Mark Rademaker: Designing a warp drive space ship for NASA
For some years now, NASA's Harold White has been working on the possibility of a warp drive engine. This is the concept ship that might be powered by that engine.
Michelle StarrScience editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Warp engines -- technology that would allow space travel faster than the speed of light -- are still very much the stuff of science fiction. Science fiction, however, enters the realm of science fact through careful research, development and experimentation. This is where Dr Harold White comes in. For a few years now, he has been working on the idea of a warp drive for NASA -- based on the Alcubierre drive which manipulates time and space to create propulsion.
Dutch Mark Rademaker is not an engineer. Nor is he a physicist. He is a digital artist -- one who has worked within the Star Trek canon, and therefore was perfectly placed to be recruited by Dr White and Star Trek graphic designer Michael Okuda after they saw his rendition of the XCV-330 designed by Matt Jefferies -- the original designer of the Starship Enterprise. Rademaker's brief? To design the concept for a ship that could conceivably be powered by the Alcubierre drive -- a ship called the IXS Enterprise.
"Trek ships can be very particular, they have a set of design rules created by Gene Roddenberry. Deviation is possible, but it's best to follow them unless you have a very good 'Treknological' reason to do things differently," Rademaker explained to CNET.
"My own designs for the most part followed these guidelines. I do put research in things like era, events in the Trek timeline, plausible registry numbers and specifications of a ship. I put about three months of research in the XCV-330 Ringship that Matt Jefferies sketched in the 1960s. I was asked to convert that sketch/blueprint as a 3D CGI model, I wanted it to look spot on."
Dr Harold White explains the warp drive at SpaceVision 2013.
It was Jefferies' Ringship that was to form the basis of the concept for NASA, with the idea being that the rings produce the space/time bubble that allows the ship to move forward through the warp. Although the ship was just a concept, there were some challenges not present in designing purely for the fictional realm.
"Maths and physics are totally not my cup of tea, the math involved here is way, way over my head. Dr White was very good at explaining what I needed to know and what I would understand," Rademaker said. "Mike Okuda gave a lot of feedback at the start of the project and he designed the IXS Enterprise insignia. White gave pointers about ring thickness, outer curvature and how we could fill the inside of the rings, without wasting too much valuable space. When we had the basic shape pinned, I could freely add details and features, with communication about my progress each couple of days."
The ship looks as complex as anything seen in science fiction, and this in itself posed its own set of challenges. Everything on the ship, Rademaker said, had to have a function -- he couldn't just add details that he thought looked cool and add an explanation later. And there were a lot of parts.
"To keep track of 2500+ parts in the assembly," Rademaker said, when asked what the biggest challenge actually was. "No matter how well I planned this, it's a lot of parts to handle. My workstation had trouble with the rather heavy model, at a certain point I needed to upgrade to a faster/more capable PC."
It certainly looks the part -- although the project is still in very, very early days -- still in its speculative stage, according to the official NASA website. But the idea at this point is not to design a fully functional ship.
"We designed this mainly to interest people in space travel; the research might or might not lead to a breakthrough in FTL propulsion, but always will return valuable data. I think it's decades and many many evolutions away from a working prototype. To see it fly in this exact form is highly unlikely," Rademaker said.
That's a shame, for sure, but if the job of the IXS Enterprise is to spark imaginations, well, it's certainly doing that in spades.