In 2285, the Federation Starfleet put the finishing touches on the USS Excelsior, a revolutionary new starship. Dubbed “The Great Experiment,” Excelsior was ready for trial runs of the Federation’s first transwarp drive. Years later, after a notable incident with the Excelsior, the Great Experiment was deemed unsuccessful.
But was it completely unsuccessful?
In this article, I’ll use Alpha and Beta canon sources to discuss Excelsior’s early service history, with particular emphasis on the transwarp project, and explain why the Great Experiment was more successful than it may appear.
The U.S.S. Excelsior NX-2000 was designed in the early 2280s using a radical new propulsion method, the transwarp drive, which would make it the fastest ship in Starfleet, easily capable of breaking the speed record of Warp 14.1 set by the USS Enterprise under James T. Kirk. Unfortunately, that same officer would be partially responsible for the initial failure of the transwarp drive.
After returning to Earth Spacedock following the Battle of the Mutara Nebula, the Enterprise under Admiral Kirk was slated to be decommissioned. Soon after, Kirk was confronted with evidence that his recently departed friend, Captain Spock, had transferred his Katra into the mind of Dr. Leonard McCoy, causing the doctor to show signs of mental instability.
The only way to save McCoy, and to restore Spock, was to reunite his Katra with his body, which lay in rest on the newly-formed Genesis Planet. Kirk appealed to Starfleet Commander Harrison Morrow to let him return to Genesis, but Morrow refused as the planet had become a hotbed of galactic controversy and the risk of an incident was too high. Kirk and his senior staff resolved to go anyway, but they needed to remove a major hurdle.
The night before the Excelsior’s first trial run, Montgomery Scott, recently named Excelsior’s captain of engineering, removed several components of the ship’s transwarp computer, later stating “the more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.” Kirk and company then boarded the now-automated Enterprise and departed Earth Spacedock.
Captain Lawrence Styles, Excelsior’s commanding officer since construction began, unmoored the ship from its berth and set off in pursuit. As Enterprise escaped into warp, Styles, ever confident in the incredible machine beneath his feet, gave the order to engage the transwarp drive. Seconds after the word was given to execute, Excelsior stopped dead in space outside Spacedock, with the transwarp computer indicating full power than breaking down with the message “Good morning, Captain.”
Excelsior would remain in Spacedock for most of the next two years, save for a scramble order it was unable to obey due to the arrival of the Cetacean Probe in Earth orbit in mid-2286. It still occupied that same berth in 2287 when the Enterprise-A departed to deal with a hostage crisis on Nimbus III. Presumably, the transwarp drive was repaired and fully tested by 2290 when Excelsior was formally commissioned as a Starfleet vessel fitted with a conventional warp drive and departed on its maiden voyage under its new captain, Hikaru Sulu.
No Alpha or Beta canonical evidence exists regarding precisely how the transwarp drive failed, other than Scotty’s sabotage, which presumably could have been rectified by the miracle worker himself to allow Excelsior to complete its testing regimen. The only specific reference to this can be found in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual (page 14), stating “the attempt to surpass the primary warp field efficiency barrier with the Transwarp Development Project in the early 2280s proved unsuccessful.” One can infer from this statement that the project was a fundamental failure unaffected by the sabotage.
Even when an experiment doesn’t achieve the sought goal, scientists and engineers can still gather significant data and conduct further study and refinement in the hopes that the next attempt will prove successful. In the case of the transwarp drive, another attempt was not made, likely because of new advancements in warp theory which necessitated a recalibration of the existing warp scale, which placed Warp Factor 10 as an absolute limit on faster-than-light velocity. Such advancements can be inferred as a direct result of the Transwarp Development Project.
By the early 24th century, Starfleet began to deploy new starship designs with warp drives which took full advantage of the newer propulsion theory. Older ships like the Constitution Class were retired from service in favour of new hulls like the Excelsior and Ambassador classes, and other similar ships like the Constellation and Miranda classes were relegated to support roles until their warp cores could be upgraded. This resulted in a different, more technologically advanced and streamlined aesthetic for Starfleet ships, culminating with the launch of the first Galaxy Class starships in the 2360s.
Given this information, it can be determined that the transwarp drive, while not a success in the sense of its original intent of completely revolutionizing warp travel, was successful in advancing warp theory enough to allow later Starfleet ships to travel faster and farther than ever before. In science, there are times when an experiment fails in one field but can still be a success in other areas, and the Great Experiment is a prime example of this in the Star Trek Universe.
Read more about the Excelsior Class