Are Steampunk Spacecraft Really Feasible?

After I published The Queen's Martian Rifles some critics complained the idea of steam-powered spacecraft was not only absurd but impossible. Really? We're going to start judging science-fiction stories by how closely they fit conventional wisdom? 

I wasn't really surprised, since my Maitre'd to the Damned was once rejected by an editor who said even though it had a time machine in it, it wasn't science-fiction because I never went on a protracted rant about relativity or paradoxes or quantum physics or any of that. According to him the plot was just "too unbelievably far out." My manuscript was rejected by a guy who specialized in books about far-out inventions that donít exist and travel to other planets because he thought the plot was just too weird to be "proper" science-fiction? I guess he never read Dune. But is the idea of Victorian spacecraft really that impossible? 

I admit the Tesla coil contra-gravity device was my one demand for suspension of disbelief. The idea was Tesla invented an electric device that treated gravity pretty much like an electro-magnet uses electricity to make magnetism. You run power through the coil and it generated gravity. Reverse the polarity and you got contra-gravity. Attach the coil to the keel of your ship and switch it on and you've got a flying ship. It actually makes more scientific sense than that flying car in the Flubber movie.   

And it really isn't all that far farfetched to believe that Nikola Tesla could have invented something like that. Remember, this is the guy who invented AC current, the electric generator, the radio and a bunch of other amazing stuff including reputably an earthquake generator and (on his day off) a remote controlled model submarine he used to play with on the lake in Central Park. And this was before the invention (at least officially) of radio, radio control and submarines.

In fiction you're allowed to have one "gimmie," one suspension of disbelief. This is a time-honored literary convention. We grated Dumas that the man in the iron mask looked exactly like the king, and Tolkien that one ring really could rule them all, and Frank Herbert that ingesting alien worm excrement could bestow godlike psychic powers. Okay, maybe that last one was a stretch, but granted that Tesla invented a contra-gravity coil, everything else in The Queen's Martian Rifles follows. The coil was powered by electricity and back then you could generate that with steam engines. But is it reasonable to suppose they could have built a steam-powered spaceship and gone to Mars in 1890?

I made the assumption that given sufficient power the contra-gravity coil could provide a constant 1g acceleration. This gives an aether ship the same general performance statistics as the atomic-powered ship proposed by the Orion Project in the early sixties. Their calculations showed with a constant 1g acceleration a trip to Mars would only take 100 days. Once you assume the coil works, the only problem is finding enough current to supply it. But how to generate electricity in the vacuum of space? And with steampunk technology? You can't run a steam engine on coal in a vacuum.

A solar boiler is just a sealed vessel containing water with an external mirror to concentrate the sun's rays. The solar heat boils the water. After that, everything works pretty much the same as if you'd made the steam boiling water over a coal fire. You channel the steam through a generator for electricity, then either a radiator to cool it down and reuse or just add additional water to keep the process going as long as desired. This is not as efficient as solar electric cells, but it's quite within the bounds of 19th century technology. But could Victorians build a pressure-sealed craft that could operate in space? 

The late 19th century was a hotbed of submarine development. Numerous inventors in many countries developed undersea craft: Holland, Lake, and Nordenfelt to name just a few. The same design principles that keep high pressure water out also keep air in. Any shipyard that could build a submarine back then could make a vessel sealed against vacuum. But the main objection seems to be the idea of maintaining life support in space. After all, those Victorian submarines didn't remain submerged for months at a time. 

NASA determined for the Apollo missions that 1.8 pounds of oxygen were required per man-day of operation in space, plus an additional 4.8 pounds to replace losses due to leaks and such. The actual oxygen usage for the Apollo 15 mission was only 2.94 pounds per man-day, only 63% of their estimate which had been refined down after six previous Apollo missions to the moon. (NASA estimates were notoriously conservative.)

If we assume our hypothetical steampunk aether ship is the size of a contemporaneous armored cruiser (say the British Orlando class) it would displace 5600 tons and require a crew of 484, probably much less, assuming it's an unarmed exploratory vessel. This is roughly equivalent to the proposed size of the aforementioned Project Orion ship. Even supposing a crew of 484, and the actual oxygen usage of the Apollo missions (about 3 pounds per man-day) the oxygen requirement for a 100-day journey to Mars is only 72.6 tons. For a round-trip (assuming we can't resupply on the Red Planet) we'd need at least double that, plus a reserve for time spent exploring, so let's triple that amount: 218 tons.

Water requirements are close to that of oxygen. NASA provided 25.4 kg for the Apollo 15 mission, a usage rate of 2 kg per man-day. At that rate a 100-day mission to Mars with 484 men would require 106.48 tons, tripled gives 320 tons. This is assuming no recycling. 

The Orlando-class cruisers were designed to carry 900 tons of coal, which we need only enough to lift us out of the atmosphere, leaving plenty of room for the extra oxygen and water supplies needed for the trip. And remember, this is assuming a ridiculous size crew. A civilian vessel of the same size would have a crew about one-tenth that of a warship.

But a major problem with long-term operations for both spacecraft and submarines operating on life support is the build-up of carbon-dioxide. Without constant removal the respiration of the crew will increase the concentration until it becomes toxic. Somehow we'll have to renew our air supply, and just pumping in more oxygen isn't enough.

Some have suggested greenhouses, and while that's certainly within the limits of Victorian technology, a greenhouse big enough to do the job would have to be larger than our ship. So, maybe we do add a greenhouse to the design, but more for aesthetics than practicality - always a big steampunk consideration. 

NASA used filters impregnated with lithium hydroxide to remove CO2 from the air of the Apollo capsules. When exposed to CO2, lithium hydroxide sucks it out of the air forming lithium carbonate and water. One gram of lithium hydroxide can remove 450 cubic centimeters pf CO2. The process actually made so much water the Apollo crews actually had to dump the excess overboard. A lithium hydroxide filter with simple electric fans to circulate the air would make an effective life support system for our aether ship and reduce the amount of water our expedition would have to carry.

Lithium hydroxide is not a high-tech material. It was first obtained by electrolysis in 1821 by William Thomas Brande. The process was improved in 1855 by Robert Bunsen, the inventor of the Bunsen burner. So the life support system of our modern moon missions employed essentially Victorian technology.  

As can be seen, given the patented Tesla Contra-Gravity Coil, our plucky adventurers could easily be setting foot on Luna or Mars, space-suited  in a suitably modified diving suit (minus the diving weights and heavy boots, of course.) The suit would have to be modified to keep pressure in rather than water out, or our aethernaught would look like the Michellin Man. This could be done with a heavy coating of rubber. Victorians referred to garments made out of rubberized canvas as Mackintoshes, after the inventor. Presented with the opportunity a contra-gravity coil represents, I have no doubt the people of the era that invented submarines, ironclads, motorcars and airships, would prove as up to exploring the vastness of space as they did reaching the poles and the heart of Africa. 

If you want to see this technology in action, read my Queen's Martian Rifles or The Donuts of Doom. They're steampunk adventures with heroic characters. And when you do, write me and tell me what you think. I'd be glad to hear from you.