Lost in space: The science of Battlestar Galactica

点击量:   时间:2019-03-08 12:10:02

By Michael Marshall Sci-fi TV show Battlestar Galactica has been much praised for its gritty realism – despite being the story of space-borne refugees fleeing genocidal robots. Its treatment of subjects like suicide bombing and torture have won it plaudits from all corners; its cast and creators were even invited to address the UN earlier this year. But does the series “do” science as convincingly as it does politics? We spoke to Kevin Fong, lecturer in space medicine at University College London and a keen advocate of manned space travel, about the series’ depiction of space travel and the challenges facing astronauts on long space journeys. You’re an expert on the effects of space travel on human physiology. How plausibly was that portrayed in the show? The key thing that usually affects your health in space is microgravity. That’s because when you’re weightless, your muscles waste away. Your heart, which is a muscle pump, also atrophies to a degree. But you get problems across the board, including some non-intuitive places. For instance, you have problems with haematopoiesis – blood formation. Astronauts have trouble forming red blood cells, and possibly some dysfunction in the white blood cells as well. You also get some suppression of the immune system, but it’s not clear whether that’s due to stress or a direct effect of the microgravity. You also get problems with hand-eye coordination. You certainly wouldn’t be throwing Viper craft around the way they do [in the film] if you had the sort of impairments you see in shuttle crews. For the first 48 hours or so, it’s all that a lot of them can do not to throw up. They’re certainly not doing loop-the-loops. Of course, none of that happens in Battlestar Galactica, because the ships have artificial gravity! That’s quite a common thing in science fiction TV, but it’s never really explained… In the real world, you have three ways to get gravity. First, you can generate gravity by virtue of inertial mass, which means you have to take a planet with you, and obviously you can’t do that. Second, you can do it by linear acceleration. But that means that if you did a short journey, say from Earth to Mars, at one g, you’d be travelling at a significant fraction of the speed of light by the time you got there. Or, of course, you can do it rotationally, which is entirely possible: Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick realised that when they were making 2001. The idea of a rotating spaceship has been around since the dawn of rocketry – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote about it in his 1920 book Beyond the Planet Earth. Viper pilots in the series pull off a lot of high-speed manoeuvres that supposedly subject them to high g-forces. Is that plausible? The problem with a lot of modern fighter aircraft is not the aircraft – it’s the pilot. If you’re pulling a tight turn, there’s enough centripetal acceleration to make the blood pool in your legs and cause you to pass out. I remember going to a meeting once where somebody said that, by about the mid-2020s, fighter pilots would be redundant because of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). I can see the reasoning behind that. That would also happen in space, albeit in a slightly different way, if you turned in a tight circle. It’s a necessary story construct to have people flying these vehicles, but you would think that, if they had that much technology, they would probably be able to get the things to fly themselves much more efficiently. After all, electronic hardware today can withstand the sort of g-forces that you get when you smash into the surface of Mars after your parachutes haven’t worked very well. Where do you think Galactica got the science right? I think that the science that drives it isn’t physics, astronomy or evolution: it’s psychology, and I think the psychology’s extremely accurate. Consider “33”, the first proper episode of the show. It’s called that because the Cylons attack every 33 minutes for days on end, relentlessly – and the characters all fall apart in a very believable way. What psychological problems do real astronauts face? People in the spaceflight community are very clear that we can’t do Battlestar Galactica-type missions where you put something the size of an aircraft carrier into space. If we send a crew to Mars, it will be in something the size of a few caravans strapped together. It would be a small crew living in cramped conditions in a fragile vehicle travelling through an exposed environment, with a persistent risk of death, for up to two-and-a-half years. You could have problems with compatibility; they might well fall out and have arguments. There are recorded instances of astronauts having psychological problems like depression on missions. There was a well-publicised case of an American astronaut who was arrested for allegedly attempting to murder a romantic rival. It’s not remarkable that things like this have happened. Actually it’s surprising that they haven’t happened more often. These are, after all, normal people, living in extraordinary conditions. So how do you deal with astronauts’ health issues? The things that make healthcare difficult in space are power availability, the volume of equipment you can carry, and its weight (because of the payload mass). There’s also an equipment problem. Every kilogram you launch into low Earth orbit costs about $20,000; whereas, of course, the Galactica has a fully equipped sick bay and a more-or-less endless supply of energy. A lot of the problems we have with current space travel are down to the lack of an expert doctor. Astronauts get good paramedic training, but not an awful lot of it, and they then have to assume the doctor’s role. On Galactica they have several doctors, the main one being Doctor Cottle. He’s a fantastic character, endlessly toking away on a cigarette. I always thought it was pretty funny that he smoked in sick bay I thought that was really interesting as he’s quite a dark character. If you pasted him into episodes of M*A*S*H, he wouldn’t look out of place. I’m not sure whether he smoked because, due to advanced technology, he knew he wasn’t genetically susceptible to lung cancer, or if he just thought “we’re all gonna die anyway, I might as well smoke”. In every episode, you saw the whiteboard showing the number of surviving humans, and the number generally went down. The risk of premature mortality from smoking, when the Cylons can jump out of hyperspace and kill you within minutes, probably doesn’t mean all that much. So that’s how I read him: he was quite nihilistic and thought they were all going to die. More on these topics: