Monday, May 7, 2007

These Are The Voyages ...

A discussion at sfconsim-l leads - not for the first time, not for the last - to general thoughts about space travel, in this case about interstellar survey ships.

Suppose, ladies and gentlemen, that you have been tasked to plan one - not design what it looks like or how its gizmos work (mumbo jumbo wormholes, mumbo jumbo fusion torch ...), but how it functions as a social institution, seeking out new worlds and civilizations without the crew going completely batty and believing they've gone back to 1930s Chicago, or met the Greek gods, or whatever.

In 1950s SF, the crews of exploration ships tended to be pretty small. A three-man crew was popular for moonships long before Apollo. The ship in "Forbidden Planet" seems to have a crew of a dozen or so, more or less the traditional war-movie bomber crew, with a mix of submarine (it has a cook after all).

For a prolonged mission, however, it makes more sense to have a fairly large crew, up to a few hundred. This serves partly to provide you with plenty of skilled specialists, as well as expendable redshirts for each episode trained replacements for crewmembers who become incapacitated in the course of a long voyage. Most of all, however, it provides a richer social organism - more possible friends, more ways to avoid people you just can't get along with. It provides more checks and balances: there's a doctor who could pronounce the captain incapacitated, and an assistant in case a deranged captain shoots the doctor.

This is one of the things that original Trek got right - we can scoff at the plot-killing transporter, or the senior command staff beaming down onto every maximum-risk planet, but taken as a whole the Enterprise is a believable interstellar survey ship. It is well-armed, and has a quasi-military organization, but it is not quite a warship. It has a large enough crew to work as a social institution during its years-long voyages. The mission itself is broadly plausible - it might be more realistic to send out unmanned probes, but that would not make for very exciting episodes.

I first encountered the advantages of a starship having a large crew not in Trek but - as so often, in Heinlein. In Time for the Stars, the starship Lewis and Clark has a crew of about 200, specifically "because even with only two hundred people there are exactly nineteen thousand nine hundred ways to pair them off, either as friends or enemies" (p. 71 of my old Ace p-back). Since this was a YA book in the 1950s, Heinlein didn't quite mention the other way people can pair off - perhaps just as well, considering the results in later books when he could.

I would go Trek and Heinlein both one better, however, and not send out my survey ships alone, but in expeditions of perhaps three ships each. The ships can be somewhat smaller because the total expedition team is divided three ways - though each ship should be able to carry all three crews in a pinch (see under Titanic, lifeboats, capacity of). The survey ships would have some specialization, e.g., one ship to carry planetary landing shuttles, another fitted with onboard labs, conference rooms, and so forth. (All of this might be modules that can easily be unclamped from one ship and clamped onto another.)

In normal safe operation a mission will be scrubbed if one ship is disabled or seriously damaged - they'll bring it back if they can, abandon it otherwise. Yet with three-ship expeditions you can push on with two in an emergency, or send one ship back to report while the other two press on.

Three-ship exploratory expeditions even have a familiar and evocative precedent: the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. For some reason, however, the idea hasn't much caught on in SF. Roddenberry might have thought twice about asking for not one but three model spaceships for exterior shots, but this constraint hardly applies to books. Perhaps the sheer psychological draw of the lone ship and captain in the vastness of space is just too strong to resist.


Nyrath the nearly wise said...

In the von Braun Moonship, the lunar expedition had three ships. Each ship had a crew complement of 30, but the crew compartment had space for 60. Just in case one of the ships suffered a catastrophic malfunction and could not transport its crew home.

Bernita said...

Anne McCaffrey does this in her "Rowan" series, with an interspecies search and destroy convoy.
Militarily, it makes sense.

Rick said...

Nyrath - that's an impressive complement for a first lunar expedition - 100 people!

Clarke also had three moonships in one story, but they were coordinated US, British, and Russian expeditions.

Bernita - it does make military sense, but also for exploration; however peaceful your intent it is a somewhat related activity.

the sobsister said...

I like the Nina/Pinta/Sta.Maria as a point of reference. Without the devastating ecological/sociological impact.

Good post.

Anonymous said...


Curse those Spaniards for spreading the plague of potatoes across the world!


Rick said...

Just hope we're on the side of the angels ...

Maureen McHugh said...

Three ships is actually a recommendation for, of all things, kayaking. You have enough space in each ship for the whole crew. But another scenario, depending on how you postulate your faster than light drive, is that there are three ships because that way, if one gets in trouble, there is one to stay with it and administer first aid, while the other goes and gets help.

I think, however, the three ships scenario is rarely followed in real life (even in kayaking) not because of the romantic lone captain, but because space is big (to quote The Book, "really really big.") If you have three ships, it's hard to justify sending them all to the same place instead of sending them to three different places.

Rick said...

Maureen - the ocean kayaks I see around here hardly have room for the one person they carry!

"Space is big" - or, less elegantly, cost - is indeed the most likely reason for sending out single-ship expeditions, to get the most for your money.

My three-ship suggestion works best if the expeditions as a whole are fairly big (say, a couple of hundred people), in order to function well during prolonged voyages. Then you can provide three smaller ships for roughly the cost of one big one.

Of course, the temptation will be to send out three smaller expeditions ...