Why is it that astronauts “float around” in space?
If you were to ask Bill O’Reilly or the Insane Clown Posse, the answer would be that it is a mystery. If you were to ask the average person on the street, the answer would be that there’s no gravity in space. Both answers are ridiculous, of course. It’s not a mystery; we have a very firm working knowledge of the physics of orbits. And there’s plenty of gravity in space: at 230 miles up, where the International Space Station is, the acceleration due to gravity is about 8.8 m/s2, which is only 10% less than its value at sea level.
So why does the general public still not understand this whole “floating astronaut” thing?
I submit that some of us physics professors are teaching it poorly. Here’s an explanation from a physics book on my desk:
“All objects in the vicinity of, say, the space station are in free fall with the same acceleration, and so, absent nongravitational forces, they remain at rest relative to each other and their freely falling reference frame.” [Rex and Wolfson, Essential College Physics (2010) p. 215]
I don’t find this very helpful. And many physics instructors teach “weightlessness” in the same non-helpful way: by hand waving and saying that astronauts are in free fall, and that they are only apparently weightless. Unfortunately, to the novice this brings up a host of new questions: what’s the difference between apparent weightlessness and actual weightlessness? More importantly, if you’re in free fall, why don’t you crash into the Earth?
Another book on my desk does a better job:
“Why don’t planets crash into the Sun [if they truly are in free fall]? They don’t because of their tangential velocities. What would happen if their tangential velocities were reduced to zero? The answer is simple enough: their falls would be straight toward the Sun, and they would indeed crash into it.” [Hewitt, Conceptual Physics, 10th edition (2006), p. 193]
Newton himself also got it right:
“We may therefore suppose the velocity to be increased, that it would describe an arc of 1, 2, 5, 10, 100, 1000 miles before it arrived at the Earth, till at last, exceeding the limits of the Earth, it should pass into space without touching it.” [Isaac Newton, The System of the World, Section 3, translated by Motte, edited by Cajori (1946)] [Note Isaac’s use of the word “till”!]
The key idea which we physics professors should emphasize is that astronauts are in free fall, but they don’t hit the Earth because they are moving very, very fast horizontally. That’s it. That’s the secret. They are going so fast that they fall “around the curve of the Earth” so to speak. I don’t think this horizontal motion is emphasized enough. I’ll say it again: you need to go sideways to get into orbit. The next time you’re piloting a spaceship, remember the old adage: that which goes (straight) up will surely come back down (unless you reach escape speed). So don’t aim for infinity and beyond—aim for the horizon.