Launch Pad Workshop Report: 5 basic scientific facts that scifi always gets wrong

This is Cecilia Tan's second report from the Launch Pad Workshop, where scifi writers attend classes taught by scientists. In this installment, she talks about the most common misconceptions that scifi writers have about space travel.

The annual Launch Pad workshop is wrapping up for the year, and 15 science fiction writers and editors are metaphorically coming back to Earth after a week among the white dwarfs, planetary nebulae, and pulsars of our universe. The NASA-funded workshop's purpose is to educate the public about space science by educating fiction writers on the "right stuff." Guest instructor Kevin Grazier works on the Cassini mission at Jet Propulsion Lab and is also a science advisor on Battlestar Galactica and Eureka. He debunked several of the prevailing misconceptions that sci-fi repeatedly gets wrong.

1. In space, you'd pop!

You've just kicked the bad guy out the airlock and can't wait for the vacuum of space to explode him like a tomato in a microwave, right? Sorry to disappoint you, but it'll take two minutes for him to suffocate, but he won't pop. He'll have burst blood vessels in his eyes, and if he held his breath he'd end up with some burst lung tissue, but that'd be about it.

2. If you get a hole in your hull, you'll be sucked out into the vacuum instantly.

In fact, the force of the vacuum that doesn't explode your villain also isn't strong enough to just suck you through a bullet hole in the hull. In one episode of Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck shoots down a Cylon raider, then flies the Cylon craft back to Galactica, making it space-worthy by stuffing her flight jacket into the 3-4" wide bullet hole. At atmospheric pressure (14.7 pounds per square inch), the air inside the raider would exert about 180 lbs. of pressure on the jacket stuffed into the hole. That's about the size of a human being standing on it. It'd hold long enough for the return flight, assuming the flight jacket is not porous.

3. In space, you'd freeze like an icicle!

Okay, you think, so the vacuum of space isn't like a giant Hoover, but isn't it like a big Frigidaire? Space is really cold. Couldn't you airlock your villain and then have him smash into a million pieces against the side of the ship? Well, no. Yes, space is cold, but because it's a vacuum there's not much stuff to radiate your heat away with. Just like a steak thaws faster in water than in air (even if the air is hot and the water cold), to make a shatterable villain-sickle you'd have to immerse him in liquid nitrogen. Just waiting for the vacuum of space to do it would take about a thousand years.

4. The "point of no return" of a black hole could capture a starship.

An infamous episode of Star Trek Voyager has the ship struggling to escape from a black hole. But the definition of the event horizon is it's the point at which ONLY something traveling faster than the speed of light could escape from the black hole. Hey, guess what travels faster than light? Um, yeah. Voyager. Not much suspense there.

5. Spaceship battles will be full of laser and explosions!

A staple of movies and TV shows from Star Wars on up is the bright, noisy space battle, with colorful laser beams streaking across the sky and earth-shattering kabooms. The thing is that with a vacuum, you won't hear the explosions, even if you're in a ship with air. The sound waves just won't travel through the vacuum. Likewise, even a visible light laser won't be seen in the vacuum unless there is particulate matter (like dust) for the beam to bounce off. Even in air, a laser pointer's beam isn't visible, only the spot where it hits. While we're at it, you can't dodge a laser beam the way you can a bullet. A bullet might travel fast, but it's nothing compared to the speed of light!

Cecilia Tan is a freelance writer and editor, and founder of Circlet Press. Follow her personal experiences at Launch Pad on her blog.

Related links:

Kevin Grazier's home page

Kevin Grazier at the Battlestar Wiki

Launch Pad home page

Launch Pad at Discover Magazine Blogs

Liveblogging Launch Pad 2010 by Rachel Swirsky