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Tuesday 7 June 2016

Fighting in space....

A bit of Kung Fu action is a staple of most sci-fi, but there’s little or nothing about how to fight barehanded in microgravity. That’s mainly because (for reasons we’ll examine below) it’s a very bad place to have a fight… but I’ve honestly never found a good place to have one, and this makes an interesting start point for looking at how people move in microgravity.

That's actual microgravity, not wires, guys...
Oh, by the way, while I have little experience with martial arts and self defence I'm no instructor. None of what follows is intended as serious self defence advice - it's a bit of amusement, which I've based on my own very limited knowledge and experience! If you're looking for real information on that then I'd recommend starting here (link).

So, to set up our scenario: We’re trying to disable an insane / alien controlled astronaut with only our hands and feet. Or we're bored, and they're passing by. Either way, as a first guess, we can look at how astronauts move in micro gravity, and apply some (very) basic martial principles*.

First we need to be clear about the difference between inertia, weight, and friction: 
  • Weight is the downwards force a mass feels in a gravity field, it’s what sticks things to the floor. 
  • Inertia is a mass’s inherent resistance to being moved, or having it’s direction of movement changed. 
  • Friction is the force you feel resisting movement because of two things (like your feet and the ground) rubbing against each other. 

In microgravity objects have no weight holding them to the floor, so the main source of friction is also removed. They still have the same inertia, so a person will still take effort to move about, or move other people about - but it will be significantly less than on Earth. In fact, even a fairly slight shove could send something flying into the opposite wall. This astronaut can literally move herself with a hair's force… 
So, yeah, where gravity is less you're effectively stronger. But there’s a downside: With no ground friction to brace yourself against Newton’s third law - every action has an equal and opposite reaction - will make you it’s bitch. Heavy things move at a slight push, but you go spinning backwards at the same time. That's why astronauts quickly learn to anchor themselves to something before using their over powered Earth muscles in any way. 

Above: An astronaut shows us around the ISS. Watch how he moves: He is able to move his whole body with only a fingertip's pressure, or gentle shove, and is constantly bracing himself against the walls.

So what does this mean if one of your crew mates is an alien agent on a bloodlust powered mission to kill everyone on board? The bad news is that, in effect, he's superstrong.
The good news is, so are you...
We’ll avoid the use of guns in space. In part this is because I have nearly zero experience of them. But mainly it's because if you had to fight in space you'd really, really, want to avoid putting a hole in the hull, or the oxygen generator, or the power cables.

Spotting the crazed astronaut:  

If one of them looks like this, that's a clue.
People who are about to get violent often display physical and behavioural signs, different than those who are merely angry. Their faces will go pale instead of red, their speech will tend towards shorter sentences. Their body language will change, perhaps to include an unconscious ‘stancing up’, often turning slightly sideways. Microgravity may well change some of these signals, for example: The redistribution of fluids and blood in microgravity makes a persons swollen and redder, which may make the face paling harder (but not impossible) to spot. But those signals are based in very basic human instincts, so they’ll be there in some form. A skilled fighter can read these signals, and use them to spot an attack tens of seconds to minutes before it occurs. More generally, having to operate in a world of 3D instead of 2D movement will make paying attention to your surroundings extra important, as you could also face danger from above and below. On the other hand if you’re ambushing someone this works in your favour.


How to hit in microgravity:

So you’ve spotted your crazed astronaut, and are either confronting them (possibly using some sort of fence position and distraction) or possibly ambushing them**. 

Above: Geoff Thompson, one of my favourite self defence authors, demonstrates 'the fence'. I have no idea how that would apply in microgravity, and I doubt I'll ever get the chance to try it out...

But, physically, mechanically, what’s the best way to attack them? 
  • Any blow you landed would send you ricocheting backwards, which also means…
  • Half the power of any punch is wasted in moving yourself, and….
  • Most of the energy going into the target will move them** rather than go into them, reducing the damage done by the initial impact - but greatly increasing the likelihood of damage from a collision with the walls.
So, looking at the physics of it, getting hands or feet attached to a solid wall is a must: It will make your blows/grapples much more effective, and stop you from being bounced off the walls like a football. Where one fighter has anchored themselves, and the other hasn't, things would probably be over fast: An astronaut who grabbed a hand rail and kicked out at an unsecured opponent would send them smashing into a wall with immense force, spinning them around wildly and disorienting them as well as injuring them. 

That said, it wouldn't do any important equipment they struck any favours either...
Once you've incapacitated your blood crazed attacker you need to contain them. Locking them up, zip-tied hand and foot, sounds like a plan. But, if there isn’t time, you can just strand them out of touching distance of anything: Although astronauts can wiggle about easily enough, actually moving forwards or backward without anything to touch is very difficult in  microgravity – although blowing hard in one direction for a long while should eventually cause some movement (Newton’s third again).
Of course, the best defence against a fight is not to have one – use your words! But that doesn’t make for a very exciting article…

*I have a little experience in martial arts, but as far as I know astronauts have never even tried play wrestling in space. So, if you disagree with any of this, feel free to post a comment:  Your take on it is just as likely to be valid as mine!

** Yes, I game that way too. No, no one will play with me anymore.


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