Posts Tagged spacecraft

The Space Rush

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launchThey say space is the final frontier, and like all terran frontiers, people are rushing to claim it.

In a way, we’re in the midst of a space-exploration renaissance, with a bizarre mix of nations, corporations, and random billionaires looking to stake their claim in the heavens.

Earlier this week, China announced that it had landed a robotic rover named Jade Rabbit on the Moon, while Iran is sending monkeys into space. Its the 1960s all over again.

Meanwhile, a host of private entities are making their way into space, helmed by a list of names that looks like it was generated by a random search of Wired.com.

There’s Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is already delivering cargo to the International Space Station, and hopes to modify its Dragon capsule to carry human passengers.

Then there’s Jeff Bezos’ mysterious Blue Origin, which is testing rockets and capsules at a top secret facility in Texas. Is Bezos trying to explore the galaxy, or conquer it?

Other, less practical schemes include Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which hopes to send a few (very wealthy) tourists to the edge of space soon, and Mars One, which plans to send colonists on a one-way trip to the red planet. Don’t laugh: there are already 200,000 volunteers.

While it may seem haphazard and–at times–zany, this should be encouraging for those who believe space exploration is an important pursuit.

That’s because while we’re a long way from Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets, space exploration is taking on the exact same tone as nearly everything else humans do on a large scale.

Exploration purely for its own sake is a nice sentiment, but what really drives people is money and competition. Whether its the Cold War or potential business opportunities, things tend to get done faster when there’s another motive.

Today’s space pioneers may turn out to be more like the money-grubbing Ferengi or expansionist Romulans than Starfleet officers, but hopefully they will at least ensure that humans leave Earth orbit at all.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Stellar border patrol

Space FenceThose who want to build a border fence to keep out illegal immigrants will be happy to know that America already has a space fence.

It’s not for keeping out Klingons, though. Officially known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System, it’s used for keeping track of objects in or near Earth’s orbit.

Three transmitting stations in Alabama, Arizona, and Texas emit radio waves into space, which bounce off objects and are received by six stations in Arkansas, California, Georgia (two stations), Mississippi, and New Mexico.

The Space Fence network extends east to west across the 33rd parallel, detecting any object that passes over. The receiving stations are reportedly sensitive enough to track an object the size of a basketball orbiting 17,200 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Those objects include satellites and space junk. More than 10,500 individual objects are tracked.

Having massive radio arrays spread out across the United States, and calling that series a contraptions a Space Fence, seems ripe for conspiracy theory. While the Fence doesn’t track border-jumping aliens, it does do important work.

Objects in space move very fast (about 17,000 mph in Earth orbit), which makes them dangerous. The Fence can warn the International Space Station if a piece of debris gets too close, or help track a deda satellite as it falls out of orbit, plotting where it will crash.

There’s also an intelligence component to the mission: the Space Fence can detect when a spy satellite passes over the U.S., and it can calculate an object’s country of origin from its launch trajectory. Just think of what the NSA could do with it.

The Space Fence was originally run by the Navy, but it’s now administered by the Air Force’s 20th Space Control Squadron (yes, there really is such a thing). The squadron is at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, while the data from the Fence is analyzed at the Alternate Space Control Center in Dahlgren, Virginia.

So in a time when it seems like the government can’t do anything right, the Air Force’s space traffic controllers are monitoring thousands of objects zipping around thousands of miles above our heads.

At least for now they are. The Air Force is planning to shut down the Space Fence,which will reportedly save $14 million a year. The Air Force hopes to replace it with a more accurate system.

Hopefully the INS will be able to keep border-hopping aliens out of the country in the meantime.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

Five things that make Star Trek better than reality

Star Trek TOS castFor those of you who don’t live in an imaginary universe, today is First Contact Day. In the Star Trek mythos, Humans and Vulcans first met on April 5, 2063, after the inaugural warp flight of Zefram Cochrane’s Phoenix caught the attention of a Vulcan survey ship.

In honor of First Contact Day, I’d like to (try) to explain what I love about Star Trek the most. It’s not the aliens or the reliable sound effects, it’s that Star Trek depicts an ideal society that we should all work to make real. Here are five things that make living in the Star Trek universe better than living in reality.

Klingon replicator1) No Money

Obviously, this is a good thing. Money might make the world go ‘round in 2013, but it would be pretty sweet to live in a world without poverty in 2213. Also, because it will never have to worry about paying bills again, humanity can become more goal-oriented.  How many investors do you think would be interested in financing construction of a massive starship just so William Shatner can cruise around the galaxy in it?

Granted, this isn’t something that can be realistically achieved without a massive technological breakthrough. Star Trek’s money-less society relies on matter replicators, which can easily make all of the necessities of life like food, clothing, and even large machines. Since most commodities are infinitely replicable, there’s no point in charging money for them.

So far, we’re not even close to building replicators (3D printers don’t count).

USS Enterprise refit engineering2) Machines that help Humans instead of replacing them

I read a lot about how robots and computers will eventually replace the human worker, thanks to their efficiency and the fact that they never ask for raises. Star Trek shows us an ideal human-machine relationship and, while the machines do a lot of the heavy lifting, humans are still doing the work.

Every Trekkie recognizes the voice of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, because she’s the audio talent behind every starship computer. These computers do plenty of things: they operate systems, run diagnostics, and conduct database searches. But they don’t do that on their own: Starfleet officers are always telling the computers what to do, and analyzing the information they provide.

If it were any other way, there would be no point in sending the Enterprise on a five-year mission of exploration; a robotic probe would be much cheaper. Starfleet even has an android officer, Data, but all he wants is to be human. That’s the right attitude.

The Federation doesn’t just explore space to gather data, it explores to give people the opportunity to see new things. That’s why the Enterprise’s helmsman puts the ship into Warp 9, even if a computer is actually firing up the engines.

Data playing guitar3) People who do what they love

The result of a money-less society and healthy amounts of automation is that people are able to do things because they want to. No one in Star Trek takes a job because they need health insurance, and they have plenty of free time to enrich themselves.

It’s amazing how many people on every incarnation of the Enterprise are musicians, artists, or actors. It’s also cool to think about how wonderful life would be if everyone had time to pursue things like that.

A hobby is a great way to take one’s mind of the drudgery of everyday life, and it’s even more enjoyable when there is time to devote to it. Today, it’s hard to conduct recreational pursuits for their own sake because our time is so valuable, but in a future where income and manual labor don’t exist, that won’t be the case.

USS Enterprise NCC-1701A4) Spaceships

Of course, people will need something more substantial to do. Humanity requires more substantial tasks than cottage industry (sorry, Etsy and Kickstarter) and space exploration is a very substantial task.

Spacecraft are cool in their own right, but their most important role in Star Trek is keeping people productive. If we no longer need to work for a living, and if we’re displaced from today’s jobs by machines, we can’t just sit around all day posting photos to Instagram.

Luckily, Starfleet is very labor-intensive. The original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) had a crew of 432, while the Next Generation-era Enterprise (NCC-1701D) had about 1,000 souls aboard (including civilians). There’s also the armies of people needed to build these things, plus command staff, diplomats, designers, and other Starfleet personnel.

Most importantly, Starfleet gives people a chance to go to new places and experience new things, which brings us to the best thing about Star Trek

Starfleet5) Imagination

Something I find very annoying about life in 2013 is that we constantly talk about how high-tech our society is, but can never find any good uses for that technology. Facebook is fun, but whatever happened to going to the moon, or curing diseases? What we have is a lack of imagination.

Gene Roddenberry wasn’t lacking in imagination. He imagined how technology could solve humanity’s greatest problems, and enable its greatest achievements. It wasn’t a realistic vision, but at least it gave us something to shoot for.

Restricting ourselves to only thinking of new ways to use existing technology will never advance anything, because its doesn’t give people a reason to. That’s how technological advances happen: people think of something that doesn’t exist, and try to create it.

Constantly recycling today’s digital tech won’t do that. Yes, we could have “smart” toothbrushes that play our Pandora stations, but if our predecessors had the same attitude we’d still be riding stagecoaches.

No cleverly named app will unite the world, but a ship that can travel faster than the speed of light just might. Maybe we’ll find out in 50 years.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Other people’s starships: Oberth-class

USS Grissom bow viewWhy not start off the new year with a look into the future? Of course, even the utopian future of Star Trek has a few rough edges, and they will be the subject of this two-part series. While the myriad incarnations of the USS Enterprise were off exploring the galaxy, other ships held the line against Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi, and random natural phenomena. These ships are the Red Shirts of the fleet.

Last week, the “bucket of bolts” Constellation-class got its time in the spotlight. This week, the focus is on the Oberth-class science ships.

As research vessels, ships of the Oberth-class were designed to deal with the unexpected. However, as seen in various episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the unexpected often caused serious misfortune for the people that manned them.

Named after German rocket scientist Hermann Oberth, the Oberth-class definitely has the Red Shirt spirit. With its unusual biplane hull design, this class was never going to look heroic on the screen. Instead, it looked like someone had tried to assemble a starship model kit without reading the instructions.

Starfleet may not have been too fond of the ships either: The Oberth-class is the only known starship type to be operated by both Starfleet and civilians.

Even if you do like the Oberths’ ungainly appearance, it’s hard to argue with the ships’ record. Nearly every Oberth that appeared in TNG suffered some misfortune. Here are a few highlights:

SS Tsiolkovsky (NCC-53911): In The Naked Now, the Tsiolkovsky’s crew is exposed to polywater intoxication. The crew of 80 is killed when drunken revelers tamper with the ship’s environmental controls, and the ship itself is destroyed by a fragment of a red giant star’s core, allowing the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) to escape.

SS Vico (NAR-18834): Destroyed by a “black cluster,” a gravitational phenomenon that reflected the ship’s shield output and essentially crushed the Vico with its own shields.

USS Yosemite (NCC-19002): Quasi-energy microbes caused a plasma explosion on board. Four survivors were trapped in a transporter beam as a result of the microbes’ interference, but were discovered by Lieutenant Reginald Barclay in the episode Realm of Fear.

USS Pegasus: (NCC-53847): It’s not surprising that Starfleet kept this a secret. The Pegasus was testing an illegal interphasic cloaking device, which overloaded the ship’s plasma relay system and caused an explosion.

Part of the ship’s crew mutinied, and Captain Eric Pressman, Ensign William Riker, and others abandoned ship. The Pegasus was seemingly destroyed by a second explosion, which was actually plasma from the relay venting into space.

The cloak allowed the Pegasus to phase through solid matter, and the ship drifted into an asteroid until its power systems shut down while it was half-buried. It was found fused with the asteroid by Pressman, Riker, and the Enterprise crew in an eponymous TNG episode.

USS Grissom aft three-quarterThis is far from an exhaustive list of every Oberth-class ship that appeared in Star Trek, but it definitely denotes a pattern. It does make sense, though: from a writing standpoint, it wouldn’t be very plausible to destroy a huge cruiser every few episodes, and the producers already had an Oberth model to reuse. Still, if you ever find yourself enlisting in Starfleet, try to avoid shipping out on an Oberth.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Other people’s starships: Constellation-class

Constellation-class starship profile largeWhy not start off the new year with a look into the future? Of course, even the utopian future of Star Trek has a few rough edges, and they will be the subject of this two-part series. While the myriad incarnations of the USS Enterprise were off exploring the galaxy, other ships held the line against Romulans, Cardassians, Ferengi, and random natural phenomena. These ships are the Red Shirts of the fleet.

When Star Trek was revived with the 1980s’ The Next Generation, it got a bigger budget. That meant designers could build starships that were visually different from the main Galaxy-class Enterprise (NCC-1701-D), instead of reusing one or two models as in the Original Series.

Ships like the Constellation-class helped fill out Starfleet, giving it the appearance of an actual fleet with ships of differing sizes and purposes. The big Galaxy, Ambassador, and Excelsior-class ships were designed for long-term missions of exploration, but the Constellation had a more mundane role.

The most famous Constellation-class ship was the USS Stargazer (NCC-2893), because it was the first command of a certain Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. The future Enterprise captain’s experience on the Stargazer shows that life in Starfleet isn’t always glamorous.

Picard called the Stargazer “an overworked, underpowered vessel that was always on the verge of flying apart at the seams.” That’s not something one would expect of Starfleet, an organization with a responsibility for protecting a vast section of the galaxy, and nearly unlimited resources with which to do so.

As Picard’s career on the Stargazer shows, that duty often involved sending ships out on long patrols, where the enemy often had them outgunned. The “Picard Maneuver” from the TNG episode “The Battle” showed that intelligence could even the odds, though.

USS Stargazer bowThe other major appearance of a Constellation-class starship featured the USS Hathaway (NCC-2593) being pulled out of a mothballs for a war game in the episode “Peak Performance.”

Given the Hathaway’s condition, it’s obvious that the Constellation-class ships weren’t meant to last. While the 80-year-old Hathaway needed lots of work in order to be made ship-shape, Excelsior-class ships of similar age were still cruising; the USS Gorkon was the flagship of Admiral Alynna Nechayev at the time.

A Constellation would not make a very prestigious flagship, but maybe that’s just as well. Picard always felt sentimental about his first command, so if it wasn’t a piece of junk he might never have wanted to leave.

Tune in next week for the unlucky Oberth-class.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Other People’s Starships: USS Rhode Island (NCC-72701)

USS Rhode Island (NCC-72701)If you buy the Star Trek Hero Clix starter set, you’ll get a ship from the Voyager era called the USS Rhode Island. It may indicate that Starfleet was running out of good names in the 2400s, or it could have been someone’s idea of a joke. Either way, the ship named after America’s smallest state had an important role to play in the Star Trek universe.

Service History

The Rhode Island was commissioned in the early 2400s and sent on a four-year mission of exploration. She was commanded by Captain Harry Kim of Voyager fame.

The ship’s moment of glory actually happened in the alternate future depicted in the Voyager series finale “Endgame.” The Rhode Island comes to the rescue of Admiral Janeway, after her shuttle was attacked by Klingons from whom she had stolen a chrono deflector.

Kim and the Rhode Island chased the two Klingon ships away, then Kim attempted to arrest Janeway. However, she eventually convinces Kim to let her go back in time to help their past selves return to Alpha Quadrant.

Design

The USS Rhode Island is a modified Nova-class science and reconnaissance vessel. These ships were smaller than Starfleet mainstays like the Constitution, Excelsior, and Galaxy-class ships. The Rhode Island and her sisters have a maximum speed of warp 8, and a crew of 80.

The Nova-class ships may have been designed for science, but they still had enough weaponry to defend themselves. Each ship had 11 phaser arrays and three photon torpedo launches (two forward, one aft).

Aesthetically, the Nova-class reflects the tougher look of Starfleet ships designed after the Battle of Wolf 359, when the Federation began seriously expanding its military capabilities to deal with the Borg. The Novas look like mini Sovereign-class ships.

The Rhode Island got some visual modifications to distinguish her from her sister ships. Designer Robert Bonchune made a different bridge and filled in the gap in front of the deflector dish from the USS Equinox filming model, along with some other slight alterations.

It is assumed that these modifications reflect a mid-life refit of the ship meant to extend its service life. The Rhode Island’s brief appearance onscreen obviously doesn’t warrant  an in-depth description.

What’s with the name? It turns out that it actually was a bit of a joke. The name was apparently chosen to make fun of Harry Kim, who had finally gotten to command a starship, but got stuck with one named after America’s smallest state.

Kim should consider himself lucky, though. If Starfleet had used the state’s full name, he would have been commanding the USS State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

The name USS Rhode Island might not strike fear into the hearts of Klingons and Romulans, but it’s a nice tribute to the people of Rhode Island. They deserve some recognition for living there.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Other People’s Starships: USS Excelsior (NX/NCC-2000)

USS Excelsior at space dockThe Enterprise gets most of the glory, but there are plenty of other ships in Starfleet. One of my favorites is the Excelsior, a ship that was meant to be the first evolution beyond the Constitution-class ships of the original Star Trek series.

Service History

The USS Excelsior (NCC-2000) was a prototype for a new class of starship. It entered service in the 2280s, toward the end of the Original Series era, in the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. When Kirk brings the badly damaged Enterprise-A back to Earth Spacedock, he moors up next to the Excelsior. Kirk called the new ship Starfleet’s “great experiment.”

What made the Excelsior a “great experiment” was its transwarp drive. According to the Haynes Owners’ Workshop Manual for the USS Enterprise, transwarp drive “relied  on an extremely complicated set of equations that boosted the power of a conventional warp engine.” No canonical Star Trek work describes the system in any detail.

The transwarp was supposed to make the Excelsior the fastest ship in Starfleet, but the ship failed on its first trial run and was eventually rebuilt with a conventional warp engine.

After switching back to conventional warp drive, the Excelsior proved to be a capable starship design, spawning an entire class of identical vessels, including the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-B) seen in Star Trek: Generations.USS Excelsior bridge

The Excelsior herself went on to be captained by Hikaru Sulu. After a three-year mission cataloging gaseous planetary anomalies in the Bet Quadrant, Sulu took the Excelsior into Klingon territory to rescue his former shipmates Kirk and McCoy, who had been framed for the assassination of Klingon Chancellor Gorkon. These events played out in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Other Excelsior-class ships made brief appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. By the 24th century, these ships were apparently the backbone of Starfleet and were only just being replaced by the larger Galaxy-class.

The Excelsior’s motto was “No matter where you go, there you are.”

Design

The Excelsior had 32 decks, and was capable of saucer separation. Armament included Type 8 phaser emitters and fore and aft photon torpedo launchers.

The script for Search for Spock called for a ship that would make the Constitution-class Enterprise look old fashioned. The Excelsior was described as a “super starship” with lines similar to the Enterprise, “but she is clearly bigger, sleeker, and very new. She sits at her mooring like the new Queen of Space.”

USS Excelsior in spaceIndustrial Light & Magic designer William George based the Excelsior’s look on what he thought the Enterprise would look like if it had been designed by the Japanese.

The result is one of the best looking ships in Starfleet. The Excelsior’s low profile and elongated lines make it look like it’s at warp even when it’s standing still.

I always liked that design; it’s much less bulky than other Star Trek ships. I also think the name is kind of funny. I picture the crew carrying a bust of Al Gore around, the same way the USS Ronald Reagan carries a bust of the Gipper. I also like to imagine the captain yelling “Excelsior!” as the ship warps off into the unknown.

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment