Hephaestus's Blog

Space and Sea Voyages: a Comparison
March 26, 2015, 16:09
Filed under: Space stuff

It has recently occurred to me that a long-term space voyage, such as to Mars, would have a lot in common with the sailing voyages, especially those undertaken by the oceanic explorers of the age of sail. I note that there are at least three distinct threads of similarity, and will go over each of them in turn. They are the duration of the voyage, the sources of financial backing, and the risks to the crew.


First, the duration. A Martian voyage, using a standard Hohmann transfer orbit, would take on the order of 400-500 Earth days. On the other hand, each of Captain Cook’s three Pacific voyages lasted roughly three years, considerably longer than a Mars flight.

Of course, Captain Cook’s ship was probably never more than a few months between landfalls. However, a modern Mars mission, although the astronauts would be in considerably smaller quarters than eighteenth-century sailing ships, would only be confined to their ship during the interplanetary cruise of about 180-200 days. In addition, with modern methods of communication, they would have more often and more reliable correspondence than any sailor.


Second, financial backing. Cook’s voyages, as well as those of Magellan et al., were made with the funds and backing of national governments. In the case of Cook’s first voyage, the mission was to observe the transit of Venus and search for an undiscovered Terra Australis. This was supported by the Royal Society and King George III.

Similarly, the earliest explorations of outer space were funded by national space agencies. However, as time goes on, there may be more and more space voyages being undertaken using private capital. A seafaring parallel to this can be found in the whaling voyages of the nineteenth century, which often went all around the globe.


Third, the risks. Prior to the discovery that vitamin C prevents scurvy, many sailors died of this horrible ailment. Even after that, death was often caused by the various infectious diseases of the tropics, to say nothing of the risk of death by accident.

In space, while scurvy is unlikely and infectious disease impossible, the risk of illness of other kinds is by no means entirely banished. Radiation is a serious concern, and, of course, microgravity brings with it all kinds of potential problems, from osteoporosis to eye defects. Accidents, as any of us older than fourteen know well, are a very real presence in spaceflight, just as they were in the age of sail. Having a hard vacuum (or Martian “atmosphere”) just outside the walls of your spacecraft puts you in constant danger due to leaks, power failures and so on, and launch and atmospheric entry have killed many more than space exposure.


In closing, there are many parallels between a sailing voyage and a space one, even if there are many differences between their respective destinations. I suppose a trip is a trip, no matter where you’re going.


1 Comment so far
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Very interesting analogy, Eli. I enjoy reading your thoughts and expressions.

Comment by Charli Nauda

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