Designing Spaceships to Take Us to Distant Solar Systems

Systems Angelo ? Starship

On Tuesday, the HI-SEAS crew will step outside our habitat unprotected by mock spacesuits for the first time in four months. The breeze will kiss our cheeks, fresh air will fill our noses and lungs, and if the weather holds, bright light from the sun will shine into our eyes. We’ll have arrived back on Earth.

But an interesting thing has happened in the build-up to our reentry. Paradoxically, some of our conversations have veered away from Earth, and even past Mars. We’ve discussed what it would take to build, operate and live on a starship, the kind of craft that steers toward neighbor suns, all the while sustaining generations of people for tens or hundreds of years.

An interview with Angelo Vermeulen in the Belgian magazine Story.

These talks have been inspired mainly by our crew commander, Angelo Vermeulen. Angelo is an artist, biologist and space systems researcher from Belgium who firmly believes the iconic Enterprise from Star Trek was mostly wrong.

True deep space travel, he believes, will require a different approach from Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Instead of a formal aesthetic and a militaristic command structure, future starships will, first and foremost, be designed with careful integration of three fundamental systems — the technological, the social, and the biological. And, critically, he says, elements of all three systems should be designed to change and optimize over time.

This means, for instance, a starship’s material components, its life support systems and the behaviors of the crew — and subsequent, emergent culture — must all live, breathe, and, ultimately, evolve together. Such a design approach, Angelo believes, will make future starships resilient to any conditions they encounter on their journeys. By keeping in mind two concepts — system integration and what he calls “evolvability” — throughout the design process, Angelo claims it could be possible to actually enable a starship and the species that inhabit it to travel for hundreds of years.

To the average engineer, all this integration and resilience might sound like a tall order. So-called evolvable systems are, after all, still in their early days.

One simple example of such an approach can be found in the iPhone’s autocorrect feature. The software, meant to help make typing on small touch screens easier by predicting a word before it’s completed, is famous for inserting incorrect guesses and embarrassing senders of text messages worldwide. A starship designer should be advised to avoid such unreliable algorithms.

Angelo is optimistic, however, that the sort of complex, adaptable systems needed for starships could be feasible soon. And he’s not alone. Next month in Houston, the 100 Year Starship Public Symposium will gather scientists, designers, engineers and artists to discuss all sorts of technological, social and biological challenges to building and living in starships. The symposium’s topics include agriculture, energy systems, and the evolution of culture and governance, which, of course, have implications here at home as well as on spaceships.

This Biomodd installation was built at Delft University of Technology in 2011. Credit: Marijn De Reuse.

For Angelo, starship design concepts are more than just talk. He’s made a career of designing, building and operating complex projects that combine the trifecta of the technical, social and biological ( via ).

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