574. Learning Spaceflight

I learned how to fly in space before spaceflight existed, from science fiction writers who, in turn, learned it from pioneers like Robert Goddard, Willy Ley, Herman Oberth, and Wernher von Braun. Or Tsiolkovsky in Russia. The pioneers’ tool was mathematics. They speculated, then looked at those speculations through the unblinking eye of calculations. They taught everyone how to fly in space long before NASA existed. Later some of them worked for NASA.

When I was researching for a post on Apollo Eight, I encountered reference to the barbecue roll. I had known about that maneuver from science fiction, long before Apollo Eight.

The barbecue roll is needed because vehicle in deep space is surrounded by vacuum with sunlight impinging on one side and sub-polar cold on the other. In low Earth orbit, that condition only lasts 45 minutes of every 90 minute orbit followed by pure cold in the Earth’s shadow. Apollo Eight was the first manned vehicle to endure that temperature imbalance on a long term basis — roughly five days. That’s a lot of stress.

The solution, used on Apollo Eight, then Apollo’s Ten through Seventeen, was to spin the craft about it’s long axis. It was called the barbecue roll, as in a rotisserie. You can hear that phrase used in the movie Apollo 13, and it will probably appear on the movie First Man when it comes out in October.

Anyone who had read any science fiction knows about spinning ships to provide artificial gravity. That’s not what we are talking about. The barbecue roll was quite slow, the distance from center of craft to skin was small, and any pseudo-gravity produced was probably imperceptible. The entire purpose of the roll was to equalize heat distribution by exposing all parts of the skin to heat, then cold, in sequence.

Long before there were real spacecraft, I had read about this maneuver in early science fiction, probably multiple times. It made me want to know who thought it up, which scientist first wrote about it, and how many decades before it was needed was it speculated into existence.

It struck me as a prime example of the kind of thing the pioneers did while they were writing the rules of the game, long before the game was ever played.

I looked for answers and struck out. I spent far too many hours reading the same few references on the internet, usually repeated without credit, or reading technical articles. The papers scientists and engineers write are long on facts, but short on history.

Somewhere, somewhen, somebody was dreaming about his imagined spacecraft out in a long orbit between the planets, and figured out how to equalize temperature. It might have happened several times independently. I would love to have been there, in the dormitory lounge of some engineering department, or in a meeting of enthusiasts at some model rocket club, or in the bedroom of some kid like Asimov in America or Clarke in Great Britain or some kid whose name I can’t even guess in Russia. What fun to be there when some nerd (before the word existed) slapped his head and said, “Hey, listen to this!”

Of course that moment in inaccessible, but somewhere, sometime, somebody wrote down his speculations in a paper that only enthusiasts would ever read. That is what I could have reasonably hoped to find. If you have any clues where I could continue the search, please reply to this post.

What I finally did find was one partial reference in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones, quoted here:

The weather outside the orbit of Mars is a steady ‘clear but cold’; no longer would they need reflecting foil against the Sun’s rays. Instead one side of the ship was painted with carbon black and the capacity of the air-heating system was increased by two coils.

I clearly remember, from several sources, the notion of painting part of a vehicle black to better absorb solar energy as ships moved out further from the sun. One nagging memory has a ship painted with white and black stripes and spun. Heinlein did not spin his ship; he distributed heat to the cold side via refrigerant coils. In that particular novel, Heinlein had to maintain a non-spinning ship for plot reasons. In science fiction, physics start the ball rolling but plot determines where that ball ends up.

We’ll look closer at The Rolling Stones as a textbook for spaceflight within the solar system on Monday.


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