As proposed, the Gen1 USS Enterprise will take two decades to develop from the start of full funding to full operational deployment. The first nine years are used for intensive research to find the most suitable technologies. As part of the research during these nine years several different ship designs are created using large design teams of many scientists and engineers. The ship designs are done to pursue a “learn as you go” approach for refining ideas about how to accommodate the various component technologies being researched.
A total of five ships are designed during the research phase. How much detail is included in each of these ship designs will be a judgment call to be made by project managers and lead technologists. The idea is to use these five designs as tools to bring to the surface issues that might appear during later more mature versions of the Enterprise design. This will enable the creation of detailed lists of the Pros and Cons of each technology regarding its suitability for putting this technology into the actual final ship.
A key goal of all research is to devise implementable ways to scale up technologies to the sizes required by the Gen1 Enterprise.
At specific points in the schedule, down-selections of technologies will occur (meaning certain technologies will be picked over others) so that resources are next concentrated on the most promising research areas. The down-selections of the technologies for components and systems will be made by reviewing the results of simulation data, physical component test data, and the pro/con lists made during each ship design. Other factors will be considered also such as each technology’s criticality, maturity, reliability, life-cycle cost, maintainability, risk, and the estimated schedule to reach full development. Eventually only a single technology is picked for each Enterprise component and system.
At least eight key areas should be the target of early and accelerated research if funding of the Enterprise someday occurs. They are:
- Heavy lifter infrastructure (to launch 1 million pound payloads per launch into space)
- 1.5GWe ion propulsion engine
- Light-weight nuclear reactor that can output 1.5GWe of electrical power
- Magnetically suspended gravity wheel and support elevators
- Advanced, light-weight, space-worthy composites for use in the hull structures
- Active shielding
- Automated hull patching system to seal holes
- Universal Lander
Many of the items above already have off and on research, usually at very low funding levels, and progress is subsequently at a snail’s pace. One exception is the case of the heavy lifters.
NASA is developing a heavy lifter, the Space Launch System (SLS), that will be able to carry a payload of 280,000 pounds, about the same as a Saturn 5 rocket. Unfortunately this is about a factor of four too low for what the Enterprise will optimally need. Because the Enterprise’s wet mass will be around 187 million pounds, a suitable heavy lifter should carry a payload of at least 1 million pounds to keep down the total number of launches needed. This is a payload similar to the Nova rocket designs from the 1960s that were never taken to production. So, in general, if the Enterprise program is someday funded, NASA will have to start a new heavy lifter rocket program that can carry much bigger payloads than their current plans.
NASA’s planned SLS heavy lifter will be suitable for doing a one-shot round trip for taking humans to Mars. In other words, we can repeat the first Apollo mission except with newer hardware and a more distant target. However, it’s time to move past these one-shot missions because they create a dead end when it comes to establishing humans firmly in space. When using the Enterprise instead, we can go to Mars in a big way including starting a large permanent base there that is shielded from radiation and has 1g gravity.
A bigger heavy lifter is likely critical to getting the launch costs down to enable keeping the Enterprise total development costs to under $1 trillion. A goal should be to finally get launch costs down to $1000 per pound or lower.
Of course heavy lifters that carry less than 1 million pound payloads could instead be used to launch the Enterprise components into space. Just many more launches will be needed and it will be less cost effective. It is assumed that with heavy lifters that can haul one million pounds it will take 200-300 launches to get all Enterprise hardware, infrastructure, and supplies into space. If a heavy lifter with only a 280,000 pound payload capacity is used instead, then perhaps 1000 launches will be needed. Of course this is not inconceivable. For comparison, White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico has launched over 7000 rockets through the years.
While NASA is developing a heavy lifter, private companies are also working toward a similar goal. SpaceX for example has a rocket in development, the Falcon Heavy, aimed at the heavy lifter market. SpaceX claims that they will achieve or beat the $1000 per pound launch cost mark. Unfortunately the SpaceX heavy lifter rocket will only carry a payload of 117,000 pounds. As currently conceived it will be too small for supporting the heavy lifter needs of the Enterprise. But of course if funding of the Enterprise program began moving toward reality, private companies would be scrambling to revise their plans to make bigger heavy lifters.
The last eleven years in the schedule are for designing the full-up Enterprise, fabricating components and testing them, assembling the ship, and testing the final ship and its systems in space. All final assembly of the ship is done in space. Heavy lifters are used to do the 200-300 launches needed to get all components, space support infrastructure, and ship supplies into space. The space infrastructure includes two or three robotically controlled supply depots that will be positioned around the solar system at strategic locations including one in orbit around Mars.
Perhaps this could all happen faster than 20 years provided the money is available to accelerate the Enterprise program. Consider that in 1961 the US had yet to put a single human into space. However, by July of 1969 – a mere eight years later – we had landed three men on the moon and then brought them safely back to earth.
On the other hand, designing and building the USS Enterprise is an undertaking on an unprecedented scale. Because of this, twenty years seems like a reasonable goal and will surely be challenging even. But hey – building the first generation of the spaceship USS Enterprise is supposed to be challenging!
Finally, if after the best efforts of NASA and their contractors to meet the Gen1 Enterprise 20 year schedule goal it’s found that 20 years is just too fast, then the backup plan will be put in place.