16 May 2012

A Real Starship Enterprise!

All the Star Trek I’ve watched told me one simple yet sad fact: the first USS Enterprise would be built in 2245 (or 2151 if you go by crappy Enterprise canon).

However, an american engineer has come up with an extremely elaborate proposal to built a real, working NCC-1701, powered by ion propulsion. The 536-meter-diameter saucer section even houses a centrifugal living space to provide 1G of gravity for its occupants. And here’s the real kicker - according to him, it could be done in the next 20 years!

"We have the technological reach to build the first generation of the spaceship known as the USS Enterprise — so let's do it," writes the curator of the Build The Enterprise website, who calls himself BTE (BuildTheEnterprise) Dan.
He envisions this starship Enterprise as a solar-system roamer, dropping off space probes, rovers and satellites as it does fly-bys of astronomical bodies. The ship can travel to Mars in 3 months (90 days), and can reach the Moon in 3.

Cross-section of 2nd Enterprise captained by Kirk, the 1701-A

This guy has come up with more than just a simple proposal: he’s provided conceptual designs, ship specs, a funding schedule - pretty much any imaginable detail. All this can be found on his website, although the site itself has been down due to impressive traffic. The project covers the construction of the starship ( to be done in space, of course), and what I find interesting about the proposal is that the finished starship will bear a striking resemblance to the original Big E, captained by Kirk. He states that “It ends up that this ship configuration is quite functional”, and his design would make the vehicle not just a starship, but a space station and spaceport, all in one, and can house up to one thousand people.

One thing the ship will not have is a warp core, and associated warp engines. It’s powered by a 1.5Gw nuclear reactor (whether fission or fusion, I was unable to determine) that feeds the ion engines, and an additional three more for general electric purposes. Given how ion engine technology works right now, the ship would travel at constant acceleration in orbits around the solar system, rather than speeding up or speeding down depending on the situation.

Dan envisions the starship as a space station at first, but then it would go on to roam the solar system, exploring planets and deploying its lasers to cut through the thick ice of Europa.

The Sovereign class 1701-E being built in space dock, much like BTE Dan's proposal

But who would pay for the construction of such a massive starship? Dan has figured this out too: by increasing taxes slightly and making budget cuts in the areas of defense, health and human services, housing and urban development, education and energy, the US can fund the 20-year old program with a “minimum” effort, according to the engineer. “These changes to spending and taxes will not sink the republic”, says Dan. "In fact, these will barely be noticed. It’s amazing that a program as fantastic as the building a fleet of USS Enterprise spaceships can be done with so little impact." And here’s my favorite quote from the man:

“The only obstacles to us doing it are the limitations we place on our collective imagination.”

Sounds like something ol’ Gene himself would have said. And I have to agree - one of my earliest blog posts on my personal blog, years ago, were about the NASA budget cuts, the retirement of the space shuttle program and how the dream of manned space exploration had yet to begin in earnest, due to a lack of governmental interest among the economical super-powers, but also about how private entrepreneurs like Richard Branson had taken to the stars with civilian space tourism and exploration programs. I have always been a space exploration nerd and sort of an “let’s just get together and do it already!” kind of guy, so this endeavor is something I can really relate to.

One of my personal favorites, the Ambassador Class NCC-1701-C

I have to give it to Dan, whoever he is (his website does not indicate which Fortune 500 company he’s an engineer for), for coming up with something like this, and he deserves credit for the initiative itself, if not for the authenticity or soundness of his engineering and financial projections. I do have a few objections and/or questions regarding his funding plan though. While he believes that his proposed budget cuts will have a minimal effect on the areas quoted above, I can’t help but be a little circumspect. Any budget cut, no matter how “minimal”, will often have unforseen circumstances, and I don’t believe education - in any country - needs more budget cuts, as do health care, human services and housing.

A fictional - sadly - timeline of ships named Enterprise

Should we do this? Totally - or at least something similar, some large-scale interplanetary exploration effort. Can we do it? I’m not a financial expert, nor an engineer - it’s possible that a realistic cost proposal would be a lot more difficult to enforce than what BTE Dan suggests. But the bottom line is, humans have always been explorers. It’s in our blood to question, wonder and dream about flying.

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