After NASA imposed sanctions on cooperating with Russia, a Russian official joked that these sanctions would strand astronauts on the International Space Station. The taunts escalated to instructing NASA to teach its astronauts to use a trampoline to reach orbit. Could it work?
Things are getting sticky between the United States and Russia, and its spilled off-planet into space. NASA issued instructions that they would no longer cooperate with Russia in space except for the International Space Station. This left everyone baffled about exactly what NASA was doing in cooperation with the Russian Federated Space Agency outside of the International Space Station — a Russian tool on the Mars Curiosity rover that would keep on getting used, astronauts would keep hitching rides on Soyuz, so what would the sanctions accomplish?
The sanctions won't have much impact on day-to-day operations, but it gives NASA a tool to apply current political tensions into pressuring for more fundingfor a US replacement for the space shuttle. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had a more mocking suggestion, taunting that if NASA was serious about its sanctions, they better start launching astronauts up to the space station using a trampoline. Journalist Eoin O'Carroll recruited physicist Jonathan McDowell to calculate just what it would take to use a trampoline to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station.
Simplifying the physics until the problem was tractable, McDowell postulated that, well, maybe it could work...? The first problem is the trampoline fabric — nothing that currently exists would be strong enough, so material scientists would need to come up with something new. Next, the trampoline would need some serious displacement, probably more than a bouncing astronaut could acquire without assistance. This could be circumvented by stringing the fabric over a canyon (maybe even the grandest of canyons), and winch down the fabric with the astronaut in the middle. Once released, the contraption would function more like a demented slingshot or catapult than a trampoline, throwing the astronaut with some seriously nasty acceleration.
Presuming they survived the abrupt launch, there's a bigger problem: the trick with getting into orbit isn't so much getting up, as it is getting over very, very fast. The first American in space was on a ballistic trajectory that went up, then moments later, came right back down. That would be the best-case scenario for a trampoline-launched astronaut. An astronaut launched by winch-assisted Grand Canyon trampoline-slingshot that managed to reach the International Space Station would find joy very quickly overwhelmed with the sensation of splatting on the station like a bug on a car window. Gruesome.
Between disfiguring a geologic tourism destination, squishing astronauts, and the unaddressed challenge of getting back down from the station, it's probably a better idea to keep researching rockets. Luckily, American launch and lander capabilities are looking good, with the recent successes in soft-landings and automated hazard detection.
Read the full story here. Image remixed from Doc Searls/NASA by Mika McKinnon. Auto-translate confuses trampolines and boomerangs: have you considered what happens to a boomerang in space? Instead of stringing up a trampoline, how about filling the Grand Canyon with people? And while we're on physics applied to ridiculous scenarios, how about spotting a meteorite while skydiving?