Science Fiction Story Starters: Space Travel

Idea 1. Space is Big. Think of a story about being lost or alone or a search for needle in a haystack. What tricks would you use to be found or find your own way home or to find someone who is lost. How do you find the lost treasure, secret or danger? How do you you survive the loneliness or the lack of air or food? How do live with someone you hate or love or don’t even care about? Think of the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Life Boat” or the story of the Donner Party.

Where would you hide in space? Where would you dispose of  Toxic Waste or a dangerous criminal? Who would you meet in the emptiness? Maybe empty space is full of what? Full of music? Ghosts? Lost Souls? Visions? Thoughts? Quantum Creatures? String theory constructs.?

Maybe truly empty space has a different physics. Perhaps when we get far enough from stars we can live forever or travel faster than light or control space and time. What would the gotcha be?

I see very little thought about the unsettling vastness of space. Louis Lamour talks about the vast Texas plains and how some men can’t take the big skies and uncluttered landscapes. City people need the close contact of civilization, but only a pioneer can cross the great empty plains.My Father’s Aunt Vera was born at the beginning of the twentieth century and had very little education. In the late 1960’s we were watching the news and they covered a Space Walk. Aunt Vera asked me if the astronauts could see the planets and the starts floating around with them. She was concerned that they might bump into something while they were walking in space. This is not a joke. Most people know that the moon is far away, but we only have terrestrial distances to use for comparison, My Aunt thought that the distance from Nanuet to Nyack (5 miles) was a large distance and would term travel between the two towns a trip. There was no reference point for her to even begin to grasp the concept of interplanetary distances.

A friend of mine from India explained to me that the men on his father’s farm believed that the night sky was made of velvet and that the stars were diamonds that were sewn to it. The average reader may not be much more advanced. The average TV viewer only knows what he has seen on TV and has forgotten most of that. It is up to you to express the vastness and alieness of space in away that it is impressed on your reader.

Space is bigger than Texas. If we think of a man on horseback trying to make it from Dallas to Kansas City, MO we might compare that with a man in a spaceship who is traveling from Mars to Earth. The Mars to Earth trip has less scenery and  takes longer than the Dallas to KC trip. During most of the trip Earth and Mars will not appear as a disk, but only as a bright star in a sky with many brighter stars. You are so far from earth through most of the flight that normal radio is more than likely inadequate. You’d have to aim a large dish at earth and the dim signal would take minutes for you words to reach earth and more minutes to get a reply to a statement.

Interstellar Space is bigger than anything you can imagine. There is no way to imagine the distance between stars. If you had to crawl on your hands and knees from Dallas to KC you are still a lot closer than the distance between stars. It takes years, probably hundreds of years to get between stars. We have to come up with some trans-einstein method of space travel. You can use warp drive, but everyone will think of Star Trek. Super-C or Trans-C travel may not be possible. Taking short cuts through worm holes or by taking advantage of folds in space my be a possibility, but don’t take faster than light travel for granted. If you have it in a story make sure that you help the reader understand the bigness of space.

Space seems very empty. I figure (actually guess as I very few facts to go on. Please someone correct me) that there is about one star in every 50 cubic light years of space. This is very empty! But if you figure a sphere with a radius of 100 light years you find that there are over 13,000 stars. You’d have to watch Lost in Space for 2,000 years to visit just the stars within 100 light years of earth. This is even worse than trying to have dinner at every restaurant in Manhattan.

Imagine if you are 100 light years form earth. How would you find the old Sol in a sky full of 13,000 nearby stars? (not to mention the ones that are bright but further than 100 light years.)

Idea 2.Man does not belong in space.How do we cope with the harshness of a cold dark vacuum? What happens when technology fails? (One thing we know about technology is that it will fail.) How do we survive the cold or lack of air or the lack of food?

Space ships must bring their earth ecology along into space with them. How much of the ecology do they need? Should he bring cockroaches? mice? pets? bacteria? fruit trees? Cows? What happens when the artificial ecology goes wrong?

Spaceships can be a heat trap and sometimes they might need to be cooled. If a spaceship can’t cool itself then the passengers might burn to death even though the nearest star is only a pinpoint of light.

Man on earth adapts to incredibly harsh environments. Well multiply that by ten on most planets. How do you live when you know a planet wants to kill you?

If there are 13,000 stars within 100 light years of earth and most of them have planets, there may be 100,000 planets for man to explore. That’s 100K of places where man might try colonizing, not to mention the places where man might try to build huge space stations. The odds are that almost none of these will be hospitable to man.Space itself is a cold hard place. The lack of gravity is harmful. The cold means keeping warm. The expenditure of energy means we may have to radiate excess heat or burn up. The psychology of an isolated group of people with no contact with the outside world is as much a part of space travel as anything. Man is not supposed to be locked up in sardine cans.

Almost all planets will be inhospitable. Gas giants, airless moons, hellish infernos of boiling gas and sun baked deserts where lead and tin are liquids are all found in our own neighborhood. What other conditions will we find? We will seldom, if ever find air we can breath.

Planets will be 1) Big – gravity too large for us. 2) Small – Small escape velocities so that there will be no air and a good strong leap will send us hurtling into space. 3) Near earth in size. Maybe the size of Mars to twice or three times the gravity of earth. How will we live in low gravity that robs our bones of calcium yet saves our hearts from deadly strain? How will we adapt to high gravity where we weigh twice or three times earth weight. Our bones will grow thick and we will look like the incredible hulk. Will there be rules against Olympic teams training on a heavy planet?

Planets will be 1) Hot – above human standards. Man can live for short periods of time at temperatures up to 400 degrees F. The body’s cooling system will help him survive, but hotter than that requires special equipment. 2) Cold – Man survives at the south pole with temperatures way below 0 degrees F. Special clothes and breathing equipment can push the bottom limit, but equipment begins to fail long before temperatures approach absolute zero. 3) Just right. Just right for man is anywhere from the arctic to the tropics. Man flourishes in a great variety of conditions.

Planets will have 1) No atmosphere. Many planets will be smaller and won’t be able to hold an atmosphere. Living on a planet with no atmosphere poses many of the same problems as living on a space ship except that there is a lot more room to get lost in. 2) Deadly atmospheres. Most planets will not have nice mixes of oxygen and nitrogen. Earth’s atmosphere is a unique result of the flora and fauna that have lived there for the past billion years. Without chlorophyll or the Krebs cycle there can be not breathable atmosphere. 3) Just right – well mostly. We think that we have problems with millions of cows farting methane. What happens on other worlds? If there is oxygen then there are probably plant like creatures producing it and animal type metabolisms cycling the oxygen back to something that the plants can use. Man needs more than oxygen well mixed with nitrogen. There can be other poisons in the air, maybe methane or alcohol or sulfur dioxide.

A planet can have extremes of climate. It can be fixed with no night or day, just half dark and half light. It can freeze to absolute zero and then boil above 1000. It can have pockets and valleys where breathable air settles or the opposite where deadly gases collect. It can have seasons of air and then methane.

The story – as always – is how does this effect man? Remember stories are about human beings.

Hey, how does man survive in the center of a sun?

Idea 3.Space requires Special Skills and Knowledge for survival.Man is well equipped to survive, at least for a time, in most of the climates found on earth. In space the situation is quite different. Man has no built-in defenses against vacuum, extreme heat and extreme cold.

Man will only survive in these harsh environments if he is very smart and very prepared. There is no reserve system to fall back on. There will be no second chances in space.

Man against nature is a natural for a short story. A story requires two characters to be effective, but the second character can be partially the environment and partially the old self. Old self must rise above the environment to change into new self. Remember the key to a story is that the main character must undergo a deep and lasting change. This can be brought about by conflict with nature. (Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” comes to mind.)What happens when someone not prepared for space (a cook on a space station or a passenger on a space transport) is thrown into a survival situation?

What happens when someone is mostly prepared except for a key piece of information or a normally ignored piece of equipment goes missing? I remember an early TV space adventure where the jack knife or wrench needed to save someone’s life is inside the space suit and the owner must die for the others to survive.

What happens when blind dumb luck steps in to save an unlikely survivor? Or kill the best prepared survivor?

What happens when personalities create anti-survival situations? A stupid leader or a personality clash can make the best prepared survivor exhibit behavior that is detrimental to himself and the group.

What about reluctant leaders rising to fill a void and make the hard decisions that save the group?

What about love and survival? Which will come first? Which should come first? Love can make some life and death decisions much harder and it can also make unthought of decisions look possible.

What about changes to a personality that will help survival? Will faith help or hinder a lost soul’s chances of rescue and why? Will a mistaken notion cause failure or accidentally insure success? What kind of changes can happen to a person under stress? Will they break or will they find inner strength. If they find inner strength what is source? Will it be faith or a parent’s love or a new found hope or a newly discovered hatred.