The Brutal Reality

Arthur C Clarke telling it as it might be.  This edition published by Pan Books 1965.

Arthur C Clarke telling it as it might be. This edition published by Pan Books 1965.

Whoever said that space travel would be easy?  In the latest edition of Odyssey, which has just been issued, we look at some of the harsh realities of spaceflight, not only as astronauts have experienced them so far, but also how they might be encountered in future.

In recent years, the 2013 film Gravity has become well-known as demonstrating in detail just how a collision in Earth orbit could be disastrous for the astronauts involved, just as the 1995 movie Apollo 13 brought home the consequences of the real-life explosion of an oxygen tank during that mission.  But science fiction films have long focused on serious problems that might realistically arise during space travel.

In George Pal’s 1955 film Conquest of Space, debris from an asteroid punctured an astronaut’s spacesuit during the first manned mission to Mars, causing instant death.  Pal’s earlier Destination Moon from 1950 demonstrated the possibility of floating away from a spacecraft during a journey to the Moon if inadequate precautions are taken for a spacewalk, as well as the desperate decisions that have to be taken when it’s discovered that there is not enough fuel for the return to Earth.

If one was asked to choose a story which exemplifies science fiction as it should be written, it could possibly be Tom Godwin’s short story The Cold Equations, published in 1954.  It depends crucially on its science background, in this case spaceflight dynamics – an intolerable decision has to be made when a stowaway unwittingly jeopardises a critical life-saving space journey.

Other stories have posed similar problems, such as the 1952 tale Precedent by EC Tubb, one of the science fiction writers appearing regularly at the White Horse Tavern in Holborn alongside the likes of Arthur C Clarke and John Wyndham.  Fuel consumption for space travel will almost certainly have to be planned carefully, with minimal waste.  What one does with a stowaway when the laws of physics severely restrict the options available is exactly the sort of crisis which may one day face future generations travelling to the planets and the stars.

Clarke himself is well known for stories which describe how the realities of spaceflight might well develop in the foreseeable future.  His 1962 short story collection Tales of Ten Worlds includes the memorable Into the Comet, first published in 1960.  A computer malfunction results in a spacecraft being trapped on a comet, with the possibility of it being hurled into deep space with no chance of rescue.  Human ingenuity must come to the fore to find a way out.  And how could one forget that most famous malfunction deliberately perpetrated by the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey – hopefully one of the less likely scenarios facing future astronauts.

In his powerful 1960 short story Summertime on Icarus, Clarke describes an astronaut stranded on the night side of an asteroid approaching perihelion only seventeen million miles from the Sun.  Given that Icarus has a four-hour day, dawn is rapidly approaching, and along with it certain death.

As he awaits what is to come, the poignant observation crosses his mind that “space made no allowance for human frailties or emotions, and a man who did not accept that fact had no right to be here.”  It is more than likely the sort of motto which will express the sentiments of many who venture out beyond the Earth.

There will certainly be many obstacles to be overcome before humanity reaches the stars, but predicting in advance what they might be at least gives us a head start.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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