The Curious Physics of Mission Space


This article originally appeared in Issue 12 (March 2012) of WDWNT: The Magazine.

Mission SpaceI wish to start this article with a disclaimer: I am fully aware that Mission: SPACE, being a theme park attraction, falls under the category of “suspension of disbelief.” Talking mice, time machines, and hang gliders that seat thirty don’t actually exist, but we play into the fantasy because that is why we go to Walt Disney World in the first place. This article is meant to be humorous, so please take it as such (although one can argue that the Epcot attractions – Mission: SPACE in particular – are far more scientifically and reality grounded than, say, Splash Mountain). Additionally, it has been a decade since I last took a physics class, so I welcome the corrections from our PhD audience.

Now of course, Mission: SPACE is somewhat unique in that its premise actually downplays the usually fantastic storylines of other attractions. This is not actually a mission to Mars, but a training exercise for a mission to Mars (though it may be argued that the distinction breaks down somewhat later in the attraction). For my purpose, I will play it straight and assume everything happening on the screen in front of us is actually happening (why bother faking it in training?).

Starting right at the beginning, we liftoff and reach orbit in about 25 seconds. By contrast, it took the space shuttles around 8 to 10 minutes to do the same. That solid hydrogen fuel sure is fast (fun fact, hydrogen melts at around -434º F, so please don’t lick the X2). Unfortunately, we are no longer conscious to enjoy our zero gravity orbit, in fact, we didn’t survive the trip there (and it’s highly likely our shuttle didn’t either). Assuming a 250 mile orbit above the earth (this is roughly where the shuttles would orbit, depending on the mission), we are traveling about 10 miles per second to get there. In other words, we were pulling over 65 Gs! Mission: SPACE orange team achieves about 2.5 Gs, so reality would be 26 times more intense than that. If ever there was a time to ride green, this is it.

However, this is child’s play compared to what happens next. We head to the moon for our “slingshot” to help us pick up speed to get to Mars. This would seem unnecessary as we make it to the moon in about 6 seconds. The moon is about 240,000 miles away from earth (its orbit is elliptical, so the distance fluctuates; I am using an approximate average). In other words, we are traveling to the moon at 40,000 miles per second! The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, meaning we are traveling over one fifth the speed of light. The upside is we will all be a little bit younger, relative to our friends, when we get back from this trip.

It then takes us three months to get to Mars, requiring that we be put into “hypersleep.” That “slingshot” was not only unhelpful, but it actually slowed us down, A LOT! If we had just kept going at the speed we were, we could have been to Mars in about 14 minutes, which would mean we could probably have just stayed awake the whole time. I am assuming that we launched when Mars was at its closest point to the earth, otherwise we would have had to taken our slingshot around the sun.

Next we get to Mars, and wake up right in the middle of an asteroid field. We tend to have the wrong impression of asteroids in space. To quote Douglas Adams, “Space… is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is…”

So even with many asteroids, the image of them as a minefield with barely the distance of a spaceship to spare between them is not true. Assuming we did actually encounter this type of asteroid field above Mars, landing there is the LAST thing we would want to do, as the planet is very likely about to be pummeled, Armageddon style. With much less of an atmosphere than earth, most of those rocks are getting through, so you really do not want to be down there.

We do continue on, however, and something goes wrong on the way to the landing site. Our autopilot goes out, and we must manually fly the spaceship the rest of the way. Aside from the fact that having four different people controlling the vehicle makes little sense (do you have four steering wheels in your car?), the helpful navigation from Gary Sinise does us little good. Because of the distance, it would take about three minutes for his communications to get to us. Combined that with the three minutes it takes our position information to reach him and that gives us a six minute delay for each of his instructions (imagine the worst satellite interview ever).

Lastly, and this is not so much a physics problem as it is a common sense one, why is the landing strip directly up against the edge of a cliff? This is a lot like building an airport on the edge of the Grand Canyon. It leaves little room for error at a time when you REALLY would like to have some room for error. In addition, what exactly is our plan for getting back after this? It isn’t as if we can call a tow truck to get us out of the snow at the end of the cliff.

I hope we plan to be here a while. Thankfully, our robotic team that built the landing strip also put a gift shop there for us to hang out in.

Stay tuned next month when we explore the impossibility of a fox getting a rabbit’s entire body into a beehive without breaking it.

The Curious Physics of Mission Space was last updated December 22nd, 2013 by Michael Truskowski