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Why and how to design, build ‘Star Trek’s‘ Enterprise for real
Question of the Day
Although BTE Dan may be the first person to officially propose building the Enterprise, he is hardly alone in conceptualizing a working starship. Nonprofit organization Icarus Interstellar hopes to launch a vessel by the end of the century; a similar project, the 100-Year Starship Study, is headed by former astronaut Mae Jemison and has received $500,000 in funding this year from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Researchers involved in both projects say the Enterprise concept is – to put it nicely – a bit optimistic.
“At best, we’ve [currently] made the space equivalent of small boats,” said Adam Crowl, an engineer with Icarus Interstellar. “Build the Enterprise proposes an ocean liner. Quite the leap. Plus, Mars isn’t ready for cruise liners to visit yet.”
Mr. Crowl said the nuclear reactors in BTE Dan’s design are underpowered and would generate an unworkable amount of heat.
Ralph McNutt, a physicist in the space department of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, said the Enterprise’s protective “gravity wheel” – essential for humans in low gravity on long missions – was likely as achievable as cold fusion, a hypothetical type of nuclear reaction occurring at or near room temperature that was hyped in the late 1980s but later abandoned by mainstream science.
Just getting the components needed to build the Enterprise into space would take more than 1,000 Saturn V rocket launches, a daunting logistical hurdle.
“[BTE Dan] starts with reasonable technical information, ion engines and nuclear power and those sorts of things,” said James Gilland, a researcher at the Ohio Aerospace Institute who studies space propulsion. “But when he extrapolates them in power and size, everything breaks down. You can’t just linearly scale this stuff. I disagree with his statement that we have the technology now to do this. We don’t.”
Mr. Gilland took particular issue with BTE Dan’s use of hull materials to protect passengers from cosmic rays, high-energy particles originating in outer space.
“Galactic cosmic radiation damage to human beings is one of the most limiting design criteria for a spaceship,” he said. “Right now, from what we know, we cannot shield a human being to the level that the safety people tell us we would need.”
Even if a safe, working Enterprise could be designed and constructed, the project would face a major Earth-bound obstacle – namely, Washington politics. White House and congressional administrations change, changing budget priorities accordingly.
Besides, if a large aerospace procurement program based on relatively mature technology such as the Pentagon’s F-35 fighter is delivered years late with billions of dollars in cost overruns, then what happens when experimental technology meets what qualifies as the largest, most complex public works project in human history?
“I give credit to the author of the website because he’s daring to think big,” said Michael Heil, president of the Ohio Aerospace Institute and former director of the Center for Space Studies and Research at the Air Force Institute of Technology. “But the political realities of making this go would be one in a million.
“Budgets get cut. Things take longer. Time is money. In recent years, from the F-35 to the B-2 [bomber] to the shuttle program, we’ve had a tough time staying on schedule. And the challenges here are orders of magnitude greater.”
After researching the topic for more than two years, BTE Dan remains undaunted. On his website, he states that if someone can convince him that building the Enterprise is not technically possible, he will publicly acknowledge that he has “been found to be wrong.”
He has yet to do so.
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About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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