Could you really have survived the end of Portal 2?

Could Chell really have survived her trip to the moon at the end of Portal 2?

Let’s review exactly what happens to our protagonist at the end of Portal 2. (If you have not played this game and are planning to, stop, go play it, and then come back. We’ll wait. Everyone has the above achievement? Good.)

So. Wheatley booby trapped the Stalemate Resolution Button with a bomb, blasting Chell through a metal grill, back into the main chamber and off her feet. Chell was meant to have been killed by this blast and wasn’t, but we can safely assume she was not feeling 100% after being bodily flung through a metal grate. Chell then puts a portal on the moon, as one does. This portal then sucks pretty much everything that isn’t bolted down out of the room and onto the moon, including Chell, who has the presence of mind to grab onto Wheatley’s handles before she gets pulled through the portal. Chell then spends 30 seconds clinging on to Wheatley until GLaDOS takes over control, bashes Wheatley off the system, and hauls Chell back through to Earth by her wrist with a metal clamp, and the portal is shut down. Can a person survive this?

There are a few concerns here; firstly, the moon has no air. Chell, fortunately, will not need to worry about the air to breathe - she’s only about two feet away from the portal, and there’s lots of air rushing past her. Nor would she need to worry about the average temperature on the moon being -53 C (-63 F), again because she’s surrounded by a vast rushing of room temperature air, and all the wind chill equations I could find indicate that room temperature air (starting at 70F) will only get down to 60F or so. So we’ll assume that she’s perfectly capable of breathing while on the moon. Even if there wasn’t, Chell could have survived the vacuum of space for about a minute - but we’ll assume that she won’t pass out due to a lack of air, since there’s so much of it nearby.

Chell’s main problem is going to be the wind speed. There’s a handy equation called the Ensewiler formula to convert a pressure difference into a wind speed, which is written out as P= 0.002496 v^2. P is the pressure difference in pounds per square foot, and the velocity comes out in miles per hour. The moon portal is a window between standard air pressure (1 atmosphere, or 2116.216 pounds per square feet) and the moon, which has no atmosphere, and thus no atmospheric pressure at all. So if you put in a difference of one atmosphere into the Ensewiler equation, we get a velocity of 920 miles per hour.

920 mph is kind of a problem. This is 1480 km/h, or 411 m/s, and faster than the speed of sound. For some context, the fastest recorded wind speeds on Earth are 253 mph (recorded in Tropical Cyclone Olivia, which hit Australia in 1996) and an F5 tornado that hit Oklahoma in 1999, which clocked in at 302 mph. Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space got him to clock in at 843 miles per hour before he pulled his parachute, but he was wearing a massive protective suit, specifically designed to keep him safe, and he crossed the sound barrier quite high in the atmosphere, where the air was not very dense. Chell has a tank top. However, the shock from entering a 920 mph wind wouldn’t have killed her immediately - a shock wave from a bomb only becomes lethal at about 1500 mph. It’s still not doing her any great favors, but she wouldn’t have died instantly.

Wheatley’s cabling would have to bear quite a lot of tension - if they were 3 cm x 3 cm cables, holding a weight of 135 pounds (my assumption for the weight of Chell + the weight of the core) should have been fine for steel cabling. However, those cables are also holding up 15,154 Newtons of force pulling Chell in the other direction. A Newton is defined as the amount of force required to push a kilogram one meter in one second. This number of 15,154 Newtons is assuming that the gravity of the moon would have partially counteracted the insane drag from the wind, but since the force of the wind is so huge, and the force of gravity on the moon is so weak, the moon’s gravity doesn’t really help out much. Even if Chell were on the Earth, the Earth’s gravity would only lessen the total force by 500 Newtons. Steel cabling of 3 cm x 3 cm should still be able to hold up to this wind, even through this is a lot of force. But it does mean that Chell genuinely would have been blown perpendicular to the surface of the moon by the wind - 920 mph is well above the terminal velocity for a human on Earth.

A bigger issue would have been Chell’s ability to hold on to Wheatley’s convenient handles. The average person has grip strength of approximately 500 Netwons of force. If the drag force from 920 mph is 15,154 Newtons in the other direction, 500 Newtons is not going to be enough to keep ahold of a bar against that pressure. 500 Newtons will keep you holding on to something in the face of 182 mph (293 km/h) winds, but nothing more than that. No matter how much Chell would have tried to cling to the handles, the sheer force of the wind would have blown her away.

This is assuming, of course, that Chell would be able to keep her hands gripping the bar. In actuality, being dragged out of that portal would be very much like being thrown out of a jet travelling at 900 mph, and told to hang on to a trapeze bar. The first thing that actually would have happened is that both of her shoulders would have dislocated. Shoulders dislocate with 325 Newtons of force, well below the force the wind is placing on her. If your shoulder is dislocated, there’s a very low probability that you’re going to be able to hold on to much of anything, since the major nerves travelling down the arm are being stretched a lot more than they usually are, and nerves don’t like being stretched. While we’re thinking about dislocations, if any part of Chell’s legs had been twisted at all by the wind, it’s very likely she could have also dislocated one or both knees or ankles.

Even worse, if any of those boxes flying out of GLaDOS’ chamber weighed about 10 pounds and happened to collide with Chell, they would inflict about 1860 Newtons of force on her, which is more than enough to break a finger bone. A five pound object would cause a wrist fracture similar to the kind of injuries that boxers can get.

There is a story about a fighter jet pilot who ejected from his aircraft at 800 mph. His shoulder was dislocated, his knee was dislocated, his other ankle was broken, and all the capillaries in his face were broken from the force of the wind - his head swelled up to the size of a basketball, and his lips swelled enormously to the point where he had a hard time moving them. He survived, but his clothes were torn to bits, and he was in the hospital and undergoing physical therapy for six months afterwards before he felt back to normal.

Chell’s wind is 120 mph stronger, and she wasn’t immediately slowing down after her trip to the moon - she was in 920 mph winds for 30 seconds, not the 3 seconds of Capt. Udell. It’s probably safe to assume that the capillary breakage suffered by Capt. Udell would also pose a problem for Chell, meaning that by the time she got back to Earth, her face would have been one enormous bruise, and she’d have been nigh unrecognizable from swelling in a matter of minutes.

In all likelihood, the most reasonable thing that happened was that after she was dragged back into GLaDOS’ chamber by her wrist (which almost certainly would have broken her wrist, if it hadn’t already been broken by passing debris) is that Chell promptly passed out. However, she would have needed extensive medical care and certainly morphine-strength painkillers to deal with her injuries, instead of being back up on her feet after a few minutes.

What of Wheatley in this scenario? Well, rather tragically for the Space Core, 920 mph is not enough to escape the gravitational pull of the moon. Escape velocity for the moon is 2.5 km/s - 920 mph corresponds to 0.411 km/s, six times too slow to escape. We can calculate how long Wheatley would spend flying in space before crashing down to the surface of the moon - since he was flung out perpendicular to the surface, he’d plop back down exactly where the portal was. If we assume that Wheatley was sped up to wind speed, he has 8 and a half minutes of flight (reaching a grand old height of 52 km above the surface of the moon) before crash-landing on the moon again at 920 miles per hour. Since the Space Core left the portal about 10 seconds before Wheatley was released, the space core would land about 10 seconds before Wheatley, pretty close to in the same place. Assuming neither of them smash upon impact, Space Core would then undoubtably drive Wheatley insane by repeating “I’m a moon base! Moon base! Spaaaaaaaace” ad infinitum.

Something here unclear? Have your own space question? Feel free to ask!

Why are NASA's space suits so clunky?

Why are NASA’s space suits so much clunkier than the ones in science fiction or video games?

NASA has a real problem with the space suits that they stick their astronauts in to perform space walks. They’re massive, hard to get into and out of, and phenomenally unwieldy. The fingers on an astronaut’s gloves are so hard to manage that NASA has run competitions trying to get a better design that’s easier to work in. Ideally, we want to be able to stick people in suits that are easy to move around in, while still providing all the protection they would need. This is really, really hard to do.

If your suit is designed for the vacuum of space, you need to have a pressurized suit. Right now, this is done by inflating the suit with air, to compress the body to a point where the astronaut is comfortable, but not so much that it’s so tightly inflated that the astronaut couldn’t bend any of their joints. (This actually was a pretty severe problem for the first Russian spacewalker; his suit was so pressurized he couldn’t get back into his ship without letting some air out. He had to loosen a gasket on his glove to let the air escape, and then he got decompressed so rapidly he got a pretty nasty case of the bends, which is the same problem scuba divers run into if they surface too quickly.) You also need a suit that will provide some radiation protection, protection from tiny pieces of space junk, and on top of all that, you need your astronaut to be comfortable inside it and able to get in and out of it relatively easily.

On top of that, you have additional challenges if you want to land on a planet. Generally speaking, you don’t want to track dirt in from outside, if you’re on the moon or Mars. The dust on the moon (and we suspect on Mars as well) is such a fine powder that it can become embedded in your lungs and do quite a bit of damage. Mars dust might be even worse for you, since a lot of Mars’s surface material is so chemically toxic that it would burn you like bleach - not something you want in your lungs.

Physics is really not on our side for this venture. We’re asking for a pressurized suit that’s still easily bendable, which is also radiation-resistant, and easy to get into and out of, and durable. If you want to go out on the surface, you need to be able to decontaminate it completely. This space suit has to be a pretty impressive piece of technology.

The solution so far for spacewalks has been the kind of inflatable suit we’re used to seeing our astronauts in. Science fiction films and video games tend to prefer suits that are at least partially skin-tight. These aren’t completely impossible, and at least one person at MIT has been working on trying to design a suit that pressurizes the astronaut through mechanical pressure of the suit on the body, rather than the balloon method of air pressure. The mechanical skin-tight suit is really hard to make, because you have to get even pressure over the entire suit, and have it bendy enough to not restrict motion, and be durable enough to not break any wires if you fall on a rock or from bending the suit repeatedly. These skin-tight suits are also a lot harder to decontaminate, so getting all the dust off of them after a trip outside would be really hard to guarantee. NASA has also been testing a suit that you can crawl into through the back. This would be handy, because it means you can leave the suit attached to the outside of the base, and you won’t have to worry so much about getting the dust off. On the other hand, it’s still pretty clunky.

So unlike the science fiction films and video games, which can invent new materials to evenly pressurize an astronaut’s body, and new ways to decontaminate the suit so no one gets chemical burns from the surface dust once they come inside, while still protecting from radiation and puncture damage, NASA is stuck with the materials and methods that we have right now. We’re working on new methods and new technologies, but for the moment we don’t have anything quite as stylish as science-fiction can manage.

Have your own question, or something here unclear? Feel free to ask!