updated 10/25/2012 5:24:02 PM ET 2012-10-25T21:24:02

Steve Summerford is a landscape architect, urban planner and a concept illustrator working with Icarus Interstellar on Project Hyperion, a study of manned interstellar flight and colonization of other worlds.

ANALYSIS: What Would an Interstellar 'Worldship' Look Like?

The notion of humanity exploring distant worlds has long been the substance of dreams; from early Renaissance thinkers condemned for their heretical thinking, to fodder for modern day science fiction plots.

With humanity's insatiable appetite for knowledge and discovery, it is only natural that armed with enough curiosity we should seek to explore new horizons.

Historically, conceptual interstellar travel has lent itself to visions of grandiose 'worldships,' replete with acres of rolling hills, lakes, and suburbs nestled within the largest metallic superstructures ever imagined. However, such massive designs are inevitably met with dismissal; if for nothing else due to their incomprehensible scale (some vessels have been proposed in excess of 20 miles in length).

By focusing on the delicate balance between the need for survival and the desire for mental stimulation, but with cognition of technological feasibility, perhaps a more attainable vessel architecture begins to emerge.

Rather than proceeding with the idea of developing an outsized 'worldship,' this article aims to stimulate discussion in search of the design equilibrium for a smaller vessel conceptually referred to as a 'Colonized Interstellar Vessel', or CIV.

When mankind takes to interstellar space, the living space onboard starships would need to be as familiar as neighborhoods on Earth.

PHOTOS: Sizing Up the Daedalus Interstellar Spacecraft

As the process toward the first human interstellar mission will be the culmination of decades or perhaps centuries of thoughtful discussion and careful development, it is imperative that concepts and ideas be contributed from many sources.

Although myriad technical issues surround such an endeavor, designers of a CIV will need to be mindful that equal attention is allocated to the preservation of the mental and emotional human element. Without proper planning and thoughtful consideration to the physical, spatial, and psychological needs of the people tasked with living and operating in such a colony, even the most advanced technological achievements may risk failing at the human level.

Design for the psyche and associated pragmatic daily functions should be of equal concern as those of cosmic radiation shielding, food production, reuse of disassembled structures at the target destination planet, etc. Should the precious human component be allowed to atrophy, the complete interstellar mission risks failure.

Borrowing From Earthly Principals: Urban Planning

The first interstellar vessels may well contain several thousand colonists traveling for decades or even centuries, as at present day the most promising Earth-like destinations are likely located over 10 light-years away.

Thoughtful consideration must therefore be exercised throughout the design process to ensure a harmonious interconnection between infrastructure and its end users. At a basic level, such a CIV may be thought of as one or more grouped habitat enclosures, each containing architectural structures intended to serve the needs of the colonists.

ANALYSIS: Designing a Sustainable Interstellar Worldship

Architecture and the interstitial spaces created should aim to promote healthy community living, while also meeting the basic territorial and privacy needs that human nature has become accustomed to on Earth. Some methods for promoting psychological and physical well-being through environmental design include:

  • Allowing the user to modify the configuration and visual appearance of a space
  • Creating long vistas and distant focal points
  • Using structure to choreograph space, allowing for discovery and 'unfolding'
  • Varying materials, forms, shapes, textures, and colors to engage the mind
  • Maintaining some semblance or connectivity to nature

The human brain will likely always be among the most advanced technologies aboard such a vessel; as such, the world designed around it should nurture and inspire, rather than simply function as containment.

Design Considerations: The 'CIV' Concept Explored

Proceeding forward with a conceptual design for such a CIV, the author derives numerical data and builds upon information contained within the Stanford Torus study of 1975, titled “NASA Document SP-413”.

As the human component and how it may be influenced through the creation of interior urban spaces is explored, it becomes clear that population and good land planning practices are logical drivers behind any CIV massing design.

WIDE ANGLE: Project Icarus: Reaching for Interstellar Space

Rather than arbitrarily designing a vessel from the macro-level down to the spaces contained therein, the author proceeds to develop a model from the inside out. While many geometries have been historically explored for space colony vessel formation, the most popular geometries include the sphere, cylinder, torus, and banded toruses. With regard to spatial usability, previous studies have concluded that both the sphere and cylinder are less efficient compared to torus configurations ('NASA SP-413').

Rather than developing the predominant living plane throughout the length of a torus (imagine walking inside a tire), a simple 90-degree reversal of thinking results in a uniquely different geometry of colony bays connected by a series of viaducts (the entire vessel slowly rotates as a means for producing artificial gravity, required by the human body over long durations of time). Such a configuration allows for large expanses of flat interior living space, as opposed to curved spaces contained within the aforementioned geometries. This arrangement provides a more efficient and compact vessel design, potentially resulting in lower construction and engineering costs.

A conceptual model consisting of interconnected bays rotating about a central axial zero-g hub, with each bay containing dwellings, agriculture facilities, civic structures, open spaces, and places of work and research, forms the basis of this design moving forward.

In an effort to provide maximum vessel design flexibility, program and modularity become intimately engaged. For any early concept to have sustainable longevity, it must be able to adapt to a constantly evolving set of parameters -- both technical and programmatic -- that demand reactive scalability. Establishing a clear module that can easily be replicated, accommodate scale flux, and provide for an efficient use of space becomes a key nodal component. A whole composed of many modifiable parts lends well to an organic evolution of design.

Composed of many modules, each of the vessel’s bays should vary in architectural character and functional layout. Interconnected by a series of semi-circular pedestrian viaducts, one could meander indefinitely throughout the entire colony, covering several kilometers (km). The proposed bay consists of 5 initial modules, cumulatively spanning nearly 775m / 2,500ft in length. Several of these bays are utilized to develop a vessel capable of providing adequate living space for a colony of approximately 10,000 explorers (an initial estimate of the minimum population required for a healthy and diverse community).

Habitat Design Characteristics

It is important that the colonists have the ability to modify their dwellings and neighborhoods from time to time, necessitating the development of several different prototypical homes that can be reconfigured periodically while still functioning as healthy neighborhoods.

  • By creating separate bays as opposed to one continuous volume, a greater degree of control is possible in the event of a significant emergency (medical, agricultural disease outbreak, or mechanical systems / hull failure).

  • Each residential module should be uniquely laid out and utilize methods for controlling and creating vistas. Moving throughout a neighborhood should be a mentally enriching experience, thoughtfully choreographed, and not quickly absorbed and discarded by the brain -- as would be the case if looking down a long corridor of homes.

  • Multipurpose vegetation utilized throughout the community maximizes efficiency, with plant species selected for their food or medicinal contributions.
  • Preserving pedestrian corridors and open spaces between structures provides colonists with the opportunity to gather and engage in social or recreational activities and increases the perceived openness, ultimately enhancing mental health and well being.

  • Although life will be relegated to existing within an artificially created environment (until arrival at the destination star system), it should not always feel as such. While wood and stone may not be conducive to spacecraft design, the tactile nature of such elements improves the quality of a space by creating a semblance of connectivity to nature.
  • As momentum behind such a monumental challenge increases over time, it will be the cumulation of predecessor dreaming and design work that ultimately allows for such a marvel to be constructed. It may take decades, centuries, or even longer to fully realize, but all of humankind’s ambitious ideas began somewhere.

Image credit: Steve Summerford

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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