1133: Up Goer Five

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Up Goer Five
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Another thing that is a bad problem is if you're flying up to space and the parts start to fall off your space car in the wrong order. If that happens, it means you won't go to space today, or maybe ever.
Title text: Another thing that is a bad problem is if you're flying up to space and the parts start to fall off your space car in the wrong order. If that happens, it means you won't go to space today, or maybe ever.


Most of the jargon used in rocket science is not among the most commonly used words in everyday life. This comic is a commentary on the absurdity of boiling down technical explanations for lay people, with Randall challenging himself to "translate" the blueprints using only the one thousand most commonly-used words in the English language.

This comic is a diagram of the Saturn V rocket, "Saturn" isn't a very common word apparently, and neither is rocket, so Randall decided to use "Up Goer" which is a fair approximation of a craft designed to lift a payload from the earth to space. The Saturn V vehicle, which was in use by NASA from 1967 to 1972, is the vehicle as a whole. The engines of the Saturn V (the part that makes it go up) were divided into three stages. The first stage (S-IC) had five F-1 engines which burned refined kerosene mixed with oxygen as its fuel. That stage burned for 2 minutes 48 seconds and pushed the whole thing up about 61 kilometers (~38 miles) into the sky. After it fell away the S-II stage was activated. It used 5 J-2 engines in the same configuration as the F-1s, and burned liquid hydrogen mixed with liquid oxygen for 6 minutes 35 seconds pushing the astronauts up to 184 kilometers (114.5 miles). The third stage (S-IVB) was a single J-2 engine burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. This stage was used in two parts, the first was to put the spacecraft into a stable orbit around Earth to perform a systems check and make sure the craft will be safe for going to the moon. This would usually take three orbits around Earth. As they came around the Earth they would burn the second part of the fuel, which is called a trans-lunar injection which put them on course for the moon. The first burn took 2 minutes 45 seconds, which put them in orbit 185 kilometers (115 miles) high.

It was first used as the launch vehicle for the Apollo 4 mission, and it was used as the launch vehicle for most of the subsequent Apollo missions (the exceptions being Apollo 7, Skylab 2-4, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project missions, which were launched using the smaller Saturn IB launch vehicle). One of the last missions of this design was the unmanned launch of Skylab, the U.S.'s first space station; for this payloader configuration, the Saturn V launch vehicle was officially designated the Saturn INT-21.

The Service Module (SM) Oxygen tanks, have a note that "This part had a VERY big problem once". This is a reference to the Apollo 13 mission. 55 hours after launch, mission control requested the oxygen tanks contents be stirred to get an accurate reading of its contents. There was a large bang, and power fluctuated throughout the craft. NASA had to scramble to ensure the safe return of the astronauts. Needless to say, the moon landing for that mission was canceled.

The Hindenburg disaster is referenced in the text "The kind of air that once burned a big sky bag and people died and someone said "oh, the [humans]!". The term "big sky bag" is used as the closest approximation of zeppelin which is a big bag filled with a lighter-than-air gas which makes the whole contraption float. The Hindenburg on the day of the disaster was filled with hydrogen, despite being initially designed for use with helium. Helium is much less prone to catching fire, but was unavailable due to a US export ban on the element. The risks seemed acceptable at the time because the Germans had a history of flying hydrogen-based passenger airships. The original quote is "Oh, the humanity!" [1] (skip to 0:47 for the quote).

The bottom tank, which Randall describes as "...full of that stuff they burned in lights before houses had power" is highly refined kerosene, called RP-1, it is similar to jet fuel, burns well and is not likely to explode; unlike liquid hydrogen, which is much more likely to explode.

An earlier flirt with simple words is in 547: Simple.

The phrase "You will not go to space today" has become something of a catchphrase for xkcd; variants of it recur in the mouseover text in three What If? columns: the one about flying on other planets (the pilot does not want to go to space today); launching into Earth orbit (if your rocket cannot hit the right "horizontal" speed, you will go to space today, and then you will quickly come back); and building a jetpack out of AK-47s.


US Space Team's Up Goer Five
The only flying space car that's taken anyone to another world (explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often)
[A list of Saturn-V parts, top to bottom, with their "Up Goer" description follows.]
[Launch Escape System (LES)]: Thing to help people escape really fast if there's a problem and everything is on fire so they decide not to go to space
[LES side nozzle]: Thing to control which direction the escaping people go
[LES fuel]: Stuff to burn to make the box with the people in it escape really fast
[LES bottom nozzles]: Place where fire comes out to help them escape
[Apollo spacecraft.]
[Command Module (CM)]: Part that flies around the other world and comes back home with the people in it and fall in the water.
[CM capsule parts]: People box, door, chairs
[Service Module (SM)]: Part that goes along to give people air, water, computers and stuff. It comes back home with them but burns up without landing.
[SM oxygen tanks]: Cold air for burning (and breathing). This part had a VERY big problem once.
[Lunar Module (LM)]: Part that flies down to the other world with two people inside
[LM descent stage]: Part that stays on the other world (it's still there)
[LM feet]: Feet that go on the ground of the other world
[Instrument Unit]: Ring holding most of the computers
[S-IVB third stage]: Part that falls off third (this part flew away from our world into space and hit the world we were going toward)
[Fuel tanks]: Wet and very cold
[Liquid hydrogen (LH2) tank]: The kind of air that once burned a big sky bag and people died and someone said "Oh, the [humans]!" (used for burning)
[Liquid oxygen (LOX) tank]: The part of air you need to breathe, but not the other stuff (used for burning)
[Helium pressurizing tanks]: Things holding that kind of air that makes your voice funny (it's for filling up the space left when they take the cold air out to burn it.)
[J-2 engine nozzle]: Fire comes out here
[S-II second stage]: Part that falls off second
[LH2 tank]: More sky bag air (for burning) (cold + wet)
[LOX tank]: More breathing-type air (for burning) (cold + wet)
[Tank-to-engine fuel lines]: Thing that brings in cold wet air to burn
[J-2 engine nozzles (qty. 5)]: Fire comes out here
[S-IC first stage]: Part that falls off first
[LOX tank]: More breathing-type air (for burning) (cold + wet)
[Helium pressurizing tank]: More funny voice air (for filling up space)
[LOX fill line]: Opening for putting in cold wet air
[RP-1 fuel tank]: This is full of that stuff they burned in lights before houses had power.It goes together with the cold air when it's time to start going up.
[F-1 engine nozzles (qty. 5)]: Lots of fire comes out here.
[Bottom of spacecraft]: This end should point toward the ground if you want to go to space. If it starts pointing toward space you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.

External links

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Isn't this comic essentially just saying 'rocket science: not actually as complicated as the phrase "it's not rocket science" would have us beleive' -- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

This comic is also a celebration of what many people, presumably including former NASA employee Randall, consider the greatest technological achievement ever. -- (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Nope, Randall thinks delivery pizza is the most important thing humanity ever achieved (http://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/638:_The_Search). 15:20, 7 May 2015 (UTC)

I'm surprised "ship" isn't among the most commonly used words in English. Where do these statistics come from? Davidy22(talk) 12:35, 12 November 2012 (UTC)

It makes sense that "capsule" and "spaceship" (as one word) are not in the "ten hundred" most-common words (Really, "thousand" isn't on this list either?), but not "fuel" and/or "tank"? People (context: US Midwesterner) talk about filling up their cats all the time! I'd like to see the original 1,000-word list. (Also: "Up Goer"? Well, it goes up -- that's about ALL it does. Makes sense, I guess.) --BigMal27 // 13:13, 12 November 2012 (UTC)
"people talk about filling up their cats all the time!" Tigerball59 (talk) 01:14, 27 May 2018 (UTC)Tigerball890

Maybe is Randall referring to Simplified Technical English? — Ethaniel (talk) 14:09, 12 November 2012 (UTC)

There is an entry in the Simple English Wikipedia: http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simplified_English . The Simple English Wikipedia is interesting to browse, and challenging to write articles for. J-beda (talk) 14:24, 12 November 2012 (UTC)
Look up Basic English. It is the 850 most used words (or rather the 850 most used words when it was invented in 1930). According to Wikipedia it is still used in some countries as the basic vocabulary to first teach in English. The list of words is here: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Basic_English_word_list . It looks like this could be what he used.iCarewolf (talk) 17:30, 14 November 2012 (UTC)
The 850 Basic English word list includes "liquid" and "second" but does not include "world", "five" and "third" so we're still looking for the vocabulary list.

I'm inclined to think this is also a nod to 1984's Newspeak, and the dumbing-down effect of an overly controlled language. It's good to simplify (linguistic) complexity, but with that simplification of text comes a simplification of capacity, too. We push back horizons by exploring unknowns, so restricting things to a small set of knowns may be counterproductive. -- IronyChef (talk) 15:13, 12 November 2012 (UTC)

This is the very point I am trying to make time and again. Some topics cannot be correctly explained to everyone. BTW XKCD #547 had a similar point.
I think that's a very unfortunate "point" to be trying to make time and time again. My personal feelings aside, it goes against Randall's and xkcd's ethos, as well. Just as in law or any other specialized area, an expert, given a reasonable amount of time, thought, and vocabulary, should be able to explain even very complex ideas to lay persons. If there's a failure to do so, the burden should rest with the explainer. And frankly, that failure might even expose some lack of understanding on the explainer's end, as well. I have discussed this in greater depth below. Orazor (talk) 09:10, 19 September 2014 (UTC)

The comic is almost certainly using http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Basic_English_word_list or another work list like it. 16:58, 12 November 2012 (UTC)

The phrase in the explanation "Helium is much less prone to catching fire" brought a smile to my lips as there is literally <SIC> nothing less prone to catching fire than Helium. 23:10, 12 November 2012 (UTC)

Unfortunately some pedant has changed it to the technically correct, but much less smile-inducing "inflammable". Pitty, it made me smile too. lcarsos (talk) 23:22, 12 November 2012 (UTC)
Edit: I've reverted it, because the whole edit was fraught with incorrect minor changes. 23:27, 12 November 2012 (UTC)
Inflammable is wrong. It means the same as flammable. If you mean 'incapable of burning', the opposite of flammable/inflammable is nonflammable. This is one of the subtleties of English which is avoided by using a greater number of simple words! 13:01, 13 November 2012 (UTC)
I wouldn't say Helium is least prone to catching fire. Sure, it's least prone to chemical reaction, but it is prone to nuclear fusion, which looks sort of like fire. On the other hand Iron, while it can be oxygenated, doesn't really catch fire doing that and I doubt it can chemically react in a way which would look that way. -- Hkmaly (talk) 08:42, 14 November 2012 (UTC)
Fire is strictly defined as the rapid oxidation of a substance in the presence of heat - nuclear fusion is transmutation, not combustion. Iron can undergo a thermite reaction which makes spectacular flying flames. Youtube should have a billion videos of thermite reactions for your perusal. Davidy22(talk)
Fine steel wool (such as 0000 grade) burns exceedingly well. A survival technique is to use flashlight batteries to make a spark in the steel wool, which then becomes an excellent fire starter.

Since the comic can't use the actual words, it took me some time to find Wikipedia's articles that describe the actual "up goer." In case there's anybody like me who wanted to know more details, I found the Apollo (spacecraft) and Saturn V articles to be very interesting and relevant. BTW, "that stuff they burned in lights before houses had power" is highly refined kerosene. S (talk) 00:34, 13 November 2012 (UTC)

Thanks for doing the research! I've incorporated this into the explanation. Feel free to add more if you think it needs more. lcarsos (talk) 01:33, 13 November 2012 (UTC)
I like your additions. Much better than what I could come up with! S (talk) 23:44, 14 November 2012 (UTC)

It would be pretty nice for a day if everyone just spoke using the most used thousand words in his respective language. Just off hand, describing the band name "Led Zeppelin" would certainly be a treat--Dangerkeith3000 (talk) 18:10, 13 November 2012 (UTC)

Anyone who will not be fired off trying to only speak the most used thousand words for workday is working manually or not at all. -- Hkmaly (talk) 08:42, 14 November 2012 (UTC)
Or is a school teacher, or working primarily with people who have language difficulties...

I think NASA should rebrand themselves "US Spaaaaaace Team" it's so much cooler than the "National Aeronautics and Spaaaaaace Administration"! --NHSavage (talk) 07:39, 15 November 2012 (UTC)

I have not once heard the word "goer" before this. Thousand most common? 16:22, 15 November 2012 (UTC)

Randall used the verb "to go" and as it's a verb, any conjugation could be considered the same word. I think that's where he got "goer" from. lcarsos_a (talk) 16:29, 15 November 2012 (UTC)
Well, not a conjugation, a different part of speech. That's a slightly more extreme leap than a change of inflection, but probably still allowable for these purposes. - jerodast (talk) 15:18, 3 December 2012 (UTC)

Someone has made an "Up-Goer Five Text Editor", with a link to a (the?) ten-hundred wordlist: http://splasho.com/upgoer5/. 18:46, 21 January 2013 (UTC)

I'm having trouble believing that lift off is not on the common word list. DruidDriver (talk) 01:55, 23 January 2013 (UTC)

On language and explaining

Strongly disagree with the contention at the beginning of this explanation that "This comic is a commentary on the absurdity of boiling down technical explanations for lay people..." On many occasions Randall de-jargonizes/simplifies complex ideas so that they can be understood by most anyone. Heck, he dedicates an entire blog (whatif) to it. In this interview with fivethirtyeight.com, (http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/xkcd-randall-munroe-qanda-what-if/) among others, Randall explains that lay persons, given enough time, patience, and the correct guidance, should be able to understand most any scientific/technical idea.

To wit: "It’s tempting to think of technical audiences and general audiences as completely different, but I think that no matter who you’re talking to, the principles of explaining things clearly are the same. The only real difference is which things you can assume they already know[.] ... I’m always looking for ways of looking at problems — mental models — that make the answers intuitively clear. Once I’ve hit on one of those, I just try to explain it as simply and clearly as I can[.]"

Accordingly, I have altered the explanation to reflect this world view. The point of this comic is to illustrate that one should be able to explain complicated ideas to people who lack a technical background using simple language. Granted that Randall is imposing upon himself an unreasonable "ten hundred word" linguistic restriction, but I think that only goes to further his point. Unless the "explainee" is being unreasonably obtuse, the burden falls upon the shoulders of the explainer to help a non-lay audience understand. Orazor (talk) 08:53, 19 September 2014 (UTC)

If you don't go to spaaaaaace today, you need more strutsSteammaster (talk) 18:43, 19 January 2015 (UTC)

or more boosters! (Both are popular Kerbal Space Program catchphrases.) 10:50, 3 June 2015 (UTC)

Maybe we should add a reference to Randall's upcoming book, Thing Explainer. 02:14, 28 May 2015 (UTC)

As I understand it, the brackets in "oh the [humans]" are used to indicate paraphrasing (replacing "humanity" with "humans") as is common in English texts. Referring to humanity with the phrase "concentration of humans" seems rather contrived and unlikely. Any opinions on this? -- 18:38, 12 July 2016 (UTC)

I think the brackets are just to say that this is not the true quote.Dontknow (talk) 21:37, 8 March 2017 (UTC)

"escape" seems like it's not acceptable, according to https://xkcd.com/simplewriter/