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back to article What should a sci-fi spaceship REALLY look like?

People making sci-fi movies have it easy. If you’re designing alien technology, not even the most determined pedant could claim with any authority to know how a real Imperial TIE fighter might look. tie_fighter The TIE fighter (as imagined by George Lucas). If you’re making a film about war, or journalism, or (especially) …

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Boffin

Why do we keep trotting out 2001?

The Discovery is the most realistic? PAH!

Where exactly did the crew plan on surviving a solar flare? Why put the fragile crew module at the front where it can get more impacts from interplanetary dust & particles? Lets not forget the massive picture window 'cockpit' - why would it need such a cockpit? Apollo flew to the moon without the need for windows! How the hell did it cope with the massive torque of the spinning hab section? If the film was all about realism, and used the spinning hab section to provide Coriolis force 'gravity', how the hell did they get 'gravity' in the pod bay? Did anyone think about the massive osmotic imbalance you'd get from the limited diameter hab module anyway?(15m or so? Force gradient strong enough to do something horrid to your cardiovascular system!) Where was the counterbalance required to stop the whole ship pinwheeling? The Discovery is wrong wrong wrong on so many counts... yet everyone raves about it. Bloody hell, read some engineering! I think only Kubrick would have said 'the most realistic ever'; he sure had tickets on himself!

Better realism - the 'Mars 1' from Mission to Mars - also highlighted some of the dangers of interplanetary dust particles

'Icarus 2' from 'Sunshine'

And yes, the starship that was onscreen for all of about 8 seconds in Avatar was awesomely well thought through. The VSTOL 'Shuttles' were also nice, as were the nifty little rotor-wings.

The unnamed starship from 'The Fountain' for its sheer preposterous whimsy - and a massive tip of the hat to E.E. Doc Smith's 'Skylark'

The 'Rama' starships from Arthur C Clarke's 'Rama' series are pretty good ideas for generation ships.

While the series wasn't up to scratch, the ships from 'Space:1999' were quite well thought out.

More novels - Stephen Baxter's 'voyage' and 'Titan' both describe in excruciating detail interplanetary craft based on the Apollo Venus flyby plans (real, look it up) and a somewhat more precarious but still possibly doable Shuttle-to-Titan.

Another one from books - the 'Ares' from Kim Stanley Robinson's massive Mars trilogy was also based on Shuttle-tech.

As for most-realistic starships of any space-faring species, I don't think you can go past the delightfully eccentric 'living' starships of The Culture series by Iain M Banks. Give me a GSV or a Fast Picket any day!

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Realistic in one sense

The large model of Discovery was getting on for the size of a real ship - 54 feet to be precise.

There's a huge debt owed to Gerry Anderson for the look of spaceships from the 1970s onwards. It was him and his team creating models for Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, UFO and Space 1999 that really excelled at hacking bits of Airfix kits into detailing for models.

They were so good that Kubrick pinched most of them to work on '2001' and from there they went on to inspire a good deal of the work done on movies like 'Silent Running', 'Close Encounters' and 'Bladerunner'.

And although it's not a film spaceship, you can't get a better ship than the Eagle from Space 1999.

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Gravity in the podbay

Don't know about your other points, but they never pretended there was gravity in the podbay - if you look closely, you can see Velcro on the floor

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Meh

Windows? to look out of, of course

The film wasn't all about realism (err .. the black monoliths) but they got some bits right.

They were going to Jupiter to _look_ at what was there. They'd have to anticipate maneuvering when they get there too : the Apollo astronauts did look out the window for maneuvering, but very little (mostly _not_ on the way to the moon, but on the way back).

As for the coriolis / osmotic issues, the importance of these was underestimated before skylab ...

i.e. after the movie.

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Re: The Discovery

Well how about the Alexei Leonov from 2010...?

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Re: Realistic in one sense

For a time I knew Harry Lange, through his wife Daisy (while she studied archaeology as a mature student at my University). He didn't talk too much about his time working with Kubrick, as he was generally a rather modest man, but he did say, in general, that he and the other NASA artists, hired for 2001, took their inspiration for how the outside of the spaceships should look, from their years of drawing and painting concept art for countless proposed NASA rovers, landers and deep space probes. ("A good picture could make congress open it's wallet" he once said.) He commented that "we may have over done it", since - at the time we were talking - hardly anyone had dared to present a movie spaceship, which did not feature that same, dull, slightly grubby-looking, matt grey exterior, with ports, panels, grills, handles and ladders all over it.

I've seen some claim that Lange 'designed' the Millennium falcon (it's a claim he did not make in my presence) but I do recall, he did say it was he, who convinced Lucas to stick a comms dish on it - as a homage to the comms dish on the Discovery, from 2001. Lucas had complained that people with faster than light travel would not bother communicating using radio, but Harry had replied, is his usual pragmatic manner: "George, who says its a radio dish? A parabola is the best way of focusing any kind of radiation into a beam, isn't it?"

Harry's love of wearing tweed flat caps, on set (although, by the time I knew him, he'd moved onto trilbies) is often said to have been an inspiration for the space suit designs of 2001 - a claim Harry certainly repeated, to me on one occasion, when he showed me a Set Crew's commemorative book, that was presented to all the people who had worked on the film, after it's success - pointing out the photo of himself, wearing such a cap on set.

However, a personal favourite - in cutting costs, to produce props - was the muffin trays, from Dark Star. "If only we'd thought of that!"

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FAIL

Why no mention of Close Encounters of the Third Kind's spaceships?

I want a refund, dammit.

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RTFA

Or is "a vast, light-bedecked mothership" not mention enough?

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Boffin

OP was referring to the little probe thingies.

Ice-cream!

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Alert

What ...

no Fireball XL5

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"Engine on a stick"

I remember reading that the inspiration for Blake's 7's Liberator was a microphone, with engines stuck on the sides to make that a bit less obvious.

It sounds silly until you go back and look at a picture of it.

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Airwick

Actually the engine was an airwick air fresher. I think I remember Blue Peter making one and the back end was identical to the 'real thing'.

They also made the teleporter braclets - I so wanted one - but unfortunatelly you had to supply your own sound effects, and teleportation.

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@Engine on a stick

Yes, the Liberator was based on a cordless microphone, however originally it was intended to fly the opposite way ie with what became the "green bulb" engine at the front.

Fortunately Terry Nation decided it should go the other direction and thus created one of the most iconic ships ever.

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Which was the squarish one, stuck out-of-phase over Stonehenge in Dr Who?

I recall Matt Irvine saying that the engines on that were actually inline waste filters for standard, 40mm plastic plumbing.

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Wings and things

Considering the UFOs in Cowboys and Aliens were operating inside the atmosphere maybe the wings were there for the same reason aeroplanes have them...

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The form...

will almost certainly be related to function and operation. A sphere provides the largest volume to surface ratio possible, so if you generate power this would logically provide you with the greatest space for the lowest amount of radiative surface, and for a pressurised compartment, you would want the minimum amount of airtight material possible.

If you collect energy, then having the greatest surface area to mass (volume) would be beneficial, so a solar sail, or something with "villi" would suit. Similarly for propulsive surfaces - a rail gun powered ship would be long and thin, but an equal propulsive effect could be achieved by lower velocities over a larger area.

If your energy generation or propulsion systems are somehow toxic or excessively dangerous, you might want to mount them far away from inhabited parts of a ship.

I expect a combination approach would be adopted, hence the look of Discovery and Venture Star.

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Boffin

I don't think villi make sense - they're used to extract stuff from gaseous media because they have a high internal surface area exposed to the gas; however the amount of incoming radiation captured is a function of the *external* surface area, so all that internal surface area is wasted.

If they were being used to extract something useful from an atmosphere, they'd probably be mounted internally, after a filtering system, because they're very delicate - so I'd just expect to see air intakes (e.g. gills).

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villi

Yeah, at the time I just couldn't think of a word to describe a highly convoluted surface arranged for maximum capture of stuff. It doesn't have to be sunlight, of course, any photon, particle, whatever could conceivably form the basis of an alien energy collection / propulsion system.

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Spheroids

This is important because the living quarters will need to be shielded from solar radiation/wind etc. This takes mass. The smaller the surface area the smaller the mass required for shielding, the more you get out of your propulsion system.

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Anonymous Coward

>"greatest space for the lowest amount of radiative surface"

I thought that in general, it is *dumping* heat that is the bigger design problem for spacecraft. So maybe the best spaceship design would be a flat thin rectangle like a sheet of paper.

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Enterprise

I don't understand why Landis is coming down on the Enterprise design so hard. Up and down? Surely there is up and down when you have artificial gravity. Thrust vector offset from CoG? Does he really know where CoG is in the Enterprise? Does warp drive generates thrust in the Newtonian sense at all? And perhaps the impulse drives' thrust vector goes precisely through CoG... And if it doesn't then the script writers can always make sure that it does.

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OK I correct myself...

Let it be CoM instead of CoG.

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>perhaps the impulse drives' thrust vector goes precisely through CoG...

That will be why voyager's nacelles fold up?

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Alien

Try this artist

Chris Foss

He illustrated the covers of a lot of the Sci-Fi books in my collection

Perhaps this will give people a taste.

http://www.chrisfossart.com/2011/09/a-clash-of-cymbals/

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Anonymous Coward

Peter Elson.

http://www.peterelson.co.uk

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FAIL

_Battle Beyond The Stars_ is *not* a Star Wars clone! It's a Seven Samurai clone.

Doesn't make it any less bad, though.

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Happy

bit harsh I think

If you don't take apart the science and ignore some of the poor acting performances (though not too many) it's quite a fun film

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Yeah, but, its got.....

a starship with tits...........

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Clone War?

It's a Seven Samurai clone which has been dressed to cash in on the success of Star Wars.

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Trollface

It's not like..

..Star Wars didn't rip off the plot lines of other films or anything.

Secret of its success.

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Trollface

No it's not, it's a

No it's not, it's a 'Magnificent Seven' clone. _That_ was a 'Seven Samurai' clone.

But yeah, it's great.

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Holmes

Re: It's not like Star Wars didn't rip off the plot lines of other films or anything.

Maybe, but has anyone actually seen 'The Hidden Fortress'?

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Linux

Both Kurosawa knockoffs...

They were both Kurosawa knockoffs and Akira was probably fine with all of it.

It seems he was just that kind of guy (and not at all like Ellison).

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Holmes

Yes I've seen the Hidden Fortress.

It was OK

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Form follows function

Who's got time to prettify on that level?

Assuming you don't have some form of reentry force field and your ship needs to re-enter, your stuck with the simple geometrics Disk, Ball, Cylinder, Boomerang, or Dart.

What you use for propulsion also has a big influence, is it a big 1950's antigravity ring? (in which case your using a saucer or a ball) some big rocket nozzles? some sleek reaction less propulsion device (which under current physics you can't have anyway, but thats another story).

How radioactive is it? - does it need to be at the ned of a long spar to keep the crew from spitting out their teeth after a few weeks

Whats the ISP? - An engine that can do a brachistone trajectory is going to look seriously different to something that only fires off once every 6 months

Warships? Using lasers? in which case you want at least two of the dimensions minimised for dodging.

Using Missiles? Then it should be studded with counter missile kinetic weapons

At the end you can't just look at a spaceship and say "this looks real" or "this looks fake", you have to look at the spaceship in the context of the technology that built it. The USS Enterprise exists in a universe of cheap artificial gravity, field drives, energy reinforced structural components - so it makes sense in that context. However if the rest of the universe is babylon 5 (for example), then the USS enterprise is just wrong.

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Go

You missed out Stargate

And before you say it there are 3 movies, 1 for the original and 2 for the series!

They had different designs beyond the standard saucer in all three rows of the franshise, although I am not so sure about the toilet seat Ori Mothership...

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More of these articles

However - didnt Nostromo looked something like this: http://time.absoluteavp.com/pics/nostromo.jpg?

BTW - how to generate (or handle) gravity will be a deciding factor for ship designs, and if the technology comes around to artificially generate gravity, all bets are off. Sometimes current boffins seems to have too narrow scope...

On the other hand - if your spaceship needs to have atmospheric capabilities, a round shape (or disc shape) is not totally off - why waste more fuel/energy?

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Nostromo

That's the refining platform it is towing. Nostromo is just the tug.

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Tug on this....

That is the refinery the Nostromo was towing. The image in the article is the Nostromo itself.

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HA

"The beauty of the saucer, of course, is that it’s inexpensive to fake. As a million ill-advised amateurs with a Super 8 camera and a hubcap have proven over the years."

Including me I'm proud to say.

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Pint

Alien Derelict

I liked the Derelict spacecraft in "Alien", which pays little attention to any preconceived notion as to what a spacecraft should look like. More like a bunch of fossil bones than a ship.

NB, Boba Fett's ship had good reason to be "suspiciously smooth" - it travels in atmosphere as well as deep space.

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Anonymous Coward

yes it is..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NoCsZvYeEQ

The picture at http://time.absoluteavp.com/pics/nostromo.jpg is the ore refinery attached to the Nostromo.

See http://www.alienscollection.com/bednar6.jpg and http://www.alienscollection.com/bednar19.jpg for a model of the refinery with the Nostromo visible at the bottom left of the pic.

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Yes, it is.

The Nostromo was a tug, which pulled a large asteroid covered in/embedded with mining equipment and a refinery.

It separated from that asteroid before it landed on LV-426, and that's what you're seeing in the picture in the article - the Nostromo on its own. Later, after they repair the landing gear and took off again, they performed a rendezvous with the asteroid and reattached to it, (though I don't recall whether this was actually shown in the film).

Ripley's self-destruct of the ship took out both the Nostromo *and* the refinery - much to Weyland-Yutani's annoyance - and she escaped in the tiny Narcissus, an aerodynamic little shuttle.

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Alien

I think that's the bit of the Nostromo that...

...went down to the planet.

http://www.markta.co.uk/alien/chapter01.htm

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Alien

Escaped? Nah, I wouldn't call that an escape. Uh-uh. Nooooo.

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Nostromo

Btw, the name Nostromo is brilliant in itself (as is the ship design imo).

Nostromo is an italian word, drived from 'nostre uomo' or 'our man'. It is used as a 'buddy/mate' name by miners in Italy. Don't know if there is an english equivalent; in german and dutch it is 'kumpel' resp. 'kompel' which has about the same connotation.

I always found it a sign of Scotts perfectionism to use this dark and doomed name that still is a real existing word.

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Lexx - Tales from the Dark Side... that had the best design for a space ship, ever, it was organic and looked like a dragonfly, or maybe a penis, or maybe a dragonflies penis? Also the Sci-Fi was top notch in that show and 100% accurate.

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Ah yes...

The LEXX, with its RFID gesture activated voice recognition command & control system, resident zombie, iSkull and iCandy.

God, I loved that show.

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Terminator

I guess it depends on future propulsion and shielding technology..

One Sci-Fi series I read said that the shapes of the schips were dictated by the necessity of the technology invented for future (FTL/Wormhole) propulsion. In this case they had to be perfectly Spherical, with all external antennae being retracted before the propulsion mechanism was enabled. Also if such and idea as shielding technology is ultimately possible I'd think that a sphere would be the easiest shape to envelop too.

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