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A Near-Term Enterprise?

It’s too bad we don’t already have a workable Enterprise, that vast near-term rendition of the Star Trek vehicle that a systems engineer named ‘Dan’ has been talking about on BuildTheEnterprise.org (a site which has been so heavily trafficked in the last 48 hours that it has proven almost inaccessible). What Dan has in mind is the design, down to the smallest level of detail, of a ship powered by three ion propulsion engines that tap on-board nuclear reactors to remain operational. It may not be an antimatter-powered Enterprise, but it’s a faithful simulacrum, reflecting its creator’s long-lasting interest in the ship that William Shatner once commanded.

Dan thinks the new Enterprise could get us to Mars in 90 days, but getting nuclear reactors into low Earth orbit in the first place will be a challenge not only technically but politically, and shielding the crew will also involve a serious amount of mass that has to get lifted. One of the fascinations of this highly detailed site is that many of these objections are anticipated:

NASA is developing a heavy lifter, the Space Launch System (SLS), that will be able to carry a payload of 280,000 pounds, about the same as a Saturn 5 rocket. Unfortunately this is about a factor of four too low for what the Enterprise will optimally need. Because the Enterprise’s wet mass will be around 187 million pounds, a suitable heavy lifter should carry a payload of at least 1 million pounds to keep down the total number of launches needed. This is a payload similar to the Nova rocket designs from the 1960s that were never taken to production. So, in general, if the Enterprise program is someday funded, NASA will have to start a new heavy lifter rocket program that can carry much bigger payloads than their current plans.

And what about radiators to remove excess heat? Dan’s design better factor those in. An informal peer review of the concept is already beginning, as witness Adam Crowl’s take on the radiator problem on Crowlspace and back-channel discussions among aerospace engineers and designers in various places. If you want to track the new Enterprise beyond its own site, Dan’s Twitter handle is @BTE-Dan, and I’ll plan to have a report on some of the informal peer review in these pages before long.

Dan is a man with a long-term plan — he’s proposing not only building a huge ship but making it the first of a series, with three new ships per century, each keying on advances made during the intervals between construction. Early missions could involve the Moon, Mars, Venus and perhaps the moons of Jupiter, for while we’re a long way from Star Trek’s warp drive, Dan claims the new Enterprise’s ion propulsion would allow a constant .002g acceleration for planetary exploration. A rotating wheel within the ship’s saucer section would provide an artificial 1g of gravity. The latter is one case of reworking the original Enterprise design to fit the requirements of a technology far less sophisticated than what was proposed in the TV series.

Image: A new Enterprise engineered around current and near-future technologies. Credit: BuildTheEnterprise.org.

The Daily Mail looks at the new Enterprise in a May 15 story, quoting its creator on his changes to the ship, one of which was made to keep the ship’s officers in workable conditions:

“Another example of a change is that the bridge is not at the top center of the saucer hull as it is shown in the figure above. If it was there in the Gen1 Enterprise then there would be no gravity on the bridge. Having the ship’s captain and crew floating around inside the bridge just makes no sense. Thus, in the Gen1 Enterprise the bridge is in a dedicated section of the gravity wheel so that they will work in 1g gravity.

“While things get moved around quite a bit inside the Gen1 Enterprise when compared to the ships from Star Trek, they are not moved around upon a whim. They are moved around because the Gen1 ship’s technological capabilities demand certain changes.”

The gung-ho spirit of Dan’s vision is engaging, especially his belief that all this can be achieved in 20 years, and the man who describes himself as a systems and electrical engineer in his day job tells the Daily Mail his BuildTheEnterprise site grew naturally out of the same kind of thinking he brings to bear at his high-tech firm, built on exploring new ideas and pushing technologies. I’m glad to see that he’s also hoping that young people find inspiration in his site, for it’s this kind of brainstorming, so often found in science fiction, that can motivate young minds into engineering or scientific careers. “…this may still be a long way from warp drives powered by anti-matter,” he tells the Daily Mail, “but it will be a respectable start.”

I love thinking big, but if we did have the technological means to build the first generation Enterprise in the short term, what about the needed economic and political environment? Is Congress likely to fund NASA to embark on a project of this magnitude — while continuing its funding for robotic missions to planets and elsewhere — given the size of the budget deficit and an environment of overwhelming debt? Surely that idea is more fantastic than the actual construction of a ship that can accommodate 1000 people within the next 20 years.

No, let’s take a longer perspective, with all due respect for energetic thinkers like Dan who want it done tomorrow. Ideas grow in their own time, and something along the lines of the new Enterprise design in terms of propulsion — i.e., large scale ion propulsion fed by nuclear reactors — may emerge as a working concept for our future Solar System-wide infrastructure, one that not a few scientists and engineers are now examining to weigh its merits and ponder its implications. In any case, Dan has a backup plan of his own in case his schedule is too optimistic. Once his site stabilizes under the current traffic load, have a look at it to see his proposed way forward.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley May 15, 2012, 10:45

    It’s a charming idea, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Even if you want a ship as large as NCC 1701, why use its suboptimal shape? If you want a ST TOS craft, then Khan’s seed ship is a more adaptable design. For rotating hulls, why not use the classic saucer shape as Myrabo does in his “Lightcraft Flight Handbook”?

    Enterprise scale ships are not needed to explore the solar system. What we should be doing is going for efficient, lightweight vehicles instead. Canoes rather than battleships. Infrastructure to support this mode, rather than “take it all with you”. (The planetary/solar system equivalent of ST Star bases).

  • Tim Whitworth May 15, 2012, 13:13

    Well, at the specific impulse in the rating gives an exhaust velocity of 150,000 meters per second. To achieve that acceleration at that exhaust velocity would require over 100 gigawatts. Also, why rely on bearings when you can just spin the whole ship? Even magnetic ones? What happens if the bearings fail?

  • Jonathan Fisher, author. May 15, 2012, 13:32

    Come people of earth! Let us put our energies behind this Star Trek inspired vision, and “boldly go where no has gone before…”

    “Let’s go.” Captain Jonathan Archer, Broken Bow Star Trek: Enterprise.

  • philw1776 May 15, 2012, 13:59

    Please, no more science budget killing launcher boondoggle attempts by NASA and their cost plus crony aerospace contractors.

  • Lepton May 15, 2012, 14:03

    As a moderate Trekkie, I prefer to keep Enterprise in scifi, and love to see effort put into design/build ships like Daedalus.

  • Greg Parris May 15, 2012, 16:34

    This is certainly an eye catching design exercise. Let’s take a rough cut at the costs:
    – 187 million pounds to orbit (wet vessel weight): $187 billion (at $1000/lb)
    – Labor for fabrication should be no more than twice that of a Nimitz class aircraft carrier which would be 80 million man hours x $40/hr = $ 3.2 billion
    – Materials and component acquisition: $4.8 Billion
    – Design: the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) was designed and built for $ll billion, let’s assume we can do all the development for double that: $22 billion
    – Develop a suitable launch vehicle big enough for the task (man rated with a capsule option to carry bus loads of crew to orbit): $7.5 billion
    – 1 million pounds to orbit (construction equipment and habitat for construction, this is the weight of the space station): $1 billion ($1000/lb)
    – Cost to build in orbit: $225 billion (min) – $550 billion (max)
    Seven year program = $32.2 – 64.4 billion/yr

    – Ferry the crew to orbit, round trip (1000 people x 250lb x 4000 $/lb): $1 billion/crew change
    – Let’s assume 1.5 million pounds of provisions for a year lifted to orbit: $1.5 billion/re-supply
    – Mission payload 1.5 million pounds (guess, no basis): $1.5 billion/re-supply
    – We’ll replace all the water at the end of each cruse, WWII subs carried 5600 gallons of fresh water for 66 crew (a one week supply). This equates to 85,000 gallons ~710,000 lb: $0.7 billion ($1000/lb)
    – Cost per re-supply: $4.7 billion (min) – $9.4 billion (max)

    This is less than I expected.

  • Tim Whitworth May 15, 2012, 16:38

    A saucer wouldn’t give you the highest artificial gravity per unit mass, a bar with the propellant and ion drives in the middle, with the habitation module at one end and the nuclear reactors at the other end would allow for a higher artificial gravity, which is probably better for the people involved.

  • David May 15, 2012, 17:27

    Well the world is getting tired of the auterity of the big banks for whome we have not just billions but trillions…..

    However why dont we stick some hydrogen bombs in those nacelles and make it interstellar…..
    I think that was a Project….something that was thought up about the same time as Star Trek

  • Daniel Suggs May 15, 2012, 19:04

    Greg Parris – Just a thought, Planetary Resources, if they come about, could provide a lot of the raw materials much cheaper, including the water, and from it, fuel for landers. Some food could be grown on board and water could be replenished from moons and asteroids. The ship might be able to spend decades among the outer planets and their moons, without resupply.

  • Interstellar Bill May 15, 2012, 20:20

    Alas, the unromantic sphere is the default shape for any space structure, as it minimizes air leakage and maximizes enclosed volume per mass. The most important part of the payload is housed at the center.

    Structural practicality makes a short cylinder an easy alternative to the sphere, with spherical end caps, usually worth the extra shielding required.
    Spin gravity also tips the scales from the sphere to the cylinder.

    An easier gravity-source, however, is two spacecraft at the ends of a long tether, each a vertically organized short cylinder. A perfectly timed tether release makes for an interesting delta-vee capability that could come in play at a planetary encounter. For example, the slow one could enter Mars atmosphere directly, the fast one do an atmo-skim and eventually dock with Phobos.

    And please forget about all those spacious starship-compartments, as in Star Trek, and study the interior architecture of submarines, which after all differ only in that they must withstand water-pressure rather than radiation and particle flux.

    At relativistic speeds, with the radiation and collision danger all from a narrow forward cone of directions, the default shape is a long cylinder, with the most important part of the payload near the rear.

  • John May 16, 2012, 0:56

    I have real concerns about spinning a gravity wheel using magnetic levitation. As people and equipment move around the wheel’s center of gravity would constantly shift about. Keeping the overall angular momentum uniform as well as keeping the wheel geometrically centered would require massive energies (and magnetic fields), and would provide a safety hazard if those systems ever lost power. I wonder if a simpler and safer solution would be to simply have the edges of the wheel ride on rails like a train. To make it easier for the drive mechanism, use movable counterweights at various spaces on the wheel’s surface to adjust its center of gravity, in much the same way that high-rise buildings do today. As for nullifying the wheel’s angular momentum, a simple solution might be to have an outer ring with heavy metals (e.g. lead) rotate in the opposite direction. This would leave the entire center of the wheel available and simplify access to zero-g portions of the vessel, and the outer ring wouldn’t require as much mass as the wheel due to its moment of inertia. Once again, I’d rotate that on rails as well to keep things simple and safe.

  • Joy May 16, 2012, 3:54

    “Well the world is getting tired of the auterity of the big banks for whome we have not just billions but trillions…..

    However why dont we stick some hydrogen bombs … ” – David

    Forgive me for imagining other ways to complete that last sentence!

    The world does have a GWP around $70 trillion. The planet could afford more space activity than we have, if priorities were different.

  • ljk May 16, 2012, 6:01

    Here is a paper on making warp drive (note who one of the authors is):


    And here are some blueprints for the warp engines when this version of the Enterprise gets past its primitive ion drive stage:




    There was a Ray Bradbury story about a man who builds a time machine and travels 100 years into the future. He comes back and tells the townfolk all about the wonderful, better world he just visited. The people immediately set about making that future he relayed happen. One century later, the descendants discover that the man never built any time machine, he just encouraged them to make a better future, which they did.

  • Greg Parris May 16, 2012, 9:08

    Daniel you are quite right. Resources from asteroids hold much promise. An interesting point about the “back of envelope” cost analysis is that we could have an aircraft carrier sized ship in interplanetary space for the cost of the Iraq War. Developing a space industry around NEO resources will make everything we want to do in the inner system easier. An aircraft carrier sized craft can deliver a great deal of material to the surface of Mars and keep a colony re-supplied as required. When the scale goes up everything gets cheaper per pound. It is very expensive to design a waste processing system that fits in a shoe box (per pound of processed material). However, if the facility is the size of a house, the cost per pound of processed material will be undoubtedly lower. I think this will be the case for most any system evaluated. If the goal is to colonize Mars then the focus may need to be a space based industry built around NEO’s brought to lunar orbit and a move to increasing levels of scale.

  • Alex Tolley May 16, 2012, 11:00

    There was a Ray Bradbury story about a man who builds a time machine and travels 100 years into the future…

    The Toynbee Convector

  • tom baty May 16, 2012, 13:46

    If one has to use a spacecraft from some SF story as a model, there are far better options out there then the Enterprise. It seems to me ( for what it is worth) that Discovery from “2001” would be a more practical and realistic model to use.

  • Dan Ibekwe May 16, 2012, 14:38

    Congress won’t (can’t) fund this.

    The Chinese just might…

    And as for disks vs spheres, remember that some of the Big E’s ancestors looked (will look?) like this – http://www.starfleet-museum.org/wasp.jpg

  • Lepton May 16, 2012, 14:45

    To ljk,

    Thanks for the link, interesting read!

    Also wrt the time machine, who knows, maybe the guy made the time machine, just what they did later altered the timeline. :-)

  • ljk May 16, 2012, 16:28

    tom baty said on May 16, 2012 at 13:46:

    “If one has to use a spacecraft from some SF story as a model, there are far better options out there then the Enterprise. It seems to me ( for what it is worth) that Discovery from “2001″ would be a more practical and realistic model to use.”

    I was thinking that myself. Just remember, we will need to make the centrifuge much bigger so the astronauts don’t get dizzy and sick. We also won’t need HAL 9000 to run the ship, which means much smaller computers and more room for other things.

    Most importantly, the ship will need large vanes to vent all the heat coming from the nuclear engines. The filmmakers removed them for aesthetic reasons, one of the few concessions they made in a film that otherwise tried really hard to be accurate.

    Now we just need to build a giant wheeled space station with a Hilton Hotel and a Howard Johnsons and a manned lunar base with an awesome looking landing pad and drydock facility.

  • Christopher Phoenix May 16, 2012, 17:21

    @tom baty Actually, the Discovery from 2001 would never work, as it has no radiators to dissipate waste heat from the nuclear reactors. Kubrick didn’t want to put “wings” on the ship, because he didn’t want the audience to think the ship could fly in an atmosphere. Sadly, should you actually try to fly such a ship, you would be roasted. Sorry!!

    If we must base a real spaceship off of a Star Trek ship, it would make a whole lot more sense to use the DY-100 class sleeper ship. The DY-100 was a series of nuclear powered interplanetary spacecraft with hibernation technology. Humans used these ships to visit Mars and the outer planets in the 1990s (!!). Hibernation technology was used because it still took years to reach the outer planets with the propulsion technology in use at the time- presumably nuclear-electric rockets or maybe some variant of NERVA. A gentleman named Paul Davies redesigned the Botany Bay to incorporate actual 1996 technology, images based of which can be found here: http://www.projectrho.com/SSC/submarine.html

  • Mike May 16, 2012, 18:08

    I can’t help but think that this would have been a great article for April 1st.

  • bill May 16, 2012, 22:55

    When Dan’s website opened early on I was able for a short while to get on to his page. While I would have to go back to it to get the particulars, I’m sort of led to believe that the concept while entertaining and very interesting would seem to need some punching up. Unless I’m mistaken I believe that the calculations that were performed earlier on by another contributor was well under the actual price tag that even Dan had considered it to be. If memory serves me I think he was saying that the cost of this enterprise would be in the neighborhood of a trillion to one an a half trillion dollars in today’s money. Given this formidable expense it might be advisable to take a different route than what he proposed, a route that I believe would dovetail very nicely with ideas that were stated before in some earlier columns.

    To whit, it might be very advisable to construct a ship that would be based on a design such as Icarus or its earlier incarnation. However I would suggest that rather than utilizing the helium-3 and deuterium-based fuel we might suggest that the propellant load be based upon antimatter as its principal propellant. Naturally this of course would require that antimatter production be optimized and I personally believe that an antimatter factory would be needed to be placed in outer space, perhaps close to the sun where the energy would be essentially free to generate the product. Furthermore, the ship would be a true interstellar vehicle rather than utilized as a planetary transport system. I would also have to add that such a ship be dedicated to a one way trip to a star which would be chosen for its suitability as a habitable planetary candidate which would permit human colonization.

    Finally I would like to add the fact that earlier this month in Centauri dreams the question was rightfully raised that perhaps to avoid a global catastrophe whatever its source it would be of viable to begin as early as possible the creation of some type of interstellar vehicle. Perhaps, just perhaps, this idea of a “Enterprise” might be compelling enough to the general public that they would be willing to find the needed cash to make this some type of possibility. I am not advocating that the ship should strictly adhere to the TV stories shape and size of that ship, but let’s be honest about this, that particular TV show was highly compelling for the general public and could be considered a considerable selling point.

  • bill May 16, 2012, 22:59

    viable should be “advisable”

  • ljk May 16, 2012, 23:04

    Revving Up the Antimatter Engine Analysis

    by Jennifer Ouellette

    Wed May 16, 2012 03:44 AM ET

    Hope springs eternal for die-hard Star Trek fans that scientists will one day build an actual, working antimatter propulsion engine similar to the one that powers the fictional starship Enterprise.

    A new paper by a pair of enterprising (get it?) physicists should fan the flames of that fantasy even further.


    Ronan Keane (Western Reserve Academy) and Wei-Ming Zhang (Kent State University) report that the latest results from their computer simulations indicate that at least one key component of realizing a working antimatter propulsion engine — highly efficient magnetic nozzles — should be far more efficient than previously thought. And such nozzles are feasible using today’s technologies.

    Full article here:


  • ljk May 17, 2012, 9:47

    bill said on May 16, 2012 at 22:55:

    “Finally I would like to add the fact that earlier this month in Centauri dreams the question was rightfully raised that perhaps to avoid a global catastrophe whatever its source it would be of viable to begin as early as possible the creation of some type of interstellar vehicle. Perhaps, just perhaps, this idea of a “Enterprise” might be compelling enough to the general public that they would be willing to find the needed cash to make this some type of possibility.”

    LJK replies:

    Two items: I am wary of building a Worldship or any kind of interstellar vessel based primarily on the need for humans to escape Earth due to some impending global-scale disaster. Do you think the people who cannot escape our planet are just going to sit idly by while a starship is being made for a select few?

    Even in the 1953 film When Worlds Collide, the construction workers who will remain behind on the doomed Earth get fed up with the decision and go after the ship, which is still sitting on its launch rails. Of course they come to this decision a bit late and the spaceship takes off for the new world that conveniently came along with the much bigger planet destroyer. But I hope you see my point.

    And as for this whole Enterprise project in general and specifically to the guy who came up with it: How do you expect this all to come about when the recent interstellar conference was all about just setting up an organization to handle the concept? Or has a way to cut through a lot of the red tape been found to actually start working on a real spaceship?

  • Eniac May 18, 2012, 0:59

    Tim Whitworth and Interstellar Bill have the design of a realistic interplanetary ship about right. A long, rotating tether, with the reactor at one end and the crew module at the other, engine and propellant tanks (doubling as shield) in the center. The assembly would be rotating end over end, and accelerate sideways along the axis of that rotation.

    The reactor will be kept hot, perhaps very hot (up to ~2000K), to keep cooling surface to a minimum. The engine will be kept hot, too, but less so than the reactor. Radiator surface requirement goes down with temperature to the fourth power, so hot is good.

    Not as fancy as the Enterprise, but much more practical….

  • johnq May 21, 2012, 10:55

    I’m going to defend this idea (i.e. start with the Enterprise and see where we can go with it) and not just from the standard line about how ideas are precious and deserving of our respect, nor from the sheer cosmic goofiness of the thing, though these are factors. What fascinates me instead is how “Dan’s” idea reverses the usual design strategy: instead of starting with the goals/objectives, then the requirements, then gathering all we can find on current/near-term technologies to see if anything fits, and finally getting to the design where it is all put together to see if it makes sense, we begin with a design as a given and work back to possible goals/objectives. As an intellectual exercise that approach is both intriguing and useful. Instead of getting hung up on all the trade-off buts, which in the case of even probes out to extra-solar space (not quite alpha-centauri but well beyond Pluto) are considerable, we head straight toward the mission. Now, a valid objection is that I’m conflating two notions of “design,” one regarding aesthetics and the other the trade-offs (there are no solutions) of engineering, but there is no reason you can’t play with both to see what comes from the interaction. Design is the supreme challenge in interstellar flight, far in excess in anything we have encountered on earth or even in exploring the solar system. Anything we can do to improve our thinking in that direction is good. View of it as a game that none of us are skilled at. The “Dans” of the world need to be encouraged.

  • ljk May 23, 2012, 17:23

    This piece from The Space Review was posted just last month – “Does Star Trek make space travel look too easy?” by Andre Bormanis:


    And this one from 2005 – “Boldly going: Star Trek and spaceflight” by Dwayne Day: