Thursday, March 28, 2013

Personal Space Craft.

In the Lensman series of science fiction books, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith created a character named Rob Kinnison, who was a member of the Galactic Patrol. He was entrusted with The Lens of Truth. One of the stories I read involved Kinnison being abandoned or marooned on an asteroid or moonlet of low mass.

Somehow or other, and that part is a little vague in my memory, Kinnison leapt or propelled himself off that little rock at escape velocity, enough so that a little additional thrust from a gun or a small gas bottle or something, gave added impetus to his trajectory and he was captured by the gravity of a bigger planet, and one I think where he found additional resources. From the story telling point of view, let’s say it was the base, the hideout of some space pirates or other bad guys—the ones who had dumped him there in the first place.

So he sneaks up on them, arrests or subdues them, and uses their ship to bring them to justice.

While I don’t remember much about that book, novel-length as it was, the idea of a person with nothing but a spacesuit and some imagination, going from one body in a system to another sort of stuck in my mind. I probably read that book when I was in my late teens. I’m fifty-three now.

That was thirty-five years ago.

When we see people flying in suits that inflate and give them control in a free-fall jump, or when a guy flies across the English Channel with a wing strapped to his back successfully, then we have to ask what comes next?

I’m thinking the Personal Space Craft can’t be too far behind. The total mass of Vostok 1, in which Yuri Gagarin made one orbit of the planet, was about 10,420 lbs. With modern technology, much of that mass could be fuel, and it doesn’t even have to stay with the pilot. I see a high-altitude aircraft launching a booster that expends ‘x’ amount of energy and propels a man, probably a daredevil the first time or two, out into space and ejecting him in a suit designed for the limited duration of his flight. The booster descends by parachute, and the radio-control mother ship is landed like any other aircraft on some desert strip somewhere in the boonies.

There was a guy in Southern Ontario, years ago, who was designing a small conventional chemical rocket. He hoped to ride it up, jump out and parachute down…or something like that. The chute might have been on the machine, although he would have worn one as well.

He might have made it into the stratosphere, but maybe not into space. If my suit only weighed five hundred pounds with me in it, it takes a lot less energy to get into space compared to the Vostok. I wouldn’t have to achieve high orbit to enjoy the thrill and the joys of personal space flight. It’s like jumping out of a helicopter with a surfboard and a parachute…and a camera strapped to your head. I wouldn’t have to achieve 17,000 miles per hour or escape velocity, and I wouldn’t have to worry about re-entry. If I’m sitting inside the machine, the cabin can be low-pressure air, that’s for comfort, and my suit would be skin-tight and all life-support strapped to my backside. There would be a quick-release hatch out of the cabin in an emergency to be used at low altitudes. We’re coming down in something akin to a big model airplane.

Here’s a similar news story from Oregon.

The first buyers would be young, of course—the kind of guys that jump off of cliffs with parachutes on their asses and cameras on their heads, with no real thought of commercial development or even fame. It will be more for the thrill of doing it, doing it before anyone else, and maybe having a few good friends along that understand what it’s all about.

We don’t necessarily have to orbit the Earth. Just launching in California and landing in Nevada, Utah, or Arizona, somewhere remote, would be quite an achievement. While the focus of the wingsuit pioneers is to fly like a bird using the human body for control, my design might be more of a lightweight airframe with simple controls and the pilot lying comfortably in the Formula One position with pedals and stick control. All controls would be simple and sturdy cranks and pushrods, operated by digital-proportional, fly-by wire electric servo-motors. That’s where my old-school sort of begins and ends! At high altitudes the air is thinner and the speed of sound is lower. The system would have to be capable of sustained Mach-plus speeds. Until we get a little closer to the ground.

The Space Shuttle and other conventional spacecraft carry a lot of mass and a lot of velocity, require a precision landing. They have a lot of momentum on re-entry, and they came in from higher in space. But a light object, subjected to the drag of the thin higher atmosphere, would begin with much less momentum, hence the drag would be more effective in slowing it down without heavy thermal protection systems or possibly even retro-firing of motors. It’s smaller because the mission is simple. A large tail, some fairly small wings, and just remember to carry enough velocity for steering control, and on board is a pair of chutes if all else fails. A few devices that are similar to automotive airbags in the cabin in case of heavy impact and Bob’s your uncle.

The ship doesn’t even need windows, although most pilots would prefer it. Pilot vision could be accomplished through simple external cameras and goggle-type hookups with selector switches and multiple cameras, and other backup systems. With proper feedback telemetry to friends on the ground, a remote control operator could take over and fly an unconscious pilot down safely in the event of an emergency.

Don’t try this at home.

Disclaimer: Personal Space Craft are dangerous and require training. Always consult an expert before attempting to design, build, test or fly a Personal Space Craft.   The author is not responsible for loss or injury resulting from attempts to build Personal Space Craft inspired by this blog post.   END

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