Anything can be made to seem plausible

Here’s a post by James Davis Nicholl at Bad SF Ideas in Real Life: NASA’s Never-Realized Plans for Venus

I like the first couple of paragraphs:

Many readers may find the plots of some SF novels deeply implausible. “Who,” they ask, “would send astronauts off on an interstellar mission before verifying the Go Very Fast Now drive was faster than light and not merely as fast as light? Who would be silly enough to send colonists on a one-way mission to distant worlds on the basis of very limited data gathered by poorly programmed robots? Who would think threatening an alien race about whom little is known, save that they’ve been around for a million years, is a good idea?”

Some real people have bad ideas; we’re lucky that comparatively few of them become reality. Take, for example, a proposal to send humans to Venus. Not to land, but as a flyby.

Arguably, the author’s job is tougher than reality’s job. No matter how mind-bogglingly stupid a proposal might be in real life, an author has to tone the implausibility down in fiction in order to get readers to buy in to the story.

This post reminded me of the XKCD post about flying a Cessna through the atmospheres of the different planets in our solar system. Remember that post? It offers some vivid comments about Venus:

Physics calculations give us an idea of what flight there would be like. The upshot is: Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.

The atmosphere on Venus is over 60 times denser than Earth’s, which is thick enough that a Cessna moving at running speed would rise into the air. Unfortunately, the air it’s rising into is hot enough to melt lead. The paint would start melting off in seconds, the plane’s components would fail rapidly, and the plane would glide gently into the ground as it came apart under the heat stress.

A much better bet would be to fly above the clouds. While Venus’s surface is awful, its upper atmosphere is surprisingly Earthlike. 55 kilometers up, a human could survive with an oxygen mask and a protective wetsuit; the air is room temperature and the pressure is similar to that on Earth mountains. You need the wetsuit, though, to protect you from the sulfuric acid. (I’m not selling this well, am I?)

The acid’s no fun, but it turns out the area right above the clouds is a great environment for an airplane, as long as it has no exposed metal to be corroded away by the sulfuric acid. And is capable of flight in constant Category-5-hurricane-level winds, which are another thing I forgot to mention earlier.

Venus is a terrible place.

I believe in 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson placed floating cities in the atmosphere of Venus, didn’t he? That sounds like a better bet than a wetsuit. Or a plane.

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2 thoughts on “Anything can be made to seem plausible”

  1. Yeah, I am pretty much stunned that NASA thought a venus flyby was either useful or feasible.
    On the other hand, there are some really cool “real SF ideas”, like this one from 2 years back:

    That is an amazing idea, and totally not obvious. But it is true that you don’t need a big object to cast a really huge magnetic shadow in space. It still means that ionized gases will escape from Mars (as they can’t from earth.) But just cutting down on the amount of gas that actually gets ionized is a brilliant piece of extra-terrestrial geo-engineering.

  2. That’s a really neat idea, Pete, and one I’ve never heard of before. Thanks for the link!

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