Hard scifi – Killer ship design

Hard scifi and killer ship design

Like all the great space operas and tales of exploration in science fiction, a ship is just as much a character as any of those given a face and a voice. Ships are often gendered as a woman, personified with a sense that she watches over those aboard as long as they care for her properly. She’s often tough, and worn with wear, as well as feisty. She carries the mark of ages across her meteor pocked skin, and encapsulates her crew, her life blood, in a loving embrace, seeing them to their destinations unmolested by the unforgiving void. And in turn, when her time comes to be laid to rest, it’s as sad to see her go as any crew member we’ve come to know. She’s a alive. She has a soul. She has legacy and fate of her own that intertwines with her people. Her memory will live on after death through them. It is for this fact that in science fiction, soft or hard, killer ship design is paramount.

When I saw the saucer section of the Enterprise crashing in “Generations” it made me sad. When I saw the Millennium Falcon being discovered under a tarp on the deserts of Jakku it made me ecstatic, almost forcing me from my seat. The Sulaco from Alien arrested my emotions, putting me in a terror stricken awe. Then there’s The Normandy, Discovery One, Serenity, Hermes, White Star, Heart of Gold, Rocinante, and on and on…

We could go on like this all day. Instead, I’ll link you to a cool space ship size comparison chart if you want to spend the next 9 hours drooling at ship porn. But look at it later, not now.

It’s in light of these great examples I wanted to design a ship for “Final Solution” that not only made sense within a hard scifi narrative, but had some chops to go with it.

I asked myself (in the shower): “Self, what would an interplanetary warship built fifty years from now look like?”

And that was where “Final Solution” started. Where it ends you will soon discover.

Stage 1 – Initial Concepts:

Rough doodles of "The Vindicator" - PV arrays and Railguns.

My original concept was scribbled (as are most of my doodles), on sticky notes or note pads, and made very tiny. I’m not sure what my fascination is with drawing tiny pictures, but I’ve been doing it since I was about eight. It used to drive my grandfather, who was a spectacular artist, absolutely crazy.

“I like that, Fitz. Can you make it bigger? It’s hard to see.”

I think I have it in my head I lack the fine hand control for larger works, so most of the time I just dump everything into Photoshop or Corel Draw. It’s easier.

The ship needed for “Final Solution” had to be simple and clean, something which could be easily constructed with modern and futuristic assembly methods. It needed gravity for the crew, so a cylindrical design seemed appropriate, but yet, it needed to look like more than just a high tech sexy toy about the size of the space shuttle’s main fuel tank. Let’s not just be functional here, let’s look bad ass while we do it. The 1950’s pulp look from above wasn’t going to cut it.

Then there’s weapons. Let me give you some context. The majority of “Final Solution” is an interplanetary duel. Two space craft are fixed on a generally set trajectory and firing long range weapons at one another trying to take the other one out before reaching close quarters combat(some CQB for those into “The Expanse”). With that in mind the projectiles used in this had to be fast, like REALLY fast. Like, half the speed of light fast. And also, for them to have limited ammunition. Boy would that have been boring story if both sides just fired at each other all day long. Instead, the way the story is set up, you don’t know when the enemy is going to fire back, and when they do, the crew has little or no time to deal with this before it reaches the target. Tension. Tension. Tension.

In my original story concept, I had an idea that the ship would be armed with what were “Ballistic Canisters” which essentially had the same function as the rail guns. Ballistic Canisters were like bullets that would detach from the ship and explode, firing a projectile in whatever direction the enemy was with incredible precision and velocity. By detaching itself from the ship before firing it allowed me to work around the whole, “being thrown off course from recoil” issue. It seemed an interesting response to the problem, but after having a long discussion with my friend Dave about this, I decided to go with rail guns. We threw around several ideas, a particle accelerator, some kind of beam weapon, and of course missiles (which didn’t work with the story concept), but in the end they used far more electricity than a solar powered space ship this far from the sun would ever have. In the end, rail guns it became, but with a caveat. Power to drive their ammunition is limited.

How many bullets does a space pistol like “The Vindicator” have? 100 – by way of “batteries”.

Stage 2 – Forming the Thought:

The Vindicator - Stage 2

I took all my initial ideas, looked them over, and created the next part of the design. This was a rough rendering I did within the first few days of starting. So many things weren’t right. Not to mention, I had a great deal of research to do on making sure the tech was plausible. And so I kept at it. I wanted to make a hard science military thriller, and so I would. This is where the true nerd kicks in.

Space craft in a hard scifi thriller

Tried my hand at creating a 3d model of the ship for a minute, but it didn’t come out like I would have liked. Again, space sex toy.

Stage 3 – A Working Model:

The Vindicator - Stage 3

I finally settled on a design concept that worked for most of the story. This was my “map” when working on the second draft of “Final Solution”. There were a few things that still didn’t set right, however. I’d come back and fix those later. This was a solid design template, laying out how crew would get around, what sections were beside other sections and how the ship’s interior flowed. I used Corel Draw to put all this together, and being that I could set everything to inches, I made a scale conversion to keep track of size. Every inch inside my graphic equaled 33 feet.

Stage 4 – The Final Solution:

Revisions came in spades. I swapped out propulsion, adjusted weapons, figured out new ways to do the batteries.

Two military space craft, Mars and Jupiter

On the left is The Razor, the antagonist of the story, and on the right, The Vindicator, our hero’s home, a phallic fencer of a space craft, now with a nuclear cock ring.

Doodle of interplanetary space craft up close

Close up of the tiny ship (why do I love drawing tiny things?). You can now see the “Nuclear Battery Ring” (which is what’s used to power those two little sticks that are supposed to be the rain guns).

Stages of space craft design

After finishing the first two book drafts, I had a much clearer picture of where I wanted to go with the final design. It needed more fuel storage, larger solar panels (which are multi-band tandum cell photovolatic arrays), and of course, there’s the addition of the “Nuclear Battery Ring” (which is a series of 6 Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators connected to disposable Graphene Super Capacitors) used to fire the rail gun. This time, I didn’t draw the picture tiny. Then again, it helps to have a light box and reference images. Grandfather would be proud.

Hard scifi interplanetary space craft line art

Detailed notes on the contents of each section, showing the scale of 1 crew member vs the ship. Keep in mind, the ship is not flat, it is a cylinder.

Hard scifi - killer ship design

Hatches near the aft are where the surface nukes are fired from (Nuclear Storage). The large discs are the Multi-Band Tandem Photovoltaic Arrays (really efficient solar panels). The fatter section forward the “Nuclear Battery Ring” is the Arboretum where oxygen is recycled and some fresh food is grown.

Interplanetary Space Craft drawn in pencil

Interplanetary Space Craft drawn in pencil

Habitation section which includes The Bridge, Medical, Crew Quarters, etc etc… Only 97 feet in length. What a cramped place to live with 24 other people. But hey, it’s home!

Hard scifi interplanetary space craft

Propulsion and commutations package of military space craft

Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen tanks used to fuel the KS-55 emergency liquid boosters. Left, on the rear, is a series of 16 3rd generation hi-pep Ion thrusters based on actual current technology (Hi-pep). I chose these over other ion propulsion concepts for several reasons, but one of them included their high specific impulse (which is sort of like fuel efficiency).

Ship designs in hard scifi are as important as maps are to fantasy. They give the writer, as well as the audience, a framework in which the story can exist. I have had almost as much fun designing “The Vindicator” as I have creating my POV, David Goddard, an underdog engineer obsessed with the pop-culture of his grand father’s generation. I’ve also had fun pontificating upon the chances of survival for the longest running soap opera (now in a space opera) ever, “Days of our Lives”.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? That’s alright. But keep following. It won’t be long until this story see’s the light of day and finds its way into your hands. The plight of David Goddard, The Vindicator’s crew, and everyone on Mars is soon to be complete.

– J. Fitzpatrick Mauldin