August 25, 2014

Anybody Know Where I Can Find a Space Mechanic?

by Drewsil courtesy of Deviantart

No one has ever accused me of being a mechanic (nor will they) but when writing a science fiction story that takes place in a ship in outer space, like Han Solo, I kind have to be familiar with everything. It's not like when the ship breaks down they can take it to the nearest Pep Boys Star Ship Center, or can they?  Hmmm...that's a story for a different time.

Back to my point, for my science fiction novels 'Cold Warriors' and 'Ice and Peace' the carrier in which the majority of the story took place had to be, for the most part, self contained.  Right down to changing the oil in an engine in case it went down.  

Now that I look back on it, creating the self contained world in which the crew lived in was the easy part.  The hard part was making it believable.  Case in point, space travel. 

When ever anyone asks about my science fiction books the first thing that inevitably comes up is how the characters travel through space.  And I always answer the same way-- 'No they do not use Warp Speed.'  Why?  Because I just don't have enough money to go through a long drawn out court battle with Paramount Pictures over intellectual copy right for the use of the term.  So I tend to opt out of its use.  

Then what do I use?  Well for long distance travel, the option that works best for me in the SFR genre is worm hole technology or some variation of it.  But what about when they are just driving along trying to get from planet A to planet B?  That's easy, a standard nuclear based engine will do.  This presents another problem.  When traveling in space, unlike on Earth where we have seat belts, inertia can be a cause for concern if and when the ship stops.  (Yes, I think about these things!)  

Of course when I started writing the series, the only thing I knew about Classical Mechanics was that it had nothing to do with fixing my car and about inertia was that it something to do with a few PBS specials I'd seen.  So I started my research and set about learning how to stop a ship in space.

I came upon Sir Isaac Newton and his Laws of Motion.  In particular his first law which states, “Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to any change in its state of motion, including changes to its speed and direction. It is the tendency of objects to keep moving in a straight line at constant velocity. The principle of inertia is one of the fundamental principles of classical physics that are used to describe the motion of objects and how they are affected by applied forces.” (Wikipedia).  

In other words, inertia refers to objects ability to stay in rest or motion until something else acts upon it. And that means a lot in space where there is no air resistance, gravity or a whole bunch of friction to slow something down.  By the way, I also touch upon the Third Law of Motion as well in a tongue and cheek style. 

by Fishbot courtesy of Deviantart

In the case of my space ship, the problem lay not in the ship stopping but the people.  Because of a mechanical failure, the commanding officer on the ship had cause for concern when applying the so called 'breaks' when they got to port.  

Why? You see it's because of inertia. The people were inside the ship, therefore they were traveling at the same velocity as the ship. So when it stopped, they needed to stop 'moving' too.  But the equipment that did this was broken.  Can you hear my evil laugh?  I had so much fun writing this scene!  Here is it is from 'Ice and Peace'...

“Boatswain’s Mate,” Keegan called out as he stared at his coffee cup on the stand next to him. The liquid inside tilted instead of being level.

“Aye, Captain?”

“I’d like the status of—” The ship shuddered before he could finish the words. It did it again then groaned loudly from its bowels. “What the hell was that?”

Dumbfounded, the officer of the deck stared at him, wide-eyed.

“Sir,” she said, “I don’t know.”

“Find out.”

Stunned, she stood still.

Keegan frowned and barked, “Move it!”

“Yes, sir,” she replied, before scurrying out of the room.

He could only imagine what challenges he’d face on his first day back in command...


The air inside of Engine Room One on the Blanchard was musty and filled with the stench of lubricant. The loud clanking of a broken pump sounded through the room as various personnel did their best to shut it down, along with the engine it served, before it was too late.

“Sir,” one of the engineers called out, while approaching Keegan.

Her soot-stained face and jacket gave evidence to the battle she was having with the machine.

“It’s Inertial Dampener Number One. It’s gone. Apparently, the lubricator pump failed, and it locked up on us and blew,” she explained over the din.

Keegan’s swayed ever so slightly to the side as the damaged system began to affect the ship.

“Lieutenant, we’re traveling at 2C through free space.” He paused and braced himself against the side of a hatch. “How could something like this happen?”

The engineer blinked at him. “Sir. I’ll find out.”

“Well, how are we going to stop?” he asked, raising his voice in order to be heard.

“I don’t follow, sir,” she responded in an even tone.

“Let me rephrase. Lieutenant, at the speed we’re going, when we finally put on the brakes, we’ll be experiencing Newton’s Third Law in living color. So what’s going to keep us from being spots on the forward walls?”

In order to work in this area, everyone had to know physics better than Einstein. So if she had any bright ideas, he was ready to hear them.

“Sir, we lost only one dampener. We should be fine with the other three. Therefore, we have enough stability to make it to port where I can get the parts I need to make the repairs.”

“All right,” he said checking his watch. “We’ll be at Eckhardt in ten minutes. Fix what you can, and I’ll get you to port.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carry on.”

“And, sir?”

“Yes, Lieutenant?” 

“Steer us a clear path until we get them all back online. We can’t afford a bumpy ride," she replied.

“I’ll do my job. You just watch those other three. And tell everybody to hold on.”

Keegan watched the engineer head back to her station. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. A dampener blowing was one thing, but getting the new crew to ensure a smooth ride was another.

End Excerpt~

So there you have it.  All that research for one and a quarter's scene!  I like to think that it added a little gravity to the situation.  If not, it certainly added another layer tension for the commanding officer to deal with.  As for me, my days as a mechanic are over.  But hopefully with these tips, yours are just beginning.

Ice and Peace and it's prequel Cold Warriors are available in ebook format and in print.

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