Just as in the old wet navy, carriers play a powerful role in today's fleets. However, todays carriers have a completely different set of difficulties to overcome in order to operate their fighters into space.
When the earliest space carriers were designed, it was thought that carrier operations in space would be far simpler than they had ever been on the ground. After all, aircraft need only float out of the carrier to be successfully launched. They wouldn't have stall speeds, cross winds, catapult failures, high speed landings and takeoffs, or several other factors that complicate the operations of wet navy carriers.
In many ways, they were right. Under normal conditions, when fighter craft could take their own sweet time, carrier operations would indeed be easier and safer.
Unfortunately, the advent of jump technology and stealth technologies meant that carrier operations had to be much quicker. A carrier might have little time to react when a jump point opens very close by... sometimes nearly on top of it! So while in the old wet navy carrier operations were measured in minutes, todays carriers measure operations in seconds.
The first carriers were produced during the initial human expansion into space. While there were no active conflicts in space at the time, it was assumed that at some point there would be. The various pre-alliance nations of Earth developed fighters and carriers to match the carriers in their wet navy fleets. Like their counterparts in the sea, these carriers were huge. Most of them carrying on the order of 50 to 100 fighters.
Fighters were launched by simply flying them (slowly) out of flight bays that were little more than giant airlocks. They would be depressurized, and opened to space, and the fighters would fly out under their own power.
Unfortunately, this design proved to be wholly ineffective when the pre-alliance nations were attacked by the Quangee. Their military planners had assumed that any enemy would have to jump in some distance away in order to stage their forces for an effective attack. The Quangee, however, conducted lightning raids, jumping in almost on top of an enemy carrier fleet and launching all of their fighter craft within seconds. These attacks were often successful in destroying the huge carriers before they could even launch a single fighter... a process which only took about a minute.
As well, the Quangee found that they could pick off the slowly launching fighters as they emerged from the flight bays before they could manuever.
To combat this problem, carrier operations were revamped to keep fighters at a higher state of readiness and flight bays were hastily armored with blast shielding to allow fighters to exit the flight bays hot under thrust.
These techniques halved the launch cycle to about 30 seconds, and often made the difference between losing the carrier and not. Further, carriers started constantly operating with some part of their fighter force already in space.
In spite of these advances, it was obvious that these carriers were no match for their Quangee counterparts. While they could be advanced to more succesfully resist lightning raids, they were unable to conduct such raids themselves. The high level of activity required to keep these carriers on constant alert wore out crews and equipment quickly. And their sheer size meant that there were few of them and that they were too large and lumbering to be used effectively in a tactical sense. Quite simply, they had too many eggs in one basket. And the Quangee had free reign to make an omlet of them.
In addition, carrier operations once again became dangerous in themselves. Flight bays contained ammunition which could sometimes be ignited by the fighters thrusting out of them, in spite of the hastily designed and installed blast shields.
Even with these difficulties, these carriers did play a pivotal role in that war and were successful in slowing the advance of Quangee forces until they reached the terran system.
Of some 37 carriers constructed by the pre-alliance nations, only one survived the war intact, and a second survived but was damaged beyond repair. The remaining 35 space carriers were lost in combat with no survivors or recoverable wreckage.
The Enterprise remains at the Orbital Museum of Space History over Mars and still attracts many visitors today as one of the oldest historical monuments which can still move under its own power.
The Gustalov was towed to the museum at the end of the war. It's scarred, torn, and scorched hull and missing aft section are a grim reminder. The forward sections of the Gustalov are still intact and house a memorial to the 163,482 crewmen, marines, and pilots who died in service aboard the other 35 carriers.
New carriers were designed to overcome the problems the previous carriers had faced against the Quangee. These carriers were much smaller, housing 12 to 24 fighters, and had flight bays which were designed from the outset to facilitate more rapid launch cycles.
Instead of having fighters thrust out under their own power, a prospect that had proven to be very dangerous indeed, fighters were flung out into space by catapults not entirely unlike those used by their counterparts in the sea. This eliminated many dangers and reduced launch times since the fighters could be launched while their engines were still preheating.
Further improvements to the launch sequence also shaved off precious seconds. However, the most significant advance was the advent of reactor systems that could be crash started in seconds.
A significant portion of the time older fighters required to launch was due to the long ramp up period required by their reactors. Soon after the Quangee war was underway, pilots had attempted to launch more rapidly by crash starting their reactors by flooding them with the carrier's power. Unfortunately, the reactors would often fail under this stress... with terrible consequences. When a reactor failed a crash start, the fighter would be unable to thrust out of the flight bay. The fighter's reactor would melt down and explode while still inside the carrier. The results were disasterous and fatal. The practice was quickly discontinued.
In 2nd generation carriers, these problems were (mostly) corrected. Newer fighters incorporated reactors that could be crash started with considerably greater reliabiity. In addition, if the reactor did fail, the fighter could be ejected by the catapult to explode away from the carrier. The ejected pilot could be later retrieved.
These advances reduced the launch cycle to just 15-20 seconds.
Unfortunately, these carriers also had drawbacks that became apparent once they were used in the conflict against the Dz'Isu. In particular, like their wet navy counterparts, the catapults proved to often be less than reliable. Under normal circumstances, they worked well. But space carriers are prime targets and often take hard hits. The tortional stresses on the carriers often warped the catapults and caused them to jam.
This was once again disasterous if a reactor failed to crash start! It would explode in the flight bay while operators struggled to unjam the catapult!
Another weakness came to light later in the war when the Alliance aquired shield technology. Flight bays were depressurized before launch. And unfortunately, in a small enclosed space of cold vacuum, powering up the fighter's shields produced an effect similar to a hunk of metal in a microwave oven. The resulting pyrotechnics were quite spectacular... unfortunately.
This meant that fighters could not even begin to raise their shields until after they had cleared the flight bay. Leaving them vulnerable while they launched.
Despite these weaknesses, 2nd generation carriers performed well in combat. They proved to be the correct size tactically and strategically and their faster launch times thwarted many Dz'Isu lightning raids and even allowed them to conduct a few of their own.
Many of these older carriers are still in service today, though most are in mothballs.
Near the end of the Dz'Isu war, the Alliance saught designs for new carriers which would overcome the troubles of their predecessors. Specifically, these carriers saught to improve the efficiency and safety of the launch sequence. More reliable catapults had been designed, but not reliable enough. And they wouldn't do anything to improve the launch time.
Professor Steven Aires, an instructor at the New Berkley University, came up with a radically different approach to the problem. Until then, the lack of atmosphere in space had been considered an obstactle to space carriers which had to depressurize huge flight bays prior to launch (a problem sea carriers had never had to face). Professor Aires proposed a solution which turned this into an advantage.
He proposed using explosive decompression to launch the fighters. The idea seemed rediculous at first, and it earned him some chuckles from his fellow professors. Nevertheless, he persisted and worked out exactly how it would be done. Out of the 15 seconds required for a perfect launch, he noted, 10 seconds were lost depressurizing the flight bay. That pressure could instead be used to facilitate the launch.
His ideas were not well received by the navy at first, which also took it as a joke. It was not until he demostrated the effectiveness of such a launch using quarter scale mockups that his ideas were taken seriously. He was given a research grant and soon all new carriers were be constructed with 'Aires Flight Bays'.
These new flight bays removed the large and complicated catapults and high powered pressurization systems.. greatly simplifying their design and manufacture and reducing their size and overhead considerably. Instead on being mounted on a catapult, fighters were held in the center of the bay by simple clamps which would be released when the outer doors were opened. Their manuevering thrusters, under computer control, could keep the fighter's attitude while the decompression hurled it from the flight bay.
This corrected the previous problems carriers faced. There is little that is more reliable than explosive decompression. The only parts that could jam were the outer doors and the docking clamps... both of which had explosive charges to blast them free in the unlikely even of failure. Launches under this method are highly reliable.
Further, since the flight bay retains its atmosphere until the last moment, the flight crew can be recalled to service the fighter if something goes wrong without having to wait for a full pressurization cycle.
Further still, with an atmosphere in the flight bay, it was shown that shields could be preactivated without the side effect of the pyrotechnics. The air would heat quickly as it absorbed the radiation, but it only had to do so for a moment before launch. Thusly, fighters could have shields active immediately on launch.
Handling of failed crash starts was also improved. In such an event, the fighter could always be blown out of the bay by simply opening (or blowing) the outer doors. No risk of jams. The carrier's power could be offline, and these new systems would still work.
Combined with further refinement of the launch sequence, the new 'Aires Flight Bays' reduced the launch cycle to just _5 seconds_. While at the same time improving crew safety enormously.
Even more important, however, the dramatic increase in ability to launch the carrier's entire compliment. Aires flight bays are much smaller and simpler. And space carrier can thusly be lined from bow to stern with them. Allowing multiple simulaneous launches. Rather than launching 2-4 fighters at a time, 3rd generation carriers can launch 6, 12, or 24 in rapid succession. Allowing only a short pause to distance the fighters from eachother for safety.
This comprises the new generation of carriers. Highly efficient and reliable. Today's carriers are far more ferocious than their predecessors could ever have hoped to be.
3RD GENERATION CARRIER LAUNCH SEQUENCE (EMERGENCY SCRAMBLE SEQUENCE) (Note: Normal, non-combat launch operations depressurize the bay and launch the fighter slowly under its own power as in 1st generation carriers) T -5.0 seconds - FBM (Flight Bay Master) calls 'SCRAMBLE! SCRAMBLE! SCRAMBLE!' - All flight crew in bay begin evacuation immediately. They only have 5 seconds to make it behind the blast doors without slowing the launch. - Pilot initializes computer systems and starts its diagnostic pretests and ready sequences. - Sensor systems initialize and selftest. T -3.0 seconds - All flight crew must be clear of the craft by now (though most will not be clear of the flight bay) - FBM releases the first stage failsafes if he/she is satisfied that the flight crew is clear. - The craft's main reactor is switched from standby mode to crash start. - The craft and FBM will do nothing for the next second other than monitor the status of the reactor. During this time, it is the FBM's direct responsibility to judge whether the reactor ramp up is proceeding properly or whether to abort (either by standdown or emergency blow out). T -2.0 seconds - Reactor levels reach nominal. - Computer automatic prechecks are complete. - FBM releases the second stage failsafes if everything is still looking good. - Umbilicals are retracted from the craft. - Main engines begin preheat sequence. - Manuevering thrusters undergo a computer controlled testfire while the clamps still hold the craft firmly in place. - The pilot tests the crafts responsiveness and sanity checks the controls. External views show him/her the responsiveness of manuevering thrusters. T -1.0 second - Pilot signals 'COMMIT' if he/she is satisfied and braces for launch. - FBM makes a final check and watches for the flight crew to clear. - Shield systems preheat. T -0.5 seconds - Flight crew should be clear of the flight bay. - Weapons preheat. T -0.25 seconds - FBM releases final failsafes if he/she is satisfied and flight crew is clear. - Internal doors seal. - Docking clamps release. T -0.0 seconds - External doors burst open. - Computer assumes control of manuevering thrusters to maintain attitude while the craft is ejected via explosive decompression of the flight bay. - Shield system 'burst starts'. The air around the craft heats quickly. T +1.0 seconds - Flight bay is fully decompressed. - Craft is clear. - External bay doors close. - Craft returns control to pilot. - Pilot reports successful launch to FBM. - FBM reports successful launch to command crew.