When you think about spacecraft, “teeny tiny” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind. Yet, as of 2021, the biggest rocket to launch in history is still Saturn V, coming in at just around 111 meters (364 feet) long. That’s barely more than a football field. SpaceX assembled Starship – the biggest rocket ever at 120 meters (400 feet) long – earlier this year, but it is yet to launch.
When you compare that against the expectations humans have for the future, it’s even more pitiful – if you trust the utopian future of Star Trek, we’ll be cruising around in ships seven times the length of Saturn V by the mid-2200s. So how do we get there from here?
Maybe China has the answer. A research proposal submitted to the National Natural Science Foundation of China has got the funding body investigating how to build vast spaceships up to 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) long – vessels it describes as “major strategic aerospace equipment for the future use of space resources, exploration of the mysteries of the universe, and long-term living in orbit.” For comparison, the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure in the world, comes in at just 828 meters (2,716.5 feet), a relative baby in size terms.
What’s more, they could do it – at least according to Mason Peck, a professor of aerospace engineering and former NASA chief technologist who described the idea as “entirely feasible”.
“I would describe the problems here not as insurmountable impediments, but rather problems of scale,” he told LiveScience.
The biggest of those problems would likely be cost, he added. The amount that the project would be allocated if accepted is 15 million yuan, or about $2.3 million – not much at all considering the size and scope. To put it in perspective, the International Space Station is only about 110 meters (361 feet) across at its widest point, and it cost nearly 50,000 times that amount to build.
“It’s fantastical, not feasible, and fun to think about, but not very realistic for our level of technology,” agreed aerospace engineering professor Michael Lembeck, also speaking to LiveScience. “The space station is a $3 billion a year enterprise. Multiply that for larger facilities and it quickly becomes a rather large, expensive enterprise to pull off.”
On the other hand, the ISS was built three decades ago. New technology such as 3D printing might help cut costs, says Peck, and for the really optimistic there’s an even more enticing option: harvesting resources from the moon (this plan would naturally require some amount of moon colonization to work, but it’s a potential in the long long term.)
However, some challenges aren’t so easily countered – a spacecraft one kilometer in size would have a tricky balancing act to pull off. Too high above the Earth’s surface, and you risk bombarding any passengers with dangerous levels of radiation; too low, and the friction from the atmosphere can pull the ship out of orbit. Depending on what the ship is used for, the ongoing maintenance costs could be enormous, rendering the plan completely unfeasible.
“[The] level of effort here is extremely small compared to the outcomes that are desired,” explained Lembeck, noting that with such a tiny budget the project is likely only intended as a small academic study to explore the very earliest stages of such an endeavor.
If the project goes ahead, the funding will last for five years, but even if it’s successful there’s no saying how long it would be before we see these thousand-meter spaceships in the sky. Who knows – perhaps we’ll have to wait until 2245 after all.