Like shooting stars, the messages might as well come from outer space. There are the people who claim to have discovered major new laws of physics, who just know how UFOs are propelled, who say they are working on artificial-gravity generators and light-speed-beating engines in their garages, projects that are always almost complete.
"I keep an email folder labeled 'bizarre,'" said BTE Dan.
A self-proclaimed systems engineer, BTE Dan is the person behind Build the Enterprise, a website devoted to, well, building an actual, functional, space lasers 'n all version of the USS Enterprise, the venerable pop-culture starship featured in the "Star Trek" film and television franchises.
Estimated time frame? Twenty years. Suggested cost? $1 trillion. Proposed missions? Dropping probes beneath the giant ice sheets of Jupiter's moon Europa, or maybe blasting asteroids before they can smash into Earth, "Armageddon"-style.
And no, BTE Dan does not consider himself worthy of the bizarre folder.
"We are destined to be in space in a big way," he said in an email interview. "And the idea of traveling around in space, and seeing places beyond Earth, is fascinating to humans. We Earthlings need something to get jazzed up about as a collective civilization, and space exploration can do that.
"We went from shooting the first man into orbit to landing men on the moon in eight years. After the Wright Brothers' first engine-powered flight, fifteen years later the first trans-atlantic flight occurred. Big things can happen quickly given the commitment."
Build the Enterprise was launched in May, shortly before NASA's final space shuttle mission ended an era and left the nation's future of manned spaceflight in doubt. The website details a surprisingly comprehensive, rooted-in-reality plan for constructing a nuclear-powered spaceship with ion engines and artificial gravity that resembles the "Star Trek" ship, could transport as many as 1,000 people to Mars in 90 days and theoretically can be built with scaled-up versions of existing technology.
The site has struck a chord with space and science-fiction enthusiasts alike, drawing about a half-million visitors in its first few weeks of existence and continuing to receive about 2,500 page views per day.
Hence the emails that go in the "bizarre" folder, and hence the desire of BTE Dan – who claims to have worked as an engineer for a Fortune 500 company for the past three decades – to remain anonymous.
"My family all knows, and they get a kick out of it and are supportive," he said. "A few friends know about it, but I have not told anyone about it where I work.
"I work with hundreds of engineers in my day job, and I'd rather not become the Build The Enterprise guy just yet."
From reel life to real life
In "Star Trek," the Enterprise features powerful, energy-based deflector shields that protect the ship and its crew. A faster-than-light-speed, antimatter-powered warp drive propulsion system makes whipping around vast galactic distances as quick as driving to the corner Starbucks for a cup of coffee. A "transporter" that de- and rematerializes matter, allowing Capt. Kirk to beam down to newly discovered worlds populated by green-skinned alien babes – and engineer Scotty to beam him up on demand.
The Build the Enterprise version is a bit more mundane. Retaining the iconic look of the fictional craft – a crew-housing dinner plate attached to oversized two-prong fork engines – Dan BTE's ship loses the warp drive (doesn't exist), the shields (ditto) and the transporter (take a wild guess).
In their place? Nuclear-fueled ion engines that would provide continual acceleration and allow the Enterprise to go from Earth orbit to the moon in three days. A spinning, electromechanical "gravity wheel" that would enable passengers to operate in Earth-like levels of gravity. Multiple layers of advanced physical shielding to protect the ship from cosmic debris and radiation. A "universal lander" craft – in essence, a cross between the Apollo lunar landers and a miniature space shuttle – that could ferry humans to the surfaces of planets and moons and subsequently return to the main ship.
According to BTE Dan's schematic drawings, the Enterprise would be 3,150 feet long, more than twice the length of the Empire State Building, and have a mass of 187 million pounds, roughly equivalent to 28 of the Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo program.
The website also offers a road map for funding a real-life Enterprise, proposing $1 trillion in total expenditures over a 20-year period – about $50 billion per year, or 0.27 percent of America's total gross domestic product.
To pay for the project, BTE Dan suggests a slight increase in income taxes, coupled with small annual cuts to a number of federal agency budgets, including $5 billion from the Pentagon and $2.5 billion from the Department of Education.
"It's really a matter of time, money and the will to do it," BTE Dan said. "If I was president and I had a cooperative Congress – kind of funny at the moment, I know – I would start the Enterprise program tomorrow."
As a grade school student, BTE Dan said, he watched the original 1966 "Star Trek" series on his family's black-and-white television and built a toy model of the Enterprise. However, his desire to build a real version of the spaceship comes less from childhood sci-fi fandom than from disappointment in the state of space exploration.
On his website, BTE Dan calls the International Space Station a "yawner" and even mocks its "comical and primitive" toilets. He also laments NASA's plans for a Space Launch System and Orion Space Capsule that ultimately would facilitate a manned return to the moon and potentially Mars.
In BTE Dan's vision, an actual Enterprise would serve simultaneously as a space station, a spaceship and a spaceport – able to ferry research probes to other moons and planets, big enough to carry materials needed to establish a manned Mars base, comfortable enough to accommodate space tourists while parked in Earth orbit. The vessel's onboard laser could be used to create a night-sky light show while flying over the United States on the Fourth of July.
America, he writes on his website, is an affluent nation that can "afford to dream much bigger" than "one-shot" space missions.
"We were supposed to be in space in a big way by now, but we can't even get back to the moon," BTE Dan said. "In fact, in the U.S. we now don't even have a rocket to take people into Earth low orbit.
"The [International Space Station] was a Cold War wind-down program to help keep Soviet scientists busy. The current path of the [Space Launch System] is just a redo of the Apollo program of the 1960s. If that's the best we can do, we would be better off just spending money on probes and research, then wait for the private sector to get us into space."
Flight of fancy?
A doctoral student in mechanical and aerospace engineering at George Washington University, Tabitha Smith has never been much of a "Star Trek" fan. However, she has a keen interest in nuclear-powered rocketry and other forms of space propulsion.
Those nuclear-powered ion engines BTE Dan suggests? Not as simple as adding a nitro boost tank to a Honda Civic.
"My adviser at GW is working on ion engines, and they're currently scaled to about the size of a pencil," Ms. Smith said. "It's a nice concept, but you would need a humongous power source for the kind of engines used on this spacecraft. Now imagine launching something like a nuclear power plant into space. For people into propulsion, this is the most obvious problem with [the Enterprise]."
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.
"I have had high school students write me and say that the website has motivated them to study engineering," he said. "If a consensus could be built, what could be more inspirational for the country? We could certainly use something to pull us together, something to inspire us about the future."
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