STIRship Enterprise: a special series on space architecture and design

In STIR’s new flagship series, spaceship designer and entrepreneur Dr. Susmita Mohanty travels the cosmos with an expert’s lens to decode the future of life in space through design.

by Susmita MohantyPublished on : Nov 03, 2021

STIRship Enterprise is a collection of essays to introduce terrestrial architects, engineers and designers to the world of Space Architecture + Design.

The name STIRship Enterprise is inspired by Star Trek. For those of you not familiar with Star Trek, Starship Enterprise or USS Enterprise is the name of several fictional spacecraft used for various television series and films in the Star Trek science fiction franchise.

The first series of essays will focus on human space ferries made by government space agencies and private space companies.

The series begins with an essay about SpaceShipTwo or VSS Unity, a suborbital rocket-powered crewed spaceplane that carried Richard Branson and a small Virgin Atlantic crew to the edge of space and back on July 11, 2021.

The other essays in the series, spread over six months, will feature:

  • New Shepard, a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing, crew-rated suborbital launch vehicle developed by Blue Origin as a commercial system for suborbital space tourism.
  • Crew Dragon, a partially reusable capsule made by SpaceX to ferry astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station (ISS).
  • Shenzhou, a spacecraft developed and operated by China to support its crewed spaceflight program. The first launch happened in November 1999 and the latest Shenzhou variant flew to the third generation Chinese space station Tianhe. Shenzhou previously flew Chinese astronauts to Tiangong-1 and 2, the predecessors to Tianhe.
  • Soyuz, a series of spacecraft designed for the Soviet space program by the Korolev Design Bureau in the 1960s that remains in service today. The Soyuz is the most frequently used launch vehicle in the world as of 2021. It was the human ferry for the former Russian Space station Mir and has been the only ferry serving the ISS continuously since 1998.
  • Gaganyaan-1, the crewed orbital spacecraft being developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). ISRO plans to fly its first crew of three to Low Earth Orbit in 2023. Later variants will have rendezvous and docking capability.

1. A reusable rocket plane named VSS Unity

Sirisha Bandla at zero gravity on board the VSS Unity 22 Spaceflight | VSS Unity | STIRworld
Sirisha Bandla at zero gravity on board the VSS Unity 22 Spaceflight Image: Virgin Galactic

The first essay in our brand-new series on space design, STIRship Enterprise, delves into the salient design features as well as the sequence of events leading up to the successful July 2021 test flight of Virgin Galactic’s reusable spacecraft - the VSS Unity, and what it means for the future of space travel and exploration.

2. New Shepard: A tourist rocket for suborbital jaunts

Blue Origin’s New Shepard launching on its NS-16 mission, the program’s first crewed flight | New Shepard | STIRworld
Blue Origin’s New Shepard launching on its NS-16 mission, the program’s first crewed flight Image: Blue Origin

The commercial New Shepard suborbital flight experience of a grand 11 minutes is designed to usher in the era of 'casual space tourism’, which many (including myself) believe will have a detrimental effect on the near-earth space environment which is already polluted with millions of man-made debris objects moving at enormous speeds. Unlike in the days of Gagarin and Glen, we cannot treat spaceflight without a good measure of eco-anxiety given the anthropogenic climate crisis that our home planet is now experiencing.

3. Dragon: A crew and cargo ferry to the space station

The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is the first commercial crew vehicle to visit the International Space Station | Crew Dragon | SpaceX | STIRworld
The uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is the first commercial crew vehicle to visit the International Space Station Image: Courtesy of NASA and SpaceX

In the third essay in our space design series, we focus on the spacecraft Dragon by SpaceX and NASA. The American human spaceflight program did not have a crew vehicle to ferry its astronauts to the ISS from July 2011 until the debut of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in 2020. The Crew Dragon spacecraft Resilience launched on November 16, 2020, on a Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center carrying NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Shannon Walker along with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, all members of the Expedition 645 crew.

4. Shenzhou: The star of China’s human space program

Launch of Shenzhou 13 and Shenzhou 5 mock-up at Shanghai Science & Technology Museum | Shenzhou | China | STIRworld
Launch of Shenzhou 13 and Shenzhou 5 mock-up at Shanghai Science & Technology Museum Image: ForrestXYC, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Hibiki Watabe on Flickr, Courtesy of Creative Commons

The fourth essay in the space design series focuses on the manned spacecraft Shenzhou by China and its significance in the country’s space race. China has surpassed the United States and Russia as a space power. In 2021, with 55 launches in a single year, China beat the United States to become the leading launch nation in the world. On May 14, 2021, the Chinese lander-rover Tianwen-1 successfully touched down on Mars, making China the third nation, after the Soviet Union and the United States, to make a soft landing on and establish communication from the Martian surface. On May 22, 2021, the Zhurong rover drove onto the Martian surface using the descent ramps on its landing platform. With the successful deployment of the rover, China became the second nation, after the US, to accomplish this feat. China is the first nation to successfully carry out an orbiting, landing, and rovering mission on Mars, on its maiden attempt.

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