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Monday, April 20, 2009

Science in Fiction: Low Orbit/Gravity Well Space Craft

What: The runabout

Who invented it? Unknown. The runabout is a a fairly common trope in most science fiction. I have some of the early sci-fi books from the 1950's that talk about a runabout as an advanced form of flying car.

What it does: This space craft is adapted to running from surface to high orbit and capable of flying in both with equal ease.

What's the Science Behind It? Complicated.

First, you need to make the hull out of something that can protect the occupant from various forms of radiation (and weapons in the better sci-fi books). That same hull has to be sturdy enough to withstand the friction and heat of rentry, but not so heavy or bulky that the runabout can't fly around in the low atmosphere cruising over the local equivalent of trees.

Once you have a sturdy but lightweight hull you need propulsion. Antimatter is the current favorite idea for futuristic propulsion and would be wonderful if it weren't inclined to blow things to smithereens.

You also need a design that allows the runabout to slough off friction (something a deep-space craft won't need) and ways to counteract heavy gravity coming in but to simulate gravity once you get out of the gravity well.

Can I Buy One: Not yet. I'm saying we have another 50 years before we get a real runabout rather than something we slingshot into orbit and let fall. It'll be a little while after that before they become common or hit the public market. You could build one though...

Is There Anything Like This: Sort of.

Right now the current space shuttles that go up aren't independently powers. See the big orange thing in the picture above? That's the STS-124, an external tank for the fuel (liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen) that is used to power the shuttle's engines during take off. It's big, ugly, and not suitable for dragging around skimming trees and buzzing the natives.

But NASA isn't the only one building rockets.

Virgin Group led by Richard Branson is trying to make space available to tourists. Well.... rich tourists at least.

SpaceShip 2 is designed to launch using the help of a twin-fuselage plane, when it cuts loose the space ship will hit suborbital space, all the passengers will be weightless for a short period of time, and then they'll coast back down to the ground.

What's Holding Us Back? In a word: MONEY

There is nothing cheap about building spaceships, something people seem to forget when writing sci-fi. Yes, a huge armada or space fleet looks impressive, but picture the taxes needed to pay for all those monsters!

After you get over the money issue you still have to consider air traffic control, permits, and other legal SNAFUs that might come up. But money is the big issue.

The BIG Question: Come on... be honest.... if you could have your own space craft what would it be? The X-Wing, a Prowler, or a Viper?


  1. Wow this has to be one of my favorite posts in a long time (how nerdy am I?)! I love science and science fiction. So thanks for your very informative post.

    The runabaout is something that will eventually makes its way into my novel as it progresses...and it will be propelled by antimatter. :)

    So how exciting to find this post.

  2. My money is on anti-gravity for shuttles/ launches/ runabouts. Anything in the gravity well of the Sun might even be operable (at relatively slow speeds) via anti-gravity.

    I also figure they won't bother with artificial gravity on small craft any more than small sailboats have bathrooms. Too much weight, space and expense that isn't absolutely needful.

    Thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Good stuff, L. Could I have a griffin instead? Pretty please. O:)

  4. I love the posts that (for me, anyway) jump out of left field and teach me something. Excellent.

  5. Liana, I love this post! I've had some of the same thoughts...who pays for this stuff? I want a dragon! LOL

  6. Great post especially since the wip I'm working on involves space ships.

    I'm loving sci-fi, there's just so much you can do throughout an entire universe, instead of just being on one planet. Thank you for inspiring me without knowing it into this side of the writing world.

    (Still like fantasy...)

  7. I have NO idea what ship I'd want... gosh. So do you remember the whole money-thing when you write your sci-fi stuff?

  8. Glamis- Depends on the series. In several of them I fudge the money factor, but I do have one book where the money issues are played up big time and both fleets get whittled down to two ships, the Victory and the Titan.

    Purple- Welcome to the blog. I try to do one science in fiction post every Monday.

    Written- I think it probably depends on the series. The runabouts that you see in Star Trek were fully equipped. Like small luxury yachts.

    Windsong- What series the the Griffin a fighter in? Or do I need to add it to UDS?

    Tess- Drop by anytime. I usually have something interesting up.

    Frances- I really need to track down the short story I read about dragons in space. You'd love it.

    Yuna- Try science-fantasy. Magic unicorns, zombies and space ships. It's a beautiful combination!

  9. *snicker*

    Griffin as in part eagle, part lion. Really smart pets that ensure no one messes with you. They can also take you flying if you've the stomach for it. ;D

  10. I know what a griffin is from mythology. I meant a Griffin-class fighter.

    I was trying to make a joke... it didn't work. *sigh*

  11. I thought you were. I was trying to make one back.

    Perhaps we should coordinate better? ;)