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Ships Focus : Caravelle Courier

Type: SSTO passenger ship.
Original manufacturer
: Irenian Enclaves, in association with qith Tsuno.
Current pattern status
: proprietary (qith Tsuno).
Propulsion: Damask-class convertible chemical engines + detachable Q-drive module.
FTL capable: yes. (with detachable engine section).
Length: 65 meters. (without the propulsion bus).
Payload: 70 tons in cargo configuration.
Crew: 4.
Passengers: between 150 (passenger configuration) and 30 (courier configuration).
Also known as the Space Yacht; the Weird Winged Thing; the Budget Eraser.

The problem with designing ships in isolation is that sometimes a shipyard cooperative may greenlight a design that by most metrics was a very bad idea, if technically doable. The Caravelle Courier is the illustration of this problem. It is a ship that was designed to answer a question (why not?) by circumventing the other, more relevant question in ship engineering: why? The Caravelle Courier tries to combine two things that have no business sharing the same design: single-stage-to-orbit and FTL capacity. Now, I can already see you arguing that this already exists and yes, there are a few marginal designs that can do both at once but they are all vertical landing ships. And it is normal. It is a practical solution. But the Caravelle Courier is not here to be practical, it is here to look awesome, so it has to land and take off horizontally which implies mass requirements that are not compatible with interplanetary drives.

By trying to solve this self-imposed conundrum the irenian engineers accidentally stumbled upon a relatively clever idea. The Caravelle Courier is not made of one, but two ships that can be combined together. The passenger section is an independent spaceplane that can land and take off horizontally in an atmosphere thanks to Damask-class engines that can seamlessly transition between air-breathing and closed cycle mode. When the spaceplane descends towards a planet it leaves an engine section behind, that contains powerful orbital engines, a Q-drive for interplanetary travel and a geometry drive. When leaving the planet, the spaceplane reconnects with the engine section and off it goes.

This unique configuration comes with equally unique engineering problems. The spaceplane section has to be configured for in-atmosphere flight (where the axis of movement and the floor are parallel) and space flight (where they are perpendicular) which leads to rather interesting design choices, including easily reconfigurable furniture and colour-coded walls. The coupling-uncoupling process is extremely complex, which doesn't owe to the orbital manoeuver in itself but to the myriads of hardware and software issues that may occur when separating an interstellar ship in half. Caravelles being stuck in orbit for days due to software crashes are not unheard of in the aerospace world.

In truth, however, the real issue of the Caravelle Courier isn't its technical complexity but its price. Such a tech combination make it an extremely expensive vessel; its nickname "Budget Eraser" is entirely deserved as no sane cooperative or public company would buy Caravelle Couriers for everyday use. The Caravelle would be a perfect space yacht for billionaires but they are an endangered species in the interstellar age. The only market that exists for the Caravelle is that of a dedicated prestige ship for ambassadors and diplomats, and broadly speaking officials who value stylish, somewhat retro rides.

Illustration courtesy of Lilly Harper, who writes most excellent sci-fi prose on the Beacons in the Dark blog.

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