I’ve written before how I love Star Trek above nearly all other sci-fi shows. I’ve always loved the characters, the stories, but most of all I’ve loved the tech. Part of it was that it never seemed too fantastic or out of reach. It always made dreaming about a future in a spaceship that much easier.
There’s a good reason why much of the tech seemed grounded in modern day. When Gene Roddenberry first pitched the idea of Star Trek he based a lot of the story as “just like things are now, only in the future”. He named the ship after the world’s first nuclear power ship and even made it the same size. Everything that was on the original Enterprise seemed like a natural progression from what we had in the 1960’s.
Fast forward to The Next Generation and the designers took many of the same design cues as The Original Series; much of the technology in TNG seemed like a simple progression from where we were in the late 80’s.
In my mind, however, there are some fundamental issues with how Starfleet ships are designed. As cool as some of them are, it seems like many design elements are maintained simply as an homage to TOS . . . and that’s it. Now, a lot of problems with Star Trek physics have been brought up before (so many there’s a Wikipedia page) but that’s not what I’m going to do here. Instead, I’d like to break down to individual parts of the ship the Federation uses. So, without further ado:
The Warp Core
Yeah, let’s go after the big one right off the bat!
OK, so the Warp Core acts as the central power plant for each ship by generating both power and plasma for the warp coils. You can’t actually classify it as an engine, because the engines are actually the Impulse Engines on other areas of the ship (you can typically identify them as the rear-facing red spots). Now, as a power plant it makes total sense that the core would be in the . . . well, core of the ship. However, remember that this thing not only provides power to the ship, but also vents its only byproduct (plasma) to the warp coils to go faster-than-light.
What’s wrong with that? Well, the problem is that the warp coils are what make up the nacelles (those long things at the top of the “arms”). That means that you are purposely transporting this high temperature “death in a bottle” throughout half the ship’s length! Remember that plasma isn’t some sort of exotic material; it’s a description of a physical state of matter. Nearly anything can be turned to plasma and when it does, it burns through things. This isn’t like your car transferring fuel to the engine in its fuel lines; this is like your car lighting all its gas on fire . . . and THEN pumping it through the gas lines!
While we’re on the subject of fuel, let’s talk about its location in the ship. Deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) mixes with antimatter to create plasma and this starts everything listed above. The logic behind the location of the antimatter (along the bottom of the hull) is that should something go wrong, you can eject the antimatter units out into space and away from the ship.
In a ship that may find itself facing against hostile forces or, at the very least, be flying among environmental hazards, this is like packing your hull with TNT. Sure, in the event something goes wrong you can quickly throw it out. Unless, you know, what’s gone wrong is that someone shot at your hull where the explosives are located. Just ask the HMS Hood.
How It Should Be Instead
Think of a modern jetliner. The engines on the wings are just that; engines. The engines aren’t somehow stored deep in the belly of the plane and venting their thrust out through the wings. So, too, should be the design of the warp core. Instead of having a main core that’s almost as far from the “drive units” (the nacelles) as possible, each nacelle should have it’s own dedicated warp engine.
Store the deuterium in the hull. Store the anti-matter in some shielded part of the superstructure. If something goes wrong, beam it off the ship. Suddenly, we’ve taken away at least half of the dramatic ship explosions you’ve seen on the show and movies!
Up next, the pesky nacelles themselves!