The following items are found in science fiction literature as technologies useful in authoring a plausible setting for a sci-fi story:
PROPULSION: Faster Than Light Drive (FTL) is required for stories about star based exploits. Twentieth century rocketry is limited to activities in the Solar System. At present spacecraft velocities, the nearest star would require voyages of thousands of years. At the speed of light, the nearest stars could be reached in decades of time. Several types of FTL systems are found in sci-fi literature. Among these are warp drive, the use of black holes, and a particle based propulsion concept using tachyons, a type of matter which has no mass but only energy. By converting spaceships to their tachyon equvalent, a speed greater than that of light is supposed to be possible. Einstein's equation requires that the mass of an object grows to infinity as the speed of light is reached. Since the ship is composed of no mass, it does not experience such growth. A nice idea, but one whose time has not yet come except in the annals of sci-fi literature. A comprehensive list of sci-fi particles is available at a STARTREK site on the Internet.
The use of black holes to achieve FTL drive is based in part on Newton's law of gravity. Astronomers believe black holes are entities of huge compressed matter so dense that the attraction force (gravity) can pull particles, planets, or spaceships toward them at speeds approaching that of light. Sci-fi authors elaborate on black hole theory theorizing that a space ship can enter a black hole and emerge in another universe. By entering another black hole, the same ship may then return to a different location in the original universe at light year's distance from the initial entry point. This is a variation of the FTL warp drive creation of science fiction.
An oft employed propulsion system is the anti-gravity material. Cavorite was one of the first sci-fi antigravity materials to emerge in the literature. An artful creation of H.G. Wells's protagonist Dr. Cavor, it had the ability to repel mass in the same fashion as like poles of a magnet repel one another. One such author's antigravity device was called the "spindizzy." Others describe antigravity devices as "gravitron-polarity generators" based on the analogy of gravity and magnetism.
GUIDANCE:Little is written in science fiction literature about spacecraft steering techniques. Perhaps, that is why sci-fi artwork ignores steering thrusters, a space technology essential to the Apollo lunar landing. Examination of most sci-fi spacecraft fails to reveal reaction control thrusters. NASA uses other means to guide spacecraft. One of these is the control moment gyro. Within the body of a satellite, a spinning gyroscope device will redirect the direction of the vehicle pitch, roll, or yaw, if the internal gyro's axis is moved to another direction. Such devices are seldom used for spacecraft of large mass because they also would have to be of large mass to quickly alter the course of a space vehicle. CMGs are effective for low mass satellite probes but impractical for manned space vehicles.
A steering device seen in sci-fi art which will serve to guide spacecraft is the spherical thruster. By gimbling a single thruster in three axis,its direction can provide pitch, roll, and yaw without the use of sets of x,y, and z stationary thruster pods.
LIFE SUPPORT: Among the types of starship vehicles and science fiction technologies which provide life support for interstellar travel are generation and world ships as well as hibernation biology and cryonics.
The generation ships and worlds in space treat the dilemma of reaching a setting among the stars differently than FTL schemes. Rather than offend those who hold dearly to Einstein's theory, these concepts allow for velocities far below light's by substituting whole worlds for spaceships. If a spaceship is built to a mammoth scale, containing all the atmosphere and resource needs of Earthlings, one need not worry about the length of the journey. Of course, those who rocket to the stars in such craft will never experience the mission's completion, but they will have the satisfaction of knowing that hundreds of years in the future their progeny will finish the journey. Based on the known cost of putting a mass in low Earth orbit, such schemes seem economically as impossible as FTL propulsion. Present 1990s cost of lofting a pound of Earth weight to orbit is approximately $4000. The cost of launching a huge generation ship on a mission to the stars would consume the gross national product of all the countries of the Earth.
Another approach for reaching the star avoids the problems of FTL propulsion as well as the cost of launching a world into space. It treats the biology of aging. If the maturing processes of the human body can be slowed or even terminated such that the star voyager's body can be revived at the conclusion of the centuries long mission, then neither impossible speeds or spacecraft are needed. The science of cryonics deals with the cooling of the human body to liquid nitrogen temperatures (-196 degrees Centigrade) in hopes of later thawing in a fashion which can resurrect the life of the "frozen chosen." To date, no success has been realized except for using cryonics on embryos. After 10 years a thawed embryo has provided reproductive life.
CABIN STRUCTURE: Most sci-fi art portrays reasonable cabin structure architecture for space vehicles except for the mammoth space arks, generation ships and worlds in space discussed earlier. Futuristic artwork need show little about the multilayered design of spacecraft such as the NASA space shuttle, however, artwork showing space wrecks, damage from space combat, and the remains of discarded and damaged spacecraft must consider accurate cabin mechanical design. Showing a superstructural with a skeleton of massive cast iron is, of course, inaccurate.
COMMUNICATIONS: Early in the space program, the importance of communicating with vehicles launched into the cosmos became obvious. The primary purpose of communication was to assess the status of the spacecraft's systems rather than conversation with the crew. For starships, the latter purpose is probably most important. At light year's distance from Earth, mission control's assistance would be limited but word from home would do much to comfort the crew psychologically. In either case, some sort of antenna must be available to transmit the radio waves to Earth. This piece of essential space hardware is often not found in space sci-fi art. Without antenna mechanisms, a from of telepathy would be needed where the mind in some fashion can generate a type of "thought-wave" which can be transmitted and received by technology specially created for the purpose.
A particularly fascinating replacement for spacecraft communication is the molecular transporter often used in the STAR TREK series. Why worry about communications when one can simply be transported to the location of the receiver? The matter transporter, as this concept is often called, is one of science fiction's oldest creations. The device is able to reconstitute the atoms and molecules comprising starship matter at a remote location using material insitu at the distant environment. It would be analogous to having all the parts of a rocket model kit resident on Earth and a constructed version of the rocket in a starship's molecular transporter. By transmitting the instructions to build the kit to Earth, the rocket model is "beamed" to the home planet. Imagine that every atom and molecule of the human body is a kit resident on Earth. Star Trek's Captain Kirk steps into the transporter and his being is reconstructed in microseconds. A problem remains. The intelligence to construct the Earth kit must be transmitted by some form of radio communication which, of course, requires an antenna. In actuality, leaving out the antenna makes the matter transporter another type of telepathy communicator.
THERMAL PROTECTION: The laws of thermodynamics are often violated in sci-fi art and literature. These laws require that heat flows from a hot source to a cold sink, i.e., heat does not flow up-hill from cold to hot. Additionally, the laws of thermodynamics require that order does not result from disorder, i.e., the natural evolution of the universe is from order to disorder. To show a planetary landing craft without means of eliminating or protecting its contents from the frictional heat of atmospheric entry violates the heat flow law of thermodynamics. Air molecules become very hot generating considerable heat which will flow into the cooler interior of the spacecraft and crew cabin either destroying spacecraft systems or killing the crew.
DISPLAYS AND CONTROLS: It is a credit to science fiction that the concept of a video viewer (which we now call television) was first predicted. The idea of electronic viewing windows to replace actual windows has long been a feature of science fiction displays. In recent years, computer graphics and digital television hsve more than fulfilled the sci-fi predictions of video technology. In some cases, the state of the art has exceeded sci-fi as is the case with the application of virtual reality. Generally, sci-fi artists portray spacecraft control and display technology accurately. The command bridge of the Enterprise has long been a plausible control center for a NASA-like space station.
OTHER SYSTEMS: While other systems are required for the successful design and operation of a manned spacecraft or starship, the above are cited by virtue of their viewability in sci-fi illustrations and art. Spacecraft require power generation and distribution systems as well as internal instrumentation sensors with networks of data buses. Such systems are seldom discussed in science fiction literature and will generally be ignored in this document as well. Other essential systems such as environmental control are indirectly addressed in critique of spaceship types, cabin structure, etc.
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