April 1st, 2010

Firefly: Still Flying – The Tech Notes

A friend of mine once said the best job is the one you’d do for free, but don’t have to. If that’s the case, then I have the best job imaginable, because I get to make awesome stuff for even more awesome people. And I get to work with shows and movies I love and a creative community I admire and respect – enormously.

I can’t really say enough about how awed and humbled we all are here at QMx by the fact that we’re even allowed to play in these brilliant peoples’ sandboxes. So you’ll understand that when Jane Espenson, executive producer of Caprica, co-executive producer of Battlestar Galactica and scribe of one of the most memorable episodes of Firefly, asked me to be her technical editor on her first new Firefly story in over eight years, I was struck dumb.

Well, perhaps not completely dumb: I squeed. I squeed long and I squeed loud. And I, dear reader, am not someone who squees for anything.

On the eve of Titan Books official announcement of Firefly: Still Flying, where Jane’s new Firefly story What Holds Us Down will debut, I’ve been given permission to publish the tech notes for that story. The notes have been thoroughly scrubbed of spoilers, although based on what the tech notes cover you might be able extrapolate some elements of the plot – such as the fact that story involves a ship that hitherto has not been part of an actual Firefly story (although it was covered in our own Serenity Blueprints Reference Pack). Consider yourself spoiler-alerted.

Anyway, we thought you might like reading the background technical material Jane used for story. It offers a deeper look at an important precursor to Serenity and into the science that makes space travel a daily reality in The Verse.

Oh, and the book – Firefly: Still Flying – is made of awesome. If you’re a Browncoat you will totally want this.

Tech Notes for What Holds Us Down, by Jane Espenson

Let’s start with the Series 1 Firefly:

The Series 1 was, of course, the first Firefly and was about two-thirds the size of the Series 3. It was created by the Allied Spacecraft Corporation (ASC) on Osiris and outfitted by The Firefly Ship Works on Hera – same outfitter that did the build out on Serenity. ASC started making the Series 1 to support settlers moving to the Border and Rim. It was designed to be reliable and inexpensive to operate.

A side-by-side comparison of the Series 1 & 3 Firefly, taken from The Atlas of The Verse.

The first Series 1 Fireflys start rolling off the assembly line in 2435 and continued to be made through 2458. A total of 8,000 were built over the lifetime of the model. This compares to the Series 3, which started manufacture in 2459 and had lifetime sales of over 28,000.

On to the grav dampeners:

Grav dampeners are essentially smaller versions of the components of the big grav rotor that goes around the outside of a Firefly’s rear section. Dampeners are usually mounted underneath the lowest deck in each part of the ship and generate a gravity “envelope”, both above and below that deck. The shape of the envelope is like a figure eight, with the intersection of the figure eight at the center of the dampener’s gravity rotor.

An example of the “figure eight” gravity envelope generated by the grav dampeners.

Typically, the envelop is much larger above the deck than below, and it’s size and shape can be altered using the dampener’s control assembly. Under normal operation, the figure eight has a huge top loop and a tiny lower loop. This has the effect of reversing gravity when you enter the crawlspace where the dampeners operate. So, the underside of the deck above is your “floor” when you’re in the crawlspace. And “up” is actually out the bottom of the ship.

The juxatposition of the two gravity envelopes – and how they effect people above and below deck.

So, what does a gravity dampener look like? Imagine a big front-loading washing machine laying on it’s back. The dampener is rectangular, with the rotor at the top and the control assembly at the bottom. Dampeners are laid out in series, like cars on a train. They’re approximately 4′ wide x 7′ long x 3′ high.

That big grav rotor that generates the gravity envelop around the outside of the ship is also constructed of a train of dampeners that form a ring instead of a line (the “teeth” in the grav rotor). The difference in their function is more a matter of software than hardware – the grav rotor is programmed to generate a gravity envelop around the ship that renders it both buoyant and inertial-less, so that’s what it does. The mini-rotors under the deck are programmed to keep the crew from floating away, so that’s what they do.

A grav dampener “train”, seen from overhead.

If you lift open the metal shielding at the bottom of the dampener – the end with the control assembly – there is short, fat rod with copper rings around it inserted in the middle of a big metal clamp. This is the heart of the grav dampener. It’s the Theory of Everything, Grand Unification magic cylinder that makes the negation or generation of gravity a reality. It’s called The Honnecourt Capacitor in honor of Villard de Honnecourt, who first described the idea of a machine that could produce more energy than it consumes. (Note: It was Jane’s idea to call the Honnecourt Capacitors “Honeys” for short.)

The Honnecourt Capacitor does this trick by using Weak Force physics to compress tiny bits of space, which in turn generates electromagnetic radiation. Because Weak Force compression requires only tiny amounts of energy to operate, most of the energy surplus can be transferred to the gravity rotor, which in turn spools that energy. This cycle repeats until sufficient energy has been spooled to generate a controlled gravity envelope.

Once a grav rotor is spun up, it can generate gravity almost indefinitely, without the application of any additional external power (this is why in Out of Gas Mal wasn’t floating around the ship). However, if you were to pull the Honnecourt Capacitor, the gravity envelop would quickly collapse.

In most ships, the Honeys used for generating internal gravity are different than the ones used in the drive system. But because Fireflys use standardized parts where ever possible, the Honeys under the deck and in the grav rotor are physically identical (although it would take a savvy mechanic to transplant them and make them work, as the programming is very different).

Other helpful notes on the Series 1:

The reactor core of the ship is in the dead center and rear, heavily shielded and all-but-inaccessible. However, there is maintenance access under the deck plates pretty much throughout the entire ship.

Remember, the grav rotor negates all of a ship’s gravity, including internal gravity, in order to make it “inertial-less”. The grav dampener array under the deck plating is required to compensate for this effect and establish roughly 1G of gravity inside the ship. Operating internal gravity does not in any way effect the external gravity-negating envelope, as that outer envelope completely encompasses the internal ones.


4 Responses to “Firefly: Still Flying – The Tech Notes”

  1. willie says:

    Bomb Bay doors? WTF?

  2. Sean Kennedy says:


    This is just too dang Shiney! Congratulations!
    BTW: I love the Series 1 overhead shot. :)

  3. DTech says:

    The Bomb Bay doors are where Jane dropped to the train from in the episode Train Job.

    P.S. Upon reading about the new book

  4. Stephen Morton says:

    @willie: And where Jayne chucked out the dead Reaver and debris in Serenity. :-)