Icarus Drowned- A SciFi Short Story

Icarus Drowned

Author’s Note:

The inspiration for this story came while writing a blog post over a year ago. After nearly a year of submissions, I was unable to find a home for this story in either pro or semi-pro markets. I guess not all stories are destined for publication. Still, I really enjoyed writing this story, and I hope you will enjoy reading it. I present to you the Science Fiction Short Story, “Icarus Drowned.”

 

Icarus Drowned

By Philip A Kramer

 

Ron Kasey fastened the buckle of the harness across his chest and grunted at the tightness of it. He frowned and tried to shift to a more comfortable position, but the harness was unyielding.

“Why am I wearing this thing, again? You said I’d be going three kilometers an hour max.”

A sigh was just audible over the coms, one he had heard many times in his flight simulations over the past few months.

“In the state of Washington, seat-belts are required by law,” Laura said, her voice heavy with resignation.

A few muted chuckles filled the coms.

“And in space?”

“We’ll talk about that after another forty tests.”

Ron puffed out his cheeks and breathed out slowly.

He was a test pilot, not a scientist, so it was difficult for him to reconcile the snail’s pace of research with the theoretical speed of the small vessel in which he sat. When he’d earned his wings in the Navy five years ago, he never would have guessed he’d be strapped to the pilot seat of science’s greatest achievement. All of his coworkers were more qualified, certified geniuses all of them, but they lacked the proper flight training.

Ron squinted at the display in front of him.

The large hanger was crawling with people. Some hauled away coolant lines that leaked a white mist from their nozzles, while others disconnected power cables. Laura stood in an observation room above, separated from the noise by a thick pane of glass. She regarded a tablet computer in the crook of her arm even as the other scientists in the room sat in front of large computer monitors.

“Engines?” Laura asked. The professional coolness of her voice brought an abrupt silence to the coms. From the deference of the other scientists, Ron found it hard to believe she was the youngest among them, not much younger than him. She had proven to be more than just a genius; she was a natural leader.

“Fore and aft-engines nominal. We’re a go in T-minus five minutes.” The voice came from Reggie, the man seated nearest Laura. An old red tie held together the loose collar of the man’s button-up shirt. It was a special occasion, the Engine Specialist had told Ron that morning, and it was his lucky tie.

The hum of the engines was just audible from where he sat in the cockpit. They had the presence of restless steeds eager to start a race. The days of propellant driven rockets and shuttles were behind them. This was a chariot, its twin engines harnessing the same force that moved planets. Helios One, the first of its kind, was named for the Sun god who rode his blazing chariot across the sky.

The vessel was spherical but for the three landing struts and the two engine blocks mounted on the outer hull. While the design greatly offended Ron’s sense of style, he conceded that a sleeker and more aerodynamic construction would be pointless in the vacuum of space.

The Helios One was not much bigger than the cockpit of the C130 Hercules cargo plane he’d flown in the Navy. Unlike a plane, his view of the hanger outside was through a single large monitor. Beside it, a separate monitor displayed his telemetry and systems data. The pilot’s interface was also something he’d had to get used to. The traditional two-handed yoke was gone, replaced by a small knob of a joystick on the arm of his chair. He gripped it between his thumb and fore-finger as he had done hundreds of times before. The one thing the simulations hadn’t prepared him for was the crushing sense of uncertainty.

“Coms?”

“Green lights across the board.”

Laura continued running through their pre-flight checklist as the minutes passed, and all stations reported green lights.

“Three kilometers an hour,” he said beneath his breath. “It’s just three kilometers an hour.”

“Repeat that, Helios One,” The coms officer said. “We couldn’t hear your last transmission.”

“I said I can’t wait to see how fast this thing can go.”

Laura lifted her gaze from her tablet.

“Speed is relative. If you mean acceleration, I imagine the upper limit will be determined by how many Gs your body can handle. Accelerate too fast and it could compromise the integrity of the chariot.”

It could have been his imagination, but she seemed far more distressed by the latter possibility.

“Good to know,” Ron said, distracted.

“You won’t feel anything at the speed you’re going,” she said, perhaps detecting his unease. “Well, anything besides the weightlessness and vertigo. Let us know if it gets too uncomfortable.”

So much for reassurance, he thought.

Ron remembered this from the months of orientation and flight training. The fore-engine was a graviton generator. It created a local gravitational field above the chariot. He could change the location of that field with a touch of the joystick, making Helios One ‘fall’ in any direction he chose.

The aft-engine had another role. According to Laura, it opened a hole to another dimension. He’d gone slack-jawed when he’d heard that for the first time. That dimension, she’d explained, was simply a place beyond our own three dimensions, a place the graviton preferred. Small holes to this dimension were all around him at all times, sucking up gravitons. These dimensions were the reason gravity was much weaker than electromagnetism.  By gathering these small dimensional holes in one place, the aft-engine effectively negated the gravitational attraction between the chariot and Earth. Helios One and everything inside of it would become weightless and far easier to move.

He cut short his review of the ship’s systems when the countdown reached the one-minute mark. His mind raced. He wasn’t ready.

That minute, however, felt like an eternity, long enough for him to realize he had a very simple job compared to those in the observation room.

“We really should have performed a christening. It’s bad luck to launch a ship without breaking a bottle of champagne over the bow.”

“It isn’t a ship,” came Laura’s distracted words. “And it doesn’t have a bow.”

At the ten-second mark, he powered up the aft-engine. The contents of his stomach were the first to feel the change in gravity. An uncanny sense of falling made his hand stray to the vomit bag tucked conveniently in a pouch beside his seat.

He brought the engine up to 90 percent power.

“Gravity at one point two newtons per kilogram and holding,” he said and swallowed the taste of bile. At nearly 10 percent gravity, he could barely tell up from down.

The countdown ended.

“Helios One, you are cleared for launch,” said Reggie.

Launch was a generous word. After flipping a switch on the dash, Ron slowly fed power into the fore-engine.

The gentle sensation of weightlessness and then falling upward played havoc on his senses, as his eyes and inner ear argued the facts. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to picture himself hanging upside-down from the jungle gym at the urgings of his young niece. The memory helped him forget where he was for a moment until a slight groan of metal preceded a loud chorus of cheers over the coms.

Ron opened his eyes and regarded the external camera feed. The chariot was off the ground and steadily rising.

The first manned chariot had launched. Humanity had officially mastered gravity.

Elated, Ron could almost ignore the lunch roiling in his gut.

“We have liftoff.” Reggie said, his usual tone-less baritone had become an enthusiastic tenor.

“One point eight kilometers an hour, vertical bearing. Altitude three meters and ascending,” Ron said, mechanically reading off his vector as he was trained.

“Roger, Helios One. Achieve and maintain altitude at thirty meters,” Laura said.

He didn’t make it to thirty meters.

“Control, my fore-engine is registering some efficiency loss, can you confirm?”

“We see it, Helios One. Hold position.”

Ron eased off the power and held the joystick in place, but the engine’s efficiency continued to drop.

“Helios One, I’m calling an end to the test,” Laura said.

“What’s wrong?” Ron asked. He glanced from the status displays to the camera feed. A few figures in bulky silver suits and helmets appeared at the hanger door holding fire extinguishers.

“We need to rule out a fire. You are cleared to land.”

The horror of being trapped in a small vessel with a fire was something he’d never experienced outside of nightmares.

“Roger, Control. Bringing her down,” he said, his voice quavering.

Soon the engine’s efficiency fell below the level required to keep the chariot aloft.

“This isn’t shaping up to be a soft landing,” Ron said when he saw his speed of descent increase from 1 to 2 km/h. At that speed, the landing struts would buckle, resulting in millions of dollars in damage. It could delay the program for months. Laura knew that too.

“Ron,” Laura said, failing to use his call sign. “Increase power to the aft-engine. One hundred percent.”

Ron complied, even as another engineer reminded her that they’d never managed to sustain complete zero gravity. It was their only contingency plan.

As soon as the power was at full, the meager output of the fore-engine began to slow the weightless ship.

It looked like he would be able to set it down smoothly after all.

The camera feed flickered and then went dark. Simultaneously, an explosion and a chorus of screams sounded in his ear, nearly deafening him. Then all was silent.

Ron squeezed his eyes shut and braced for impact.

Nothing happened.

After a few seconds of weightlessness, he cracked open one eye and then the other.

The camera feed was blank, but he was still receiving system data. The only thing missing from the continuous stream of information was his current telemetry.

Have I already touched down?

“Control? I am experiencing a computer malfunction. What is my current vector?”

No answer.

“Coms test. Do you read, Control?”

Ron cursed and tapped his headset.

Remembering the engines, he scrambled to cut power and prepared himself for the sudden restoration of gravity.

Again, nothing happened.

Ron knuckled the side of the consol. The system reported zero power to the aft-engine, but he was still weightless.

Impossible.

When a few seconds of scratching his head yielded no solution, he reluctantly unbuckled his harness. The moment he shrugged out of the network of belts, he began to float away from the pilot’s seat. A bout of queasiness inspired him to bring along the vomit bag, just in case.

Ron grasped the edge of a monitor and pushed off toward the airlock door.

When he opened the door, he froze.

There was only one window on the chariot, and it was attached to the outer airlock door.

Through the window, there was nothing but darkness.

He finally got the chance to use the vomit bag.

Minutes later, when he finally returned to his seat and buckled the harness, his mind was churning more than his stomach.

Space. He had to be in space.

It made sense. The chariot made a wormhole somehow, and now he was floating in some distant part of the universe. He thought his first venture into space would have been more awe-inspiring, more momentous, more… intentional.

There was only one problem with this theory. Through the window he hadn’t seen a single star. Even if he had somehow made it into intergalactic space, he should at least see some galaxies, right?

There had been nothing but blackness. No, that wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t completely black. It was more like a dark shade of gray, like the color of the blank monitor.

He sat forward so quickly, the harness squeezed the breath from him.

The monitor. It wasn’t dead after all. It was showing him an active feed of the outside of the ship.

He unbuckled his harness once more and leaned close to the monitors. There was something out there.  It took a moment to locate the controls for the lights in the cockpit, but as soon as he did, he turned them off and squinted at the screen.

There was definitely something out there. Four somethings. They weren’t pinpoints like stars, but bands of light that stretched from starboard to port, too straight and evenly spaced to be natural.

Alien starships.

Ron breathed out a calming breath. He shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

He turned to another monitor, one with a screen that nearly blinded him in contrast. Columns of data greeted his trained eye. He located a settings option for the cameras. Choosing the contrast setting, he toggled it up to maximum.

The bands of light above the chariot grew even brighter. They were like no alien battle cruisers he’d ever seen, though his experience was admittedly limited. Ron squinted at the screen, his eyes focusing on several dim blotches around and beneath the chariot. They were like distant, colorful nebulas, though some of them had very sharp and defined edges.

Then one of the nebulas moved. It was fast, streaking by just below the chariot. He nearly banged his head on the ceiling as he leapt back in shock.

Once seated, his eyes darted from one nebula to another. Most were still, but some shifted in place, occasionally changing shape. Faint though they were, the shapes looked familiar.

With a sinking feeling, he increased the brightness setting.

The shapes resolved themselves.

The bright bands of light transformed into fluorescent tubes on a ceiling crisscrossed with rafters. The nebulas became workstations, tanks of liquid nitrogen, and people moving about a large, open room.

He had never left the hanger.

Ron took a long, deep breath. He wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or terrified.

It appeared he was hovering just above the heads of those milling around on the floor of the hanger. The image was still faint, as if light had difficulty reaching him.

The hanger had changed since he’d seen it last. Coolant tanks were on their sides, papers were strewn across the floor, and from the reflective glints of glass on the floor, the window separating the observation room from the hanger had shattered. The observation room itself was nearly full of people, but he couldn’t make out Laura among them.

He took off his headset and confirmed it had power.

“Control, this is Helios One. Do you read?”

Silence.

Whatever had caused the destruction, it had knocked out the coms.

He needed to get up to the observation room.

It took a few minutes of vigorous chin rubbing before he remembered he was currently sitting in a spaceship.

He secured himself in his seat, but his hand paused over the engine controls.

The fore-engine hadn’t registered any temperature fluctuations, but he was still wary of fire. If he gave it just a little power, perhaps it would be enough to move around the weightless chariot.

What was the alternative? He doubted they knew where he was or how to go about reaching him. If he did nothing, he would die from dehydration in just a few short days. Of all the problems they simulated and contingency plans they’d gone through, nothing had prepared him for this.

He brought the fore-engine up to one percent of max power. When the temperature gauge remained stable, he increased it to five. Satisfied, he angled the joystick forward.

He began to move. The motion was so slow he had to stare at the video feed for several seconds to make sure he was moving at all.

As he approached the observation deck, the faint shapes of people in military uniform came into focus.

They weren’t the men he’d seen guarding the hanger, but military medics. They tended to the injured, all of whom were wearing lab coats.

Ron felt sick. It was not the queasiness of zero gravity, but one that tightened his throat and knotted his stomach. He was responsible for this.

He drew closer and recognized Laura sitting on one of the rolling chairs. A large red knot marred the surface of her smooth, pale forehead. She was waving away the medic who was trying to shine a light into her eyes.

The medic gave up and turned his attention to another of the scientists who was being lifted onto a stretcher. It was Reggie. Blood soaked his shirt and lab coat, making it difficult to distinguish his lucky red tie.

Smashed computer screens, toppled chairs, and sheets of paper littered the floor. There was no glass inside the observation deck from the windowpane; it had all fallen into the hanger below.

An explosion had done this, but not just any explosion. He had seen wreckage like this before when his C130 had lost pressure at high altitude. Decompression had yanked open the cockpit door and upended everything and everyone not bolted down or buckled in. Some kind of explosive decompression had occurred in the main hanger.

As he drew closer to the window, he could no longer deny another growing suspicion. He cringed as he eased forward, far enough that the chariot would have made contact with the frame of the window, but nothing happened.

Ron bit his lip. Either the chariot had become intangible or he now occupied a space so small, nobody could see him.

Laura had told him once that the holes leading to the gravitational dimension were microscopic, each occupying an area less than a nanometer. As impossible as it sounded, he suspected he had fallen through one of those holes. It would explain the darkness; he could only see the light that hit the small space he occupied.

Laura raised her head and looked out over the hanger. Her features were contorted in pain and regret, making her almost unrecognizable.

She thinks I’m dead.

“Laura,” he said over the coms. “I’m right here.”

She didn’t hear him, and her gaze swept right past him.

He was just another mote of dust in the room.

After a moment, she stood, steadied herself with a hand on the wall, and left the room. Ron watched her go until the door to the observation room swung shut behind her.

Ron looked at the other scientists. They were not in any shape to help him.

He pushed forward on the joystick, and the ship began to move again. He was still a bit skeptical about fitting through the window, but he easily flew into the room and over the heads of the medics.

The door that separated him from the hallway beyond was made of metal and painted a dull gray. He pulled back on the joystick as he approached, slowing the chariot.

The holes to the gravitational dimension were everywhere, Laura had said, they floated around him, passing through him, soaking up the gravitons that his matter generated. Surely that meant he could pass through the door too.

His lack of confidence in this half-cocked theory caused him to slow even more as he drew closer to the door. If he was wrong, he hoped he would bounce off of it harmlessly.

Every dent and imperfection in the door’s surface became more distinct as he approached. His jaw dropped when he spotted a glossy labyrinth of spirals and whirls. He was looking at someone’s fingerprint.

Ron closed the remaining distance, falling within a canyon formed by the gray paint as it had dried.

When he struck the door, he felt no resistance, but his view from his camera went white, nearly blinding him.

The screen dimmed a few moments later, and he stared mutely at the empty hallway. He wheeled the chariot around to view the door he’d just come through. A perfect, cylindrical tunnel was the only evidence of his passage, so small as to be imperceptible by someone walking by. The edges of the tunnel glowed white hot but quickly faded to a metallic sheen.

While it didn’t go quite as he had planned, he had made it through the door in one piece.

To be safe, he fed more power to the fore-engine and drifted closer to the ceiling. He didn’t want to accidentally bore a hole through someone if they walked into him.

He drifted along the ceiling, weaving around light fixtures and fire sprinklers. He didn’t see Laura anywhere, but he knew where she had gone.

Something constricted in his chest when he saw the door to Laura’s office closed. In the Navy, he had been used to closed doors, to keeping his opinions to himself, to following orders. As the lead researcher, Laura had ultimate say in every aspect of the Helios project, but she had always kept an open door policy. She did not tout her rank, her intellect, or shun the opinions of others. To see her door closed meant there was something inside she did not want her staff to see.

Ron piloted the chariot forward until he was a hair’s width away from the door. This door was made of wood, and the valleys and canyons of its surface looked like some vast, alien world. He worried he might set the door on fire if he tried to phase through it, so he steered into one of the canyons and squeezed into the narrow gap between the door and lintel.

The darkness was nearly absolute, and the brightness of his camera feed was already turned up to maximum. He weaved his way through the dust, which looked like some wooly forest full of tangled vines and large, flat leaves. Here and there, the ghostly skeletons of mites peered back at him. Their huge, bulbous bodies looked more alien than anything he’d seen so far, and their large mandibles looked capable of cracking his chariot in two. He was dust even to them.

He managed to navigate to the opposite side of the door, following the light from the room beyond as if it were the blush of dawn on the distant horizon. When he finally emerged into Laura’s office, he swallowed hard at the sight of her.

She sat hunched over her desk with her head in her arms. Her body heaved in great, wracking sobs.

Guilty for having intruded on her privacy, Ron considered turning back, but she was the only one capable of helping him.

For a long time he watched her, discarding innumerable and half-formed ideas until only one remained. He needed to talk to her.

Eventually, he dragged his eyes from the camera feed to his on-board computer. If visible light could barely reach him, why would radio waves be any different? His communications equipment was built to radio Earth from Pluto if necessary; surely, it was strong enough to amplify a weak signal.

Ron increased the gain on his receiver.

One moment, the telemetry data on his monitor was gone, and the next it began to populate, displaying his current vector. He pumped his fists into the air.

Connecting to the internet was harder than he’d anticipated. Had the techs known how often he Googled the words they used in casual conversation, they would have dedicated an entire monitor to the task. Minutes later, he finally gained access. He toyed with the idea of sending Laura an email, but doubted she would check it any time soon.

The homepage was that of the Department of Defense and prompted him for his password. He ignored it and ran a search for a web-based calling application he’d used previously overseas. He looked up the number for the Gray Army Airfield facility and typed it into the application.

The dial tones sounded in his headset, and then the phone began to ring.

He held his breath.

“You have reached Fort Lewis. If you know the extension of the person you are trying to reach, please dial now. If you would like to be connected to the operator, please hold the line. Calls will be answered in the order they are received.”

He let out his breath in a loud sputter.

A jingle played over the line and Ron idly unstrapped from the pilot seat to float around as he waited.

“Operator, how can I direct your call?”

“Yes, oh thank god,” Ron said, scrambling to return to his seat. “I need to speak with Dr. Laura Kessler, it’s an emergency.”

He considered telling the operator everything, but he guessed the man was not privy to the research taking place at the base. He might think it was a prank and hang up.

“I can forward you to her office, but I see here she also has an emergency number listed, would you prefer that?”

The emergency number seemed appropriate given his situation, and he told the man so.

“Who should I say is calling?”

“Lieutenant Ron Kasey.”

“Hold please,” he said, and the jingle began to play again.

Laura was still slumped over her desk when the call came. Ron couldn’t hear anything, but saw her lift her head, blink, and then reach into one of the pockets of the white lab coat. She took several deep breaths before answering.

He could imagine the words now.

Hi, Dr. Kessler, I have a Lieutenant Ron Kasey on the line for you.

What? Is this some kind of joke? She would say.

No Doctor, no joke. He sounds quite handsome and charming, if I do say so myself. Do you want to take the call?

That does sounds like him. Yes, please put him on.

His imaginings were whisked away when he heard Laura’s voice come over the line.

“Who is this?”

“Well hello, Doctor. That test was quite the doozy, huh?”

“I’m not kidding, who is this?” She sounded angry now.

“Of course…” he said, continuing as if he hadn’t heard her. “I think I’ll skip the harness next time. I think my chest is covered in bruises.”

“Ron?” Her hand shot up to her mouth.

“That’s me.”

“Wha- Are you okay?”

“Yes, with the exception of the aforementioned bruises.”

She was standing now, turning in circles and clutching a fist-full of her dark hair.

“But the chariot. It exploded. I saw it.”

“It was an implosion, actually,” he said. It was the first time he’d ever been able to correct her, and he savored the feeling.

“Where are you?”

“Right in front of you.”

She took a step forward, looking confused.

“Are you down in the hanger?”

“No, I’m… hold on a sec.”

Ron peered down at the dash.  If some light could get into this little trans-dimensional bubble of his, he might be able to get some light out. If he could make his tiny chariot visible, just a dim spark, she would believe him.

He found the controls for his floodlights and turned them on.

The screen went white, and Laura cursed over the headset.

Ron dimmed the lights and the screen resolved into a much clearer picture of Laura, arm up to shield her eyes.

It appeared light had no trouble finding its way out.

“Sorry, my fault,” he said, dimming the lights even further.

Laura lowered her arm, blinking up at the far upper corner of the room where he hovered.

“Ron? Is that you?”

“It is.”

“Are you dead?” She asked.

“What? No.”

“Are you sure?” She took a step forward, her expression torn between amazement and skepticism. “Because you look like a little orb of light. Isn’t that how ghosts are supposed to look?”

“Laura, I am alive,” he said, stressing each distinct syllable. “Now concentrate. I need to get out of here.”

“Where is here?”

He paused, steeling himself. She was either going to think him very stupid, or uncharacteristically perceptive.

“I think I’m in the gravity dimension.”

She shook her head.

“That’s not possible,” she said.

Stupid it is then, he thought glumly.

“The gravity dimension is unidimensional. Matter can’t exist in one dimension,” she said in the same voice she used when he was being particularly incompetent in a simulation.

“Well, how else do you explain the zero gravity and my size? You said the gravity dimension was small, right?”

“It just isn’t possible,” she said, her voice much more uncertain now. “Tell me what you see.”

Ron looked around the chariot, frowning.

“Everything looks the same as before the test, except very little light is entering through the aft window. I’m only able to see you after cranking up the brightness of the monitor.”

She hadn’t taken her eyes from him until he mentioned his ability to see her. With the hand that wasn’t holding the phone, she self-consciously smoothed her hair flat and wiped away the moisture from her cheeks.

“And there’s no gravity?”

“None. The aft-engine isn’t even powered up. I can move around a bit if I feed some power into the fore-engine.”

She was closer now, her arm lifting slightly as if to cup the chariot in her hand.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said hastily, and her hand stilled in the air. “I tried to phase through a door earlier and ended up boring a hole right through it.”

She lowered her hand and took a step back, still visibly shaken.

“I can’t believe you’re alive. I thought I…”

“You couldn’t have foreseen this,” he said.

She let out a long breath.

“I have to tell the others.”

She made for the door, and he wheeled the chariot around to follow her.

The observation room was empty.

“I saw most of them being carried off on stretchers,” Ron said when he had caught up to her. She stared at the destruction before her as she gingerly touched the rosy welt on her forehead.

“It was supposed to be a simple test,” she said, numbly. She visibly shook away her thoughts and leaned over the window frame to peer into the hanger below. A few techs in lab coats were cleaning up the area.

She called one by name.

The young tech, Steven, glanced up at her and then jogged over to the stairs to make his ascent.

Steven stopped just inside the door, his chin dropping as his eyes locked on the glowing point of light hovering before him. Ron silently berated himself for not cutting the lights. It was too late for that, he supposed. He dimmed and brightened the floodlight several times in quick succession.

“Dr. Kessler? You uhh… you have a fairy hovering over your shoulder.”

She smiled.

“That would be Ron,” she said.

Great, he thought. If he made it out of this alive, he would never live down the fairy jokes.

“I was saying ‘hello’ in Morse code,” Ron said.

Ignoring him, she waved the tech over and pointed at one of the monitors. He approached warily.

“Get this powered up and keep an eye on his telemetry data. If we lose contact, I need to know where to find him.” She then pressed her finger against a piece of paper taped to the wall beside the monitor. It contained a long list of names and numbers. “And I want you to call all of these people and tell them to get here as soon as possible.”

The tech blanched as he stared at the names of NASA’s Chief Scientist, Engineer, the Deputy Administrator, and no less than three four-star generals.

Laura left the tech to his unenviable task, taking the stairs down to the hanger floor.

Ron met her down in the hanger, gliding over the window frame and descending. The remaining techs in the room caught sight of him and gawked, many of them backing away until their backs were against a wall, or they stumbled and fell.

Laura surveyed the remnants of the broken window on the hanger floor. A moment later, she looked around for him and, seeing him, approached.

“You said it was an implosion and I think you’re right. If you suddenly shrank to the nanometer scale, all the air you displaced would have rushed in to fill the void. But it’s impossible to shrink matter to that scale without causing a thermonuclear event. I think your apparent size is just an illusion. You are simply staring out of a very small hole in space. But I still don’t see how matter can exist in the gravitational dimension, not unless…” She frowned. “Not unless you somehow pulled our own three dimensions in there with you.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ron, I think we’ve created a singularity.”

Ron swallowed.

“I thought singularities compressed matter.”

“That’s just it,” she said. “We don’t know how singularities work or if they exist at all. Do you know what this means? We may finally know what happens at the center of black holes. Matter isn’t compacted into an infinitely small space, it gets forced into another dimension. This is groundbreaking.”

“But how did it happen to me?”

“When you powered up the aft-engine, it gathered the ambient gravitational dimensions like it was supposed to, but we’ve never moved something so heavy, so when we tried, it put so much pressure on the weakened fabric of space that it folded inward, collapsing into another dimension.”

A smile tugged at one corner of her lips, and she shook her head in wonderment. The techs in the room had gotten over their fear of the hovering orb of light and were now nodding to each other in understanding. Ron pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I’m so glad this amuses you. Can we get to the part where you tell me your genius rescue plan?”

“Have you gone outside?”

Ron snorted, but her expression remained serious.

“I don’t have my EVA suit yet, I was only just measured.”

“You aren’t in space, Ron. You said it yourself, when you tried to go through a door, you put a hole through it. That means matter can still travel from one side to the other, so there’s nothing to stop air.”

Ron hadn’t considered that.

“Are you saying I could jump out the airlock and reappear in the hanger?”

She cringed.

“You should test it first. Light and air might be able to move freely, but anything larger? Let’s just say I don’t want to see what happens if you try to squeeze through a nanometer sized hole. Try throwing something out the airlock.”

Ron rarely heard uncertainty from her, which didn’t bode well for the plan. He turned the lights on in the cockpit and unbuckled himself from the pilot seat.

He hadn’t been in the airlock since moments after he lost communication with Control. The room reeked of vomit, and the bag containing the mess still floated around the empty room.

Through the window, he saw the dark expanse that had greeted him earlier. Now that he knew he wasn’t in space, he saw the truth in the darkness. If he let his eyes adjust, he could just make out the plane of the floor and ceiling of the hanger, the latter crisscrossed with rafters and long, fluorescent lights.

“Ron? Are you still with me?”

He shook himself, realizing he’d been drifting there for a long, silent minute.

“Yeah. I’m getting ready to open the door and toss something out. You might want to tell the others to evacuate the room. I don’t want to peg someone.”

He heard her telling others to gather in the observation deck and make themselves useful there.

He took a deep breath and tapped the control panel beside the door. The touchscreen display came to life. Sure enough, it reported normal atmospheric pressure on the other side of the airlock. Ron tapped the green button and a series of metal gears whirred inside the round door, terminating with a soft click. He braced one hand on the frame of the door, and then twisted and pulled on the handle. The door eased open without incident, and he released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

He gripped the handles just inside the door to keep from drifting out into the empty void. He looked around for something he could throw, but the techs had removed all loose items from the chariot to prevent them from floating around in zero gravity. So instead, he grabbed the closest thing to hand and lobbed it out the airlock.

“Alright, here it comes,” he said.

The object tumbled end over end until it encountered something about twenty feet away and disappeared in a bright flash.

Laura cursed.

“Are you alright?” Ron pushed off the frame of the door and twisted around in midair to fly back to his seat. Not bothering to buckle himself in, he turned the chariot around to get a panoramic view of the room. “What happened?”

In the far corner, spattered against the concrete wall, was a smear of gore.

Laura jogged over from her shelter inside the hanger door to get a closer look.

Halfway there, she visibly recoiled and held the back of her hand to her nose.

“What’s that smell?”

“Chicken parmesan,” Ron said guiltily.

She stared uncomprehendingly at the point in space he occupied. When realization hit her, she visibly gagged then took two quick steps away from the mess.

“Why the hell would you throw that?”

“It was the only thing I could find.”

“Oh my god,” she said, making a chocking sound. “It’s on fire.”

Some of the shredded paper from the vomit bag was smoking and sputtering with flame.

Ron winced. That couldn’t smell good.

She ran for the large double doors that comprised a large section of the far wall. A small door was set into one of these larger doors, and she pushed through.

The grounds outside were wet from a recent rain, but just beyond the darkened pavement of the runway, a field of grass glittered with raindrops in the light of the setting sun. The grass continued into a large field that descended a low slope to a small reservoir. Even the dim facsimile of the scene through his monitor did nothing to diminish its beauty.

When he met her outside, she was coughing. He waited to speak until she once again held her cellphone to her ear.

“What now?”

Laura squeezed her eyes shut as she rubbed her temple.

“I don’t know. I’ve never dealt with anything like this before. The science just isn’t known. We may have to wait for the rest of the team to arrive.”

Ron grimaced. He wasn’t looking forward to days of waiting. He could be dead from thirst by the time they finished with their meetings.

Laura was no longer observing her surroundings. A wrinkle had appeared between her eyes and her gaze was unfocused.

“This is my fault,” she said, so softly that he had to adjust the volume. “I told you to bring the aft-engine to full.”

“If you hadn’t, I would have crashed into the floor, and caused millions of dollars in damage to the chariot.”

“But you would still be here.”

Ron blinked. Did she just imply she cared more for him than the chariot?

“I’ll let you make it up to me. Buy me a drink after you get me out of here.”

A smile touched her mouth and she pointedly avoided looking at him. After a long, silent moment, the smile faded.

“A drink…” she said, the word trailing off as if she found far more meaning in it than he entirely intended. “That’s it.”

“I don’t follow,” he said, but her feet were already in motion, and a determined glint shone in her eye.

She jogged down the gentle slope, her lab coat billowing out behind her.

When she stopped near the bottom, she held out a hand.

“Your drink,” she said triumphantly.

Just beyond a lip of concrete, was the massive reservoir, murky and slightly green with algae.

“I was thinking of something pint-sized.”

She looked around until she spotted him trailing behind her.

“If that bag had truly squeezed through a nanometer sized hole, it would have been unrecognizable,” she said, then grimaced. “Well, at least more recognizable than it was after going through your big mouth. The hole must have widened a bit to allow the matter out.”

“So you can send me water?” he said, understanding. “If it widens, you’ll be able to get me more than just a drop at a time.”

“There is that, I suppose, but I was thinking of getting you out of there instead. If we fill your little balloon until all of the matter wants out. The hole should expand in all directions until the entire chariot emerges.”

“That’s it?” he asked. His despondency evaporated.

“It’s something, right? Something worth testing?”

She wasn’t confident in her plan, he could see that, but for having just discovered trans-dimensional travel, she knew more than anyone else. He trusted her.

Ron steered the chariot over the calm water until he hovered right above it. Orange clouds floated on blue sky in the reflection of the water.

“In the Navy, they teach you not to fly the aircraft into the water,” he groused. “Here goes nothing.”

He plunged down into the murky depths.

The monitors went dark and he cranked up the brightness of the floodlights.

Ron’s mouth fell open at the sight that greeted him.

Rotifers with maws of bristling cilia sucked in swarms of darting algae. The algae were everywhere and seemed to converge on him, their long flagella whipping back and forth. Studying them closer, he realized they weren’t drawn to his light, but being pulled in by a rapidly growing current.

“I think it’s working, but it’ll take forever at this rate.”

“Move deeper. The water pressure should push the water in faster.”

He did and then looked around the cockpit as if expecting the hull to buckle under the pressure. The chariot always felt like an aircraft’s cockpit to him, but now he couldn’t shake the image of the bridge of a submarine.

Even as he watched, the algae flickered out of existence, sucked into the expanding dimensional rift. As it grew, so did his field of view. Soon, the algae were little more than specks flying toward him, moving too quickly for his eyes to follow.

“You closed the airlock, right?”

Ron cursed and leapt from his seat. Rocketing back to the airlock, he caught himself on the frame of the door.

The darkness outside was not nearly so pervasive. The flood lights on the front of the ship illuminated a thick fog. Small patches of water pooled on the side of the ship in the zero gravity, condensing along its cool spherical surface. As he watched, the puddles grew, merging into one another until the hull shimmered under the eerie glow of the fog.

Then rain began to fall, though falling wasn’t accurate. Rain converged on him. When he stuck his hand out the airlock, rain pelted it from every direction. In the zero gravity, it clung to his spread fingers like an alien, gelatinous mass, slightly green with algae.

He stared in fascination until a glob of the stuff hit his face and resisted several attempts to wipe it away. A chill crept over his skin and he blinked away visions of drowning in a helmet made entirely of clingy water. He wiped his hands on his jumpsuit and closed the door of the airlock.

“I’d like to formally change my call sign,” he said, voice raising in pitch.

“To what?”

“Icarus,” he said as he looped a strap of the harness over his shoulder.

“The guy whose wings melted after flying to close to the sun? Is this some kind of philosophical nonsense about falling short of the Helios chariot?”

“No. It’s because he fell into the sea after his wings melted and drowned.”

“Pessimism? From you?” She said, sounding genuinely surprised.

“I’ve tried all sorts of new things today:  trans-dimensional travel, trying to stomach zero gravity, asking you out for a drink. Why not pessimism?”

It was quiet, even the drumming of water on the hull of the chariot trailed off into the heavy silence.

“Ron, I…”

The lights of the cockpit dimmed momentarily. His eyes flicked to the data monitor and saw an alert flashing in large, red letters. The communications relay was down. In hindsight, he wasn’t surprised. Those delicate electronics were on the outside of the ship. They were shielded from wind, the vacuum of space, and perhaps a little rain, but they were not made to be submerged.

Water enveloped the camera, and the shallow rivulets warped the view of outside. Then a flurry of bubbles appeared. The water was flowing in even faster.

A peculiar sensation started in the pit of his stomach, and then his whole world fell out from beneath him. He was whipped back and forth in his seat until the loop of the unfastened harness slipped from his shoulder and he fell forward. When his world stopped moving, he was lying on the floor of the cockpit.

Gravity had returned.

Dizzily, he rose to his feet and stumbled over to the airlock. It was just as dark outside the small window as it had been when he first entered the gravity dimension, but this darkness was murky and oppressive. He pressed his nose to the window and peered around. The shimmering surface of the reservoir was nearly thirty feet above him. He was back.

It was too much to hope the chariot was buoyant.

He could wait for rescue, but it was just a matter of time before the water shorted another critical system. Flying out of here was as dangerous as waiting. He did not want to return to that other dimension.

He turned and closed the inner airlock door, trapping himself in the small room. The pressure of the water beyond the door made opening the airlock difficult. It took several minutes at the control panel to override the safeguards.

He kicked off his boots and unzipped his jumpsuit, dropping it to the floor. As an officer in the Navy, he was no stranger to frigid waters or great depths. He planned to ease the door open and let the airlock fill with water, then swim to the surface.

The moment he turned the lever, however, the force of the door opening sent him careening into the back of the airlock. His head struck the unyielding metal and a white light filled his vision.

The next thing he knew, he was coughing up water and shivering on a bed of soft grass. When he heaved out the last of the water in his lungs, he sucked in air that tasted of fresh-cut grass and the crisp air that follows a spring rain.

He blinked and was greeted by a pair of bright blue eyes. Laura had pulled him from the water. She had brought him back.

“Champagne,” he wheezed, when he caught his breath.

She let out a small laugh and sniffled. Her cold, trembling fingers came to rest on his cheek, and beads of water dripped from tendrils of her dark, wet hair.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll buy you that drink.”

He shook his head.

“It’s bad luck to skip a christening.”

 

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading “Icarus Drowned.” If you have any thoughts about the story or questions about the science, please leave a comment below or send me a message. Remember to follow me on twitter @PhilipKramer9.

Until next time, write well and science hard!

Writing Update- The 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest

Feldspar

I am pleased to announce that my short story, “Feldspar,” won the 2017 Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest. It is an honor to be chosen as the grand prize winner from such a pool of talented finalists.

The contest.

Baen books describes the contest as follows:

“Since its early days, science fiction has played a unique role in human civilization. It removes the limits of what “is” and shows us a boundless vista of what “might be.” Its fearless heroes, spectacular technologies and wondrous futures have inspired many people to make science, technology and space flight a real part of their lives and in doing so, have often transformed these fictions into reality. The National Space Society and Baen Books applaud the role that science fiction plays in advancing real science and have teamed up to sponsor this short fiction contest in memory of Jim Baen.”

If you follow my blog, you can tell why this contest came to my attention. I am a scientist, but my narrow field of research only satisfies a small portion of my fascination for science, space, and innovation. I decided some time ago that the only way I could make a real difference in science (beyond my own research) was to write about it. With any luck, my stories will inspire other scientists to invent what I do not have the time, intellect, or resources to create on my own. Winning this contest means a lot to me.

As the winner, I will be professionally published by Baen Books sometime in June. This will be my first professional publication, so it’s kind of a big deal for me. Along with publication, I will be given a year’s membership to the National Space Society, free admission to the 2017 International Space Development Conference in St. Louis, an engraved trophy, and tons of other prizes. Needless to say, as both a scientist and writer, I am most excited about attending the ISDC conference in May. It will give me the chance to speak to leaders in the field of space development about topics such as living in space, the space elevator, planet colonization, and innumerable other topics of mutual fascination. A previous Baen winner was able to sit next to Buzz Aldrin at lunch *cue two months of giddy excitement*. With any luck, I may be able to discuss my own scientific research and how it could help prevent the muscle atrophy associated with low gravity. I hope to come away from the conference with many new contacts as well as exciting story ideas.

The story.

“Feldspar” is the story of Blake, a lonesome rover operator in the city of San Francisco. With the help of the gaming industry, space exploration has boomed, and Mars has become the largest sandbox game in human history. Over a hundred rovers prowl the surface of the red planet, harvesting regolith for smelting. The iron wire they receive in return is used to 3D print any object these gamers desire.  But they aren’t the only ones on the red planet. When Blake comes across the footprints of a NASA astronaut over a hundred kilometers from the Eos Basecamp, he becomes her only hope of staying alive.

My thanks.

I’d like to thank Bill Ledbetter, the contest administrator, Michelle, the “slusher of doom,” and all the judges, including author David Drake, for choosing “Feldspar” from the slush pile. I worked on “Feldspar” for months, gathering feedback from friends, family, my writers group, and even my uncle Wade, a NASA employee. I appreciate their valuable feedback. This was my first short story contest, and it gives me hope that there is a place and perhaps a need for my unique voice in the world. I will diligently continue my writing, hoping that my vision for the future of space exploration will inspire scientists to make it a reality.

Links to award announcement.

Locus

File 770

Baen

The Science of Time Travel

time-machineLet us draw an arrow arbitrarily. If as we follow the arrow we find more and more of the random element in the state of the world, then the arrow is pointing towards the future; if the random element decreases the arrow points towards the past. That is the only distinction known to physics. This follows at once if our fundamental contention is admitted that the introduction of randomness is the only thing which cannot be undone. I shall use the phrase ‘time’s arrow’ to express this one-way property of time which has no analogue in space.

-Arthur Eddington. The Nature of the Physical World (1928)

Time travel features heavily in speculative fiction. It provides a useful means of foreshadowing and helps to heighten suspense as the characters try to avert a looming disaster or manipulate the future for their own ends. It appeals to all of us who have ever experienced guilt or loss and want to go back and fix it. It is rife with unintended consequences and can trigger exciting conflicts. However, it also provides a great source of frustration for writer and reader alike as they try to contend with the plot holes, paradoxes, and skewed logic associated with tampering with the fundamental laws of our universe.

In this post, I will address the most common problems and paradoxes associated with time travel, and then discuss the science that could make it possible.

Causality.

Cause and effect. That is how the universe works. Nowhere in nature can an effect cause itself, which is to say that energy cannot spontaneously manifests itself to perform an action. Thermodynamics and all of Newton’s laws require a cause and effect, but time travel inevitably breaks these laws.

Like the Billy and Rubin comic above, if the Professor succeeded in going back in time to stop Billy from building a time machine, he would then have no time machine with which to make the journey. Traveling to the past, for even a few seconds, can violate causality and initiates all kinds of paradoxes.

Grandfather paradox.

There is no better example of a causality violation than the Grandfather Paradox. If a time traveler kills his own grandfather before he meets his grandmother, the traveler will have never been born. Most disturbing of all, are the implications for “free will.” If the traveler sees his grandfather, he will be physically incapable of killing him, for doing so will prevent his own existence. Imagine a knife that physically cannot interact with a person, because if it were to interact, it would prevent its own interaction. *Mind blown*.

Butterfly effect.

A term used in chaos theory, the Butterfly Effect is coined after the concept of a gentle disturbance in the air caused by a butterfly’s wings, which eventually leads to a hurricane.

Some writers insist that any disruption to the timeline will “heal,” and all will be set back on course, but this is unlikely. If the person went back just to witness an event, they talked to no one, and received no more than a passing glance by others and were quickly forgotten, then I could see the future not changing… much. But even if something small happens, like the traveler buys a slice of pie from a street vendor, it could initiate a chain of events that divert the future substantially. What about the person who was supposed to buy that slice? That person might then continue walking to find another vendor, and chat with friend he met on the street. If that friend subsequently misses a trolley and arrives late to work, failing to smile at the woman who would have been his future wife, then generations of people will have ceased to exist in the future, and all of their actions, and achievements, will have been erased… just because of a slice of pie. This is another example of causality, and every major and minor moment in our lives can be traced back to equally minuscule events.

Foresight and self-fulfilling prophecies.

Time travel isn’t the only thing that violates causality, it can also be violated with foresight. Having knowledge of a future event can allow the future to be changed, but is it really the future if it can be changed?

Prophecy is a common plot device in Fantasy novels. If a seer or prophet sees the hero’s future or reads their fortune, what will happen if that hero decides to do something completely different? If the hero changes the future, was it ever the future to begin with? What is to stop a person from just sitting down and not doing anything if they learn of their future? If that future depends on them performing an action, yet that person refuses to do anything, how can that future exist? This is the Idle (or Lazy) argument. For example, if a man learns he will die by being hit by a bus, that man can refuse to leave his house, thus preventing the future. I have seen authors stretch the limits of believability by having the hero walk into situations, saying and doing exactly what the prophecy says they will, even though they know exactly what fate awaits them.

This only works if the prophecy aligns with the main character’s own motivations, or if they are somehow duped into causing the situation they were hoping to avoid. We call these self-fulfilling prophecies, wherein the hero makes something happen because he or she believes there is no avoiding it, or because they want it to happen. For example, there is a prophecy that a castle will be invaded; so on the day of, the character leaves his guard post at the gates and flees the city. The enemy notices this new weak point in the castle’s defenses and decides to invade.

The science behind time travel:

Paradoxes aside, it should be noted that time is very strange. Some scientists suggest it is nothing more than a product of our minds trying to make sense of the universe. Time can go faster for some, and slower for others, all depending on how much gravity is around or how fast an object is travelling.

Black holes.

Time is inherently linked to the three dimensional fabric of space. Therefore, a force that can condense that fabric, can also affect time. Gravity is such a force, and a black hole is a near infinite supply of gravity. If it were possible to survive the spaghettification (gravity literally stretching you out) associated with entering a black hole, you would most certainly be crushed by the pressure of the mass surrounding you. There is a theory however, that a zone exists around a black hole where the centrifugal forces of its spin counteract the forces of its gravity. Thus, time would be slowed (possibly even reversed), but you would not be pulled into the center.

Special relativity.

Satellites in orbit are actually experiencing time a little slower than we are, largely because of the speed at which they circumnavigate the globe. Einstein introduced the concept of special relativity, which basically states that, while nothing can travel faster than light, light will still appear to travel at light speed, even if the light source is traveling at close to light speed. So, depending on your reference frame, time will move differently based on your speed. This time dilation can make a person’s 300 year journey near light speed feel like 20 years. This is probably the closest humanity will come to “traveling though time,” but it is a one-way ticket. Traveling faster than the speed of light, theoretically, would reverse the flow of time. Most scientists maintain this is impossible, because it would violate causality.

Quantum mechanics and the Many-Worlds interpretation.

Some writers have gotten around the causality argument by suggesting that time might be like a river. If a significant event disrupts the flow of time, it can branch off into another stream, parallel to the first, creating two different timelines of different pasts and different futures.

Based on observations of quantum entanglement, and particle-wave duality, it is clear that, at the quantum state, an object can be in two places at once, and doing different things. Physicists have since theorized that any and every action creates a parallel universe, in which the opposite action was taken. These infinite worlds can be very similar to our own or very different. While this concept doesn’t quite offer up a solution to time travel, if proven true, it can help eliminate many of the causality paradoxes associated with it.

Conclusions:

Because there are so many theories regarding time, its nature, and how to travel through it, there is no correct way to portray it in speculative fiction. I would advise, however, to thoroughly outline your book if it contains elements of time travel. For many readers, time travel paradoxes are indistinguishable from plot holes.

What other considerations should writers take when writing about time travel? Did I miss a theory? Leave your comments below.

Rest assured, if time travel is possible, I will travel back in time to this very moment to ensure that I got everything right…

…nope. No Phil from the future. I’m a little disappointed, actually.

The science of enclosed ecosystems

billy-and-rubin-ecosystem

Earlier today I did a guest post for fellow blogger, writer, and scientist, Dan Koboldt. I came across his blog about a month ago. He and I share the same mission, to promote the use of accurate science in sci-fi. But rather than do all the background research on his own, he wisely seeks out professionals in related fields and asks them to write about scientific misconceptions in sci-fi and how to get it right. Since my own lab work concerns cellular respiration, I offered to write a post for him on enclosed ecosystems, and he generously agreed. You can see the original post by clicking on the graphic below:

ecosystems-and-life-support-in-scifi

Enclosed ecosystem and life-support systems in sci-fi

A Closed Ecological System (CES) is a broad term that encompass any self-sustaining and closed system in which matter does not leave or enter. These artificial habitats can be built in space, underground, or underwater, but no matter where they are, chances are they are closed for a reason. Whether it is an underground bunker in a post-apocalyptic setting, a distant planet in the early stages of colonization, or a spacecraft carrying the last remnants of humanity, the environment outside is not hospitable. To ensure long-term survival, the occupants must maintain a well-balanced air and water system, a continuous food supply, and a reliable source of energy.

So far, no artificial enclosed ecosystem has successfully supported human life for long periods of time. Even the astronauts on the International Space Station get regular supply runs and have to exchange personnel. The largest CES was Biosphere 2, which sustained 8 crew for 2 years; however, they had to resort to some extreme measures to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in normal ranges, and many of the plant, animal, and insect populations died off.

Creating and maintaining a CES is difficult, as many fluctuations or imbalances can cascade into environmental collapse without continuous monitoring and support. Here I will discuss a few of the misconceptions about Enclosed Ecosystems and Life Support systems and suggest ways to get it right in Sci-fi.

Myth: Waste is useless and should be disposed of.

You see this in many sci-fi stories set in space; the airlock door opens and a stream of garbage is ejected into the vacuum. This might be acceptable for short-term missions, where all the supplies needed are carried along, but for an ecosystem intended to last for a long time, being wasteful is not an option. It is a matter of mass balance. In most situations, it won’t be possible to obtain resources from outside the enclosed system, so if your characters are ejecting waste of any kind out the airlock, soon there won’t be anything left. By the same principle, if some waste product cannot be recycled, it will build up and eventually consume all of the precursor materials.

Getting it right

When creating a life-support system for a fictional crew, they must adhere to a strict recycling policy. Most solids, such as plastics and metals or glass, can be melted and recast into any number of shapes. Of greater importance is the conversion of gaseous, liquid, and solid wastes into breathable air, drinkable water, and edible food. Solid organic wastes such as material from dead plants, animals, or their excrement, contain large amounts of nitrites and nitrates, phosphates, and other inorganic compounds that serve as fertilizer for plants.

Having a ‘living soil’ or cultured hydroponic system is also necessary, as bacteria, like those found in the human gut, are great at breaking down complex organic molecules and making them assessable to the roots of plants. So far, there is no easy way to convert waste, carbon dioxide, and water into an edible food source, outside of a biological system, such as a plant. Such plants can be consumed as food, and the cycle is repeated.

Myth: Water evaporates and condenses, but the total amount doesn’t change.

You hear this often in terms of a large environment like the Earth, where water rises from the oceans and falls again as rain, and it is true for the most part. Only a few processes create or break down water, but in a small, highly balanced environment, they can make a huge difference. Water is made and destroyed in biological systems during condensation reactions and hydrolysis reactions, respectively.

But the most significant of these reactions occurs in the mitochondria, the ‘energy’ producing organelle in nearly every cell. In the mitochondria, oxygen receives 4 electrons from the Electron Transport Chain and is reduced to water. Yes, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb through your lungs is converted into water. The reverse happens in plants, where water is hydrolyzed into oxygen during the construction of carbohydrates during photosynthesis.

Getting it right

The balance between animal and plant life on the ship should ensure a stable supply of water, but water can be made and eliminated artificially if there is ever an imbalance. Electrolysis, breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen, can be accomplished with a little electricity. That processed can be reversed by burning hydrogen in the presence of oxygen. A means of storing oxygen and hydrogen or water should be in place to deal with small fluctuations. Humidity and condensation can cause severe damage to electrical systems, especially in zero gravity, where air currents can become stagnant. This also increases the risk of mold. Cold surfaces or specialized air filters can trap the water vapor and return it to storage.

Myth: Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, while animals do the opposite.

Unfortunately, the biochemistry isn’t so simple. Oxygen is not converted into carbon dioxide in animals. As I already mentioned, nearly all of the oxygen you absorb is converted into water. Carbon dioxide is released from the breaking down of metabolites like sugar, proteins, and fats. This takes place in the mitochondria. In plants, oxygen is made when both carbon dioxide and water are converted into carbohydrates like glucose during photosynthesis. This occurs in the chloroplast in plants.

food-water-and-air-cycles

Another misconception is that producing oxygen is all plants do. In reality, plants have mitochondria too, and they consume oxygen and carbohydrates and produce carbon dioxide and water. When the lights are on, plants tend to produce more oxygen than they consume, but without light, they will suck up the oxygen as hungrily as we do.

Getting it right

Even as little as 1% concentrations of carbon dioxide can cause acute health effects such as fatigue and dizziness, but even higher concentrations (7-10%) can lead to unconsciousness, suffocation, and death within hours. To control fluctuations in carbon dioxide, CO2 scrubbers can be used. However, carbon dioxide is an intermediate step in oxygen and carbon cycles, so this artificial means to lower carbon dioxide may cause downstream effects on plant growth and lower oxygen concentration. This occurred accidentally in Biosphere 2 when carbon dioxide was converted into calcium carbonate in exposed concrete.

Materials like metal oxides and activated carbon can be used in CO2 scrubbers and then the carbon dioxide can be released at a later time. Large variations from the normal 21% oxygen is more easily tolerated than variations in carbon dioxide, but long-term exposure to greater or lower concentrations can lead to many acute and chronic health effects. Adjusting the amount of artificial or natural light available for photosynthesis is an effective means of controlling oxygen concentrations.

Myth: Energy must be produced within the ecosystem.

No closed ecological system is completely enclosed. If it were, it would soon succumb to the laws of entropy, making it a very cold and dark place. Something has to enter the system, and that thing is energy. The energy driving the weather, the currents, and the very life on this planet is coming from the sun.

Getting it right

Most common energy sources:

  • Solar
  • Wind
  • Water
  • Geothermal
  • Gas
  • Fusion/fission

The first four examples are the only types applicable in a completely closed ecological system, since energy can be moved into the system without any exchange of matter. A major drawback, however, is that the habitat can’t leave the source of the energy. A spaceship powered by the sun will have a hard time operating in interstellar space.

Any technology that requires the use of combustible fuels or fissionable (uranium 235 or plutonium 239) or fusible (Hydrogen 2 and 3, deuterium and tritium, and helium) materials will have to be resupplied on a regular basis, so they are not suited for long term ecosystems. By nature of their bi-products, they cannot be reused for more energy, but they have the benefit of being disposable and can be used as a form of thrust in spaceships without upsetting the mass balance.

Other Considerations for Environmental Control and Life Support.

Ecosphere.jpg

My year old Ecosphere. Going strong except for a slight algae overgrowth (The lab decided to keep lights on around the clock this past month).

Size- Closed ecological systems can come in all shapes and sizes, but the larger the better. Larger ecosystems, like the Earth, can sustain much more life and complexity and take longer to collapse if poorly maintained.

Nutrition- The nutritional demands of a human are more than getting the right amount of calories. There are many essential trace elements, minerals, amino acids (9 of them), and fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) and nearly everything that is classified as a vitamin, that cannot be synthesized by the human body. Until these things can be synthesized by machines, a complex ecosystem of many different plant and animal life forms would be required to maintain optimum human health.

Temperature regulation- Heat will build up rapidly in most enclosed systems, even in the cold of space, especially when you have heat generating electronics around. Heat needs to be dumped back into space as thermal radiation, usually a high surface area radiator that circulates a fluid capable of picking up heat in the interior and then dispensing with it outside. The opposite may be true in the deep ocean or underground, where heat may be drawn out of the enclosed system, and insulation will be necessary.

Air circulation- This is particularly important in zero G space, where hot and cold air will no longer rise and fall, respectively. To prevent air stagnation, humidity fluctuation and condensation, air needs to be well circulated. Filters are also necessary to remove any particulate matter such as skin cells or microbes.

The human element- Most enclosed ecosystems designed to support human life have not lasted nearly as long as they were intended to. Why? Because they failed to factor the human element into the equation. People get lonely and fall in love, personalities clash and people fight. Close quarters and a limited food supply can cause even the most patient and respectful of people to lose their temper. In Biosphere 2, the eight crew were barely on speaking terms by the time they exited, and two of them got married soon after.