Engineer Thinks We Could Build a Real Starship Enterprise in 20 Years

by Nancy Atkinson on May 11, 2012

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Diagram of a proposed current generation of a Starship Enterprise. Credit: BuildTheEnterprise.org

In Star Trek lore, the first Constitution Class Starship Enterprise will be built by the year 2245. But today, an engineer has proposed — and outlined in meticulous detail – building a full-sized, ion-powered version of the Enterprise complete with 1G of gravity on board, and says it could be done with current technology, within 20 years. “We have the technological reach to build the first generation of the spaceship known as the USS Enterprise – so let’s do it,” writes the curator of the Build The Enterprise website, who goes by the name of BTE Dan.

This “Gen1” Enterprise could get to Mars in ninety days, to the Moon in three, and “could hop from planet to planet dropping off robotic probes of all sorts en masse – rovers, special-built planes, and satellites.”

Size comparisons of buildings to the proposed USS Enterprise. Credit: BuildTheEnterprise.org

Complete with conceptual designs, ship specs, a funding schedule, and almost every other imaginable detail, the BTE website was launched just this week and covers almost every aspect of how the project could be done. This Enterprise would be built entirely in space, have a rotating gravity section inside of the saucer, and be similar in size with the same look as the USS Enterprise that we know from Star Trek.

“It ends up that this ship configuration is quite functional,” writes BTE Dan, even though his design moves a few parts around for better performance with today’s technology. This version of the Enterprise would be three things in one: a spaceship, a space station, and a spaceport. A thousand people can be on board at once – either as crew members or as adventurous visitors.

While the ship will not travel at warp speed, with an ion propulsion engine powered by a 1.5GW nuclear reactor, it can travel at a constant acceleration so that the ship can easily get to key points of interest in our solar system. Three additional nuclear reactors would create all of the electricity needed for operation of the ship.

The saucer section would be a .3 mile (536 meter) diameter rotating, magnetically-suspended gravity wheel that would create 1G of gravity.

The first assignments for the Enterprise would have the ship serving as a space station and space port, but then go on to missions to the Moon, Mars, Venus, various asteroids and even Europa, where the ships’ laser would be used not for combat but for cutting through the moon’s icy crust to enable a probe to descend to the ocean below.

Of course, like all space ships today, the big “if” for such an ambitious effort would be getting Congress to provide NASA the funding to do a huge 20-year project. But BTE Dan has that all worked out, and between tax increases and spreading out budget cuts to areas like defense, health and human services, housing and urban development, education and energy, the cuts to areas of discretionary spending are not large, and the tax increases could be small. “These changes to spending and taxes will not sink the republic,” says the website. “In fact, these will barely be noticed. It’s amazing that a program as fantastic as the building a fleet of USS Enterprise spaceships can be done with so little impact.”

“The only obstacles to us doing it are the limitations we place on our collective imagination,” BTE Dan adds, and his proposal says that NASA will still receive funding for the science, astronomy and robotic missions it currently undertakes.

A detailed schedule of building the Enterprise. Credit: BuildTheEnterprise.org

But he proposes not just one Enterprise-class ship, but multiple ships, one of which can be built every 33 years – once per generation – giving three new ships per century. “Each will be more advanced than the prior one. Older ships can be continually upgraded over several generations until they are eventually decommissioned.”

BTE Dan, who did not respond to emails, lists himself as a systems engineer and electrical engineer who has worked at a Fortune 500 company for the past 30 years.

The website includes a blog, a forum and a Q&A section, where BTE Dan answers the question, “What if someone can prove that building the Gen1 Enterprise is beyond our technological reach?”

Answer: “If someone can convince me that it is not technically possible (ignoring political and funding issues), then I will state on the BuildTheEnterprise site that I have been found to be wrong. In that case, building the first Enterprise will have to wait for, say, another half century. But I don’t think that anyone will be able to convince me it can’t be done. My position is that we can – and should – immediately start working on it.”

For the complete space nerd experience, check out Build The Enterprise.

Hat tip to Rand Simberg.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

zetetic elench May 15, 2012 at 12:41 PM
MynameisBlarney May 15, 2012 at 1:37 PM

Meh…needs more lasers.

Craserblade May 15, 2012 at 4:14 PM

While I feel the idea is good I disagree with the design. Even though I am a fan of Star Trek, those ships were made for warp drives and artificial gravity plating…their orientation is horizontal. This ship should be built more along the lines of the Phaeton from the film “Virtuality.” Basically, the Phaeton is a tower (Orion Pulse Rocket) with a perpendicular ring system attached. The tower has the energy, propulsion and fuel systems and the ring is the habitation area. The sections of the ring can pivot on their long axes so they are either facing inwards where they can use rotation as a gravity analog, or they can face forward and use the thrust of the propulsion as a gravity analog. It’ll still be expensive but it won’t have to fit into a hull that really wasn’t designed for it.

Franco J. Torres May 15, 2012 at 5:57 PM

Where do we sign-up for star fleet academy? I’m in.

Marlon May 15, 2012 at 8:48 PM

I wish there was actually a Star Fleet….

Marlon May 15, 2012 at 8:48 PM

I wish there was actually a Star Fleet….

anon42 May 16, 2012 at 12:20 PM

I personally think that one of the reasons we’re kept from truly pushing humanity forward is because the resources are held by people who have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. Why would a man that makes billions on oil be interested in alternative energy? Why would American politicians be interested in building the Starship Enterprise when they can make more money by invading foreign nations in order to give inroads to the energy companies that provide funds for the elections?

If this sort of thing were to happen, it would very likely have to come from an international private citizenry that chose to simply bypass its governments need to be backward because that’s how they make their money and keep their power.

Chris Stewart May 16, 2012 at 2:13 PM

Would be amazing if we could do something like this. However I think the more likely scenario for the first permanent spaceships we build is something more akin to the spaceship from the original Alien film. In other words a spacecraft whose sole aim is focused toward mining.

The one advantage to this scenario is that if that mining ship proved to be profitable then significantly more money would be put pumped into builing more of them which would in turn lead to scientific improvements in this area. After all it would be far more profitable to have a faster ship as less time would be lost traveling around

seejay james May 16, 2012 at 5:40 PM

Fires up the imagination, that’s for sure…

I think the design for an actual interplanetary ship would be much different…mainly smaller…with the highest priority being a way to safely and comfortably keep at least a good fraction of G (if not 1 G). We really need that for long-term missions. Also the shielding is essential, of course. Propulsion I’m not sure…fusion would be awesome, but we’re a long ways from that. Fission is a great power source but obviously has some, er, issues… :P

Really like the discussion about warp possibility. My gut feeling is that it simply isn’t possible the way we envision it—way too much energy required to move even tiny bits of matter faster than light. Maybe it can work but in a different way. Then again, it really might just be IMPOSSIBLE to move any significant amount, no matter how advanced we get…just a feature of the Universe itself. That said, I understand the sentiment about looking to the future and imagining…I’d be the first one to happily eat my words if I’m wrong. But there’s just something about it that makes me think we might have hit a physics “wall”, at least the way we see it today.

Now, that said, I have great optimism for a couple other breakthroughs: a new clean energy source that works at ultracold rather than ultrahot temperatures (not “cold fusion” but “something else”)…the amount of weirdness that happens down there (like Bose-Einstein condensates), coupled with our ability to use high-powered lasers and magnetic fields, just makes me think that there may be hidden energy in certain types of matter which we just haven’t unlocked yet. I mean, look at uranium…how do we view it today versus 100 years ago? Maybe we just haven’t gotten the right combination of inputs to get a positive output, or there are attributes of certain materials which we don’t fully understand. If something like that really works, our energy problems will rapidly be solved..and we can use it to fuel starships!

The other hope is for faster-than-light communications. So, it takes way too much energy to make matter go faster than light, but what about photons? Bell’s theorem? I can’t help but think there’s a way to harness that somehow. It might be like “subspace” from Star Trek. The restriction would be that we have to GET there first, using slower-than-light travel, but once there and having the transmitter/receiver, having instant communication (however it works) would be so incredibly helpful for any serious interplanetary exploration. And the best part just might be…that if we develop this technology for this, and aliens have too, that we can tap into their communications as well…so, no need to GO to other stars, we just Skype them instead!

Chris Dunbar May 16, 2012 at 6:03 PM

This project could be a reality if we want it to be. We as a nation and a world need to look beyond our planet. The solar system we live in is finite and eventually will cease to exist, if we don’t start looking for options none will be available.

rbrtwjohnson May 16, 2012 at 8:31 PM

To build a real starship Enterprise in a short time it is needed to develop a warp drive before.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sgAwyr5Udzw

Supercopter May 17, 2012 at 9:39 AM

:’-( … The website is down already …
http://www.downforeveryoneorjustme.com/buildtheenterprise.org

My guess: a Paramount Pictures / CBS Entertainment take down notice…
? Stupid copyright owners, not even able to recognize a tribute. :-/

Supercopter May 17, 2012 at 9:42 AM
Bill Hubbard May 19, 2012 at 7:36 AM

I like the idea, just not the approach. Ignore ship designs from popular TV shows and movies – most of them are highly impractical, especially the USS Enterprise. Plus this rotating gravity wheel this guy proposes is the result of engineer-think, missing a KEY principle of keeping things simple. The idea, as proposed, will never work, will not come in on budget, and won’t succeed in 20 years. It’s simply too complex, with many issues overlooked.
I love the idea of having such a ship that can travel the solar system, but it needs to be practical, with a design that works and is simple and won’t become unmanageable before construction is completed. Build a flying saucer – a nice, simple, round design, with engines beneath so it flies flat-on, and then you can simply rotate the entire craft for stability and gravity simulation. No unnecessary, dangerous and expensive magnetically suspended rotating doughnut spinning in a vacuum that needs an air lock to enter after a crazy “elevator” ride. That is a design from someone who likes watching science fiction and is not thinking realistically or within the realm of the practical.
Dream on. But do it right. If the idea of building a USS Enterprise replica was put before the eyes of the public, NASA would face even larger budget cuts than it currently has, due to public perception thinking NASA is even more frivolous than they already think it is. Yes, they’re ignorant, but a lot of ignorant people influence things in this country, unfortunately, so you have to be really careful what you propose to spend their tax dollars on.

sorgfelt May 25, 2012 at 7:04 PM

Things:

1. The shape of the Enterprise was based on a sighting of one or more UFOs that was photographed briefly making such a configuration. It is not really optimum for a spacecraft.

2. I am of the opinion that artificial gravity could be created over the entire craft without having to stand sideways on a rotating wheel. The technology exists, but it is being kept secret. We need to get rid of the secrecy. Maybe even warp drive could be revealed.

3. To be good to humanity, I don’t believe that people should be forced to pay for this with an increase in taxes. I think that enough people would be willing to contribute without being forced. Maybe some surveys should be taken to investigate this.

sorgfelt May 25, 2012 at 7:04 PM

Things:

1. The shape of the Enterprise was based on a sighting of one or more UFOs that was photographed briefly making such a configuration. It is not really optimum for a spacecraft.

2. I am of the opinion that artificial gravity could be created over the entire craft without having to stand sideways on a rotating wheel. The technology exists, but it is being kept secret. We need to get rid of the secrecy. Maybe even warp drive could be revealed.

3. To be good to humanity, I don’t believe that people should be forced to pay for this with an increase in taxes. I think that enough people would be willing to contribute without being forced. Maybe some surveys should be taken to investigate this.

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