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Let's say that the FTL system is based upon that of Star Trek, but deviations can be made. FTL technology was discovered through the reverse-engineering of a starship that crashed on the civilization's homeplanet. However, the only following advancements were directly related to FTL technology - no advanced computers, storage, et cetera.

Consider the following:

  • Nuclear fission reactors and other needed technology can be built on a scale needed for a fleet of starships. Their potential for power production has been realized, but remain at most at a 1970s level.
  • Orbital and warp mechanics along with other needed fields are well-understood.
  • Computer technology is roughly around the level it was in the 1950s, but they can be more readily reprogrammed. Transistorized computers either don't exist, or their potential just hasn't been realized.
  • The crew interfaces with the ship with things like mechanical dials, typewriters, switches, et cetera.
  • FTL communication also exists, but it's in a binary-like format resembling telegrams.
  • As the fleet grows, colonies are established to provide more resources. Because of this, the number of available resources won't be a problem.
  • A ship is built in orbit and never touches down on the ground. A crew goes between a ship and a planet via a shuttlepod-like vehicle.

To be more specific regarding the question:

  • Would computers be able to calculate things like orbital and warp mechanics? Can they keep a warp drive operating safely and efficiently?
  • Would fire control computers allow the use of phaser-like weapons and torpedoes?
  • Would there be any problems with oxygen, and the production of required materials?
  • Would nuclear fission be suitable for the amount of energy required to run a warp drive? Would fission be particularly unsafe in this environment?
  • Can diesel power be used in emergencies for short periods? Of course, there will be limitations.
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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jul 23 '20 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ We don't know if FTL travel can be achieved with any century technology, let alone 20th century tech. $\endgroup$ – SurpriseDog Jul 24 '20 at 14:43

11 Answers 11

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1. Would computers be able to calculate things like orbital and warp mechanics? Can they keep a warp drive operating safely and efficiently?

Not with 1950s computer technology. Too slow, too little memory. However, computers are not the only way to build feedback loops, control systems, and monitoring mechanisms.

2. Would fire control computers allow the use of phaser-like weapons and torpedoes?

Not with 1950s computers. Not even close. You're about 30 years away from something even marginally capable (like Aegis). Manual gun crews, optical sights with gradations, ranging radar pulses, and some poor fellows working a slide rule and tables as fast as they can. Any ship unlucky enough to get into a fight won't be coming back.

3. Would there be any problems with oxygen, and the production of required materials?

Why would there be? You have magic ships that fly faster than light and shoot magic phasers. Oxygen and a few spare parts seems a pedestrian problem indeed. There's nothing special about tankage, and there's plenty of places to find materials in space.

4. Would nuclear fission be suitable for the amount of energy required to run a warp drive?

Well, since the question assumes that it's possible...it must be.

5. Would fission be unsafe in this environment?

Definitely. Make your kids before you embark...but since when has a little radiation damage stopped anyone?

6. Can diesel power be used in emergencies for short periods? Of course, there'd be limitations.

It's been done, so yes it can be done again: E.E Doc Smith wrote a diesel-augmented scoutship in First Lensman (1950) (see Chapter 12)

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  • $\begingroup$ The issue isn't the possibility of all these things on their own, but rather it happening with mid-1900s technology. The drive itself and other things immediately relevant to it were reverse-engineered, but nothing else was. For example, fire control and orbital computers are obviously possible, but can it be done with vacuum tubes? $\endgroup$ – Galactipod Jul 22 '20 at 22:03
  • $\begingroup$ Edited the question to clarify further. Of course, I can set the boundaries wherever I want, but I don't see how that's relevant. The boundaries I have set are clear in the question's description. $\endgroup$ – Galactipod Jul 22 '20 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ Edited the answer in response to the changed question. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Jul 22 '20 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ The B-24 had remote-controlled computer-aided turrets. The (analog) fire control computer for battleship guns was deemed too accurate that digital replacement would be a downgrade. In the 90s. Analog computing could do immense amounts of things, so long as the math behind it is known. I think #1 and #2 could be done... But not easily or quickly. And the key is knowing the math. $\endgroup$ – Andon Jul 23 '20 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ Seconding the use of mechanical computers for fire control. And even without those, nomograms and similar methods allow for fast calculation without using a slide rule or lookup table -- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nomogram $\endgroup$ – Salda007 Jul 24 '20 at 3:33
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I see a lot of "impossibles" in the answers. People seem to forget what was already available in the 1950s and how fast things developed from there with no crashed space ships as templates.

The first nuclear power station to generate electricity for a power grid started operations in the Soviet Union in 1954 and the first full scale nuclear power plant opened in Calder Hall in 1956. These things took anywhere fro 2 to 7 years to build, so guess when they were designed? Beznau station started producing power in 1969 and is still running today, and Oyster Creek station which also started in 1969 ran until 2018 so it was safe enough. Also, the US launched their first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, in 1955. Solar cells were already being used to power parts of satelites by 1958 (Vanguard, Sputnik).

The transistor was invented in December 1947 at Bell Labs. The first computers using transistors instead of vacuum tubes were built in 1953. The IC chip was invented in 1959 and computers using IC chips began to appear in the early 1960s. In fact the Apollo guidance computer used from 1966 onward (see picture) on missions that managed to get people to the moon, was a 16 bit computer using IC chips.

AGC with DSKY

Also, the first laser was built in 1960, although the theory had been around for years and people aleady knew how to compress air or even separate out oxygen from water and store that compressed, so no issues there.

If you want to limit your systems to dials and switches you have to base your planet's technology level on pre-WW II (1930s or earlier) because if a "Star Trek" style space ship crashed on earth (or somewhere with similar tech and drive for innovation) any time later than 1950 or so, and left enough usable parts to figure out the hull construction and the drive, there's sure to have been an IC chip or two lying around, and people already knew what transistors were ... we would have been mucking about on the other side of the galaxy in 1969, instead of only just landing on the moon for the first time.

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    $\begingroup$ Arco, Idaho was the first town "lit" by nuclear power in 1955 -- IIRC, the reactor was a prototype submarine reactor, built to ensure the one in Nautilus worked right. Also, liquid air and liquid oxygen date back to the 1880s and Goddard used both in his pre-War liquid fueled rockets -- one of which was the first self-powered machine to exceed the speed of sound. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jul 23 '20 at 12:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Zeis Ikon - EBR1 near Arco was first built (1951) in the US, but only started supplying power to Arco in July 1955, Obninsk started feeding the grid in June 1954, so the USSR beat the US to "commercial" nuclear power. $\endgroup$ – Gwyn Jul 23 '20 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ Might want to call out the article I found, then (I googled "arco idahol reactor" as I recall). They also claimed the reactor that powered Arco was not EBR1, but a new reactor "built near EBR1." $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon Jul 23 '20 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think the theory is the hold up, it's the practice; missions to Mars still have a failure rate of ~50%. I'm not sure that adding FTL travel theory to existing space travel capabilities would make space missions any easier, we'd still have to build (bigger) rockets, deal with the harshness of (deep) space. $\endgroup$ – David258 Jul 23 '20 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Zeis Ikon Ugh. I wish I had photographic memory. Soooo yeah I think they're right. EBR1 was supposed to be what was designed to power the subs and one of the "let's see what happens if we do it wrong" experiments BORAX III (I think, because I know I and II were deliberately blown up in fun ways to simulate possible nuclear plant accidents) lit up Arco (only not for very long). $\endgroup$ – Gwyn Jul 23 '20 at 17:38
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Analog computers

Single purpose (electronic) analog computers will do the job quicker that digital ones. The main advantage of the latter is stored programs allowing the ultimate in computational flexibility.

Analog computers were widely used in scientific and industrial applications even after the advent of digital computers, because at the time they were typically much faster, but they started to become obsolete as early as the 1950s and 1960s, although they remained in use in some specific applications, such as aircraft flight simulators, the flight computer in aircraft, and for teaching control systems in universities. More complex applications, such as aircraft flight simulators and synthetic-aperture radar, remained the domain of analog computing (and hybrid computing) well into the 1980s, since digital computers were insufficient for the task https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analog_computer#:~:text=The%20south-pointing%20chariot%2C%20invented%20in%20ancient%20China%20during,and%20100%20BC%2C%20was%20an%20early%20analog%20computer.

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    $\begingroup$ Strongly endorse this answer. Analog is very capable, but because it implements algorithms in hardware rather than software, it got overtaken in the market long ago. $\endgroup$ – Bill Blondeau Jul 23 '20 at 15:50
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The whole concept depends on a FTL drive that can be made with 20th century engineering. More or less. You can design your fictional world appropriately to make FTL drives made with last century engineering.

You could go total Star Trek & assume the starship came equipped with large-scale replicators capable of building every piece of a starship. Perhaps, piece by piece.

This isn't so improbable. Starships will always be far from the nearest workshop or factory. A capacity to rebuild & repair themselves completely would be essential. So rather than reverse engineering a starship, the 20th century level engineers use its automated repair, maintenance and manufacturing capacity.

Feed raw materials in one end and starship parts come out the other. This may take a relatively long time to produce a complete starship. But if you had enough parts, say, an FTL drive. deflector force-fields, FTL communicators, then adding them to a conventional vehicle frame would provide a workable starship. Not necessarily a full on 24th century level technology starship, but a working starship all the same.

Engineers are smart, but even they cannot reverse engineer machines when they lack the materials out of which those machines are made, when they lack the tools needed to make them, and when they don't the basic science to understand what those machines are manipulating and controlling.

Self-assembling, self-repairing or even self-reproducing technology embodied in a starship is extremely plausible. It makes the whole task of reverse engineering so much easier. Humans, for example, will build interfaces to control technologies they can barely understand, to be able to run and control them. Control panels, dials, keyboards, rheostats, push buttons,perhaps a steering wheel or two, and good old fashioned levers.

There would be a massive incentive to build a starship, go to the stars and find out where the original starship makers live out there in the wider universe.

It may be not so hard after all. Particularly, if you can skip the need for full reverse engineering.

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I think your big bottleneck is computational power. Even with FTL, you can't just "wing it" when it comes to astronavigation. In fact, even today with all our supercomputers and genius mathematicians, the n-body problem which relates directly to calculating orbits is unsolved (for n > 3).

Now remember that most of Apollo's mission planning and calculating was done by teams of people with slide rules, chalkboards, and rooms full of human calculators all at enormous cost. Could your spaceships have dozens of teams of sextant-wielding, sliderule-sliding, chalk-fingered math geniuses aboard? Maybe, but even then, they wouldn't be able to calculate anything "live" and it would be at enormous cost. Even a primitive punch card computer wouldn't be that much of an upgrade.

Finally, I think the lack of automation that comes with a lack of computers would really bite you. Each place we'd use a computer today would need human operators, and the more human operators, the more life support equipment you'd need. Rapidly, minimum crew complements would skyrocket to the extreme and make the whole thing unviable financially.

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In your world? Well, you'll have to decide. There isn't much more of an answer that can be given.

Let's compare it to a different question: Can casting fireballs be achieved with 20th century technology? We'll assume that a wizard popped into being, was interrogated and later dissected to learn one of his secrets, the ability to cast Fireballs. (We didn't dive into any of the other spells he was capable of.)

From the outset, this looks like an entirely different question. One is about science, the other about magic. But, we have to keep Sir Arthur C Clarke's words in mind: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". FTL definitely falls into this category, especially when trying to do a science-based reality check like this. In fact, we don't even know if FTL is ever going to enter the realm of science, even in theory.

With that in mind, the two questions become a lot more similar. And it becomes clear that once you do the hand-waving of FTL existing, you can do the rest of the hand-waving in whatever direction you want.

Can they make the necessary calculations without modern computers? Well, that depends entirely on what calculations need to be made. Are any of the calculations be inherent in the design of the drive? Do the drives have internal processing power that they are duplicating without understanding it? Can (partial) calculations be reused by using the same route, or do they always have to be redone?

You can answer these questions the way you want, and you'll end up with very different worlds. And I'm sure there a lot of other questions that you can decide the answer for as well.

Of course, in the (distant) future, things might be proved to be different the way you decided to make it in your world. Until then, though, you're free to choose.

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It's absolutely impossible. The first generation F16s use about 4MB of RAM. Computers in this time had a memory of 512 * 45 = 23040 bits. Assuming FTL is more computationally expensive (or even significantly less so) than flying an aircraft there is absolutely no way this is achievable.

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    $\begingroup$ The Apollo computer has 32kB of RAM. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 22 '20 at 21:51
  • $\begingroup$ That's still infinitely more than 23kb of memory @DKNguyen $\endgroup$ – Nathan Jul 22 '20 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ A starship has lot more space for computing than a fighter jet. $\endgroup$ – b.Lorenz Jul 22 '20 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ @b.Lorenz Well, the Enterprise does. Depends on if the FTL can get off the ground and into orbit under its own power or you still need conventional rockets. $\endgroup$ – DKNguyen Jul 22 '20 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen Please refer to the question. "A ship is built in orbit and never touches down on the ground. A crew goes between a ship and a planet via a shuttlepod-like vehicle." $\endgroup$ – Galactipod Jul 22 '20 at 23:40
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This is gonna be a very rough and badly made ship. Don't expect it to work miracles.

Can they build warp capable ships?

Probably. Zefram Cochrane built a warp capable ship out of a nuclear missile. The basics of it is you need to run plasma over a warp coil, which generates a warp bubble which takes you at FTL. I don't imagine it's super hard. They also have the computing devices of the crashed ship to help them calculate things, ideally.

Can they calculate warp and orbital mechanics?

They can just about calculate orbital mechanics, though it's gonna be hard, but warp mechanics, definitely not. They don't have anything close to the programming power. They're gonna have to rely on rough jumps, and preprogrammed courses gathered from the original computer and from trade. Intuition and guesswork will be important.

They will be massively short on computing power.

What weapons would they have?

Phasers are extremely advanced in terms of materials science. I doubt they can build them. They could just strap fusion missiles to a ship. A photon torpedo has a yield of 60 megatons according to wikipedia, while the largest fusion bomb ever was around 100 megatons, so they could compete with antimatter weapons. Just not that well. Their fire control, aiming, and range will be vastly less than a better ship.

Will oxygen be an issue?

If you have nuclear power, you can split water, and water is common in space.

Would nuclear fission be suitable for the amount of energy required to run a warp drive? Would fission be particularly unsafe in this environment?

Yes, but it would probably take up a lot of the ship. You'd need a lot of nuclear power plants to make up for the low power density. Everything about these ships is unsafe, yes.

Notably, you'd have a lot of trouble reaching higher warp factors, so you'd be limited a lot in speed.

Can diesel power be used in emergencies for short periods? Of course, there will be limitations.

I guess, but it wouldn't do much. You already need huge fission engines, you won't have space for diesel. It could run the lights and serve to power up fission engines.

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  • $\begingroup$ Re your last point - how can a diesel engine "power up fission engines"? $\endgroup$ – KerrAvon2055 Jul 22 '20 at 23:53
  • $\begingroup$ Fission nuclear power plants require energy to run. The engines of this ship, powered by fission, will be huge, to supply energy for warp travel. You wouldn't have enough room to have diesel engines that could supply warp power but they would have them to power up the nuclear reactors. $\endgroup$ – Nepene Nep Jul 23 '20 at 0:19
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I think it's feasible really. Look at the amazing results of the Manhattan Program for instance (and 90% of the difficulty was not Oppie and Feynman on the mesa, but the massive chemical engineering and materials development needed...Teflon going from the test tube to industrial scale use in light speed for instance; moving from initial fission pile in Chicago to industrial scale power plants, for Pt production, during less than a decade).

Consider also US Naval reactors going from atom bombs (and associated) to functioning, sea-going nuclear submarine in under a decade (46 to 54, Hyman Rickover).

Also consider that the first Star Trek series was run in the 1960s. So, it's not like people couldn't get their heads around the concepts. And definitely doable in 50s or 40s also.

Main challenges would just be the work to do precision machining, materials, following drawings and ruined parts, etc. as needed for the ship. But smart people can do a lot of reverse engineering and you can have side experimental work going on, to try to test subassemblies, dilithium processes, etc. The ship itself would give a great start.

I would not think of computer technology as the bottleneck (unless you are emphasizing trivialities like the TNG holodeck, but as far as the ship? Can do with older technologies, even tubes.) It's going to be whatever the trick is to get FTL and then all the materials developments. But it's not like running an engine is the same as playing around on the Internet. They are different things.

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@Galactipod, I like the worldbuilding thought behind your question a lot. Right away you are looking to justify and support an appealing retro storytelling sensibility, placed into an interstellar context. I think you can do this, and it would support some damn good stories.

However, I think your question was framed in terms of specific technical questions under specific constraints, and the answers, while pretty solid, have (quite fairly) mostly responded to that. I can't claim to know what you're actually looking for, but I suspect it's not simple hard-nosed pronouncements about certain technical feasibilities. I think you're looking for overall plausibility to support your story concept.

When you're building a world, it's a fairly delicate balance between being too ridiculously unrealistic, on the one hand, and being straitjacketed by rigorous assumptions on the other. I think you're conscientiously avoiding the former, but maybe you're in danger on the latter. So, I'll say it right now: I think you have more options than you are permitting yourself.

  • You open with, "Let's say the FTL system is based upon that of Star Trek, but deviations can be made." This seems to imply that you're not writing actual Star Trek alt-timeline fanfic; rather, you're using Star Trek's mature worldbuilding as a placeholder for the general kind of technology you want your timeline to harvest from the shipwreck. So -- and I'm agreeing with @jasper here, I think -- you have the freedom to tweak the salvaged tech to match your requirements. It's your world.

  • You also ask a lot of questions about what mid-20th Century computing could achieve in support of your vision. A lot of people are telling you what you can't possibly do with computational technologies of the time, but those answers (while often well-informed) are partial and one-sided, because nowadays we tend to think of computing in terms of digital computing. Yes, digital computing, and the underlying superconductor technologies, were pretty weak back then. However, analog computing was mature and capable of solving really hard problems by the early 20th Century. (See this story about naval fire control for some context.) Analog computing did not fade away because it couldn't do difficult work; it faded away because it was so terribly expensive compared to software-driven general purpose digital computers. I would say that your questions about computation in your retro starfaring civilization have comfortably plausible answers. Answers, by the way, that increase the coolness factor of your world.

I really hope you get this rolling. If you write any stories based on this, I'd like to read them. :-)

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FTL technology might have been developed, but it wouldn't accelerate the process of starship building much

Scientific progress can be monumentally fast in the right circumstances, Einstein proposed special relativity in 1905 and by 1945 working nuclear devices had been built and used. It's absolutely astounding to me that in the course of a single career an entire new branch of physics could be created and implemented practially! Could FTL be demonstrated in 50 years if the crashed spaceship had the relevant scientific papers on board? Quite possibly!

Rocket building is really hard however, in the 1950s and 1960s both the USA and USSR were already sinking absolutely enormous resources into rocket building programmes, it's not clear that adding a new FTL theory would have been able to accelerate that process by much. Orbital mechanics are a good example, the calculations for the relatively 'simple' Apollo 11 mission were a full time job for teams of people using the best available computers on the ground. We can assume FTL journeys would be longer and more complex, which would take more resource, potentially you'd also need the computers/mathematicians to be on board the ship which adds enormously to the logistics!

To address the specific questions:

  • Computation of orbital/warp mechanics seems a big stretch for on-board computers
  • Lasers/Torpedoes seem just as possible with/without FTL and/or warp technology
  • Building conventional rockets is hard enough already, adding to them would definitely increase complexity!
  • Energy requirements depend on your exact FTL physics/tech - I don't know Star Trek engineering well enough to comment on those requirements specifically.
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