Gigantic starships thousands of meters across traverse our imagination, but how can we build them?
Compared to the spaceships NASA and other international agencies use today in spaceflight missions, the type of vessels seen in science fiction are larger and more powerful than most of us would ever expect to see in many lifetimes. These are capital ships, the equivalent of battleships and aircraft carriers. Built to be the dominant force in a naval fleet, these ships are not only heavily armed but also carry squadrons of starfighters and other support craft. As a result, they are often huge; the Imperial I-class Star Destroyer, for example, is roughly five times the size of a modern Nimitz-class aircraft carrier in the United States Navy. But with the size of these ships, how would we logistically build one, let alone a fleet?
A Matter of Where?
Perhaps the better question is not how, but where? When it comes to a ship designed to operate in the gravity-less vacuum of space as opposed to an atmosphere, the obvious answer seems to be to construct the actual ship in space. Many examples of science fiction lean towards this solution, with some having the ship built completely in space while others have stages where parts of the ships are built on a planet or other body, with those pieces then sent to an orbital facility for construction. A real-life example of the latter is the International Space Station in orbit around Earth. In 1998, the Zarya FGB (Functional Cargo Block) was launched into space aboard a Proton-K rocket, becoming the first assembly element of the modular ISS, with further modules launching to connect aboard U.S. Space Shuttles.
Recently, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) illustrated stages of the construction of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Components such as shield generator domes and the gigantic dagger-shaped spaceframes were seen being manufactured in the Santhe Shipyards in Coronet City on the industrial planet of Corellia. These were then subsequently lifted beyond the atmosphere, presumably to an orbital shipyard. In the Star Wars universe, the main center for construction of Imperial capital ships is the planet Kuat, where a ring was built around the planet by manufacturer Kuat Drive Yards to act as a gigantic facility for constructing not only capital ships, but also starfighters and ground forces such as walker units. In The Last Jedi (2017), Supreme Leader Snoke's gigantic Mega-class Star Destroyer Supremacy was shown to internally manufacture all kinds of starships and vehicles, and included a factory for creating Star Destroyers, showing the sheer advancement of technology by the evil First Order.
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On a more humanitarian note, the multiple sprawling tentacles of the Star Trek franchise almost delight in showing their starship in various states of mechanical undress as they're being constructed and repaired seemingly every five minutes. The most famous of them all is the San Francisco Fleet Yards, which are located in orbit above Earth. A grouping of drydocks that look like skeletal cowls, or cages with the floor removed, the Fleet Yards were first seen in 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, as we saw Admiral Kirk transport to the orbital office complex of the Yards before being taken to a drydock facility where he was shown the brand-new refitted version of the Constitution-class U.S.S. Enterprise. A similar installation was the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards at Mars, where the Galaxy-class Enterprise NCC-1701-D was constructed. However, the original dedication plaque of the Enterprise did create some confusion that was argued over for several years by fans. It simply stated “San Francisco, Calif.” The plaque followed the tradition of shipbuilders' plaques or plates, which included information on its registry, ship class, date of launch, and where the ship was built. Because of the plaque, many fans assumed that the Enterprise was constructed on Earth in the city of San Francisco. However, it was confirmed later by Gene Roddenberry that it was the orbital San Francisco Fleet Yards.
This does, however, bring into question a scene from the 2009 reboot, simply entitled Star Trek. Shown initially in the trailer and in the final film is a shot of a young Kirk riding by the cornfields of Iowa on a motorcycle and stopping in disbelief as he sees the starship Enterprise under construction in the distance. When asked about this, writer Roberto Orci stated that “the Enterprise is not some flimsy yacht that has to be delicately treated and assembled. The idea that things have to be assembled in space has normally been associated with things that don’t have to be in any kind of pressure situation and don’t ever have to ever enter a gravity well. That is not the case with the Enterprise.”
Even considering that, the amount of power needed to launch that ship out of the atmosphere (not to mention having any repercussions on nearby settlements or natural resources) is, according to Laurence Krauss and his book The Physics of Star Trek, in fuel consumption terms more than the ship's mass itself. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, Michael Okuda and Rick Sternbach put forward the concept that a ship's impulse drive featured subspace driver coils that could generate a subspace field to lower the mass of the ship, but this was apparently not implemented before the Ambassador-class was introduced, which was around the mid-24th century, so 100 years after the Constitution-class was launched. It is a possibility that there was an equivalent for this in the older ships, but nothing that has been confirmed.
In any case, the gargantuan capital ships of the prime Star Trek universe, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and similar franchises, as well as the International Space Station, all support the thesis that the best place for building these structural monsters is in space… the final frontier, at least of construction.