Stuck in a Tin Can in Deep Space
The intricacies of designing a generation ship to last 100 years.
One of the most iconic phrases in Science Fiction is Star Trek’s original opening line, “Space, the final frontier.” Space may be the final frontier, but first, we have to be able to survive the cold vacuum of vast open nothingness that makes up the unimaginable distance between our solar system and our nearest stellar neighbor. Or, even just make it to our nearest stellar neighbor that has a potentially habitable planet.
One of the places where those people are thinking about that kind of thing is at Icarus Interstellar, an actual organization dedicated to making interstellar flight a reality. In fact, if you go to their homepage, the first thing that comes up is a bobbing design for an interstellar ship using something that looks like an Alcubierre drive. But Icarus isn’t placing all of their bets on superluminal/warp drive technology. They have an entire project dedicated to developing manned interstellar flight at sub-light speeds, called Project Hyperion.
Icarus Interstellar contributor Steve Summerford is an urban designer with a fascination for space exploration. In September 2012, Summerford wrote an interesting paper on the conceptual master planning of a generational interstellar ship, or as he called it a Colonized Interstellar Vessel (CIV). In the paper, he notes that previous studies on ship design focused on three different overall shapes a sphere, a cylinder and a torus. Each of these designs has benefits and drawbacks. Unfortunately, overcoming these drawbacks is a little out of reach for any near-term technological advances.
So Summerford came up with his own design, a series of flat-bottomed pods—he calls “bays”—that are connected in via structural spokes to a central spire. The flat bottoms to the pods act as the ground as the entire structure rotates, providing centrifugal gravity. His report even goes into significant detail on how much space needs to be dedicated to each person—assuming a 10,000 passenger manifest—for sixteen different infrastructure needs. These needs range from residential to agricultural space, and even includes storage, educational, livestock, and more.
When I think of a generational ship, though, I harken back to reading Arthur C Clark’s Rama series, in which an alien generational ship visits different planets, picks up some passenger/explorers, and zips off to a distant star system. Rama itself was pretty much automated, but provided a lot of the features Summerford describes, including open spaces and plenty of living space. Of course, Rama ends up with a mix of various species, including humans. And as we all know, once you start throwing humans into the mix, things can get really messed up, really quickly.
In fact, humans have been building ships with many similar features as CIV ships for decades. They’re called cruise ships, and they sail our oceans all the time. Think about it, we build these massive boats that house a couple thousand people, loaded with casinos, pools, and a dozen other forms of entertainment. Obviously, there's a little more to it than just a cruise ship's amenities, like farming and food processing, not to mention all the necessary colonization equipment. But, if we were to take this concept and merge it with some of Summerford’s ideas, I think we could be pretty damn close to a CIV with technology that either exists or will exist in the near future.
Some cruise ship designers are already taking some of those steps for traditional sea-going vessels. Check out this list of futuristic cruise liners, specifically Number 3. Dubbed Atlantis II, this design looks quite a bit like one of Summerford’s bays, complete with parks and buildings.
The trick, of course, is getting all the stuff into space. The materials needed are heavy and getting that stuff into space is very expensive. And someone’s got to pay for it. The reality is, I don’t think we’ll be sending off a colony ship in the next few decades. Once we can get technology advanced enough to bring down the costs of living, operating, and building things in space, then maybe. Until then, it will just have to stay in the realm of science fiction.