The Orbital Mechanics Of Imprisonment.

I think about a lot of random stuff. Writer’s curse. One topic that has always fascinated me is space flight. Specifically, the Apollo missions to the moon. How does that relate to winding up in prison? Read on for a dollop of physics and tragedy.

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I have come to the conclusion that winding up in prison is much like trans-lunar flight. You have to take a lot of risks to wind up in prison. The exception is if you have truly rotten luck.

During the 60’s everyone in the United States had a vague idea of how it worked. You fired the rocket from Florida, it went into orbit. In orbit it fired again and shot itself toward the moon. When you got to the moon, you fired the engine to go into orbit there. Take a brief trip to the surface, back into lunar orbit, and then fire the rocket again to get home. Do not orbit the Earth, just pick the right point in the atmosphere and then splash down in the ocean (Tremendously simplified. My apologies for the crayon & Play-Doh level explanation.)

The criminal experience is similar, except it’s only the Earth’s atmosphere that can cause the trouble for you.

Envision a gigantic colony on the Moon. For some reason you can’t just stay on the moon, but you have to go around Earth every time you need to leave the house. (Don’t ask why, the metaphor is tenuous if you do that…) Every time you need groceries, you blast off from the Moon, fly to Earth, circle the planet and slingshot back to the Moon where you land and do your business. To get home, repeat the journey but land at your house.

The majority of people will do this thousands of times without any brush with the Earth’s atmosphere. They will set a course just wide enough of the planet and stay out of the atmosphere. Now and again they will graze the atmosphere, but the worst they get is a little char on the space ship. If you now view the planet Earth as the criminal justice system, they get a ticket, or a summons, with that atmospheric contact. But it doesn’t diminish their speed, they complete the orbit of the criminal justice system/Earth, and go home to the moon. Works every time.

Criminals, and most thrill seekers, will try to get closer to the Earth and watch the show as they graze the atmosphere. It’s exciting. Pretty, and no real consequence. But if they do it enough they damage their ship and it gets hard to control. Worse yet, they take a drink and pilot it manually versus by computer. Now they skip into and out of the atmosphere, really putting on a show. Let’s call that county jail time. Not a felony, but it slows you down and now it’s harder to land where you want on the moon. You’re spending more money for fuel. In addition, your ship is getting wrecked, and the next time you fly it’s more likely that you’ll accidentally graze the atmosphere and do even worse damage.

Each time you dip into that atmosphere as a criminal, it slows you down. It makes it harder to get home, and it costs you money. Finally, you get just hammered while flying that long route between the Moon and the criminal justice planet. You lose control of the ship and plow deep into the atmosphere. So deep that you’ll not get out this time. Your craft is forced to land on the surface – long spell in prison. Once there, it’s almost impossible to repair the ship and get back out of the atmosphere. So you may get out of the prison, lift off, but you’ll run out of fuel before clearing the atmosphere and crash back on the surface. Forever.

That’s roughly what happens to most people who wind up doing long stretches in prison. They can’t reach escape velocity from the justice system. They’ve crashed too often, their engines are damaged, and the police watch them for every minor infraction. They’re doomed. Very few people with more than two serious scuffles with the law escape long sentences.

Petty criminals are another story. You can’t seem to get them off the streets. They’re like the spacecraft that nudge the atmosphere. But they are so close to plunging to the surface and staying there that it is amazing. That’s why when someone dies in a scuffle with the police we concentrate on their minor crime. But they’ve done it 40 or 50 times without prison time, and it’s a miracle that they got away with it for so long.

There you go: my tortured metaphor for the month. Please give it some thought.

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