Whether you’re writing a novel, designing a role-playing setting or planning another science fiction project: Spaceships are usually part of it. The most important questions as to how these should look and function concern not only the ships themselves, but above all the cultural and technological developments that must exist as prerequisites for space travel.
Space travel is many times more difficult to accomplish than any form of transport that people have had to develop on Earth. Space is by far the most hostile environment there is. In addition, there is the incomprehensible size, stars are so far away from each other that journeys exceed a person’s life span many times over. From today’s standpoint, mankind is denied access to the stars by its own efforts. The laws of nature set clear limits here – how does this fit together with interesting science fiction stories?
Question 1 – Energy supply
No matter what fantastic propulsion the spaceships use in the setting, it will require vast amounts of energy. If ships are also to use weapon systems such as mass accelerators or beam weapons (lasers), the question arises all the more as to what the energy supply looks like. If you choose a more or fantastic powerful energy source, this also has an effect on the rest of the settings. In this way, all energy supply problems on Earth or other planets would be solved in one fell swoop, energy would be virtually free and available in abundance. This has an impact on the economy, politics and social life. Many of the mechanisms we know today are based on a lack of energy; many dynamic interrelationships in today’s societies would no longer exist. It might be difficult to explain why such an energy source can be operated on a small spaceship but not on planets for various reasons.
Question 2 – Drive technology
Even if there is a sufficient source of energy small enough to be installed on a spaceship, the question arises as to how the ship will travel from A to B when trillions of kilometers lie between those points. Proxima Centauri, the star closest to Earth, is 4.367 light-years away, which is 4.1315e + 13 kilometers (over 40 trillion km). A spacecraft with a reasonably realistic drive (Bimodal NTR Solid / NASA), based on today’s known and feasible technology, would take around 3.6 years for this route. However, for humans on Earth, 6 years would elapse between the launch and the arrival of the spaceship’s target as it approaches the speed of light more and more during the acceleration phase. Here, apart from the questions about fuel supply, the most important problem when traveling with conventional drives is visible: the occurring time distortions between the worlds would make a functioning social structure impossible. At longer distances (30, 100, 300 light-years and more), space travelers would become time travelers who, no matter where they arrive, will always come from a long forgotten past.
If you take a closer look, you can only use drives that can bridge large distances in a short time without major distortion effects. Thus, classic slow-accelerating and decelerating methods are not usable. In principle, concepts must be found that represent a spatiotemporal abbreviation. At one point in space, the ship exits and at another point in space. It does not matter if it crosses another dimension or curls space-time. It can use a wormhole or a jumpgate (alien artifact or self-developed), other now unknown transition points, e.g. near a star. Depending on which method is chosen here, this has an impact on the emerging starry empire and who retains control over the colonies. Unstable wormholes that happen to open and close are another basis for an economic and political system than if the ships themselves can produce the transitional effect.
Ships that can produce powerful space-time effects are dangerous weapons. No matter how many missiles or lasers they have on board, their propulsion is far more potent and may destroy entire planets. Other drives, such as fusion engines, are massive weapon systems, if they are realistic at all. Spaceships that park at space stations and handle a mile long fusion beam are hardly realistic.
Question 3 – Why fly into space at all?
People dream of flying to the stars as long as they can’t. If a suitable technology is available for space travel to distant worlds, the question arises why some or even all people should go there. Often the reason is the search for a new home, because the own world is overpopulated or has become almost uninhabitable. Pioneering spirit and the search for valuable resources can be an incentive, but humans are basically sedentary beings and are extremely reluctant to give up their possessions and their homeland. So it must be serious reasons to get people to trust a fragile space vehicle and cross the gigantic expanses of the ice-cold hell to populate a planet at their destination, where they are trapped in biospheres all their lives or even have to wear breathing apparatus all the time. Even if energy and technology are available, the question is whether this is only enough for a few small research projects or whether it actually makes colonization and regular transit between the systems possible. On distant worlds, vital resources may often be missing; water, oxygen, food, metals, raw materials, etc. must then be flown in at extreme expense and expense. Whether distant worlds in return can produce rare raw materials or goods that justify this is rather questionable. In foreign solar systems hardly any other elements and raw materials are likely to occur than in ours.
Question 4 – Impact
As noted in the other questions, space astronomy has a massive impact on the society that comes with it. Most novels and films translate well-known structures and patterns from Earth into space and assume that the colonization of alien worlds is analogous to the colonization of foreign continents or islands. Unfortunately, that’s a massive misjudgment. On Earth, I move people to colonization within their familiar habitat. They always traveled through dangerous environments (oceans, atmosphere) within a lifetime and failures were quickly and relatively easily repeated. In space, people move through hostile environments to settlement areas that are usually not ideal for settlement. Only very few colonial worlds (much less 1%) will be nearly congruent with the conditions on earth. So-called Gaia or Eden worlds where people hardly realize that they are not on Earth. Conditions on all other planets will make life more or less unbearable: toxic atmospheres, totally different light and climate conditions, plate tectonics and volcanism, hostile life forms (microorganisms, spores, etc.), radiation, lack of water, etc. The vast majority Worlds can probably be inhabited only in orbital stations, with occasional trips to the surface, for example for the promotion of required raw materials. Even earth-like worlds can hardly be habitable. A planet that is three times the size of the Earth, has a moon, and is mostly made up of oceans is not a paradise, but a wet hell in which people can hardly build any permanent structures that are not destroyed by the massive tides.
Distance and travel time, availability of energy and technology (construction and operating costs of ships and, if applicable, jump gates) determine what the interstellar society looks like in the end. Space pirates will only exist if spaceships are available to almost anyone, and if spaceships are available only to a limited number of governments or the military, hundreds of worlds will not be populated within a few decades. Building an orbital station in remote systems takes time and resources, and can take many years. However, millions of people will not be able to live in such stations – at most a few hundred thousand.
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