25 November 2017
My Space Fleet (or, nostalgia concerning missed and lost toy spaceships)
Oddly enough, though, they took me to see 2001: a Space Odyssey during its first theatrical run. (I think I had to seize hostages to induce them to take me - it's all hazy now.) I vividly remember building an Apollo LM model with my dad. I think that stands out because it was the only time he did something with me that was related to space.
The LM was great, but it was not enough for me. It was a display piece; I needed sturdy vessels with which I might conquer the Solar System.
I was eight or nine when I began to use materials I had at hand to make models of spacecraft of my own crude design. In the 1970-1975 period, in fact, I designed my own space program set in the then-distant year 2020. Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama and Earthlight were major sources of inspiration, as were the book and film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bob McCall's first art compendium, Our World in Space, also influenced my vision. Some Star Trek influence was inevitable, though my space travelers didn't wander among the stars or tangle with aliens.
Foam cups, pins, dixie cups, pens, popsicle sticks, colored markers, pipe cleaners, tape, curtain weights, and rubber cement were my construction materials. The weights made excellent footpads; by far the heaviest parts of my spacecraft, the disk-shaped lead weights helped them to stand upright in the face of stray breezes and casual sideswipes from affectionate cats.
Perhaps in keeping with Star Trek, my ships included two propulsion systems. Chemical rockets permitted proximity operations near space stations and facilities on asteroids and other vacuum worlds. A far more advanced "photonic" drive enabled high-gee acceleration with minimal propellant expenditure. Think the Epstein Drive from The Expanse series.
The first spacecraft I built was an all-purpose explorer/police vessel in the tradition of Endeavour from Rendezvous with Rama or Star Trek's Enterprise. I envisioned a fleet of such craft. It was not designed to land, though it carried a small sortie vehicle and a 2001-esque service pod. Sortie vehicle and pod could be combined to yield a beefier sortie vehicle and the sortie vehicle could be broken down to create a second service pod.
Much of the action in my space program centered on the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter and the asteroidal moons and trojan asteroids of Jupiter. Asteroid settlement was well under way in 2020. My explorer/police vessel could "dock" with low-g small- and middle-sized asteroids with compatible facilities. It could also dock with and push smaller vessels with higher-g landing capability, much as the Apollo Command and Service Module pushed the Lunar Module.
The second vessel I built was a long-range explorer with higher-g landing capability. It had a beefy photonic drive, powerful chemical verniers, and a small crew compartment - perhaps room enough only for four people. Basically, it was a big engine cluster with scientific instrument pallets standing in as skin, eight adjustable landing legs, and a crew module on top.
A more conventional vessel needed weeks to travel between worlds of the Inner System and the Asteroid Belt and months to travel between the Outer System worlds. The long-range explorer could reach Pluto from Ceres in five weeks. It could also descend through atmospheres: an optional disposable heat shield (a thick paper plate) enabled Titan landings. Mysterious Titan was a major focus of scientific exploration in my space program.
The third vessel I designed, the Vulpecula-class space tug/freighter, was a small ship capable of pushing a standardized cargo module between worlds. It could accompany a cargo module to its destination or simply boost it on its way, then dock with an incoming cargo module and return to port. It could operate with or without a crew and could land on higher-g vacuum worlds bearing a cargo module.
Though I only built a pair of cargo modules, I imagined that they would take many forms. They could, for example, serve as tankers for refueling spacecraft. Another module was decked out as a passenger pod. The influence of the Franz Joseph space freighter in the Star Trek Technical Manual is unmistakable.
I also built a fast courier. Like the explorer/police ship, vessels of the Pegasus class weren't meant to land on higher-g worlds. They had a photonic engine identical to the explorer/police ship's engine, but could accelerate harder because they included only a small crew module, no auxiliary vehicles, and minimal instrumentation. They were meant to move people rapidly between scattered ships and worlds. For example, if an isolated trojan asteroid colony urgently needed a surgeon, one could be dispatched in a fast courier.
Finally, I built a long-range explorer capable of really epic trips. An extended version of the explorer/police ship, I envisioned that only a few would be built. Most traveled in pairs to interesting worlds beyond Pluto. (I'm not sure if I knew of the then-hypothetical Kuiper Belt - probably I just assumed there would be more planets past Pluto.) Their large crews hibernated in shifts. They traded speed for on-site crew expertise.
I didn't spend much time on Earth-to-orbit transportation. I assumed that rockets larger than the Saturn V would exist. That's all I remember.
Individuals and companies could own Pegasus-class fast couriers, Vulpecula-class freighters, and cargo modules. Some fast couriers became the equivalent of private jets. Some Vulpecula-class ships pushed cargo modules outfitted for asteroid prospecting.
Though I often lamented never acquiring Major Matt Mason's big moon base, in retrospect I am glad that I was thrown back on my own devices. Missing out on ready-made 1960s space toys helped to turn me creative.
What became of my space fleet? After Star Wars came out, I switched to building kit-bashed hyperdrive starships. The foam-cups-and-popsicle-sticks fleet grew dusty on a closet shelf. One summer day, as I prepared to depart for my first semester of college, I ceremoniously set fire to that fleet. The foam, rubber cement, and paper burned rapidly, leaving behind in moments only blackened pins and curtain weights. At college, my spaceships mostly became built of words, and it has remained so ever since.