Manoeuvres in the Dark

The difficulties of manoeuvring with only an external power supply. This edition published by Corgi Books 1974.

The difficulties of manoeuvring with only an external power supply. This edition published by Corgi Books 1974.

The precise means of manoeuvring vehicles in space have tended to be ignored in much of the science fiction on the subject, probably because such details tend to get in the way of the plot.  But those of us who grew up with the comic strips of the 1950s and 1960s knew exactly how spacecraft were expected to perform.  They would be updated versions of World War 2 fighter planes – fast, sleek and instantly manoeuvrable.  Just a touch on the ailerons or the rudder and an expert pilot could swing into action, probably into something resembling a wartime dog-fight.

Ah…but that’s the problem – such flight controls only work when moving through air.  They wouldn’t achieve much in the vacuum of space, yet even the great Dan Dare in The Eagle seemed to be able to manoeuvre his spacecraft with quite astonishing ease given the environment he was in.

Having said that, in one of Dan’s earliest adventures, The Red Moon Mystery in October 1951, we were given some remarkable detail on how spaceflight might really be.  Required to quickly turn a spacecraft around, we were told that “there’s no air here for his rudder fins to work in…and the graphite vanes in the exhaust only give a slight degree of turn…it takes half an hour to turn a right angle using them.”  So instead he turns her round “by playing the rockets – the main ones on one side against the reactor brakes on the other.”

Needless to say, Dan is one of “only one or two men alive who can do it without starting the ship spinning – and a spin in space takes hours to get out of.”  That’s more like it – spaceflight for real.

Arthur C Clarke provided a sense of how difficult it might be to manoeuvre a spaceship in his 1949 short story Hide-and-Seek.  An astronaut trapped alone on Phobos, the larger moon of Mars, has to avoid an armed space cruiser trying to track him down.  His great advantage is that his enemy has to manoeuvre in space using internal gyros or tangential steering jets, and “any deviation from a straight course demands a physical turning of the ship…very few people know just how long this simple manoeuvre takes.”  So the trapped man can observe the vessel having “to heave herself round with all the grace of a bogged hippopotamus.”

An evocative description of manoeuvring an entirely different type of space vehicle is provided in The Wind from the Sun, one of Clarke’s stories from his 1972 collection of the same name (and originally published as Sunjammer in 1963).  Sun-yachts are propelled through space by vast solar sails using the power of sunlight alone, but “in space there’s no friction; so once you start anything moving, it will keep going forever.”

Manoeuvring is a slow business in such vessels, but opening panels in the surface of the sail gives a little extra tilt, allowing the craft to move out of the shadow caused by someone else’s sail.  Little can be done when in the darkness of Earth’s shadow during an orbit, but the “moment of crisis” comes on emerging into sunlight again.  One such vessel spins slowly to give stiffness to the sail, but that prohibits the flexibility to “tack” the yacht properly – so, on suddenly facing the Sun again when leaving the eclipse, it’s blown backwards.

We have since seen for real how vehicles such as Soyuz spacecraft or the Space Shuttle have to be manoeuvred with extreme care to get positioned just right while in orbit.  It might not have been the image we had originally expected, though we may yet see a space fleet of sleek vessels hurtling between the planets.  Provided they don’t need to change direction too often.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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