13 May 2011

FWS Favorite 10: Starships

1. The Sulco from ALIENS:
This vessel changed the way that sci-fi writers and creators looked at how starships should look. This vessel was every part of a military vessel and one of the rare unique desgins in sci-fi.

 2. the EDF-Andromeda from Starblazers/Space Cruiser Yamato:
During the invasion of the Comet Empire, this dual Wave-Motion Cannon dreadnought led the Terran strike-force at Saturn. This vessel was a beauty and bassass to boot...and it had TWO Wave-Motion Cannons!

 3. The Omega class Destroyer from Babylon 5
When Babylon 5 came onto the airwaves, Star Trek dominated the sci-fi market, and this series showed a different kind of space opera complete with hard science warships and fighters. The best of the Earth Alliance ships was the oddly beautiful and powerful Omega class destroyer. The way that this ship is beautiful remains me of what Sir Francis Becon once said: "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion"

4. The NX-2000 Excelsior from Star Trek: III/VI
When you have one of the most iconic designs for a starship, the Enterprise, what do to after that? You design, the Excelsior...my favorite ship from Star Trek. There is just something about this rumored Federation battleship that attached me to it...I guess it's what Sir Bacon said....strangleness.

5. The Andromeda Ascent from Gene Rhoddenberry's Andromeda
This is another one of those original designs in sci-fi, and the Andromeda was one of the best things in the entire series, not to mention the  hot AI. This vessel was crafted around their method of FTL drive (slipstream) and was armed to the frakking teeth with all manner of weaponry...take that Star Trek!

6. The USSR Leneov from 2010: the Year We Make Contact
In 1984, I got to see a rare hard-science starship built by the Soviets that used a centrifuge for artifical gavity. The realistic beauty of this ship sparked imgination and it was nice to see the design carried over in the Babylon 5 Omega class destoryer.

7. The Argo/Yamato Space Cruiser Yamato/Starblazers
Besides the famous ships of Star Trek and Star Wars, this was one of my first educators in war spaceships: the EDF Yamato. Built from the wreck of the Imperial Japanese battleship Yamato in 2199 to save mankind, this badass was equipped with fighters, massive naval artillery cannons, legions of  AAA cannons, and of course, the Wave-Motion Cannon. This, above all, it my favorite starship of all.

8. The Pheaton from Virtuality
This was an Ronald D. Moore pilot for a proposed hard science sci-fi FOX show that would have centered around the nuclear-pulse propulsion Pheaton on its five-year mission to Epsilon Eridani to find a habital world. The pilot became a TV movie, and then was released on DVD. If have not watched Virtuality, you are missing out.

 9. the SCNV Saratoga from Space: Above and Beyond
The United States space carrier Saratoga was the main focus of the landmark MSF series, and the main ship in the Chig War. This vessel was one of the more realistic space carriers seen in sci-fi, and it was a refreshing design over the Star Trek/Star Wars warships.
10. Nova Class Dreadnought from Babylon 5
In a word: badass. This Earth Alliance warship was littered with 22 plasma cannons and six particle cannons, and to show how much offensive power was the primary mission of the Nova class, the gravity centrifuge is omitted. This makes the Nova more limited range, but this god of war is meant to go in, and end the enemy.


  1. I'm somewhat annoyed at how often science fiction writers ignore the mechanics of realistic space craft- especially with that annoying "Confusing a Spacecraft With an Boat (or Airplane)" school of spacecraft design. Down, on a rocket ship, is opposite the direction of thrust- meaning a spacecraft will be built like a skyscraper, with the engines at the bottom and each deck perpendicular to the axis of thrust. Things get more complicated when you include artificial gravity. You have to find a way to shift between "down is opposite the direction of thrust" while your engines thrust and "down is the outer wall of the spinning section" - an engineering nightmare. Even if a spacecraft designer had a means to generate artificial gravity without rotation, why would she lay the ships decks out like a boat?

    I find realistic spacecraft to be far more interesting than generic "Star Wars" style ships. There can be so many different looks. With near-future ion drives and solar sails, ships take on an etherial space-butterfly look. Since they only have mille-gee thrust, they can be creatures of pure space, never meant to defy the gravity field of a planet or endure high thrust.

    A nuclear-pulse rocket, like Project Orion (the Phaeton is a nuclear pulse rocket) would be like an armored flying battleship- the size of the Queen Mary, built to withstand thousands of atomic bomb blasts. These ships are much more like the rocket ships of science fiction- able to blast off from the Earth's surface and embark on long voyages across the solar system with a mass ration well under 10. Advanced models might even fly to other stars. Technology like this has been within our reach since the 50's- political short-sightedness has been its biggest obstacle.

    There are many more kinds of realistic spaceships that can be imagined- if modern science-fiction writers used these more often, their SF stories would be much improved. The "future NASA look" has a lot to be said for it. Or perhaps a retro "Atomic Energy Commission" 1950's nuclear pulse rocket look. Or a future Mark 3 Nuclear Pulse Rocket, the descendant of the earlier Mark 1's...

    -Christopher Phoenix

  2. I whole-heartly agree, Mr. Phoenix. It is odd how "ships that look-like a boat" are the accepted standard of future starships now, and sci-fi for years, up until Lucas and Star Trek had more realistic fashioned starships.When I visited the Atomic Rockets website two years ago, I changed how I presented warships in my stories. I especially enjoy seeing the ISV Venture Star in Avatar complete with the massive glowing heat radiators! :) In my book that I working on, the ships are all 100% hard science, and that combat scene took me weeks of research to write three pages!
    There is just something about these realistic designed starships that get to me...strangleness and beauty I guess.
    Maybe I should make a post on this...hmmm...
    Thank you for reading and commenting!

  3. Weeks of research to write three pages- William, you are really putting a lot of effort into putting the "science" into "science fiction"! Keep working on the book. It sounds like your novel is extremely well researched, and I look forward to reading it. Most writers don't put that kind of effort out to ensure that their science in their stories is well researched. It is so much easier to make up stuff that sounds neat instead of learning how real spacecraft work, and most SF writers don't know enough science to pass a high school physics course. Perhaps that is beginning to change! Thanks for this blog, and thanks for caring enough to put hard science in your novel. (The strangeness and beauty of realistic space-craft gets to me too- etherial space-butterflies, stubby winged spaceplanes, and nuclear pulse ships are just so neat looking). Check out the Breakthfough Propulsion Physics Program's web page at NASA. They cover what makes star travel so difficult. I found it very enlightening. The ideas discussed there could be used in some SF spacecraft. : )

    Christopher Phoenix

  4. Hello William! My favorite starship from a SF movie is the Event Horizon from the movie Event Horizon. She really captured the strange beauty of a craft designed to navigate space. The Lewis & Clarke was a neat little ship- but nothing much compared to the Event Horizon. If it wasn't for the fact the ship had taken on a life-force of its own and caused its own crew to rip each other to pieces, before trying to drag the crew of the Lewis & Clarke to another dimension rumored to be the depths of hell, it would have been a great ship to fly to another star.

    The Event Horizon is huge, according to Jeff Russell's STARSHIP DIMENSIONS website. It easily dwarfs most Federation ships from Star Trek. There are much larger ships than the Event Horizon in other SF series, but the larger craft are from races that had been star-faring for centuries- including several highly advanced alien races. Given the fact the Event Horizon had been built by humans in 2040-ish who were trying to reach Proxima Centauri, she was a pretty big achievement. But size is not her only cool factor, despite the fact the looming craft looked really cool when the Lewis & Clarke approached her in Neptune's atmosphere.

    Space tech in Event Horizon is pretty realistic in Event Horizon. The standby's- like artificial gravity without rotation are there, but the ships use conventional thrusters- presumably fusion-powered rockets that have such high thrust the crew have to be in stastis in grav-couches, suspended in fluid, to survive the G's. The Lewis & Clarke acted like it was no big deal to travel to Neptune in 65 days. At space shuttle speeds (28,000mph), it would take 11.4 years to reach Neptune at its minimum opposition distance. At the speed of the Galileo space probe (54,000 mph), your ship would take 5.9 years to reach Neptune. Using an Ion drive with thrust of 0.1 lb., your ship would take 4.9 years to reach Neptune. Using an ion drive with a thrust of 1 lb., your ship would take 179 days to reach Neptune. The Lewis & Clarke got to Neptune in 65 days, and the crew didn't act like this was unusual. They simply grumbled about being sent so far away when they should have been out on shore leave. I think the so-called "ion drives" were in face high powered fusion rockets- those spew out ions, so perhaps they could be termed an "ion drive". The crew often had to deal with low-gravity conditions- out-side the craft, for instance. Life support was a major concern- air scrubbers were necessary.

    Obviously, in the future Even Horizon is set in, humans have very powerful and versatile spacecraft that can reach the outer solar system, fly in the outer atmosphere of a gas giant, and sustain you for months in stasis. There are colony's on the moon and Mars, outposts in the outer solar system, and the solar system seems to have been mostly explored by advanced space technologies we can only dream about today. The next step was to explore the stars - but even the nuclear rockets of the Lewis & Clarke would take thousands of years to reach Proxima Centauri.

    To be continued...


  5. The Event Horizon is the creation of the brilliant but troubled Dr. William Weir. Dr. Weir headed a top secret military research and development program to build a ship capable of FTL travel. The Event Horizon was the prototype ship, sent using conventional thrusters to a safe distance beyond the orbit of Neptune before activating her FTL drive.

    The Event Horizon doesn't actually travel faster than light. She actually creates and focuses a beam of gravitons by manipulating a black hole contained in three magnetic rings. This graviton beam folds space so the ships destination co-exists with her starting point, then rips a hole through space-time, creating a dimensional gateway the Event Horizon slips through. Space-time than goes back to normal, and the gateway disappears. With these dimensional gateways, the ship can travel great distances in moments. She makes warp speed look slow. This drive is known as Gravity Drive.

    The Event Horizon is approximately 2200 meters long. She is built in two parts- the rear engineering section contains the reactor, rockets, engineering deck, and the Gravity Drive core. The front part contains the crew decks, bridge, and stasis/gravity couches. A long stick connects the two parts, containing a long corridor lined with explosives. In the case of an emergency, the crew can destroy the stick connecting the front decks with the gravity drive and use the front decks as a sublight life boat. This arrangement is similar to what Arthur C. Clarke called the Gamma or dumbbell shaped spaceship- the crew was in a habitat sphere at one end, the atomic motors in a sphere on the other, connected by a long stick in between them. This shape seems to be preferred by crews who want to be as far away from their drive as possible.

    The Gravity Drive core is the coolest FTL engine in the history of SF movies. No other ship has anything like it. Once you come to the end of the long corridor connecting the front parts with the engineering section, you have to walk through a strange corridor surrounded by rotating metal things that looks kind of like a meat grinder- it has something to do with magnetic fields. The actual core is a rotating sphere surrounded by three magnetic rings- kind of like a small version of the gateway in Carl Sagan's Contact, only it is covered in spikes and blinking lights. The room is spherical and has spikes and weird metal things covering the walls. This device actually creates and contains a black hole. If we ever have real FTL engines, they should look like this.

    The crew decks contain the bridge, which has a strange crossed-shaped window, the medical bay ( which has bone saws of all things, what is this, the Civil War?), the grav-couch stasis chambers (which fill with blood at the climax of the movie- oh goody!), airlocks, and lots of halls. The Event Horizon is a big ship, so I doubt we saw much of her.

    I love the Event Horizon- she is the coolest FTL starship ever. She also has an air of realism about her- it can be hard to tell which end is the front from a distance, and she feels like a real ship made of metal, synthetics, and foam, not a CGI model. She doesn't look like a big friendly cruiser with nice comfy chairs and and a huge holodeck in back. In other words, she feels like a real ship flown by real astronauts. Event Horizon looks like a real spacecraft, built along the lines of real space structures. If we ever have starships with artificial gravity fields and inter-dimensional drives, this is what they will be like.

    Christopher Phoenix

  6. The thing about series being set hundreds of years in the future is that science will most likely change beyond what we know. We can only base "realistic" starships on the science and knowledge about technology we have now. I think it's ignorant to say that in 300 years time we will still be designing things in any decernable structural pattern we do now, especially when we actual know very little about what living in space is like.

    I think science fiction has to be scientific, yes, but i hate in when people get annoyed because the starships are "not realistic".

    It IS science fiction, after all, cut them some slack and like it because it is cool.

  7. I disagree, Anonymous. Just because a few hundred year pass does not mean that the laws of physics will change. We do have a good idea about what living in space will be like- just ask an astronaut. Far future technologies and/or breakthroughs in propulsion will no doubt allow us to create starships that have much better living conditions than current technology does- but we can imagine what a future starship might look like based on the science we have today.

    Certain laws of physics will never change. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics will always apply to a spaceship, requiring it to have radiators for dissipating waste heat. This cannot be engineered away- it is a fundamental physical law. For this reason, stealth spaceships are impossible- the waste heat will always be visible, unless you hide behind a planet.

    A ship traveling at near light speed will experience time dilation and have to deal with induced cosmic rays and high speed debris. This will put constraints on its design. Future technology could provide unorthodox solutions- but we know that a solution is necessary.

    The laws of physics, such as the three laws of motion, Relativity, and the laws of thermodynamics, will always apply to spaceships, and the environment they move in (outer space) will be familiar too. It is ignorant to assume that "future science" will invalidate all science today. The spaceships built several centuries in the future will still obey the same laws of physics they do today.

    Check out this section at Atomic Rockets on respecting science and the laws of thermodynamics.

    Remember this one closing thought, though- often the way the universe actually works is stranger than what you can come up with. If you work with the laws of physics, you will find scenarios you had never imagined before that could make a much more interesting plot than some rehashed space opera with aircraft carriers in space. It isn't all "You can't do that!!" in hard SF!!

    Check out this section to find some weird bits of reality you can use as a springboard for a story:

    It is probable that current real world designs for starships are as far from the actual interstellar cruisers of the future as Leonardo da Vinci's designs were from the supersonic transports of today. However, they will still obey the laws of physics, like thermodynamics and Relativity!!

    Christopher Phoenix

  8. I do believe authors and readers have to come to an agreement in the first pages of a work, if it is soft sci-fi, than that is fine, especially when it comes to works like BSG. Hard Sci-fi is fine too, especially when it is good, like Avatar and the Forever War. My books and short stories go back and forth, somethings its fun to write in the soft side...but one area that I like to keep hard (hehe) is combat. The realities of killing, being killed, and warfare should be kept real...it should not be Rambo or Commando.

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  10. The problem I have with soft SF is, how soft can it be before it is fantasy?? Shall we just throw the 2nd law of thermodynamics out and have stealth spaceships? Shall ray-guns shoot slow blobs? Shall spaceships be laid out like boats? Shall I just make up anything I want, or are their limits to my softness? Even in fantasy, we expect swords to be sharp and ships to have seaman like rigging- unless it is a dream-like or surreal fantasy.

    In my SF, I won't include anything that is a blatant violation of the laws of physics and chemistry. I just know too much about spaceships to fall for the common misconceptions- like spaceships being laid out like boats, energy beams being visible in space, stealth spaceships, space fighters, aliens wanting our water (yes, V, I am looking at YOU!!!), bumpy headed aliens populating every other star system, etc.

    I will, however, edge out well beyond "plausible midfuture" tech like nuclear-electric drives and solar sails to include powerful STL star drives, x-ray/particle laser cannons, hand held ray-guns, etc.- but place such futuristic tech in it proper "tech level" and provide justification for its existence. I find realistic spaceships much neater than most Hollywood offerings anyway!!

    Just as the realities of killing should be kept real- I think the laws of physics that apply to space travel should be kept respected as well. Just because most people aren't familiar with space travel doesn't mean that the way real spacecraft function should be ignored. That's like saying I can write anything I want about guns because some people don't know how they work- or I can ignore small unit tactics because most civilians don't even know what that is. Of course, once you are writing a story, details like that tend to become background and your characters struggles and emotions take precedent- but solid backgrounds are important.

    Christopher Phoenix

  11. On the topic of boat-like spaceships, what if they are built in space, never designed for atmospheric action? Of course, I may be being completely silly, being that I don't know all that much about building a spaceship, but I think it's a valid point. If not, then why? And please, nothing about how we wouldn't be able to lift the materials into space. I'm using the assumption that we can, just to make it simpler. Also, wouldn't we be able to lift the material to space without using fuel by using a mass driver (massive railgun)?
    -Hannelore T. Harshaw

  12. I think it is logically to assaume that any FTL spaceship would be constructed in space, and the material would be lifted via mass drivers to the dry dock to be assembled. JJ Abrams got it wrong that the Enterprise would be built in atmosphere, the Enterrpise is a space only design vessel, especailly being powered via M/AM.
    The quick and dirty of why starships are not laid out like boats is due to the three dimensions of space and the nature of zero-gee. The Space Shuttle was laid out due to its plane function once it hit atmo.
    Here is a link to the atomic rocket hard science section on design, but due take with a grain of salt, the goal of the website is to promote 1950's like atomic rockets.
    For there to be boat-like starships, there would to be other methods of generating gravity than the spinning sections. At present, the mostly realistic design of a FTL ship seen on screen is ISV Venture Star from AVATAR.

    Good question. Hope it answers your question, and thanks for reading!

  13. While agree with most of your list, I personally never liked the Excelsior... indeed my friends and I used to joke that its legendary Transwarp drive worked by making it ooze slime so that one part of the universe would grow so disgusted it would hurl it away from itself at FTW speeds (cruel I know, but hey...)

    I would, however, put the Star Wars Star Destroyer in among my favorites. As bad a design as it was, it was cool. Besides, anything other than a sphere is really not that efficient is it?

    I'd also probably put the original Battlestar Galactica up there because, for its time, it was awesome. Otherwise, I love your selections.

    Othersie, I lo