I’d like to think that I do have a soft spot for underdogs and two in Star Trek which I consider to be underdogs are the USS Grissom
(aka Oberth Class vessels) and nuclear fusion power.
It’s a little like everybody knows it’s there but many trekkers have not given it much consideration or reflection, IMHO or as far as I'm aware of it.
When Star Trek III came to theaters the Trek press focused on the new Klingon Bird of Prey (after a screenplay gender change had turned the Romulans into Klingons) and the new USS Excelsior
starship design but little or nothing was published on the USS Grissom
(with its low NCC registry number and apparently detachable saucer section for First Contact landings, an improvement over the design of older ships that landed in their entirety like the USS Horizon).
With nuclear fusion power it’s a similar story. Apparently, both matter-antimatter annihilation and the enigmatic dilithium crystals to help create the exotic “warp power” moved into the spotlight. Until TNG nobody seemed to really care about nuclear fusion in the context of Star Trek (except the H Bomb as an analogy to “The Doomsday Machine”) which is quite a shame: Without nuclear fusion there’d be no stars in the sky, no life on Earth and definitely no Star Trek to seek out new life and new civilizations.
One thing our understanding of current science has definitely yielded is that the path to futuristic energy creation is clearly visible – unfortunately there are considerable technical (nuclear fusion) and economical (antimatter) obstacles in that path to overcome, and unfortunately the working principles of these futuristic energy creations have so far first been realized as their destructive counterparts, namely the Atom Bomb (nuclear fission) and the H(ydrogen) Bomb (nuclear fusion) – almost as if to prove that it is always easier to destroy than to create (definitely a human deficiency that will hopefully have been long overcome by the 23rd Century).
While back in the 1960’s (and still today) a nuclear fusion reactor sounded like science fiction, it’s noteworthy that screenplay writer Samuel Anthony Peoples, a specialist for the Western genre, apparently did some scientific research before delivering the script for the second Star Trek pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.
In its story the USS Enterprise
needs to repair its damaged warp engines. Spock: “Recommendation one. There's a planet a few light days away from here. Delta Vega. It has a lithium cracking station. We may be able to adapt some of its power packs to our engines.”
What the heck is a “lithium cracking station”?
What Samuel A. Peoples did here was nothing less than to suggest widespread nuclear fusion power use in the future of Star Trek.
One of the favored reactants for nuclear fusion reactors is tritium (or hydrogen-3) but it is scarce. Thus the theoretical models for nuclear fusion reactors suggest to artificially “breed” tritium by using neutrons to “crack” lithium (itself almost a rare earth element and not only in that sense a suitable predecessor of dilithium…!) into tritium and helium-4. The inescapable beauty of the nuclear fusion concept: The nuclear fusion itself provides the neutron bombardment to breed the nuclear fusion fuel tritium which then produces new neutrons in the nuclear fusion and on and on and on…
The other beauty of nuclear fusion in all science fiction scenarios: You can either use it as particle exhaust for your sublight engines (makes the Saturn V rocket thrust look like a bi-plane compared to a supersonic jet fighter) and/or energy for your exotic systems like shields, cloaking devices etc. and/or a terrible weapon if you were able to shoot its energetic ionized plasma (the Romulan ship from “Balance of Terror” would make a lot of practical sense if we were able to assume it’s essentially a nuclear fusion reactor traveling through space – painted like a giant bird of prey, of course).
Possibly, the producers of Star Trek became aware at an early stage that in order to be propelled by a “space warp”, fusion energy wouldn’t do the job and switched to matter-antimatter energy instead – at the expense of nuclear fusion Samuel A. Peoples might have wanted to propagate (Kelso: “The main engines are gone, unless we can find some way to re-energise them.” Re-energising itself is the basic principle of a fusion reactor).
Already in the second regular episode (“Mudd’s Women”) the commonly known ‘down-to-earth’ silver-white metal lithium had miraculously transformed into a transparent crystal with exotic properties to power the ship’s systems which was then consequently renamed “dilithium” as it apparently had nothing to do with the real lithium – except to be an important component in futuristic energy creation…
Separated during birth (the topic is still fusion, not fission
) dilithium made quite a career in popular sci-fi culture while lithium was eventually forgotten and – worse – considered to have never been born in the context of Star Trek when debatable retroactive continuity activity tried to completely push it over the cliff and pretended there had always and only been dilithium from the start (I guess this explains my personal skepticism towards most retcon maneuvers in general).
In this particular case, Samuel A. Peoples provided a science fact adding credibility to the universe of Star Trek, but instead his “lithium cracking station” (or "tritium breeding station") was ignored and - worse - considered to be a result of ignorance of the show’s producers and/or scriptwriters.
Good news is that apparently nuclear fusion technology was still in widespread use during the dawn of Star Trek which may or may not have ramifications how to interpret a possible use of dilithium crystals with nuclear fusion energy.
To be continued in the next season of Bob Comsol’s Treknological Treatises, stay tuned