Thursday, August 07, 2014

Another Excerpt

I took a train to New York. A group of gentlemen who called themselves the Emergency Committee asked me to meet with them.

They wanted a starship.

On looking back to meet with them may have been a mistake.

The meeting was held the afternoon of my arrival in a palatial tower off of Central Park. I was led to a meeting room on the penthouse level by a male African staff member. I set down my overnight bag as I led into the room. The Emergency Committee was made up of elderly white-haired gentlemen who were impeccably dressed for a bunch of groundhogs.

The apparent chairman of the committee spoke.

“Doctor Boatman, It is a pleasure to meet you.”

I replied.

“It’s Mister Boatman, I only have a Masters in Astronautical Engineering.”

“Well yes, but I’m sure we can arrange for a doctorate for you.”

“I’ll pass.” I replied calmly. “An honorary degree isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Already these gentlemen had earned my disdain.

The Chairman had not expected that, after a pause he spoke again.

“If you could please take a seat?”

The African staff member pulled out a chair for me at the table and I sat down.

I spoke.

“So what did you gentlemen wish to talk about?”

The Chairman replied.

“We want you to build a ship for us.”

“Okay,” I said, “get in line.”

The Chairman smiled and shook his head.

“No, Mister Boatman, you don’t understand, we want you to work exclusively for us.”

I didn’t have to think about the answer.


All the members of the committee were visibly stunned.

The Chairman raised his voice a bit to speak again.

“We will reward you very well!”

“And how will I enjoy this reward?” I replied. “Even if the Earth isn’t hit by Niven Sixty-Nine it will likely be rendered uninhabitable as a result of the effects of the passage. The consequence is that any reward you could offer would be absolutely meaningless.”

The committee briefly stared at me in silence.

I broke the silence.

“Gentlemen, the ethical rules for emergencies apply here, my goal is to save the largest number of rational and productive people as possible. The Boatman Corporation will build Exodus class starships for as long as possible for ourselves and for anyone who can raise the funds. We will not exclusively serve the interests of the anointed few. Is that clear?”

The Chairman slightly nodded before his reply.

“Yes Mister Boatman, that is clear.”

I then clasped my hands and leaned forward before speaking.

“Now gentlemen, how many ships do you require or can fund?”

The Chairman replied.

“Mister Boatman, we do not believe that the published specifications for the Exodus would fit our requirements. We require a single vessel that will carry one hundred thousand live passengers to Alpha Centauri.”

I shook my head before responding.

"Gentlemen, you may as well bolt a propulsion system to a medium size Lagrange colony.”

The Lagrange colonies were orbital habitats built at gravitationally stable positions at 60 degrees ahead and behind the Moon in the same orbit.

I continued.

“Even if you could build a proper starship the life support for a live passenger takes up far more mass than a hibernation system. Which in turn requires more mass for structure, propellant and other systems. The Exodus class is a reasonable design that can be mass produced using currently available technology. Your requirement simply isn’t doable under the present circumstances.”

The Chairman replied.

“Our requirement is based on an already published design.”

“Published when and where?”

The Chairman turned to the African staff member and spoke.

“Jackson, would you bring up the image of the Ark?”

From his seat across the room the African staff member entered a command at his work station. A vertical glass panel slid up from the surface of the table before the committee. A holographic image of a fictional interstellar vessel appeared within the panel. I immediately recognized it.

And I doubled over in laughter.

The Chairman didn’t understand.

“Mister Boatman?”

It took a few moments for me to recover before replying.

“Mister Chairman, that is an image from a documentary produced before The Reformation, and the design for ship is pure nonsense. We used to show it at Cal Tech at Rocky Horror style parties.

The committee apparently didn’t understand. One of the less elderly members meekly spoke up.

“What is Rocky Horror?”

With laser-like precision I looked straight at the board member and replied.

“Sir, have you never heard of The Rocky Horror Picture Show?”

“No, should I?”

These gentlemen had now earned my contempt. But I answered the man in a clear and level tone of voice.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a film released in 1975 by Fox Pictures. It’s based on a stage production that was a campy nihilist parody of older horror films such as the original Frankenstein. It obtained a cult following where at midnight showings the members of the audience would shout back at the screen and would also dress up as characters from the production.”

The gentlemen of the board were apparently surprised to hear this. I summed up.

“Screenings of the picture show continue to this day at least once a year in places such as London, New York and Minneapolis.”

The Chairman spoke up.

“I don’t understand, what does this have to do with our project?”

I calmly replied.

“Gentlemen, the documentary Evacuate Earth was routinely mocked by the Astronautics Department at Cal Tech as it clearly had serious flaws. For example, there is absolutely no way that a big picture window at the bow of a sublight starship can remain unbroken. Furthermore the design of the habitat section is a complete waste of mass. And there is absolutely no way that a separate rotating habitat could be made to work with a non-rotating drive section.”

“But the Lagrange colonies have separate living and docking sections!”

“That’s because they don’t accelerate and can import more air as needed.” I replied. As is the rotating seal between the two sections isn’t perfect. There’s always a very tiny amount of leakage. And you won’t be able to resupply your air until you reach the destination.”

And as a result of this factor the Lagrange colonies will eventually be abandoned as their primary purpose has been fulfilled. As proposed by Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill back in 1974 the colonies served as manufacturing centers for solar power satellites orbiting the Earth. The facilities then served to build ships to go to the other planets. Now that we could build our own ships at Ganymede and other places in the Solar System the Lagrange colonies had fallen to the economically wayside.

I continued to speak.

“And you weren’t seriously thinking of using the Orion nuclear fission pulse drive to propel your starship?”

The Chairman was clearly taken aback.

“Why not?” He said.

“There simply isn’t enough refined fissionable material in existence to manufacture the nuclear charges to make it work, even with tritium boosting. I wrote my masters thesis on a design for an Orion drive starship and I had to limit the number of people carried to ten thousand. The journey would be made under very cramped conditions aboard the ship. And it would have to use some reactor grade plutonium as fuel for the propellant charges.”

The Chairman was clearly puzzled.

“I don’t understand, what is reactor grade plutonium?”

And some people wonder why I’m well paid for my work.

I answered in my college lecturer voice.

“Plutonium is produced in two isotopes, Plutonium-239 and Plutonium-240. The weapons grade material has a low amount of Plutonium-240, which is less stable and thus unsuitable for making weapons. Weapons grade fuel is produced by irradiating the basic uranium for as short a time as possible, roughly a year. Reactor grade material is the result of long term irradiation in normal power plant reactors and results in the generation of a higher percentage of Plutonium-240. The fuel with the highest fraction of Plutonium-240 was produced in the reactors of warships such as aircraft carriers and submarines. In this case the fuel rods were often kept in place for the entire operating life of the ship.”

Or that was the case for the last generation of nuclear fission powered ships. The earlier generation of nuclear fission powered warships had to be partially dismantled in order to refuel them.

I now had the complete attention of the committee.

“The old United States did develop an alloy of Plutonium and Uranium-238 to fuel their nuclear weapons, so that does help stretch the fuel supply a bit. And the use of tritium boosting for the charges also reduces the amount of plutonium fuel for each charge. Which in turn stretches the amount of fuel that’s usable. But you will have to bring a means to generate more tritium with you.”

“Why?” Said another committee member.

“Because tritium has a half life of twelve and a half years. If you attempt to bring the entire supply for the journey the tritium component of the braking charges would have decayed to uselessness before you arrived at your destination. You have to generate new tritium onboard your ship in order to boost your braking charges.”

I scanned the committee again before summing up.

“Fortunately the Inertial Confinement Fusion Drive on the Daedalus and Exodus does work and is far more effective at propelling a ship.”

The committee was speechless.

“In any case,” I said, “when you gentlemen come to your senses we can work out a deal. Until then, I have ships to build.”

I stood up and went to collect my overnight bag. The African staff member appeared to be clearly frightened of something as he rushed to open the door of the room for me. On exiting the building I made a decision and summoned a taxicab.

“Grand Central Station, please.”

Instead of going to the hotel I decided to return directly to Pasadena. Upon arrival I was met at the station by Susan.

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