Life in the Lonely Void

A major consideration behind constructing a spacecraft that is often glossed over is the brain of the spacecraft. In most cases, this is a crew module, or a remote control module relaying orders from somewhere.

A look inside the ISS.

The reason crew compartments don’t receive the same amount of consideration, as say, the engines or the weapons, is that crew compartments have no real surprises about their design, and on larger capital ships, they are rarely a bottleneck in terms of mass, volume, power usage, or heat dissipation.

But before we discuss crews, what about alternatives? Crew provide decision making, the brains of the spacecraft, as well as providing fine grained manipulation of equipment and tools for repairs, maintenance, and so on.

The fine grained manipulation could be accomplished by minidrones, automated repair bots and the like, though handling unexpected situations is rather tricky without a human or artificial intelligence.

Though if DARPA’s work is any indicator, humanoid robots may be the ideal maintenance workers rather than minidrones.

Brains of the spacecraft can be replaced with remote control, or with an artificial intelligence.

Remote control can be spoofed or jammed, but there are countermeasures and counter-countermeasure. The main issue with remote control is the speed of light lag. Beyond high orbit of a moon, for example, the speed of light lag is too great for combat. Additionally, long term journeys have much greater potential for unexpected failure.

This means remote control is restricted to drones and missiles, remotely operated and ordered by the nearest capital ship or celestial body.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an interesting solution to the problem of having crews. Crews are expensive to train, take up precious mass and volume, and require power. On top of that, the heat they need to dump out can be a problem if you want to talk Stealth in Space.

However, AI is more than a series of algorithms running on a laptop. Currently, certain problems of space warfare are best solved with algorithms (see Misconceptions about Space Warfare), such as leading targets hundreds of kilometers away moving at multiple kilometers per second.

AlphaGo is a one-problem AI, but it could be the first step towards a general intelligence.

On the other hand, other classes of problems are best solved with intelligence and creativity. In particular, how to see through enemy deceptions, laying deceptions, handling unexpected scenarios and failures, and so on are all problems that algorithms would fail badly at. Anything creative or anything an algorithm is not explicitly designed for would throw it for a loop.

That means full blown Artificial General Intelligence is needed for actually commanding a military spacecraft if you want to go without crew. Additionally, it needs to be able to very carefully and precisely control minidrones to repair and maintain a spacecraft.

The field of AI today is nowhere near that sort of capability. However, even if it does progress to being usable in military scenarios, it is unclear if it would be less massive, voluminous, or require less power than humans. The first AIs will likely be extremely massive and require huge amounts of power, and it’s not clear how far they could be miniaturized.

If IBM’s Watson is any predictor of strong AI, AI may be rather massive and consume a lot of power compared to a crew.

Even when feasible AIs are developed, space militaries would be very hesitant to deploy AI-controlled spacecrafts without at least some human oversight or failsafe.

With that in mind, we are left with crews for our capital ships, and remote controls for our missiles and drones.

But just how few people can you cram into a spacecraft? Modern Supercarriers crew over 4000 people in 25 decks. In space, most of that space would be propellant tanks, and you can’t really dedicate much mass to the crew compartment. Capital ships in space would run only skeleton crews, with only small sections of the spacecraft pressurized.

Of course, you might be able to skimp on sleeping quarter space given that you can attach sleeping crew to the floor, walls, and ceiling.

In space, crew modules are somewhat massive, yet systems like radiators, armor, and weapons usually take up far more mass.

Volume is the main problem with crew modules. Crew modules are mostly empty space filled with air. Even when you pack your humans in like sardines, the majority of the crew module remains empty space. Aside from the propellant tanks, crew modules take up the most volume of any module.

This makes Modern Nuclear Submarines the closest analog to spacecrafts in terms of crew: somewhat over 100 crew for a submarine over 100 meters long.

Cutaway of a modern nuclear submarine.

However, nuclear submarines are fully pressurized, while spacecrafts would not. This means spacecrafts would have even less space for people, and so crew requirements were estimated at roughly half that of a modern nuclear submarine. Of course, some jobs you can’t simply halve, and larger ships with more systems require more crew.

It should be noted that crew in a spacecraft is certainly not a novel topic. Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets website has a great break down on all of the considerations of crew.

In Children of a Dead Earth, most capital ships run between 40 to 80 crew, and are based heavily on modern nuclear submarine crews.

Crew complement of a very large capital ship massing about 10 kt.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-2-59-05-pmThese numbers are based on a tally of all the jobs needed, which scales based not by mass of the ship, but on the number of subsystems, type of subsystems, and several other factors. Thus, an enormous 10+ kiloton methane tanker can run on a tiny crew, while a small, 1 kiloton fast attack craft may require a much larger crew.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-2-59-10-pmWith such small crews, they would have to be highly trained to take over multiple jobs in case of injury or death of other crew members. Similar to modern nuclear submarines, crew members live 18 hour days, 6 hours on watch, and 12 hours off watch. Meals between each watch, with the enlisted men and women hot bunking to save on the precious space.

While a pure oxygen atmosphere (as seen on Skylab) is less massive and requires less pressurization than a 22% oxygen, 78% nitrogen atmosphere (as seen on the ISS), it is a fire hazard. And in combat, fire hazards are never fun.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-2-59-06-pmWater can be easily recycled as on the ISS. However, recycling food from human waste is a lot trickier, requiring a small ecosystem, likely using algae, to photosynthesize food from nuclear reactor grow lights. The technology to do this is much closer than AI is, and is very easily foreseeable as a staple in modern space travel.

A complete algae ecosystem able to supply nearly infinite food would be excellent for long voyages with lots of crew, such as for a colony ship or space liner. However, the dumb solution is far simpler, cheaper, and less error prone. Store the food, just like how modern nuclear submarines work, and restock at every spaceport. And in combat, getting your provisions shot up is far less of a concern than getting your algae beds destroyed.

In Children of a Dead Earth, ships by default carry provisions for 6 months, which is greater than most campaign mission in game. Only a few missions exceed 6 months, and most are one month or less.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-2-59-09-pmCrew modules produce a small amount of heat primarily from the lighting system, the galley cooking system (unless you’re forcing your crew to only eat Soylent), and the heat emitted by each crew member into the air. While the heat produced is minor (kilowatts) compared to the main reactor (megawatts), the low temperature (room temperature, 293 K) that the coolant runs at forces the radiators to be only somewhat smaller than the main reactor radiators.

As mentioned in prior posts, radiation is a concern for crew, which is one reason why the cylindrical shape is preferred. Getting your crew module far away from the reactors is a free way to reduce radiation below the 50 milli-Sieverts annual limit. Additionally, radiation shielding, while not negligible, is cheap and low mass enough to not be too much of a concern. It tends to only be a mass or cost problem if you absolutely want your crew module next door to your reactor.

Radiation types and how easy they are to block.

Children of a Dead Earth simulates all types of radiation, from Alpha DecayBeta Decay, and Gamma Decay from Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, to Neutron Radiation (both fast and thermal) from Nuclear Fission Reactors. However, in practice, Alpha Decay and Beta Decay are more or less irrelevant to humans due to their low penetration, and Gamma Decay is rarely an issue.

Neutron radiation, on the other hand, is the bulk of the radiation problem, and it is often the main reason why your spacecraft will need radiation shielding. It generally is far worse of a problem than even the Cosmic Rays from space.

Another consideration mentioned a few times in previous posts is that crew modules are put close to the center of mass in case of fast rotations. Spinning a multi-kiloton spacecraft around fast enough to produce 9 g’s or more, enough to cause fatal damage to the crew, is rare, but it does happen in game. Keeping the crew near the center of mass reduces the centripetal acceleration on the crew in such cases.

Although it seems you can withstand up to 46 g’s like John Stapp did, it’s not really recommended without extreme harnessing, especially in an uncontrolled or unpredictable manner.

It is very difficult to knock a multi-kiloton spacecraft into a fast spin, and if you have enough firepower to do so, you generally don’t need to slush the crew in this manner.

On the other hand, for smaller spacecraft, under a kiloton fast attack spacecraft, knocking them into a tailspin is actually rather common. To exacerbate this, small spacecraft with enormous projectile weapons can often knock themselves into unpleasant spins through recoil alone. As such, keeping the crew near the center of mass is most important on smaller spacecraft.

So that is what you need to keep your capital ships running smoothly over the months, and able to react to unexpected situations in combat! And with a crew, the brains of your ship, you have the final piece needed to assemble a spacecraft and go to war.