Back to the Future
Early 20th century science fiction and space futurism featured a vast menagerie of fanciful-looking spacecraft that, today, we consider implausible at best. We’ve even coined a term to denote the anachronistic impression these past designs create when contrasted to the technology of the present day; retro-futurist. But one should be mindful of the fact that these designs were not all simply fantasy. They were derived from the known and anticipated technology of their day and their apparent visual anachronism comes as much from the evolution in design style as by the evolution in technology and science. Form doesn’t quite strictly follow function in aerospace engineering and the sleek streamlined forms, the fins, the monolithic monocoque structures, the non-modular industrial design approach typical of these so-called retro-futurist spacecraft of the past were fully consistent with the trends in aircraft and rocketry designs of the age. They were quite often very logical projections of the future. This was how we designed aircraft and rockets at the time and so that was the frame of reference for plausibly anticipating their forms in the future. Though the near-term from that point across the 20th century went in a somewhat different design direction, they may yet prove an accidental anticipation of a future of spacecraft design influenced by fabrication techniques those visionaries of the past could not even imagine. Looking at a spacecraft design like the Rutan SpaceShip One, its form relying on its composite fabrication techniques, those spacecraft of the past don’t seem quite so anachronistic.
Across the Asgard and Avalon phases of TMP development the constraints of manufacturing in the space environment will lead to a heavy reliance on modular component systems in the design of spacecraft. This is typified by the concept of the BeamShip architecture, where a great many of the spacecraft of the period would be based on a core spaceframe truss made of modular parts to which more modular parts are retrofit. This is based on the situation that, in space, one is limited in what one can precision-fabricate by what one can fit through a pressure hatch. In space, fine, high-precision, fabrication must be done in a controlled environment ‘indoors’ where space is very limited. Thus making very large structures becomes difficult or impossible except by very simple assembly of pre-fabricated components outside. And, of course, for structures that are built on-orbit streamlining is unnecessary because the structures don’t have to be launched from Earth through a thick atmosphere to get to space. The exception is atmospheric entry craft where fabrication of monolithic streamlined shells will present something of a challenge to orbital manufacturing and may be limited to relatively modest sizes. But in general, and for a very long time, most structures and spacecraft built in space will tend to have an industrial-looking ‘tinker toy’ aspect to their design based on these modular component non-streamlined architectures.
But by the time of Solaria something new will come along that may radically alter the design of space structures; NanoFoam. This previously mentioned intelligent self-assembling material with present a very different process of fabrication than anything human beings have previously used and the key difference is that you don’t make things from NanoFoam. It becomes them. It physically changes and grows into the desired form and nano-fabricates internal mechanism in-situ. In effect, it works rather like the machinery of living organisms. The general effect of this new approach to fabrication will be the replacement of modular component architectures on the macroscopic scale with those on the molecular level and a ‘blobjectification’ of artifact designs into very monolithic forms with tightly integrated systems fabricated in-situ.
Today, if one wanted to construct a large spacecraft on orbit one would most likely employ a strategy similar to the assembly of the International Space Station, using large prefabricated modules made on Earth and launched to orbit. (Ideally, one would use a more efficient approach like that of the Mir space station rather than the approach NASA demonstrated, relying largely on modules that are self-propelled and teleoperated and can dock in a simple sequence using detachable propulsion units) This approach, of course, severely limits the spacecraft’s design by the constraints of launch system design and the need to be transported in this fashion. By the Asgard phase, with manufacturing done mostly on orbit, a more sophisticated approach would be used based on smaller modular components and with space frame structures prominent as primary structures to which TransHab like deployable hull units, built-up composite hulls supported by enclosure space frames, and other various modular elements would attach. Assembly would usually start from some docking structure with the core space frame assembled first and the rest attaching in series to it.
But the NanoFoam spacecraft would be radically different in its on-orbit construction. It would literally bud like the fruit of a tree from an umbilical port on another structure, growing into a generalized version of the final structural form and then refining it through in-situ sub-structuring. For some intricate external features, chrysalis-like shells would be formed around a working area and then re-absorbed when the construction is complete. The umbilical port would supply materials, in liquid suspension, and communication to the mass of NanoFoam as it grows. For very large structures a ‘seed pod’ might be the starting point, serving as a storage, processing, and control system for the growing structure and to which raw materials are supplied from outside. Auxiliary features would be grown out of the main body of structures, the most common being very delicate-looking yet diamondoid-strong fins or articulated petals for radiators, photovoltaic arrays, phased array radar, and directional radio transceivers and whisker like antennas for non-directional radio. Viewed close-up, hulls may often feature a cellular surface appearance akin to an insect eye created by the integration of photovoltaic arrays, optical elements, and the use of formed-in Whipple shielding skins.
Given this very organismic process of construction, designs would tend to exploit examples from nature in terms of structural architecture and very simple monolithic forms would tend to be favored for overall shapes. As with NanoFoam habitat architecture, any form would be possible but for spacecraft function and performance would lead aesthetics and the simpler more efficient forms would tend to win-out in design; spheres and their variants, sphere-capped or tapered cylinders, ovoids, and the like. Smaller vessels -especially those designed for atmospheric entry- would tend toward a larger variety of unified forms while larger vessels may tend toward a few simpler forms, sometimes in combinations. The simplest would likely be cargo vessels -in this era reduced to simply transporting raw materials in the form of NanoAspic -a solid form of NanoSoup using a solid diamondoid matrix rather than a hydrocarbon fluid developed for long-term high-density storage- in the shape of large long solid rods or cylinders that have propulsion and control systems grown-in-place in their ends.
Perhaps the most common form of all would be spheres or combinations of them. One of the most prominent of spacecraft design concepts in the more ‘hard’ genre of science fiction -though not so popular with the creators of visual SciFi- is the dumbbell or ‘gamma’ form. Arthur C. Clarke saw this as a particularly plausible form and featured it a number of times in his work, particularly with the design of the Discovery spacecraft in the novel for 2001; A Space Odyssey. (If you replace the rather oddly shaped propulsion module of the Discovery spacecraft as shown in the Kubric film with the spherical Aries lunar lander also from that film -and which seems very related in design to the fore pod- you get a more accurate picture of what Clarke purportedly envisioned) This form is premised on the notion of the use of nuclear forms of propulsion and the need for separating an automated propulsion unit from a crew habitat by some significant distance as protection from radiation while using a minimum of shielding mass and yet enclosing both in the most efficient unit forms. By the Solarian age, several forms of nuclear-related propulsion may be in use and this simple design concept may actually be common. It would be a logical evolution of the forms of BeamShips which would often tend to organize retrofit modules such that primary propulsion was on one end, crew habit and control on the other, and cargo, radiators, and solar panels in series along the intervening truss beam length.
Thus we can imagine a typical large Solarian age spacecraft as a rather plant-like version of the ‘gamma’ form with a very slender tapering separation shaft, with propulsion node on one end surrounded by clusters of propellent storage pods and adorned in radiating radiator petals, habitat cluster on the other end adorned in auxiliary photovoltaic petals, and various branches and long filament whiskers extending for sensors and communication.
As speeds of spacecraft increase with the evolution of fusion and then anti-matter propulsion and our means of controlling these powerful reactions affords a more laser-like control of the spectrum and direction of energy produced, the smooth forms of NanoFoam structures would start to have a more traditional purpose. Though there is no air to present air resistance on a structure, increased speeds bring increased problems of material erosion by impact with even molecular scale particles and, of course, micrometeoroid impacts present a much increased energy on impact becoming more hazardous. With more narrow streamlined shapes and more conformal external features such impacts occur at shallower angles and their impacts can be deflected for reduced damage. Thus the faster ships become across the Solarian age the more they may evolve away from the spherical ended gamma form toward more uniform narrow tapered cylinders and ovoids and the more the petal-like features of slower vessels may be replaced by hull-integral elements. This foreshadows the design of the Galactia starship which, as we will discuss in a later article, will feature a remarkably simple streamlined form very different from the spacecraft commonly envisioned today.
Evolving from the various architectures employed in habitats and spacecraft across the Asgard phase, the interiors of Solarian spacecraft would tend toward two configurations. Smaller vessels, with their interior features completely enclosed by a larger form, would be compartmentalized into various chambers rather like the clustering of soap bubbles. Some such small vessels, tending toward spherical and capsule shapes, may need only a single main chamber or a few modest compartments with a few peripheral compartments fitting into interstitial volumes. Others may feature more elaborate complexes employing the organic design strategy of functionally specialized rooms with specialized integral furnishings and appliances. Generally, these future spacecraft are likely to have very thick volumes between interior habitat spaces and the hull surface, their designs integrating a great density of in-situ-fabricated systems. Housing interior designs by Roger and Martyn Dean or Luigi Colani may offer us a hint of the sort of interiors produced -though we must stretch our imaginations to envision this in a more three-dimentional microgravity context. These spacecraft interiors would likely feature extensive use of soft fabric-like materials -much as with the earlier deployable architecture of Asgard era orbital habitats- and an extensive array of integral and conformal machines, lighting, and furnishing features. Windows would be very rare in future spacecraft but views of space expansive through virtual windows relying on numerous hull-integrated cameras and using large interior surfaces as displays on-demand. An even more incredible view would be available for those crew with personal digital interfaces, allowing them to immerse themselves in an all-around view of space with all-around data displays and virtual controls.
Larger vessel interiors would evolve from the common forms of Asgard era designs enhanced with the new means of fabrication. The common Asgard era BeamShip spacecraft, being based on a core truss structure and TransHab or composite hull enclosures around portions of it, would organize their habitat interiors around that truss and attachments to it. In the Asgard EvoHab habitat, this would become a vast complex of deployable structures known as an Urban Tree habitat. In larger Solarian era vessels this core truss would become a monolithic column like the trunk of a tree and a similar complex of clustered building forms would be grown from and around it on branches into the empty volume of a larger hull chamber made virtually transparent though optically corrected light transmitting elements in the hull. This would offer a habitat very much akin to that of the great EcoSpheres, with their detached and free-floating Urban Trees. For the faster fusion and antimatter powered ships, however, this habitat would need to be adapted to function alternately in microgravity and gravity environments with sometimes varying loads, the gravity actually created by a 1g acceleration/deceleration these vessels would spend most of their transit times in. This may call for radiating support features linking to the hull and a more planar arrangement of spaces. And so these habitats may have many characteristics similar to the arcologies of Earth, though with their exterior views out to a vast view of space and a digitally synthesized sky.
Clearly, the spacecraft of the Solarian age may prove to be far different from anything seen among contemporary spacecraft and, for that matter, from anything depicted or imagined in contemporary SciFi. Those old retro-futurist visions from early in the 20th century may seem much sell silly in the more distant future.
Solarian Vessel Concepts
- Life In Solaria
- Solar Snowflake - Sunflower - Sundisc - Solar Ribbon
- Dyson Sphere
- Solaria Supporting Technologies