but the rate can be increased if the beverage is carbonated. This is why strong people who are apparently unaffected by a shot of whisky will sometimes start to giggle if they drink bubbly champagne (carbonated wine). Beer is carbonated, but it is so weak it needs all the help it can get. Champagne has more of a kick than non-carbonated wine. And a cocktail that includes some sort of carbonated mixer is most potent of all.

Keep in mind the drawback of carbonated beverages in free fall. You see, you cannot burp in space, not just burp gas at any rate. Here on Terra the gravity allows the gas to separate from the solids and liquids, so the burp contains only gas. But with no gravity, there is no separation, so a burp is more like projectile vomiting. Some astronauts called the "Bomit". This is bad enough, but it gets worse. Since the gas cannot exit the mouth via a burp, it has to find another way out…

Some old SF novels call space hooch "rocket juice", as a tribute to the torpedo juice from WW2. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk liked his Saurian Brandy, and McCoy was fond of Romulan ale. And of course Scotty is partial to scotch, even mixed with theragen.

Other noteable alcoholic beverages from science fiction include Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, Ambrosa (yeah, this is only 100 yahrens old, they don't give us the good stuff), and Klingon Bloodwine.

It is also possible to have an alcoholic beverage as the focus of a science fiction story. I highly recommend Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy by Catherynne M. Valente

Drunken Astronaut

Needless to say, becoming drunk in an inherently dangerous environment such as deep space is a quick way to get yourself killed. In the US the legal drunk driving limit is 0.08% Blood Alcohol Content (other nations have different standards). A general rule is that one standardized "drink" = one hour = no exceptions (that is, if you had three drinks, wait three hours before driving). For private airplane pilots, the general rule is Eight Hours Bottle To Throttle.

In the U.S. (wet) Navy, drinking alcohol is not allowed while aboard a ship (since the passage of General Order No. 99 in 1914), and off ship it is forbidden if the person is on duty or under-aged. In the U.K., which has a tradition of a daily rum-ration for sailors, crew is limited to consume no more than 35mg of alcohol per 100ml when they are on safety-critical duty (same as the U.K. drink-drive limit). For U.K. naval crew handling weapons the limit is 9mg per 100ml. The U.K. Armed Forces Act of 2011 prohibited the consumption of more than five units of alcohol 24 hours before duty and no alcohol was to be consumed in the 10 hours before duty.

In Jerry Pournelle's Falkenberg's Legion series of science fiction novels the CoDominium navy and marines have no regulations against drinking alcohol, even on duty. But there are severe penalties for rendering oneself unfit for duty (penalties up to execution by firing squad). When deployed, CoDominium marines were commonly given a daily wine ration of half a liter per person.


A "wine" is an alcoholic beverage produced by yeast converting the sugar in fruit juice into ethanol. At some point the ethanol level rises high enough to kill off the yeast, halting production. This limits the proof of wines, usually 9%–16% alcohol by volume (ABV) or 18—32 proof.

A fortified wine is a wine with the alcohol content increased by adding some distilled spirits (generally brandy, which is distilled wine). If the brandy is added before the wine fermentation is completed the resulting fortified wine will be sweet. This is because the brandy kills off the yeast before all the sugar is consumed. Fortified wines can be up to 20% ABV (40 proof).

Some anthropologists have a theory that wine was discovered by some cave-man who took a drink out of a puddle full of rotting fruit.


A "beer" is an alcoholic beverage produced from grain, usually barley or wheat. First the grain is "malted": germinated in hot water, then dried. The malting process creates enzymes which can convert starch into sugar.

The malt is mixed with hot water to create what brewers call "wort" but we can call "yeast food." This allows the enzymes to convert the starch in the grains (which yeast cannot eat) into sugar (which yeast will merrily convert into alcohol). See "saccharification of starch".

After about two hours the malt enzymes has converted most of the starch into sugar, and the wort is boiled to get rid of some of the water. After the wort is cooled, it is put in a fermenter along with hungry yeast. The yeast put on their bibs, whip out their knives and forks, and start gobbling sugar while excreting ethanol. Yes, beer is yeast pee. As if that will stop you from drinking it. Beer is generally 2%—12% ABV (4—24 proof).

A "malt liquor" is a beer made by adding sugar, corn, or other adjuncts to the wort in order to increase the alcohol content (above 6% or 12 proof). The extra yeast food means more alcohol.

Distilled Spirits

Since people have a tendency to be min-maxers, they looked for ways to increase the ethanol levels in their product. The tried and true method is to use a distillery rig, aka a moonshine "still". Such items have to heat up the source alcoholic beverage using fire, but in space the abundantly available vacuum can be used instead.

John Reiher notes that you do NOT want to use a vacuum still on beer or any other mash containing hops. One of the essential hop oils, Myrcene, has a boiling point of 63.9° C, which is under alcohol's 74° C. If you're not careful, you'll end up with very hoppy ethyl alcohol (i.e., incredibly bitter).

The basic idea is to remove water from the booze, thus increasing the relative percentage of alcohol. Conventional stills take advantage of the fact that water and alcohol have different volatility. That is, ethyl alcohol boils at a much lower temperature than water.

You boil the wine or mash at a temperature (78°C) which vaporizes the alcohol but very little of the water. Then you send the alcohol vapor through a condenser to turn it back into liquid. The alcohol drips out of the condenser into a jug. The condenser is that copper spiral tube (the "worm") you see on classic moonshine stills. Copper is used because it absorbs sulfur-based compounds which would otherwise make the product taste like skunk juice.

The products of a still are called distilled beverage, spirit, liquor, or hard liquor. Typical distilled spirits are about 40% ABV (80 proof), extreme stuff is 75% ABV (150 proof), Everclear grain alcohol is about 95% ABV (190 proof) which is close to being rocket fuel.

Whiskey and the like are made with pot stills where there is lots of water in the vapor sent to the condenser. After two distillations whiskey has a 70% ABV. Moonshine is made in moonshine stills, with very little water in the vapor. It has a 95% ABV, almost suitable for use in a Rocketdyne RS-88 rocket engine.

There are many kinds of distilled spirits. A "brandy" is distilled wine. A "whisky" is distilled from grain mash (like beer's barley or wheat) except whisky can also be made from corn or rye. You can think of whisky as distilled beer without being utterly wrong. A "vodka" is generally distilled from fermented potato mash, its main feature is the almost total lack of flavorings.

A more low-tech way to increase the alcohol level is to use freeze-distillation (aka "jacking"), such as in the manufacture of applejack. Alcohol freezes at a lower temperature than water (this is why you can use it as antifreeze). So in the American colonial period, apple juice from the harvest was allowed to ferment into a sort of fruit beer (less than 10% ABV). Then during the winter, the juice was placed outside to freeze, or at least the water would. The frozen lumps of water were removed, thus raising the alcoholic content of the remainder (up to 40% ABV). This method might be popular on newly colonized Terran planets with a low tech base. A drawback to freeze-distillation is that (unlike conventional distillation) the process concentrates dangerous poisons such as methanol and fusel oil.

Back in the 1920's during Prohibition in the US, amateurs made Bathtub gin. This lead to the creation of many gin cocktails, as the speakeasies desperately experimented with sugary flavors to mask the vile taste of the poorly made gin. Everything old is new again. Enlisted spacecraft crew will also be eager to steal fruit juices from the quartermaster to doctor the foul product of their vacuum stills.


Alistair Young

I suspect the initial form of space booze may end up being raw ethanol "diverted" from the industrial plant, cut with water, and a hint of flavoring added. Flavoring meaning anything from "something saved from a ration pack" through "a drop or two of essential oil smuggled up from Earth" to "a pinch of regolith" for the hard-core spacers.

Connoisseurs differ on whether regolith-spirits should be drunk "fresh" (sealed in vacuum while still outside, opened just before drinking) or "matured". (Some fancy types prefer to mature theirs in non-oxygen atmospheres, but the actual connoisseurs look at this the way a Scotsman does at someone who puts ginger ale in their whisky.)

Winchell Chung

So I instantly jumped to the conclusion that regolith rot-gut booze would taste like burnt gunpowder. Then I read this and realized it would only taste that way if it was less than seven minutes fresh from the vacuum outside.

Sevoris Doe

Seems like the bar would need some strong vapor filters, and a strict no-smoke rule. Vaccum-exposed alcohol is going to be boiling. You‘ll have condensate shoot out of every bottle opened, I suspect.

Winchell Chung

The more safety-ignorant spacers may start an ill-advised habit of holding a lit match or other fire-starter over the mouth of a new bottle as you open it. This will take care of the condensate and will only occasionally turn the interior of the habitat module into a deadly roaring inferno.

Alistair Young

I was thinking of sealing the pinch of regolith in vacuum, but hey, this version is more fun.

And by fun I mean dangerous.

Which considering we're already talking about drinking water-cut industrial ethanol with moon dust in it is sayin' something.


The ten-cent chit was at the bottom of a system that allowed you to buy a half-liter of straight ethyl (with your choice of flavoring) for five dollars. A squad of five people who skipped all of their desserts could buy about a liter a week, enough for a party but not enough to constitute a public health problem.

When Diana brought me this information, she also brought a bottle of Rudkoski’s Worst—literally; it was a flavor that just hadn’t worked. It came up through the chain of command with only a few centimeters missing.

Its taste was a ghastly combination of strawberry and caraway seed. With a perversity not uncommon to people who rarely drink, Diana loved it. I had some ice water brought up, and she got totally blasted within an hour. For myself, I made one drink and didn’t finish it.

From THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman (1975)

Beer is the oldest human-made alcoholic beverage that we know about. People living in the Yellow River Valley (now in China) were brewing some sort of fermented grain alcohol around 9,000 B.C.E., and the first barley beer was probably made in the Zagros Mountains of Iran around 3,400 B.C.E. We’ve been drinking it, in all its ethanol-and-carbonation-filled glory, for pretty much as long as we’ve been people. Some of our earliest writing is even about beer: the Hymn to Ninkasi, the Mesopotamian goddess of beer, was not only a praise song but also a way of remembering the standard beer recipe. It stands to reason that, if humans manage to get off of earth and head for the vast reaches of the galaxy, we’d want to have some beer to drink along the way.

Which brings us to a conundrum: beer requires many ingredients that really grow best on a nice, healthy, soil-and-oxygen-rich planet. Spacefarers—particularly those on a generation ship or a self-sufficient space station, i.e. people who live in space—are going to have an interesting and difficult time making something that we’d recognize as beer, in the quantities humans tend to like to consume beer in. I recently had the pleasure, if that’s the right word for it, of trying to solve this problem for Lsel Station, a self-sufficient completely non-planetary location in my upcoming novel A Memory Called Empire, which is why I am now duty-bound to bring you the answer to how to make beer with only what you can grow on a generation ship.

Ingredients necessary for beer: water, yeast, and a starch that the yeast can work upon.

Ingredients you want if you’d like your beer to taste vaguely like the beer we know: malted barley, hops.

Let’s start with yeast. The usual yeast is a brewer’s yeast, most often Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which happens—helpfully—to be the same species as the yeast that makes bread rise. Yeasts are little live creatures—single-celled microorganisms that love to eat sugars and transform them into carbon dioxide and alcohol. They need to be kept alive. A generation ship would have had to bring a yeast colony, perhaps in the form of a sourdough starter, and feed it regularly with starches and sugars, in order to be able to have a steady supply of small organisms to brew beer with. As the generation ship matured as an ecosystem of its own, it might develop airborne yeast strains that could be harvested—but it also might not, as the usual air-purifying filters of a spaceship would kill those off. So, to have beer (and bread), the dwellers on our hypothetical ship probably have to keep their yeasts going generation after generation, in some sort of Yeast Vat. Okay. Plausible.

Next: water. If our generation ship isn’t producing adequate water supplies, we have bigger problems than a lack of beer. Let’s assume there’s enough water.

Now the hard part: starches. This is hard because even a large generation ship—let alone a permanently parked mining-and-refinery city-in-space like my Lsel Station—doesn’t have that much square footage to grow anything. There also is, well. A lack of soil. Now, traditionally in science fiction generation ships and space stations solve this problem by growing their crops hydroponically—essentially, in water. (That is, when they don’t solve this problem by having everyone eat Food Cubes, or get perfect steak dinners out of the local replicator.) And it turns out that you can grow barley hydroponically…but only to the point of getting it to the ‘fodder’ stage, where it’s useful for feeding animals, but not so much for harvesting the seeds for malting and brewing. To get the barley that far, you need some soil, at least for any barley variety we currently have. (This is one of the reasons that beer prices will rise as climate change reduces the acreage available for barley to grow here on earth—we haven’t yet been able to optimize it for growth in greenhouse conditions.) So our generation ship won’t be growing barley for beer.

But!, you say. People brew beer with all sorts of grains! And this is true. Beers are made of sorghum, millet, and agave. Sometimes they are even made of rice. And rice, it turns out, is our solution here: rice is a brilliant hydroponic crop. However, rice grains lack the enzymes that naturally convert starches into sugars for the yeasts to feast upon. Traditionally, this is dealt with by introducing koji, a Japanese strain of Aspergillus mold, which provides the missing enzymes. It is possible that our enterprising generation-ship brewers could have brought along mold colonies—in fact it’s quite likely, as another major generation-ship crop is almost certainly funguses of all kinds. Another option is to add kelp to the rice mash—particularly a variety called ‘sugar kelp’, Saccharina latissima, which has plenty of the enzymes that convert its starches into sugars.

Even better, sugar kelp is a crop that helps keep hydroponic ecosystems healthy—it’s easy to grow, its byproducts stimulate other plant growth, and it even filters the hydroponic tanks.

So now we’ve got rice, kelp, yeast, and mold. How do we make this taste like beer? Hops. And, remarkably enough, hops do grow hydroponically. They’re a specialty crop, certainly, and our generation ship bioengineers are unlikely to devote an enormous amount of resources to growing it when they could be using that space for actual food… but it is possible to have occasional hop crops, as a luxury item.

And thus: space beer. It’ll be cloudy and not that alcoholic (from all the rice), it’ll be a luxury not a staple (because of the hops), and it will taste like the ocean if the ocean were fermented (because of the kelp). But it’s beer.

Probably. It’s beer enough.

     John Reiher commented:

     There is one more ingredient that’s needed to make beer or any other alcoholic beverage: Gravity.
     Yeast farts out CO2 in copious quantities and it’s a poison to the little beasties. Unless you have some way of creating gravity, you won’t get anything like booze. The yeast would have died in its own waste products. One solution would be a fermenter centrifuge, a barrel that rotates fast enough to allow the CO2 to rise and leave the wort as it ferments. You don’t have to do 1G, just enough acceleration to give the CO2 a chance to get away from the yeast.
     The rule of thumb is that if it has sugars in it, you can ferment it. What it tastes like is another thing altogether. Vacuum stills come to mind, as well as graphene water filters, though that has other problems. (The filter just removes water, not any of the other oils and stuff, making for a very nasty end product.)
     As for the necessary enzymes needed to break down the starches into something the yeast can eat, why not tinker with the yeast itself and add in the instructions for making said enzymes? Two birds, one stone.

     Sean Murphy commented:

     Even without hops, you could make ale and still end up with a beverage that has enough kick to make water safe to drink. Hops originally acted as a preservative, but interstellar space has both cold and radiation aplenty to deal with that issue.
     (I'm looking for a citation on irradiating beverages, I know produce and some foods are irradiated as a form of preservation, and available for retail sale)
     Question: If you are freeing up the sugars in the grain, why couldn't you take the ABV up higher using traditional methods and rice?
     I'd think you could deal with the Carbon Dioxide issue with a variation in pressure, or perhaps a membrane that would allow CO2 to pass through into a lower-pressure environment but would also deny water/beer due to (surface tension/the polar nature of the H2O molecule/??).
     Having beer be foamy in space is (presently) a non-starter, barring some form of gravity. But pulling the dissolved CO2 out so the yeast can live long enough to achieve the desired reaction should be doable.
     There are enzymes in human saliva that can crack some starches and break them down to sugars. [Sugar kelp does sound like the more appealing option, though it is one more thing to manage with the hydroponics.]
     See: Chicha "Traditional Method"

     Isaac Kuo commented:

     You don't need to spin the entire barrel to get spin gravity. It may be adequate to simply include a small internal fan to induce spin in the liquid. With a roughly cylindrical barrel, even a small fan can induce suitable bulk rotation in the fluid.
     With this spin, the CO2 will naturally bubble inward to the centerline.

     Dean Calahan commented:

     John Reiher, I have grown lots of yeast. The model organism for my Ph.D. thesis was yeast. I can assure you, CO2 is not toxic to yeast. Just the opposite. In fact, if you want it to produce alcohol, you want it to be in an atmosphere of CO2 so that it is growing anaerobically. If it's in an oxygen environment it is happy to eat its own alcohol.
     What you need, in terms of physical environment, is mixing to make sure the yeast cells are receiving lots of nutrients and actively metabolizing.

     John Reiher commented:

     Thanks Dean for the correction! I do know that a certain level of alcohol will start killing the yeast. Hmm, without gravity that might happen a lot quicker, but either spinning it like I said or agitating it like Isaac Kuo suggested would keep that from happening. But one thing spinning the fermenter will do is settle out the sediment. Otherwise you're going to have to filter the heck out of the beer.
     It sounds like the fan may be the counter indicated in this situation. I was thinking of a fermenter shaped like two cones attached at the base: <>
     You'd spin it and the sediment would settle in the pointy bit of it. If the sediment is fairly solid, then stopping the fermenter will cause the beer to form a ball in the center, which you can remove through suction.

     Dean Calahan commented:

     John Reiher: Yes, elevated alcohol is toxic to yeast and just about anything else. In fact, even slight amounts of alcohol inhibit the growth of most microbes. Yeast has evolved to be much more tolerant than most microbes, thus its strategy is to inhibit its neighbors by secreting alcohol while it proliferates by eating the sugar that its sickened neighbors also want. Once the sugar is gone it then eats back the alcohol if there is oxygen present.
     Centrifugation is probably a good thing to do at the final stage of brewing. A magnetically driven stirring bar or paddle would probably be fine for keeping the culture mixed, possibly with cleverly shaped vessels to make sure the mixing is complete. You would need an escape valve for the CO2 that comes off, perhaps a membrane, or perhaps the whole vessel is a gas-permeable membrane.


People can endure many discomforts in exchange for the thrill of living in space. The nausea of space sickness, fitful sleep without the familiar pressure of a bed, tasteless meals eaten from plastic bags — it's all fine as long as the novelty of being in space lasts.

But after a while, the blush of excitement inevitably fades, and astronauts will begin to long for the comforts of home. For example, the nose-tickling bubbles of a refreshing soft drink or a frothy beer after work — these simple pleasures that we take for granted on Earth could do wonders for morale among long-term space travelers.

Of all the carbonated beverages people enjoy drinking today, beer is the oldest and most familiar. Beer has likely been a part of society since human civilization first arose. Historians believe that the ancient Mesopotamians and Sumerians were brewing beer as early as 10,000 BC. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese brewed beer, as did pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas.

For the tradition of beer and its fizzy cousins to continue as people begin settling space, a few questions must first be answered.

Will fermentation work the same in weightlessness? What happens to carbonation when there's no buoyancy to bring the bubbles to the top? Can space beer form a proper head? Scientists who study the physics of gas-liquid mixtures would love to know!

Two separate space shuttle experiments tackled these questions. Both were engineered and mediated by BioServe Space Technologies, a NASA-sponsored Commercial Space Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. NASA's Space Product Development (SPD) program encourages the commercialization of space by industry through 17 such CSCs.

Kirsten Sterrett, recently a University of Colorado graduate student, first became interested in how beer would brew in space while working at the Coors Brewing Company. Having studied aerospace engineering as an undergraduate, she began to wonder: How would yeast that perform fermentation fare in orbital free fall? The answer would not only shed light on the possible makings of space-beer, but also provide valuable information to pharmaceutical companies with a keen interest in the biology of orbiting microbes.

When she returned to CU-Boulder for her master's work, she chose the topic for her thesis. Her experiments were sponsored by Coors and flown on the shuttle with the help of BioServe.

"I always said I wouldn't do an experiment that I couldn't eat or drink in the end," she jokes.

"Actually, after the experiment was all done, I gave (the space-beer) a little taste." The sample was only about 1 ml, which wasn't really enough to savor, she says, "but why throw something like that away?"

Along with her taste test, Sterrett performed a protein analysis on the beer and the yeast, measured the beer's specific gravity (the force exerted on it by gravity per unit volume), and "repitched" the yeast by brewing subsequent batches of beer with it. By all of these measures, the space-beer appeared to be essentially the same as beer brewed on Earth.

The behavior of the yeast was somewhat puzzling, though. The total cell count in space-borne samples was lower that of "control" samples brewed on the ground, and the percentage of live cells was also lower. One of the yeast's proteins also existed in greater amounts in the space-brew.

Sterrett's experiment couldn't suggest reasons for these changes, but the overly abundant protein bears some resemblance to a general stress protein.

The low cell count was particularly surprising, says Sterrett. In space, yeast cells remain evenly dispersed within the "wort" — a brewers' term for the pre-fermentation mixture of water, barley, hops, and yeast. Ideally, this would give the yeast cells better access to nutrients in the wort compared to similar mixtures on Earth, where the weight of the cells causes them to pile at the bottom one on top of the other.

"It's the same question that we're asking on the pharmaceutical side," says Louis Stodieck, director of BioServe. "We know from subsequent space experiments sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute that the efficiency of producing fermentation products increases [in a weightless environment], in fact quite significantly." Some of those experiments produced as much as three times the fermentation products as control samples on the ground.

Space research with microbe fermentation might help improve this process.

"What we're trying to do now is to find the specific mechanism of that (increased fermentation efficiency in space), and then we can ask whether we can modify the fermentation process on Earth to take advantage of that — or is it possible that we could genetically engineer an organism to mimic what it does in space," Stodieck says.

A more efficient fermentation process, even by a small percentage, could potentially save millions of dollars in production costs.

For beer, of course, increased fermentation efficiency means a more alcoholic brew — not necessarily good news for crew members who need to remain sober in the dangerous environment of space. The alcohol content of space-brews would need to be adjusted accordingly and, of course, consumed in moderation.

But for alcohol content to even matter, future space residents will first have to get the beer into a drinking container — a trickier feat than it may seem.

"How do you dispense a beverage and keep the carbonation in solution until the person is ready to drink?" Stodieck asks. "That's the challenge." Changes in temperature and pressure, or even physical agitation of the beverage as it's dispensed, can cause carbonation to come out of solution prematurely. Because bubbles don't rise in free-fall the result can be a foamy mass.

This problem was addressed by experiments flown on the shuttle by The Coca-Cola Company, again with the help of BioServe. "They (The Coca-Cola Company) have a lot of technology that they develop for future ways of providing their drinks anywhere and everywhere," Stodieck notes. And indeed, their dispensing device flown on the shuttle managed to serve a drinkable cola. It controlled the temperature of the beverage during mixing and dispensing with computer accuracy, and minimized agitation.

Similar technology should prove effective for carbonated space beers. Unfortunately it doesn't lend itself to the traditional frosty glass mug! Instead, beverages are dispensed into a special bottle (pictured above) that screws onto the dispenser. The bottle itself, which contains a collapsible bag, is internally pressurized. The pressure around the bag is slowly released as the beverage enters, maintaining the drink under constant pressure and producing a palatable soda or beer.

So maybe it's not exactly like having a beer on Earth, but astronauts might nevertheless welcome a sip from the strange contraption. Bubbly, frothing, and ticklish — it's a welcome taste of home.

From SUDS IN SPACE by (2001)

Take care, young ladies, and value your wine.
Be watchful of young men in their velvet prime.
Deeply they'll swallow from your finest kegs,
Then swiftly be gone, leaving bitter dregs.
Ahh-ah-ah-ah, bitter dregs.

Your time hold precious, for youth is your gold
Your beauty, like silver, will tarnish when old
Memories and dreams shall comfort you not
When the flow of your sweetness is gone and forgot
Ahh-ah-ah-ah, gone and forgot

With smiling words and tender touch,
Man offers little and asks for so much.
He loves in the breathless excitement of night,
Then leaves with your treasure in cold morning light.
Ahh-ah-ah-ah, in cold morning light.

From PLATO'S STEPCHILDREN by Leonard Nimoy (1968)

(ed note: this is a real news article)

A distillery that sent unmatured malt whisky into space to study the effect of near-zero gravity on flavour has described its findings as "groundbreaking".

Ardbeg Distillery, on Islay, sent a vial to the International Space Station in a cargo spacecraft in October 2011.

Another vial of the same whisky was kept at the distillery for comparison.

The distillery said its space samples were "noticeably different" in terms of aroma and taste.

The company had set up the experiment to investigate how micro-gravity would affect the behaviour of terpenes, the building blocks of flavour for many foods and wines as well as whisky spirits.

It has now identified "major differences" in its analysis of the two sets of samples.

Ardbeg tasting notes from experiment:

Earth sample: "The sample had a woody aroma, reminiscent of an aged Ardbeg style, with hints of cedar, sweet smoke and aged balsamic vinegar, as well as raisins, treacle toffee, vanilla and burnt oranges.

"On the palate, its woody, balsamic flavours shone through, along with a distant fruitiness, some charcoal and antiseptic notes, leading to a long, lingering aftertaste, with flavours of gentle smoke, tar and creamy fudge."

Space sample: "Its intense aroma had hints of antiseptic smoke, rubber and smoked fish, along with a curious, perfumed note, like violet or cassis, and powerful woody tones, leading to a meaty aroma.

"The taste was very focused, with smoked fruits such as prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries, earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham. The aftertaste is intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke."

Ardbeg said the maturation experiment paved the way for "unprecedented flavour profiles".

Dr Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg's director of distilling and whisky creation, said: "The space samples were noticeably different.

"When I nosed and tasted the space samples, it became clear that much more of Ardbeg's smoky, phenolic character shone through - to reveal a different set of smoky flavours which I have not encountered here on earth before."


Last week, Anheuser-Busch announced a plan to sponsor research aboard the International Space Station to learn how to someday serve beer to astronauts on Mars. This is a dumb plan—not because beer is bad, or because astronauts responsible for settling the red planet won't deserve a brewski at the end of a sol. It's just, why beer?

Distilled spirits—liquor—has always been a better fuel for exploration, or at least for explorers. Think English Navy grog: The higher alcohol content means it doesn't spoil, and it's compact. But because even the most generous launch manifest won't stock enough booze for years-long settlement missions, astronauts are eventually going to have make everything from scratch. Liquor comes from ingredients that astronauts have already grown in space. Fermenting and distilling the stuff in the cramped, zero-gravity, one-bad-chemical-reaction-and-oh-dear-god-you've-blown-a-hole-in-the-hull conditions on board a spacecraft would be tricky, sure. But if we can put a person on the Moon, well....

Raw material

You probably know that potatoes become vodka, agave becomes tequila, and corn becomes moonshine, and that all of the above eventually become bad decisions. Astronauts making space booze will have to grow their own raw material, which will probably be less dependent on what they prefer to drink and more a matter of how easy the plant is to grow—and how many plants they need to harvest to get enough surplus to turn into booze.

"The whole liquor-making process is about reduction in volume," says Kris Berglund, chemical engineer at Michigan State University who is obsessed with liquor-making, and also owns his own corn farm that he uses to make his own whiskey. "If I wanted to make a gallon of alcohol, it's going to take me something like 13 pounds of starch. Corn is 60 percent starch, and there's 56 pounds in a bushel of corn...." Moral of that back of the napkin exercise: Berglund says it would probably take about 1/300th of an acre of corn to make a gallon of whiskey. That's about the surface area of a mid-sized American car, a big ask aboard a space ship or Martian colony. "Rice might be better, in terms of both the amount of carbohydrates you make per unit of area, and the fact that you can sustain it in an aquaculture rather than trying to maintain soil," Berglund says. Soju it is. Or maybe the crew has less discerning tastes. In that case, they can make their mash from any starchy, veggie, or fruity food scraps.

Before the Marshiners can ferment, they'll need to supplement their mash with sugar—yeast needs the sweetness in order to excrete alcohol. On Earth, liquor-makers create the right kind of sugars in a sticky, messy, time-intensive process called malting, where they let the plant matter sit in warm water until it sprouts. Berglund suggests the astronauts take advantage of recent innovations by places like White Labs, which have developed special yeasts that excrete sugary enzymes all on their own.


After harvest, the astro-farmers will have to render the starchy parts of the plant matter into a mush and douse that with yeasts. Fermentation is the same no matter if you're making beer, wine, 18-year scotch, or Mad Dog 20/20: Yeasts eat the plant's sugar and excrete ethyl alcohol. This can be messy, and typically requires a lot of space—not as much as growing the plants did, but probably enough to throw off the feng shui in the kitchen module.

But this hypothetical space mission is already a committed little moonshinery, so the real problem will be keeping the yeasts alive and happily churning out alcohol in microgravity. Not that the yeast themselves would likely be affected by gravity one way or the other—they are single-celled organisms, and probably barely notice the subtle tug on Earth. Rather, gravity governs the conditions of the the sloppy medium in which the yeasts live. "If there is too little pressure on the outside of the yeasts, they will just blow up," says Berglund. The solution here is probably something mechanical, like a motor that spins the fermenter just enough to create centripetal force. Luckily that kind of machinery already exists in breweries here on Earth.


A still requires everything you do not want on a spaceship—fire, high pressure, steam, chemical fumes—and the one thing you can't have without breaking the laws of physics: gravity. "It would be quite hard, as the whole principle of the thing revolves around the fact that the alcoholic vapor goes up and the liquid phase remains down," says Matthew Pauley, a distilling researcher at the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling in Edinburgh.

The first problem is somatic: liquids in low gravity form spheres. Train your ball of fermented plant mush to behave inside a still is just the beginning. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so in typical distillation, liquor makers heat the still so the alcohol boils but water stays mostly liquid. The alcohol rises up a column as a boozy vapor, and the distiller uses a condenser to cool the boozy steam back into a liquid, which gets shunted over to a connected vessel called an alembic. "As I understand it, and I by no means an expert in the field of zero gravity fluid dynamics, it appears that the usual model of convection currents and nucleating boiling that we know and love on Earth is no longer valid."

This doesn't mean they scrap the whole operation. Distilling is just one way to make liquor. "If you're willing to think outside the box, you can make spirits with no distillation at all," says Berglund. By box, he means spaceship. Remember when Ripley opens the cargo bay doors in Aliens and relies on the vacuum of space to suck the queen into inky, eternal night? That happened because of the pressure differential between spaceship and space. The same principle could be used to perform something of a reverse osmosis on an aspirant spirit. Put the pre-separated liquid in a vessel on a pressurized spacecraft module, and an empty vessel in a non-pressurized adjacent module, with a membrane between the two. Then let equilibrium take care of the rest. Best of all, without all the heat and fumes from the distiller, the most dangerous part of the alcohol process would be what happens when you drink too much. In other words, exactly the way things are on Earth.


(ed note: this is a real news article)

Members of Professor Sir Andre Geim's group at the University of Manchester, where graphene was first identified, were investigating the permiability of a closely related material called graphene oxide. This is graphene which has been reacted with a strong oxidising agent, making it more soluble and easier to deal with.

They created membranes made up of small pieces of graphene oxide which pile up like bricks to form an interlocked structure, and then tested how gas-proof they were by using the film as a lid for a container full of various gases.

They found that despite being 500 times thinner than a human hair, it completely stopped Hydrogen, Nitrogen and Argon from escaping, to the limits of their measurements. It even stopped Helium which, being a tiny single atom will escape from party balloons very quickly, and can even diffuse out through a millimetre of glass.

They then tried various liquids, and found similar behaviour for ethanol, hexane, acetone, decane and propanol vapour, but when they tried normal water it behaved as if the membrane wasn't there, escaping at least a hundred thousand times faster than any of the other materials. They think the water is forming a layer one molecule thick between the layers of graphene, blocking the route for everything else, but if it dries out, this gap shrinks and seals up.

To make use of this behaviour they put some vodka in the container, and left it for a few days. Normally ethanol evaporates faster than water so vodka gets weaker over time, but with their membrane, which blocked the ethanol, the vodka got stronger and stronger.

This is extremely interesting behaviour, as seperating water from other solvents is a huge part of many chemical processes. This is normally done by distillation, which takes a large amount of energy, and the process has to be repeated many times. Ethanol cannot be concentrated to more than 96% without involving poisonous solvents to remove the water, so this material has a huge potential.

(ed note: you'll have to think up a slang name for this new form of contraband. "Still-rag", "'Shine-cloth", etc. John Reiher suggests that a person running a graphene still should be called a "wiper")


(ed note: Mr. Reiher had some observation about using graphene cloth to distill alcohol)

One side effect of this tech is booze. Because the graphene filters only let water pass through, a case of cheap 3.2% ABV beer can be "improved" to something nigh undrinkable. Undrinkable because the graphene filtration doesn't "distill" the beer, it concentrates it.

So if you take a highly hopped beer and graphene it, it becomes impossible to drink. Spacer IPA is usually around 32% alcohol and has a IBU of 240. Most folks can't drink that. Most people. There are few brave souls who will try a shot or two.

But there is a fix for that. Synsepalum Dulcificum, AKA, the Miracle Berry. Eating a berry before quaffing some Spacer IPA results in the sweetest brew you ever drank. Some folks get addicted to that.

Jacking, that's what I was thinking of. I had it happen to me once while I was living in Colorado Springs. It got cold enough that it froze the beer we had left out on the back porch nearly solid. I cracked one open and out poured this syrupy liquid. It was nasty. It was also Miller, but that's another issue.

I'd imagine all the wines, spirits, and various grain beverages would find a new life at the hands of a "wiper", AKA, the guy who runs a graphene "still".

From John Reiher in a Google+ thread (2015)

(ed note: "bactry" means "bacteria factory". The bactries of chemical companies refine volatile asteroid-liquor into useful chemicals with the aid of genetically engineered bacteria.)

To: the Idiot Riggers in Habitation Module 4V and Their Damn-Fool Party Friends
Re: Your Still

Yes, I know about your still. No, I’m not going to shut you down, because if you don’t have the still I know about, you’ll just set up one l don’t know about. Or start sipping the reactor coolant.

But here are a few points you might not think of. The Flight Commander will have plenty more, I’m sure.

First, I have tested your first batch, and it seems at least one of you knows ‘shine from bactry juice, ‘cause there’s not enough methanol in it to blind you. If you’ve any damn sense at all, you’ll bring me a tester from every batch.

Second, I’m not vouching for anything else that might be in there.

Third, anyone who can’t drink rationally and hold it should come by sickbay at 1600 to hear in great and graphic detail just how fun it is to choke to death on your own aspirated free-falling fluids. There will be pictures. And should you end up in my care from anything hooch-related, you’ll get the long version, so save yourself some pain.

Fourth, my surgical oxygen does not exist to help you sober up. Anyone I catch using it for that purpose will wish they were just thrown out the airlock, especially if you find yourself needing anesthesia in the remains of your tour.

Fifth, we don’t stock enough analgesics aboard to go handing then out as hangover cures. If you can’t live with it, stick your head outside and breathe deep.

Sixth, no vomiting inside the airlock. Commander Steamweaver controls the air you breathe. That should be all the incentive you need to not get your crap in her filters.

Seventh, no vomiting outside the airlock, either. I’m running low on death certificates.

Surgeon Lieutenant Oricalcios

From ORBITSHINE by Alistair Young (2014)

     Four riggers showed up at the med module. Rather, two riggers towed two others. Even the two who could move didn't look very well. In spite of weightlessness, they managed to stagger.
     "Sweetie, we don't feel so damned good," one told Angela as they entered the module. They rebounded from the edge of the hatch as they did so. "Kin ya give us somethin' to make us feel better? Ol' Jim here—and Al, too—passed out on us. And I'm about to pass out, if I don't heave first."
     Angela managed to get a plastic bag to the man before he threw up. But the other conscious man beat her to it.
     Fred was the second team member on the scene. He didn't pay any attention to the conscious men, but started checking one of the unconscious ones. "Angela, he's comatose—cyanotic or acidotic. I can't tell without a blood check. Same with the other one."
     "They've all been drinking," Angela noted.
     "You betcha! Hell of a party!" one of the conscious ones muttered thickly.
     "Alcohol poisoning?" Angela ventured to guess.
     "Nope," Fred put in. "I'll bet they got a load of orbital moonshine, and what we're seeing are the effects of methanol."
     "Dr. Noels!" Angela called out, but Tom was already out of his quarters and into the med module, having been attracted by the commotion. "Possible methyl alcohol poisoning!" she told him as he came up to her.

     Tom took one look and acted fast. "Get them down. Angela, Fred, start positive-displacement IVs with sodium bicarbonate on the two who've passed out! Dave, shag it out here stat! You, too, Stan!
     "I need blood analysis as fast as you can get it," Tom told his med tech. "Blood-alcohol level, along with pH and electrolyte balance. Accuracy second to speed, because if it's methanol we haven't got much time. Angela, Fred, Stan, we treat for methanol poisoning first! If it's something else, it'll be less serious."
     They strapped all four into med module treatment units and started the IVs.
     "This guy's going fast," Stan remarked. "Acts like traumatic shock, Doc. Hypotension. BP down to seventy over forty!"
     "Gastric lavage!" Tom snapped. "Get it started on the others, too. Whatever is in there, pump it out of them!" He turned to his conscious patient. "Any headache? Leg cramps?"
     "Uh . . . naw—but my gut hurts somethin' terrible!" And he passed out.
     "What were you drinking?" Tom asked the remaining conscious man. "Tell me fast! It could save your life!"
     "Aw, we was just havin' a li'l party with some stuff Al made from raisins and breakfast cereals we took from the cafeteria. Pretty good moonshine, too . . ."
     "It could be anything," Stan pointed out.

     Tom didn't say a word. He was thinking. He ran through the symptoms of the various alcohol poisonings. He knew he was doing the right thing when it came to wood alcohol ingestion: sodium bicarb IV with gastric lavage. He wouldn't know whether or not to try rebalancing electrolytes until he got the blood work-ups from Dave, who had drawn his samples and was working rapidly in the med lab section of the module.
     Dizziness. Discoordination. Gastroenteritis. Hypotension. But no cramps. Obviously no convulsions . . . yet. The unconscious ones were in a stupor with falling blood pressure, but the condition didn't add up to methanol poisoning.
     Gastric lavage produced a brownish liquid smelling of alcohol.
     "See what Dave can do with it," Tom told Angela.
     The initial blood report from the comatose man showed pH in the normal range but various departures from normal in electrolytes. There was also evidence of hypoglycemia.
     "All four of them can't be diabetic!" Tom muttered to himself as he looked over the scribbled note from Dave. "They'd never have gotten past the medical check at JSP! What the hell is it? I've never seen this before. Angela, have you?"
     "No. Botulism, perhaps?"
     "Not from a liquid as loaded with ethanol as their drink was," Tom observed. "Well, this is what I've got GALEN for!"

     He pushed off to the med module treatment-bay terminal and got on line. He keyed in the symptoms and requested analysis and most probable diagnosis. The computer worked it over on Earth and shot back the sentence that flashed across the display screen: INCOMPLETE SYMPTOMATIC REPORT. CHECK FOR RETINAL INJURY AND REPORT FINDINGS.
     Tom's first peek through the ophthalmoscope into the eyes of the man still semiconscious revealed normal eye grounds. He typed into GALEN: NO RETINAL INJURY. EYE GROUNDS NORMAL.

     "Isoamyl alcohol. Fusel oil" Tom said, snapping his fingers.
     "I know these guys," Fred added. "Hard drinkers. All of them. Probably tried to smuggle hooch up but got caught. And the limited ration that Pratt permits everyone every week wasn't enough for these boozers. So old Al here—he's from Georgia—I'll bet he figured he'd make himself some moonshine instead. Ten to one, they've got a vacuum still rigged somewhere outside a convenient lock."

     Oh, don't worry; we saved them. They were full of fusel oil. Why don't you put some bread in the cafeteria so anybody else who tries this will at least be able to filter it through a loaf of bread first? Bread won't take out all the fusel oil, but it'll probably keep the concentration below the lethal limit."

From SPACE DOCTOR by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) 1981

(ed note: the topic is colonists on a Terran like planet being able to grow edible crops or otherwise find food)


"Assuming the alternative biochemistry uses a different set, some of the 'new' ones might be interchangeable with the ones in the earth biochemistry set and those would count as nutrition. "

Not likely. The metabolism of amino acids is pretty dang specific. Breaking peptide bonds is one thing- simple chemistry. Actually utilizing the amino acids requires all sorts of enzymes, which tend to be extremely specific. Transfer RNA aminoacylation alone is probably an insurmountable barrier to building proteins with foreign amino acids.

Maybe deamination to use the nitrogen and carbon skeletons is possible. I'd have to check the books. But I doubt it. The probability of aliens using a foreign aa just similar enough to ours to screw up our aa metabolism is much higher.


Without looking up details, I think what Zachary says is correct to the extent that humans are concerned. That being said, if you had a foreign stock of amino acids (for whatever reason), you could probably get bacteria to use it as a food source eventually, and get some usable product out of it that way.

If history is any indication, booze of some kind will be the first consumable product made from a foreign food source. The nutritional value, of course, depends on if the microbe in question develops proteins to incorporate the new amino acids (no good for you) or it develops proteins to break down the new amino acids into something familiar (good for you).


If history is any indication, booze of some kind will be the first consumable product made from a foreign food source.

Does this blog get great comments, or what?

This seems entirely likely! I have only the vaguest knowledge of booze production, only that it starts with fermentation of sugars into good old ethanol. I have no idea what sugars are, but ethanol is pretty basic stuff.


-Sugars are basically 5 or 6 ethanols linked together by the carbons in a circle (roughly).
-Starches are a whole bunch of sugars linked together in one way.
-Cellulose is a whole bunch of sugars linked together in a different way.

This is why, on Earth, one can change pretty much any plant into some kind of alcohol or another.


I suppose the prospects for Rigellian green fuming brandy all depend on whether the local life builds its equivalent structures out of ethanol or methanol ...

(ed note: "fuming Rigellian wine" is from James Blish's Cities In Flight)


That being said, if you had a foreign stock of amino acids (for whatever reason), you could probably get bacteria to use it as a food source eventually, and get some usable product out of it that way.

Excellent point. If bacteria can figure out how to eat petroleum, random amino acids should be no problem at all. And the nice thing is, just using them as a carbon source is probably a lot easier than actually incorporating them into proteins.

Developing mutant bacteria strains to utilize common organic molecules would probably be the first step in terraforming a world with alien organic life. If you want to push it, we could engineer our own gastrointestinal symbiotes to digest alien molecules, a la termites.

-Sugars are basically 5 or 6 ethanols linked together by the carbons in a circle (roughly).
-Starches are a whole bunch of sugars linked together in one way.
-Cellulose is a whole bunch of sugars linked together in a different way.

This is why, on Earth, one can change pretty much any plant into some kind of alcohol or another.

Accurate, except for the first part. You could synthesize a sugar that way I suppose, but it would be a weird, overgrown sugar with no friends. The connection between simple sugars and ethanol is pyruvate. Pyruvate just so happens to be a breakdown product of many amino acids...all you need is an enterprising settler with a DIY gene tweaking kit, and xenomorphic rotgut, here we come!


The colonists might not be able to eat the food, but at least they could drown their sorrows!

From GARDEN WORLDS, PARK WORLDS comment section (2009)
Jayne: Mmm. They call it Mudder's Milk ("mudders" are the semi-enslaved manual laborers the corporations use to terraform planets). All the protein, vitamins and carbs of your grandma's best turkey dinner, plus fifteen percent alcohol.
Wash: It's horrific!
Simon: Worked for the Egyptians.
Jayne: What's that?
Simon: The ancient Egyptians, back on Earth-That-Was. It's not so different from the ancestral form of beer they fed to the slaves who built their pyramids. Liquid bread. Kept them from starving, and knocked them out at night, so they wouldn't be inclined to insurrection.
Kaylee: Wow, Simon. That's so... so historical.
From TV series Firefly episode JAYNESTOWN (2002)

We fired four of them for being drunk on the job; Tiny had to break one stiff's arm before he would stay fired. What worried us was where did they get it? Turned out a ship fitter had rigged a heatless still, using the vacuum around us. He was making vodka from potatoes swiped from the commissary. I hated to let him go, but he was too smart.

From DELILAH AND THE SPACE-RIGGER by Robert Heinlein (1949)

After about a week of one gee, Private Rudkoski (the cook's assistant) had a still, producing some eight liters a day of 95 percent ethyl alcohol. I didn't want to stop him — life was cheerless enough; I didn't mind as long as people showed up for duty sober — but I was damned curious both how he managed to divert the raw materials out of our sealed-tight ecology, and how the people paid for their booze. So I used the chain of command in reverse, asking Alsever to find out. She asked Jarvil, who asked Carreras, who sat down with Orban, the cook. Turned out that Sergeant Orban had set the whole thing up, letting Rudkoski do the dirty work, and was aching to brag about it to a trustworthy person.

If I had ever taken meals with the enlisted men and women, I might have figured out that something odd was going on. But the scheme didn't extend up to officers' country.

Through Rudkoski, Orban had jury rigged a ship-wide economy based on alcohol. It went like this:

Each meal was prepared with one very sugary dessert — jelly, custard or flan — which you were free to eat if you could stand the cloying taste. But if it was still on your tray when you presented it at the recycling window, Rudkoski would give you a ten-cent chit and scrape the sugary stuff into a fermentation vat. He had two twenty-liter vats, one "working" while the other was being filled.

The ten-cent chit was at the bottom of a system that allowed you to buy a half-liter of straight ethyl (with your choice of flavoring) for five dollars. A squad of five people who skipped all of their desserts could buy about a liter a week, enough for a party but not enough to constitute a public health problem.

From THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman (1975)

(ed note: In New Homestead, Florida, lives retired mathematician John Taylor. His friend is Lester Gilbert, who is a moonshiner. John has a standing order with Lester for one mason jar of corn whiskey every week.

One fine day Lester tells John that last night he saw a flying saucer, with some huge alien with big claws prowling around. John just thinks Lester is drunk, until John walks to his house.)

      So his mind was a couple of hundred million miles away when he walked up the path to his door and saw that it was slightly ajar.
     First it startled him, and then he remembered that it was Lester’s delivery day. He always left the place unlocked (there were ridge-runners but they weren’t interested in old books), and the moonshiner probably just left his wares inside.
     He checked his watch as he walked through the door: it was not quite three. Funny. Lester was usually late.
     No Mason jar in sight. And from his library, a snuffling noise.

     The year before, some kind of animal—the sheriff had said it was probably a bear—had gotten into his house and made a shambles of it. He eased open the end-table drawer and took out the Walther P-38 he had taken from a dead German officer, half a century before. And as he edged toward the library, the thought occurred to him that the 50-year-old ammunition might not fire.
     It was about the size of a bear, a big bear.
     Its skin was pebbly gray, with tufts of bristle. It had two arms, two legs, and a stiff tail to balance back on.
     The tail had a serrated edge on top, that looked razor sharp. The feet and hands terminated in pointed black claws. The head was vaguely saurian; too many teeth and too large.

     As he watched, the creature tore a page out of Fadeeva’s Computational Methods ofLinear Algebra, stuffed it in his mouth and chewed. Spat it out. Turned to see John standing at the door.
     It’s probably safe to say that any other resident of New Homestead, faced with this situation, would either have started blazing away at the apparition, or would have fainted. But John Taylor Taylor was nothing if not a cool and rational man, and had besides suffered a lifelong addiction to fantastic literature. So he measured what was left of his life against the possibility that this fearsome monster might be intelligent and humane.
     He laid the gun on a writing desk and presented empty hands to the creature, palms out.

     The thing regarded him for a minute. It opened its mouth, teeth beyond counting, and closed it. Translucent eyelids nictated up over huge yellow eyes, and slid back. Then it replaced the Fadeeva book and duplicated John’s gesture.
     In several of the stories John had read, humans had communicated with alien races through the medium of mathematics, a pure and supposedly universal language. Fortunately, his library sported a blackboard.

     “Allow me to demonstrate,” he said with a slightly quavering voice as he crossed to the board, “the Theorem of Pythagorus.” The creature’s eyes followed him, blinking. “A logical starting place. Perhaps. As good as any,” he trailed off apologetically.
     He drew a right triangle on the board, and then drew squares out from the sides that embraced the right angle. He held the chalk out to the alien.
     The creature made a huffing sound, vaguely affirmative and swayed over to the blackboard. It retracted the claws on one hand and took the chalk from John.
     It bit off one end of the chalk experimentally, and spit it out.

     Then it reached over and casually sketched in the box representing the square of the hypotenuse. In the middle of the triangle it drew what was obviously an equals sign: ~.
     John was ecstatic. He took the chalk from the alien and repeated the curly line. He pointed at the alien and then at himself: equals.
     The alien nodded enthusiastically and took the chalk. It put a slanted line through John’s equals sign.

     Not equals.

     It stared at the blackboard, tapping it with the chalk; one universal gesture. Then, squeaking with every line, it rapidly wrote down:

     John studied the message. Some sort of tree diagram? Perhaps a counting system. Or maybe not mathematical at all. He shrugged at the creature. It flinched at the sudden motion, and backed away growling.
     “No, no.” John held his palms out again. “Friends.”

     The alien shuffled slowly back to the blackboard and pointed to what it had just written down. Then it opened its terrible mouth and pointed at that. It repeated the pair of gestures twice.
     “Oh.” Eating the Fadeeva and the chalk. “Are you hungry?” It repeated the action more emphatically.
     John motioned for it to follow him and walked toward the kitchen. The alien waddled slowly, its tail a swaying counterweight.
     He opened the refrigerator and took out a cabbage, a package of catfish, an avocado, some cheese, an egg, and a chafing dish of leftover green beans, slightly dried out. He lined them up on the counter and demonstrated that they were food by elaborately eating a piece of cheese.
     The alien sniffed at each item. When it got to the egg, it stared at John for a long time. It tasted a green bean but spat it out. It walked around the kitchen in a circle, then stopped and growled a couple of times.

     It sighed and walked into the living room. John followed. It went out the front door and walked around behind the module. Sighed again and disappeared, from the feet up.
     John noted that where the creature had disappeared, the grass was crushed in a large circle. That was consistent with Isaac’s testimony: it had entered its invisible flying saucer.

     The alien came back out with a garish medallion around its neck. It looked like it was made of rhinestones and bright magenta plastic.
     It growled and a voice whispered inside his brain: “Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?”
     “Uh, yes. I can hear you.”
     “Very well. This will cause trouble.” It sighed. “One is not to use the translator with a Class 6 culture except under the most dire of emergency. But I am starve. If I do "not eat soon the fires inside me will go out. Will have to fill out many forms, may they reek.”
     “Well . . . anything I can do to help…
     “Yes.” It walked by him, back toward the front door. “A simple chemical is the basis for all my food. I have diagrammed it.” He followed the alien back into the library.
     “This is hard.” He studied his diagram. “To translator is hard outside of basic words. This top mark is the number ‘one’. It means a gas that burns in air.”
     “Perhaps. Yes, I think. Third mark is the number ‘eight’, which means a black rock that also burns, but harder. The mark between means that in very small they are joined together.”
     “A hydrogen-carbon bond?”
     “This is only noise to me.” Faint sound of a car door slamming, out on the dirt road.

     “Oh, oh,” John said. “Company coming. You wait here.” He opened the door a crack and watched Lester stroll up the path.
     “Hey, Perfesser! You ain’t gonna believe what—”
     “I know, Les. Isaac told me about it down at Leroy’s.” He had the door open about twelve centimeters. Lester stood on the doormat, tried to look inside. “Somethin’ goin’ on in there?”
     “Hard to explain, uh. I’ve got company.”
     Lester closed his mouth and gave John a broad wink. “Knew you had it in you. Doc.” He passed the Mason jar to John. “Look, I come back later. Really do want yer ’pinion.”
     “Fine, we’ll do that. I’ll fix you a—”

     A taloned hand snatched the Mason jar from John.
     Lester turned white and staggered back. “Don’t move a muscle. Doc. I’ll git my gun.”
     “No, wait! It’s friendly!”

     Food,” the creature growled. “Yes, friend.” The screw-top was unfamiliar but only presented a momentary difficulty. The alien snapped it off, glass and all, with a flick of the wrist. It dashed the quart of raw ’shine down its throat.
     “Ah, fine. So good. Three parts food, one part water. Strange flavor, so good.” It pushed John aside and waddled out the door.
     “You have more good food?”
     Lester backed away. “You talkin’ to me?”
     “Yes, yes. You have more of this what your mind calls ‘corn’?”

     “I be damned.” Lester shook his head in wonder. “You are the ugliest sumbitch I ever did see.”
     “This is humor, yes. On my world, egg-eater, you would be in cage. To frighten children to their amusement.”

     It looked left and right and pointed at Lester’s beat-up old Pinto station wagon. “More corn in that animal?”
     “Sure.” He squinted at the creature. “You got somethin’ to pay with?”
     “Pay? What is this noise?”
     Lester looked up at John. “Did he say what I thought he said?”
     John laughed. “I’ll get my checkbook. You let him have all he wants.”

     When John came back out, Lester was leaning on his station wagon, sipping from a jar, talking to the alien. The creature was resting back on its tail, consuming food at a rate of about a quart every thirty seconds. Lester had showed it how to unscrew the jars.
     “I do not lie,” it said. “This is the best food I have ever tasted.”
     Lester beamed. “That’s what I tell ev’ybody. You can’t git that in no store.”
     “I tasted only little last night. But could tell from even that. Have been seeking you.”

     It was obvious that the alien was going to drink all three cases. $25 per jar, John calculated, 36 jars. “Uh, Les, I’m going to have to owe you part of the money.”
     “That’s okay. Doc. He just tickles the hell outame.”
     The alien paused in mid-jar. “Now I am to understand, I think. You own this food. The Doc gives to you a writing of equal value.”
     “That’s right,” John said.
     “You, the Les, think of things you value. I must be symmetry … I must have a thing you value.”
     Lester’s face wrinkled up in thought. “Ah, there is one thing, yes. I go.” The alien waddled back to his ship.
     “Gad,” Lester said. “If this don’t beat all.”

     (Traveling with the alien is his pet treblig. He carries it because it always emanates happiness. It is also a radioactive creature that can excrete any element. The alien gives it a telepathic command. With an effort that scrambles television reception for fifty miles, it produces a gold nugget weighing slightly less than one kilogram.)
     The alien came back and handed the nugget to Lester. “I would take some of your corn back to my home world, yes? Is this sufficient?”

     The alien had to wait a few days while Lester brewed up enough ’shine to fill up his auxiliary food tanks. He declined an invitation to go to Washington, but didn’t mind talking to reporters.
     Humankind learned that the universe was teeming with intelligent life. In this part of the Galaxy there was an organization called the Commonality—not really a government; more like a club. Club members were given such useful tools as faster-than-light travel and immortality.
     All races were invited to join the Commonality once they had evolved morally above a certain level. Humankind, of course was only a Class 6. Certain individuals went as high as 5 or as low as 7 (equivalent to the moral state of an inanimate object), but it was the average that counted.

     After a rather grim period of transition, the denizens of Earth settled down to concentrating on being good, trying to reach Class 3, the magic level.
     It would take surprisingly few generations. Because humankind had a constant reminder of the heaven on Earth that awaited them, as ship after ship drifted down from the sky to settle by a still outside a little farm near New Homestead, Florida: for several races, the gourmet center of Sirius Sector.

From ALL THE UNIVERSE IN A MASON JAR by Joe Haldeman (1977)

(Lysander is the prince of the planet Sparta. Blaine is the governor of the planet Tanith. BuRelock is the Bureau of Relocation, who forcibly transport undesirable people from the over populated Earth to dump them on the various colony planets.)

"We have an excellent liqueur, rum based with flavoring from the Tanith Passion Fruit, but perhaps it's a bit early in the day for something so sweet. Tanith whiskey, perhaps?"

"Thank you." Lysander sipped gingerly at the dark whiskey. "That's quite good."

"Glad you like it. Bit like Scotch only more so. Some find it strong."

"Sparta's whiskey is descended from Irish," Lysander said. "We think it's better than Earth's best. We had a master distiller from Cork!"

"Much the same story here," Blaine said. "Whole family from near Inverary. Can't imagine what they did to annoy BuRelock (bureau that ships "undesirables" off over-populated Terra and to the under-populated interstellar colonies), but up they came; Tanith's benefit and Earth's loss. One of my predecessors set them up in the distilling business."

From PRINCE OF MERCENARIES by Jerry Pournelle (1989)

He poured a glass of moss whiskey, a native Ceres liquor made from engineered yeast, then took off his shoes and settled onto the foam bed.

An hour later, his blood warm with drink, he heated up a bowl of real rice and fake beans—yeast and fungus could mimic anything if you had enough whiskey first—opened the door of his hole, and ate dinner looking out at the traffic gently curving by.

Kate Liu returned to the table with a local beer and a glass of whiskey on her tray. Miller was glad for the distraction. The beer was his. Light and rich and just the faintest bit bitter. An ecology based on yeasts and fermentation meant subtle brews.

From LEVIATHAN WAKES by "James S.A. Corey" 2011.
First novel of The Expanse

“It’s quite good,” the MP said as he filled a small glass with long sides to control the liquid in the low gravity of the Moon. “We distill it ourselves. It would make an excellent export item if it weren’t for certain reactionary elements on Earth who forbid it.”

Thorpe nodded. Earth’s import restrictions were an irritation for all the space habitats. Surrounded as they were by an inexhaustible supply of vacuum, space distillation was easy and cheap. Fearing the competition, Earth’s distillers had long ago banded together to outlaw the importation of extraterrestrial liquors.

From THUNDER STRIKE! by Michael McCollum (1989)

Ballistic Brewery, ICC to Hanth & Mallon Restaurants (Pádíäz System), ICC, greetings.

Valmiríän Oricalcios,

Thank you for your interest in our selection of fine beers for the discerning spacer palate.

To be sure that we can satisfy your requirements, let me explain to you how the Ballistic Beer process works. The initial stages of brewing are carried out in our own facilities, in your case at Gallítra Station in the Pádíäz-Solar L4 point. We take grain from the skyfarms surrounding our station, malt, kiln, mash, and sparge it. We then copper and boil the resulting wort with the unique combinations of hops, sugars, and herbs that give each of our beers their unique flavor.

When we receive your order, the selected wort is transferred to one of our Puncheon-class fermenter-tankers, along with the appropriate yeast culture, and the Puncheon is dispatched to you. The transfer orbit of the Puncheon is carefully computed to allow for the necessary weeks or months of fermentation and conditioning under thrust gravity, in order to reach you at the moment of peak flavor. Once the beer is finally racked, wood conditioning or other late-stage refinements can be imparted in the Puncheon’s final tank.

When the Puncheon reaches your station, you offload the beer by fluid transfer, either directly into your own cask tanks or for local bottling or kegging (facilities and resale licenses for either of these can be leased from us). The yeast residue remaining in the fermenter can be returned to us with the Puncheon, or retained for local use for a nominal fee. We request that you refuel the Puncheon for its return voyage as part of your payment schedule.

(Note: All of our beers are naturally carbonic. As such, you should be prepared to accept the listed associated CO2 release into your local life-support capacity. We also recommend that they be served only in non-microgravity areas and that drinkers remain in these areas for the stated effervescence interval to prevent discomfort.)

Available for immediate shipment, in the Pádíäz System, are our Callaneth’s Finest, Starlight Irdesh, Miról Lambic, Three-Axis Pale Ale, Red Rocket Red, Singularity Stout, and Oúrghaz’s Heavy, each available in 25-barrel, 50-barrel, 100-barrel, and 300-barrel shipments. We will, of course, be happy to produce any of our other beers for you given sufficient lead time.

I have enclosed for your further information more details of our beers, along with full details of technical requirements and other necessities, and payment information for a variety of order sizes and schedules.

On behalf of all of us here at the Ballistic Brewery, we hope to be able to offer you a drink soon!

Talan Kellis, Brewmaster’s Second,

for and on behalf of

Ballistic Brewery, ICC


“Thirty-Two Tons, this is Clajdia SysCon, we’re going to need you to abort your next maneuver, recompute for previous burn time plus twelve minutes, crossing traffic drone freighter DF-01369. Over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, negative on that, we have traffic priority over drone freighters. Over.”

“Thirty-Two Tons, Clajdia SysCon, affirmative, but you don’t want to exercise priority over one-three-six-nine, over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, clarify please. Over.”

“Thirty-Two Tons, Clajdia SysCon, one-three-six-nine is a three-hundred-barrel fermenter of Callaneth’s Finest Ballistic Beer with a special requirement for constant acceleration. We preempt her for you, they lose thrustdown. They lose thrustdown, they lose the batch. They lose the batch, all the belters out of Ipsy Station want your heads to decorate their candles. How badly do you want to harsh the local color? Over.”

“Clajdia SysCon, Thirty-Two Tons, recomputing as requested. Clear.”


“That?” Cathál glanced at the slate-blue pipe in question, then down at her slate. “Water coolant source for distillation unit 02-367, tap off main section 11-9120, return through 02-3683, automatic flow valve controlled by sector utility server #2, manual cutoff accessible via service panel 02-38.”

“Distillation unit? This isn’t a machinery section.”

“Not that kind of distillation unit. It’s a… personal still.” Seeing her apprentice’s still-confused expression, she continued. “A starshine still.”

“You have those on the plans?”

She looked at him appraisingly. “You’re new-up, aren’t you?”

“First spaceside rotation, yeah. What’s that –”

“Look around you. The hab’s maybe two-thirds, or a little more, plumbing by mass. All kinds. Potable, non-potable, gray, black, steam, rad-hot, loaded, non-aqueous – hell, we’ve got reactor lines in section one circulating liquid sodium. People around here get all kinds of upset when they find a pipe that’s not on the plans, especially if they don’t know what it’s for or what’s in it. So we have an Agreement. We agree to put all the, um, unofficial plumbing on the master plans and hook it into the control systems, and the adminisphere agrees not to bug us about it unless it causes a genuine issue.”

“And it’s still unofficial?”

“Surely. But it’s officially unofficial.”


When I was a kid, I used to stand out at the edge of Crashlanding Port watching the ships come in. I'd watch the mob of passengers leave the lock and move in a great clump toward customs, and I'd wonder why they seemed to have trouble navigating. A majority of the starborn would always walk in weaving lines, swaying and blinking teary eyes against the sun. I used to think it was because they came from different worlds with different gravities and different atmospheres beneath differently colored suns.

Later I learned different.

There are no windows in a passenger spacecraft. If there were, half the passengers would go insane; it takes an unusual mentality to watch the blind-spot appearance of hyperspace and still keep one's marbles. For passengers there is nothing to watch and nothing to do, and if you don't like reading sixteen hours a day, then you drink. It's best to drink in company. You get less lushed, knowing you have to keep up your side of a conversation. The ship's doc has cured more hangovers than every other operation combined, right down to manicures and haircuts.

From FLATLANDER by Larry Niven (1967)


To combat boredom, the crew will think of other forms of recreation.

In the anime Planetes, they recognize the fact that having male and female crew members cooped up in close quarters for weeks at a time can cause certain tensions. When stocking a spacecraft for a mission, one officially required item is a selection of erotic magazines (available at spaceport chandlery). This allows the crew members to take care of the problem in solitary fashion. Fornication among the crew is generally always a bad idea. There will be all the problems common to office romances, but with the hatred turned up to 11 by stress of living in such confined quarters.

The medic can prescribe libedo-suppressing medications, though if you haven't heard already the tales of various militaries putting saltpetre or potassium bromide in soldier's food is a myth.

The actual mechanics will be quite different, as the natural recoil will tend to make the couple separate and go flying into opposite sides of the cabin. Some futurists have spectulated that a set of bungee cords will be required. Other are of the opinion that a third person will be needed as a helper, much as has been observed with some species of dolphin in the free-fall environment of the ocean


Like all his colleagues, Bowman was unmarried; it was not fair to send family men on a mission of such duration, though numerous ladies had promised to wait until the expedition returned, no one had really believed this. At first, both Poole and Bowman had been making rather intimate personal calls once a week, though the knowledge that many ears must be listening at the Earth end of the circuit tended to inhibit them. Yet already, though the voyage was scarcely started, the warmth and frequency of the conversations with their girls on Earth had begun to diminish. They had expected this; it was one of the penalties of an astronaut's way of life, as it had once been of a mariner's.

It was true — indeed, notorious — that seamen had compensations at other ports; unfortunately there were no tropical islands full of dusky maids beyond the orbit of Earth. The space medics, of course, had tackled this problem with their usual enthusiasm; the ship's pharmacopoeia provided adequate, though hardly glamorous, substitutes.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

Welcome to the Pax Astra Argosy Selene Queen. For a complete list of passenger services and facilities, please touch F1

Welcome to Passenger Services and Facilities. Please touch any menu item.

Fornicatorium: Introduction and Guidelines:

     The Pax Astra Argosy Selene Queen is equipped with four fornicatoriums, located on both the starboard and port sides of the Promenade just aft of the Recreation Deck (touch F2 for Map). Although lovemaking is permitted in First Class staterooms and Second Class berths, for your own safety it is strongly recommended that you use the fornicatoriums. Public intercourse is not permitted anywhere aboard the Selene Queen, and is expressly forbidden in access shafts, storage compartments, lifeboats, and airlocks.

     Fornicatoriums are open at all hours, except for brief periods during main-engine ignition, when the ship may accelerate in excess of 3.0G. Passengers are warned not to engage in intercourse during these periods, or severe injury may result.

     Due to their popularity, passengers are encouraged to reserve fornicatoriums in advance (touch F3). Access to fornicatoriums is limited to 2-4 male/female/hermaphrodite passengers age 18 or over (Gregorian). No minors permitted. Passenger IDs must be used to gain entry, and you may also be asked to submit to a retina scan. Sessions are limited to one standard hour. Extra time may be purchased, if no other parties are presently waiting to use the same compartment. Fornicatoriums are spherical chambers five meters in diameter, with thick padded walls. Colored hexagonal panels arranged around the room have various specialized functions:

*Orange panels: fornicatorium control systems, including lighting, atmosphere controls, music options, window shutters, timer, and ship comlink.
*Green panels: clothing lockers.
*Blue panels: gift shop and minibar, containing a wide variety of recreational items and refreshments which may be enjoyed during your session. Removal of any of them will constitute purchase, and the ship’s purser will bill them to your account.
*Red panels: first aid equipment. Please use only during an emergency.

     Many passengers enjoy opening the porthole during their sessions; it is three meters in diameter, and affords stunning views outside the vessel. Porthole shutters are operated by controls within the Orange Panel. The glass is shatterproof and resistant to cosmic background radiation; it automatically polarizes against direct sunlight.

     Atmosphere controls within the Orange Panel allow you to choose from a broad range of scents: Peppermint Patty, Mountain Forest, Ocean Spray, Arctic Mist, Martian Morning, Desert Twilight, New Orleans Evening, Lunar Midnight, and New Car. Temperature levels and internal lighting will automatically adjust to preset levels appropriate to these atmospheres; however, you can adjust both lighting and temperature to your taste.

     The music menu offers an almost infinite selection of styles and artists, including classical, jazz, rock, country, bluegrass, zydeco, lunar, and atonal constructs. Many have been preset into the available atmosphere selections, but you may wish to choose your own music.

     In order to save time during your session, you may want to preprogram the fornicatorium in advance. This may be done when you make your reservation.

     For your convenience, flexible hand rungs and foot restraints are scattered throughout the compartment. Don’t be reluctant to use them; even those who have considerable experience with their partners usually find it useful to gain leverage while lovemaking in 0.0G. At minimum, one person should grasp a hand rung while the other hooks a foot into a nearby restraint, at least during foreplay. Press F4 to view a demonstration of various techniques.

     Accidents may occur if partners attempt exotic positions within zero-g conditions. Please be careful. Should it become necessary to request medical assistance, please use the Orange Panel to contact the infirmary.

     Items contained with the Blue Panel are for entertainment purposes only. The management and crew of the Selene Queen accept no liability for their misuse. Touch F5 to examine legal disclaimer.

     You may choose to record your session on a holodisk. For this purpose, the fornicatorium has been outfitted with laser imaging equipment. You may activate this service through Orange Panel, and purchase the disk later from the Blue Panel gift shop.


     In the event of a solar-flare alert, fornicatoriums will be evacuated by ship stewards or other crew members. If this occurs, please allow the stewards to escort you immediately to the nearest available shelter. Crew members are authorized to open fornicatorium hatches without prior permission of passengers. Press F8 for full explanation of emergency procedures.

     It is highly unlikely that the Selene Queen will experience an emergency which would require evacuation of the entire ship. If this were to occur, though, the fornicatoriums have been designed to double as lifeboats, and can be jettisoned from the ship’s superstructure. If you hear a Bridge Alert during your session, do not panic. Please dress immediately, unlock the hatch, and wait for stewards.

     Emergency occupancy of the fornicatoriums is rated at 10 persons for 12 standard hours.

     Have fun, and enjoy your voyage aboard the Selene Queen!

From 0.0G S*X: A USER’S GUIDE by Allen Steel (1999)

Psychological Problems

And then there are mental problems. The dread spectre of space madness. They might even start seeing space gremlins.

Obviously there are problems with confining too many astronauts in a too-small habitat module for prolonged periods of time with not enough sleep and practically no privacy. Add pressure from ground control to work the astronauts to death coupled with boredom and you have a real recipe for blood floating all over the module. At least in an Arctic research station a researcher close to snapping can step outside for a breath of fresh air. Not so the astronaut

Cosmonaut Valery Ryumin, twice Hero of the Soviet Union, quotes this passage from The Handbook of Hymen by O. Henry in his autobiographical book about the Salyut 6 mission: “If you want to instigate the art of manslaughter just shut two men up in a eighteen by twenty-foot cabin for a month. Human nature won't stand it.”

This was sort of hinted at by the 1999-2000 Russian Sphinx-99 experiment. This enclosed six crewmembers in a simulated space station for six months. About two months into the experiment there was a bloody fist-fight between two of the Russian crewmembers. Shortly thereafter the Canadian female crewmember (Dr. Judith Lapierre) was dragged off camera by the Russian commander and forcibly french-kissed despite her vigorous protests. In two separate incidents. The researchers reponded by giving Dr. Lapierre the only key to one section of the simulated station.

The problem of astronaut cabin fever was even mentioned in a 1964 Saturday-morning cartoon called "Jonny Quest", in an episode entitled "Double Danger". Dr. Quest is looking for solutions to the cabin fever problem. He plans to visit Thailand to scout some hallucinogenic plants as a possible treatment or cure (the Jonny Quest producers didn't want to come out and openly say "marijuana" or "LSD" on a kid's TV show). Unfortunately for Dr. Quest, his arch-enemy the evil Dr. Zin wants to get his sinister claws on the plants. Apparently they can be used to make a tranquilizing drug capable of immobilizing entire cities. Mwah-ha-ha-ha!


      Jupiter beckoned, and humankind followed. Under the auspices of the newly formed International Space Commission, with funding provided by several private-sector space companies, the first manned Jupiter vessel, the Tycho Brahe, was built in Earth orbit. Its ten-person crew voyaged to Jupiter in 2037, returning to Earth in 2039 with enough new scientific information about the Jovian system to fill a small library.

     And then, just as success was at everyone’s fingertips, one of the worst disasters in the history of manned space exploration occurred: the loss of the Tycho Brahe.

     Only three members of the second expedition survived the vessel’s freak-accident collision with a boulder-sized rock as the Brahe was journeying through the asteroid belt on its way back to Earth. It was partly as a result of their testimony in front of the International Space Commission, during which the causes for the loss of the seven other cosmonauts were fully explained, that a new methodology was established for the selection of crewmembers for the Medici Explorer and all other Jovian ships to follow.

     According to the survivors of the Tycho Brahe, the true reason why so many lives had been lost had little to do with the fact that their vessel had been struck by a small asteroid. Indeed, the collision could have been avoided, and should have been; in hindsight, it was the human factor which had doomed the ship, not the asteroid itself.

     When ConSpace chose the crew for the Tycho Brahe’s second voyage, it was almost strictly on the basis of either astronautical or scientific skills; in their rush to get the ship underway, little forethought had been given by the mission’s planning team to balancing the crew on a psychological basis. As a result, although the crew had all the expertise needed to perform their assignments, it was also badly mismatched: seven men, three women, all of whom were either single or not very stably married.

     To further add to the mess, there was disparity between the ship’s command crew, who thought of the Brahe as their domain, and the scientists who were aboard as passengers, whose knowledge was vital but who came to be treated as second-class citizens. It was never clearly delineated who was in command, the captain or the senior mission scientist. Which was more important, the horse or the cart? No one really knew who was in charge; as a result, during the long months of the flight, a schism grew between the people in the command center and the people in the labs. Added to this was a singles-bar atmosphere with the crew quarters. The question of who was sleeping with who often became more important than the mission objectives. Tempers flared, tensions rose, interpersonal cliques formed which stalled command decisions… and meanwhile, mundane shipboard chores such as galley cleanup and routine repairs were left undone.

     The Tycho Brahe managed to perform its objectives, but by the time the ship left Jupiter and began its long journey home, half of its crew were no longer on speaking terms with the other half. It didn’t seem to matter very much by then—the scientists and engineers had gone into hibernation for the ride home—but most of the remaining crewmembers who had not gone into the zombie tanks became slovenly in carrying out their regular duties.

     The tiny asteroid which collided with the Tycho Brahe could, and should, have been detected by whoever was supposed to standing watch in the bridge. Given warning, the crew might have corrected the ship’s course in time to avoid collision. However, the crewmembers who were supposed to be in the command center were in the hydroponics area instead, squabbling over whose turn it was to monitor the nutrient feedlines. When the rock slammed into Arm Two, three levels below them and just above the hibernation bay, emergency decompression hatches should have closed immediately, sealing off each level and limiting the extent of the catastrophe. However, someone had neglected to reset the circuit breaker which controlled those pressure hatches, so the entire arm was blown out.

     Two errors, both of them avoidable had not the crew been paralyzed by interpersonal conflict. As a result, all five persons who were hibernating in the zombie tanks, plus the two crewmen who had been in the hydroponics area, were killed by the asteroid collision. Only the three crew members who had been asleep in their quarters in Arm One at the time escaped death.

     The survivors managed to patch the Tycho Brahe together just enough to get them as far as Mars orbit, where they were ultimately forced to abandon ship and make their way to the red planet in the ship’s boat. The Brahe itself went into an elongated solar orbit; it wasn’t until three years later when it was retrieved by a salvage team from Arsia Station, who brought the derelict back to Mars as scrap metal.

     Despite the tragedy and the setback it posed, ConSpace pressed on with its plans to open helium-mining operations in Jovian space. Yet the loss of seven lives, plus a valuable ship, forced the consortium to reconsider the means by which future crews of its deep-space vessels would be selected.

     In that sense, the Tycho Brahe disaster was a blessing, because it finally coerced technocrats to ponder long-overlooked problems of human behavior during long space missions. As far back as the 1980’s, these questions had been posed by those who studied spaceflight, even though the major space agencies—most typically NASA, which had habitually short-changed life sciences in favor of hardware development—had typically swept them under the rug. The Brahe disaster was vivid testimony to the fact that the human condition was a more complex problem than could be solved by choosing pastel colors for the living quarters or putting in another porthole for sightseeing. Engineers and executives alike were impelled to come away from their blueprints and spreadsheets for a few minutes and listen to the psychologists, and what they were told was that the makeup of crews for stressful, long-duration flights was at least as important as IPS ratios (Impulse-Per-Second) and orbital mechanics.

     What the psychologists told them, in fact, was that, in terms of social order, the most stable collections of individuals were families. If they wanted to make sure that no more Brahe disasters occurred in the future, they would do well to put entire families in space. And since ten-person families, in which all the members had the necessary expertise to serve aboard a deep-space vessel, were practically impossible to find, the only available recourse was to generate them.

     Fortunately, this had already been done.

     The concept of extended families is not new to the human race, but with few exceptions, the practice has been frowned upon, if not made illegal, in western civilization. Yet when intermarriage re-emerged as during the formation of the first self-sufficient colonies on the Moon and Mars, the long-standing Judeo-Christian mores against polygamy were forced to take a back seat to practicality.

     The first space colonists didn’t have to worry about raising families on the high frontier. They were, for the most part, itinerant blue-collar laborers who had signed temporary contracts with the major space companies, leaving their spouses and children at home to fend for themselves for a year or two while they went to work in near-Earth orbit or on the Moon.

     Indeed, the first married couple did not journey together into space until 1992, and that was almost by accident; NASA had assigned two astronauts to an early shuttle mission, then had to watch in chagrin as those two astronauts exchanged wedding vows before their flight. Even after that, however, it remained the policy of first NASA, then later the private space companies, not to allow married partners in space, under the theory that a couple could disrupt crew morale. Visions of wild orbital orgies danced in the faux-puritanical minds of too many officials, who refused to believe that love, or at least normal sexual urges, could coexist with the conquest of space. “One in the sky, one on the ground,” was the unspoken rule of thumb.

     The same went for unplanned pregnancies, and even more so. Female crew members were sometimes knocked up, usually the outcome of one-night stands. Rules against sex were virtually unenforceable, but pregnancy was; the inevitable result of getting in a family way was either that the woman lost her job but went back to Earth to have a baby, or kept her job but had an abortion. Keeping both the job and the kid was not an available alternative.

     This began to change when Lunar Associates, Ltd., was established in 2024 as an employee-owned company; Descartes Station was now controlled not by corporate suits on Earth but by its own workers. As a result, there was now an economic incentive for moondogs to become permanent settlers rather than temporary laborers… and it wasn’t long before many of Descartes Station’s employee-stockholders demanded the right to marry and have children.

     Marriage was widely considered to be okay… but kids? It took long and impassioned debate among the lunar colonists, but in the end the old Skycorp regulations were voted out of LA’s charter (although a one-child-per-family rule was put firmly in place) and on April 1, 2025, Mary Selene Rosenkrantz made history by being the first child to be born beyond the planet Earth.

     Mary wasn’t unique for very long. Very soon she had many other kids to play with, and this opened yet another can of worms. Finding good day-care has been one of the vexing problems of the ages. Since everyone on the Moon was expected to work for a living, this made finding a reliable babysitter once every three shifts a major obstacle.

     Simultaneously, there was also the problem of rampant adultery among the colonists. With only a hundred and fifty people in Descartes Station, all living together in close quarters, there was strong temptation for even the closest of couples to have secret extramarital affairs with other persons. As the colony prospered, the population of the base began to rise, but by the time Descartes Station was officially renamed Descartes City, wives often found themselves sleeping with their best friend’s husbands and vice-versa, sometimes while their kids were romping in the very next compartment. Even after there were the inevitable discoveries, quarrels, separations, and tearful make-ups, the trend continued, leading many to observe that the atmosphere within Descartes City had begun to resemble an ongoing soap opera, only without theme music and commercial breaks.

     The solution to both problems found itself in 2031 when three families—the Phillips, the Freys, and the Horowitzes—came to the mutual epiphany that they didn’t mind so much the fact that they were fooling around with each other’s spouses as they did the betrayal of trust that went along with it. This was coupled with the realization that their babies didn’t really seem to care who was at home at what time, so long as their diapers continued to be changed and they were regularly nourished. Since none of the three couples had any strong religious feelings against the idea, the three families decided to cut the Gordian knot by tying a different one altogether: they presented themselves to Descartes City’s resident priest, the Rev. Luther Paulsen, and demanded to be intermarried.

     When Paulsen, a Presbyterian minister who was also the station’s chief dietician, refused to condone the intermarriage, they found a bulldozer driver who was a licensed Justice of the Peace. He listened to their reasons for intermarriage and agreed to officiate, and thus the three families were married together in a public ceremony conducted in the station greenhouse. Rather than have their surnames changed to one couple’s last name, or to have an unwieldy three-way hyphenated surname, the clan randomly selected a neutral name—Jones—to be their shared surname. Therefore, they became the Jones-Phillips, Jones-Frey, Jones-Horowitz family—in short, the Joneses.

     As bizarre as it initially seemed, the concept of clannish intermarriage soon caught on. It gave greater stability to preexistent two-person marriages, eased the problem of raising children, and virtually eliminated the eternal question of whose turn it was to take out the garbage. Although it was initially done only on the Moon, the practice soon spread to Clarke County and the Arsia Station colony on Mars. Polygamy was still technically illegal, but when so many people started participating in multi-partner marriages, the governments of the colonies couldn’t do much more than look the other way.

     By the time ConSpace began interviewing prospective crews for the Jupiter Run, there were quite a few extended families on the Moon, Mars, and Clarke County from which to choose. The first of these to be selected, as the crew of the newly christened Medici Explorer, was the Smith family of Descartes City.

     This decision didn’t come as an accident or as the result of favoritism or clout. The Smiths were chosen because they were stable, they were tough, and they were experienced. They could haul the weight.

From THE WEIGHT by Allen Steele (1995)

Break-Off Effect

And then there is the Break-Off effect. This was first reported before the dawn of space travel, by high altitude military airplane pilots. It was a type of psychological dissociative anomaly, a feeling of detachment. Most pilots felt peaceful, a few euphoric, and about a third were panic-stricken.

It was thought this would also happen with astronauts. But in the 1970's when cosmonauts and astronauts actually started flying the problem seemed to disappear.

It wasn't until recently that it became clear the Break-Off effect did not disappear in astronauts. What disappeared was the astronauts reporting it. Astronauts are in constant terror of being grounded, so they developed a "lie to fly" culture. The last thing they are going to do is report to the flight surgeons some scary mental breakdown that will get them grounded faster than a teenage girl staying out five hours past her curfew.

During the Apollo missions, some astronauts reported how the vision of Earth as the big blue marble caused a sudden cognitive shift in awareness. They suddenly saw Earth as a fragile ball of life where national boundaries became unimportant. A writer named Frank White coined the term The Overview Effect, and wrote a popular book on the topic in 1987. You can find some quotes about the effect here. Some have pointed out a similarity to the Japanese aesthetic of Yūgen.

And there are some psychologists who suspect that the Break-Off Effect and the Overview Effect are one and the same.


"Where Is Everybody?" is the first episode of the American anthology television series The Twilight Zone. It was originally broadcast on October 2, 1959 on CBS.


A man dressed in a U.S. Air Force flight suit finds himself alone on a dirt road, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He finds a diner and walks in to find a jukebox playing loudly; he lowers the volume and continues to call out. Eventually, he heads into the kitchen where he finds a hot pot of coffee on the stove and freshly made pies, but there are no other people besides himself. He accidentally knocks over and breaks a clock, at which point the jukebox stops playing.

The man leaves the diner and walks to a nearby town; he sees a parked truck with an apparent female passenger, but 'she' turns out to be a mannequin. Like the diner, the rest of the town seems deserted, but the man feels he is being watched and that there is someone around. The phone rings in a telephone booth and he dashes to answer it. There is nobody on the line and he can only raise a recorded message when he tried to call the operator. He grows unsettled as he wanders through the empty town, increasingly anxious to find someone to talk to.

Inside the police station, he uses the radio ("Calling all cars, calling all cars, unknown man walking around police station..."); then he notices a lit cigar in an ashtray. This prods him to check the jail cells in back. In one cell, there is evidence that someone had recently been there shaving. He declares that he wants to "wake up now". The man makes his way to the soda shop where, as he makes himself a sundae, he considers this dream he must be having and marvels at how detailed it is. He sees an entire rack of paperback books titled The Last Man on Earth, Feb. 1959. This spooks him and he quickly leaves.

As night falls, lights turn on and the man is drawn to the illuminated movie theater marquee. The advertised film is Battle Hymn and this causes him to remember that he is in the Air Force. He runs inside shouting, "I'm in the Air Force." Inside the theater he sits down to ponder this discovery and what could have happened that resulted in him being in this situation.

When the film suddenly begins onscreen, he sprints to the projection booth and finds nobody there, then becomes even more paranoid that he is being watched. Panicked, he runs downstairs and headfirst into a wall-length mirror. When he recovers from this shock, he gives in to terror and races through the streets, stumbling, falling and startled by everything. He comes upon a pedestrian call button and desperately pushes it over and over, begging for help. The call button is revealed to be a panic button: the man, whose name is given as Sgt. Mike Ferris, is actually in an isolation booth being observed by a group of uniformed servicemen. He has been undergoing tests to determine his fitness as an astronaut and whether he can handle a prolonged trip to the Moon alone; the town was a hallucination caused by sensory deprivation.

The officiating general warns Ferris that while his basic needs will be provided for in space travel, he will not have companionship: "next time [he will] really be alone". As Ferris is carried from the hangar on a stretcher, he looks into the sky and tells the Moon, "don't go away up there" and, "we'll be up there in a little while".

Closing narration

The barrier of loneliness: The palpable, desperate need of the human animal to be with his fellow man. Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting, waiting with the patience of eons, forever waiting... in The Twilight Zone.

From the Wikipedia entry for WHERE IS EVERYBODY?

The year is 1959. The wars were cold; the families nuclear. The Earth found itself in a state of cultural change and scientific curiosity in what would be the final decade before man grazed the surface of the moon. It was during this time that our eyes were lifted toward the spheres of gas we know as stars. Screenwriter Rod Serling introduced a television program to this pale blue dot, the likes of which would influence the televised mediums for decades to come. The signpost is up ahead. Look out! Our next stop, The Twilight Zone.

With CBS rebooting the Twilight Zone (with Jordan Peele set to host), maybe soon we will experience another renaissance of original ideas like the one in the influential original pilot. Every piece of genre fiction that appeared on screen in the six decades after The Twilight Zone debuted was influenced by one or more of Serling’s stories.

Each of the 156 episodes of the original series introduced a number of important science-fiction, horror, and fantasy tropes that the world would come to know, love, and even hate in due time.

The pilot episode of the Twilight Zone is a prime example of a classic TV trope. In “Where Is Everybody?”, the audience follows an amnesiac who finds himself wandering through a deserted town. He begins to lose his mind from loneliness — and the feeling he’s being watched — before he ultimately cracks. It’s later revealed that all of the events of the episode were actually just hallucinations in a test to see how long an astronaut could survive alone in a small vessel. A simple enough story, but its effects are still felt today.

The most obvious trope this episode introduced to the world is the last man on Earth: any piece of fiction that involves a sole hero who finds themselves alone in a place where there should be a lot of people. Often, there are external dangers the protagonist is fighting, but ultimately, the most dangerous enemies are isolation and loneliness.

One of the most recognizable devices of this trope is the protagonist’s inevitable dialogue with an inanimate object. This is due, in part, to the visual medium. In a book, for example, the audience is exposed to the lonely hero’s internal thoughts. On screen, there needs to be a strategic way to get the character to talk out loud without cheesily monologuing to an empty room. Serling knew this, and though he himself is prone to monologues, he knew he had to give his character something better. In this episode, for instance, our hero approaches who he believes to be a woman and verbalizes all of the thoughts in his head before realizing that she is, in fact, a store mannequin. This one scene inspired countless films to follow suit.

I Am Legend, a post-apocalyptic film based on the novel of the same name, follows a similar model. Scientist Robert Neville (played by Will Smith) tries to survive alone in a vampire-plagued New York City while also attempting to preserve his sanity. He famously talks to mannequins that he’s set up around town in order to communicate.

Similarly, the 1971 sci-fi adaptation, Omega Man, has Neville (Charlton Heston) do most of his dialoguing with a bust of Caesar. Even the survival film Cast Away relied on the volleyball Wilson to give Tom Hank’s character someone to talk to.

Another famous plot device of this episode is that the protagonist is a forgetful hero with no idea how he arrived at this empty hamlet. This trope has been used many times since in sci-fi/fantasy TV series to create an empathetic protagonist, because the audience learns about them at the same time as they do in the story. A few examples are Victoria Skillane in the Black Mirror episode “White Bear,” John Murdoch from Dark City, and the main character in The Outer Limits episode “Demon With a Glass Hand.”

It would be a stretch to claim this Twilight Zone episode coined “the dream sequence,” but TV shows or films that are presented as the truth, only to find out later it was the visual representation of a brain gone haywire — that idea originated in the Twilight Zone.

The psychotic hallucinations in American Psycho; the video game realities in the “Playtest” episode of Black Mirror Season 3; the entire plot of the psychological horror film Jacob’s Ladder; Adam Sandler’s masterpiece Click; several episodes of Star Trek, including “The Inner Light,” “Frame of Mind,” and “Barge of the Dead” — all of these spawned from plot devices used in the Twilight Zone.

It also bears mentioning that the pilot episode is very unusual. By the end, it turns out to not be science fiction at all. All of the previous events of the episode are easily explained in the final four minutes: It wasn’t real. It was just his imagination.

There are 156 episodes of the original Twilight Zone, but the pilot is one of only four that doesn’t contain any supernatural elements. Looking back at it now, we can see how this episode breaks from the standard episodic structure of the Twilight Zone, which almost always contains some level of fantasy. But the pilot set up the expectation that every episode of the series was going to be like this: set in reality with sci-fi storylines that can always be explained away by the final reveal.

But the Twilight Zone isn’t the origin of all science fiction. Most cite Mary Shelley’s work, notably Frankenstein, as the first piece of science fiction, and plenty of films and TV shows portrayed similar ideas. For example, Tales of Tomorrow, another sci-fi anthology series, first premiered in 1951, eight years before Twilight Zone ever hit the air. Though it shared many similarities, there is one key difference: Tales of Tomorrow’s episodes are adaptations and dramatizations of classic sci-fi stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Unlike its contemporaries, The Twilight Zone premiered original stories, written specifically to be viewed on screen, which is ultimately what led Rod Serling to become the most influential writer of the 20th century.


Speculation about revolutionary developments is not, however, immediately relevant to a most pressing question about human adaptation to space: How can groups of people live and work together without psychological impairment or the breakdown of social order in the space stations, lunar bases, and Mars expeditions now being planned? Psychological and social problems in space living constitute, as both Soviet and American space veterans attest (Bluth 1981, Carr 1981), major barriers to be overcome in the humanization of space.

Coping with isolation from Earth, family, and friends and with the cramped confines of a space module or station has been enough of a challenge for carefully selected and highly trained spacefarers of the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. As those cosmonauts who have been “pushing the endurance envelope” the farthest attest, staying longer and longer in space provokes severe psychological strain (Bluth 1981; Grigoriev, Kozerenko, and Myasnikov 1985; Oberg 1985, p. 21).

Now life in space is becoming even more complicated as “guest cosmonauts” from many nations join Soviet and American crews; as women join men; and as physicians, physicists, engineers, and other specialists routinely work alongside traditional cosmonauts and astronauts of the “right stuff”. How will all these different kinds of people get along in the space stations of the next decade and the lunar bases and martian outposts which are to follow? What measures can be taken which would reduce stress and make it easier for heterogeneous groups of people to work efficiently and safely and to live together amicably for months or even years in these space habitats?

Among social scientists it has been primarily the psychologists (Helmreich 1983), with a few jurists, sociologists, and political scientists joining in, who have tried to address these problems of space living. However, inasmuch as among the diverse lot of people who call themselves anthropologists there are those who are intensely interested in interpersonal relations and small group behavior, it should not be surprising that anthropologists might also be attracted to work in this field. Interestingly, some recent recruits come from maritime anthropology, where they have worked on the dynamics of small-boat fishing crews.

These and other anthropologists interested in space can bring to the field a degree of “hands-on” experience in working with “real” small groups—be they fishing crews, Antarctic scientists, or hunting and gathering bands.

Here I wish to suggest two specific areas in which this cultural perspective of anthropology could be useful: (1) in addressing the problems of cross-cultural relations among heterogeneous space crews and societies and (2) in the application of cultural resources to develop models for space living.

Cultural factors should not, however, be viewed solely in terms of impediments to successful space living, for they may also constitute valuable human resources to be tapped in adapting to space. In addition to seeking to promote cultural harmony among heterogeneous space crews, we might also seek out, from the multitude of cultural traditions among the Earth’s societies, those practices and institutions which could best promote harmonious and productive life in space.

As an example, consider interpersonal problems in a space habitat. J. Henry Glazer, an attorney who has pioneered the study of “astrolaw,” warns against exporting to space communities the adversarial approach to dispute resolution based on “medieval systems of courtroom combat” (Glazer 1985, p. 16). In small space habitats, where people cannot escape from one another but must work out ways of interacting peacefully and productively, adversarial proceedings would irritate an already sensitive social field. And how could the winners and losers of bitter courtroom battles live and work with each other afterwards?

One obvious suggestion is that systems which are designed to detect interpersonal problems early and head them off through mediation should be considered for space living. Glazer, for example, calls for a new kind of legal specialist—not an adversarial advocate, but someone who settles disputes on behalf of the interests of all spacefarers on a mission. He draws his model from the Tabula de Amalfa, the maritime code of the once powerful Mediterranean naval power of Amalfi. Their code provided for a “consul” who sailed aboard each merchant vessel with the power to adjudicate differences between master, crew, and others on board (Glazer 1985, pp. 26–27; Twiss 1876, p. 11). In addition to looking to this and perhaps other maritime analogs, it is tempting to suggest that, with an eye to the more distant future of large space settlements, we also examine major contemporary societies in which harmony and cooperation is stressed. The example of Japan, with its low crime rate and relative paucity of lawyers, comes to mind—although its utility as a model for international efforts may be limited in that Japan is such an ethnically homogeneous society

Bluth, B. J. 1981. Soviet Space Stress. Science 81, vol. 2, no. 7, pp. 30–35.
Carr, Gerald Paul. 1981. Comments from a Skylab Veteran. The Futurist 15:38.
Glazer, J. Henry. 1985. Astrolaw Jurisprudence in Space as a Place: Right Reason for the Right Stuff. Brooklyn J. Int. Law 11 (1): 1–43.
Grigoriev, A. I.; O. P. Kozerenko; and V. I. Myasnikov. 1985. Selected Problems of Psychological Support of Prolonged Space Flights. Preprint of a paper delivered at the Int. Astronaut. Fed. Congress, Stockholm.
Helmreich, Robert L. 1983. Applying Psychology in Outer Space. American Psychologist 38: 445–450.
Oberg, Alcestis R. 1985. Spacefarers of the ’80s and ’90s: The Next Thousand People in Space. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
Twiss, Travers. 1876. The Black Book of the Admiralty, Vol. 4. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.
From SPACE MIGRATIONS: ANTHROPOLOGY AND THE HUMANIZATION OF SPACE by Ben R. Finney. Collected in Space Resources NASA SP-509 vol 4

There’s a lot to love about Joss Whedon's one-season sci-fi wonder Firefly and the 2005 film Serenity, which turns 15 this week. The series introduced fans to beloved characters and a Western-styled galaxy of adventure, twists, and mysteries. One of the mysteries that Serenity ended up solving was the true nature of the Reavers — insane, cannibalistic space pirates who lurk at the edge of the galaxy.

Serenity reveals that Reavers are an unexpected side-effect of a calming cocktail given to the colonists of the planet Miranda, at the edge of the human-controlled system. While most became so sedated that they stopped eating and simply let themselves die, one in a thousand of them had the opposite adverse reaction, becoming extremely aggressive. This, the movie explains, are where Reavers come from, but it's a different answer than the show initially offered.

Prior to the side-effect revelation, Reavers were thought to be colonists who, confronted with the infinite abyss at the edge of the system, simply lost their minds. To quote the show, Reavers "got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothin', and that's what they became.”

In a way, that's a scarier prospect than Serenity's explanation. Can venturing deep into space cause madness? It's something that real-life space explorers are certainly taking precautions against...


Space Madness is a staple of genre fiction. The notion that humans might lose themselves in the vastness of the endless abyss, untethered from their home planet, makes for good story fodder. But, at the beginning of the space age, it was a legitimate concern. The idea was that the nature of space travel would be too much to handle. Being away from one’s family, from the comforts of home, would be an obstacle in the way of physical and mental health.

In addition, there was some concern about the types of people who would volunteer to venture off-world. Some believed that those interested in being astronauts in the first place must have some aberrant mental status. They must be thrill-seekers, impulsive, even suicidal. And whatever mental deficits drove them to become astronauts in the first place would only be exacerbated by the pressures of empty space.

These concerns weighed on the minds of space programs even when considering the first orbital flights, and the trek to the Moon. It turned out, however, that no such symptoms arose in those early astronauts. Instead, they remained calm and collected, performing under high pressure. They were qualified individuals carrying out a job and doing it well.

It’s clear at this point that simply leaving the planet is not a recipe for madness, but what of the years-long journey needed to get to the red planet and back? Such a mission would require years of separation from Earth, from friends and family, locked in a relatively small craft with a finite group of people without the ability to go outside, to feel the wind on your face, to do anything outside of the daily prescribed activities over and over again.

It’s not difficult to imagine how such a scenario might worsen any existing malady, or even create a mental break where one didn’t previously exist.


Despite the horrors of space madness never actually manifesting, NASA and other space agencies go to great lengths to ensure the people they send into space are equipped to handle the challenges.

Being an astronaut has a few base pre-requisites. The minimum requirements for astronauts include: a bachelor’s degree in engineering, biological or physical science, computer science, or math, with an additional three years of experience in that field or 1,000 hours of flight time. Once that box is checked, if selected to progress in the astronaut pool, there are psychological checks. Both rounds involve a series of interviews to include time with a psychologist and field exercises.

Psychiatric disorders are disqualifying, but a number of other factors can also result in disqualification from the pool. In short, NASA is looking for anything in your life that might cause additional pressures during the mission. The specific measures used to identify qualified candidates and disqualify others are not disclosed, for security reasons. In short, though, they are looking for any risk factors that might impact the mission. Especially on long missions, any distraction — even personal ones like marital problems — is seen as a risk factor that could cause undue stress.

After narrowing down a pool of thousands of applicants to a few select astronauts to eliminate the earth-bound risk as well as is possible, NASA takes extra measures to ensure the mental well-being of its astronauts once off the ground.

Astronauts receive continuous ground-based care throughout the mission by clinical psychology and psychiatry staff on the ground. There are also Crew Care Packages sent during resupply missions, which provide space-based crews with a tether to home. Astronauts also celebrate traditional holidays while in space, whenever possible. Astronauts who stay in space for long periods of time on the International Space Station are able to partake in some of these comforting practices, but they wouldn't be able to during deep space missions — like those to Mars and beyond. And therein lies the true concern when it comes to mental health.


A crewed mission to Mars could take approximately two years, give or take, based on planetary orbits and the amount of time spent on the Martian surface.

To date, the record for the longest consecutive time an individual has spent in space belongs to cosmonaut Valery Polyakov, who spent 438 days aboard MIR in the mid-'90s. A decade later, astronaut Scott Kelly spent 340 days aboard the ISS, roughly half the time needed to get to Mars and back.

Duration isn’t the only consideration, though. The vast distances, the communication lag time (up to 40 minutes), extended exposure to radiation and low gravity, and disruption of sleep cycles could all have untold effects on travelers’ physical and mental well-being. NASA has carried out animal studies involving mice and found negative neurological impacts resulting in increased anxiety and decreased cognitive function.

The Mars500 project carried out by the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy held six male participants in isolation for 520 days, intending to mimic some of the characteristics of a crewed Mars mission. They found increased levels of depression and abnormal sleep patterns, which raised some concerns about a small crew traveling to and from Mars without the direct and immediate support of ground control.

While the initial worries about space madness seem to be an invention of popular culture, the road ahead does have specific concerns we have not, as yet, been able to prepare for. NASA and other space-based agencies are doing everything they can to eliminate risks and plan for contingencies, but we likely won’t know the full extent of long-range space travel until we’re already on the road.

The good news is, so far, humanity has been able to weather every horizon and there’s every indication we’ll overcome whatever obstacles come our way as we travel to the next world and beyond. Fingers crossed.


(ed note: now, in reality, "rapture of the deep" was caused by the diver's breathing mix. And no real astronauts have exhibited any suicidal psychological problems. But back then they didn't know.)

      NINE MILLION miles to the sunward of Mercury, with the Leverrier swinging into the series of spirals that would bring it down on the Solar System’s smallest world, Second Astrogator Lon Curtis decided to end his life.
     Curtis had been lounging in a webfoam cradle waiting for the landing to be effected; his job in the operation was over, at least until the Leverrier's landing-jacks touched Mercury’s blistered surface. The ship’s efficient sodium coolant system negated the efforts of the swollen sun visible through the rear screen. For Curtis and his seven shipmates, no problems presented themselves; they had only to wait while the autopilot brought the ship down for Man’s second landing on Mercury.
     Flight Commander Harry Ross was sitting near Curtis when he noticed the sudden momentary stiffening of the astrogator’s jaws. Curtis abruptly reached for the control nozzle. From the spinnerets that had spun the webfoam, came a quick green burst of dissolving fluorochrene; the cradle vanished. Curtis stood up.
     "Going somewhere?" Ross asked.
     Curtis’ voice was harsh. “Just — just taking a walk.”
     Ross returned his attention to his microbook for a moment as Curtis walked away. There was the ratchety sound of a bulkhead dog being manipulated, and Ross felt a momentary chill as the cooler air of the super-refrigerated reactor-compartment drifted in.
     He punched a stud, turning the page. Then—
     What the hell is he doing in the reactor compartment?

     The autopilot would be controlling the fuel flow, handling it down to the milligram, in a way no human system could. The reactor was primed for the landing, the fuel was stoked, the compartment was dogged shut. No one—least of all a Second Astrogator—had any business going back there.
     Ross had the foam cradle dissolved in an instant, and was on his feet in another. He dashed down the companionway and through the open bulkhead door into the coolness of the reactor compartment.
     Curtis was standing by the converter door, toying with the release-tripper. As Ross approached, he saw the astrogator get the door open and put one foot to the chute that led downship to the nuclear pile.
     “Curtis, you idiot! Get away from there! You’ll kill us all!”
     The astrogator turned, looked blankly at Ross for an instant, and drew up his other foot. Ross leaped.
     He caught Curtis’ booted foot in his hands and, despite a barrage of kicks from the astrogator’s free boot, managed to drag Curtis off the chute. The astrogator tugged and pulled, attempting to break free. Ross saw the man’s pale cheeks quivering; Curtis had cracked, but thoroughly.
     Grunting, Ross yanked Curtis away from the yawning reactor chute and slammed the door shut. He dragged him out into the main section again, and slapped him, hard.
     “Why’d you want to do that? Don’t you know what your mass would do to the ship if it got into the converter? You know the fuel intake’s been calibrated already; a hundred eighty extra pounds and we’d arc right into the sun. What’s wrong with you, Curtis?”
     The astrogator fixed unshaking, unexpressive eyes on Ross. “I want to die,” he said simply. “Why couldn’t you let me die?”

     He wanted to die. Ross shrugged, feeling a cold tremor run down his back. There was no guarding against this disease.
     Just as aqualungers beneath the sea's surface suffered from l'ivresse des granules profondeursrapture of the deeps—and knew no cure for the strange, depth-induced drunkenness that induced them to remove their breathing-tubes fifty fathoms below, so did spacemen run the risk of this nameless malady, this inexplicable urge to self-destruction.

     It struck anywhere. A repairman wielding a torch on a recalcitrant strut of an orbiting Wheel might abruptly rip open his facemask and drink Vacuum; a radioman rigging an antenna on the skin of his ship might suddenly cut his line, fire his directional-pistol, and send himself drifting away sunward. Or a Second Astrogator might decide to climb into the converter.
     Psych Officer Spangler appeared, an expression of concern fixed on his smooth pink face. “Trouble ?”
     Ross nodded. “Curtis. Tried to jump into the fuel chute. He’s got it, Doc.”

     Scowling, Spangler rubbed his cheek, then said : “They always pick the best times, dammit. It’s swell having a psycho on a Mercury run."
     “That’s the way it is,” Ross said wearily. “Better put him in stasis till we get home. I’d hate to have him running loose looking for different ways of doing himself in.
     “Why can’t you let me die?” Curtis asked. His face was bleak. “Why’d you have to stop me?”
     “Because, you lunatic, you’d have killed all the rest of us by your fool dive into the converter. Go walk out the airlock if you want to die —but don’t take us with you.”
     Spangler glared warningly at him. “Harry—”
     “Okay,” Ross said. “Take him away.”
     The psychman led Curtis within. The astrogator would be given a tranquilizing injection, and locked in an insoluble webfoam jacket for the rest of the journey. There was a chance he could be restored to sanity, once they returned to Earth, but Ross knew that the astrogator would make a beeline for the nearest method of suicide the moment he was let loose in space.

     The Leverrier plunged downward. "Downward” was actually a misnomer—space has no ups or downs—but it was the simplest way for Ross to visualize the approach. He allowed his jangled nerves to calm. The ship was in the hands of the autopilot; the orbit was precomputed and the analog banks in the drive were happily following the taped program, bringing the ship to rest smack in the middle of—

     My God!

     Ross went cold from head to toe. The precomputed tape had been fed to the analog banks—had been prepared by—had been the work of—


     A suicidal madman had worked out the Leverrier's landing program.

     Ross’ hands began to shake. How easy it would have been, he thought, for death-bent Curtis to work out an orbit that would plant the Leverrier in a smoking river of molten lead—or in the mortuary chill of Darkside. (this was written back when astronomers though Mercury was tidally locked to the Sun)
     His false security vanished. There was no trusting the automatic pilot; they’d have to risk a manual landing.
     Ross jabbed down on the communicator button. “I want Brainerd,” he said hoarsely.
     The First Astrogator appeared a few seconds later, peering in curiously. “What goes, Captain ?”
     “We've just carted your assistant Curtis off to the pokey. He tried to jump into the converter."
     Ross nodded. “Attempted suicide; I nabbed him in time. But in view of the circumstances, I think we’d better discard the tape you had him prepare and bring the ship down manually, yes?"
     The First Astrogator moistened his lips. “Maybe that’s a good idea,” he said.
     “Damn right it is,” Ross said, glowering.

(ed note: after landing)

     He snapped on the communicator. “Brainerd?”
     “All OK, Captain.”
     “How was the landing? You used manual, didn’t you?”
     “I had to,” the astrogator said. “I ran a quick check on Curtis’ tape and it was all cockeyed. We’d have grazed Mercury’s orbit by a whisker and kept going— straight for the sun. Nice?”
     “Sweet,” Ross said. “But don’t be too hard on the kid it’s not his fault he went psycho"

From SUNRISE ON MERCURY by Robert Silverberg (1957)

    Alice came back about 1800. "Vinnie didn't buy it," she said wearily.

   "I don't blame her. No moons. All our beautiful logic, and no mucking moon." He had spent the day trying to play tourist in a city that wasn't designed for tourists. Waring was a working city.

   "She wouldn't have gone for it even if there'd been a moon. She said…well, I'm not sure she wasn't right." Alice's weariness was not a thing of gravity. She did not drop sagging onto the bed. Her posture was straight, her head high. But in her eyes and her voice …"In the first place, this is all hypothetical, she said. Which is true. In the second place, if it were true, what would we be sending a poor, helpless goldskin fleet into? In the third place, this Snatcher business has been adequately explained as cases of the Far Look."

   "I didn't get that."

   "The Far Look. Self-hypnosis. A Belter spends too long staring into infinity. Sometimes he wakes up in orbit around his destination without remembering anything after his takeoff. In fact, Vinnie showed me the report on Norma Stier. Remember her? Disappeared 2230-"


   "She was on course during that four months she was supposed to be missing. The films in her ship prove it."

From PROTECTOR by Larry Niven (1973)

‘Evacuating them. The island is submerged by now I guess.’

‘But why ? This is not time… Tough luck… the quogs. No ethnological value… plenty more…’

‘Hell!’ said Carlyle. ‘We cut down their tree!’

‘Jim!’ cried Garrett, with the static closing in. ‘Take care… crazy raft… Can’t allow… deviation emergency procedures.’ The receiver went dead.

Carlyle felt a surge of panic as if his lifeline had snapped. His morale sagged at the thought of the satellite… warmth, filtered air, human company… He felt his conditioning slipping away. He was on the verge of apophobia (Apeirophobia), Weltraumangst (spacephobia), the fear that grew in interstellar space from contemplating vast distances. He remembered poor Ed Kravetts, a cadet in his year who tried to cover up a bad case of ‘Yonders’. He staggered through his classes on the station red-eyed and queasy; a glance at one of the monitors made him sweat; the checking of an air-lock or a simple space walk left him shocked and pale. To see Kravetts struggling with a quantum equation was to apprehend the void: all the black miles that separated them from the tiny spinning globe of earth, a pin-point of light seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

Carlyle dragged himself back to his own world. ‘Identify with the place you’re in,’ wasn’t that Eva’s way of saying it?

From THE ARK OF JAMES CARLYLE by Cherry Wilder (1974)

     Rioz said, “Haven't you ever been in space, Ted?”
     “You know I have. Why do you ask?”
     “Sure, I know you have, but you still talk like a Grounder. Have you thought of the distances involved? The average asteroid is a hundred twenty million miles from Mars at the closest. That's twice the Venus-Mars hop and you know that hardly any liners do even that in one jump. They usually stop off at Earth or the Moon. After all, how long do you expect anyone to stay in space, man?
     “I don't know. What's your limit?”
     “You know the limit. You don't have to ask me. It's six months. That's handbook data. After six months, if you're still in space, you're psychotherapy meat. Right, Dick?”
     Swenson nodded.
     “And that's just the asteroids,” Rioz went on. “From Mars to Jupiter is three hundred thirty million miles, and to Saturn it's seven hundred million. How can anyone handle that kind of distance? Suppose you hit standard velocity, or, to make it even, say you get up to a good two hundred kilomiles an hour. It would take you—let's see, allowing time for acceleration and deceleration—about six or seven months to get to Jupiter and nearly a year to get to Saturn. Of course, you could hike the speed to a million miles an hour, theoretically, but where would you get the water to do that?”...
     ...Long said, “I'm talking about Saturn, not Vesta.”
     Rioz addressed an unseen audience. ”I tell him seven hundred million miles and he keeps on talking.”
     “All right,” said Long, “suppose you tell me how you know we can only stay in space six months, Mario?
     “It's common knowledge, damn it.”
     “Because it's in the Handbook of Space Flight. It's data compiled by Earth scientists from experience with Earth pilots and spacemen. You're still thinking Grounder style. You won't think the Martian way.
     “A Martian may be a Martian, but he's still a man.”
     “But how can you be so blind? How many times have you fellows been out for over six months without a break?”
     Rioz said, “That's different.”
     “Because you're Martians? Because you're professional Scavengers?”
     “No. Because we're not on a flight. We can put back for Mars any time we want to.”
     “But you don't want to. That's my point. Earthmen have tremendous ships with libraries of films, with a crew of fifteen plus passengers. Still, they can only stay out six months maximum. Martian Scavengers have a two-room ship with only one partner. But we can stick it out more than six months.
     Dora said, “I suppose you want to stay in a ship for a year and go to Saturn.”
     “Why not, Dora?” said Long. ”We can do it. Don't you see we can? Earthmen can't. They've got a real world. They've got open sky and fresh food, all the air and water they want. Getting into a ship is a terrible change for them. More than six months is too much for them for that very reason. Martians are different. We've been living on a ship our entire lives.
     “That's all Mars is—a ship. It's just a big ship forty-five hundred miles across with one tiny room in it occupied by fifty thousand people. It's closed in like a ship. We breathe packaged air and drink packaged water, which we repurify over and over. We eat the same food rations we eat aboard ship. When we get into a ship, it's the same thing we've known all our lives. We can stand it for a lot more than a year if we have to.

From THE MARTIAN WAY by Isaac Asimov (1952)

Minimum Living Volume

The US wet Navy crams twelve enlisted men into 100 m3, or 8.3 m3 per man. For deep space missions of 5 months or longer, this NASA report (Minimum Acceptable Net Habitable Volume for Long-Duration Exploration Missions) recommended a minimum acceptable Net Habitable Volume of 25 m3 (883 ft3) per person.

For more details go here.

Discworld Mine Sign

Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels are satirical fantasy for thinking people. While they are comedy, many of the jokes require a bit of scientific knowledge on the part of the reader. Which explains why I find them so entertaining. My personal favorites are The Truth (the invention of the newspaper), Going Postal (post office vs the Victorian internet), and Raising Steam (the invention of the steam locomotive).

Anyway like many fantasy novels the Discworld has a race of dwarfs. They spend most of their time in cramped mines in very close quarters with other dwarfs. Things can get tense.

Much like spacers on a prolonged deep-space mission in a tiny hab module, actually. Or asteroid miners.

As a sort of social network to reduce tensions Discworld dwarves use something called "mine signs", a species of graffiti. I am wondering of the idea can be adapted to a rocketpunk universe. Imagine Banksy using Spacers Runic


     'And talking of shapes, do you know what this means? I spotted it in the mine, and a dwarf called Helmclever scrawled it in some spilt coffee, and you know what? I think he was only half aware that he'd done it.'
     Carrot picked up the notebook and regarded the sketch solemnly for a moment.
     'Mine sign, sir,' he said. 'It means "the Following Dark".'
     'And what does that mean?'
     'Er, that things are pretty bad down there, sir,' said Carrot earnestly. 'Oh dear.' He put the notebook down slowly, as if half afraid that it might explode.
     'Well, there has been a murder, captain,' Vimes pointed out.
     'Yes, Sir. But this might mean something worse, sir. Mine-sign is a very strange phenomenon.'
     'There was a sign like it over the door, only there was just one line and it was horizontal,' Vimes added.
     'Oh, that'd be the Long Dark rune, sir,' said Carrot dismissively. 'It's just the symbol for a mine. Nothing to worry about.'

     'What are these mine signs all about?' he said. 'That Helmclever sort of drew one at me. I saw one on the wall, too. And you drew one.
     "'The Following Dark",' said Carrot. 'Yes. It was scrawled all over the place.'
     'What does it mean?'
     'Dread, sir,' said Carrot earnestly. 'A warning of terrible things to come.'
     'Well, if one of those little sods so much as surfaces with one of those flame weapons in his hand that will be true. But you mean they scrawl it on walls?'
     Carrot nodded. 'You have to understand about a dwarf mine, sir. It's a kind of—'

     —emotional hothouse, was how Vimes understood it, although no dwarf would ever describe it that way. Humans would have gone insane living like that, cramped together, no real privacy, no real silence, seeing the same faces every day for years on end. And since there were a lot of pointy weapons around, it'd only be a matter of time before the ceilings dripped blood.
     Dwarfs didn't go mad. They stayed thoughtful and sombre and keen on their job. But they scrawled mine-sign.
     It was like an unofficial ballot, voting by graffiti, showing your views on what was going on. In the confines of a mine any problem was everyone's problem, stress leapt from dwarf to dwarf like lightning. The signs earthed it. They were an outlet, a release, a way of showing what you felt without challenging anyone (because of all the pointy weapons).
     The Following Dark: We await what follows with dread. Another translation might mean, in effect: Repent, ye sinners!

     'There's the Waiting Dark that's the dark that fills a new hole. The Closing Dark I don't know about that one, but there's an Opening Dark, too. The Breathing Dark, that's rare. The Calling Dark, very dangerous. The Speaking Dark, the Catching Dark. The Secret Dark, I've seen that. They're all fine. But the Following Dark is a very bad sign. I used to hear the older dwarfs talking about that. They said it could make lamps go out, and much worse things. When people start drawing that sign, things have got very bad.'
     'This is all very interesting, but-'
     'Everyone in the mine is as nervous as heck, sir. Stressed like wires. Angua said she could smell it, but so could I, sir. I grew up in a mine. When something is wrong, everyone catches it. On days like that, sir, my father used to stop all mining operations. You get too many accidents. Frankly, sir, the dwarfs are mad with worry. The Following Dark signs are everywhere. It's probably the miners they've hired since they came here. They feel that something is very wrong, but the only thing they can do about it is sign.'

     'Captain, I'm getting a bit lost here,' said Vimes. 'I didn't grow up in a mine. Are these signs drawn because dwarfs think bad things are going to happen and want to ward them off, or think the mine deserves the bad things happening, or because they want the bad things to happen?'
     'Can be all three at once,' said Carrot, wincing. 'It can get really intense when a mine goes bad.'

From THUD! by Terry Pratchett (2005)

Social Media

On a spacecraft it might be considered a bit ghetto-like to spray-paint Dwarf Mine Signs on the corridor walls to blow off emotional steam, even if you are using Spacer's Runic. Especially if this is a military spacecraft.

A more sophisticated method to deal with crew getting cabin fever would be to use a shipboard version of social media (space twitter) sending hashtags as a reflexive meta-commentary ( #THEFOODSTINKS! ). The main thing is that the messages have to be sent anonymously. Just like graffiti.

There was something like that in Sir Arthur C. Clarke's novel The Songs of Distant Earth, called "Shipnet."


(ed note: the vacuum-energy drive STL starship Magellan is making a stop-over at the interstellar colony Thalassa to renew their solid ice debris shield. During the stop-over, some of the crew figure they might as well stay on Thalassa.)

Annoyed at letting his attention stray from the immediate problem, the captain reread the message he now knew by heart:


Sir: A number of us wish to make the following proposal, which we put forward for your most serious consideration. We suggest that our mission be terminated here at Thalassa.

All its objectives will be realized, without the additional risks involved in proceeding to Sagan 2. We fully recognize that this will involve problems with the existing population, but we believe they can be solved with the technology we possess - specifically, the use of tectonic engineering to increase the available land area.

As per Regulations, Section 14, Para 24 (a), we respectfully request that a Ship’s Council be held to discuss this matter as soon as possible.

     ‘So I should hope,’ Captain Bey said impatiently. ‘Have you any idea who could have sent it?’
     ‘None whatsoever. Excluding the three of us, I’m afraid we have 158 suspects.’…
     …‘That doesn’t narrow the field much,’ the Captain said, managing a bleak smile. ‘Have you any theories, Doctor?’
     Indeed I have, Kaldor thought. I lived on Mars for two of its long years; my money would be on the Sabras. But that’s only a hunch, and I may be wrong…
     ‘Not yet, Captain. But I’ll keep my eyes open. If I find anything, I’ll inform you — as far as possible.’
     The two officers understood him perfectly. In his role as counsellor, Moses Kaldor was not even responsible to the captain. He was the nearest thing aboard Magellan to a father confessor.
     ‘I assume, Dr Kaldor, that you’ll certainly let me know — if you uncover information that could endanger this mission.’
     Kaldor hesitated, then nodded briefly. He hoped he would not find himself in the traditional dilemma of the priest who received the confession of a murderer — who was still planning his crime.
     I’m not getting much help, the captain thought sourly. But I have absolute trust in these two men, and need someone to confide in. Even though the final decision must be mine.
     ‘The first question is should I answer this message or ignore it? Either move could be risky. If it’s only a casual suggestion — perhaps from a single individual in a moment of psychological disturbance — I might be unwise to take it too seriously. But if it’s from a determined group, then perhaps a dialogue may help. It could defuse the situation. It could also identify those concerned.’ And what would you do then? the captain asked himself. Clap them in irons?
     ‘I think you should talk to them,’ Kaldor said. ‘Problems seldom go away if they’re ignored.’
     Captain Bey found it distinctly unsettling, having to go about the ship’s business not knowing who — or how many — of his officers or crew were addressing him through the anonymity of SHIPNET. There was no way that these unlogged inputs could be traced — confidentiality was their very purpose, built in as a stabilizing social mechanism by the long-dead geniuses who had designed Magellan. He had tentatively raised the subject of a tracer with his chief communications engineer, but Commander Rocklyn had been so shocked that he had promptly dropped the matter.

     It was a simple question, but it did not have a simple answer: What would happen to discipline aboard Magellan if the very purpose of the ship’s mission was put to the vote?
     Of course, any result would not be binding, and he could override it if necessary. He would have to, if a majority decided to stay (not that for a moment he imagined …) But such an outcome would be psychologically devastating. The crew would be divided into two factions, and that could lead to situations he preferred not to contemplate…
     …And now his unknown petitioners were calling themselves the New Thalassans. Did that mean, Captain Bey wondered, that there were many of them and they were getting organized into a political movement? If so, perhaps the best thing would be to get them out into the open as soon as possible.
     Yes, it was time to call Ship’s Council.

     …‘And who will present the motions? We can’t expect the New Thalassans to come out into the open and plead their case.’
     ‘I wish we could have a straight vote without any arguments and discussions,’ Deputy Captain Malina had lamented.
     Privately, Captain Bey agreed. But this was a democratic society of responsible, highly educated men, and Ship’s Orders recognized that fact. The New Thalassans had asked for a Council to air their views; if he refused, he would be disobeying his own letters of appointment and violating the trust given him on Earth two hundred years ago.

     It had not been easy to arrange the Council. Since everyone, without exception, had to be given a chance of voting, schedules and duty rosters had to be reorganized and sleep periods disrupted. The fact that half the crew was down on Thalassa presented another problem that had never arisen before — that of security. Whatever its outcome might be, it was highly undesirable that the Lassans overhear the debate …
     And so Loren Lorenson was alone, with the door of his Tarna office locked for the first time he could recall, when the Council began. Once again he was wearing full-view goggles; but this time he was not drifting through a submarine forest. He was aboard Magellan, in the familiar assembly room, looking at the faces of colleagues, and whenever he switched his viewpoint, at the screen on which their comments and their verdict would be displayed. At the moment it bore one brief message:

RESOLVED: That the Starship Magellan terminate its mission at Thalassa as all its prime objectives can be achieved here.
     ‘Captain, officers, fellow crewmembers — although this is our first Council, you all know the rules of procedure. If you wish to speak, hold up your hand to be recognized. If you wish to make a written statement, use your keypad; the addresses have been scrambled to ensure anonymity. In either case, please be as brief as possible…
     …For at least a minute, nothing happened. Then letters began to appear on the screen.




     With total secrecy and neutrality, the computer stored and numbered the inputs from the Council members. In two millennia, no one had been able to invent a better way of sampling group opinion and obtaining a consensus. All over the ship — and down on Thalassa — men and women were tapping out messages on the seven buttons of their little one-hand keypads. Perhaps the earliest skill acquired by any child was the ability to touch-type all the necessary combinations without even thinking about them.
     Loren swept his eye across the audience and was amused to note that almost everyone had both hands in full view. He could see nobody with the typical far-off look, indicating that a private message was being transmitted via a concealed keypad. But somehow, a lot of people were talking.

     That would be, let’s see … Of course — Kingsley Rasmussen. Obviously he had no wish to remain incognito. He was expressing a thought that at one time or other had occurred to almost everyone.

From THE SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1985)

How Space Kills You

A NASA technician said "If you treat vacuum as you would poison gas you won't go far wrong." G. Harry Stine coined the term "traumatic abaryia" which more or less means "damage caused to your body by sudden exposure to vacuum".

How does space kill you? Let me count the ways. Face it, the human body was not designed to properly function in the vacuum of space. At a rough guess a person can survive space exposure as long as they are placed back inside a pressured atmosphere within 90 seconds. After that time, death might be unavoidable. You will only have about ten seconds before you become unconscious. Dr. Geoffrey Landis has an analysis here. There are some more links on the topic of explosive decompression here.

And anybody who's seen 2001 A Space Odyssey knows that a human exposed to vacuum is not going to pop like a balloon.

In order of lethality the effects are:

Formation of gas bubbles in bodily fluids by reduction of environmental pressure aka your blood starts to boil. Your eyes and mouth freeze due to evaporative cooling, tissue dies with loss of oxygen, entire body swells enormously, circulatory failure, muscle failure due to flaccid paralysis, lungs collapse and fill with ice.
The body being deprived of adequate oxygen supply aka suffocation because there ain't nothing to breath in space. Ataxia, confusion, disorientation, hallucinations, behavioral change, severe headaches, reduced level of consciousness, papilloedema, breathlessness, pallor, tachycardia, pulmonary hypertension, cyanosis, bradycardia, cor pulmonale, low blood pressure, death
A state of reduced carbod dioxide in the blood aka turbocharged hyperventilation. Transient dizziness, visual disturbances, anxiety, pins and needles sensation, muscle cramps and tetany in hands and feet.
Decompression Sickness
Dissolved gases coming out of solution into bubbles inside the body on depressurisation aka turn your blood stream into red foam like a shaken can of soda pop. Symptoms may range from rash to agonizing joint paint to death.
Extreme Temperature Variations
In sunlight at Terra's orbit the body may overheat, in shadow the body can lose heat at a rate of up to 1,000 watts.
Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet, x-rays, and energized protons can cause death by organ failure, short-term exposure may cause cancer. Chances are exposure to space will kill you in a matter of minutes so I wouldn't worry about the cancer.

Artist Nathan Hoste is doing a well-researched series called Bodies in Space on all the damage space does to an unprotected human. Warning, images may be considered NSFW.

No Air

If exposed to the vacuum of space, you got 10 seconds before you go unconsious. And 90 seconds before your body suffers fatal damage.

The main deadly feature of space is the lack of air. Unsurprisingly, out of the six major lethal factors of outer space, four of them are due to fact that there ain't nothing to breath: Ebullism, Hypoxia, Hypocapnia, and Decompression Sickness.

Besides the fact that you can't breath, a dead giveaway which tells an astronaut that they are in a vacuum without a space suit is when the saliva in their mouth suddently starts to boil.

If you suddenly find yourself in a vacuum, do NOT try to hold your breath. The air pressure trapped in your lungs will cause pulmonary barotrauma (aka all the zillions of tiny alveoli of your lungs will start popping like balloons). This means even if you manage to make it back into a pressurized area, you'll still die since you cannot breath with exploded lungs. To be really safe you should yell to help expell every bit of your lung pressure.


10 secs until unconscious
90 secs until fatal damage
maybe Ebullism
The Bends

< 6.3 kPa w/bare skin
     (Armstrong Limit)
     (Kittinger Syndrome)
< 2.0 kPa w/Pumpkin Suit
Never w/space suit

N2 79%, O2 21%
< 25.1 kPa: Anoxia
101.3 kPa: Normal
> 254.0 kPa: O2 toxicity
> 400 kPa: N2 narcosis

O2 100%
< 5.3 kPa: Anoxia
32.4 kPa: Normal
> 53.3 kPa: O2 toxicity

< 3/5 kPa can safely open ISS outside airlock hatch without damaging the hinges

And there are a couple of effects that are not actually lethal, just incredibly painful.

Armstrong Limit

If you take glass of water, and lower the air pressure, the temperature point at which the water boils is lowered as well. This is why cake mixes have high altitude instructions: the watery part has a lower boiling point/maximum temperature than normal so it takes longer to cook. If you are living in a habitat module with a pure oxygen breathing mix, the pressure will be at about 32.4 kPa (80% normal Terran atmospheric pressure). Here too the cake mixes will take longer to cook since water boils at 70° C, and your tea will always be lukewarm.

What I am leading up to is the Armstrong Limit. You see, if the pressure drops to 6.3 kPa (63 mbar), water will boil at 37° C. Which just happens to be normal human body temperature. The saliva will boil off your tongue, the tears will boil off your eyes. If you become so frightened that you pee in your pants, that will boil as well. The same goes for poop but that's a horrible image I just don't want to think about.

The blood will boil in your veins too, were it not for the fortunate fact that your skin will pressurize your vascular system enough to prevent that unhappy state of affairs. This is why soft suits can get away with not pressurizing your body.

Yes, the technical name for this low-pressure boiling is ebullism, as previously mentioned.

Naturally astronauts will not commonly be constantly exposed to 6.3 kPa. Much more likly they will briefly encounter it as the pressure plummets to zero kPa, as all the breathing mix goes rushing out a deadly tear in their space suit or a major breech in the hull of the habitat module.

But in any event if your saliva starts to boil, be aware that you have only ten seconds to get to safety before you lose consiousness, and 80 additional seconds for your buddies to drag you into somewhere pressurized before you die. Be quick or be dead.

Kittinger Syndrome

In addition: hands, feet, arms, and legs that are no pressurized will suffer an attack of Kittinger Syndrome. They will swell up to about twice normal size, with accompanying agonizing pain. Bringing back pressure will return them to normal, but if swollen for more than a few minutes there wil be aneurisms and hematomas. G. Harry Stine calls this "Vac Bite."

As a matter of interest, NASA has a rule that the International Space Station's airlock pressure has to be lowered to 3.5 kPa (35 mbar) before it is safe to open the hatch to space. Otherwise the residual air pressure inside the airlock could break the hinges.


Uncontrolled decompression is an unplanned drop in the pressure of a sealed system, such as an aircraft cabin or hyperbaric chamber, and typically results from human error, material fatigue, engineering failure, or impact, causing a pressure vessel to vent into its lower-pressure surroundings or fail to pressurize at all.

(ed note: I suppose hostile weapons fire comes under the heading of "impact")

Such decompression may be classed as Explosive, Rapid, or Slow:

  • Explosive decompression (ED) is violent, the decompression being too fast for air to safely escape from the lungs.
  • Rapid decompression, while still fast, is slow enough to allow the lungs to vent.
  • Slow or gradual decompression occurs so slowly that it may not be sensed before hypoxia sets in.


The term uncontrolled decompression here refers to the unplanned depressurisation of vessels that are occupied by people; for example, a pressurised aircraft cabin at high altitude, a spacecraft, or a hyperbaric chamber. For the catastrophic failure of other pressure vessels used to contain gas, liquids, or reactants under pressure, the term explosion is more commonly used, or other specialised terms such as BLEVE may apply to particular situations.

Decompression can occur due to structural failure of the pressure vessel, or failure of the compression system itself. The speed and violence of the decompression is affected by the size of the pressure vessel, the differential pressure between the inside and outside of the vessel, and the size of the leak hole.

The US Federal Aviation Administration recognizes three distinct types of decompression events in aircraft:

  • Explosive decompression
  • Rapid decompression
  • Gradual decompression

Explosive decompression

Explosive decompression occurs at a rate swifter than that at which air can escape from the lungs, typically in less than 0.1 to 0.5 seconds. The risk of lung trauma is very high, as is the danger from any unsecured objects that can become projectiles because of the explosive force, which may be likened to a bomb detonation.

After an explosive decompression within an aircraft, a heavy fog may immediately fill the interior as the relative humidity of cabin air rapidly changes as the air cools and condenses. Military pilots with oxygen masks have to pressure-breathe, whereby the lungs fill with air when relaxed, and effort has to be exerted to expel the air again.

Rapid decompression

Rapid decompression typically takes more than 0.1 to 0.5 seconds, allowing the lungs to decompress more quickly than the cabin. The risk of lung damage is still present, but significantly reduced compared with explosive decompression.

Gradual decompression

Slow, or gradual, decompression occurs slowly enough to go unnoticed and might only be detected by instruments. This type of decompression may also come about from a failure to pressurize as an aircraft climbs to altitude. An example of this is the 2005 Helios Airways Flight 522 crash, in which the pilots failed to check the aircraft was pressurising automatically and then to react to the warnings that the aircraft was depressurising, eventually losing consciousness (along with most of the passengers and crew) from hypoxia.

From the Wikipedia entry for UNCONTROLLED DECOMPRESSION

“It wouldn’t happen that way in real life.” One of the most annoying habits of people really into the “sci” of sci-fi is nitpicking scientific inaccuracies in movies. The truth is, some things just make movies better, even if they are wrong.

What would Star Wars be without the sounds of an epic battle in space where there should be no sound? But there are plenty of other examples where things are wrong and it would have been just as easy to get them right — the direction of space debris in the movie Gravity, for example. But what about the age-old trope of explosive decompression? Some movies show gross body parts flying everywhere. Others show distressed space travelers surviving in space for at least brief periods.

It turns out, dropping pressure from one atmosphere to near zero is not really good for you as you might expect. But it isn’t enough to just make you pop like some meat balloon. You are much more likely to die from a pulmonary embolism or simple suffocation. But you are a meat balloon if you experience a much greater change in pressure. How do we know? It isn’t theoretical. These things have happened in real life.

In 1966, NASA spacesuit technician Jim LeBlanc found out about the first problem the hard way. Wearing a Gemini space suit, he entered a vacuum chamber and had an accidental pressure hose disconnect. Within 10 seconds, the pressure in his suit went from 3.8 PSI to nearly zero.

LeBlanc reported he could feel saliva boiling off his tongue before he passed out. The fact that he could report this should tell you that it all ended well. Instead of the normal thirty minute repress sequence, engineers restored air to the chamber in 87 seconds, although he got emergency oxygen 25 seconds later. Outside of an earache, he was fine. He stayed conscious for 14 seconds.


So does that mean exploding people are just a movie phenomena? Not quite. It just takes a bigger pressure differential. A drilling rig, the Byford Dolphin, had an accident in 1983. Five crew died and a sixth was seriously injured.

The platform was drilling in the Frigg gas field in the North Sea. Four divers were in two connected chambers at a pressure of 9 atmospheres. One of the chambers also connected to a diving bell. The bell used a clamp to isolate it from the chambers. However, the clamp was opened too early which caused the 9 atmosphere pressure rush to the 1 atmosphere bell.

The bell was blown away and the victims suffered a variety of effects ranging from their circulatory systems jamming up with suddenly insoluble fats to violent decompression that left internal body parts as far as 30 feet away.

Newer rigs have more safety systems and interlocks to prevent things like this from happening. Officially, the cause was human error, although there are those who believe it was faulty equipment to blame. After 26 years, the families of the victims did receive a settlement from the Norwegian government.


So surviving a few minutes of vacuum like Dave Bowman did in 2001: A Space Oddessy is probably more realistic than Arnold Schwarzenegger exploding in Total Recall. However, it wouldn’t be pleasant. In the 1960s, the Air Force did decompress a group of chimpanzees with only one fatality — an older chimp with other health problems.

It is a rare space movie that gets everything right. Explosions look different than you’d expect, spaceships don’t constantly accelerate while their engines are running, There’s a host of other issues that affect most movies.

However, Gravity might be the hardest to swallow with a very old lieutenant in command of the Space Shuttle. It might not be science, but it is still hard to imagine you could turn 50, be in command of the shuttle, and still be only a lieutenant. Of course, seeing Sandra Bullock shimmy out of a space suit looking picture perfect is worth at least a giggle. Between the sweaty nature of being cooped up in one, and the reality of the built-in toilet system, real-life space suits are just gross.

But, hey! It is just a movie.


     I noted with approval that Carlos' mouth was wide open, like mine, to clear his lungs so that they wouldn't burst when the air was gone.
     Daggers in my ears and sinuses, pressure in my gut...
     ...The air was deadly thin but not gone. My lungs thought they were gasping vacuum. But my blood was not boiling. I'd have known it.
     So I gasped, and kept gasping. It was all I had attention for. Black spots flickered before my eyes, but I was still gasping and alive when Ausfaller reached us carrying a clear plastic package and an enormous handgun.
     He came in fast, on a rocket backpack. Even as he decelerated he was looking around for something to shoot. He returned in a loop of fire. He studied us through his faceplate, possibly wondering if we were dead.
     He flipped the plastic package open. It was a thin sack with a zipper and a small tank attached. He had to dig for a torch to cut our bonds. He freed Carlos first, helped him into the sack. Carlos bled from the nose and ears. He was barely mobile. So was I, but Ausfaller got me into the sack with Carlos and zipped it up. Air hissed in around us.
     I wondered what came next. As an inflated sphere the rescue bag was too big for the tunnels. Ausfaller had thought of that. He fired at the dome, blasted a gaping hole in it, and flew us out on the rocket backpack.
     Hobo Kelly was grounded nearby. I saw that the rescue bag wouldn't fit the airlock either… and Ausfaller confirmed my worst fear. He signaled us by opening his mouth wide. Then he zipped open the rescue bag and half-carried us into the airlock while the air was still roaring out of our lungs.
     When there was air again Carlos whispered, "Please don't do that any more."

From THE BORDERLAND OF SOL by Larry Niven (1975)

We've had our expected quota of minor industrial accidents. Cuts, bruises, contusions, a few broken bones, some cases of exhaustion because a rigger worked beyond his limits in vacuum and zero-g, a couple of burns, but nothing really serious until we ran into "vac bite."

The safety compartmentalization of the P-suits hasn't always been a safety measure, although it's undoubtedly saved many lives from traumatic abaryia (sudden loss of all pressure in one's space suit). Nobody thought about secondary effects. The cuff latch on a man's glove failed yesterday, and the glove blew away. "Vac bite"—which is what we're calling it colloquially until I can figure out a suitable Greco-Latin term —is the result of exposure of the extremities to vacuum conditions.

The extremity—hand, foot, arm, etc.—doesn't explode; connective tissue's strong and the human skin's remarkably tough. But the extremity swells up in the Kittinger Syndrome, first experienced by Captain Joseph Kittinger during a stratospheric parachute jump back in 1960. The absence of atmospheric pressure causes vasodilation and edema, which becomes very painful. The swelling also inhibits movement. If the abaryic condition prevails for several minutes, it can cause aneurism and rupture of the capillary walls followed by hematomas. Unless there's a cut or other opening in the skin, there's little chance of blood loss. But if the abaryic condition continues, tissue's destroyed. The course of the affliction begins to parallel that of frostbite, which is the reason it got its vernacular name. It's painful as hell and immobilizes the extremity. Right now, the only way we know to treat it is with cold packs or hypothermic immersion, along with analgesics and mild diuretics. I'm thinking about the possibility of trying a hyperbaric chamber, but we haven't got one here yet. Maybe in a year or so.

No bends yet. Everyone flushes the nitrogen out of his system for thirty minutes by breathing pure Oh-two before cycling into vacuum. But if there were an explosive decompression of any of the living spaces in GEO Base or with my paramedics on an emergency, we'd get bends because we're running an oxynitrogen atmosphere.

From SPACE DOCTOR by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) 1981

"You know what the folks back home don't understand, the ones who've never left Earth, is just how dangerous space can be. Aside from incidents like this, just the everyday reality of living your days and nights in a big tin can surrounded by a vacuum."

"I remember my first time on a transport, on the Moon-Mars run. I was just a kid, maybe seventeen. A buddy of mine was messing around, and zipping through the halls, and he hid in one of the airlocks. I don't know, I guess he was gonna try to scare us or something, I don't know... But just as I got close, he must have hit the wrong button because the air doors slammed shut, the space doors opened, and he... just flew out into space."

"And the one thing they never tell you is that you don't die instantly in vacuum. He just hung there against the black like a puppet with his strings all tangled up... or one of those old cartoons where you run off the edge of the cliff and your legs keep going."

"You could see that he was trying to breathe, but there was nothing. The one thing I remember when they pulled in his body... his eyes were frozen."

"A lot of people make jokes about spacing somebody, about shoving somebody out an airlock -- I don't think it's funny. Never will."


      A long time ago I discovered that people who’ve never left Earth have certain fixed ideas about conditions in space. Everyone "knows,” for example, that a man dies instantly and horribly when exposed to the vacuum that exists beyond the atmosphere. You’ll find numerous gory descriptions of exploded space-travelers in the popular literature, and I won’t spoil your appetite by repeating them here. Many of those tales, indeed, are basically true. I’ve pulled men back through the airlock who were very poor advertisements for spaceflight.
     Yet, at the same time, there are exceptions to every rule—even this one. I should know, for I learned it the hard way.

     We were on the last stages of building Communications Satellite Two; all the main units had been joined together, the living quarters had been pressurized, and the station had been given the slow spin around its axis that had restored the unfamiliar sensation of weight. I say "slow,” but at its rim our two-hundred-foot-diameter wheel was turning at thirty miles an hour. We had, of course, no sense of motion, but the centrifugal force caused by this spin gave us about half the weight we would have possessed on Earth. That was enough to stop things from drifting around, yet not enough to make us feel uncomfortably sluggish after our weeks with no weight at all.

(ed note: 30 meter radius wheel, tangential velocity 13.4 m/s, angular velocity 4.2 rpm, artificial gravity 0.6 g, according to SpinCalc. And 4.2 rpm is safely within the nausea limit)

     Four of us were sleeping in the small cylindrical cabin known as Bunkhouse No. 6 on the night that it happened. The bunkhouse was at the very rim of the station; if you imagine a bicycle wheel, with a string of sausages replacing the tire, you have a good idea of the layout. Bunkhouse No. 6 was one of these sausages, and we were slumbering peacefully inside it.
     I was awakened by a sudden jolt that was not violent enough to cause me alarm, but which did make me sit up and wonder what had happened. Anything unusual in a space station demands instant attention, so I reached for the intercom switch by my bed. "Hello, Central,” I called. "What was that?”

     There was no reply; the line was dead.

     Now thoroughly alarmed, I jumped out of bed—and had an even bigger shock. There was no gravity. I shot up to the ceiling before I was able to grab a stanchion and bring myself to a halt, at the cost of a sprained wrist.
     It was impossible that the entire station had suddenly stopped rotating. There was only one answer; the failure of the intercom and, as I quickly discovered, of the lighting circuit as well, forced us to face the appalling truth. We were no longer part of the station; our little cabin had somehow come adrift, and had been slung off into space like a raindrop falling on a spinning flywheel.
     There were no windows through which we could look out, but we were not in complete darkness, for the battery-powered emergency lights had come on. All the main air-vents had closed automatically when the pressure dropped. For the time being we could live in our own private atmosphere, even though it was not being renewed. Unfortunately, a steady whistling told us that the air we did have was escaping through a leak somewhere in the cabin.

     There was no way of telling what had happened to the rest of the station. For all we knew, the whole structure might have come to pieces, and all our colleagues might be dead or in the same predicament as ourselves—drifting through space in leaking cans of air. Our one slim hope was that we were the only castaways, that the rest of the station was intact and had been able to send a rescue team to find us. After all, we were receding at no more than thirty miles an hour, and one of the rocket scooters could catch us up in minutes.
     It actually took an hour, though without the evidence of my watch I should never have believed that it was so short a time. We were now gasping for breath, and the gauge on our single emergency oxygen tank had dropped to one division above zero.

     The banging on the wall seemed like a signal from another world. We banged back vigorously, and a moment later a muffled voice called to us through the wall. Someone outside was lying with his spacesuit helmet pressed against the metal, and his shouted words were reaching us by direct conduction. Not as clear as radio—but it worked.
     The oxygen gauge crept slowly down to zero while we had our council of war. We would be dead before we could be towed back to the station; yet the rescue ship was only a few feet away from us, with its airlock already open. Our little problem was to cross that few feet—without spacesuits.
     We made our plans carefully, rehearsing our actions in the full knowledge that there could be no repeat performance. Then we each took a deep, final swig of oxygen, flushing out our lungs. When we were all ready, I banged on the wall to give the signal to our friends waiting outside.

     There was a series of short, staccato raps as the power tools got to work on the thin hull. We clung tightly to the stanchions, as far away as possible from the point of entry, knowing just what would happen. When it came, it was so sudden that the mind couldn’t record the sequence of events. The cabin seemed to explode, and a great wind tugged at me. The last trace of air gushed from my lungs, through my already-opened mouth. And then—utter silence, and the stars shining through the gaping hole that led to life.
     Believe me, I didn’t stop to analyze my sensations. I think—though I can never be sure that it wasn’t imagination—that my eyes were smarting and there was a tingling feeling all over my body. And I felt very cold, perhaps because evaporation was already starting from my skin. The only thing I can be certain of is that uncanny silence. It is never completely quiet in a space station, for there is always the sound of machinery or airpumps. But this was the absolute silence of the empty void, where there is no trace of air to carry sound.
     Almost at once we launched ourselves out through the shattered wall, into the full blast of the sun. I was instantly blinded—but that didn’t matter, as the men waiting in spacesuits grabbed me as soon as I emerged and hustled me into the airlock. And there, sound slowly returned as the air rushed in, and we remembered we could breathe again. The entire rescue, they told us later, had lasted just twenty seconds…

     Well, we were the foundermembers of the Vacuum-Breather’s Club. Since then, at least a dozen other men have done the same thing, in similar emergencies. The record time in space is now two minutes; after that, the blood begins to form bubbles as it boils at body temperature, and those bubbles soon get to the heart.
     In my case, there was only one after-effect. For maybe a quarter of a minute I had been exposed to real sunlight, not the feeble stuff that filters down through the atmosphere of Earth. Breathing space didn’t hurt me at all—but I got the worst dose of sunburn I’ve ever had in my life.

From TAKE A DEEP BREATH by Arthur C. Clarke (1957)

      "Pegasus to Acheron," he replied. "I have three hundred passengers aboard. I cannot hazard my ship if there is danger of an explosion."
     "There is no danger, I can guarantee that. We will have at least five minutes' warning, which will give us ample time to get clear of you."
     "Very well—I'll get my airlocks ready and my crew standing by to pass you a line."
     There was a pause longer than that dictated by the sluggish progress of radio waves. Then Brennan replied: "That's our trouble. We're cut off in the forward section. There are no external locks here, and we have only five suits among a hundred and twenty men."
     Halstead whistled and turned to his navigating officer before answering.
     "There's nothing we can do for them," he said. "They'll to crack the hull to get out, and that will be the end of everyone exceed the five men in the suits. We can't even lend them our own suits—there'll be no way we can get them aboard without letting down the pressure." He flicked over microphone switch.
     "Pegasus to Acheron. How do you suggest we can assist you?" It was eerie to be speaking to a man who was already as good as dead. The traditions of space were as strict as those of the sea. Five men could leave the Acheron alive, but her captain would not be among them.
     Halstead did not know that Commodore Brennan had other ideas, and had by no means abandoned hope, desperate though the situation on board the Acheron seemed. His chief medical officer, who had proposed the plan, was already explaining it to the crew.

     "This is what we're going to do," said the small, dark man who a few months ago had been one of the best surgeons on Venus. "We can't get at the airlocks, because there's vacuum all round us and we've only got five suits. This ship was built for fighting, not for carrying passengers, and I'm afraid her designers had other matters to think about besides Standard Spaceworthiness Regs. Here we are, and we have to make the best of it.
     "We'll be alongside the Pegasus in a couple of hours. Luckily for us, she's got big locks for loading freight and passengers there's room for thirty or forty men to crowd into them, if they squeeze tight—and aren't wearing suits. Yes, I know that sounds bad, but it's not suicide. You're going to breathe space, and get away with it! I won't say it will be enjoyable, but it will be something to brag about for the rest of your lives.
     "Now listen carefully. The first thing I've got to prove to you is that you can live for five minutes without breathing—in fact, without wanting to breathe. It's a simple trick: Yogis and magicians have known it for centuries, but there's nothing occult about it and it's based on common-sense physiology. To give you confidence, I want you to make this test."
     The M. O. pulled a stop watch out of his pocket, ad continued: "When I say 'Now!' I want you to exhale completely—empty your lungs of every drop of air—and then see how long you can stay before you have to take a breath. Don't strain—just hold out until it becomes uncomfortable, then start breathing again normally. I'll start counting the seconds after fifteen, so you can tell what you managed to do. If anyone can't take the quarter minute, I'll recommend his instant dismissal from the Service."
     The ripple of laughter broke the tension, as it had been intended to; then the M. O. held up his hand, and swept it down with a shout of "Now!" There was a great sigh as the entire company emptied its lungs; then utter silence.
     When the M. O. started counting at "Fifteen," there were a few gasps from those who had barely been able to make the grade. He went on counting to "Sixty" accompanied by occasional explosive pants as one man after another capitulated. Some were still stubbornly holding out after a full minute, "That's enough," said the little surgeon. "You tough guys can stop showing off, you're spoiling the experiment."
     Again there was a murmur of amusement; the men were rapidly regaining their morale. They still did not understand what was happening, but at least some plan was afoot that offered them a hope of rescue.
     "Let's see how we managed," said the M. O. "Hands up all those who held out for fifteen to twenty seconds…Now twenty to twenty-five…Now twenty-five to thirty—Jones, you're a damn liar—you folded up at fifteen!—Now thirty to thirty-five… When he had finished the census, it was clear that more than half the company had managed to hold their breath for thirty seconds, and no one had failed to reach fifteen seconds.
     "That's about what I expected," said the M. O. "You can regard this as a control experiment, and now we come on to the real thing. I ought to tell you that we're now breathing almost pure oxygen here, at about three hundred millimeters. So although the pressure in the ship is less than half its sea-level value on Earth, your lungs are taking in twice as much oxygen as they would on Earth, and still more than they would on Mars or Venus. If any of you have sneaked off to have a surreptitious smoke in the toilet, you'll already have noticed that the air was rich, as your cigarette will only have lasted a few seconds.

     "I'm telling you all this because it will increase your confidence to know what is going on. What you're going to do now is to flush out your lungs and fill your system with oxygen. It's called hyperventilation, which is simply a ten dollar word for deep breathing. When I give the signal, I want you all to breathe as deeply as you can, then exhale completely, and carry on breathing in the same way until I tell you to stop. I'll tell you do it for a minute; some of you may feel a bit dizzy at the end of that time, but it'll pass. Take in all the air you can with every breath; swing your arms to get maximum chest expansion.
     "Then, when the minute's up, I'll tell you to exhale, then stop breathing, and I'll begin counting seconds again. I think I can promise you a big surprise. O. K.—here we go!"
     For the next minutes, the overcrowded compartments of the Acheron presented a fantastic spectacle. More than a hundred men were flailing their arms and breathing stertorously, as if each was at his last gasp. Some were too closely packed together to breathe as deeply as they would have liked, and all had to anchor themselves somehow so that their exertion would not cause them to drift around the cabins.
     "Now!" shouted the M. O. "Stop breathing—blow out all your air—and see how long you can manage before you've got to start again. I'll count the seconds, but this time I won't begin until half a minute has gone."
     The result, it was obvious, left everyone flabbergasted. One man failed to make the minute, otherwise almost two minutes elapsed before most of the men felt the need to breathe again. Indeed, to have taken a breath before then would have demanded a deliberate effort. Some men were still perfectly comfortable after three or four minutes; one was holding out at five when the doctor stopped him.
     "I think you'll all see what I was trying to prove. When your lungs are flushed out with oxygen, you just don't want to breathe for several minutes, any more than you want to eat again after a heavy meal. It's no strain or hardship; it's not a question of holding your breath. And if your life depended on it, you could do even better than this, I promise you.
     "Now we're going to tie up right alongside the Pegasus; it will take less than thirty seconds to get over to her. She'll have her men out in suits to push along any stragglers, and the air lock doors will be slammed shut as soon as you're all inside. Then the lock will be flooded with air and you'll be none the worse except for some bleeding noses."
     He hoped that was true. There was only one way to find out. It was a dangerous and unprecedented gamble, but there was no alternative. At least it would give every man a fighting chance for his life.
     "Now," he continued, "you're probably wondering about the pressure drop. That's the only uncomfortable part, but you won't be in a vacuum long enough for severe damage. We'll open the hatches in two stages; first we'll drop pressure slowly to a tenth of an atmosphere, then we'll blow out completely in one bang and make a dash for it. Total decompression's painful, but not dangerous. Forget all that nonsense you may have heard about the human body blowing up in a vacuum. We're a lot tougher than that, and the final drop we're going to make from a tenth of an atmosphere to zero is considerably less than men have already stood in lab tests. Hold your mouth wide open and let yourself break wind. You'll feel your skin stinging all over, but you'll probably be too busy to notice that."
     The M. O. paused, and surveyed his quiet, intent audience. They were all taking it very well, but that was only to be expected. Every one was a trained man—they were the pick of the planets' engineers and technicians.
     "As a matter of fact," the surgeon continued cheerfully, "you'll probably laugh when I tell you the biggest danger of the lot. It's nothing more than sunburn. Out there you'll be in the sun's raw ultra-violet, unshielded by atmosphere. It can give you a nasty blister in thirty seconds, so we'll make the crossing in the shadow of the Pegasus. If you happen to get outside that shadow, just shield your face with your arm. Those of you who've got gloves might as well wear them.
     "Well, that's the picture. I'm going to cross with the first team just to show how easy it is. Now I want you to split up into four groups, and I'll drill you each separately."

     Side by side, the Pegasus and the Acheron raced toward the distant planet that only one of them would ever reach. The airlocks of the liner were open, gaping wide no more than a few meters from the hull of the crippled battleship. The space between the two vessels was strung with guide ropes, and among them floated the men of the liner's crew, ready to give assistance if any of the escaping men were overcome during the brief but dangerous crossing.
     It was lucky for the crew of the Acheron that four pressure bulkheads were still intact. Their ship could still be divided into four separate compartments, so that a quarter of the crew could leave at a time. The airlocks of the Pegasus could not have held everyone at once if a mass escape had been necessary.
     Captain Halstead watched from the bridge as the signal given. There was a sudden puff of smoke from the hull of the battleship, then the emergency hatch—certainly never designed for an emergency such as this—blew away into space. A cloud of dust and condensing vapor blasted out, obscuring the view for a second. He knew how the waiting men would feel the escaping air sucking at their bodies, trying to tear them away from their handholds.
     When the cloud had dispersed, the first men had already emerged. The leader was wearing a spacesuit, and all the others were strung on the three lines attached to him. Instantly, men from the Pegasus grabbed two of the lines and darted off to their respective airlocks. The men of the Acheron, Halstead was relieved to see, all appeared to be conscious and to be doing everything they could to help.
     It seemed ages before the last figure on its drifting line was towed or pushed into an airlock. Then the voice from one of those spacesuited figures out there shouted, "Close Number Three!" Number One followed almost at once; but there was an agonizing delay before the signal for Two came. Halstead could not see what was happening; presumably someone was still outside and holding up the rest. But at last all the locks were closed. There was no time to fill them in the normal way; valves were jerked open by brute force and the chambers filled with air from the ship.
     Aboard the Acheron, Commodore Brennan waited with remaining ninety men, in the three Compartments that were unsealed. They had formed their groups and were strung in chains of ten behind their leaders. Everything had been planned and rehearsed; the next few seconds would prove whether or not in vain.
     Then the ship's speakers announced, in an almost quietly conversational tone: Pegasus to Acheron. We've got all your men out of the locks. No casualties. A few hemorrhages. Give us five minutes to get ready for the next batch."

     They lost one man on the last transfer. He panicked and they had to slam the lock shut without him, rather than risk the lives of all the others. It seemed a pity that they could not all have made it, but for the moment everyone was too thankful to worry about that.

From EARTHLIGHT by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1955)

McAndrew stood at the outer lock, ready to open it. I pulled the whistle from the lapel of my jacket and blew hard. The varying triple tone sounded through the lock. Penalty for improper use of any Sturm Invocation was severe, whether you used spoken, whistled, or electronic methods. I had never invoked it before, but anyone who goes into space, even if it is just a short trip from Earth to Moon, must receive Sturm vacuum survival programming. One person in a million uses it. I stood in the lock, waiting to see what would happen to me.

The sensation was strange. I still had full command of my movements, but a new set of involuntary activities came into play. Without any conscious decision to do so I found that I was breathing hard, hyper-ventilating in great gulps. My eye-blinking pattern had reversed. Instead of open eyes with rapid blinks to moisten and clean the eyeball, my lids were closed except for brief instants. I saw the lock and the space outside as quick snapshots.

The Sturm Invocation had the same effect an McAndrew, as his own deep programming took over for vacuum exposure. When I nodded, he swung open the outer lock door. The air was gone in a puff of ice vapor. As my eyes flicked open I saw the capsule at the top of the landing tower. To reach it we had to traverse sixty meters of the interstellar vacuum. And we had to carry Sven Wicklund's unconscious body between us.

For some reason I had imagined that the Sturm vacuum programming would make me insensitive to all pain. Quite illogical, since you could permanently damage your body all too easily in that situation. I felt the agony of expansion through my intestines, as the air rushed out of all my body cavities. My mouth was performing an automatic yawning and gasping, emptying the Eustachian tube to protect my ear drums and delicate inner ear. My eyes were closed to protect the eyeballs from freezing, and open just often enough to guide my body movements.

Holding Wicklund between us, McAndrew and I pushed off into the open depths of space. Ten seconds later, we intersected the landing tower about twenty meters up. Sturm couldn't make a human comfortable in space, but he had provided a set of natural movements that corresponded to a zero-gee environment. They were needed. If we missed the tower there was no other landing point within light-years.

The metal of the landing tower was at a temperature several hundred degrees below freezing. Our hands were unprotected, and I could feel the ripping of skin at each contact. That was perhaps the worst pain. The feeling that I was a ball, over-inflated and ready to burst, was not a pain. What was it? That calls for the same sort of skills as describing sight to a blind man. All I can say is that once in a lifetime is more than enough.

Thirty seconds in the vacuum, and we were still fifteen meters from the capsule. I was getting the first feeling of anoxia, the first moment of panic. As we dropped into the capsule and tagged shut the hatch I could feel the black clouds moving around me, dark nebulae that blanked out the bright star field.

The transfer capsule had no real air lock. When I hit the air supply, the whole interior began to fill with warm oxygen. As the concentration grew to a perceptible fraction of an atmosphere, I felt something turn off abruptly within me. My eye blinking went back to the usual pattern, my mouth closed instead of gaping and gasping, and the black patches started to dwindle and fragment.

From "ALL THE COLORS OF THE VACUUM" by Charles Sheffield (1981)


Arguably the biggest killer in the space environment is Stupidity.

Larry Niven coined the phrase "Think of it as evolution in action".


“What’s retirement?”

In the inchoate years of the space age, the “old age” cause of death was abrogated in favor of more precise terms: “heart failure”, “secondary infection from weakened immune response”, und so weiter.

In subsequent years, a new cause was added: “stupidity”.

Space is hazardous to the point of absurdity. Leaking atmo? Death. Forget your transfer window? Death. Out of EVA fuel? Death. The universe is cold and dispassionate, and with better tools and equipment, the human error of incompetence increasingly–and vastly–was outstripping pure technological failure.

When the report came in of another deceased spacer, the cause of death ended up being “stupidity” more than 3/4 of the time. Did it really matter that he suffocated on his own vomited organs? No. It mattered that, due to stupidity, he ventured outside the shadow shield of his atom-ship. Did it really matter that her flesh slowly charred away, trapped by her own skeleton in restraints of melting steel? No. It mattered that she crammed her ship full of personal effects and didn’t have enough fuel to break atmo.

Death in space environments is final and harsh. And when a corpse can be recovered, exact specificity in cause is wasted inquiry, and never comfort to the bereaved.

From CAUSAM MORTIS by Ian Mallett (2016)

Space will kill you in any number of ways. So, in fact, will most planets that aren’t your homeworld or close copies of it.

Simple risks will kill you, if you don’t keep a weather eye on them. Radiation, vacuum, dioxide, heat. Leaks, breakdowns, inefficiencies. Not paying attention to where your air and water and other things that just magically exist for the taking downside come from, that’ll kill you, too. Carelessness, inattention, expediency, pragmatism, shortcut-taking, an excessively casual approach to maintenance procedures — all things that bring an automatic death sentence at the hands of the uncaring, pedantic universe. Incompetence, determined ignorance, and native stupidity, even more so. And indulging one’s fond delusions about the nature of reality, that’ll kill you fastest of all.

These are the reasons why many sensible people from many sensible civilizations choose not to go there.

The people who scattered habs across the entire system from Oculus to Farside, from Eurymir to Galine, from corona-scraping Salamandrine to lonely Blackwatch, on the other hand, considered these things advantages.

— introduction to Tin Cans and Checklists: The Early Days, by Aithne Silverfall


Stupidity cannot be cured with money, or through education, or by legislation. Stupidity is not a sin, the victim can't help being stupid. But stupidity is the only universal capital crime; the sentence is death, there is no appeal and execution is carried out automatically and without pity.

From TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE by Robert Heinlein (1973)

Space Burial

A morbid but necessary fixture that nobody talks about will be the "C-Chute" (from the Isaac Asimov story with the same name). "C" is short for "Casualty". A dead body will quickly contaminate the air of the lifesystem, not to mention being a biohazard as it decomposes. So there has to be a way to jettison the dear departed.

Lacking a dedicated C-Chute, a spacecraft can make do with sending the corpse to the great beyond by using an airlock.

NASA doesn't want to talk about such things. NASA astronauts will make vague noises about the crew on the International Space Station storing a body in an airlock or in the coldest part of the station (where they already store garbage, to keep the smell down). If the dear departed died during an EVA, the crew would probably keep the body inside the suit. Apparently the body would decompose more rapidly inside the suit. And the suit will help keep in the noxious outgassing and unsanitary bacteria.

CONQUEST OF SPACE morale disaster

Also of concern is the effect on crew morale. Personnel will be prone to morbid thoughts while their crewmate(s) mortal remains are lying in the next cabin. There will probably be a tradition of laying the dead to rest within twenty-four hours of death.

It will be important to have an already established protocol for laying the dead to rest. In the movie Conquest of Space they did not have such an established protocol, and the results were ugly. During an EVA astronaut Andre Fodor is killed by a meteor. Not knowing what to do, they leave the body out there still on the safety line.

Big mistake.

You can see the surviving crew start to freak out as they try to ignore their dead friend floating outside the porthole. Finally one of them cracks and starts to scream at the body. That's when the captain suddenly wakes up to the vital necessity of laying to rest the dear departed. Say a few words, and push the body off into space.

Don't bother trying to push it into collision course with the Sun, it takes far too much delta V and if the course is only a tiny bit off the body will just sling-shot around and head off to the Oort cloud.

As it turns out, NASA does not have an established protocol for dealing with unexpected dead bodies. They are going to be faced with the "Conquest of Space" scenario if they don't quit pretending that it will not happen. This is complicated by the fact that the UN space debris mitigation guidelines forbid space littering, which includes dumping dead bodies.

A radical suggestion is the Body Back. The technical term is "promession", but what it means in practice is:

  1. Place the body of the dear departed into a special bag
  2. Hang the bag out in vacuum, where in an hour it will freeze-dry into the consistency of florist foam
  3. Bring the bag in and place it in a high-frequency vibration unit
  4. The body shatters into fine powder. You now have a bag full of about 23 kilograms of dust.
  5. Attach the bag to the outside of the spacecraft until it can be returned for proper burial

In far future and alien cultures there can be all sorts of methods for the disposal of the dead.

If the spacecraft uses a closed ecological life support system and is on a very long mission, they may be forced to recycle the body back into the system. However you'll probably find this more on a generational starship on a hundred year trip or in a space colony.

On military spacecraft, the death of crewmen will be a more common occurrence than on a NASA ship. For purposes of morale, a ship-board military funeral will be part of The Book of military regulations. Military ships cannot afford "Conquest of Space" scenarios, not with the high mortality rates common to battles. Science fiction authors are fond of such ships using their torpedo tubes to launch the dear departed to their eternal rest. In the webcomic Schlock Mercenary they use "coffinpedoes".

This was done with a lot less dignity in the movie Enemy Mine. In that movie the military was so callous and cynical about the many combat deaths that the space stations had a "funeral launcher" fed with dead soldiers on a conveyor belt, equipped with a side-magazine loaded with cheap funeral wreaths and Muzak-style funeral parlor music playing in the background. The current body in the launcher stops just long enough for the bored technicians on duty to check the deceased's religion and play the appropriate prerecorded last rites.

Somebody suggested using the spacecraft's rocket exhaust to cremate the body. Tuyu explains why this is not a good idea:

EWWW! Can you say, "partially-burned semi-intact corpse flying off into the depths of space"? Unless you tether it, of course. Then you need to imagine a hot dog on a wire in the flame of a jet's afterburner. While ignoring the little flaming bits flying off in the jetwash.


      The mass funeral was held the next day. By long tradition, the dead of space are always buried quickly. Whether laid to rest beneath a dusty lunar plain, or sealed into a crypt carved from the nickel-iron surface of an asteroid, or zipped into a plastic body bag and ejected with full ceremony out of a ship’s airlock, custom demanded interment within twenty-four hours of death. Like most customs, this one had its origins in hard necessity. The primitive environmental control systems of the first spaceships had not been up to the task of fully cleansing the air after a corpse began to decompose. The isolation and danger that were an integral part of early space travel had a curious effect on the human mind. Spacemen were found to be especially sensitive to the morbid thoughts that naturally arise when one’s partner, spouse, or loved one is lying stone cold in the next cabin.

     Thus it was that the morning after the explosion in the stardrive compartment, all of Promise’s complement turned out in full dress uniform to pay their respects to the twenty-two who had died. Their coffins were laid end-to-end around the main corridor circling Procyon’s Promise’s waist. Each coffin was draped with the flag of the deceased’s planet of birth. The rainbow hues of Earth were interspersed with the dark blue of Alpha, while one coffin showed the dusky red colors of Mars, and another, the midnight black of the Asteroid Republic.

     Each coffin sat on its own bier, several messhall tables having been unbolted from the deck and covered with black cloth for the occasion. At each station, a single guard of honor stood rigidly at attention while Chaplain Ibanez and a Solarian scientist who was also a Buddhist monk paused to pray for the soul of the deceased. Following prayers, four pallbearers lifted each coffin from its resting place and bore it to the main airlock. Drums rolled as two vacsuited spacers reverently lifted the enshrouded body from its box and carried it into the airlock. Once inside, they cycled the airlock closed. When the door reopened, the lock would be empty save for the spacers, and the process would begin again.

     When the last of the deceased had been set on his or her final orbit, Braedon ordered the ships’ company to attention via the intra-ship annunciators. He stepped up to the podium that had been hurriedly rigged in the corridor, and began to read from The Book of Pathfinder.

     ”... And what does one say to those who warn that people will die in this great quest of ours? Indeed, what can one say except to acknowledge the obvious? Of course, people will die! Out of the billions of souls who have inhabited the Earth since the beginning of time, not one has yet   succeeded in living forever. Nor, I suspect, will many of us who make up Pathfinder’s original crew live to see planetfall in the Procyon system a hundred years hence.
      “What matters, then, is not the fact of death, but the manner in which we choose to die. Are we to expire in bed, with the covers clutched over our   quaking heads; or will our last sight be a vista of glowing stars stretching outward to infinity? Each of us has considered that question, and our   presence here is all the answer we need give. Therefore, let us face the unknown eagerly as we cross the gulf of interstellar space that stands between our goal and us. For, as a great poet once spoke of life and death.
“‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.’”

     Braedon waited for the amplified echo of his voice to cease reverberating through the ship’s passageways before concluding: “Thus spoke Commodore Eric Stassel to his crew on the eve of Pathfinder’s departure from the Solar System.”

     Braedon’s words were followed immediately by the mournful notes of a single trumpet blowing Taps, while all over the ship, Promise’s crewmen silently prayed for their dead.

From PROCYON'S PROMISE by Michael McCollum (1985)

     Like a tiny, complex toy, the ship floated inert, and motionless in the void. There was no way of telling that it was the swiftest object in the Solar System and that it was traveling far faster than any of the planets as they circled the Sun.
     Nor was there any indication that it carried life; to the contrary, in fact. Any observer would have noticed two ominous signs: the airlock doors were gaping open — and the ship was surrounded by a thin, slowly dispersing cloud of debris.
     Scattered over a volume of space already miles across were scraps of paper, metal foil, unidentifiable bits of junk - and, here and there, clouds of crystals glittering like jewels in the distant sun, where liquid had been sucked out of the ship and instantly frozen. All this was the unmistakable aftermath of disaster, like wreckage tossing on the surface of an ocean where some great ship had sunk. But in the ocean of space no ship could ever sink; even if it were destroyed, its remnants would continue to trace the original orbit forever.
     Yet the ship was not wholly dead, for there was power on board. A faint blue glow was shining from the observation windows and glimmering inside the open airlock. Where there was light, there could still be life.
     And now, at last, there was movement. Shadows were flickering across the blue glow inside the airlock. Something was emerging into space.
     It was a cylindrical object, covered with fabric that had been roughly wound about it. A moment later it was followed by another — and yet a third. All had been ejected with considerable velocity; within minutes, they were hundreds of yards away.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

     “Dr. Hendrix is dead.” (heart attack)
     His voice broke, then he continued. “Brother Hendrix will be placed in his last orbit two hours after we raise ship tomorrow. That is how he would have wished it, the Galaxy was his home. He gave unstintingly of himself that men should ride safely among the stars.”

     The next morning Max found a crepe armband on his desk and a notice from the First Officer that mourning would continue for one week.
     An hour later Kovak relieved Max temporarily and Max hurried to the passenger lock. There were five honorary pall bearers, the Captain, Mr. Walther, Simes, Max, and Kelly. Behind them, crowding the passageways, were officers and most of the crew. Max saw no passengers.
     The inner door of the lock was opened; two steward’s mates carried the body in and placed it against the outer door. Max was relieved to see that it had been wrapped in a shroud covering it completely. They closed the inner door and withdrew.

     The Captain stood facing the door, with Simes and the First Officer standing guard on one side of the door and, on the other side facing them, Max and Kelly. The Captain flung one word over his shoulder: “Pressure!”
     Behind stood Bennett wearing a portable phone; he relayed the word to the power room. The pressure gauge over the lock door showed one atmosphere; now it started to crawl upward. The Captain took a little book from his pocket and began to read the service for the dead. Feeling that he could not stand to listen Max watched the pressure gauge. Steadily it climbed. Max reflected that the ship had already passed escape speed for the Nu Pegasi system before he had been relieved; the body would take an open orbit.
     The gauge reached ten atmospheres; Captain Blaine closed his book. “Warn the passengers,” he said to Bennett.

(ed note: 10 atmospheres because one atmosphere would not propel the body very fast)

     Shortly the loudspeakers sounded: “All hands! All passengers! The ship will be in free fall for thirty seconds. Anchor yourselves and do not change position.” Max reached behind him, found one of the many hand holds always present around an airlock and pulled down so that his grip would keep his feet in contact with the deck. A warning siren howled—then suddenly he was weightless as the ship’s boost and the artificial anomalous gravity field were both cut out.

     He heard the Captain say loudly and firmly, “‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ Let the body be cast forth.”
     The pressure gauge dropped suddenly to zero and Dr. Hendrix was launched into space, there to roam the stars for all eternity.
     Max felt weight again as the power room brought them back to ship-normal. The pressure gauge showed gradually building pressure. People turned away and left, their voices murmuring low.

From STARMAN JONES by Robert Heinlein (1953)

(ed note: Reed Kieran is on a tour of duty in Wheel Five, orbiting Luna. He has the misfortune of crossing the spoke for the space station rim just as a ferry spacecraft crashes into it. Reed perishes from space-asphyxiation. The powers-that-be have a brilliant idea to turn this tragedy into a public-relations campaign)

      Captain Meloni was just beginning to relax a little when a young officer brought up a minor but vexing problem. Lieutenant Vinson had headed the small party sent out to recover the bodies of the four dead men. In their pressure-suits they had been pawing through the tangled wreckage for some time, and young Vinson was tired when he made his report.
     “We have all four alongside, sir. The three men in the ferry were pretty badly mangled in the crash. Kieran wasn’t physically wounded, but died from space-asphyxiation.”

     The captain stared at him. “Alongside? Why didn’t you bring them in? They’ll go back in one of the ferries to Earth for burial.”
     “But—” Vinson started to protest.
     Meloni interrupted sharply. “You need to learn a few things about morale, Lieutenant. You think it’s going to do morale here any good to have four dead men floating alongside where everyone can see them? Fetch them in and store them in one of the holds.”

     Vinson, sweating and unhappy now, had visions of a black mark on his record, and determined to make his point.
     “But about Kieran, sir—he was only frozen. Suppose there was a chance to bring him back?”
     “Bring him back? What the devil are you talking about?”
     Vinson said, “I read they’re trying to find some way of restoring a man that gets space-frozen. Some scientists down at Delhi University. If they succeeded, and if we had Kieran still intact in space—”
     “Oh, hell, that’s just a scientific pipe-dream, they’ll never find a way to do that,” Meloni said. “It’s all just theory.”
     “Yes, sir,” said Vinson, hanging his head.
     “We’ve got trouble enough here without you bringing up ideas like this,” the captain continued angrily. “Get out of here.”
     Vinson was now completely crushed. “Yes, sir. I’ll bring the bodies in.”

     He went out. Meloni stared at the door, and began to think. A commanding officer had to be careful, or he could get skinned alive. If, by some remote chance, this Delhi idea ever succeeded, he, Meloni, would be in for it for having Kieran buried. He strode to the door and flung it open, mentally cursing the young snotty who had had to bring this up.
     “Vinson!” he shouted.
     The lieutenant turned back, startled. “Yes, sir?”
     “Hold Kieran’s body outside. I’ll check on this with Mexico City.
     “Yes, sir.”

     Still angry, Meloni shot a message to Personnel at Mexico City. That done, he forgot about it. The buck had been passed, let the boys sitting on their backsides down on Earth handle it.

     Colonel Hausman, second in command of Personnel Division of UNRC (United Nations Reconnaissance Corps), was the man to whom Meloni’s message went. He snorted loudly when he read it. And later, when he went in to report to Garces, the brigadier commanding the Division, he took the message with him.
     “Meloni must be pretty badly rattled by the crash,” he said. “Look at this.”
     Garces read the message, then looked up. “Anything to this? The Delhi experiments, I mean?”
     Hausman had taken care to brief himself on that point and was able to answer emphatically.
     “Damned little. Those chaps in Delhi have been playing around freezing insects and thawing them out, and they think the process might be developed someday to where it could revive frozen spacemen. It’s an iffy idea. I’ll burn Meloni’s backside off for bringing it up at a time like this.”

     Garces, after a moment, shook his head. “No, wait. Let me think about this.”
     He looked speculatively out of the window for a few moments. Then he said, “Message Meloni that this one chap’s body—what’s, his name, Kieran?—is to be preserved in space against a chance of future revival.”
     Hausman nearly blotted his copybook by exclaiming, “For God’s sake—” He choked that down in time and said, “But it could be centuries before a revival process is perfected, if it ever is.”

     Garces nodded. “I know. But you’re missing a psychological point that could be valuable to UNRC. This Kieran has relatives, doesn’t he?”
     Hausman nodded. “A widowed mother and a sister. His father’s been dead a long time. No wife or children.”
     Garces said, “If we tell them he’s dead, frozen in space and then buried, it’s all over with. Won’t those people feel a lot better if we tell them that he’s apparently dead, but might be brought back when a revival-technique is perfected in the future?
     “I suppose they’d feel better about it,” Hausman conceded. “But I don’t see—”
     Garces shrugged. “Simple. We’re only really beginning in space, you know. As we go on, UNRC is going to lose a number of men, space-struck just like Kieran. A howl will go up about our casualty lists, it always does. But if we can say that they’re only frozen until such time as revival technique is achieved, everyone will feel better about it.”
     “I suppose public relations are important—” Hausman began to say, and Garces nodded quickly.
     “They are. See that this is done, when you go up to confer with Meloni. Make sure that it gets onto the video networks, I want everyone to see it.”

     Later, with many cameras and millions of people watching, Kieran’s body, in a pressure-suit, was ceremoniously taken to a selected position where it would orbit the Moon. All suggestions of the funerary were carefully avoided. The spacestruck man—nobody at all referred to him as “dead”—would remain in this position until a revival process was perfected.
     “Until forever,” thought Hausman, watching sourly. “I suppose Garces is right. But they’ll have a whole graveyard here, as time goes on.”
     As time went on, they did.

(ed note: This is just a prelude to the SF story. A hundred years later Kieran is actually revived and provides the people of the future with some old-fashioned insight)

From THE STARS, MY BROTHERS by Edmond Hamilton (1962)

(ed note: Eyas is a caretaker in the Exodan fleet of generation starships. On journeys that take many centuries everything has to be recycled. Including dead bodies. The caretakers perform funerals for the grieving next of kin, turn the bodies into compost, and respectfully return the compost to the ecosystem.)

      Her destination was the oxygen garden, the central hub of any neighbourhood, a curved green assemblage of places to play and places to sit and plenty of room to think. She parked her wagon in its usual spot, put on her apron and gloves, and selected a canister. She stepped over a plex barrier into one of the planters, treading carefully around all that grew there. The grasses couldn’t be easily avoided, but she did her best to not trample the flowering shrubs and broad leaves. She crouched down near a bush and unlocked the canister lid. The heady smell of compost greeted her, a smell she spent so much time alongside it was a wonder she noticed it anymore. She spread the stuff around the roots with her gloved hands, laying down handful after handful of rich black nutrients. She wouldn’t have minded getting compost on her bare skin but, much like pulling the wagon, it was a matter of respect. Compost was too precious to be wasted by washing it from her hands. She was meticulous about brushing off her gloves before folding them back up, about doing the same with her apron, about shaking every last crumb out of the canister. Each bit had to make its way to where it had been promised it would go.

     Eyas emptied every canister in turn, tending the recipient plants carefully. She made sure not to walk where she’d worked, and took care not to touch her face. She stuck a small green flag in each planter as she finished, letting others know the area had recently been fertilised. There was nothing about the compost that could harm a person, but it wasn’t the sort of thing most would be comfortable accidentally sticking their hand in. It didn’t matter that compost was just compost — nitrogen, carbon, various minerals. People got so hung up on what a thing had been, rather than what it was now. That was why publicly distributed compost was reserved for oxygen gardens and fibre farms, the only public places in the Fleet that used soil. You could use compost tea in aeroponics, sure, but the food farms got different fertiliser blends, ones that came from plant scraps, bug husks, fish meal. Some families did indeed use their personal compost canisters on food gardens at home; others recoiled from that practice. Eyas understood both sides. Clear divisions between right and wrong were rare in her work.

     As she neared the end of her batch, she felt the shapeless tingle of someone’s gaze. Eyas turned to see a little boy — maybe five or so — watching her with intense focus. A young man was with him — a father or uncle, who could say — crouched down to the child’s height, explaining something quietly. Eyas didn’t have to guess what the topic was.

     ‘Hello,’ Eyas said with a friendly wave.
     The man waved back. ‘Hi,’ he said. He turned to the boy. ‘Can you say hi?’
     The boy presumably could, but did not.

     Eyas smiled. ‘Would you like to come see?’ The boy shifted his weight from foot to foot, then nodded. Eyas waved him over. She spread some compost on her gloved palm. ‘Did M here tell you what this is?’

     The boy rubbed his lips together before speaking. ‘People.’

     ’Mmm, not anymore. It’s called compost. It used to be people, yes, but it’s changed into something else. See, what I’m doing here is putting this onto the plants, so they grow strong and healthy.’ She demonstrated. ‘The people that turned into compost now get to be part of these plants. The plants give us clean air to breathe and beautiful things to look at, which keeps us healthy. Eventually, these plants will die, and they’ll get composted, too. Then that compost gets used to grow food, and the food becomes part of us again. So, even when we lose people we love, they don’t leave us.’ She pressed her palm flat against her chest. ‘We’re made out of our ancestors. They're what keep us alive.’

     ’That’s pretty neat, huh?’ the man said, crouching down beside the boy.
     The boy looked undecided. ‘Can I see in the tube?’ he asked.
     Eyas made sure there wasn’t any compost on the outside of the cylinder before handing it over. ’Careful not to spill,’ she said.
     The boy took the cylinder with two hands and a studious frown. ’It looks like dirt,’ he said.
     ’It basically is dirt,’ Eyas said. ’It’s dirt with superpowers.’
     The boy rotated the cylinder, watching the compost tumble inside. ’How many people are in this?’ he asked.

     The man raised an eyebrow. Eyas threw him a reassuring glance. It was not the weirdest thing she’d ever been asked, by far. ’That’s a good question, but I don’t know,’ Eyas said. ’Once the compost reaches this stage, the … the stuff that makes it gets jumbled together.’

From RECORD OF A SPACEBORN FEW by Becky Chambers (2018)

(ed note: On Luna, as the protagonists travel in a moon bus, they see a sobering sight)

And now on the right was a wrinkled, dusty plain, and on the left, its ramparts and terraces rising mile after mile into the sky, was a wall of mountains that marched into the distance until its peaks sank from sight below the rim of the world. There was no sign that men had ever explored this land, but once they passed the skeleton of a crashed rocket, and beside it a stone cairn surmounted by a metal cross.

From IF I FORGET THEE, OH EARTH... by Arthur C. Clarke (1951)

      In that first, heart-freezing moment it seemed that something was trying to get into my suit—something invisible, seeking shelter from the cruel and pitiless vacuum of space. I whirled madly in my harness, scanning the entire sphere of vision around me except for the blazing, forbidden cone toward the sun. There was nothing there, of course. There could not be—yet that purposeful scrabbling was clearer than ever.

     Despite the nonsense that has been written about us, it is not true that spacemen are superstitious. But can you blame me if, as I came to the end of logic's resources, I suddenly remembered how Bernie Summers had died, no farther from the station than I was at this very moment?
     It was one of those "impossible" accidents; it always is. Three things had gone wrong at once. Bernie's oxygen regulator had run wild and sent the pressure soaring, the safety valve had failed to blow—and a faulty joint had given way instead. In a fraction of a second, his suit was open to space.

     I had never known Bernie, but suddenly his fate became of overwhelming importance to me—for a horrible idea had come into my mind. One does not talk about these things, but a damaged space suit is too valuable to be thrown away, even if it has killed its wearer. It is repaired, renumbered—and issued to someone else…
     What happens to the soul of a man who dies between the stars, far from his native world? Are you still here, Bernie, clinging to the last object that linked you to your lost and distant home?

From WHO'S THERE? aka THE HAUNTED SPACE SUIT by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1958)

Space Mummy

Sooner or later some poor space traveler is going to die in space in some remote location, their body is not going to be recovered promply, and nature will take its course. Eeeeeeew.

A popuar artistic motif is skeletons in spacesuits. But in reality a long-dead body in space is probably going to more resemble a mummy than a skeleton. They might look like the Gebelein predynastic mummies.

I've often joked I'd like to have my remains put into orbit. Not in a "scatter my ashes" sense, but, like, "throw my naked corpse out the airlock" sense. Honestly, my main motivation is to baffle someone in the distant future, but it's an interesting scientific question: what would happen to my body in orbit over the course of years, decades or centuries?

—Tim in Fremont

This isn't really relevant, but I have to ask: Is there a reason you specifically wanted your corpse to be naked? Just making things extra weird for the technicians loading up the capsule and/or throwing you out of the airlock?

If you tried this, the first thing that would happen to your corpse would be that it would dry out. This would probably start before you made it to space; the dry, climate-controlled air in the pre-launch waiting area would help draw moisture from your body.

In the Manual of Forensic Taphonomy, Franklin Damann and David Carter outline the process of human decomposition. According to them, it takes a lot of effort to keep corpses from drying out during the embalming process. {The citation they give for that fact is "(C. A. Wacker, pers. comm.)," which I like to think means it was shared in a conversation that totally broke up the dinner party they were both at.} In extremely dry environments like the Atacama Desert in Chile, "spontaneous mummification" can occur—and space is even drier than Chile. {The space tourism industry has not adopted this as a slogan. Also, "Chile: Not as Dry as Space!" was probably nixed by the Chilean tourism board.}

Once your body made it to space, this process would ramp up quickly. Most of the "ecology" responsible for decomposing your corpse would be killed off quickly by the drying process (along with the lack of oxygen, temperature swings, and solar radiation levels), so your body wouldn't decay very much. Instead, you'd become a freeze-dried mummy, after losing about 80% of your body weight in water.

{This is how much liquid you can remove from fresh animal tissue, according to lab experiments reported in Arthur C. Aufderheide's book The Scientific Study of Mummies. That makes sense; after all, according to that commonly-repeated piece of trivia, human bodies are around 70% water. Or is it 65%? Or 80%? The exact number is a little vague, and seems to depend on who you ask. In a footnote in her wonderful book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, writer Mary Roach mentioned that she had methodically Googled the phrase "human body is <X> percent water", for X from 0 to 100. She reported a wide range of claims, including several pages asserting that we're 98% water. It's really gratifying to know I'm not the only person who spends a lot of time carefully cataloging weird stuff like that.}

What happens next depends on exactly where in space you are.

If you're in an orbit that passes near the Earth, your orbit will quickly decay, and before long you'll re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

If you're in a slightly higher orbit, you'll last longer, but you'd also be in the zone where space debris was thickest. Impacts with small bits of debris would start to leave pits and scars on your surface; they would often find these on Space Shuttle windows after a flight. Eventually, probably after a few decades, you'd probably have a violent collision with something.

Higher orbits are safer. If you were some distance away from the Earth, near where geosynchronous satellites orbit, there would be less debris to run into. Furthermore, for large, dense objects, orbits out there are stable for a very long time. You could spend centuries drifting among TV broadcast satellites.

If you wanted to last even longer, you could launch yourself away from Earth completely, finding a quiet and stable orbit somewhere in interplanetary space. There, over the course of millennia, you'd be slowly baked by the Sun's radiation and pitted and powdered by micrometeorites.

But if your goal is to weird out future space travelers, that might not be the best plan. Space is big; if someone randomly stumbles on your corpse, it suggests that there must be a lot of people zipping around the solar system. And if space travel has become that common, there will be lots of corpses floating around;{Weird that "lots of corpses floating around" is somehow an optimistic prediction about the future of space travel.} discovering yours will be more archaeologically exciting than anything. You'll be stuck in a lab or museum somewhere and contribute to someone's research paper—a bland end to your exciting prank.

Unless, of course, you happen to be found by the only people in space even weirder than you.

From SPACE BURIAL by Randall Munroe

      He will become mummified.
     I don't mean the Egyptian type most people think about when the word "mummification" arises, but rather, the accidental type. There's been many mummified corpses, right here on ol' green planet earth, where deserts or cold preserve a body without human deliberation behind it.
     So what happens to the poor astronaut?
     The body dehydrates. The bacteria can still grow — in fact, some bacteria don't need oxygen at all — they can respire anaerobically. Those can nestle within the body and drain its resources, till they die too, from the lack of substrate. But by then, they would've broken down the soft tissues to some extent, so parts like the eyes — shriveled into a tiny ball. The (testicles), too.

From Xu Beixi

      The liquids, mostly water, will migrate through the skin and orifices and evaporate. Some might turn into red, frothy ice. Eventually all fluids evaporate leaving a brittle mummy behind. Over time the skin will turn black as atomic oxygen (generally only found in low orbit around a planet with oxygen in the atmosphere) slowly oxidizes the flesh and bleaches the bone. Over centuries and millenia most of the material that used to be soft flesh has been carbonized and most of that has been consumed and turned to dust. After millions of years micrometeoroid impact would have pummeled and eventually dispersed the rest.
     Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Entropy does its relentless work.

      If an astronaut died in space, would he decompose?

Answer 1:

     There are different kinds of decomposition. The most rapid one is biological: bacteria and the body's own enzymes both begin to break down tissues within a few hours of death. These are the processes that we generally call rotting, and they produce the bad odors that we smell. Next are scavengers such as insects and other animals, but these probably won't be present in space, unless they hitched a ride in the spacecraft. Slower still would be heat degradation, where proteins break down. Chemical exposure will degrade what's left; bones will eventually decay in weathering, and oxygen will react with proteins and many other things. This won't happen in space either. Finally, very slow processes such as radiation would eventually break down molecules over millions of years. The levels of radiation in space are higher than on Earth but not so high that tissues would degrade very quickly.
     I think there are three possibilities for decomposition:
  1. Unless there's a source of heat nearby, the body will be quickly frozen, and decomposition will take thousands or even millions of years.
  2. If there's heat, but no spacesuit or spacecraft, the body will very quickly dry out, because water evaporates extremely quickly in the vacuum of space. This will almost completely stop biological processes, and the lack of air will prevent weathering and chemical degradation.
  3. If the astronaut died while wearing their spacesuit and the body stays warm, then decomposing of tissue will be almost as fast as on earth. But bones will last almost indefinitely. Of course, if the body happens to fall in to a planet, it will be destroyed by the extreme heat of re-entry into the atmosphere, like a meteorite.

Answer 2:

     I really don't know what effects radiation may have on a body decaying through bacteria but my guess is it wouldn't make much difference at the beginning but stop the decomposition process somewhere along the way. The astronaut's body would decompose from bacteria already inside his/her body (just like anyone else). On the other hand, the astronaut's suit and spacecraft should shield him/her from radiation. I hope this helps.

Answer 3:

     If he dies in his space suit, then yes, he would decompose, because he still has bacteria and such within his body that would decompose him. It would use up all of the oxygen, however, so the decomposition would become anaerobic very quickly, going from respiration to fermentation.
     Radiation would not significantly affect the decomposition process. It would break up chemical bonds and such, but our deceased astronaut is more likely to collide with an object of some kind like a meteor before that would really break him up.
     If our astronaut is not in his suit, then the vacuum would kill the bacteria decomposing him in fairly short order.

Dead People Don't Drop

In free-fall you don't fall. Meaning that in microgravity if you shoot and kill the space pirate, their dead body is not going to fall to the floor. They will just sort of float where they died.


      He arrived at an airlock, finding it a tight fit in his cumbersome armoured suit. Clavain sealed the hatch behind him, air roared in, and then the inner door allowed him to pass through into the pressurised part of the ship. His overwhelming impression was of darkness, but then his helmet clicked into high-sensitivity mode, dropping infra-red and sonar overlays across his normal visual field.

     One of the sweep-team members was waiting for him. Clavain angled himself so that his face was aligned with the woman’s and then hitched himself against the interior wall.
     What have you found?
     [Not much. All dead.]
     Every last one of them?
     The woman’s thoughts arrived in his head like bullets, clipped and precise. [Recently. No sign of injury. Appears deliberate.]
     No sign of a single survivor? We thought there might be one, at least.
     [No survivors, Clavain.] She offered him a feed into her memories. He accepted it, steeling himself for what he was about to see.

     It was every bit bad as he had feared. It was like uncovering the scene of an atrocious mass suicide. There were no signs of struggle or coercion; no signs even of hesitation. The crew had died at their respective duty stations, as if someone had been delegated to tour the ship with suicide pills. An even more horrific possibility was that the crew had convened at some central location, been handed the means of euthanasia and had then returned to their assigned niches. Perhaps they had continued to perform their tasks until the shipmaster ordered the mass suicide.
     In zero gravity, heads did not loll lifelessly. Even mouths did not drop open. Dead bodies continued to assume more or less lifelike postures, whether restrained by webbing or allowed to drift untethered from wall to wall. It was one of the earliest and most chilling lessons of space warfare: in space, the dead were often difficult to tell from the living.
     The crew were all thin and starved-looking, as if they had been living on emergency rations for many months. Some of them had skin sores or the bruised evidence of earlier wounds that had not healed properly. Perhaps some had even died before now, and had been dumped from the ship so that the mass of their bodies could be traded against fuel savings. Beneath their caps and headsets none of them had more than a greyish fuzz of scalp stubble. They were clothed uniformly, carrying only insignia of technical specialisation rather than rank. Under the bleak emergency lights their skin hues merged into some grey-green average.

     Through his own eyes now Clavain saw a corpse drift into view. The man appeared to paw himself through the air, his mouth barely open, his eyes fixed on an indeterminate spot several metres ahead of him. The man thudded into one wall, and Clavain felt the faint reverberation where he was hitched.
     Clavain projected a request into the woman’s head. Secure that corpse, will you?

From REDEMPTION ARK by Alastair Reynolds (2002)

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