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Nuclear pulse propulsion battleship Michael from the novel Footfall by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle.

Image featured on Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site, Michael Nuclear Pulse Propulsion Battleship. Scroll down at the link.

Featured on Realistic Spaceship Illustrations Blog, Link: here

“Michaels nose was a thick shield … armored in layers: steel armor, fiberglass matting, more steel armor, layer after layer of hard and nonresiliant soft.” —from Footfall, pg. 446 and 472

“Two great towers stood on the curve of the hemispherical shell, with cannon showing beneath the lip, aimed inward. Four smaller towers flanked them. A brick-shaped structure rose above them. The Brick was much less massive than the Shell, but its sides were covered with spacecraft: tiny gunships, and four Shuttles with tanks but no boosters. The bricks massive roof ran beyond the flanks to shield the Shuttles and gunships.”  —from Footfall, pg. 432

Michael is one of the Orion based concepts I knew I would have to take a run at sooner or later. I referenced the novel, extensively, and Scott Lowther condensed all the design bits he gleaned from Footfall into an Excel spreadsheet, available here, for a project he set aside. The spreadsheet is an excellent guide to all the passages describing Message Bearer, the digit ships, Michael, the stovepipes and Shuttles, and it proved invaluable in my effort.

Most people are probably familiar with Aldo Spadoni's visualization of the iconic warship from Niven and Pournelle’s novel, but for those who are not, Aldo’s drawings are available here.

What I’ve done is meet the Aldo Spadoni design half-way with my own interpretations. My intent was to complement Aldo’s design-thought without entirely rewriting it, keeping in mind what Aldo had to say about the process. One point Aldo raised in conversation on Scott Lowther’s blog is in regards to who is providing description in various scenes from the novel.

Aldo Spadoni: “Footfall is a novel of course, not an engineering proposal for a space battleship. You glean details regarding the various Footfall spacecraft from the conversations of characters in the story, many of which are not experts [with regard to] what they are describing. As Scott also pointed out, there are inconsistencies in the descriptions that are either intentional or simply mistakes on the part of the authors. Thus, the design of the Footfall spacecraft are open to interpretation.”

Aldo makes a good case for the distinctive angled shock absorbers of his design, and I’ll provide his commentary below, the sticking point for me, however, is the parabolic pusher plate Niven and Pournelle describe—early design work on Orion solidly ruled out a parabolic pusher. With shaped-charge nuclear pulse units the parabolic plate will only heat up while offering almost no thrust advantage. Heating and impact stress on the pusher would be of no small concern, the bombs necessary to loft something the scale and mass of Michael would not be the tame little devices used to propel a dinky NASA/USAF 10-meter Orion. Heating is the cost of even partially containing the ionized plasma resulting from nuclear detonation.

Orion works because the plasma is dynamically shaped (as the explosion happens) by the specially designed shaped charge nuclear explosive, X-rays are channeled by the radiation case in the instant before the weapon is vaporized, these exit a single aperture, striking and heating up a beryllium oxide channel filler and propellant disk (tungsten), resulting in a narrow conical jet of ionized tungsten plasma, traveling at high velocity (in excess of 1.5 × 10⁵ meters per second). This crashes into the pusher plate, accelerating the spacecraft. The jet is not physically contained by the pusher, and contact with the pusher is infinitesimally brief, so the pusher is not subject to extreme heating during thrust maneuvers. So, while offering very little performance difference compared to a flat pusher design, the parabolic plate would need regenerative cooling in the bargain, adding weight and complexity to the system. Engineering such a pusher plate would be fraught with difficulties, and conditions under which Michael is built, in my opinion, rule out any eccentric messing with the baseline system. A legion of Ted Taylors would already be kept busy night and day with the mere task of readying a conventional Orion designed under such circumstances—for delivery under a one year drop-rocks-from-orbit-dead deadline.

As Aldo points out, the text of Footfall leaves room for different interpretations and here is where I took some of Aldo’s design-thought and creatively merged it with my own toward the end of addressing the design as presented in the novel. (No, not the army of Ted Taylor clones inhabiting a maze of cubicles in some deep bunker somewhere—that’s just me.)

It occurred to me that what Aldo had done (following Niven and Pournelle’s description), was move the functions of the Orion standard propulsion module down, mounting them directly on the top of the plate, so really it’s a built up intermediate platform/propulsion module. What I’ve done is run with that thought: I chose to treat the entire pusher plate as an early large Orion: a dome sitting on flat pusher plate, concentric rows of toroidal shock absorbers surrounding a core array of gas-piston shock absorbers. There is no central hole-and-bomb-placement-gun-protection-tube in my design (but there is an anti-ablation oil spray system). Instead, pulse units are shot by bomb placement guns mounted to fire around the edge; exactly as in Aldo’s design (the early large Orion had rocket assisted bombs riding tracks on the exterior of the spacecraft—imagine the show that would make). The body of the “dome” in my design is stowage for tanked pressurization gas (for the shock absorbers), anti-ablation oil, and perhaps a reserve number of pulse units.

I’ve retained the scheme of duel pulse unit magazines. Niven & Pournelle called them “thrust bomb” towers. Four “spurt bomb” towers are also mounted to the base—the “spurt bomb” Niven and Pournelle describe is a type of bomb-pumped laser using gamma-radiation rather than X-rays. All of my towers are a good deal beefier than those on Aldo’s design. Narrative in the novel describes the “thrust bomb” towers as doing double duty, providing an extra layer of armor and shielding for the CIC/control room, the nerve center of the spacecraft, which is located in the lower portion of the Brick, wedged between two large water tanks (and two nuclear reactor containment vessels). The water tanks are frozen at lift-off, providing Michael with an ample heat-sink.  

As I mentioned above, Aldo makes an excellent case for the angled shock absorbers on his design, his description below:

Aldo Spadoni: “Most of the Orion designs were configured for non-military applications, whereas Michael is a maneuvering warship with massive nuclear pumped steam attitude thruster arrays. In addition to primary Orion thrusting, Michael will be subjected to multi-axial mechanical loads that are NOT along the longitudinal axis of the ship. … When Michael is thrusting under primary propulsion while engaging in combat maneuvers, an angled shock absorber array design is a good choice for handling the inevitable side loads and for stabilizing the shell [with regard to] the passenger/payload “brick.” Consider a high performance off road vehicle, which must provide chassis stability while the wheels and suspension are being subjected to loads from many directions. You don’t see any parallel straight up and down shock absorbers in the suspension system, do you?

If you look carefully at my design, you can see that that central shock absorber is longitudinal and more massive than the rest. This one is primarily responsible for handling the Orion propulsive loads. … The remaining angled shock absorbers handle some of that propulsive load while also providing multi-axial stability.”

Scott Lowther (of Aerospace Projects Review) offers this insight in regards to angled shock absorbers:

Scott Lowther: “I remain unconvinced at the off-axis "angled" shock absorbers, but they seem to be the popular approach. However, if you do go that route, you have to deal with the central piston in the same way... ball joints fore and aft. *All* the pistons must be free to swing from side to side. If one, even the central one, is locked, then either the pusher assembly cannot move sideways *thus negating the value of the angled shocks), or it'll simply get ripped off its mounts the first time there's an off-axis blast.

Given that the ship is clearly described as having nuclear steam rockets for attitude control, I don't see the value in off-axis blasts for steering. But... shrug.”

I spent a good deal of time reproducing Aldo’s shock absorber array because frankly I think it is brilliant, going back and forth between Aldo’s drawings and my file … in the end the detail would be invisible, so I created a cutaway render with two of the “spurt bomb” towers removed to reveal the system.

True to the novel Michael’s main guns are the 16"/50 caliber Mark 7 gun and turret taken directly off the New Jersey. There is a good deal of discussion (on Scott’s blog and elsewhere) on the suitability of the guns and turrets—the mounting is rotated ninety degrees to vertical relative to the orientation turret, guns, and loading mechanisms were designed for—however, Aldo is quite clear that mounting the full turrets “as is” reflects the author’s intention, and so I’ve kept to their vision in this regard.

In the novel the guns are described firing a nuclear artillery round, this would be a modern version of the W23 15-20 kiloton nuclear round. The Mark 23 was a further development of the Army's Mk-9 & Mk-19 280mm artillery shell. This was a 15-20 kiloton nuclear warhead adapted to a 16 in naval shell used on the 4 Iowa Class Battleships1. 50 of these weapons were produced starting in 1956 but shortly after their introduction the four Iowa's were mothballed. The weapon stayed in the nuclear inventory until October 1962. Presumably under war conditions a new production run would produce the numbers necessary for Michael’s assault on Message Bearer.

Secondary batteries: a generic turret roughly based on the secondary turrets of the Iowa class.

Missile launchers based on the MK-41 Vertical Launching System (VLS).

The “Battle Management Array” is a set of phased-array radars and tight-beam communications antenna for passing targeting information to Michaels secondary spacecraft, all mounted to a pair of shock-isolated cab, each riding its own set of shock absorbers, one mounted atop each “thrust bomb” tower.  A fall-back set of communications antenna and radar are mounted beneath the overhang of the forward shield atop the Brick.

I’ve gone with the dimensions Scott arrived at, which Aldo confirmed in his comments on Scott’s blog: Length:742’ Diameter: 371’.

Different opinions have been offered in regards to Michael’s mass, between 35,000 and 50,000 tons have been opinioned on Scott Lowther’s blog. Pournelle was quoted as saying 2 million tons on one occasion, and 7 million tons on another.

Michaels launch, in the novel, is shortened for reasons of narrative brevity; one character wonders if there were perhaps 30 or more nuclear detonations. Putting Michael in orbit would require 8 minutes of powered flight and about 480 bombs lit off at one bomb per second.

The novel is clear that Michael carries four Space Shuttles mounted to their external tanks sans their SRBs. The number of Gunships is less clear. Nine Gunships are described as destroyed in combat, an unspecified number survive to confront Message Bearer in the final scene. Designing the most compact spacecraft necessary to fill the role, my Gunship measures 100 feet in length, 25 feet in diameter. At these dimensions, 14 Gunships total can be comfortably mounted to Michaels flanks.

For detail on my Gunship design see my following post, Gunship.

Update Note 1/25/2014: A miscalculation on my part gave the vehicle a longer stroke-length than the vehicle could absorb. Scott Lowther, of Aerospace Projects Review, identified the error and provided a set of solutions to address the issue.

I’ve rebuilt the second-stage gas-piston shock absorbers to provide proper stroke-length and added a ball joint to the top and bottom of the central second-stage shock absorber in order to permit lateral motion of the pusher during off-axis thrust maneuvers. In addition to these changes I’ve shortened the “Thrust Bomb Towers” rebuilding the base of each and lowering the upper sections, moving all of the towers outward, closer to the rim of the pusher, opening up the central space around the base of “the Brick” in order to provide better clearance for motion of the pusher and towers during off-axis thrust maneuvers. As an additional effect the changes provide better clearance for the main guns when firing aft.

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MerkinMuffleyPOTUS's avatar

I this is a 3-D cad model, can I get a copy?

Crystalegg's avatar
That is a fantastic interpretation of Michael. If you had 3d files of this to throw in a slicer this would be an awesome thing to 3D print
kimnbri's avatar
Why the hell has Hollywood not made a footfall movie yet? The book gave me chills... Nice rendering!
delta7Xx's avatar
the michael from footfall is the perfect example of why the orion drive is so freakin awesome XD
no worrying about shaving off a few kilograms to save tens of thousands of dollars, just load whatever you want onto that thing and launch away :3
that's mostly why it makes such a good base design for a warship
This design is as fantastic as the book. The Michael battle is one of the most gripping I've ever read and I do include John Ringo & David Weber's We Few.
AJTalon's avatar
Gorgeous work. Now that's how you fight off an alien invasion-No sissy computer virus, a nuclear bomb surfing battleship! That's how you do it!
gs78's avatar
You certainly know your stuff Mr Black! If I might ask one question, have you ever considered doing Message Bearer or the Digit Ships? Accurately designed human craft are two a plenty now, but I never see anything that is alien and yet 'plausible' (for certain values of plausible). M.B would seem to be an ideal candidate to break that glass ceiling so to speak. I would make an attempt, but time constraints and my own miserable design skills have hampered my efforts as of late. 
William-Black's avatar
I’ve considered modeling Message Bearer and the Digit ships and explored various ideas, saved as concept files with associated notes. At some point these will likely be fully realized. One item of note, the Digit ship is not a singular vehicle design, it’s a vehicle classification encompassing a number of spacecraft, each distinct and specialized for specific role and mission type. The text of Footfall indicates this fairly clearly, although Niven and Pournelle did not expend a great deal of exposition on the sub-vehicle descriptions. As to when these will be fully modeled and posted, the best I can offer is, at some point. I am working on three high-volume work-streams: real but never flown spacecraft, spacecraft from the SF I enjoy, and my own hard SF Orion’s Arm future history setting. At present I am completing work on a different offering from Larry Niven’s universe.
gs78's avatar
Interesting, I haven't read the book in years but the multi-role concept does ring a bell. If I had the book and the time I'd try see if N & P made references to the outside hull of Message Bearer, I presume it was a standard metal finishing, but any references to alien materials would be difficult to interpret. Thanks for the reply!
William-Black's avatar
No problem. For your own reference, here is a handy Footfall resource and reference guide you can download free of charge: Scott Lowther of Aerospace Projects Review condensed all the design bits he gleaned from Footfall into an Excel spreadsheet, available here.
cw3brett's avatar
Well, ...incredibly embarrassed to admit this... but I haven't read the book yet. *everybody gasps* Want to avoid spoilers, so I'll come back after I actually have read it. (Should be soon, just ordered it).

I've enjoyed Pournelle and Niven's books before, and I suspect I'll be quite satisfied with Footfall.

The last thing I'll say, for now, is that I've seen the USS New Jersey's 16" mains up close. Gotta say, it's pretty damn trippy seeing them mounted on the side of a gigantic Orion space-battleship. Epic stuff, excellent work! -- and my apologies for taking so long to comment on this. Busy with life and stuff, don't want you to think I skipped over it.
William-Black's avatar

Footfall is an epic tale of invasion, told on a grand scale as only Niven and Pournelle can, I know you’re going to enjoy it. And hey, your present commitments, totally understood.  

cw3brett's avatar
Done! I loved it, the battle sequence was quite thrilling!
Mechatherium's avatar
I wonder: if you make the nose shield flat, could a "snow cone" made of ice/artificial snow work just as well? Would the snow work to absorb/reflect/diffract the digit ships' lasers?

Also" Are you planning on doing a Digit Ship?
William-Black's avatar

From the moment Michael climbs out of Earth’s shadow (it’s a nighttime launch) to its final confrontation with Message Bearer, the spacecraft is described as being in direct sunlight—and the flight, a series of running battles as Michael passes through swarms of Fithp spacecraft, is approximately twelve hours long, all the while in direct sunlight and bathed in near continuous laser fire, and receiving hits from Fithp missiles ... I’m not an expert on thermodynamics (even the experts will tell you thermodynamic analysis is hard, I mean seriously really hard). You would have to work the thermodynamics taking into account all factors described in the story. A couple of points that seem fairly obvious, at least to me, are that sublimation (the phase transition of water from a solid directly to a gas) would begin even before Michael climbs completely out of the atmosphere. Once exposed to hard vacuum sublimation would definitely occur, and, as a side note, I’m not sure how well ice stands against the friction heating of a spacecraft climbing through mach three, which would happen while Michael is still deep enough in atmosphere for friction heating to be a concern, both factors would affect the structural integrity of your "snow cone" even before it is hit by Fifthp lasers, subjected to hard vacuum, and numerous missile strikes.


It’s an interesting thought, and I’ve seen the same suggestion posed elsewhere, but in any case my purpose is not to completely redesign Michael. As to the answer, it’s above my pay grade.  I tend to think a forward shield composed mostly of ice wouldn’t fare as well as the layered armor described in the novel.  


I’m considering modeling the digit ships, and I’ve put together a few rough draft model files. One thing I will say is this: “digit ship” would not be a single design, but rather a class of several types of spacecraft each designed for a particular discrete purpose. Niven and Pournelle only touched on this, but if you consider carefully the actions/functions of vehicles described under that one moniker in the text of the novel you will realize this is a class of diverse spacecraft, and not a singular all-in-one design.  

M00N-CHASER's avatar
"God was at the back door. He wanted in bad!" I love that part of the book-the assent.

I don't remember what the RCS units were in the book (or if they were actually described)-here they look like F-1s which in a way would make sense (power out put-and in hand rather than requiring much development time)

Thank you so much for doing this!
William-Black's avatar
Nuclear pumped steam attitude thruster arrays. Michael has two nuclear reactors, providing electrical power, and steam for the reaction control system.
William-Black's avatar
The sound of Michael's lift-off would undoubtedly be audible across a large area, and certainly visible across most of the northern hemisphere.

You're most welcome my friend.
lusitania25's avatar
Great job,amazing detail!
Robbie-Yarber's avatar
This is AWESOME! Thank you for bringing to life this amazing spacecraft from the best alien invasion story ever written.
I read A Mote in God's Eye but never Footfall. I may have to now. This is amazing!
NyrathWiz's avatar
The thought occurred to me, the nuclear pulse units will have to be specially designed.
Standard Orion-drive units channel 80% of the x-ray upwards, to flash the propellant into a jet aimed at the pusher plate.
But the Michael's pulse units are also used to pump the spurt bombs with x-rays. So the pulse units will have to direct some of their x-rays at the spurt bombs.
William-Black's avatar

After the conversation with Ken Burnside on the subject of bomb pumped X-ray lasers, I wonder it the drive-bomb pumped version is even practical.

Niven and Pournelle didn't go into great detail, and I suspect they assumed conventional nuclear bombs rather than the shaped charge nuclear device. I wounder if the spurt-bomb carries a self-contained conventional nuclear device at the core of the (Ken Burnside described) "sea-urchin" array of whisker-thin attenuating rods? I rather got the idea during that particular conversation (several months back) that the device was integral and self contained.

Of course it is not exactly "drive-bomb" pumped, it is merely bomb-pumped, the bomb being thrown aft and detonated behind the pusher.

Another point from that particular conversation, Ken was fairly clear on, is that the bomb-pumped X-ray laser does not generate a highly collimated beam, the effect is isotropic, it's a wide-area effect weapon rather than the hair-thin beam, which is what most people think of when confronted with the word "laser."

So, two separate systems? One delivering pulse-units for thrust, the other pouring out "spurt bombs."

Although I do wonder if one wouldn't be better off mounting the weapon on a missile to be aimed at specific clusters of targets.
Scott-Lowther's avatar
As I understand it, in order to get a meaningful ZAP out of a nuke-pumped X-ray laser, the nuke has to be very, very close to the lasing elements. So the X-ray lasers described in the book would seem to have a very poor chance of working, assuming they are inert devices pumped by the drive pulse units.

If they work by simply collecting some of the nuclear energy (xray or otherwise) and converting that energy into a laser beam... being near the rim of the pusher means they'll be at least 185 feet from the nuke. If the collectors are 1 square meter and they're 185 feet/56.3 meters from the detonation, the collector will receive approximately 1/40,000 of the total energy of the nuke. If the nuke is a healthy 50 kilotons, that works out to each laser unit getting the equivalent of 1.25 *tons* of yield. Then, with undoubtedly massive losses in the conversion process, the total energy delivered to the target would be the equivalent of perhaps dozens to several hundred kilos of TNT. Nothing to sneeze at. But it might be more mass-conscious to simply chuck several-hundred-kilo shaped charges at the enemy.

Zero time of flight has its appeal, of course.
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