Spaceship Design of Dust or Everything I Know about Spaceship Design I Learned from the International Space Station

In writing Dust, the first element of the setting that I defined was the Hannah, Max Cabot’s medium-class freighter that serves as the setting for a good portion of the story.  My biggest challenge when writing Dust was to not try and explain how every little thing worked in the flow of the story.  I would often have to go back and remove sections that I ultimately felt went into too much detail.  Instead, I figured I would save those details for some behind-the-scenes posts on here.

Spaceship design is something that I have been playing around with since I was about ten years old.  One year, my mom brought me home a tablet of graph paper from her civil engineering firm and I spent hours and hours drawing spaceship layouts, identifying where the ships systems were, challenging myself to come up with designs that weren’t recognizable as ships from Star Wars or Star Trek.

In college, spaceship design and function continued to dominate my creative thoughts.  It was then that I wrote the short story “The Scout” which was an attempt to write a short story where the main character was the ship itself and its journey through space.  Finally, a year after I graduated from college, I started working on the International Space Station (ISS) and I got to delve into the design of a real spaceship.

My first assignment on ISS was as an instructor for life support systems, so it should come as no surprise that the Hannnah’s systems reflect much of what I learned then.  From a life support systems perspective, the ISS is the first spacecraft that has attempted to have a close-looped system.  For a spaceship that is going to spend much of its time in space, you want an efficient system that will not waste any resources.  On ISS, an oxygen generator uses water produce oxygen and has a leftover component of hydrogen. A separate system removes carbon dioxide from the air.  The oxygen from that carbon dioxide is combined with the hydrogen from the oxygen generator to then form water, which when processed can be used to produce oxygen, and so on.  The key philosophy here is that a spaceship has to recycle everything and waste as little as possible.  The more you waste, the more you have to replenish.  ISS doesn’t have a truly closed system, but it’s taken great strides towards one.

About a third of the way through Dust, the Hannah experiences problems with rising carbon dioxide levels.  Max then embarks on a hunt to figure out why this is happening.  One of my favorite lines of Max’s is when he says that there are no mysteries on-board a spaceship.  Everything is definable; there are few variables.  Everything that happens in that closed environment has a limited set of contributors and probable outcomes.  Max knows this and immediately knows that something is amiss.

At this point, Max starts tearing apart the ship to find the source of his problem.  This reflects another lesson learned from ISS: everything breaks.  Every component on ISS has been pored over, rigorously tested, and then operated on Earth to make sure it works.  Even still, things are constantly breaking.  Before the ISS was fully complete and it didn’t have fully redundant systems, the biggest threats to having to abandon the station were that the oxygen generator would break, the carbon dioxide remover would break, or that the toilet would break.  And those three things broke with disheartening regularity in the early days of the program.

It was only natural to me then that the Hannah would constantly be having problems.  While I fully expect that in 500 years a top-of-the-line spaceship will be full of self-healing alloys, self-healing nanostructures, and other “unbreakable” components, the reality for Max is that he flies the equivalent of a 30-year-old used Winnebago.  Nothing heals itself, half the ship is replacement parts, and nothing runs for too long without breaking.  Someday, when spaceships are as ubiquitous as cars, we will have to deal with the reality that not everything is a top-of-the-line model.  When that happens, I hope the owner has a maintenance robot of their own to help with all of the repairs.

On the ISS when something breaks, the crew knows that they will be spending some time within the next couple of weeks replacing something, which means they’ll have to go digging through storage areas to find the spare parts.  Then they’ll have to spend a good deal of time cutting through clutter to get what to what they need.  Pictures of the inside of ISS, like the one below, show that the station is jam-packed with stuff.

So, my procedure says to follow the white wire...

For this, I gave Max a bit of an advantage as he gets to use a 3D printer to generate replacement parts.  I had to do something to cut out the piles of stuff that would otherwise be lining the floor.  I did however try to preserve the concept that there is no wasted space aboard the ship.  Behind every panel is some vital piece of equipment.  Throughout the story, Max is forced to worm and weasel his way into and out of tight spaces all in the name of making a living.

So through the Hannah’s systems and operation, I tried to reflect a realistic spaceship environment.  That realism though means the entire ship is one big pain-in-the-ass for Max to run by himself which is what ultimately leads Max to trying to hire on some extra help.  I could have made the ship less of a junker, but I’m confident that Max wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Dust is available in the Amazon Kindle store for $3.99 and is free for Amazon Prime members.

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About Jason
Family man. NASA manager. Writer. Football fan. Hockey fan. Deist. Left of center. Left-handed. Born in New Jersey, raised in Philadelphia, college educated in Massachusetts, now living in Houston. Thoughts here are my own.

One Response to Spaceship Design of Dust or Everything I Know about Spaceship Design I Learned from the International Space Station

  1. Generate replacement parts by 3D printer – love it

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