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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  1. Robert Grant


    “Probably the silliest design of all time is the Star Trek ‘Enterprise’. It's obviously built with a clear notion of which way should be ‘up’ - but what does up or down mean in space? Why make the habitat section in the form of a saucer, anyway (except, perhaps, as homage to the old Kenneth-Arnold style UFO shape)? And, since the engines are so far off the centreline, why doesn't it only fly in loops?”

    None of this makes sense. Of course you have to design a spaceship with a notion of which way is "up", if they have gravity and rooms inside them designed with a similar assumption in mind. And the engines aren't rockets. Seriously, I don't care about this stuff enough to make a career out of it, but the guy who does seems to be talking some crap!

  2. Adam T

    Giant sphere

    Surely the obvious choice.

    Just don't put the exhaust somewhere obvious.

    1. Ru

      Its a bit dull for Hollywood

      but the 'big sphere' pops up in various places... Battletech dropships and the Adamist ships in the Night's Dawn series (and I guess any other books that might have been set in the same universe) spring to mind.

      I thought a more interesting design was the long pointy wedge of Alastair Reynold's Lighthuggers... if you're going seriously fast, streamlining is still a benefit even in the interstellar vacuum. You get to make something that looks cool and is yet still practical; what's not to like?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Fail yourself.

      If the gravity is artificially generated (I certainly don't remember Enterprise spinning rapidly around its axis in flight) then there's no reason it can't be in different directions in different parts of the ship, so there's no reason for it to be in one constant direction that could be called "up"; radially outward from the center would make as much sense.

      Also, the impulse engines certainly are reaction-mass-based rockets even if the warp drive isn't.

      1. Andrew Moore Silver badge

        I always thought that there was a galactic 'Up' because whenever the Enterprise encounters another ship, they're always aligned along the Z axis.

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

          Re: Fail yourself

          "then there's no reason it can't be in different directions in different parts of the ship, so there's no reason for it to be in one constant direction that could be called "up""

          Yes, it can be in different directions in a ship designed by a drug abusing fashion designer. In an interstellar battleship you want your crew to know where their up and down are. You also don't need the extra stresses due to gravity gradients between different parts of the ship when you have to think about dealing with photon torpedo impacts.

        2. King Jack

          Galactic Up

          The ship's computer works out which way up is by aligning itself with the planetary system its in. The computer also works out where the planets would be so they don't warp miles away from their target.

      2. Willington

        I'm not sure about the other classifications but the NCC-1701D certainly had it's impulse engines affixed to the saucer section. The warp nacelles don't provide thrust as such, they just create a warp field.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        The Enterprise looks cool and is the right shape for a pizza-cutter.

        If shape doesn't matter then why not?

        Maybe it's psychologically important for people to have an idea of 'up'.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

          Captain, I detect enormous amounts of fail in this sector!

          Discussing Star Trek's imaginary fantasy tech is fruitful and rewarding!

          (Yeah, I know, NASA has checked it and Alcubierre Drive blah blah .... FUUUU .... )

      4. Eddie Edwards
        Thumb Up

        We seriously need a movie / TV series of the Night's Dawn trilogy.

      5. Sampler

        That's why the impulse engines are based in the "neck" of the craft at the rear of the dish - least the model of the Enterprise-B that I had made as a child did.

        Also whilst it'd be possible to put the artificial gravity plates in all manner of configuration (possibly, they may conflict with each other) just think what a pain in the arse it would be to navigate the ship, one minute you'd be on the floor than walking up a wall to across the ceiling - it would disorientate the common passenger which lets not forget is a position space travel is in by the time Star Trek is set.

        Also the article mocks some space craft for there aerodynamic designs - such as a bird of prey, but a bird of prey is capable of atmospheric landing to which point aircraft aerodynamics come into play - just look at our own (now consigned to the dustbin of time) spacecraft - the shuttle.

        All this just goes to show - you will still get people bickering about your starcraft design as much as your hacking depiction as, even though we've no authority, it's never held us back before :D

      6. Vic

        Of gravity...

        > there's no reason it can't be in different directions in different parts of the ship


        Imagine trying to walk between two such regions...


        1. amck

          You don't. You take the lift, which gets rid of these strange disconcerting bits for you ...

      7. CD001

        I guess it's possible that that's the reason the "Saucer Section" is a saucer ... the inside rotates (maybe) *shrugs*

      8. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        "The long pointy wedge of Alastair Reynold's Lighthuggers"

        While this may be pretty coolish, I imagine a hydrogen atoms coming at you at 0.99999 c is not going to be seriously hindered by the wedge while it deposits its energy into the machinery and soft tissue.

        Better use a Bussard Ramjet with FRACKING HUGE MAGNETIC FIELDS GENERATED USING MONOPOLES or better yet a kilometer or so of asteroid between you and any onrushing crap. Like in "Pushing Ice".

        No Nuclear BBQ icon? Tsar Bomba, then.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge


          "or better yet a kilometer or so of asteroid between you and any onrushing crap"

          Yes - you'll want some damn good shielding in front of you. Even the "FRACKING HUGE MAGNETIC FIELDS" of a ramjet won't be much help against larger, neutral-charge debris. And there's no point in making that shield look pretty - it's going to get banged up anyway - so might as well just grab a handy piece of space rock.

          On the other hand, we already have a pretty nice spacegoing environment with decent shielding, earth-like conditions (including gravity), and lots of cargo space - the Earth. One of Larry Niven's space-travel proposals was to turn the sun into a ramjet and just move the whole solar system around. (Sun moves, drags planets gravitationally - which also spreads the acceleration out nicely.) By the time you've used up a significant amount of the sun's mass, you should be able to replace it with interstellar hydrogen using your magnetic scoop.

          (This does require some kind of magic tech - Niven suggests "cheap transmutation" for refashioning Jupiter's mass - to build the magnets, so it's basically fantasy.)

          Of course you can't go into orbit around an interesting extrasolar planet; but you can park (well, match velocities and angular accelerations, within necessary tolerance) relatively close to one - just far enough out not to perturb orbits too much - and use conventional spacecraft to visit, if you must. At least it becomes an intrasolar-scale journey.

        2. Peter Mc Aulay

          I thought the wedge shape was simply for reducing the lighthugger's cross section. There also was a thick coating of water ice for ablative armour. (I don't remember any magnetic shielding, but it wouldn't surprise me.)

      9. Marshalltown

        Different directions??

        The Enterprise doesn't spin. The shape is against it. Setting up a vessel with an internal gravitational geometry that varied from point to point would be asking for broken legs and other injuries in the crew. Then too, since the "gravity" is artificial, there's no reason to assume a point source that creates a radially symmetric field either. From the view point of the health and safety of the crew in a long duration voyage, a stable "up" is a reasonable decision. There are plenty of screwy things in the "design" of the Enterprise, but I don't see gravity as one.

    3. Willington

      There have been a couple of giant spheres. The Borg Queen's ship in Star Trek: TNG and my favourite (ship that is, not film - I'll always prefer the books to the TV and film outings), the Heart of Gold from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie.

      1. NorthernSands


        ...And the radio version to the books! ;-)

    4. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      (Some) Starfleet ships are designed for atmospheric flight too

      ISTR Voyager at least setting down on a planet with a breathable atmosphere, so some aerodynamic considerations were needed.

    5. TeeCee Gold badge

      Such a clear notion of up that it's actually down.

      IIRC, it was originally designed with the engineering nacelle above the saucer and the warp nacelles at the bottom. Roddenberry said it looked better upside-down and that's what we got.

    6. PatientOne

      There was some blurb as to the rational of the design of the Enterprise (justifying it after the model was made, perhaps, or this is what they thought of when designing the ship - I'm not sure and I don't have the book with the background anywhere near me.)

      Warp engines were kept separate from the main body due to radiation. Most Star Trek ships kept to this design. This did change later on (The Bird of Prey from the films) but for the TV series it was mostly adhered to. The saucer of a Federation ship was intended to detach, both to operate independently, and to allow atmospheric landing. ST:NG used this quite a few times, but the original series and the films also referenced this technology. It was not unique to the Federation, either: The Klingon ships were supposed to be able to detach the front and back of their ships, too, for similar reasons.

      As to why there is an 'up': In battle you need to have a clear reference as to where an enemy ship is in relation to you. So, starboard twenty degrees would be twenty degrees from your axis to the right. But up or down? Well, Positive ten degrees would tell you that, wouldn't it? And you can only do this if you have a standard reference plane to work from. And if you're doing that, why not set gravity to that standard plane? As to points where artificial gravity might intersect: You'd get Lagrange points within your ship: Points of zero gravity. These have appeared in other films and series where they have explored such concepts before (I remember seeing it, but can't remember where...)

      But the main reason why all these ships look so outlandish is so people can recognise them. You need to know which are the good guys and which are the bad, and you need to know which series or film you're watching just by seeing the ship designs. I guess they learned their lessons from the old B-movies: You could watch those and see the same ships used, and the same space battle scenes used time and again (Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Chaser, Star Crash... just to name a few).

    7. LaeMing Silver badge

      The big advantage of a sphere

      is it has minimal surface area. If you are trying to minimise bleeding internal energy into space, pointy bits are not optimal.

      Possibly a sphere with retractable sticky-out heat sinks for temperature regulation.

    8. Robert E A Harvey


      Assuming that the ship has to contain an atmosphere of some sort then the sphere makes good sense. Then, if there is any sort of radiation hazard from the engines a 10KM open frame pylon with the engine at the other end...

      And we are back to 2001.

    9. Alexander Rogge


      The Star Trek designs are some of the most beautiful and inspiring examples of futuristic spacecraft platforms. There actually is an Up in free space, which is aligned to the galactic plane. That plane is what provides the coordinate system relative to the numerical vectors that are so often referred to during vessel manœuvres.

    10. Marshalltown

      Been there

      EE Smith used a giant sphere for the earlier ships in the lensman stories - not on film - as did AE van Vogt whose "Scarlet Destroyer" was clearly the direct ancestor of "Alien." All in all though, spheres are boring.

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

        I was going to trot that one out.

        They moved to teardrops as EE Smith's inertialess field plus thruster drive system gave the interesting effect of streamlining being an advantage in space.

        When you do away with the pesky lightspeed limitation, how fast you go is a product of thrust vs. the resistance of the little matter floating around in interstellar space. Wall shields dealt with the fact that his ships were effecively barging their way through interstellar hydrogen all the time. Intergalactic travel was practical (if that's the right word in this context) due to the lower density of crud between galaxies.

  3. Steven Jones


    Of course if a space ship confines itself to space and planetary bodies without atmospheres they do not have to be aerodynamic. However, short of some magical property that allows spacecraft entering a planet's atmosphere to avoid the normal laws of aerodynamic, it would seem rather sensible to make them work well in that environment. After all, the Space Shuttle was so designed as were the re-entry capsules for manned missions using disposable rockets. So the alien's choice of an aerodynamic saucer shape might appear quite sensible, albeit unnecessary for the mother ship which is presumably sitting out beyond the atmosphere.

    It's notable that Arthur C Clarke (who cared about such things) had the Discovery 1 as a functional, deep-space design and not an aerodynamic one.

    Incidentally, Prof Brian Cox once acted as an adviser on a Sci Fi film, and he noted that one thing which always had to be included was sound effects in a vacuum. Space battles simply don't seem to be convincing without those.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Ooh! Yes, those sound effects as Blake crawled along between the outer skin and the passenger areas of the prison ship whilst a space battle raged outside. That was creepy.

      I know the bloke who did the special sound on Blake's 7, BTW, worked with him for a number of years.

    2. NorthernSands

      I'm not so sure

      I find the lack of sound effects works very well in both the new BattleStar Galactica and Firefly.

    3. Captain Hogwash Silver badge

      Sound effects

      Though it was the lack of sound effects during the sequences outside the ship that made 2001 so convincing.

    4. Shakje

      That's the point that Krauss makes though

      None of the saucers mentioned in the article have motherships, they're the actual deep space vehicles. It makes no sense to design a deep-space vehicle to behave well in an atmosphere.

      "However, short of some magical property that allows spacecraft entering a planet's atmosphere to avoid the normal laws of aerodynamic"

      There's generally so many laws of physics ignored when people get onto the topic of alien spacecraft or future spacecraft in the media, what's a few more?

    5. TeeCee Gold badge

      If you can travel between the stars, stopping and entering an atmosphere at a speed where aerodynamics are of trivial importance should be small beer.

      The only reason for being streamlined is if either a) you want to use the atmosphere to slow down with bits melting off the outside or b) if you need to travel quickly in an atmosphere and can't be arsed to generate a field to permit this (e.g. like the Theron flying houses in Dan Dare).

    6. DaddyHoggy

      Prof Brian Cox offered Physics advice to the 2007 Film "Sunshine" - he noted it was mostly ignored, cinematography overriding Physical correctness.

  4. Gavin McMenemy

    No mention of The spaceship at the end of the Fountain?

    Other than that an interesting article.

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    1. Andrew Moore Silver badge

      no, that's the space tug Nostromo. The Narcissus was an escape pod and a lot smaller.

      1. Ru

        I stand corrected!

        I'll go and stand in the corner and think about what I've done.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    >"streamlined space shuttle"

    That, of course, makes sense, since it has to operate in the atmosphere as well as in space. (Well it did in 2001, I haven't seen Conquest of Space).

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stargate SG-1

    Tell me it isn't so. I am starting to thing el Reg hates Stargate.

    Can't we just steal the ancient technology and slap a USAF sticker on?

    Where's the death glider? The transport the Gould Mothership, the grey's "O'Neill" class ?

    Can't forget the ORI and the religious supergate attack ships. Will you accept origin?

    1. geekclick
      Thumb Up


      The franchise had some excellent ones.. Notably

      Daedalus class

      Ancient Warships

      Wraith Hiveships

      Asgard Beliskner and O'Neill class

      Replcator Ships

      and Last but not least Destiny from SGU

      So no saucer ships, none with any real hommage to Aerodynamics and all with engines that "wont make them fly in loops"

      *sigh* Stargate is always missed off these things which is odd given the size of the fan base and how well its known in SciFi

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

        Perhaps the author felt let-down by first SG1 and then Atlantis comming to an end. They probably then went on to hate everything to do with the franchise after watching a few episodes of Universe, and desperately trying to get to like it, but eventually shooting the TV instead...

        1. geekclick

          Aww i liked SGU

          Not at first mind but it got better!

          Atlantis never got the ending it deserved and the less said about the ending to SG1 the better!

        2. Andrew Moore Silver badge

          Don't forget the incredibly dire Stargate:Infinity

          1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

            Oh my god, I forgot that completely! I can't remember if I even watched the whole of the first episode before the DVDs went to the charity shop! It was about as unwatchable as TV gets.

            I wish you hadn't reminded me about that :(

      2. techfreak
        Thumb Up

        Thanks for including these links

        There's been a slew of very cool and believable designs in the last 20-years. I don't think the author could reference them all. Others I like are from Mission to Mars, Avatar. The new BSG stuff is just plain cool. And how about all the designs from the video games? Halo, EVE Online, etc.

    2. alphaxion

      The only things I didn't like about SGU was the constant "we're not supposed to be here", almost as if it was a constant Clerks reference. Then there was bringing the damn Alucian Alliance into it - the series was meant to be a complete break from the rest of the SGU story lines.

      Such a shame it wasn't given the time it needed. :(


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