The starships of the future won’t look anything like Star Trek’s Enterprise / by Karen Frances Eng

Seeker [ES⁵]: GOGBOT Festival, Enschede, Netherlands, 2014. Photo: Willem-Jan Mengerinck

Seeker [ES⁵]: GOGBOT Festival, Enschede, Netherlands, 2014. Photo: Willem-Jan Mengerinck

Ever fantasize what it might be like to live life hurtling through deep space? Meet the space systems researcher who prototypes interstellar habitats that are out of this world.

Angelo Vermeulen has lived on Mars. Well, he’s lived in a NASA-funded simulation of a Mars mission: sealed into a habitat on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano with five other crew members for 120 days to collect data on how to feed humans on Mars, and what it’s like to live in isolation. But Vermeulen’s research isn’t only bound to the Red Planet. Most of the time, the space systems researcher, biologist and artist is creating new concepts for designing starships—vehicles that can sustain human life during space travel.

For most of us, “starship” pretty much makes the brain leap to science fiction starships of television and film — Star Trek’s Enterprise, or Star Wars’ Star Destroyers. But for Vermeulen, such stark, rigid and militaristic approaches won’t be what ultimately works in reality. Instead, his designs take an approach that integrates technological, biological and social systems in such a way that they all grow and evolve together to meet the needs of its inhabitants indefinitely.

Conceptual model of a growing and evolving asteroid starship. The image of comet 67P by ESA is used as a placeholder for a large asteroid. Composite image by Francisco Muñoz and Anton Dobrevski

Conceptual model of a growing and evolving asteroid starship. The image of comet 67P by ESA is used as a placeholder for a large asteroid. Composite image by Francisco Muñoz and Anton Dobrevski

Example? For one, Vermeulen is creating a computer simulation for an asteroid starship with a student team at Delft University of Technology. This hypothetical starship can mine organic materials and metals from asteroids and take them on board to expand the architecture of the ship using 3D printing. “Moreover, if you put the asteroid at the front of the ship, it also doubles as an ablative shield,” says Vermeulen, “protecting the crew and the internal ecosystem against damaging impacts.”

When Vermeulen isn’t at the university drawing board, he’s sharing his vision here back on Earth—leading community-based builds of starship prototypes in an art project called Seeker. Why get ordinary citizens to construct starships? Vermeulen believes that everyone—not just a scientific or academic elite—should participate in imagining and building humanity’s collective future, not only for the benefit of space exploration but for life on our own planet.

“Seeker is explicitly not embracing a doomsday scenario where Earth is destroyed and humanity has to build an ark to escape,” Vermeulen says. “On the contrary. The goal is to reimagine how we integrate ecological, technological and social systems by taking a step back from Earth. This approach lets participants question assumptions and stereotypes, radically rethink things, and let imagination flow freely. And the lessons we learn can be applied both in deep space and back on Earth.” Sound intriguing? Here’s a peek at Seeker projects so far...

This is an excerpt of an original article published on 25 Jan 2017. To read the full article, visit the TED Fellows blog >>>