Designing a workable 'ship' ...

I'm one of those people who likes to get a few 'technical' aspects about the ships I write about, straight in my head, even if I don't then actually describe them to my audience. It doesn't matter if it is something 'historical' or something in the 'future' - I need to have a clear idea of what is where and how it is accessed in order to write. So, when writing about Harry's adventures in futuristic space craft, I like to have in mind some sort of hull, deck plan and general layout to work from.

This is something my publisher raised a little while ago, when she asked why my space ships had 'wings'. In the illustration I used on the cover of Out of Time, the 'fins' actually do serve a purpose. First of all, in space, you need to have fixed points for 'jets' or 'rockets' to allow you to make changes to attitude or direction. So, in my mind, some of these are located at the tips of the fins. In addition, I gave a lot of thought to how you would 'launch' or 'retrieve' transports, fighters and so on aboard the 'mother ship' I considered simple lateral openings (as in the Star Wars ships) but rejected it, as the problems of matching velocities, closing trajectories and speeds and so on make those very tricky. Far better to place the landing and launching bays in the lateral 'fins' with landing on (like an aircraft carrier) coming in at the rear, and 'launching' using a catapult perhaps, from the leading edge.

The upper and lower fins provide mounting positions for heavy weapons and placing the propulsion units right aft - again on fins - allows both direction and attitude to be adjusted by moving the propuslion pods, plus it keeps any emission stream or field clear of the hull and the living areas.

Anyone studying the image will immediately - I think - recognise a certain resemblance to a modern nuclear powered submarine. That isn't accidental. I modelled my future star ship on exactly that, though, of course, several times larger in scale. For years I have looked at 'artists' images of spaceships and, although they look 'futuristic' and interesting, I've always been struck by how impractical they are. There have been exceptions. The Imperial Destroyers in Star Wars, the Battlestar in Battlestar Galactica, the various 'Enterprises' in Star Trek have all had a more authentic look than many others. One of the reasons for this, in my view, is that someone, somewhere in the concept design stages, must have done what I have - sat down and worked out where things would need to be, how they connect with other parts and functions, where you would put power generators, weapons, control centres and so on - and, of course, how to shield them, defend them and make sure they are accessible from one part to another, without having to go outside, and come back in via another entry point.

In many ways its a bit like drawing up a specification for an architect - you have to give him some idea where key functions and activities will be, who needs to have direct access and who can have indirect access. To me, a space ship that looks as if it has been put together from a whole collection of 'modules' so that you have bits tacked on all over the place, simply isn't going to be functional. It won't need 'windows' largely because they are 'weak points' in the hull, and they are also pretty pointless - you wouldn't be able to see out of them in reality, unless you happen to be close to a large reflective body capable of overcoming the reflections generated by your own internal lighting. So in my concept, external digital imaging equipment 'reads' the view and it is displayed on internal screens.

Next one has to consider things like machinery and storage spaces. Why not place these 'outside' the living/working spaces between them and the outer hull? Which spaces must have direct communication, which can be indirect and where should the control rooms, secondary controls and so on be? This may sound like 'too much detail' but it is necessary to consider it when thinking about someone moving from one space to another. Does he need to pass through a hatch? Or through a door? Do they have to ascend or descend a ladder or staircase?

An obvious one, perhaps, is where the Captain has his accomodation in relation to the Command Centres. In the old sail powered navy, the Captain's quarters occupied the space aft of the steering position, and were accessed directly from the 'Quarterdeck' which was the 'Command position' of the day. When things moved from sail to steam, the accomodation on British ships for the officers remained in the traditional position (coincidentally, this is why one 'salutes' the Quarterdeck on boarding), which meant, as ships grew in size, that the Captain and the Command Centre became rather distant from each other. To overcome this, for the Captain at least, a 'Day Cabin' was provided on larger ships adjacent to the Bridge. Other navies took a more pragmatic approach and simply moved everyone to the Bridge structure. 

Which brings me back to submarines. If you think about them carefully, the design has some obvious similarities to what would be needed for interplanetary and interstellar travel. The essential living, control and power areas are all contained within a pressure hull - essentially a very large tank or tanks interconnected, and enclosed by a more streamlined outer hull, parts of which are 'free-flooding'.  The same sort of arrangement would provide a basic structure for a very large space craft. The control centres can be located along a central 'main deck' with large machinery spaces located aft, accommodation on the decks below or above it and some services (as in a submarine, partly within and partly without the pressure hull, but within the outer hull.

Why did I envisage a 'hangar' area at the midships point on my 'concept'? Partly to keep the 'landing on' approach lines clear of the main propulsion units right aft, and partly because this allowed enough space to have some large volume spaces which could still be enclosed within their own pressure hull, and area that could, in emergency, be shut off and isolated without endangering the operation of the ship, or the integrity of the other spaces forward or aft of it. Next, of course, comes the question of 'lung spaces' in which the ship's atmosphere can be cleaned, refreshed and renewed. Of course, at present, submarines don't have a 'green space' but they do have specialist equipment which 'scrubs' out Carbon Dioxide, regenerates the Oxygen levels, dehumidifies and removes other impurities from the air. Taking such a ship to the outer edge of our own solar system would require something capable of 'renweing' the atmosphere for the crew to a much greater degree to keep the ship habitable. There are several ways it can be achieved, one being the cultivation in tanks of certain algae which 'consume carbon dioxide, and release Oxygen.

Recovered water from the air can also be 'recycled' to provide drinking water, as can all other 'waste' water, using hydropore filtering systems and the algae tanks. Which leaves only the fact that humans actually need a bit of 'green space' for psychological health. We need certain light bfrequencies to generate a number of vitamins in our bodies, without which we fall victim to some rather strange ailments. Of course we can get most of them in our food, but this is a lot less efficient than getting them the natural way. So, my concept includes some 'recreational' green spaces which serve the dual purpose of providing a 'green lung' and a space for crew relaxation. Yes, that does meean a rather large ship. But, again, not impossible to build.

Any takers? I read with interest that a NASA team have been working on a 'Warp-drive' computer model, and have worked out that mathematically it is possible. They've even come up with a design for the ship which follows the process I've outlined here. Their ship ends up looking rather like a Star Trek unit, but I think mine is a more viable concept.

What do you think? 


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