575. Textbook: The Rolling Stones

This is a continuation of the post Learning Spaceflight.

For someone reading this post today, it will require a bit of imagination to recreate the head space I’m talking about. Think 1952. Sub-divisions and interstate highways were brand new. NASA was still three years in the future. Heinlein wrote a science fiction juvenile called The Rolling Stones in the year Mick Jagger was still twelve years old.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was five years old that year, so I must have read it six or seven years after publication.

In those days, those of us who were in love with the idea of spaceflight were getting our fix from science fiction, and mostly from juveniles. PBS was seventeen years in the future, and NOVA was twenty-two years in the future.

I recently re-read The Rolling Stones. It was never my favorite novel. I would give it one star for plot and no stars for its obnoxious characters.

The Stone family lived on the moon. The slightly underaged twins wanted to buy a spaceship and flit around the system on their own, using money they had made from an invention. Dad said, “No,” but never fear. He bought a larger ship and took his whole family along, first to Mars, then to the asteroid belt.

If my tone sounds facetious, chalk it up to how irritating all the characters were, but as a textbook on how to fly in space, The Rolling Stones was top notch.

Here is an example. Leaving Luna for Mars, the Stones opt for the most economic orbit. This puts them in a long line of craft who have made the same decision. They fuel up on Luna then drop down to pass close to the Earth because . . .

A gravity-well maneuver involves what appears to be a contradiction in the law of conservation of energy. A ship leaving the Moon or a space station for some distant planet can go faster on less fuel by dropping first toward Earth, then performing her principal acceleration while as close to Earth as possible. To be sure, a ship gains kinetic energy (speed) in falling towards Earth, but one would expect that she would lose exactly the same amount of kinetic energy as she coasted away from Earth . . .

The mass of fuel adds to the energy as they drop deeper into the Earth’s gravity well, but the fuel is expended at perigee so it does not subtract from the energy as they move away. I’m interrupting RAH and explaining it myself because he took too many paragraphs, but that’s where I learned about gravity well maneuvers. By the time I got to college my main interest was ecology and then anthropology, so I never studied engineering or orbital mechanics. I still wish I could have done both but, in truth, most of my knowledge of space travel came from Heinlein, Clarke, Ley, and Goodwin, with lesser lessons from Gamow, Coombs, Hoyle and dozens whose names I no longer remember.

Later on, the Stones headed out for the asteroid belt. They . . .

shaped orbit from Phobos outward bound for the Asteroids six weeks later. This was no easy lift like the one from Luna to Mars; in choosing to take a ‘cometary’ or fast orbit . . . the Stones had perforce to accept an expensive change-of-motion of twelve and a half miles per second for the departure maneuver. A fast orbit differs from a maximum-economy orbit in that it cuts the orbit being abandoned at an angle instead of being smoothly tangent to it… much more expensive in reaction mass.

Of course. That makes perfect sense.

I watched the first part of a NOVA program the other day called The Rise of the Rockets. I turned it off about ten minutes in muttering kinderspiel. At least that’s the word I’m choosing to use in this family site. That happens a lot. NOVA covers fascinating subjects, but they tend to dumb them down. The old dudes did it better, even in their fiction.

However, they didn’t always get it right. Regarding the asteroid belt, RAH said . . .

But it was not until the first men in the early days of the exploration of space actually went out to the lonely reaches between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and looked that we learned for certain that the Asteroids were indeed fragments of a greater planet — destroyed Lucifer, long dead brother of Earth.

Back in the fifties when The Rolling Stones was written astronomers had not yet decided if the asteroids were an exploded planet or an unformed one, caught in the tidal stresses of Jupiter’s gravity. RAH chose the more exciting option. Today we know better. Too bad. I always wanted to write a novel called The Last Days of Lucifer. I guess I still could, as steampunk.

In the fifties, we knew little about the universe and not all that much about the solar system. A lot of what RAH and others wrote has been killed by current knowledge. He had a non-human civilization with canals on Mars and intelligent talking dragons in the swamps of Venus. But he knew his math, and his rockets always got where they were going by following the rules of physics that NASA uses today.

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