Monday, November 21, 2011

My Thoughts On The Spaceship

As long as I can remember, I've been a fan of The Spaceship. The capitalization there is deliberate; The Spaceship as a concept, a state of mind, a symbol. But I'm also a pragmatist. It isn't enough that The Spaceship look good, it also needs to look perfectly functional within the framework of its universe. If they are real concepts, they should be able to operate within real world physics. Fictional spacecraft also need to look and feel real for the universes in which they operate. 
Fictional spacecraft, though, have always been a problem for me. We know that they only have to function for the stories in which they reside. In television and movies, especially, The Rules that apply in our world need not apply (most hard science fiction authors have a fairly decent grip on The Rules, also deliberately capitalized; The Rules are real world physics, if even conjectural). 
But I want to write about the one, the singular, Spaceship that I considered the most important in my early life. For those who know me, my choice might be something of a surprise; it is not the starship Enterprise of Star Trek fame. As aesthetically pleasing as that design is, it is simply too futuristic and is beyond the bounds of current physics, even speculative.
The Spaceship for me was best exemplified by a little vessel known as the Eagle, of Space:1999 fame.

When I first glimpsed this spacecraft, back in September 1975, I was blown away. This was a Spaceship! It looked like what a Spaceship should have looked like; it had four large bell-shaped nozzles astern and orbital maneuvering and landing thrusters. It was un-aerodynamic, having an exposed backbone and four large truncated cubes that supported the landing gear. Amidships, the Eagle had a large pod that could be changed per mission. In fact, the whole ship appeared to be modular in nature, as the "command module" section would be used for the front of other spacecraft in the series. Brian Johnson, the series special effects director, designed the Eagle based upon his experience during the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He wanted everything in the Space:1999 universe to look perfectly feasible, even if the writers frequently showed little respect for science.
The thing is, though, somewhere along the way, somebody really blew it.
Keep in mind that when Space:1999 was on the air, the title year was not quite two and a half decades out. The show itself could be forgiven at times. Could the Eagle perform atmospheric flight? It did so in many episodes, and was even able to escape Earth-like gravity (even greater at times). The Eagle also appeared to have artificial gravity, but even then it was easy to imagine that the crew had magnetic shoes (my excuse at the time).
Where they blew was around the time the show was winding down, during the dreadful second (and final) season. In May of 1977, I picked up Starlog Magazine issue #7 for the express purpose of getting the Eagle blueprints it contained, and for some article about a movie that was being released that summer (more on that later). The blueprints were great, but a few items caught my attention. First was the range; 16 billion miles/25.74 billion kilometers. Even then, my fourteen year old brain thought this was a bit optimistic, though in space it could feasibly go on forever, physics being what it is. It listed the primary propulsion as nuclear fusion; again, that actually made sense to me, even the hydrogen fuel.
It was the top speed that didn't make sense. 
They listed it as .15c. That's 15% the speed of light. That was quite a bit of artistic license. If the landing gear supports were the fuel tanks (made perfect sense to me), that was not nearly enough fuel to allow for that type of acceleration. In 1977, 1999 was not really that far away, and that just seemed too optimistic. What realism the Eagle had, vanished.
The Eagle, though, would still serve to inspire, and for me it is still a fully functional design, if used for lunar and orbital operations only. It turns out, though, that I wasn't the only person inspired by the Eagle. The little movie that Starlog #7 covered, a flick known as "Star Wars", had spacecraft that the special effects crew admitted were inspired by the designs that the effects crew at Space:1999 dreamed up (somehow, though, the Eagle did not rate a mention in Ron Miller's epic tome "The Dream Machines: An Illustrated History of the Spaceship in Art, Science and Literature").
And for me, the Eagle still trumps them, warts and all.

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