Building the Enterprise? Seriously? Why not?

I ignored this the first time I saw it and then I was going to make  snarky comment that we should just send a bunch of ships to mars instead of building the Enterprise if we’re going to spend $1 trillion. But then I thought, at least look before you ridicule.

I was wrong. I’ve read bit of his idea so far, but he’s not some crackpot trekkie. Instead, this is a thoroughly thought out argument for building a single large ship that will sit in orbit and be reused just like in Star Trek. Whether or not you think it should look like the Enterprise he has a good point about the use of a single large ship. (I know, why not build Serenity…oh, come on, some of you are thinking it. What? Millenium Falcon? Be serious people.)

Engineers are given a goal to get people to Mars on a give cost budget with a given risk level and they  work out ways to do it as cheaply and safely as possible. This site argues that maybe we’re thinking about it all wrong. Maybe the right idea is to build a huge space taxi, that has launchable landing shuttles and artificial gravity and doesn’t ever get thrown away. We really do have the technology for a large ship with cosmic ray shielding and ion pulse drives powered by an onboard nuclear reactor to travel around the solar system. Oh, and high powered lasers even.

What is the argument against this? Surely it can’t be that small, short missions are more efficient since they are more likely to get cancelled and delayed as we’ve seen. In a way this solution combines the best of robotic exploration and human exploration. Some probes can be designed ahead of time and brought in the hold of the ship. Having hundres of people on board allows the engineers to fix or even design new robots as needed. When problems arise humans can fix them on the spot. When something interesting is found they can change focus and go take a look. Sending a once-off ship with 6 people on it means everything has to be designed and optimized ahead of time. When you’ve got 100 engineers in orbit around Mars you don’t need to build so many failsafes into every probe in the same way. Give me a 100 engineers and a huge nuclear powered space ship with lasers and a store room full of spare parts and I can do anything.

Last night I watched the historic launch of the first private corporation sending a vessel up into space to bring equipement and experiments to the International Space Station. The Dragon Capsule rose into the sky atop the Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX Incorporated. It was inspiring. Soon, they’ll be bringing up astronauts and maybe even tourists to visit the ISS on those modules. This would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. Things can change. As more companies get into space lots of things are going to change. So why can’t we think big?

The only problem is money and vision. But any politician who could pull this off cheap would go for it because it makes them look like they have vision even if they don’t. As for cost, it is very possible that a single all purpose, crewed vehicle like this would be cheaper in the long run and allow an order of magnitude more complex missions than a series of individual, custom designed probes.  Currently we conduct a small number of experiences for each generation of scientists each costing billions and some failing. This proposal is to build a platform, not a single probe. One that has people on it who can fix it and improve as needed. It’s not like sending a scout or  a reconnoissance plane, it’s like sending the whole aircraft carrier. Which would be better investment for improving the lot of humanity: building the Enterprise or a building 5 more aircraft carriers?

About the money, I’ll just say this. If money ever stops humanity from expanding its knowledge of the universe then we might as well just give up now. We already know a lot, why are we building these particle colliders, bigger telescopes, gene mapping projects, supercomputers for weather simulations, global climate models, nano materials or exploring the depths of the ocean? Why? We do it because there is always more to know and what we don’t know can kill us. We need to boldly go where no one has gone before. That’s how humanity got this far and we can’t stop now.

I don’t know if Building the Enterprise is the right solution, but it’s worth talking about. So let’s talk about it.

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The Future of Space Flight

Take a look at these interesting questionaires being used by the ESA for an upcoming seminar on the future of spaceflight.

They are trying to start a discussion about realistic, upcoming as well as fantastic dreams for the future of space.  This is a good way to go about it I think, until we know what it is we really dream about we can know how to choose from what is possible or how to push beyond the just possible.

One of the questions was along the lines of, if you had one thing to say to the designers of future space flight systems what would it be?  Here’s what I said:

Keep your mind open, think beyond government centralized control, think beyond scientific goals. Think of the internet, the blogosphere etc, how that exploded in a short time once people were enabled with technology. How could we enable small governments, corporations even groups of committed individuals to harness technology for use in space or even to explore space? Computer power is available, the knowledge is available. Committed groups of people exploring for their own goal may be willing to take risks and reap rewards that government programs never could. As space scientists and engineers how can you enable this kind of revolution?

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