The Coolest Spaceship Ever

I’m not quite sure humanity has developed the ingenuity yet to design and engineer such a craft. But fortunately, I have good news!

How would you design a spaceship?

First, I would suggest you make a list of what that spaceship would need to do. Just the basics should suffice. The spaceship needs to move through space and it needs to provide a habitat for life that is onboard. That’s about it.

Let’s start with the movement piece. What are our options? The obvious one is some sort of combustion engine. Slap it on the back, burn some fuel, and voila – thrust. That solution has some challenges though, primarily the need for a fuel source and maintenance of the engine itself.
Another option could be solar sails. This theoretical propulsion mechanism consists of giant mirrors attached to a spacecraft that utilize pressure from solar radiation. Imagine a sailboat that is pushed by the wind as it floats in the water, but instead of wind you have sunbeams and instead of being on water you’re in outer space. Quite a cool concept if you ask me! Still, is there a better way?
Well, NASA scientists figured one out some time ago. As a fuel-saving technique, our conventional spacecraft have benefitted from a gravitational slingshot around planetary bodies to alter trajectory and accelerate. In other words, a great way to move a spacecraft is to rely upon gravitational pull. And if you can get a spacecraft in orbit around a planetary body, you can just tag along for the ride without expending any energy. Sounds pretty good to me (though you might be a bit limited in where you can go).
Now what about that habitat piece? This is where it gets particularly tricky. Here’s just a partial list of what needs our spaceship will have to satisfy:
  • A stable temperature.
  • A stable supply of oxygen for respiratory life forms.
  • A stable supply of carbon dioxide for photosynthetic life forms.
  • A reliable source of energy to power photosynthetic and metabolic processes.
  • Sufficient supplies of water to support a wide range of biological needs.
  • A filtration system to keep air and water free from any toxins.
  • Some sort of hull or deflector shield to prevent debris and radiation from harming the life forms.

Hmmmmmm. That’s a heavy lift. I’m not quite sure humanity has developed the ingenuity yet to design and engineer such a craft. But fortunately, I have good news!

You’re already aboard such a spaceship. Isn’t that exactly what Earth is? It’s managed to hitch a ride in the Sun’s orbit, hurtling thousands of miles per hour through the galaxy. Our atmosphere is the protective candy-coating to the goodness of all life. It also maintains the planet’s temperature, while other natural systems keep everything clean and in balance. We are the lucky passengers on the coolest spaceship ever.
I must admit that I’m not the first person to think of Earth as a spaceship. I first heard the concept from Ray, who would often begin his speeches with a greeting to his “fellow astronauts on Spaceship Earth.” For his part, Ray was borrowing the concept from the late, great Buckminster Fuller.
If you’re not familiar with Bucky Fuller (and even if you are), I suggest you get a copy of one of his best books, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. I first read this book when it was assigned to me in my Principles of Sustainable Management class at the Presidio Graduate School. It just so turns out that one of my professors that year was Amanda Ravenhill, now the Executive Director of the Buckminster Fuller Institute.
I’ll leave you with a final thought. We don’t have a backup spaceship. So let’s take dang good care of this amazing one!