Scifi's Greatest Space Builders — And How We'll Copy Them

Illustration for article titled Scifis Greatest Space Builders — And How Well Copy Them

Click to viewOne day, when you hear someone is a construction worker, you'll have to ask whether he or she wears a spacesuit on the job. We're already assembling massive structures in space - like the International Space Station and Dextre, the "monster" robot that got built in space this past spring - but space construction will soon become more and more common. So it's a good thing science fiction is full of awesome examples of space construction, from Asimov to Star Trek. Space construction from science fiction: Science fiction is full of lavish descriptions of objects being built or assembled in space, from small robots to structures the size of a solar system. And many mega-structures described in science fiction must have been built in space, since they're too big to have been put together inside a gravity well.

Illustration for article titled Scifis Greatest Space Builders — And How Well Copy Them

Probably the most famous instance of outer space construction comes from Star Trek. There's a huge controversy over whether the USS Enterprise NCC 1701 (without any bloody A, B, C, D, or E) was built in space or not. And the long-simmering debate was boosted into a roaring flame-war by the teaser trailer for J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movie, which appeared to show the starship being constructed on Earth. There's evidence on both sides: supposedly Trek creator Gene Roddenberry stated the Enterprise was built in orbit, but there are also sources that said it was built in San Francisco. But we do know the earlier Enterprise, the NX-01, was built in space, and so were the NCC-1701-D and USS Voyager. Here's a picture of the Utopia Planitia shipyards, from Memory Alpha:

Illustration for article titled Scifis Greatest Space Builders — And How Well Copy Them

There are also tons of other shipyards in space, including the famous "Mon Calamari Shipyards" and several other orbital shipyards in Star Wars. Pictured at the top of this post are the orbital shipyards of Kuat, from the Wookiepedia. And of course, the massive Death Star had to be constructed in space. Science fiction is full of space elevators and other "megastructures" that must be built, at least partly, in space. Arthur C. Clarke's Fountains Of Paradise and Charles Sheffield's The Web Between The Worlds both involve a kind of "skyhook" or orbital tower, which connects the Earth's equator to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. In the Clarke book, eventually five more "spokes" are built from Earth, to form a structure resembling a ship's wheel. Other space megastructures, such as ringworlds, discworlds, Dyson Spheres and artificial planets, would be impossible, or near-impossible, to build inside an existing gravity well. In the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, we get to see the massive planet-building area hidden in hyperspace and accessible through an opening in the planet Magrathea: In Asimov's I, Robot, the robot QT (aka Cutie) deduces that he's superior to the humans, partly because he has no memory of being assembled in space, from parts built on Earth. As far as he knows, he just turned up in space, fully formed.

"Something made you, Cutie," pointed out Powell. "You admit yourself that your memory seems to spring full-grown from the absolute blankness of a week ago. I'm giving you the explanation. Donovan and I put you together from the parts shipped us." Cutie gazed upon his long, supple fingers in an oddly human attitude of mystification. "It seems to me that there should be a more satisfactory explanation than that. For you to make me seems improbable."

In R. Cordwainer Smith's "Think Blue, Count Two," he specifies that the massive solar sails which people use to sail across the universe were constructed in the vaccuum:

Before the great ships whispered between the stars by means of planoforming, people had to fly from star to star with immense sails - huge films assembled in space on long, rigid, coldproof rigging.


Real-life applications: So what are the real-life applications of the idea of building in space? We've already proved we can put together a space station in orbit, but we're not likely to be building dozens of those any time soon. It's entirely possible that more robots like Dextre, with complex and multi-jointed arms, will be built in space to handle satellites and space junk. We're definitely not likely to be building space elevators, Dyson Spheres or orbital stations any time soon. But here are a few other ideas that are being batted around for big space construction projects. Some of them relate to mega-environmentalism. Some people claim we can halt global warming in its tracks by building mega-structures, such as space mirrors, or giant nanofiber "sun shades," in orbit. These would deflect some of the sunlight reaching Earth, and they'd need to be constructed in space. Also, a mooted solar power satellite, which would collect solar energy from orbit and beam it back to Earth, would almost certainly need to be constructed in orbit. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency wants to have one of these up and running by 2030.

Illustration for article titled Scifis Greatest Space Builders — And How Well Copy Them

Also, when we get around to building long-range spaceships to explore or colonize outside our solar system, we'll have to build them in space. Some observers argue that these large ships could be constructed using some Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) as raw materials and maybe also as a shell for human habitats. But a lot sooner than that, big and expensive satellites may be constructed in orbit, to save on launching costs. Last year, some small Japanese "spider robots" successfully crawled out along a net linking three satellites in orbit. They only functioned for a short time, but scientists saw the test as an important proof of concept. In a few years, we could be launching big antennas and solar panels into space in pieces, using small, cheap rockets. And then tiny robots could assemble them in space. So for the sake of the human race, let's hope J.J. Abrams' Trek movie comes down on the side of the Enterprise having been built in orbit. Our future as a species may depend on getting people used to the idea of large-scale outer space construction.

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Corpore Metal

Richard Mayhew says, "More importantly, where are we going to get all of these materials? If I understand the Von Neumann principle correctly then the nanobots would need some material to reproduce themselves in, is this the vacuum?"

I'm not saying it's easy but we have at least one example of Von Neumann machines happening spontaneously in nature:

On the ancient earth simple machines emerged that were capable of converting barren water and rock into copies of themselves, we call these machines plants and bacteria. From this eventually emerged all the diversity of the our current biosphere. And this was from a blind, random, contingent, selectional process.

Imagine how much faster this will go with a little intelligent design?