Designing Spaceships to Take Us to Distant Solar Systems

By Kate Greene | August 9, 2013 11:50 am

This is the sixteenth in a series of reports from the HI-SEAS simulated Mars mission. Read others in the series here.

seeker spaceship

A proto-starship built in Belgium in 2013. Credit: Kristof Vrancken

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.

Built to Change

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 iconicEnterprise 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.

Adaptable Spaceships

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.

Art With a Purpose

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. As installation artist, he spearheads a community art project called Biomodd in which groups of electronics hackers build plant-computer hybrids out of e-waste. In these systems, endothermic algae circulate through tubes to cool over-clocked computer processors running video games. Each Biomodd project reflects the culture in which it was created, from Ohio to the Philippines to New York City.

In another installation art project, called Seeker, Angelo has worked with communities in Belgium and the Netherlands to build livable proto-starships. The designs of these grassroots starships are informed by unique cultural influences from the countries in which they’re built. For instance, food plants installed inside the ships are selected, grown and harvested for meals by the local artists. And, in all cases, the end of an installation isn’t really its end. Parts of ships are saved and later reborn in future Seeker projects, or even turn up as independent sculptures. In other words, they evolve.

Robo-Biology

Algae flowing through this tube cool the processor while the heat from other electronics creates a warm environment for plant growth. Credit: Angelo Vermeulen

At HI-SEAS, Angelo’s projects make use of his starship-design thinking. One of these is a model space farm. From the comfort of our habitat, we can tend plants in a far-flung garden by remotely controlling a robot arm. A similar system might help Mars explorers grow their own vegetables in a separate greenhouse. With some automation, a robotic farm could provide fresh produce without demanding too much time from astronauts.

The space farm project was in the works for most of the mission. During that time, Angelo worked with our crew engineer, Simon Engler, and a remote team who expertly troubleshot many technical issues. Similar to his Biomodd projects, the HI-SEAS space farm was a community effort to, over time, find ways to combine a soft and squishy plant system with a rigid, high-tech mechanical system. It’s an ongoing project and after the mission Angelo plans to keep it running.

A second HI-SEAS project grew out of Angelo’s second Ph.D. research (his first is in biology) at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. This research essentially formalizes his interest in integrating technology, biology and sociology. For HI-SEAS, this meant we had weekly conversations about personal resilience in the face of mission challenges — poor sleep, busy schedules, frustrations with faulty equipment, etc. — as well as our interactions with habitat technologies and our live-in ecology or, more accurately, the lack thereof.

It’s been quite an experience to have an artist-scientist as a crew commander of this mission. His worldview certainly affected the tone of HI-SEAS, from its command structure, to our conversations, to the implicit permission to be creative as well as analytical. Next week, as we re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, it’s likely we will return to Earth with different perspectives than when we left. And I have a hunch a little bit of starship-design thinking will follow all of us home.