Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Designing the Perfect Spaceship.

Project Daedelus. (Wiki.)

Louis Shalako

When I conceptualize a space vessel for one of my novels, there are certainly some valid, or even great inspirations behind it.

Nothing is really spun out of thin air.

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, I began writing The Case of the Curious Killers, in which a guy called Brendan Hartle pilots a scout-class ship, formerly belonging to the Empress of the Centralian Empire. The vessel has been pressed into service by the Mythological Institute, a catch-all, front operation for all sorts of covert and not-so-covert activities.*

The ship is a lifting body. It has four vectored-thrust engines. It has vents, or small motors in the nose, to provide retro-thrust for slowing, maneuvering, braking, and attitude control. It has typical puffer pipes on the wing tips and at other locations. Harrier pilots can explain this if you don’t know what that means.

The design, of course, took the knowledge of the time, including the Space Shuttle, and sort of extrapolated from there. (It extrapolated from SF influences too.)

What was the great weakness of the Shuttle?

There were several, but the most obvious is thermal. It got real hot on reentry. The bottom was covered in ceramic tiles. One or two tiles go missing, and you’ve got a hot-spot on a very fragile skin. With the vibration, with thermal expansion and contraction, it was a risky system, but the best available at the time.

Those ships were thoroughly inspected and practically rebuilt after every flight.

I want a ship that I can get in, turn the key, and take off. I want to come back and put it in the hangar, and walk away. I don’t want a cast of thousands involved in maintenance or even just launch.


It was insulating foam, breaking off of the external tank, which punctured the leading edge of the Columbia with unfortunate results.

The Challenger blew up due to faulty seals in the O-rings on the solid rocket boosters. Hot gases blew holes in thin structures and ignited other fuels, but even without secondary explosions, the ship was already doomed. It was essentially cut apart as if by an oxy-acetylene torch. There are extremely complex systems involved.

Hartle’s ship uses quantum engines. That’s just your typical ‘wordy,’ writerly stuff, basically just making shit up as I go along, but we can presume that the ship is still propelled by thrust—a bunch of crap fired off the back end. Even this presupposes the consumption of fuel, which for the purposes of my ship in Horse Catcher, is just water. Lots and lots of water.

In that book I call it reaction mass and leave it at that.

As the reaction mass is consumed in thrust, the ship, of course, gets lighter. It would take correspondingly less thrust to keep it at a constant speed, the ‘x’ so beloved of fable and song.

It would take less energy to brake an empty ship as opposed to a full one. All of this means that the variables in your math change over time. In a fly-by-wire system, computers do all the real heavy lifting.

A ship should go where you point it. I can fly the damned thing from there. It has to be stable and controllable, it needs thrust, I have to see where I’m going or have good displays and mapping systems. I would like some prediction systems, and pretty heavy-duty ones at that, and yet at the same time it must be easy to use.

I want it to be user friendly. (This tends to make it easier on the readers as well.)

Hartle’s ship was built by aliens, who can be presumed to have a highly-advanced technology, one that far surpasses our own.

The ship is all of one piece. There are no seams. There are no nuts, bolts, rivets or other fasteners, and the ship requires no thermal shielding at all. Brendan’s ship doesn’t even have any windows on the front. All viewing is by sensors and screens. He does have a small periscope, and the shuttle in Ark One has one as well. The computer is so smart it learns along with him, it trains him and of course it can fly the ship from point to point, and carry out some missions autonomously.


I would hate to have to land a ship by periscope, assuming some kind of systems failure, but it’s not much worse than the view out the front of the Space Shuttle.


While this is not described in the book, we can think of tubing, internally. The fuel might be liquid, or other systems might require cooling. If nothing else, you want to bring water to the kitchen taps. It might not be a perfect O-section all along its length. It might be flared at the ends, where there are the usual compression fittings. All of that is just modern plumbing, taken to aerospace standards.

But when the ship expands, here is some excess material so the tubing can stretch. If the ship, outside of any solar system, cools off to an extensive degree, the flares simply get a little fatter under the resultant contraction.

This envisages ultra-modern, ‘smart’ materials. The ship even has toilets with frictionless surfaces so that shit doesn’t stick to it. You would still clean them once in a while, I’m sure.

But, as Brendan Hartle tells Sim, “I could make you a rich man.” **

Brendan’s ship also has stealthy technology, but then so does the enemy.

Since he’s read a million books on aerial combat and aerospace, flying and all of that, he shoots them gomers down in great numbers.

According to Brendan, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

Due to the crystalline nature and the energy-recapturing potential of true quantum technology, if the ship heats up, the energy can be diverted, or even converted and stored. All of one piece, the ship might get a foot or even a yard longer as it heats up, much like the old SR-71 Blackbird. The Blackbird used to take off and then immediately refuel. The leakage rate was so high, that the ship had to refuel repeatedly on a flight. This would be once after take-off, and then again immediately prior to entering target airspace, and then once again, after a high-speed Mach Three dash at extremely high altitudes. It would refuel on exiting enemy airspace, and there would be a tanker (or two with safety redundancy) standing by near the landing strip. If it was a long trip, the thing would be refueling over the Atlantic a couple of times as well.

In the future, heat might simply be evaded, that is to say hot gases, or particles, would be diverted away from the envelope the ship was puncturing though the matrix...or something like that.

The metallo-crystallline outer hull of a ship like Brendan’s, would be grown in a tank in a zero-gravity environment. You could grow it very slowly at near zero-K and use electromagnetic influences to make it a little thicker here, and a little bit thinner there.

The resulting material would exhibit characteristics that modern aerospace engineers can only drool over.

Obviously, a ship designed for long interstellar flights can’t really be expected to be able to refuel every five minutes of flying time. The only way to do that is by using interstellar material, but I haven’t used that one in a novel, at least not yet.


What you need is a very dense fuel, one that doesn’t require a vast ship, miles long. It also has to be safe fuel. What you need is a quantum engine, and then a cup of water will take you from here to Proxima Centauri.

Hartle’s vessel is fifty or a hundred metres in wingspan. Ark One in Horse Catcher is maybe a kilometre or two in length, but it’s a colony ship with 20,000 cryogenically-frozen people and as much stores and equipment aboard as can reasonably be managed.

Now, a ship like Ark One, a very large, a very specific and purpose-built ship, constructed in orbit, is much different from a scout ship. It carries four of its own shuttles, which were used to bring colonists, or the materials for the ship itself, up from the home world, They will be used in the colonization of the new world. 

This sort of thinking is relatively easy.

The numero uno protagonist is a barbaric Earthman, (never thought I would use the term) but the ship is described at some length in the book. That ship is stressed for ten gees or something rational like that.

Hartle’s ship has a double-delta wing plan-form, with fore-plane canards and very tall twin rudders. 

Designed for fighting, and capable of automatic piloting, it can take more gees. Brendan flies it just like a fighter plane, for example the F-15 with its Mach-plus vertical capability. It might have a couple of small ventral fins. It has simple skids for landing and even taking off on unprepared surfaces. It also has caterpillar tracks which can be deployed, and then the skids are retracted. The ship can now maneuver on rough ground, and the tracks are powered electrically by the ship’s own power supply. This saves using the quantum engines for thrust on the ground, as not all landings will be on uninhabited or unexplored planets and unprepared fields.

On a civilized space-drome, the tracks are used to taxi to the runway. This is presumably, because spewing out hot radioactive gases all over the environment near a major city or indiscriminately, wherever it is, would be undesirable. Also, skids are used here because the surface is made of a low-friction, Teflon-like plastic. It takes less power to get the machine up off the ground. On the space shuttle, lifting a dead weight vertically is very inefficient. By getting the machine up to Mach 3 on wings and atmospheric engines of advanced configuration, there is a lot less disruption to ‘civilized’ environments. All you do then is pull back on the stick and hit the little red button on the throttle-control stick.

This calls for an assumption, the assumption that quantum engines are somehow based on an extrapolation of modern particle physics.

One of the reasons why I wanted to write science-fiction in the first place was realism.

I got real tired of ships that lost all engine power, sometimes the lights went out, but they never once lost their artificial gravity.

And the reason was a very simple one, ladies and gentlemen. It was expensive to hang a bunch of actors on wires and simulate it convincingly in front of a camera. Yet watching it, some of that stuff kind of bugged me.

If it bugs you enough, you might as well get in there and try it for yourself; I mean, I obviously thought I could do a better job, or something.

To write is a compelling urge, and that urge developed over time. But it seemed to me, that if yesterday's science-fiction became today's technological fact, and today's science-fiction might, in some cases, become tomorrow's technological fact, then I might as well get my name in there.



What exactly did dilithium crystals do? How did they work? (I don’t even know how to spell it.)

You can get all kinds of answers to that from Trek junky websites, there’s a whole genre that has evolved around continuing that world in terms of fan fiction, fan chat sites, groups, ah, you name it.

I’m not knocking Star Trek, TNG, Voyager, DS-9, or even Babylon-5. I grew up watching that stuff too.

But in the stories I wrote, I wanted to have some actual science in the design and use of the ship.

A ship traveling at Warp-10 is essentially un-turnable due to structural stresses and gee-forces.

Striking even the smallest object, a piece of space belly-button lint, would be catastrophic.

There would have to be some form of wave-front, a shock-wave if you will, out in front of any ship traveling at extremely high speeds, in fact anything over a couple of thousand miles per hour, assuming a ship of extremely light construction.

I don't even want to hit an egg at three hundred miles an hour.

A light ship is the only thing that is ‘economical’ in some practical terms for traveling interstellar distances.

You don’t want to run into anything at Warp-10, ladies and gentlemen.

In Third World, most of the action takes place planet-side, so the author didn’t spend a whole lot of time visualizing the design, and yet if pressed I could come up with some kind of design philosophy for a military frigate, a cruiser, a replenishment ship, all that sort of thing.

In one of my short blog stories, I talk a little about a monitor, a ship designed to carry a couple of really large launch tubes and not much more. In that sense, it’s a bomb ketch of the twenty-fifth century.

An awareness of history, a bit of reading here and there over the last half-century, and some experience in micro-aircraft design, is all this writer really has to go on.


For my purposes, the perfect spaceship would take off from a planetary surface. It would climb out and exit the atmosphere. It would go many times the speed of light, and have a safety margin. It would be able to re-enter a planetary atmosphere at will.

It would deflect or otherwise be immune to heat and friction and small particles of space debris. Moreover, it would be able to detect obstacles ahead even at FTL speeds, which on some reflection, the reader will agree is a bit of a sticky wicket technically.

It would not have to refuel, and sufficient stores could be stored aboard for long voyages. It would have a pleasant living and working environment for the crew. It would be armed, and highly maneuverable. It would require a minimum of crew to operate—Brendan flies alone for much of the story; although Dooley Peeters in Horse Catcher is as much mathematician as astrogator.***

Note: at present, science tells us that FTL flight is not possible. However, recent developments in particle physics suggest that the classic theory is by no means complete.

And without FTL, all them other writers are kind of screwed too, aren’t they? We’re all on the same thin ice.

I’m just saying, ladies and gentlemen.


*I wrote 140 pages on an old portable typewriter and then saved it for umpteen years, finally finishing that book in about 2006. Even then, the manuscript was around for a while and I finally edited it and published it in 2010. Or something like that.

**I got this idea from some old science-fiction book. I can’t recall the title or the author, but ideas are free, and hopefully that will remain so far into the future.

***A borrowed word.

(We think he’s done now. – ed.)

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