How Big Is It?

The Polaris is 792.6 tons of propellant and 396.3 tons of everything else. How big is this, exactly?

When comparing the spacecraft to other vehicles, just use the "everything else" value, ignore the propellant mass. This is because few earthly vehicles have total masses dominated by fuel mass as much as rockets are. How does 396.3 tons stack up?

Rick Robinson notes that is pretty small compared to "wet-navy" vessels. It's under the size of a coastal corvette. But compared to aircraft, it's huge. A Boeing 747 is only 180 tons empty. If you want to get an idea of other sizes, go check out Jeff Russell's huge Starship Dimensions website and Florian Käferböck's impressive Rockets and Space Ships Size Comparison.

0Human Being1.77 meters/5.8 feet
1Giraffe6 meters/20 feet
2City Bus12 meters/40 feet long
3Small Orion Drive ship21 meters/70 feet
4Millennium Falcon35 meters/115 feetStar Wars
5Polaris43 meters/140 feetTom Corbett, Space Cadet
6Moonship44 meters/144 feetChesley Bonestell,
Conquest of Space
7Luna46 meters/150 feetDestination Moon
8Arc De Triomphe50 meters/164 feet
9Orion Drive Mars
Exploration Vehicle
50 meters/165 feet
10United Planets Star
Cruiser C-57D
51 meters/170 feet wideForbidden Planet
11Nautilus51 meters/170 feet long
12Space Shuttle stack56 meters/180 feet
13Absyrtis60 meters/197 feetG. Harry Stine,
Contraband Rocket
14Boeing74771 meters/231 feet
16Ferry Rocket81 meters/265 feetCollier's Magazine,
22 March, 1952
17Statue of Liberty93 meters/300 feet
18DE-51 Destroyer Buckley93 meters/306 feet
19Saturn V111 meters/363 feet
20DY-100 Botany Bay92 meters/302 feetStar Trek
21California Redwood112 meters/367 feet
15RS-10128 meters/420 feetAndre Norton Star Born
22Discovery140 meters/459 feet2001, A Space Odyssey
23Romulan Bird of Prey131 meters/430 feetStar Trek
24Great Pyramid of Cheops139 meters/455 feet
25Oscar class submarine155 meters/509 feet
26Galactic Cruiser Leif Ericson168 meters/551 feetLeif Ericson Model
27Washington Monument169 meters/555 feet
28Klingon D7 battlecruiser228 meters/750 feetStar Trek
29LZ-129 Passenger
Airship Hindenburg
245 meters/804 feet
30BB-62 Battleship New Jersey270 meters/887 feet
31NCC 1701 Starship Enterprise289 meters/950 feetStar Trek
32Eiffel Tower300 meters/984 feet
33CVN-65 Carrier Enterprise342 meters/1,123 feet
34Empire State Building443 meters/1,454 feet
35Al Rafik102 meters/335 feetAttack Vector: Tactical
36Tachi/Rocinante46 meters/151 feetThe Expanse
3710 Story Building30 meters/98 feet
38International Space Station109 meters/358 feet
39X-Wing Fighter13 meters/41 feetStar Wars
40Eagle Transporter31 meters/100 feetSpace 1999
41Shuttle Orbiter37 meters/122 feet
42Type S Scout39 meters/128 feetTraveller RPG
43Serenity58 meters/190 feetFirefly
44DDG-90 Destroyer Chafee155 meters/510 feet
45ISV Venture Star1,646 meters/5,400 feetAvatar
46CVN-68 Aircraft Carrier Nimitz333 meters/1,092 feet
47Imperial Star Destroyer1,600 meters/5,249 feetStar Wars
48Scoutship Vega20 meters/66 feetLeif Ericson Model
49Michael Battleship132 meters/433 feetFootfall
50Orion Battleship78 meters/256 feet
51ANNIC NOVA78 meters/256 feetTraveller RPG
52Valley Forge1,600 meters/5,249 feetSilent Running
53Klingon K't'inga class
Battle Cruiser
349.54 meters/1,147 feetStar Trek

Note: according to the blueprints the Michael Battleship (49) is 408 feet tall. However, this would make the Shuttle Orbiters mounted on the battleship too small. I scaled the blueprint so the Orbiters were at their official length, which made the Michael 433 feet tall.

Credits for the computer meshes used in the images below:

  • 10 Story Building: KG
  • ANNIC NOVA: Winchell Chung (me)
  • Al Rafik: Charles Oines
  • Boeing 747: Jay
  • CVN-68 Aircraft Carrier Nimitz: Toby
  • DDG-90 Destroyer Chafee
  • Eagle Transporter: James Murphy
  • Galactic Cruiser Leif Ericson: Winchell Chung (me)
  • Giraffe: BMS
  • Human: ?
  • ISV Venture Star: krabz
  • Imperial Star Destroyer: Blenderwars
  • International Space Station: ?
  • Klingon K't'inga Battle Cruiser: ?
  • Michael Battleship: Winchell Chung (me)
  • Millennium Falcon: Blenderwars
  • NCC 1701 Starship Enterprise: William P. "Tallguy" Thomas
  • Ogre Mark V: Winchell Chung (me)
  • Orion Battleship: Winchell Chung (me)
  • Polaris: Winchell Chung (me)
  • Saturn V: Tesler
  • School Bus: tamias6
  • Scoutship Vega: Winchell Chung (me)
  • Serenity: JayThurman (Cyberia23)
  • Space Shuttle Orbiter: NASA
  • Space Shuttle Stack: ?
  • Statue of Liberty: Damo
  • Tachi/Rocinante: Chris Kuhn
  • Type S Scout: Winchell Chung (me)
  • Valley Forge: ?
  • X-Wing Fighter: Blenderwars
Maiden Flight, SDSD Freudian Nightmare
Imperial Weapons Development Center, Coruscant
To Whom it May Concern:

Gentlemen, let me start by saying that I am greatly honored to be chosen for command of such a magnificent vessel. That said, our insystem shakedown cruise has turned up a few minor issues that I would like to see remedied as soon as possible.

1) We understand your desire to continue the classical stylized lines of the first star destroyer class vessels, and we appreciate your asthetic sense in that regard. However, strictly speaking, was it absolutely necessary to scale up the bridge tower directly? I must confess the foreward bridge window is a great distraction. Militarily, we feel that as is, the three kilometer tall window pane may provide too tempting a target for enemy forces we may engage. We've lost four helmsmen so far to vertigo as well, and we don't think this is in the best interests of the vessel's well-being.

2) The sheer size of our vessel, while a glorious symbol of the mighty Emperor, which we all appreciate completely, has become apparent to us all. My initial briefing tour of the vessel took six days to complete, and the travel tubes were based on the design in use aboard the slightly smaller Executor-class vessels. Travel time being prohibitive, we were forced to camp out in the corridors of the major sectors when we stopped for the night. Furthermore, since our crew quarters sections are located entirely within the aft dorsal sectors, both our Engineering crew and ground forces complements have built tent cities within their own sections, and are living there. Fire hazard has become nearly intolerable and the hydroponics department has sent me six hundred messages insisting that the smoke from the camp-fires is ruining their crop, and that we have enough food left aboard for only another three weeks.

2) Our vessel's own gravity is not being handled as well as could be done, with some minor problematical consequences. Our plumbers called my attention to the fact that the sewage from our 6 million-man crew backwashed through the air vents in Sections 42 to 78, decks 258 through 532. Malaria and dysentary broke out in those sections, and we were forced to cordon it off to prevent an epidemic. Our first Chief Medical Officer unfortunately was killed when he requested the paperwork on those affected, and upon receiving e-mailed reports from all 739 of his senior doctors, the computer screen in his quarters self-destructed, propelling shrapnel throughout his quarters. All droids who enter the area have failed to return, and a remote camera probe sent in, recorded images of the survivors in the affected area where they were flinging their own feces at each other, warring with sharpened pieces of metal, and attempting to eat the dismembered limbs of the aforementioned droids.

3) On a similar note, regarding the unfortunate loss of our last CMO, we have finally decided that the staff requirements of this vessel are creating further problems. For instance, our Chief Engineer has begun the habit of signing his reports, "Chief Marshal, Sovereign Nation of Ree'Ak'tor." He has since sealed off those decks, and started a war. The war in question is against his apparent rival, the commander of our ground forces near the main flightdeck, who has taken to calling himself "Bringer of the Apocalypse." Surveillance records indicate that they have since stopped wearing their armor, and have begun smearing their bodies with industrial cleaning fluid and lubricants before launching raids upon the Engineering department. We believe that they have begun ritualistically sacrificing one of our TIE-fighter pilots before each attack to bring them luck.

Aside from a minor note that some of our turbolaser turret gunners may have starved to death when their food shipments were cut off by the warzone, there is little else to remark on, save that in our first tactical drill, during the course of a two-hour right turn, we failed to halt our rotation with the result of the subsequent and very unfortunate destruction of the entire Coruscant 4th Defensive Fleet. I've made a note to send out letters of regret the moment we reacquire contact with our communications room at the bow of the vessel. That of course is the reason why this message had to be sent to your offices via pen, paper, and one of our probe droids. I beg forgivness for the clerical difficulties that may cause.

Grand Admiral
SDSD Freudian Nightmare
unknown author (2013)

“Finally, let us turn to the biggest megaships of them all, the fleet carriers. Including them in this work is a choice which I expect to be somewhat controversial – many would argue that a fleet carrier is a formation, not a vessel – but with respect to those readers who may hold that position, since the Imperial Navy treats fleet carriers as a single vessel for asset accounting and command designation purposes, so in turn shall I.

“Let us begin with a look at the history of the type. Fleet carriers were not known before the Exterminomachy (5782-5901). While before that time lighthuggers had met with occasional hostility, they had proven more than capable of defending themselves against local system defense forces, in particular with the Perreinar Wheel1 – and in those cases where they were not, it was because they had encountered a Power not readily opposed by pure military force. This changed with the arrival of the skrandar berserker probes, whose numbers and willingness to embrace suicide tactics made them a serious threat to even well-defended vessels, and eliminating breeding site for which required the transport of full task forces to their host systems.

“The first fleet carriers, then, were improvisations; lighthuggers pressed into service under the right of angary. Stripped down by removing all cargo capacity, much crew space, and all other less-than-essential facilities, and enhancing their fuel capacity with multiple drop tanks, it became possible to clamp a small number of light units – overstocked with fuel and supplies – to the spine of such a vessel, and have it haul them slowly and painfully to a target system.

“Such crude improvisations were fraught with problems, from wear and tear on ships and crew during the slow transit, to the risk of interception before the transported units could free themselves from the carrier – both due to the inefficiency of the mechanical clamps, and the need to cut clamps frozen in transit or actual hard welds used where clamps would not suffice, to even entire vessels lost from the carrier in transit. (The last of these to be recovered, CS Bloodwashed3, was salvaged with all hands in 6722.)

“Fortunately, by the third year of the Exterminomachy, new designs were emerging from the cageworks at Ashen Planitia and Armory. The second-generation fleet carriers were custom-built starships, or rather, the specialized elements (the “propulsion head” and “collier module”) were, since the second generation eschewed the rigid designs of the first in exchange for dispersed tensegrity structures.

“In effect, the starships transported by the fleet carrier, along with the specialized elements, formed the floating compression struts of the overall structure, while being linked by braided cables (derived from orbital elevator technology) into a unified structure. The majority of the propulsive thrust is provided by the dedicated propulsion heads, while specialized fleet mediator software enables the use of the drives of the various carried ships to balance the structure and correct attitude. Meanwhile, supplies carried in the collier modules, distributed by rigged flexpipe and by cable-crawling logistics robots, eliminated the need to overload any individual ship with supplies, and indeed enabled the transportation of greater volumes of fuel and replenishment. Moreover, such fleet carriers could separate instantly if intercepted by simply blowing the explosive cable-couplers and engaging their drives independently, the dispersed tensegrity structure providing adequate safety separation for this.

“Such dispersed-design fleet carriers served with distinction throughout the remainder of the Exterminomachy, and have remained a key element of IN subluminal doctrine since. While there exist a third generation of fleet carrier designs, these merely reflect the evolution in technological reliability that allows the physical cables of the second generation to be replaced with vector-control tractor-pressor beams, and does not reflect any change in fundamental design or doctrine.

“As ad hoc structures, of course, it would be incorrect to say that fleet carriers have classes, in the strictest sense. However, the individual propulsion heads and collier modules, the former full starships in themselves, do. Thus, we shall begin our examination of fleet carriers with a look at the most common propulsion head in Imperial service, the Legends-class…”

– Megaships of the Imperium, Lorvis Maric, pub. 7290

  1. Perreinar2 Wheel: a fight-and-flight maneuver in which a lighthugger puts its stern towards the battle and engages its interstellar drive, thus retreating from the engagement while simultaneously treating the enemy to the close-range efflux of a pion drive – a situation which is very rarely survivable for anything larger than a baryon.
  2. From the eponymous horse archers who had perfected the “Perreinar shot” centuries before.
  3. Lost in the wreck of CS Cúlíän Daphnotarthius, which suffered a structural collapse of the spine while outward bound to IGS 31238 in the second year of the war.
From OUTSIZE by Alistair Young (2019)

Calculating Volume and Mass

The Easy Way 1

If you just want something really quick and dirty:

Estimate somehow the volume (m3) of your spacecraft. Calculate the mass by multiplying the volume by the average density (kg/m3) of a spacecraft.

Estimating Volume

  1. There are equations to calculate the volume of simple geometric objects such as cubes, spheres, cylinders, and cones. Approximate the spacecraft as an assemblage of such objects, calculate the volumes, then add them all up. Example: here.
  2. Create a scale model inside a 3D modeling package, and use the included tools to calculate the internal volume. Example: On my mesh model of the Galactic Cruiser Leif Ericson, the AreaVol script informs me the ship has an internal volumeof 68,784.87 cubic meters.
  3. See if somebody else has already calculated the volume. Example: According to ST-v-SW.Net the internal volume of the TOS Starship Enterprise is 211,248 cubic meters.
  4. Use the known volume of a comparable existing object. Example: a Russian Oscar submarine has a volume of 15,400 cubic meters. It is a good size for a spaceship.
  5. If the spacecraft is approximately a sphere or approximately a cylinder, just use the ship's average radius and height to calculate an approximate volume using the sphere or cylinder volume formulae. Close enough for government work.
  6. Make it up out of your imagination.

Of course there is some differences of opinion on the exact value of the average density of a spacecraft.

One easy figure I've seen in various SF role playing games is a density of 0.1 to 0.2 metric tons per cubic meter (100 to 200 kilograms). That corresponds to average pressure compartments being cubes 10 meters on a side, with pressure bulkheads averaging 17 to 33 kg/m2.

Ken Burnside did some research when he designed his game Attack Vector: Tactical. He found that jet airliners have an average density of about 0.28 metric tons per cubic meter, fighter aircraft 0.35 tons/m3, wet navy warships from 0.5 to 0.6 tons/m3, WWII battleships 0.7 tons/m3 (it don't take much excess mass to send them straight to Davy Jones locker), and submarines 0.9 tons/m3. For the combat spacecraft in AV:T, Ken chose a density of 0.25 tons/m3.

Ship Densities
Attack Vector: Tactical0.25 ton/m3
Jet Airliners0.28 ton/m3
Fighter Aircraft0.35 ton/m3
Wet Navy Warships0.5 to 0.6 ton/m3
WWII Battleships0.7 ton/m3
Submarines0.9 ton/m3

A student of the game Orbiter (who goes by the handle T. Neo) used the 3D models in the game to figure the volume of various space constructions. Dividing by their known masses yielded the densities.

Spacecraft Densities
Space Shuttle External Tank0.011 ton/m3*
Long Duration Exposure Facility0.049 ton/m3
S-IC0.050 ton/m3*
Leonardo Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules0.058 ton/m3
Hubble Space Telescope0.061 ton/m3
International Space Station0.074 ton/m3
Space Shuttle Orbiter0.088 ton/m3
Space Station Mir0.175 ton/m3
Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster0.206 ton/m3*

* Large portion of volume is dedicated to propellant

Fans of the Traveller role playing game have to do a bit of work. Starships in Traveller are rated in terms of "displacement tons" or "dtons". This is a measure of volume, not mass. 1 dton is 14 cubic meters, which is approximately the volume taken up by one metric ton of liquid hydrogen (actually closer to 14.12 m3). Liquid hydrogen is starship fusion fuel.

So if you assume a Traveller starship has an average density of 0.2 tonnes/m3, then given dtons the starship mass in metric tons is:

starshipMass = dtons * 14 * 0.2


starshipMass = mass of starship (metric tons)
dtons = displacement of starship (displacement tons or dtons)
0.2 = average density of starships (tonnes/m3)

Example: a Broadsword class mercenary cruiser has a volume of 800 dtons (or 1200 depending on where you read it). This means its mass is 800 * 14 * 0.2 = 2,230 metric tons.

Traveller deck plans are confusing as well. If they are ruled off in a square grid, chances are the squares are 1.5 meters on a side. The space between the floor and the ceiling of a deck is assumed to be 3 meters. Bottom line is that on a Traveller deck plan 1 dton is represented by two grid squares.


(ed note: This is from a tabletop starship wargame called Voidstriker. In the game one can custom design one's combat starships using a ship construction system. The different classifications of starship internals is somewhat interesting, but I found UDST to be hilarious.)

Ships are made of multiple sections called hulls. These hulls represent an unspecified amount of volume, and come in five types: Undifferentiated Starship Tissue (UDST), Containment, Magazines, Systems, and Hangars.

UDST hulls hold the ship's drives, power plants, hardpoints, crew quarters and access areas, command decks, and everything else that a ship requires to function at a minimal level. Containment hulls hold reaction mass, cargo and troops. Magazines hold internally-stored bombs, missiles and torpedoes. Hangars hold small craft (fighters, shuttles and the like). Systems hulls hold short and long range scanners.

Up to 80% (round down) of the ships hulls may be containment hulls, magazines, systems or hangars. The rest must be UDST hulls.

From VOIDSTRIKER by Charles Oines (2007)

The Easy Way 2

The second quick and dirty method:

Estimate the mass (kg) of each major component. Divide the mass of each major component by its density (kg/m3) to find the volume of each major component. Total the masses to get the spacecraft mass, total the volume to get the spacecraft volume.

Estimating Mass

Often you have the total mass, and the propellant mass. The dry mass is the total mass less the propellant.

If you have the mass ratio, you can figure your dry mass by totaling up the various components, then use the mass ratio to calculate the propellant mass and total mass.

remember that average NASA spacecraft dry mass (i.e., sans propellant) divides up to include:

Percentage of Dry Mass
Power Systems28.0%
Thermal (heat radiators)3.4%
Guidance, Navigation, and Control8.0%
Everything Else26.7%

Keep in mind that this is for NASA style spacecraft. The percentages for, say, the Starship Enterprise will be totally different and anybody's guess.

Now all you need are some figures on the average density of these various items and you can calculate quick and dirty ship volumes. I'm looking into it but it's hard.

The Hard Way

The following is a method to calculate the spacecraft's structural mass. It is derived from a document at Christopher Thrash's web site. He bases his analysis on data from the book all the pros in astronautics use, Space Mission Analysis and Design. There is some additional information here.

Lucky you, Eric Rozier has implemented the algorithm below as an on-line calculator.

Assumptions: as a first approximation, the spacecraft is modeled as a free standing column resting upon the engines. The column is "thin-walled", that is, the column radius divided by the hull thickness is less than 0.1. The column is only supported by its walls (monocoque construction). The column has its mass uniformly distributed along its length. The ratio of column's length to its diameter is 3.2 : 1.0. The hull is assumed to be capable of withstanding forces equal to its mass times gs of acceleration on any axis: axial, lateral, or bending.

This means that the following formula only work for a cigar-shaped rocket, not a spherical one.

Decide upon the volume, or total displacement of the hull in cubic meters (m3). This will boil down to volume for reaction mass plus volume for the crew and cargo. Calculate the volume for your reaction mass by

Vpt = Mpt / Dpt


  • Mpt = mass of propellant (kg)
  • Dpt = density of propellant (kg/m3) = 71 for liquid hydrogen, 423 for methane, 682 for ammonia, and 1000 for water
  • Vpt = volume of propellant (m3)

If you don't know the mass of the propellant, it can be calculated from the dry mass and the mass ratio:

Mpt = (R * Me) - Me


  • R = mass ratio (dimensionless number)
  • Mpt = mass of propellant (kg)
  • Me = mass of rocket with empty propellant tanks (kg)

Add the volume of the reaction mass to the desired living space volume to get the spacecraft's volume. Later you can figure the approximate spacecraft dimensions by using the formula for the volume of a cylinder ( v = π r 2h ), keeping in mind that it should be about 3.2 times as high as it is wide (although you can get away with larger values).

Now comes the fun part. This is going to be what they call an "iterative process". This means you do the calculations, take the results and do the calculations again on the results.

Step 1: Find Mass

M = M~st + Mst


  • M = mass of spacecraft (kg)
  • M~st = sum of mass of all spacecraft components except structure (kg)
  • Mst = spacecraft's structural mass (kg)

Since this is an iterative process to calculate Mst, the first time through Mst will be equal to zero.

Step 2: Find Density

D = (M/1000) / V


  • D = density of spacecraft (ton/m3)
  • M = mass of spacecraft (kg)
  • V = volume of spacecraft (m3)

Note that here density is in tons, not kilograms per cubic meter

Step 3: Find Structural Support Volume

Vsr = (V4/3 * Apg0 * D) / (1000 * Thm)


  • Vsr = volume of structural mass needed to support spacecraft (m3)
  • V = volume of spacecraft (m3)
  • Apg0 = maximum acceleration of spacecraft (Terra gs)
  • D = density of spacecraft (ton/m3)
  • Thm = "toughness" of hull material. Hard steel = 2.86.
Step 4: Find Anti-Buckling Structural Volume

Vsb = (V1.15 * (Apg0 * D)0.453) / 300


  • Vsb = volume of structural mass needed avoid buckling (m3)
Step 5: Find Actual Volume

The actual volume Vs is equal to the larger of Vsr and Vsb.

(Note: Mr. Thrash informs me that an aeronautical engineer of his acquaintance is of the opinion that while the equation in step 4 works fine for a small rocket with a ten ton payload, the equation does not scale well if used for a larger rocket. The engineer is sure that Vsr will almost always be enough to resist buckling as well. In other words, just use Vsb = Vsr).

Step 6: Find Structural Mass

Mst = Vs * Dhm


  • Mst = spacecraft's structural mass (kg)
  • Vs = volume of structural mass (m3)
  • Dhm = density of hull material (kg/m3) (7,850 for steel, 4,507 for titanium, 1,738 for magnesium)
Step 7: Start Over from Step 1

Use the new value for Mst and start over. Repeat until the value for Mst stops changing (or you get tired).

When you have your final value for Mst, and M, use M to check and see if the spacecraft's mass ratio is still acceptable. If not, reduce the value for M~st and do some more iterations.

Now you know why rocket scientists use computers to do all the grunt work.

Remember that the mass of the propellant tanks will be approximately equal to full propellant mass times 0.15. The tank mass will be included in the structural mass, if the ship designer is not totally incompetent.

The shortcut is to stop at step seven, reduce M~st by Mst, and everything will add up.

Calculating Volume Of Existing Model

Figuring the hull volume of an existing design is a bit more tricky.

By way of example, a Russian Oscar-II submarine is an oval cylinder about 18 meters wide by 9 meters tall by 154 meters long. It has an internal volume of about 15,400 cubic meters. It has a density of about 0.9 metric tons per cubic meter, so it has a mass of about 15,400 x 0.9 = 13,900 metric tons.

There are equations for calculating the internal volume of various geometric shapes. What you have to do is approximate your spacecraft design using only these shapes. A sphere is easy. A classic cigar shape is sort of a cylinder with a cone on each end. You'll find a crude example of that here.

If your spacecraft is a complicated shape like the Starship Enterprise, you have a real problem.

If you have a physical model of your spacecraft, you can try estimating its displacement by caulking it water-tight, immersing it in a container of water, and measuring the water it displaces. Alternatively, fill a box with sand, dump the sand into measuring cups to measure the volume of sand, put the model in the box and fill it with sand, dump the sand out into measuring cups, and finally subtract the two volumes to discover the volume of the model.

Designing with CGI Modeling

Finally, you can hire a computer artist to use your blueprints to create a computer model in Lightwave then use the AreaVolume plug-in to determine the volume of the model.

Alternatively, you can proceed like graphic artist Myn.pheos, creating your mesh in the amazing free program Blender and using the 3D Printing Toolbox to calculate the volumes. Myn.pheos also has some techniques to find the center of gravity of various components, and to discover optimal placement of heat radiators.

The following tips are specific to the Blender software, but an artist skilled with another 3D computer modeling program could adapt the tips to their software. Myn.pheos is a native of Slovakia, and English is his second language. Myn.pheos:

Area and Volume

Guessing the volume of spacecraft isn't accurate in most cases. Boxy shapes aren't the most pleasing, and computing volume or area of curved surface by hand is tedious and hard. So the best approach is to let the computer [do the] work for you. In Blender, there is no build-in way to compute volume of objects. But there exist scripts than can do this. One of the is Quantities Bill by Yorik. It computes length, area or volume depending on the topology of mesh. If you have the shape of the spacecraft in your mind, let it pass the test. Roughly model the hull, propellant tank or crew compartment (it must be one object, with no holes in it) so you can get the volume. If you want to know the area of hull, simply remove the smallest face from the mesh and run the script. The figures aren't exact (this depends on how precisely you modelled the hull), but they are obtained fast, and it's easy to [re-calculate the figures if you alter the shape of the hull].

Where is the Center of Gravity?

This is easy to guess in case of homogeneous objects. But spaceships aren't that case. When you know the mass of spacecraft, rough location of components and their estimated weight, you can try to search for the center of gravity (COG). In Blender, it is possible to find the COG easily, just place vertexes in COG of each component. Decide the weight of each vertex, and then add as many as you'll need. Logically, the sum of them should be equal to total mass of ship. To get the COG, simply select all vertexes and make sure the pivot is set to Median point.

(ed note: in Blender, if the pivot control is set to "Median", when you select a group of vertexes the pivot control will automatically appear at the mathematical median point. Myn.pheos is saying that at the center of gravity of each component, place a number of vertexes proportional to that component's relative mass. Select all the COG vertexes of all the components, and the pivot control will indicate the COG of the spaceship as a whole. Keep in mind that the ship's axis of thrust must pass through the COG)

Where to place radiators?

That depends on the shape of the ship. If you have several spots where they look good, you can test the placement. This involves rendering the image and then using histogram to interpret the rendered result. First create two materials. For hull, create fully transparent material (Alpha = 0.0), with no specularity (Spec=0.0), don't forget to check the Ztransp button on. For radiator, use total white material (Col = R 1.00, G 1.00, B 1.00), with again without specularity (Spec=0). Make sure both receive all ambient colour (Amb = 1.0). Now to the environment settings. As background, use total black color (HoR = 0.0, HoG = 0.0, HoB = 0.0, ZoR = 0.0, ZoG = 0.0, ZoB = 0.0), and ambient perfect white (AoR = 1.0, AoG = 1.0, AoB = 1.0). Turn on Ambient Occlusion, make the Sub button pushed (so it darkens occluded spots), ensure that Energy is 1.0 and Plain button pushed.

Now only to set the camera (the best to be perpendicular to the radiator) and render.

Open the rendered image in an image editor. I use GIMP, but only the histogram is important. Now set the lower value in histogram to the lowest non-zero number (remember the pitch black background?), and read the statistical data. The most important is Mean value, this is the average value of all pixels on radiator. Divide this number by 255 to get the percentage of unoccluded area. There rest is probably heating up the ship, so change try with another radiator position.

This method has some weak points, but it is good enough for some decisions. The fully occluded pixels aren't taken into account, the precision increases with samples, the edges aren't treated well (they are not full white, if antialiasing is on).


I must say that I am very impressed with Myn.pheos' technique. I am reasonably skilled with Blender, but it never occurred to me that it could be used to find centers of gravity and optimal heat radiator placement. Myn.pheos is a genius.

Radiation Backscatter

A gentleman who goes by the handle Dogmatic Pyrrhonist (and TiktaalikDreaming) is a noted crafter of spacecraft mods for the simulation game Kerbal Space Program.

He decided to make a Gaseous-core Open-cycle nuclear thermal rocket mod for KSP. He is using Blender 3D as his modeling program.

He wanted to add some heat radiators (because GCR need lots of them), when he became aware of the dangers of neutron embrittlement, neutron activation, and radiation scattering. It seems that William Black was working on a similar project.

Dogmatic Pyrrhonist Backscatter 1

Dogmatic Pyrrhonist
     After shadow shields were brought up in William Black's feed regarding his work on a Gas Core Rocket, I had a good read about various things (mostly from Winchell Chung's Atomic Rocket pages, see
     Turns out my prior plan of wide-short expanding radiator panels would result in radiation scattering, eventual enbrittlement of the radiators, and basically cooking the crew with neutrons, and gamma rays. The radiator free, high thrust, low ISP edition had no such issue, and has a simple shadow shield in line now. But the high ISP needed a radiator rethink.
     I have a plan for the radiators, much like one of the pre-movie sketches of the Martian's Hermes on Atomic Rockets ( Basically a triangle type arrangement made from staggered rectangular panels that all fold away.
     That means a much longer frame to hold all that radiator. All of it, forward of the shadow shield.
     Anyway, WIP, this is the rocket, edition one of the shadow shield, and the frame structure. I'll be adding a final frame at the end to spread load onto a wider area. I'll be wanting that as a separate piece, as the KSP heat transfer systems don't include cooling fluid pumping, so the frame, rocket and radiators will all have extremely heat conductive values to mimic the working fluid. Which means I'll need one extra piece to be an insulator, to protect the rest of the craft from those 1390C radiators.

William Black
     This is looking great! I recall we had that conversation early on, when I described why the rectangular radiators arrayed around the nozzle would reflect radiation forward onto crew and vehicle, and so would definitely need to be forward of a radiation shadow shield, or did I have that discussion with Winchell Chung?
     The propulsion bus for my version is definitely an in-space assembly. I gathered (from yours or Winchell Chung's comments) that for KSP purposes it would need to be segmented and fold-away. 
     Oh, BTW, data sheet for 5% Borated Polyethylene here

Dogmatic Pyrrhonist
     William Black Yep, I remember all the reasons why you'd gone for the triangular shape. At first I was going to just dismiss the idea under the category of "Kerbals don't care". But then, I thought, I'd still like the thing to be real-world-sane, esp as I'm looking at doing some Realism-Overhaul conversions for some of the mods. So, while there's no mechanism in game to handle it, I have come around to thinking it should be arranged to at least mostly shield payload/crew.
     I roughed in a truncated triangle to get the surface area right for the radiators, and adjusted the shadow shield to match. I might need more than 51.5m of frame. :-/
     That's quite the shadow shield.
William Black
     Dogmatic Pyrrhonist, yeah, that's pretty much how I did it. I needed a 6.7 meter diameter shadow shield and wound up adding an additional 9.1 meters to my truss, two 3.0 meter sections between the shadow shield and the aft edge of the radiator and one 3.0 meter section between the forward edge and propellant tank. With the 29.8 by 10.01 meter propellant tanks for the 80 day Mars mission spacecraft that puts my crew module 12.4 meters past the 100 meter minimum separation between crew and nozzle.

(Then noted virtual production engineer Ron Fischer made a quiet but brilliant suggestion:)

Ron Fischer
     You can use lighting and shadows in your CG rendering program to analyze the shadowing of the shield. In fact, this is where the original math for lighting simulation came from: radiation studies on tanks in the 60s. Might as well go "Back to the Future" on that one! 

(You could almost see the light bulbs lighting up over each person's head.)

Dogmatic Pyrrhonist
     Ron Fischer I had not thought of that.

Winchell Chung
     Yes, what Ron Fischer said.
     I just remembered about somebody was using Blender to calculate spillover from heat radiators in their design
     Actually, some scientists did something similar to resolve the Pioneer Anomaly.

Dogmatic Pyrrhonist
     Dammit Winchell Chung , I've got enough tabs open in my browser already. :-)
     Initial ray casting adjustments, although I haven't checked yet if that's enough radiator. Nor whether it's still in shadow when rotated 45 or 90 degrees.

Winchell Chung
     Dogmatic Pyrrhonist You might have to simplify the model. First approximation with a light at the reaction chamber, the shadow shield, and the radiator.
     If you want to get into actually modeling the scatter, be my guest.

Dogmatic Pyrrhonist
     Winchell Chung Scatter is easy. Just place light sources at the outside edges of things that might scatter. I should disable rendering of things that would be basically transparent to neutrons or gammas, etc.
     oooo.... transparency. :-)

Dogmatic Pyrrhonist
     Oh dear, emissive, transparent, reflective shaders.

Winchell Chung
     Dogmatic Pyrrhonist Yes! That's the ticket! Radiation design by CGI mesh modeling. Hot stuff!

Ron Fischer
     Very cool Dogmatic Pyrrhonist Also, Winchell Chung I recommend requesting use of those for Atomic Rockets! Should illustrate the point nicely!
     Hey! I should suggest this to the good people making Kerbal. Could be a cool part of the design experience for nuclear spacecraft. 
     It is interesting to note that the cylinders which (I guess) are used to gimbal the engine get quite a strong dose. 

William Black
     Dogmatic Pyrrhonist and Winchell Chung I've found that you can optimize the shadow shield using this technique. I've found that a smaller shadow shield diameter is possible by adding truss segments between the shadow shield and the aft end of the radiator panels. Because the truss is lighter than the shadow shield, you realize a mass savings. 

From a thread on Google Plus (2015)
Dogmatic Pyrrhonist Backscatter 2

      I've been checking my rework of my gas core NTR for Kerbal Space Program regarding the shadow shield. Using 3d ray casting as it was originally intended.

     Each radiation emitter gets its own colour, so I can see what might be the cause of anything getting past the shield. Which is important, as there's a world of difference between active fission cores and a bit of stored uranium. Most of the non emitting structure uses a rough translucent blender material so it can scatter, emulating, well, scatter, and re-emission. The shadow shield itself I did as a reflective opaque, although that isn't quite true. It's reflective to high energy electromagnetic (gamma), but absorbent to neutrons. Above the shadow shield though, are the uranium tanks. And although they themselves are emitting neutrons and other things, you really really don't want them getting hit with bonus neutrons. There's also the tungsten dust tanks, and as that exists to absorb, I used an opaque material for them, although the radiation they're collecting, it didn't make a big difference.

     Looking up past the plume (volume emitter material) there's a faint blue tinge for the plume's emission on the structural ring around the top. I'm mostly ok with that because from last time I did this it became apparent there's absolutely no way to prevent all the radiation from the plume. You can minimise, but not remove. And why am I checking the radiation from the plume? This is a model of an open cycle gas core reactor nuclear thermal rocket, so the exhaust has fission fuel and products in it. As little as you can engineer, but likely something like 1%

     Anyway, now almost a Kerbal Space Program mod. Still needs a better plume and several square km of radiator (slight exaggeration)

From a thread on Twitter (2019)

Meanwhile William Black was already hard at work on a GCR. He is also using Blender 3D.

When William Black read Ron Fischer's brilliant suggestion, he quote "found this to be a compelling proposition, an opportunity to test out the validity of my design" unquote.

William Black Backscatter 1

      I found this to be a compelling proposition, an opportunity to test out the validity of my design.
     Dogmatic Pyrrhonist and I both set about individually setting up a radiation simulation by CG lighting; his results are to be found at links in this thread November 6, 2015
     Initially, for purposes of approximation, I used a cone, which you strip out of the scene once it has served its purpose, this is used to insure the radiators panels (and everything else forward of the shadow shield) are completely within the shadow region. It is a matter of placing the cone so to intersect the aft-most edge of the radiation shadow shield, if all components forward of the shadow shield are properly placed nothing should protrude through the surface of the cone.
     I realized the technique can be used not only to optimize the shadow shield in terms of placement, but also in terms of diameter. Previously, using the cone I had realized that increasing the distance between the aft edge of the radiator panels and shadow shield allows a smaller diameter shadow shield. Using this technique allowed me to test that theory, and it in fact worked exactly as anticipated. Truss segments mass less than the 5% Borated Polyethylene of the shadow shield, so there is a savings on structural mass, which is important because, as we all know, every gram counts.
     I rendered the scene against a gray background, then a second time against a completely black background.
     I made an attempt (which may be laughable) to model the plume. I used a bright blue emission shader. I was curious in regards to how much blue emission, representing radiation from the plume, would show up on the structure of the vehicle. Lacking data on the physical characteristics of plume expansion immediately after leaving the nozzle, this may be an insufficient test, so I’m not sure this adds anything, but darn, it looks nifty.
     Ron Fischer suggested I attempt this again with volumetric lighting, and I intend to do so at a future date.

From William Black (2015)

Physicist Luke Campbell had some additional suggestions:

     You might want to check for radiation scatter from the rocket bell to the radiators. You could make the entire structure aft of the shadow shield glow, make the shadow shield 100% black, make the spacecraft fore of the shadow shield white, and then look at the craft from the back to see if the edges of the radiators are illuminated. If they are, neutrons and gamma rays emitted from the reactor can scatter off the rocket bell (say), bypass the shadow shield, scatter off the radiator, and make their way to the payload/crew/control electronics/whatever. Just eyeballing it, it looks like that could happen.
     Also, from the linked post describing the design — you probably will want a few centimeters of lead fore of the borated polyethylene, for sopping up the gamma rays. The set of materials that are good at stopping neutrons seems to be orthogonal to the set of materials that are good at stopping gamma rays. By putting the poly between the reactor and the lead, you arrange it so that gamma rays produced by neutron interactions in the poly are also blocked by the lead part of the shield.

From Luke Campbell (2015)

     Physicist Luke Campbell examined my Blender radiation simulation and suggested some modifications which might test the model more rigorously.
     Following his suggestion I applied emission shaders to everything on the “hot” side of the shadow shield, so, rather than just the gas core reactor, this now includes all structure (truss, engine gimbals and supports) and all LH2, Helium coolant lines, and turbine pumps and associated plumbing including the turbine exhaust, and of course the expansion nozzle.
     I applied a flat non-reflective black shader to the shadow shield, and applied a white shader to all structure on the “safe” side of the shadow shield (truss, radiator panels and heat exchanger housings, tensioning cable, cable rigging, LH2 and Helium coolant lines).
     Changes in place, I ran the radiation simulation again. As you can see from the top image the simulation revealed that radiation was in fact impinging on the aft outer corners of the radiator panels and the tensioning cables, a fact not visible in my previous simulation.
     This means radiation would travel along these parts of the vehicle, turning them into additional sources of radiation, damaging the radiator system and vehicle structure via radiation embrittlement, damaging control and electrical systems, and it means radiation would scatter from these points onto the rest of the vehicle posing a hazard to the crew.
     I added truss segments and increased the diameter of the radiation shadow shield, running the simulation after each configuration change, till I arrived at a good result, which you can see in the second image down.
     The lower two images are non-rendered screen captures of the same area of the model, the aft-most portion of the propulsion bus. Before structural modifications on the Left, and the final optimized configuration, on the Right.

From William Black (2015)

Pioneer Anomaly

Something like Myn.pheos technique for placing heat radiators was used to solve the mystery of the Pioneer Anomaly. The trajectory of space probes in general and the Pioneer probes in particular should follow precisely Newton's Laws of Motion. Once you've accounted for all the extra factors, of course. So scientists were quite upset when the probes started to gradually diverge from their calculated trajectory. There are all sorts of proposed explanations, ranging from observational errors to new laws of physics.

Dr. Frederico Francisco (Instituto Superior Técnico, Lisbon) and colleagues believe they have the answer. Others have tried and found wanting the hypothesis that heat radiated from the probes could be the culprit. But Dr. Francisco et al submit that this is because the radiation mathematical models are too simplistic. Using the 3D CGI rendering technique known as "Phong shading", they have shown this will account for the Pioneer Anomaly. Phong shading takes into account not just the heat radiated, but the heat that hits parts of the probe's structure and is reflected from it.

As you can see, this is very similar to the technique used by Myn.pheos.


Figuring the surface area of a spacecraft is about the same level of difficulty as figuring the internal volume. The same techniques apply: approximate the spacecraft as a series of easy to calculate shapes, or use a CGI package that can calculate it for you.

Usually it isn't worth the bother unless you are trying to figure the mass of the armor required for a warship. Or you worry if there is enough space on the hull to place all the stuff you want to put.

Some other bits of dynamic tension for you.

Surface area goes up at a square function, volume at a cubic function. Everything fights for surface area on the hull of the ship — if you want more weapons, you need surface area to mount them. If you want sensors or radiators, ditto. Don't forget docking ports, fuel tank hookups, and everything else you'll want. If you're using plausible engines with thrusts rated in double digit milligees (as opposed to the over-the-top engines I use for Attack Vector: Tactical), it's more and more likely that your ship will look like a fusion torch with a christmas tree that's been well and truly loved by a cat on top of it. :)

The lesser your surface area for a given volume, the less armor you need for a given rate of protection. For a generalized case, most internal components can, as Rick likes to point out, be approximated by aircraft parts for unit density. (Surface naval ships range from average density of 0.35 to 0.65 for some of the fully loaded WWII battleships, aircraft range from 0.2 to about 0.4).

Perhaps, to minimize the hazards of radiation, they use structural osmium for the hull? :)

One side effect of this wide range of masses for hulls is that for a given constant K (drive output in terawatts), the frigate is going to have 1/5 the thrust of the corvette, and the cruiser will have 1/25th the thrust of the corvette. (if two ships have the same engine output, the one with more mass will have a lower acceleration) That's a wide enough disparity that the setup is probably ungameable, and may prove problematic for novels. (This sort of disparity is why freighters in the Ten Worlds aren't sitting ducks. They're sitting ducks with two broken wings and both feet stapled to a stump, painted bright flourescent orange.)

When dealing with kinetics, that disparity of thrust really changes the available defenses and offensive capabilities. Fuel on the launch platform is a weapon, and the target's evasion parameter is set by how much thrust it can generate in a unit of time.

From Ken Burnside (2008)



The traveling-public gripes at the lack of direct Earth-to-Moon service, but it takes three types of rocket ships and two space-station changes to make a fiddling quarter-million-mile jump for a good reason: Money. The Commerce Commission has set the charges for the present three-stage lift from here to the Moon at thirty dollars a pound. Would direct service be cheaper?

A ship designed to blast off from Earth, make an airless landing on the Moon, return and make an atmosphere landing, would be so cluttered up with heavy special equipment used only once in the trip that it could not show a profit at a thousand dollars a pound! Imagine combining a ferry boat, a subway train, and an express elevator.

So Trans-Lunar uses rockets braced for catapulting, and winged for landing on return to Earth to make the terrific lift from Earth to our satellite station Supra-New York.

The long middle lap, from there to where Space Terminal circles the Moon, calls for comfort—but no landing gear. The Flying Dutchman and the Philip Nolan never land; they were even assembled in space, and they resemble winged rockets like the Skysprite and the Firefly as little as a Pullman train resembles a parachute.

The Moonbat and the Gremlin are good only for the jump from Space Terminal down to Luna . . . no wings, cocoon-like acceleration-and-crash hammocks, fractional controls on their enormous jets.

From SPACE JOCKEY by Robert Heinlein (1947)

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) in general, and Sir Arthur C. Clarke in particular figured that there were three main types of spacecraft needed for the exploration of space: Space Ferry, Orbit-to-Orbit, and Airless Lander. Each is optimized for their own particular area of use.

More recently, orbital propellant depots and their related tanker ships also seem like a good piece of infrastructure. There are some sample realistic designs here and here.

However, space warships are an entirely different kettle of fish.

More facetiously:


Warfare in the densely-populated Gilgamesh Cluster is almost incessant, and befitting their way of life. Gilgamite civilization has developed inexpensive and highly efficient spaceships. Vector One ships convey materials from planetary surfaces to orbit. Vector Two ships transport material between planets of a stellar system. And Vector Three ships range through the interstellar lanes.

Vector Three ships, comprising a central cylinder and detachable cargo and cabin pods, are more than simple transports, however. When war threatens, the merchant marine is recalled, the cargo pods are removed, and weapon pods are installed. Within months, an interstellar fleet can be converted from merchant-men to men-of-war.

(ed note:
Vector One ships travel in one dimension: the altitude from the planetary surface.
Vector Two ships travel in two dimensions: the two dimensional plane of the stellar system's ecliptic.
Vector Three ships travel in three dimensions: the three dimensional volume of interstellar space.)
From VECTOR 3 tabletop wargame by Greg Costikyan (1979)

“Since the days of Charan Rashuri, commander of Pride of Earth, it has been the ship commander’s obligation to recognize a moment of transition for those among his crew new to the Survey branch,” Neale began.

“I have no doubt that some among you have invested the outcrossing with far more meaning than it deserves. It is an occasion for the exchange of theater insignia. You give up the blue Orbital or yellow System ellipse you now wear. You receive the black Intersystem ellipse. But the difference in color is meaningless in itself.”

Then why do you vets call us lessers? Thackery wondered, fingering his own System insignia absently.

“Contrary to what many of you believe, this is not a promotion. The Service does not honor you by doing this. All we do here today is to mark the beginning of an opportunity for honor—honor you will have to bring to yourself in the months and years ahead. You wear the black ellipse, but you have not yet earned it.”

From ENIGMA by Michael Kube-McDowell (1986)

Type: Space Ferry

The space ferry concept is what evolved into the NASA space shuttle. Its function is to boost payload into orbit, though you can think of it as an "atmospheric lander." Refer to the section on Surface To Orbit.

These are sometimes called "interface vehicles" because their function is to transport payload through the interface boundary between Terra's atmosphere and airless space.

The idea was to re-use as much of the rocket as possible, which is why the upper section has wings and the lower stages had parachutes. In Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet, the rocket is launched from a rocket sled going up the side of Pike's Peak. Nuclear powered rockets could boost more massive payloads, but a space elevator could boost so much more cheaply and efficiently.

Hop Davis estimates that space ferries launching from Terra will require a delta-V budget of around 10 kilometers per second (with orbital propellant depot) and require a thick atmosphere for aerobraking. It will require a bit more if there is no orbital depot, but not much more because coming down it uses aerobraking instead of propellant. The delta-V budget means they will probably have to be multi-stage if they are chemical rockets (good luck getting permission to use nuclear rockets). They will require a propulsion system with a thrust-to-weight ratio above 1.0.

Type: Orbit-to-Orbit

Orbit-to-orbit spacecraft never land on any planet, moon, or asteroid.

Therefore they are free to use efficient propulsion systems with a thrust-to-weight ratio below 1.0, such as ion drives or VASIMR. They require no landing gear or parachutes. If there ain't no landing gear, it is an orbit-to-orbit. No streamlining is required either. They require no ablative heat shields unless they are designed to perform aerobraking to burn off delta-V without requiring propellant (like the Leonov in the movie 2010 The Year We Make Contact).

Hop Davis estimates that a orbit-to-orbit spacecraft will require a delta-V budget of only 3 to 4 kilometers per second, if orbital propellant depot are available. Otherwise it will be twice that, with along with a dramatic reduction in payload capacity. 4 km/s is well within the capabilities of a chemical rocket, but any higher and you will probably need staging or a propulsion system with more exhaust velocity.

The old image of orbit-to-orbit ships look like dumb-bells, the front ball is the cargo and habitat module, the rear is the propellant and radioactive atomic drive. The stick in between is a way to substitute distance for lead radiation shielding.

The Basic Solid Core NTR or Reusable Nuclear Shuttle would make admirable backbones for an orbit-to-orbit spacecraft. Liquid hydrogen propellant and fissionables for fuel.


A ferry service of chemically-fuelled rockets linked the station to the planet beneath, for by law no atomic drive unit was allowed to operate within a thousand kilometres of the Earth’s surface. Even this safety margin was felt by many to be inadequate, for the radioactive blast of a nuclear propulsion unit could cover that distance in less than a minute.

(ed note: this implies an exhaust velocity of about 16,000 meters per second. This could be done by a liquid or gas core nuclear thermal rocket with molecular hydrogen propellant, or a solid-core nuclear thermal rocket using atomic hydrogen as propellant.)

And the third, of course, was the Ares, almost dazzling in the splendour of her new aluminium paint.

Gibson had never become reconciled to the loss of the sleek, steamlined spaceships which had been the dream of the early twentieth century. The glittering dumb-bell hanging against the stars was not his idea of a space-liner; though the world had accepted it, he had not. Of course, he knew the familiar arguments——there was no need for streamlining in a ship that never entered an atmosphere, and therefore the design was dictated purely by structural and power-plant considerations. Since the violently radioactive drive-unit had to be as far away from the crew quarters as possible, the double-sphere and long connecting tube was the simplest solution.

It was also, Gibson thought, the ugliest; but that hardly mattered since the Ares would spend practically all her life in deep space where the only spectators were the stars. Presumably she was already fuelled and merely waiting for the precisely calculated moment when her motors would burst into life, and she would pull away out of the orbit in which she was circling and had hitherto spent all her existence, to swing into the long hyperbola that led to Mars.

(ed note: the Ares can travel from Terra to Mars in three months flat.)

“Five seconds, four, three, two, one”

Very gently, something took hold of Gibson and slid him down the curving side of the porthole-studded wall on to what had suddenly become the floor. It was hard to realise that up and down had returned once more, harder still to connect their reappearance with that distant, attenuated thunder that had broken in upon the silence of the ship. Far away in the second sphere that was the other half of the Ares, in that mysterious, forbidden world of dying atoms and automatic machines which no man could ever enter and live, the forces that powered the stars themselves were being unleashed. Yet there was none of that sense of mounting, pitiless acceleration that always accompanies the take-off of a chemically propelled rocket.

The Ares had unlimited space in which to manoeuvre; she could take as long as she pleased to break free from her present orbit and crawl slowly out into the transfer hyperbola that would lead her to Mars. In any case, the utmost power of the atomic drive could move her two-thousand-ton mass with an acceleration of only a tenth of a gravity; at the moment it was throttled back to less than half of this small value.

(ed note: implies thrust of 1.962×106 Newtons, about 2 megaNewtons)

When Space Station One had vanished completely, Gibson went round to the day side of the ship to take some photographs of the receding Earth. It was a huge, thin crescent when he first saw it, far too large for the eye to take in at a single glance. As he watched, he could see that it was slowly waxing, for the Ares must make at least one more circuit before she could break away and spiral out towards Mars.

Gibson was still watching at the observation post when, more than an hour later, the Ares finally reached escape velocity and was free from Earth. There was no way of telling that this moment had come and passed, for Earth still dominated the sky and the motors still maintained their muffled, distant thunder. Another ten hours of continuous operation would be needed before they had completed their task and could be closed down for the rest of the voyage.

(ed note: one-half of a tenth of a gravity of acceleration is 0.4905 m/s2
One hour is 3,600 seconds.
0.4905×3,600 = 1,765 m/s, which is about Low Earth Orbit escape velocity of 1,800 m/s.
1+10 hours = 39,600 seconds.
0.4905×39,600 = 19,423 m/s, which is very short of solar escape velocity of 525,000 m/s
but which is impressively larger than the Terra-Mars Hohmann delta V of 5,590 m/s.
Terra-Mars Hohmann takes about 8 months, 26,000 m/s will get you to Mars in 1 month, so I guess 19,423 m/s getting you to Mars in three months sounds reasonable.
Delta V of 19,423 m/s and exhaust velocity of 16,000 m/s implies a mass ratio of 3.4, which is large but not unreasonable.
Keeping in mind that more delta V will be required for Mars capture.)

It was impossible to believe that the Ares was now racing out from the Earth’s orbit at a speed so great that even the Sun could never hold her back.

As the ship was spherical, it had been divided into zones of latitude like the Earth. The resulting nomenclature was very useful, since it at once gave a mental picture of the liner’s geography. To go “North” meant that one was heading for the control cabin and the crew’s quarters. A trip to the Equator suggested that one was visiting either the great dining-hall occupying most of the central plane of the ship, or the observation gallery which completely encircled the liner. The Southern hemisphere was almost entirely fuel tank, with a few storage holds and miscellaneous machinery. Now that the Ares was no longer using her motors, she had been swung round in space so that the Northern Hemisphere was in perpetual sunlight and the “uninhabited” Southern one in darkness. At the South Pole itself was a small metal door bearing a set of impressive official seals and the notice: “To be Opened only under the Express Orders of the Captain or his Deputy.” Behind it lay the long, narrow tube connecting the main body of the ship with the smaller sphere, a hundred metres away, which held the power plant and drive units. Gibson wondered what was the point of having a door at all if no one could ever go through it; then he remembered that there must be some provision to enable the servicing robots of the Atomic Energy Commission to reach their work.

Strangely enough, Gibson received one of his strongest impressions not from the scientific and technical wonders of the ship, which he had expected to see in any case, but from the empty passenger quarters— — a honeycomb of closely packed cells that occupied most of the North Temperate Zone.

From THE SANDS OF MARS by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1951)

The hold was a large hemispherical room with a thick central column which carried the controls and cabling to the other half of the dumb-bell-shaped spaceship a hundred metres away. It was packed with crates and boxes arranged in a surrealistic three-dimensional array that made very few concessions to gravity.

Anything more unlike the early-twentieth-century idea of a spaceship than the Star Queen would be hard to imagine. She consisted of two spheres, one fifty and the other twenty metres in diameter, joined by a cylinder about a hundred metres long. The whole structure looked like a matchstick-and-plasticine model of a hydrogen atom. Crew, cargo and controls were in the larger sphere, while the smaller one held the atomic motors and was — to put it mildly — out of bounds to living matter.

The Star Queen had been built in space and could never have lifted herself even from the surface of the Moon. Under full power her ion drive could produce an acceleration of a twentieth of a gravity, which in an hour would give her all the velocity she needed to change from a satellite of the Earth to one of Venus.

Hauling cargo up from the planets was the job of the powerful little chemical rockets. In a month the tugs would be climbing up from Venus to meet her

From "BREAKING STRAIN" by Arthur C. Clarke (1949)

Space travel had never been inexpensive, but early in the century an economic watershed had been crossed, like a saddle in low hills that nevertheless marks a continental divide. Nuclear technology moved into its most appropriate sphere, outer space; the principles were sufficiently simple and the techniques sufficiently easy to master that private companies could afford to enter the interplanetary shipping market. With the shippers came the yards, the drydocks, the outfitters.

The Falaron shipyards, one of the originals, orbited Earth two hundred and fifty miles up. Presently the only vessel in the yards was an old atomic freighter, getting an overhaul and a face lift—a new reactor core, new main engine nozzles, refurbished life-support systems, new paint inside and out. When all the work was done the ship was to be recommissioned and given a new, rather grand, name: Star Queen.

The huge atomic engines had been mounted and tested. Spacesuited workers wielding plasma torches were fitting new holds, big cylinders that fastened to the thin central shaft of the ship below the spherical crew module.

Star Queen, though of a standard freighter design, was a spacecraft quite unlike anything that had been imagined at the dawn of modern rocketry—which is to say it looked nothing like an artillery shell with fins or the hood ornament of a gasoline-burning automobile. The basic configuration was two clusters of spheres and cylinders separated from each other by a cylindrical strut a hundred meters long. The whole thing somewhat resembled a Tinkertoy model of a simple molecule. The forward cluster included the crew module, a sphere over five meters in diameter. A hemispherical cage of superconducting wires looped over the crew module, partially shielding the crew against cosmic rays and other charged particles in the interplanetary medium—which included the exhaust of other atomic ships. Snugged against the crew module's base were the four cylindrical holds, each seven meters across and twenty meters long, grouped around the central strut. Like the sea-land cargo containers of the previous century, the holds were detachable and could be parked in orbit or picked up as needed; each was attached to Star Queen's central shaft by its own airlock and was also accessible through outside pressure hatches. Each hold was divided into compartments which could be pressurized or left in vacuum, depending on the nature of the cargo.

At the other end of the ship's central strut were bulbous tanks of liquid hydrogen, surrounding the bulky cylinder of the atomic motor's reactor core. Despite massive radiation shielding, the aft of the ship was not a place for casual visits by living creatures—robot systems did what work needed to be done there.

For all its ad hoc practicality. Star Queen had an air of elegance, the elegance of form following function. Apart from the occasional horn of a maneuvering rocket or the spike or dish of a communications antenna, the shapes from which she had been assem­bled shared a geometric purity, and all alike shone dazzling white under their fresh coats of electro-bonded paint.

Two days later heavy tugs moved Star Queen into launch orbit, beyond the Van Allen belts. The atomic motor erupted in a stream of white light. Under steady acceleration the ship began a five-week hyperbolic dive toward Venus.

Still, things might have been worse. Star Queen was fourteen days into her trajectory and had twenty-one days still to go to reach Port Hesperus. Thanks to her upgraded engines she was travelling much faster than the slow freighters, the tramp steamers of the space-ways who were restricted to Hohmann ellipses, those long tangential flight paths that expended minimum energy by just kissing the orbits of Earth and Venus on opposite sides of the sun. Passenger ships equipped with even more powerful gaseous-core reactors, or fast cutters using the still-new fusion drives, could slice across from planet to planet in as little as a fortnight (2 weeks), given favorable planetary alignments—and given a profit margin that allowed them to spend an order of magnitude more on fuel—but Star Queen was stuck in the middle of the equation. Her optimal acceleration and deceleration determined both her launch window and her time of arrival.

Type: Airless Lander

These are designed for landing on bodies that have no atmosphere, but you probably could get away with using them on Mars. They evolved into NASA's Apollo Lunar Module. So they will require some sort of landing gear. But no streamlining. They will require a propulsion system with a thrust-to-weight ratio near 1.0, depending on the surface gravity of the bodies they are designed to land on. This probably means chemical propulsion, maybe a solid-core NTR. Hop Davis estimates that airless lander spacecraft will require a delta-V budget of around 5 kilometers per second if orbital and surface propellant depots are available. Otherwise it will be twice that, with along with a dramatic reduction in payload capacity.

For sample designs, go to the Lander page.

Type: Shuttlecraft

So the smart way to design is to use an orbit-to-orbit spacecraft to travel between planets, and at a planetary destination use locally based surface-to-orbit services: either a space ferry, airless lander or surface-to-orbit installation at a spaceport.

But what if there are no locally available surface-to-orbit services? If NASA dispatches a Mars mission, there ain't no Martian space shuttles to ferry the crew down to the surface.

Making the entire spacecraft land-able is often a bad idea. For one, optimizing a spacecraft for both orbit-to-orbit and surface-to-orbit operations will probably result in an inefficient ship with the disadvantages of both and the advantages of neither. If you are designing with a weak propulsion system, it might not even be possible. And even if your propulsion system is up to the task, often it is better to park your ticket home in orbit where it is safe while other means are used to send crew into a possibly dangerous situation.

The standard solution is for the main spacecraft to carry small auxiliary spacecraft as landers, either aerodynamic space ferries or airless landers. The popular term from Star Trek is "Shuttlecraft".

A large space ferry shuttlescraft on modestly sized orbit-to-orbit spacecraft can make the ship look like an arrow.

The traveling-public gripes at the lack of direct Earth-to-Moon service, but it takes three types of rocket ships and two space-station changes to make a fiddling quarter-million-mile jump for a good reason: Money.

The Commerce Commission has set the charges for the present three-stage lift from here to the Moon at thirty dollars a pound. Would direct service be cheaper? A ship designed to blast off from Earth, make an airless landing on the Moon, return and make an atmosphere landing, would be so cluttered up with heavy special equipment used only once in the trip that it could not show a profit at a thousand dollars a pound! Imagine combining a ferry boat, a subway train, and an express elevator. So Trans-Lunar uses rockets braced for catapulting, and winged for landing on return to Earth to make the terrific lift from Earth to our satellite station Supra-New York. The long middle lap, from there to where Space Terminal circles the Moon, calls for comfort-but no landing gear. The Flying Dutchman and the Philip Nolan never land; they were even assembled in space, and they resemble winged rockets like the Skysprite and the Firefly as little as a Pullman train resembles a parachute.

The Moonbat and the Gremlin are good only for the jump from Space Terminal down to Luna . . . no wings, cocoon-like acceleration-and-crash hammocks, fractional controls on their enormous jets.

From SPACE JOCKEY by Robert Heinlein (1947)

Type: Tanker

Many aerospace engineers have pointed out that all of these spacecraft can be far more cheap and efficient if there were orbital depots of propellant and/or fuel established in various strategic locations where space travel is desired. This will necessitate some sort of tanker-type spacecraft to keep the depots supplied. They will be a species of orbit-to-orbit spacecraft optimized to carry huge amounts of propellant, and hopefully be unmanned drones or robot controlled. They can use an efficient propulsion system with thrust-to-weight ration below 1.0, ion or VASIMR. Like standard orbit-to-orbit, probably a delta-V budget of 4 km/sec, unless they are in a real hurry.

There will also be a species of airless lander optimized to carry propellant to planetary based depots, this is called a "lighter". As all landers the propulsion thrust to weight ratio will have to be near 1.0, probably chemical propulsion. As standard airless lander, probably a delta-V budget of 5 km/sec. The lighter will probably be designed to land a single modular tank from the cluster carried by the tanker.

Examples of tankers include Dr. Parkinson's Lighter and Tanker, Kuck Mosquitos, Zuppero Water Ships, and Zuppero Lunar Water Trucks.

Type: Tug

Space Taxis, Space Pods, and Space Tugs are covered in the Spacesuit section.

Type: Warship

This is far more speculative, since as far as we know there have not been any space warships created yet. Refer to Warship Design, Space War: Intro, Space War: Detection, Warship Weapons Intro, , Warship Weapons Exotic, Space War: Defenses, Space War: Tactics, and Planetary Attack .

Fundamentally they are weapons platforms, so by definition they will be carrying various weapons systems. They may or may not have armor or other defenses, they may or may not have human crews. They probably will have an over sized delta-V capacity, and a large thrust capacity so they can jink around and complicate the enemy's targeting solution (i.e., dodge around so you are harder to hit). Lasers will require large amounts of power, and huge heat radiators and heat sinks to cope with waste energy. They will probably be carrying little or nothing that cannot be used to attack the enemy.

Type: Space Ark

Space Arks are an outer-space version of that old Noah story: some cosmic apocalypse is going to obliterate the world, so it behoves the human race to evacuate to another world a breeding population of humans, a civilization starter kit, as much of the worlds scientific knowledge and culture they can cram in, and a viable subset of Terra's ecosystem (with redundancy, none of this "two by two" nonsense). Yes, it is a popular scifi trope.

It is basically a colony ship to establish an interstellar colony. Except the stakes are higher and the build time is limited. The time limit is set by the arrival date of the apocalypse. Designing it won't be easy. If the ship can be designed to be indefinitely habitable (a "worldship") then the journey to a safe place can be done leisurely. But since such ships are generally built in a clawing rush, they have a limited life until their warranty runs out. So the journey has to be as fast as possible.

Another challenge is attempting construction of the space ark while all the selfish people in the entire freaking world try to seize it for their own survival.

The space ark can be a generation ship or a sleeper ship. A popular option is putting an engine on the end of a space colony. A more challenging option is putting an engine on Terra large enough to move the entire planet somewhere safer. But that is out of the scope of "types of spaceships." Or is it?

John Brunner's epic novel THE CRUCIBLE OF TIME is about an alien race whose planet is faced with annihilation by an oncoming nebula. However the focus in the novel is more on the thousands of years before the building of the ark. The aliens are starting with medieval levels of scientific ignorance and do not even know they are in danger. It is a race to see if they can develop enough science to make space arks before the nebula clobbers them.


(ed note: When a crazed army of survivors attacks the site where the Space Arks are being built, things look bleak until one of the main characters starts up the almost-complete first Ark, sets the atomic engines to "1 G", and floats over the attacking hordes in blowtorch mode)

     " To the ship! Into the ship!" Tony cried to them. "Everybody into the ship! Spread the word! Jack! . . . Everybody, everybody into the ship!" There was no alternative.
     Three-fourths of the camp was in the hands of the horde; and the laboratories could not possibly beat off another rush. They could not have beaten back this, if it had been more organized.
     Bullets flew through the dark.
     "To the ship! To the ship!"
     Creeping on hands and knees, from wounds or from caution, and dragging the wounded with them, the men started the retreat to the ship. Women were helping them.
     Yells and whistles warned that another rush was gathering; and this would be from all sides; the laboratories and the ship were completely surrounded.
     Tony caught up in his arms a young man who was barely breathing. He had a bullet through him; but he lived. Tony staggered with him into the ship.
     Hendron was there at the portal of the great metal rocket. He was cooler than any one else. "Inside, inside," he was saying confidently...
     ...The second rush was coming. No doubt of it, and it would be utterly overwhelming. There would be no survivors—but the women. None. For the horde would take no prisoners. They were killing the wounded already—their own badly wounded and the camp's wounded that they had captured.
     Eliot James, a bullet through his thigh, but saved by the dark, crawled in with this information. Tony carried him into the ship.
     They were all in the ship—all the survivors. The horde did not suspect it. The horde, as it charged in the dark, yelling and firing, closed in on the laboratories, clambered in the windows, smashing, shooting, screaming. Meeting no resistance, they shot and bayoneted the bodies of their own men and of the camp's which had been left there.

     Then they came on toward the ship. They suddenly seemed to realize that the ship was the last refuge. They surrounded it, firing at it. Their bullets glanced from its metal. Somebody who had grenades bombed it.
     A frightful flame shattered them. Probably they imagined, at first, that the grenade had exploded some sort of a powder magazine within the huge metal tube, and that it was exploding. Few of those near to the ship, and outside it, lived to see what was happening.

     The great metal rocket rose from the earth, the awful blast from its power tubes lifting it. The frightful heat seared and incinerated, killing at its touch. A hundred of the horde were dead before the ship was above the buildings.
     Hendron lifted it five hundred feet farther, and the blast spread in a funnel below it. A thousand died in that instant. Hendron ceased to elevate the ship. Indeed, he lowered it a little, and the power of the atomic blast which was keeping two thousand tons of metal and of human flesh suspended over the earth, played upon the ground—and upon the flesh on the ground—as no force ever released by man before.
     Tony lay on his face on the floor of the ship, gazing down through the protective quartz-glass at the ground lighted by the garish glare of the awful heat.

     In the midst of the blaring, blinding, screaming crisis, a man on horseback appeared. His coming seemed spectral. He rode in full uniform; he had a sword which he brandished to rally his doomed horde. Probably he was drunk; certainly he had no conception of what was occurring; but his courage was splendid. He spurred into the center of the lurid light, into the center of the circle of death and tumult, stiff-legged in stirrups of leather, like one of the horrible horsemen of the Apocalypse.
     He was, for a flaming instant, the apotheosis of valor. He was the crazed commander of the horde.
     But he was more. He was the futility of all the armies on earth. He was man, the soldier.
     Probably he appeared to live after he had died, he and his horse together. For the horse stood there motionless like a statue, and he sat his horse, sword in hand. Then, like all about them, they also crumpled to the ground.

     Half an hour later, Hendron brought the ship down.

From WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer (1933)

(ed note: the inhabitants of the planet are treated to a somewhat close star going nova. Study of the explosion advances science, and also gives the secret of a faster-than-light drive. The project starts to build the first starship.

Then they notice that their own primary star is acting a little peculiarly. With horror they realize it is going to go nova in about nine years. The planetary government embarks on a crash program to make as many space arks as possible. Of course those who will left behind are somewhat unhappy.)

      Even for those barely possible few who did not recognize the man himself, the ceremonial blue and gold robes told the tale: he was the World Consort. His presence could only mean that whatever he had to say was the contribution of the Matriarch herself.
     “I am here essentially to answer the young man’s question,” he said. “There is work that we can do—work for a whole people, for a whole world. One Ertak-drive ship is no longer enough; we want hundreds—even thousands if that is possible. We are transforming the Project into a mass crash program for the survival of the race. We are going to build, man and launch a fleet.”

     Being young, Jom was not immediately able to rid himself of his notion—no, it was more than a notion, it was a fact of his brief experience—that five years was a long, long time in the future. He was astonished to see how rapidly Ertak and his staff forced themselves to make huge decisions, which ordinarily should have been weighed for several months at the very least. Now four or five of these might be made on a single typical day.

     For a sufficient example, take ship design. The Project’s ship on the ways, the Javelin, had been planned as a vessel which would return home well within the lifetime of its original crew. Now it had to be thought of, instead, as a colony-in-flight, able to shelter many generations if necessary.
     But spaceships which will also be colonies are not easily designed from nothing ; and an interstellar ship which was specifically designed not to be a colony cannot speedily be torn down and changed over. When presented with the time-budget for such an operation, Ertak decided almost instantly against it. The Javelin was ordered to be modified in as many small ways as possible, but she was not to be rebuilt, nor was she to be nibbled at drastically enough to risk weakening her present structure. This made sense, but Jorn was not prepared for the corollary decision: that all the Javelin's sister ships were to be built to the same design and with only such minor modifications as the Javelin herself could safely withstand. This decision too was eminently reasonable, but not to a man to whom five years seemed like a long time.

     And as with the ships, so with the world. This decision was not Ertak’s to make, but since the principles were the same, so was the outcome. The whole world was not converted overnight, or at any other time, to the production of interstellar ships, as Jorn had fuzzily imagined the World Consort to have implied. Doom or no doom, the fact remained that the original Javelin at completion would have cost half a billion credits, plus four years in construction time. Her sister ships would cost slightly less than that, but not much—mass production is an almost meaningless term for a structure like a bridge or a skyscraper or a ship, the savings involved running narrowly between two and four per cent per structure.
     Jorn had of course supposed that mere financial cost—and in that word “mere” there resounded hollowly a huge hole in his education—would go by the board in so ultimate an emergency. Like all the poor, money to him was an abstraction, a frivolity, a curse ; as a graduate engineer he knew all about oil, but nobody had bothered to tell him that money is even more necessary and valuable. Skyscrapers, battleships, satellite stations or survival fleets all require a high-energy economy, which means that almost all the goods and services in the world—and hence almost all of the money—must continue to be devoted to keeping that economy at the highest possible level. The farmer may not leap from her combine and take up a hammer on the nearest incomplete interstellar ship; the submarine freighter engineer may not abandon the engines which are propelling titanium ore or sponge platinum from one continent to another; the baker may not cease to make bread; the banker may not take her hands away from the guidance of credit, the raw material of political unity and the only enduring testimonial to man’s confidence in man; even the newscaster may not cease from telling all the rest, who in fact do not know how to hold a hammer and cannot feel or see the escapd fleet growing, that grow it does, and any job well done is an investment in the Project.

     All this takes money; nothing else will serve.

     “Of course we’re trading for the moment on the fact that most of the people don’t really believe a word of it,” Ertak remarked. “They’re willing to go along because the government’s buttered on a little inflation that’s how you ease civilians into any war. But that won’t last long enough. By the end of next year the bombs will start falling, and then they’ll want to run the war themselves, for their own personal protection. That’s when the trouble begins...
     “I don’t see the analogy,” Jorn confessed.
     “I mean that by that time they’ll be beginning to feel the heat—all of them, not just the neurotics who think they can feel it now. It’ll occur to them that the Sun really is going to explode. Then they’ll begin to wonder what they’re really working for : in other words, whether or not what they’re doing is going to get them an entrance ticket to one of our ships. And the moment we have to start paying them in hope instead of in credits, we’ll be in trouble—and there won’t be a ship in the fleet that’s much beyond half done at that point, except of course the Javelin.”
     “But we are going to be carrying passengers,” Jom said hesitantly. “Lots of them."
     “My dear Jorn! Never mind, Ailiss O’Kung says you may be a great navigator ... Of course we’ll be carrying passengers—roughly a hundred for every crewman on the Javelin, and even more on the others. But how many people does that come to? We won’t know until we see how many ships we manage to build before we have to leave, but I’ll tell you this: under the best possible circumstances, the total population of the fleet will be less than the differential birthrate of this planet for one single day. Probably a good deal less.”
     “Still, Director, we won’t be taking the old, or the handicapped or . . . certainly not the newborn . . .”
     “Ah,” Ertak said with a frozen smile. “That makes it look much easier. But let’s do a little simple multiplication, by tens. The Javelin will be able to carry about twenty-five hundred people. If the fleet consists of a hundred such ships—which would astonish me—then it will leave carrying a quarter of a million. Correct ?”

     Jorn began to feel sick. The Director saw it, obviously, but he continued his explanation without mercy.
     “Now let’s suppose that you’ve managed to disqualify twenty-five million people, on sure sound principles. This leaves you with 2,476,000,000 eligible candidates from which to pick 250,000. About one from every ten million. Would you like the job?”
     “No,” Jom said. “Great Ghost, no.”

     Jorn had no time to puzzle over the sudden inaccessibility of the Director; everything abruptly was going too fast. The five years had in fact almost gone by; and the fleet was, both by definition and a long accumulation of miracles, well more than half done. By now, Jorn was better equipped to understand the awful logic of the simple theory of numbers involved, which ruled that a fleet half finished today may tomorrow have to be dubbed, arbitrarily, all the fleet that there is going to be.
     “And we are very close to term now,” Dr. Chase-Huebner told a meeting in the red room. These days she spoke for the Director; if anybody knew why, nobody had been able to tell Jorn. “We have thirty ships. A thirty-first, the Haggard, is far enough along to be counted in.”
     “What about the Assegai?” someone asked.
     “Out of the question. It would take more than a year to finish her, and we haven't got a year. And I’m not just talking about the heat and the storms, either —though both are awful enough already. Public panic is rising so rapidly now that we won’t be able to keep workers on the Assegai another year without promising them all a berth on her; and as you all know, our complement is filled. Believe me, I hate to leave that ship behind —I hate to leave any ship behind, but particularly the Assegai with alt her refinements. But we have to stop somewhere. It would be nice to wait for the Boomerang, too; on paper she’s far and away the trimmest ship of her class on the ways—but at the moment she’s nothing but a keel and a heap of loose Ibeams. This has got to be the end.”
     “Why not call a halt on the Haggard, too?” Kamblin proposed. “She’ll take another five months, it seems.”
     “Because,” Dr. Chase-Huebner said gently, “we have a crew and passengers for the Haggard, and the Director doesn’t mean to leave anyone behind whom we have promised can go.”

     In mid-air in Ertak’s office a siren groaned briefly, urgently, and on Ertak’s desk, just to the left and directly in front of Dr. Chase-Huebner, the orange light went on.
     It had never been on before. It would never go on again. It meant, very simply, that Dr. Chase-Huebner—and Director Ertak?—had already waited too long, and that even the Haggard would now never be finished.
     The Sun, baleful though it had become, was still decades away from its last agony; but the cataclysm was upon them, all the same.

     The truck was covered and there was hardly anything to be seen from it. Jorn and fourteen other crew members of the Javelin clung to the hard benches and craned their necks around each other, trying to peer out the back over the tailgate; but at first the administration building blocked off the view, and then the driver was careening across Salt Flats at a pace which made visibility less important than just hanging on. It was maddening.
     All the same, a general distant roar of human and machine sound, massive and ugly, came rolling clearly over the snarling of the truck’s own engine. If the sputtering of gas guns was a part of that clamor, it could not be distinguished, at this distance, from the boundary fences; but there were louder explosions too—explosive bullets, grenades, even an occasional mortar.
     It was hard to believe that any sort of a mob could have gathered outside that fence, in the middle of one of the most forbidding deserts in this entire hemisphere of the world; but that was what the orange light had been triggered to foretell. And the fact that the mob was already here—and that the truck was already racing for the Javelin—could mean only that it was huge, armed, and at least partially organized.
     And it also meant, Jorn was fervently sure regardless of the evidence, that somebody—a great many somebodies—had badly misjudged Jurg Wester, and the likes of him.

     The flickering night framed over the tailgate of the truck was streaked briefly by the track of a rocket shell. The concussion from the tank-killer hung fire long after the wake of the little missile had vanished, and its residual image after it ; and then, blam, there it came, from somewhere in the middle distance. Obviously it hadn’t been aimed at the truck, which in any event was showing no lights ; but it left behind no doubt that the mob was armed. Of course at this speed a tire blowout would kill Jorn and everyone else almost as instantly—
     The tires screamed and the truck, yawing and lurching, slammed down to a dead stop, piling all fifteen of them up against the back wall of the cab. Accompanying the yell of brakes and tires was the awful grinding, pounding note of gears being stripped: the driver had shifted down into first in order to stop shorter than the brakes could manage alone, trusting to the crew’s field gear to protect them and her own skill to pocket her.

     They were still trying to unscramble themselves from their own swearing black homologous knot when the tailgate clanged down. “Out!" a woman’s voice shouted. “Hit that lift! Lock closes in seven minutes! Move!”
     Jorn recognized the voice. It belonged to the armorer. Well, that explained the drastic driving. She was waiting for them as they unscrambled and struck turf, carrying a hooded torch further hooded by her gauntlet, between two fingers of which she allowed only a razor-edge of red light to shear at the ground. Even in the dim monochrome, however, Jorn could see that she was bleeding a black rill from one nostril.
     For an instant thereafter he was totally confused. Then, against the starlight, he picked out the colossal shaft of the Javelin, sweeping motionlessly into the sky as though she would never end. Beside her, seemingly clinging to one long dully-gleaming curve, was the delicate scaffolding of the elevator, waiting to be extinguished like a flame at the moment of takeoff.

     “That way,” the armorer growled, “that way.” She gestured along the sand and salt with the razor-edge of the torch; but Jorn was already running. He could hear others behind him. Far away, something—a bomb?—burst open with a deep, heavy groan, and a minute temblor shook the desert under his pounding feet.
     Then the aluminum deck of the lift car was ringing with the trampling of boots as they charged aboard, shoving each other and grabbing for cables or struts they could only guess were there. “. . . thirteen . . . fourteen ... Now by the Ghost ... All right, get in, dammit, fifteen!" A whistle warbled shrilly, almost in Jorn’s ear. The cab shuddered, and then, without any pause, lurched skyward with a muscle-wrenching jolt.

     After that, it did not seem to be going anywhere at all, despite the piercing, unpredictable screams it sometimes uttered against its guide-rails, and the jittering of the deck beneath their feet. Nevertheless it was rising, and as it rose, Jorn could see more and more of the outskirts of the base. Now they were seething with light and smoke, all along the perimeter. Tracers criss-crossed the hot night air in all directions. The higher the car inched, the more likely it seemed to Jorn that everyone on it would be riddled before they would be able to reach the faraway airlock of the Javelin.
     Then, ages later, they were high enough to begin to see the general shape of the attack. It was huge. Beyond the immediate, writhing lines of fire along the fences, twinkling processions of vehicles were racing in nearly straight lines over the desert toward Salt Flats. Near the horizon there did indeed seem to be some bombs falling, and some of these small “nominal” atomics. Evidently the government still controlled the air—which was good as far as it went, but the planes would be under strict orders to stay well away from the ships, where the main part of the mob obviously was concentrating, and hence the only place where a really comprehensive explosion might be decisive.
     The lift quivered and rose a little faster. It brought them all high enough to test their handholds with a heavy buffeting of wind—though the wind seemed to be just as hot as the air on the desert itself had been. There would be no more cool winds on this planet, not at any altitude at which a man could expect to breathe, not even on the mountains.

     Another rocket shell went searing past in a high hazy arc. Jorn stopped breathing for an instant. That one was close. Didn’t they realize that they might hit the ship itself? For that matter, didn’t they know that they couldn’t pack all of those thousands of people into the Javelin and her sisters ? Didn’t they know that they’d wreck her, just trying? Sure, there were three other ships standing on Salt Flats, but—
     But as he realized the futility of trying to think like a mob, his mind repeated, “thousands of people,” and quailed. That mob was being held off only by the stand-bys and there were very few of those any more, certainly far from a full extra crew for each ship. They had been weeded; and judging by the rocket shells, many of the rejects were now howling on the other side of the fence. Despite the standby training, and the supernal lethality of their gear, the stand they were making was suicidal. They would have to fall back, or—
     But they did not fall back. Not this time.
     They were broken open.

     About two miles northwest of the administration building, the line of flame sagged inward. Then it went dark along at least half a mile; the fence was down. Outside, there was a flaming surge of movement toward the hole like surf foaming around a whirlpool.
     The cab came to a bouncing stop in the middle of the sky.
     “All right, inside!” the armorer shouted. “Lock closes in one minute! Inside—shuffle or dust!”
     Had that whole crawling ascent been only six minutes long? But there was no time for postmortems. The sixteen of them were packed into the lock like fish in a jar, and the outer door swung ponderously, unfeelingly shut on the battle and on the whole outside world . . . for good.
     As it sealed, a hairline semicircle of light, intolerably brilliant after the near-blackness of the field, began to widen on the other side of the lock. Jorn was momentarily startled; it had not occurred to him that the interior of the ship might be fully lit—although, since she had no ports, there was no reason why she shouldn’t have been; and besides, her passengers had been living aboard her ever since she was finished. In the first influx of light he was startled to find Ailiss O’Kung standing next to him, white and sweating with strain.

     “Very good,” the armorer said, a little more quietly, but not much. “Posts, ladies and gentlemen. And thank you.”
     Proper enough, Jorn thought deliriously, since the armorer was the only one in the party who was not an officer. Still the speech had all the irrationality of a dream.
     Everything had been rehearsed over and over long before this. Jorn headed for the control barrel almost by instinct, Ailiss trotting by his side. In the big blinking cavern he ran a fast tally of his navigation section and found them there; he did not stop to count Ailiss’ crew, but he had a vague feeling that she was at least one officer short.
     Ertak was there, hunched in the command chair above them. That was his right, since the Javelin was the flagship. But it was the first time that Jorn had seen him in five years; it increased the dream-like feeling.

     The Director did not turn around. He did not even seem to hear what was going on behind him. After a moment, however, he spoke into a chest microphone, and all the desk screens came to life, including Jom’s own. Once again he had a view of the scene outside.
     It no longer really looked like a battle, but more like a carnival, confusing, gay with light, without real meaning. Nevertheless, from this height Jom was able to see that a miracle had happened around the breach at the fence. Somehow, whoever had been generalling the defense had managed to pinch off the inflow, clean up the stragglers, and order a retreat. The irregular closed curve of fire, curiously amoeboid, was well inside the fences everywhere, and drawing closer and closer to the ships; but it was still unbroken.

     Beside Jorn’s right hand he heard a razzy muttering, and reached guiltily for his operations helmet. Inside it, Ertak’s voice was saying:
     ". . . and maintain routine identification signal census in a continuous cycle. Field officers, continue to hold ground by the Haggard and the Assegai; they both look finished and we want the rabble to assume that they are. On Signal Red, flatten out toward the Assegai; on Signal Blue, let them have her. Lifts are down on Javelin and Quarrel; repeat, lifts down on Javelin and Quarrel . . . Congratulations, Deep Station. To all hands: Deep Station reports it has secured all five ships. . . . Census? Census, report! . . . Field officers, Signal Red, this is Signal Red, execute. . . To all hands: Deep Station is launching . . , Census? . . . Field officers, supersede previous orders. On blue signal, yield both Assegai and Boomerang and fall back toward Javelin. Fall back toward Javelin, we will be last off. . . Attention Quarrel, cycle airlock and begin countdown; we won't need you for personnel.”

     The line of fire bulged inward toward the Javelin, and then toward the incomplete ships. Then there was an even deeper bulge toward the Quarrel.
     “Field officers, blue signal will be on count of zero. At the signal, yield the field and board the Javelin’s lift. One minute allowed for boarding, repeat one minute. Counting toward blue signal: five . . . four . , . three . . . two . . . one . . . zero. Signal Blue! Signal Blue!”
     The line swept inward on all sides—and then suddenly it disappeared utterly. There was noi longer even a part of it to be seen. Instead there were only the torches and vehicle lights of the mob, pouring inward toward the three ships they thought they had gained. In a barely perceptible flickering of smallarms fire, what little there was left of the standby crew funnelled toward the lift shaft of the Javelin, trying to disengage.
     “Census, I have pips for twenty-one survivors and a load estimate of eighteen on the lift. Confirm, please. . . . All right, nineteen now. Time’s up. Lift crew, haul them. . . . Absolutely not. Quarrel will leave in six minutes exactly. If we wait for three stragglers, all twenty-one will die. Haul!”

     A minute went by. The mob continued to concentrate around the bases of the “captured” ships, like phosphorescent ants, until each of them seemed to be standing in a spreading pool of light. The pool around the Boomerang, however, quickly began to seep away toward the others; close up it was self-evident that that ship was radically incomplete.
     “To all hands: Deep Station has launched all five ships. We have garbled reports from other stations indicating at least eighteen more either secured or already launched. There are also still two stations holding radio silence: we are hoping this means that their locations remain unknown and they are undergoing no attack.”

     Three minutes.

     “Passenger census . . . Well, that’s what they get for sightseeing; we warned them. Certainly it could be a lot worse. . . Airlock crew, prepare to admit standbyes.”
     Nobody could call them standbyes after tonight.

     Four minutes. There was turmoil now in the pools of light around the Assegai and the Haggard. Little sparks of light were clambering slowly up the scaffolding of their lift-shafts ; obviously they had discovered that the lifts themselves were inoperable.

     Five minutes. The airlock was open now, gaping for the nineteen seared heroes. The mob was beginning to ooze tentatively toward the Quarrel.
     “. . . seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. Cycle airlock. Field officers, welcome aboard. Get that thing closed, you’ve got four seconds—”


     The Quarrel vanished. On Salt Flats the pools of light were still visible, but they looked dimmer, and completely frozen: truck lights left on, torches fallen from hands. . . . The concussion had probably killed many of them. The rest would be likely to be still unconscious when the Javelin left.
     “A clean takeoff,” Ertak’s voice said calmly. “Ship’s officers, begin countdown. We will follow in eight minutes.” He paused and seemed to check some board hidden by his chest. Then he added, “To. all hands: congratulations. The Javelin is the last ship able to leave, and the last of these still on the ground. Twenty-nine others are all already on their way.”
     Thirty ships, Jom thought numbly. Thirty ships.
     “Correction, we are thirty-one in all. We have a signal from the Kestrel. She is damaged but off safely.”

     There was a ragged cheer in the earphones. Jom did not join in it. What difference could one ship make? What difference would ten have made?
     “Census . . . thank you. To all hands : we now have a final population check. We are carrying seventy-five thousand people, give or take about a hundred. We have escaped—and by that token, we know that we will survive. Take-off in thirty seconds.”
     We have escaped ... we will survive. And yet . . . how many died when the Quarrel vanished, and the lights were stilled on Salt Flats? How many more would die to the departure of the Javelin? How many had been killed to keep them out of the ships, all over the world?
     We will survive. But who are we to survive?

From ...AND ALL THE STARS A STAGE by James Blish (1960)

(ed note: in the novel they are trying to guard an underground shelter instead of a space ark. But the same principles apply to defense)

As Seaton assumed, the near-collision of suns which had affected so disastrously the planet Valeron did not come unheralded to overwhelm a world unwarned, since for many hundreds of years her civilization had been of a high order indeed. Her astronomers were able, her scientists capable, the governments of her nations strong and just. Years before its occurrence the astronomers had known that the catastrophe was inevitable and had calculated dispassionately its every phase — to the gram, the centimeter, and the second.

With all their resources of knowledge and of power, however, it was pitifully little that the people of Valeron could do; for of what avail are the puny energies of man compared to the practically infinite forces of cosmic phenomena? Any attempt of the humanity of the doomed planet to swerve from their courses the incomprehensible masses of those two hurtling suns was as surely doomed to failure as would be the attempt of an ant to thrust from its rails an onrushing locomotive.

But what little could be done was done; done scientifically and logically; done, if not altogether without fear, at least in as much as was humanly possible without favor. With mathematical certainty were plotted the areas of least strain, and in those areas were constructed shelters. Shelters buried deeply enough to be unaffected by the coming upheavals of the world's crust; shelters of unbreakable metal, so designed, so latticed and braced as to withstand the seismic disturbances to which they were inevitably to be subjected.

Having determined the number of such shelters that could be built, equipped, and supplied with the necessities of life in the time allowed, the board of selection began its cold-blooded and heartless task. Scarcely one in a thousand of Valeron's teeming millions was to be given a chance for continued life, and they were to be chosen only from the children who would be in the prime of young adulthood at the time of the catastrophe.

These children were the pick of the planet: flawless in mind, body, and heredity. They were assembled in special schools near their assigned refuges, where they were instructed intensively in everything that they would have to know in order that civilization should not disappear utterly from the universe.

Such a thing could not be kept a secret long, and it is best to touch as lightly as possible upon the scenes which ensued after the certainty of doom became public knowledge.

Humanity both scaled the heights of self-sacrificing courage and plumbed the very depths of cowardice and depravity.

Characters already strong were strengthened, but those already weak went to pieces entirely in orgies to a normal mind unthinkable. Almost overnight a peaceful and lawabiding world went mad — became an insane hotbed of crime, rapine, and pillage unspeakable. Martial law was declared at once, and after a few thousand maniacs had been ruthlessly shot down, the soberer inhabitants were allowed to choose between two alternatives. They could either die then and there before a firing squad, or they could wait and take whatever slight chance there might be of living through what was to come — but devoting their every effort meanwhile to the end that through those selected few the civilization of Valeron should endure.

Many chose death and were executed summarily and without formality, without regard to wealth or station. The rest worked. Some worked devotedly and with high purpose, some worked hopelessly and with resignation. Some worked stolidly and with thoughts only of the present, some worked slyly and with thoughts only of getting themselves, by hook or by crook, into one of those shelters. All, however, from the highest to the lowest, worked.

Since the human mind cannot be kept indefinitely at high tension, the new condition of things came in time to be regarded almost as normal, and as months lengthened into years the routine was scarcely broken. Now and then, of course, one went mad and was shot; another refused to continue his profitless labor and was shot; still another gave up the fight and shot himself. And always there were the sly the self-seekers, the bribers, the corruptionists — willing to go to any lengths whatever to avoid their doom. Not openly did they carry on their machinations, but like loathsome worms eating at the heart of an outwardly fair fruit. But the scientists, almost to a man, were loyal. Trained to think, they thought clearly and logically, and surrounded themselves with soldiers and guards of the same stripe. Old men or weaklings would have no place in the post-cataclysmic world and there were accommodations for only the exactly predetermined number; therefore only those selected children and no others could be saved or would. And as for bribery, threats, blackmail, or any possible form of racketry or corruption — of what use is wealth or power to a man under sentence of death? And what threat or force could sway him?

Wherefore most of the sly were discovered, exposed, and shot.

Time went on. The shelters were finished. Into them were taken stores, libraries, tools and equipment of every sort necessary for the rebuilding of a fully civilized world. Finally the "children," now in the full prime of young manhood and young womanhood, were carefully checked in. Once inside those massive portals they were of a world apart.

They were completely informed and completely educated; they had for long governed themselves with neither aid nor interference; they knew precisely what they must face; they knew exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. Behind them the mighty, multiply seals were welded into place and broken rock by the cubic mile was blasted down upon their refuges.

Day by day the heat grew more and more intense. Cyclonic storms raged ever fiercer, accompanied by an incessant blaze of lightning and a deafeningly continuous roar of thunder. More and ever more violent became the seismic disturbances as Valeron's very core shook and trembled under the appalling might of the opposing cosmic forces.

Work was at an end and the masses were utterly beyond control. The devoted were butchered by their frantic fellows; the hopeless were stung to madness; the stolid were driven to frenzy by the realization that there was to be no future; the remaining sly ones deftly turned the unorganized fury of the mob into a purposeful attack upon the shelters, their only hope of life.

But at each refuge the rabble met an unyielding wall of guards loyal to the last, and of scientists who, their work now done, were merely waiting for the end. Guards and scientists fought with rifles, ray-guns, swords, and finally with clubs, stones, fists, feet and teeth. Outnumbered by thousands they fell and the howling mob surged over their bodies. To no purpose. Those shelters had been designed and constructed to withstand the attacks of Nature gone berserk, and futile indeed were the attempts of the frenzied hordes to tear a way into their sacred recesses.

Thus died the devoted and high-souled band who had saved their civilization; but in that death each man was granted the boon which, deep in his heart, he craved. They had died quickly and violently, fighting for a cause they knew to be good. They did not die as did the members of the insanely terror-stricken, senseless mob... in agony... lingeringly... but it is best to draw a kindly veil before the horrors attendant upon that riving, that tormenting, that cosmic outraging of a world.

The suns passed, each upon his appointed way. The cosmic forces ceased to war and to the tortured and ravaged planet there at last came peace. The surviving children of Valeron emerged from their subterranean retreats and undauntedly took up the task of rebuilding their world. And to such good purpose did they devote themselves to the problems of rehabilitation that in a few hundred years there bloomed upon Valeron a civilization and a culture scarcely to be equaled in the universe.

For the new race had been cradled in adversity. In its ancestry there was no physical or mental taint or weakness, all dross having been burned away by the fires of cosmic catastrophe which had so nearly obliterated all the life of the planet. They were as yet perhaps inferior to the old race in point of numbers, but were immeasurably superior to it in physical, mental, moral, and intellectual worth.

Immediately after the Emergence it had been observed that the two outermost planets of the system had disappeared and that in their stead revolved a new planet. This phenomenon was recognized for what it was, an exchange of planets; something to give concern only to astronomers.

No one except sheerest romancers even gave thought to the possibility of life upon other worlds, it being an almost mathematically demonstrable fact that the Valeronians were the only life in the entire universe. And even if other planets might possibly be inhabited, what of it? The vast reaches of empty ether intervening between Valeron and even her nearest fellow planet formed an insuperable obstacle even to communication, to say nothing of physical passage. Little did anyone dream, as generation followed generation, of what hideously intelligent life that interloping planet bore, nor of how the fair world of Valeron was to suffer from it.

From SKYLARK OF VALERON by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1934)

Type Notes

(ed note: this system assumes the presence of propellant depots. Otherwise the the delta-V budgets will have to be more or less doubled)

I imagine 3 types of vehicles for space development.

The yellow vehicles have a nearly 10 km/sec delta-V budget and a thick atmosphere to contend with. It is possible these will always be multi-stage expendable vehicles. (ed note: Space Ferry)

The red vehicles move between locations in different orbits. They need no landing mechanism, no thermal protection or ablation shields, parachutes, etc. They have delta V budgets between 4 and 3 km/sec. It is my belief such vehicles could be single stage, reusable vehicles. (ed note: Orbit-to-Orbit)

The green vehicles (lander/ascent vehicles) move between orbital locations and a surface of a substantial body, but not as substantial as earth. Their delta V budget is around 5 km/sec. I believe these vehicles could also be single stage, reusable vehicles. (ed note: Airless Lander)

It would take some investment to build infrastructure to maintain and supply the propellant depots pictured here. Wouldn't it be cheaper to just send ships directly from Earth to Mars? That depends. If your goal is flags and footprints sortie missions, disposable mega rockets are the way to go. But if you wanted genuine development of Mars, it would take many, many trips. If infrastructure could enable these trips to be done with smaller, reusable vehicles, the infrastructure would return the investment many times over.


Reduced to fundamentals, there are two basic shapes for your atomic rocket: the cylinder (cigar shape) and the sphere. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Of course matters are different in the totally unscientific world of media science fiction.

Any Freudian symbolism is the responsibility of the reader.

Flying saucers are not atomic rockets and are therefore beyond the scope of this website. If you want the absolute best information (including blueprints) of the most famous flying saucers from movies and TV, run, do not walk, and get a copy of The Saucer Fleet by Jack Hagerty and Jon Rogers. For rocket-like spacecraft, the last word is Spaceship Handbook by the same authors. Both books are solid gold.


The cylinder is more aerodynamic (for take-off and landing on planets with atmospheres), and allows the use of a smaller anti-radiation shadow shield (because from the point of view of the reactor the body of the ship subtends a smaller angle). It also lends itself well to the tumbling pigeon concept since it does not have to spin as fast as a sphere of the same volume in order to generate the same centrifugal gravity.

Drawbacks include a larger surface area, and a larger "moment of inertia" for yaw and pitch maneuvers (but a lower moment of inertia for roll maneuvers). This means it takes forever to point the ship's nose in different directions as compared to a sphere, which means poor maneuverability (See short story "Hide and Seek" by Sir Arthur C. Clarke for details). Larger gyros or stronger attitude jets will be needed. A faster roll rate is actually not of much use, unless you are trying to get a weapon turret to bear on an enemy ship (See the wargame Attack Vector: Tactical for details).

Cylinder shapes are also better if your ship has a so-called "spinal mount" weapon, that is, where instead of mounting a weapon on your ship you instead build the ship around the weapon. Such weapons are typically long and skinny, which fits the profile of a cigar more than a sphere.


Spheres have the largest enclosed volume for the smallest surface area of any shape, which is a major advantage where every gram of structural mass is a penalty. They also have a smaller moment of inertia for yaw and pitch maneuvers. Drawbacks are the opposite of the cylinder: they are only slightly more aerodynamic than a brick, they don't shadow shield well, and they are lousy tumbling pigeons.

Spheres also require more internal support structure than cylinder to handle the same acceleration load, particularly if you're going to be putting decks inside of it that rely on the structural framework of the spheroidal hull for rigidity. Cylinders under acceleration support themselves in the same manner as a skyscraper building, spheres need extra bracing to keep the equator from sagging. Of course this only becomes a problem if the acceleration is greater than a tenth of a gee, neither spheres nor cylinders have any problem coping with milligee acceleration.

On the other tentacle, if the shape has to be pressurized, like a fuel tank or a crew compartment, non-spherical shapes require more bracing mass and are more expensive to construct than spherical shapes.

Ken Burnside noted that another drawback of a sphere is that your internal volume is going to have a lot of "wasted dead spaces" near the hull. Odd shaped volumes that are what happens when you have an interior wall sectioning off part of the curved surface of the sphere. Anybody who has tried to lay out a floor plan inside a Buckminster Fuller geodetic dome house knows the problem.

Yet another thing to keep in mind is that using current manufacturing techniques, constructing a cylindrical hull costs about 70% of the cost of constructing a spherical hull with the same volume.

Why? Because it is more difficult to manufactured girders and plates that are bent compared to straight ones. A cylinder is constructed using straight stringers. The frames are circular, but all the frames have the same radius and radius of curvature. A sphere on the other hand uses curved stringers and circular frames all of different sizes (well, there are actually two frames of each given radius, but you understand the point I'm trying to make).

On most modern wet-navy warships, the hull plates are mostly straight, with a few bent in one dimension, and only a couple bent spherically in two dimensions. Bending is expensive. Eliminating the bending cost will require one and perhaps two breakthroughs in manufacturing technology.


Many early designs were cylindrical but also carrying a winged landing craft. This gave the spacecraft the appearance of an arrow or a spear. Granted, the landing craft was usually for the return trip to land the astronauts on Terra, but there were a couple intended for landing on Mars, and even one for landing on a hypothetical planet with an atmosphere around another star.


Other ship geometries are possible. In Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky there is an Terra-Mars passenger liner shaped like a doughnut (torus). The power plant and propulsion system is in the hole, and the ship spins for centrifugal gravity.

And there is also the open-frame design, where components are attached wherever is convenient and braced by girders. The von Braun Moonship from the Collier's article is an example.

Which Way Is Up?

Remember that in a spacecraft under acceleration, "down" is in the direction the exhaust is shooting (i.e., under acceleration the ship will seem like it is landed, sitting on its tail fins with the nose pointed straight up). The spacecraft living quarters will be arranged stacked like floors in a skyscraper. The floors will be at ninety degrees to the exhaust direction. Spacecraft arranged this way are called Tail-sitters. Most spacecraft are tail-sitters.

Usually spacecraft will NOT have their floors parallel to the exhaust direction, i.e., sideways like an aircraft or boat. This is the idiotic "Confusing-a-spaceship-with-an-passenger-airliner" school of ridiculous spacecraft design, found in science fiction with moronically bad science such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and practically all the rest. Get it through your head: Rocket Are Not Boats people!

The only way this will work is with some sort of hand-waving paragravity. And even then why would anybody use such a stupid layout? If the paragravity fails, the rear wall abruptly becomes the floor, the floor becomes the wall, everybody falls to the new floor and breaks their ankles, and all the control panels are out of reach on the freaking ceiling. Now what, Flash Gordon? If you are going to be routinely dueling with Klingon battle cruisers, you do not want a minor weapons hit on the paragravity generator rendering the entire blasted ship inoperable. Just make the floors parallel to the exhaust direction like Heinlein intended, and you'll eliminate that failure mode.

The producers of the TV series The Expanse understand this. In the first episode, a rescue party approaches the silent derelict ship the Scopuli.

But what's this? The ship's name plate looks upside down! Did the special effects artists make a mistake?

WRONG, you trekkie! Ships do not move through space on their bellies like an airplane. The producers of The Expanse got it exactly right. Ships move vertically like a sky-scraper. If we view it that way:

...suddenly we see that the name plate is perfectly correct.

The Expanse gets a big platinum star from me for that bit of accuracy. With the exception of the 2001 movies I don't recall anybody getting that correct (well, also maybe SyFy's Ascension, but that almost doesn't count). And that is only the start of things they got right. I love this show.

When Rockets Are Boats

As always there are exceptions

There are only two situations where it actually makes sense to use the passenger-airliner arrangement:

  • For spacecraft that actually do act like aircraft at some point, e.g., the Space Shuttle.
  • For cargo spacecraft that do not want to use a crane to move cargo up and down over tens of meters. Instead they become belly-landers.

Yes, an atmospheric lander that is transporting cargo will embody both situations.

The drawback is the crew spaces have to be arranged to accomodate both orientations. Just like the old NASA Space Shuttle. Or the FLIP ship.

Things get confusing if you have a spacecraft equipped with a centrifuge for artificial gravity. Under thrust with centrifuge deactivated, "down" is in the direction of thrust. With no thrust and centrifuge spinning, "down" is in the direction away from the spin axis. Under thrust with centrifuge spinning, "down" will be in a weird corner direction that is the vector sum of the two accelerations. There are ways of dealing with this.

There was an interesting hybrid in Larry Niven's World of Ptavvs. The "honeymoon special" was laid out sideways like an aircraft. The spacecraft resembled a huge arrow. It sat on the takeoff field like any aircraft while the passengers boarded. It would taxi down the runway and take off with JATO units, the "tail feathers" acting as wings. Once aloft, the scramjets kicked in, boosting the ship into Terra orbit. In space, the main fusion propulsion system was in the belly, not the tail. The ship flew through space sideways, which kept the direction of "down" still pointed at the floor. The wings also contained the heat radiators.


The other, far to the right, was a passenger ship as big as the ancient Queen Mary, one of the twin luxury transports which served the Titan Hotel.

Well, at least he had time to burn. As long as he was here, he might as well see what a human called a luxury liner.

He was impressed despite himself.

There were thrintun liners bigger than the Golden Circle, and a few which were far bigger; but not many carried a greater air of luxury. Those that did carried the owners of planets. The ramjets under the triangular wing were almost as big as some of the military ships on the field. The builders of the Golden Circle had cut corners only where they wouldn’t show. The lounge looked huge, much bigger than it actually was. It was paneled in gold and navy blue. Crash couches folded into the wall to give way to a bar, a small dance floor, a compact casino. Dining tables rose neatly and automatically from the carpeted floor, inverting themselves to show dark-grained plastic-oak. The front wall was a giant tridee screen. When the water level in the fuel tanks became low enough, an entrance from the lounge turned the tank into a swimming pool. Kzanol was puzzled by the layout until he realized that the fusion drive was in the belly. Ramjets would lift the ship to a safe altitude, but from then on the fusion drive would send thrust up instead of forward. The ship used water instead of liquid hydrogen, not because the passengers needed a pool, but because water was safer to carry and provided a reserve oxygen supply. The staterooms were miracles of miniaturization.

Like a feathered arrow the Golden Circle fell away from the sun. The comparison was hackneyed but accurate, for the giant triangular wing was right at the rear of the ship, with the slender shaft of the fuselage projecting deep into the forward apex. The small forward wings had folded into the sides shortly after takeoff. The big fin was a maze of piping. Live steam, heated by the drive, circled through a generator and through the cooling pipes before returning to start the journey again. Most of the power was fed into the fusion shield of the drive tube. The rest fed the life support system.

In one respect the “arrow” simile was inexact. The arrow flew sideways, riding the sun-hot torch which burned its belly.

“I’m sure one of them is a honeymoon special. It’s got a strong oxygen line in its spectrum.”

From WORLD OF PTAVVS by Larry Niven (1965)

The scientifically accurate layout of Niven's honeymoon special was commendably used in the otherwise forgettable movie Lifeforce (forgettable unless you are fond of nude lady space vampires). The British spacecraft HMS Churchill has its NERVA engine also located in the ship's belly instead of the tail.

This makes sense since the Churchill is a belly lander, as are all NASA derived space shuttles. Under NERVA thrust the direction of "down" matches the interior arrangement of the shuttle's habitat module. The fact that the ship appears to be moving through space sideways is of no concern.


(ed note: Dr. Floyd is riding up to the space station in the Pan Am Space Clipper)

Now, thought Floyd, we are on our own, more than halfway to orbit. When the acceleration came on again, as the upper stage rockets fired, the thrust was much more gentle: indeed, he felt no more than normal gravity. But it would have been impossible to walk, since “Up” was straight toward the front of the cabin. If he had been foolish enough to leave his seat, he would have crashed at once against the rear wall.

This effect was a little disconcerting, for it seemed that the ship was standing on its tail. To Floyd, who was at the very front of the cabin, all the seats appeared to be fixed on a wall topping vertically beneath him. He was doing his best to ignore this uncomfortable illusion when dawn exploded outside the ship.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke (1969)


For what it is worth , the game GURPS Traveller: Starships defines the following terms:

  • Drive Axis: a line that originates in the center of thrust in the engines. Sometimes called the Thrust Axis. One end points in the direction the exhaust goes, the other end points in the direction the ship moves (Newton's "equal and opposite reaction"). Remember that "down" is in the same direction the exhaust goes. The drive axis should pass through the ship's center of gravity, otherwise under thrust the ship falls off its tail and spins wildly.
  • Tail Lander: a spacecraft whose decks are perpendicular to the drive axis. Almost all the ships described in this website are tail landers. SpaceX's Falcon line of boosters are tail landers.
  • Belly Lander: a spacecraft whose decks are parallel to the drive axis. The Space Shuttle is a belly lander.
  • Fore: in the direction of the drive axis towards the ship's nose. This is the direction of "up".
  • Aft: in the direction of the drive axis towards the ship's tail. This is the direction of "down".
  • Port: a line perpendicular to the drive axis passing through the spacecraft's main airlock. Ship's "left."
  • Starboard: a line perpendicular to the drive axis 180° from Port. Ship's "right."
  • Dorsal: a line perpendicular to the drive axis 90° from Port, counterclockwise when looking aft. Ship's "top" or "back."
  • Ventral: a line perpendicular to the drive axis 90° from Port, clockwise when looking aft. Ship's "bottom" or "belly."
  • Outboard: away from the drive axis.
  • Inboard: towards the drive axis.

The problem with the definition of port is that in a nuclear powered spacecraft, the logical place for the main airlock (and the ship docking point) is the ship's nose. Which makes "port" the same as "fore", thus ruining the nomenclature system. The idea is to have the directions at ninety degrees to each other, not coinciding. Some other distinguishing spacecraft feature will have to be used, but there doesn't seem to be any good candidates.

And what gets my goat is the terms "Dorsal" and "Ventral". They only apply to belly-landers. Applying those terms to a tail-lander is just propagating that accurséd "Confusing-a-spaceship-with-an-airbus" fallacy. Unfortunately there does not seem to be an alternate term for dorsal and ventral. Come to think of it, "Port" and "Starboard" are also airbus like.

Of course there will be a few spacecraft that actually are belly-landers, mostly cargo and aerospace shuttles. That is: spacecraft designed to have the cargo access hatch as near to the ground as possible, or spacecraft that can also operate as aircraft. Most spacecraft will be either tail-landers, or orbit-to-orbit ships that never land (but still have a tail-lander's internal layout).

On NASA spacecraft, they arbitrarily pick a direction for port. The spacecraft's X axis is the Drive axis, with +X in the direction the spacecraft accelerates and -X is the direction the exhaust goes. The astronauts lie on their backs, with eyes facing +X (up) and backs facing -X (down). Y axis passes through astronaut's left and right shoulders. +Y is right (starboard) and -Y is left (port). The Z axis passes through the astronaut's head and feet. +Z is in the feet direction (ventral, pfui!) and -Z is in the head direction (dorsal, ditto). This is important for the pilot to know when they are using rotation and translation controls.

If the ship has some sort of centrifugal gravity where spin gravity does not match thrust gravity, there will be some sort of jargon for "thrust gravity downward direction" and "spin gravity downward direction." The wet navy won't help you with this one, make it up yourself. If the centrifuge's spin axis happens to be the same as the drive axis, up is "inboard" and down is "outboard". Inside a centrifuge the directions "spinward" and "trailing" (anti-spinward) will be used, refering to the direction of centrifuge spin.


     "Mr. Archer — report to compartment nineteen, starboard, G-norm shell," the officer said abruptly, making him feel as though he were being inducted into the navy.
     "That's it," Groton said. "I'll drop you off — or would you rather find your own way?"
     "I would rather find my own way."
     Groton looked at him, surprised, but let him go. "G-norm is level eight," he said.

     He saw the numbers now: 96, 95, 94, each no doubt representing an apartment or office. Those on the right were marked P, those on his left S. Port and Starboard, presumably. Starboard being right, he must be heading for the stern.
     Of a torus? Exactly where were bow and stern in a hollow doughnut spinning in space?

     "But I have one crucially important question — "
     "To wit: which way is Stern?"
     Ivo nodded. "That is the question."
     "I'm surprised at you, den brother. Haven't you learned yet that your stern is behind your stem?"
     "My mind is insufficiently pornographic to make that association."
     "Take your bow. It's inevitable."
     Ivo smiled amiably, realizing that it was his turn to miss a pun of some sort. He would catch on in due course.

     He stopped off at the latrine — and realized suddenly that every toilet faced in the same direction. The arrangement was such that when a person sat, he had to face the "forward" orientation of the torus.
     "When you take your inevitable bow, your stern is sternward." he said aloud, finally appreciating Brad's pun — a pun inflicted upon the nomenclature of the entire station.

From Macroscope by Piers Anthony (1969)

You serve "in" a ship, not "on" one. "Abaft" means "behind", "forward" means "in front of." It is a "deck", not a "floor".

Pressure-tight walls are "bulkheads", pressure-tight doors are "pressure-tight doors." Non-pressure tight doors are just doors and non-pressure tight walls are just walls. Generally non-pressure type items are pretty flimsy. Doors in the decks (floor and ceiling) are "hatches.".

It's not a "restroom" it's a "head", it's not a "kitchen" it's a "galley." It's not the "dining room", it's the "mess deck" (unless it's for officers, then it's the "wardroom"). The "mess" refers to the crewmen currently eating on the mess deck. It's not a "bunk" its a "rack", it's not a "ceiling" it's an "overhead." It's not a "hallway" it's a "companionway" or "passageway", it's not the "stairs", it's a "ladder." And the "brow" is any walkway or catwalk leading to the main airlock.

These are all from the naval tradition, the air force jargon is totally different.

Navigation Lights

Aircraft have about nine different types of lights mounted on them. Most of them will be useful on a belly-landers, a few of them will be useful on a tail-sitter.

Port Light: red light on tip of port wing, visible in arc from 250° clockwise to 0° (110° wide arc centered on 305°)
Starboard Light: green light on tip of starboard wing, visible in arc from 0° clockwise to 110° (110° wide arc centered on 55°)
Aft Light: white light centered on tail, visible in arc from 110° clockwise to 250° (140° wide arc centered on 180°)
Meaning: Allows observer to determine what direction the aircraft is pointing in the black of night.
Notes: If red is on observers right and green is on the left, aircraft is heading straight for the observer. If only white is visible aircraft is heading away. If only red is visible aircraft is heading from right to left. Navigational lights are generally always on.
STROBE (also anti collision)
Light: very bright white pulsating strobe light. Two at each wing-tip (one fore, one aft), one on tail.
Meaning: Signals that the aircraft is entering an active runway. During flight it increases the aircraft's visibility.
Notes: On the ground strobes are off. When plane enter active runway strobes are activated. Strobes remain on during take-off, flight, landing, and are turned off when plane vacates the runway.
BEACON (anti collision)
Lights: Flashing red lights, one centered dorsal, one centered ventral.
Meaning: aircraft engines are running and aircraft is moving or will move soon. Warns ground crews to stay away from the engines or die. Alerts other aircraft that are on the move.
Notes: Lights flash to attract attention, they are red because that is the code for danger. Beacons are generally lit as long as the engines are powered up.
Illuminates wing so pilot can check wing at night for icing or other damage.
Helps pilot see area in front of plane as they taxi along the runway. Generally on nosegear.
Illumniates same area as taxi light but are much brighter. They are too blinding to other traffic to be used during taxi. Generally on nosegear.
Like taxi light except are angled left/right to assist aircraft turning. Generally on nosegear.
Very bright lights on wing to help pilot during landing. They illuminate the area where the plane is going to touch down. Sometimes airlines have procedure to turn them on below 10,000 feet or during climbs/descends.
Light illuminating the airline logo painted on the tail. The Starship Enterprise has lots of these, illuminating the name ENTERPRISE and various StarFleet insignia.

The Cygnus spacecraft uses LED navigational lights from ORBITEC. A standard set of ORBITEC nav light consists of five lights: a flashing red light on the port side, a flashing green on the starboard side, two flashing white lights on the top and one flashing yellow on the bottom side of the fuselage.

The SpaceX Dragon spacecraft has a red port, green starboard, and flashing white strobe light. The white strobe flashes in an irregular/random sequence so as not to confuse the flashing with a rotation.

Bullseye Address

In the US Navy, each compartment had a "bullseye" or Navy Ship Compartment Number. It is sort of a three-dimensional address of each space or compartment. While this is useful to keep new recruits from getting lost, the more important use is for damage control. Reporting a damaged location to, from, or between damage control parties must be rapid and unambiguous.

The compartment number is often stenciled on the walls and/or the doors.

1940-era Numbering

Every door, hatch and manhole  aboard the LST is labeled.  This metal sign provides certain information and learning to read these labels help one navigate through the vessel.  These labels were helpful in reporting emergencies because they utilized a standard method for giving describing any location aboard the ship.  Each label will have a combination of numbers and a name for the compartment.

The first number indicates the deck number.  The second number indicates that the opening is abaft of a particular frame and the last number indicates the number of the opening from the inboard out (port even numbers, starboard odd). A letter after the numbers indicates the use of the compartment.

 A-Supply and Storage L-Living Quarters
C-Control    M-Ammunition
E-Machinery T-Trunks and Passage
F-Fuel V-Voids

So in this example from a hatch aboard the LST:









So in English, 2-28-2 ESC TRUNK, would mean that the opening before you was an escape trunk, starting on the second deck, just aft of the twenty-eighth frame and is the first opening inboard out on the port side.  The second line, 4-28-2-T tells you the trunk continues all the way to the fourth deck, just aft of the twenty-eighth and here it is still the first opening from the inboard out.  This trunk gives access to: ELEC STORES 3-28-2-A or a store room for electrical parts on the third deck, which is aft of the twenty-eighth frame and is the first opening from the inboard out; and AUX ENG ROOM 4-28-O-E or the auxiliary engine room on the fourth deck aft of the twenty-eighth frame and the space is a machinery space.

(ed note: A different system will be needed for spacecraft, since they do not really have a port or starboard and the frames are parallel to the decks instead of perpendicular to them.)

USS Midway Bullseye

(ed note: this is an older form of US Navy compartment numbering)

USS MIDWAY - A "bullseye" is the three dimensional address of each space or compartment

A "bullseye" is the address of each compartment. This is an older form of the bullseye. The C indicates a location in the rear third of the ship. The "2" (in 208) shows we are on the second deck. The "08" indicates how far left or right we are from the keel or center of the ship. "FR 163" shows how far the forward bulkhead (wall) or frame is from the bow. The bottom line indicates which division is responsible for cleaning the space.

One more item: On a carrier the hangar deck is the ONE or first deck. Counting down the decks would be the TWO DECK (Second deck) , THREE DECK (third deck) etc.

Counting decks up from the hangar deck is the "01" (OH ONE) deck, the "02 (OH TWO DECK) etc. On MIDWAY the flight deck is the 03 deck.

from Bob Perry (2010)
Navy Ship Compartment Numbering

Compartments are numbered for identification to facilitate location. The identification number assigned locates each compartment specifically, and generally indicates the function and use of the compartment. Compartment numbers consist of four parts, separated by hyphens, for example 6-150-0-E, in the following sequence:

  1. Deck Number
  2. Frame Number
  3. Position in relation to centerline of ship
  4. Compartment use
Deck Number: The main deck is the basis for this numbering scheme and is numbered 1. The first deck below the main deck is numbered 2, and so on. The first horizontal division above the main deck is numbered 01, and the numbers continue consecutively for subsequent upper division boundaries. Compartments are numbered by the lowest deck within the space.

Frame number: The forward perpendicular is the basis for this numbering scheme and is numbered "0" (zero). "Frames" are consecutively numbered, based on frame spacing, until the aft perpendicular is reached. Forward of the forward perpendicular, frames are "lettered" starting from the perpendicular to the bull nose (A, B, C, etc.) while frames aft of the after perpendicular are "double lettered" to the transom (AA, BB, CC, etc.). Compartments are numbered by the frame number of the foremost bulkhead of the compartment. If this bulkhead is located between "frames," the number of the foremost "frame" within the compartment is used. Fractional numbers are not used except where frame spacing exceeds four feet. 

Frame spacing examples:


Position in relation to centerline: The ship's centerline is the basis for this numbering scheme. Compartments located so that the centerline of the ship passes through them are assigned the number 0. Compartments located completely to starboard of the centerline are given odd numbers, and those to port of centerline are given even numbers. The first compartment outboard of the centerline to starboard is 1, the second is 3 and so forth. Similarly, the first compartment outboard the centerline to port is 2, the second is 4 and so forth. There may be cases in which the centerline of the ship would pass through more than one compartment, all of which may have the same forward bulkhead number. Whenever this occurs, that compartment having the portion of the forward bulkhead through which the centerline of the ship passes is assigned the number 0 and the other carry numbers 01, 02, 03 etc.

Compartment Use: A capital letter is used to identify the assigned primary use of the compartment. Only one capital letter is assigned, except that on dry and liquid cargo ships a double letter identification is used to designate compartments assigned to carry cargo. Examples of compartment use are storage areas, various tanks, and living quarters. 

Some examples from NSTM 079 volume 2:

A Storage area
C Ship and Fire Control operating spaces normally crewed
E Machinery spaces which are normally crewed
F Fuel or Fuel Oil tanks
J JP-5 tank
L Living quarters
M Ammunition (stowage and handling)
Q Areas not otherwise covered
T Vertical access trunk
V Void

Example of Compartment Numbering

Given Compartment "6 - 150 - 0 - E," we can determine that it is located:

a) five decks below the Main Deck,
b) foremost bulkhead is at frame 150,
c) centered upon the centerline of the ship, and
d) is used as an engineering space.

In the science-fictional GURPS Traveller: Starships, they use the following system. Odd numbers are port, even numbers are starboard. Numbering is consecutive in order from inboard to outboard, fore to aft, dorsal to ventral.

Pressure Tight Doors

A pressure tight door is air-tight. Which will prevent you from dying from asphyxiation if the adjacent compartment is hulled by a meteor.

On a naval vessel, "doors" lead from one side of a deck to another side of the same deck; hatches go between decks. In other words, doors are in the walls, hatches are in the floor and ceiling. Doors in non-pressure tight walls are "doors", doors in pressure-tight bulkheads are "pressure-tight door." On a spacecraft with no artificial gravity the distinction between openings in the walls and openings in the decks is sort of academic. Of course all the mechanical details are identical.

A small circular or oval access hatch is called a "scuttle." An escape hatch is usually a quick-acting scuttle (see below), because crew members trying to escape are generally in a hurry.

An opening into an uncrewed space for purposes of inspection and maintenance are called "manholes." This is generally into the interior of tanks and crawl spaces between equipment.

Pressure tight doors have "dogs", which are individual fasteners that clamp the door to maintain the seal with the door coaming. Ordinary doors do not have dogs, and cannot be "dogged down". On wet-navy ships, water-tight doors have eight dogging latches around the edges.

Some pressure tight doors have a clever arrangement where a single handle can close all the dogs simultaneously (a "quick acting" door). Otherwise the dogs have to be turned individually. Naturally the clever doors require more scheduled maintenance than the standard kind.

A pressure-tight door is a damage control barrier, while an ordinary door is an access control barrier.

Fancy pressure-tight doors will have some sort of indicator telling you if there is pressure or vacuum on the other side. The fanciest will have manometers, more bargain-basement models will just have a valve attached to a whistle. Turn the knob, and if it screeches there ain't no air over there.

On wet navy vessels, doors and hatches leading into compartments containing flammables, weapons, high explosives, or petroleum engine fuel are forged out of bronze instead of iron. The latter can strike sparks when closing the hatch or turning the handwheel, with unfortunate results. Bronze is non-sparking. You might see something similar in a spacecraft hab module insanely designed to use pure oxygen as a breathing mix.

On a high-tech spacecraft, there might be an automatic mechanism which will shut pressure-tight doors and hatches if it detects a hull breach or other unexpected drop in air pressure. There is a safety question of just how much the door will insist upon closing if an unfortunate crew member has a body part trapped. If the pressure drop is gradual enough or the well being of the crew is important enough, the door will be programmed to allow the crew member to open the door a bit and free themselves. Otherwise the blasted door will do it darnedest to amputate the unlucky crew member's limb. Also note that such automatic doors will contain complicated components and thus require lots of regular maintenance.

A standard watertight door as used by the US Navy has 8 dogging latches around the edges. These provide leverage to hold the door closed against flooding. The Navy considers these doors to be the most effective way to contain flooding, and doors will have a plaque on them with a letter showing at which level of preparedness the door gets shut and dogged. (A good discussion of those "material conditions" can be found at (navalmaterialconditions.htm)).

The problem with standard watertight doors is that they're a pain in the (posterior). Most often, they're not fully dogged down; sailors will use one dog to hold the door closed as they pass through it on regular duty. I have heard sailors literally curse whoever fully dogged a door.

The easiest kind of quick-acting door actually has a lever, instead of a wheel. The lever moves a bar, the bar moves other bars, and the bars pop the dogs simultaneously open or closed. While not as resistant to flooding as a standard WTD, it has the advantage that all dogs are more likely to be engaged, and so the Navy uses them in high-traffic areas. These are actually what I'd expect to see on out-atmosphere ships. The heavy doors you show on the page are designed for submarines, where they have to hold against very heavy pressures in case of flooding. Remember, water piles up an additional atmosphere of pressure every ten meters of depth, and submarines like the Los Angeles class commonly operate at depths of 200 meters.

I was a surface warfare girl, not a submariner, so I can tell you that the lighter, lever-actuated QAWTD (DSC_9950.jpg) have their machinery on the side that doesn't face a weather deck... or, in the case of a QATD that leads from one interior space to another, the machinery faces the inboard side, as flooding is more likely to come from outboard. I presume that Submarines use the same logic, but I don't know that to be the case.

I've heard my HT/DC buddies complain about servicing doors. More moving parts means more maintenance, of course, and more fiddling to make sure all the parts are working properly at the same time.

From Navy veteran Jennifer Linsky (2015)

Submarine Pressure-Tight Doors

Submarine watertight bulkhead door are entertaining, though they are probably far too wasteful of mass to use on a real spacecraft. But they are instructive. And they are so retro. The technical term is "quick-acting water-tight doors", as opposed to the doors with "dogs."

These are damage control barriers for use when the hab module's hull is breached. As such it is uncertain which side of the door will suddenly contain vacuum. However, in an airlock (or other situation where you are pretty sure you know which side will always have pressure), as a safety measure you want the door to open such that the air pressure will be constantly pushing the door safely shut instead of trying to blow the door open and kill everybody. And to prevent morons from opening a door leading to vacuum, since they cannot possibly tug open something being held shut by 14.7 pound per square inch. If you have a low-IQ individual on your ship who can pull with over 19 metric tons of force, you have a bigger problem than inadequate safety on your pressure-tight doors.

As a general rule you'll want your hab module doors set so that they close in the outboard direction and open inboard. Presumably the drop in air pressure will be from a catastrophic hole in the hull, not the center of the spacecraft. So at a door connecting two compartments, the compartment closer to the hull is more likely to be in vacuum during a disaster. This will not always be true, but that's the way to bet. Thus the air pressure will be helpfully holding the door shut.

On wet-navy surface ships they mount doors such that the gears and mechanism of the quick-acting-door are on the dry side so they are not exposed to corrosive seawater. This means the machinery faces the inboard side, because presumably the water will be coming from a breach in the hull on the outboard side. Whether this is a concern on a spacecraft depends upon how much wear and tear the machinery suffers under vacuum.

Keep in mind that submarine doors have to contain an order of magnitude more pressure than a spacecraft door ever will. That's why they look like bank vault doors. A spacecraft pressure door will only need to cope with one atmosphere of pressure or so, while a submarine at 200 meters depth needs to be able to handle 20 atmospheres. Former Navy Jennifer Linsky is of the opinion that a spacecraft would probably use pressure doors similar to the quick-acting-door pictured above as opposed to these massive submarine doors.

I have yet to locate any description about how submarine bulkhead doors operate, so I had to look at lots of images and use my raw powers of deduction. Besides, the quickest way to find the answer to something on the internet is to post an inaccurate explanation. Experts will come boiling out of the woodwork eager to tell you just how wrong you are.

I got nowhere fast with analyzing the images until I realize there were two types of doors that looked similar. Since I do not know the proper terminology, I'm dubbing them "Innie" and "Outie", much like navels.

  • Innie
    • When the door is opened, the side of the door revealed is concave (full of gears and machinery). When door is shut you see a smooth convex surface.
    • The strike plates are bulges in the door frame
    • Actuators are attached to part of latch farthest from door body
    • The latches rotate towards the door body to engage the strike plate
  • Outie
    • When the door is opened, the side of the door revealed is convex (with no gears exposed). When door is shut you see a concave surface full of gears.
    • The strike plates are curved arching knobs
    • Actuators are attached to part of latch nearest to door body
    • The latches rotate away from the door body to engage the strike plate

How Quick-Acting Water-Tight Doors Work

Color Key:

  • Red: Handwheel and Worm. The handwheel can look like a wheel, a cross bar, or a wheel with a bar extending from the center.
  • Yellow: Worm gears and levers
  • Green: Actuators
  • Blue: Latches

The mechanism of Innie and Outie doors work pretty much the same, with the exception that the latches rotate in opposite directions.

The wheel or crossbar (red) in the center of the door is spun. This rotates the worm of a worm drive (not shown).

The worm engages the four worm gears (yellow) attached to four levers, moving the levers into extended position (far ends of the levers move further away from center).

The ends of the levers push four oddly-shaped actuators (green) away from the center of the door body and closer to the door body edge.

The actuators push on the edge of pivoted latches (blue). The latches rotate on their pivots to engage the strike plates. Innie latches rotate in the opposite direction from Outie latches. To do so, the Innie door has the actuators attached to the latches on the part of the latch furthest from the door body, while Outie actuators are attached to part of latch closest to door body.

"How do you know it doesn't have a leak?" Fred wanted to know.

"Sorry to sound stupid, but this space living's new to me," Tom remarked. "So it has a leak? So what?"

"Do you know there's pressure on the other side of that door?" Fred asked.

"Why, there's bound to be! We sealed it pressurized," Stan said.

"Doesn't mean it still has pressure," Fred explained. He moved to the door and to the control panel next to it. "Look, the secret of living to a ripe old age out here involves a firm belief in Murphy's Law. Never take anything for granted, especially when your life may depend on it. Always assume that something's malfunctioned until you know it hasn't. Suppose the med module sprung a leak during boost to LEO Base, or when they were transferring it to a Cot-Vee, or when they unloaded it here and docked it to GEO Base. What would be the consequences?"

"We'd have lost a lot of our equipment, to say nothing of most of the Pharmaceuticals and lab reagents in there," Dave ventured.

"Plus your life if you managed to get that door opened with vacuum on the other side of it."

"It's not supposed to open with vacuum on the other side of it."

"Hell of a lot of people got killed out here because something was 'supposed' to be fail-safe, Dave. Everybody, look here at the little panel alongside the door. There's one of these at every hatch. If you ignore it, you're likely to kill yourself by what we might call 'traumatic abaryia,' which is a word I just made up, Doc, and that you can steal if you want. Crack that door with vacuum on the other side of it, and the pressure in this module would drop in less than a minute to a level that would kill you. The automatic door on the inboard end of the living module would automatically seal. Hell, Pratt can't afford to let everybody in GEO Base get killed just because some damned fool forgot to look at the tell-tale alongside the door before he tried to open it. Sure, it's supposed to be fail-safe—but don't you ever believe it! You stay alive out here by placing absolutely no trust whatsoever in safety devices that were designed by engineers sitting down on dirt. They aren't going to get killed if it doesn't work. Fired maybe, but they're still alive. You all listen to me. You're part of the same team I'm on, and we can't afford to lose a single one of you. Especially you, Doc. I may not be able to keep you from getting shortened a foot or two, but I may be able to keep you alive."

The pressure indicator showed there was indeed pressure in the med module, but Fred told them not to believe even that. "It could be frozen or have malfunctioned in sixty different ways. Next step is to check the test port in the door."

Fred showed them how to crack the test port on the door and listen for the whistle. Every door and hatch had such a test port, a very simple device that couldn't fail: a small opening that could easily be opened and just as easily shut and sealed again. Any pressure differential across the door would cause the test port to whistle.

"We're in luck. The pressure held," Fred told them.

From Space Doctor by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) 1981


An airlock is a way for an astronaut (presumably dressed in a spacesuit) to exit the pressurized habitat module without all the atmosphere blowing out into the limitless vacuum of space.

Basically it is a chamber with two airtight hatches, which do not open simultaneously. One hatch opens into the hab module, one opens into space, and the pressure inside the chamber can be switched from ship pressure down to vacuum. Before opening either hatch, the pressure inside the chamber is equalized with the environment beyond. This is called "cycling" an airlock.

As a mundane analogy, imagine a spaceship is a house, a space suit is winter coat, vacuum is the bitter cold of winter, air is the warmth inside the house, and the airlock is an entryway (the "warmth-lock"). To leave the house, you walk into the entryway, close the door behind you so the heat does not escape, put on your winter coat hanging in the coat closet, open the front door into the cold of winter, leave the house, and close the front door behind you. Just like an airlock.

When cycling down to vacuum all the air in the lock is stored in tanks, of course. Just venting it to space is a criminal waste of limited breathing mix. This would not be done unless it was an emergency or if it was an incredibly primitive airlock. Even with a reasonably designed airlock there is going to be some small unavoidable breathing mix loss with each cycle.

Very small or very cut-rate spaceships might not have an airlock. They take up lots of room and are expensive. They might be optional on a one-man Belter asteroid mining ship. Of course this means the pilot will have to put the toothpaste and any other pressure sensitive supplies into a pressurized locker before they vent the entire hab module and open the hatch. An example is the Lunar Module from NASA's Apollo program.

A stripped-down variant on the airlock is the "suitport". Instead of a chamber, the backpack of a space suit attaches to the ship's hull. An astronaut enters the suit by crawling through the backpack, seals the inner door, then detaches from the hull. It requires much less mass and volume than a full airlock. On the other hand, they are difficult to design if the atmospheric pressure inside the ship/spacestation is not the same as inside the suit. Soft suits commonly have lower pressure than the habitat.

"Spacing" is a nasty form of execution, where the victim is forced into the airlock while not wearing a spacesuit. The airlock is then cycled, hurling the victim into airless space where they suffocate. Sometimes this is made as a threat, e.g., "Follow orders or I'll throw you out the airlock stark naked!"

Some writers have the nasty idea of opening the airlock while it is still pressurized so as to blow the victim into space. This avoids the necessity for a space suited person to enter the lock and kick the body out. However standard air pressure is not enough to blow the victim into space. You need about ten atmospheres for that. Also the victim will probably be frantically hanging onto anything they can grab inside the airlock in any event. Using air pressure to remove the excecuted is probably a waste of good breathing mix.

Besides the usual cargo lock we had three Kwikloks. A Kwiklok is an Iron Maiden without spikes; it fits a man in a suit, leaving just a few pints of air to scavenge, and cycles automatically. A big time saver in changing shifts. I passed through the middle-sized one; Tiny, of course, used the big one. Without hesitation the new man pulled himself into the small one.

From Delilah and the Space-Rigger by Robert Heinlein (1949)


1. Personnel must wear vacuum suits before exiting the starship if so indicated by crimson-caution telltales. (Any exceptions must possess “vacuum-capable” endorsement countersigned by Environmental Systems Engineer.) Follow instructions posted in airlock chamber.

2. In an emergency, caution enforcement system may be disabled by opening emergency controls panel. (Alarm will sound in DCC.) Follow procedures posted within. Always attempt egress through interior hatch first, exterior hatch second.


Do not ignore any amber-test or crimson-caution telltales. Spacetight doors may not have properly sealed and/or chamber may not have reached safe pressure differential. Always wait for blue-go “disembark” indicator before trying to exit.

When using emergency controls, always check “hatch sealed” test lights and manual indicators before using manual pressurization override controls. As you proceed, constantly monitor pressurization and differential-pressure gauges, located within emergency controls panel.

In the event of damage or mechanical failure, spare parts and tools for emergency repairs are located beneath the emergency controls panel secondary door.

From And Don’t Hold Your Breath (It Never Helps) by Alistair Young (2014)
Space Shuttle Airlock

(ed note: images are from JSC-20466 EVA Tools and Equipment Reference Book Rev. B, November 1993)

The airlock is normally located inside the middeck of the spacecraft's pressurized crew cabin. It has an inside diameter of 63 inches, is 83 inches long and has two 40-inch- diameter D-shaped openings that are 36 inches across. It also has two pressure-sealing hatches and a complement of airlock support systems. The airlock's volume is 150 cubic feet.

The airlock is sized to accommodate two fully suited flight crew members simultaneously. Support functions include airlock depressurization and repressurization, extravehicular activity equipment recharge, liquid-cooled garment water cooling, EVA equipment checkout, donning and communications. The EVA gear, checkout panel and recharge stations are located on the internal walls of the airlock.

The airlock hatches are mounted on the airlock. The inner hatch is mounted on the exterior of the airlock (orbiter crew cabin middeck side) and opens into the middeck. The inner hatch isolates the airlock from the orbiter crew cabin. The outer hatch is mounted inside the airlock and opens into the airlock. The outer hatch isolates the airlock from the unpressurized payload bay when closed and permits the EVA crew members to exit from the airlock to the payload bay when open.

Airlock repressurization is controllable from the orbiter crew cabin middeck and from inside the airlock. It is performed by equalizing the airlock's and cabin's pressure with equalization valves mounted on the inner hatch. The airlock is depressurized from inside the airlock by venting the airlock's pressure overboard. The two D-shaped airlock hatches open toward the primary pressure source, the orbiter crew cabin, to achieve pressure-assist sealing when closed.

Each hatch has six interconnected latches and a gearbox/actuator, a window, a hinge mechanism and hold-open device, a differential pressure gauge on each side and two equalization valves.

The 4-inch (10 cm) diameter window in each airlock hatch is used for crew observation from the cabin/airlock and the airlock/payload bay. The dual window panes are made of polycarbonate plastic and mounted directly to the hatch by means of bolts fastened through the panes. Each hatch window has dual pressure seals, with seal grooves located in the hatch.

Each airlock hatch has dual pressure seals to maintain pressure integrity. One seal is mounted on the airlock hatch and the other on the airlock structure. A leak check quick disconnect is installed between the hatch and the airlock pressure seals to verify hatch pressure integrity before flight.

The gearbox with latch mechanisms on each hatch allows the flight crew to open and close the hatch during transfers and EVA operations. The gearbox and the latches are mounted on the low-pressure side of each hatch; with a gearbox handle installed on both sides to permit operation from either side of the hatch.

Three of the six latches on each hatch are double-acting and have cam surfaces that force the sealing surfaces apart when the latches are opened, thereby acting as crew assist devices. The latches are interconnected with push-pull rods and an idler bell crank that is installed between the rods for pivoting the rods. Self-aligning dual rotating bearings are used on the rods for attachment to the bellcranks and the latches. The gearbox and hatch open support struts are also connected to the latching system by the same rod/bellcrank and bearing system. To latch or unlatch the hatch, the gearbox handle must be rotated 440 degrees.

The hatch actuator/gearbox is used to provide the mechanical advantage to open and close the latches. The hatch actuator lock lever requires a force of 8 to 10 pounds through an angle of 180 deg rees to unlatch the actuator. A minimum rotation of 440 deg rees with a maximum force of 30 pounds applied to the actuator handle is required to operate the latches to their fully unlatched positions.

The hinge mechanism for each hatch permits a minimum opening sweep into the airlock or the crew cabin middeck. The inner hatch (airlock to crew cabin) is pulled or pushed forward to the crew cabin approximately 6 inches. The hatch pivots up and to the right side. Positive locks are provided to hold the hatch in both an intermediate and a full-open position. A spring-loaded handle on the latch hold-open bracket releases the lock. Friction is also provided in the linkage to prevent the hatch from moving if released during any part of the swing.

The outer hatch (airlock to payload bay) opens and closes to the contour of the airlock wall. The hatch is hinged to be pulled first into the airlock and then forward at the bottom and rotated down until it rests with the low-pressure (outer) side facing the airlock ceiling (middeck floor). The linkage mechanism guides the hatch from the closed/open, open/closed position with friction restraint throughout the stroke. The hatch has a hold-open hook that snaps into place over a flange when the hatch is fully open. The hook is released by depressing the spring-loaded hook handle and pushing the hatch toward the closed position. To support and protect the hatch against the airlock ceiling, the hatch incorporates two deployable struts. The struts are connected to the hatch linkage mechanism and are deployed when the hatch linkage is rotated open. When the hatch latches are rotated closed, the struts are retracted against the hatch.

The airlock hatches can be removed in flight from the hinge mechanism using pip pins, if required.

The airlock air circulation system provides conditioned air to the airlock during non-EVA periods. The airlock revitalization system duct is attached to the outside airlock wall at launch. Upon airlock hatch opening in flight, the duct is rotated by the flight crew through the cabin/airlock hatch, installed in the airlock and held in place by a strap holder. The duct has a removable air diffuser cap, installed on the end of the flexible duct, which can adjust the air flow from 216 pounds per hour. The duct must be rotated out of the airlock before the cabin/airlock hatch is closed for airlock depressurization. During the EVA preparation period, the duct is rotated out of the airlock and can be used for supplemental air circulation in the middeck.

To assist the crew member before and after EVA operations, the airlock incorporates handrails and foot restraints. Handrails are located alongside the avionics and ECLSS panels. Aluminum alloy handholds mounted on each side of the hatches have oval configurations 0.75 by 1.32 inches and are painted yellow. They are bonded to the airlock walls with an epoxyphenolic adhesive. Each handrail has a clearance of 2.25 inches between the airlock wall and the handrail to allow the astronauts to grip it while wearing a pressurized glove. Foot restraints are installed on the airlock floor nearer the payload bay side. The ceiling handhold is installed nearer the cabin side of the airlock. The foot restraints can be rotated 360 degrees by releasing a spring-loaded latch and lock in every 90 degrees. A rotation release knob on the foot restraint is designed for shirt-sleeve operation and, therefore, must be positioned before the suit is donned. The foot restraint is bolted to the floor and cannot be removed in flight. It is sized for the EMU boot. The crew member first inserts his foot under the toe bar and then rotates his heel from inboard to outboard until the heel of the boot is captured.

There are four floodlights in the airlock.

If the airlock is relocated to the payload bay from the middeck, it will function in the same manner as in the middeck. Insulation is installed on the airlock's exterior for protection from the extreme temperatures of space.

From NASA Shuttle Reference Manual: Orbiter Structure: Airlock

Iris Doors

There are two main styles of "iris" doors: Leaf Iris and Petal Iris.

Leaf Iris Doors

In the role playing game Traveller, airlock doors are often in the form of a iris. This is probably due to the authors of Traveller taking the advice of Robert Heinlein. He noted that science fiction writers can evoke a futuristic vibe by throwing out a weird detail as if it was commonplace, e.g., The door dilated. This phrase has evolved to science fiction fan jargon meaning "cool, but inefficient", but I digress.

Anyway, in the artwork for Traveller game supplements, iris doors are generally depicted as something like a titanic camera diaphragm iris. Sort of like the iris shield on the Stargate, but without the sharp pointy bits.

An iris actually will not work on an airlock, since those always have a small hole in the center where the air will leak out. However, NASA is looking into a rugged iris design that is air-tight.

Besides the lack of a hermetic seal, the individual leafs have to be very thin or they cannot interleave. Which makes for a flimsy door, not a good idea for a hatch which is the only thing standing between you and a horrible suffocating death from the airless vacuum of space.

The Traveller drawings and deck plans also ignore the fact that there has to be space around the edge of the door for the leaves to retract into. The entire door diameter is about 1.55 the size of the door opening. If a standard Traveller iris door had an opening 1.5 meters in diameter, the entire door mechanism would be 2.33 meters in diameter.

Petal Iris Doors

Another design that would work is a four, five, or six petal door; like the one on the roof of the Millennium Falcon which Lando Calrissian exited to rescue Luke Skywalker from the underside of Bespin, in the movie The Empire Strikes Back. Like the NASA design they are actually air-tight.

The petals can be of any arbitrary thickness, allowing an overwhelming safety margin protecting you from death by space asphyxiation. The thickness also allows the use of locking cylindrical bolts like in bank vault doors, providing additional protection from door breaches by air pressure or space pirates.

Unfortunately such doors need even more space around the edge for the petals to retract into. For a six-petal rotating design the door diameter is 1.83 times the size of the door opening.

Docking Ports

A docking port is specialized pressure hatch on a spacecraft that can mate to another docking port on another spacecraft or space station. It creates a pressurized connection so that crew can walk from one spacecraft into the other without having to put on space suits. It also makes a strong mechanical connection, because if the connection between the two ships fails when the hatches are open the results will be most unfortunate.

An airlock is not required as part of a docking port, but it is insanely dangerous to leave it out of the design. Having said that, as far as I am aware there are no real-world spacecraft with airlocks due to the mass and volume of an airlock (with the exception of NASA's space shuttle).

Spacestations components can be connected in a semi-permanent fashion by docking ports.

A docking mechanism is used when one spacecraft actively maneuvers under its own propulsion to connect to another spacecraft.

A berthing mechanism is used when space station modules or spacecraft are attached to one another by using a robotic arm — instead of their own propulsion — for the final few meters of the rendezvous and attachment process. Berthing typically involves connection to a space station.

Currently there exist no mechanisms that can perform both docking and berthing. NASA is developing the NASA Docking System which will do both, but the design has not been finalized yet.

It is also a very bad idea to have no international standards for docking ports. If the Russian ports cannot dock with Chinese ports, this will drastically reduce the number of rescue options if an emergency happens. There is work being done on a Universal Space Interface Standard, but nothing hs been completed yet.

Early docking ports were even more stupid. They were non-androgynous systems, with a male part and a female part. Sort of like the two ends of an electrical extension cord, one with prongs the other with a receptacle. Which means if the rescue spacecraft and the stricken spacecraft both had male ports, they were out of luck. Or at least the stricken ship is.

If spacecraft commonly have nuclear propulsion systems and/or nuclear power systems, ship design will more or less force ships to dock bow-to-bow (nose-to-nose). Here's why. Radiations shields by their very nature are massive, and thus cut into the payload capacity. So instead of coating the entire reactor, ships will use "shadow shield" as the smallest possible shield. In the left diagram below, the white area is safe, and the blue area is filled with the deadly radioactive shine from the reactor.

Now say that a lunar shuttle vehicle arrives, and wants to dock. It does not want to wander into the blue radiation zone, or its crew will be irradiated. The crew of the nuclear ferry vehicle does not want the lunar shuttle in the radiation zone either, because the shuttle's metal structure could scatter (reflect) radiation from the ferry's reactor into the ferry's crew.

If you examine the situation, the only safe way seems to be bow-to-bow. Even more so if two nuclear spacecraft want to dock. You may remember this is how the Apollo command and service module docked to the lunar module.

This does throw a monkey wrench into Traveller's definition of "Port", but that's just too bad.


The current standard for docking adapters in Imperial space, suitable for both docking and berthing, is defined by IOSS 52114, the Imperial Universal Starship Interface (IUSI).

The standard defines androgynous docking adapters in three standard sizes (IUSI-C/crawlspace, IUSI-P/gangway, and IUSI-F/freight container), in both standard (containing a transfer passage and data interface capability) and extended (containing additionally power and utility transfer connections) formats. These adapters are specifically designed to operate with Imperial-standard airlocks (per IOSS 51008) but can be fitted over any of a wide variety of airlock and/or spacetight door standards.

Standard and extended adapters are mutually compatible, with the redundant connections on the extended adapter fitting into sealing caps on the standard adapter. While adapters of differing sizes cannot directly connect, collapsible connection modules for this purpose are available at many starports or compilable from freely-available recipes.

– The Starship Handbook, 155th ed.

From DOCKING by Alistair Young (2015)

prophylock (n.): Used primarily by free traders, a prophylock is a collapsible docking module used when rendezvousing with untrusted vessels for cargo transfer. Similar to a standard docking module, a prophylock is a cylinder with an IUSI-P or IUSI-F androgynous adapter on each end, one to attach to the host starship and one to dock with the foreign starship.

The prophylock, however, has near its outboard end an armored barrier which prohibits the passage of sophonts, equipped with a secure passage (complete with mechanical interlocks preventing both sides from being opened simultaneously, and sampling systems for testing the contents before opening the inner door) through which the transfers may take place. In the event that both vessels are using prophylocks, the secure passage systems are designed to allow transfers from one to the other without direct integration, but also without requiring anyone to occupy the ‘tween-lock volume.

Rather than the direct data systems connection of a standard IUSI adapter, the prophylock connects the foreign data bus to a limited-functionality terminal, permitting communication and negotiation to take place without information risk.

Finally, the outboard end of the prophylock is equipped, for the case in which a lack of trust should turn out to be justified, with an explosive collar to sever the outboard androgynous adapter, thus reliably breaking the connection between vessels, along with solid-fuel jettison rockets to push the host vessel back immediately upon collar detonation, shortening the time to safe burn clearance as much as possible.

Fly safe. Dock safer.

– A Star Traveller’s Dictionary

(Yes, I was thinking of Out of Gas when I wrote this one…)

From SAFETY by Alistair Young (2016)

Electrostatic Discharge

In the space environment, it is possible for parts of a spacecraft to charge up (like shuffling your feet on the carpet on a dry winter's day) which can result in an electrostatic discharge (like when you've shuffled, then touch the door knob).

This can cause a spark to jump between spacecraft components or between two docking spacecraft, resulting in damage. In addition if an astronaut on EVA touches the wrong spacecraft or space station component they could get zapped with a severe electrical shock.


      “Tex — Tex!” Atkill called softly. Texas woke from sleep with a start. Atkill was bending over his telescope, watching something with an expression of unholy joy on his face. “Come here, Tex, and look — we have visitors at last. I knew they’d come eventually. Three ships!”
     Three thin pencil-ships floated in space, tiny things glinting in the harsh light of the great sun. Atkill watched them carefully, calculating their course accurately. They should reach him in a short three hours at their present velocity. He set to work rapidly.
     In an hour he had set the controls in the power-room for starting the Flame, and had set up the little piece of apparatus he had made in the garbage-lock, with a long, thin tube of aluminum held in place by strings of insulators. The rod projected some twenty feet from fee side of the ship. Along with the little apparatus he had made, there were three powerful magnets he had been making, and a little spark-gap of chrome-nickel blocks between the long aluminum tube and a heavy lead that grounded to the ship. Atkill had plans.

     “Tex, sweet lad, we are about to be saved. The mere coming of our friends gives us once more, power, light and life! I can start the Flame!”
     “Uhm — that’s right good news. How come? Yuh couldn’t before. They may decide to wipe us out instead of helping.”
     Atkill laughed cheerfully. “They’ve got to help. The sun’s been doing the necessary work for the last three months! All they have to do is come near — and they will. Remember, Tex, the late unpleasantness we watched from space here that they were having on that planet? War. They want weapons — science. We’ve got it. We’re a strange ship, a ship of neither their world or the enemy world. We are, apparently, a dead ship. They see in us a possibility of help. They will investigate.”
     “Uhm — but how come they’ll have to help?”
     “For three months that sun has been deluging our ship with ejected electrons. We’ve built up a tremendous charge. We haven’t lost a bit of it. Those ships, just come from a planet, have a much smaller charge. We’ll discharge to them, my lad, with a smash of about eighteen mega-volts — an extra two million. Really I need only sixteen or so. I said eighteen for safety — and I’ll have it. My starting apparatus for the Flame is weak on magnetism and gravitational fields, but the extra electric will make it up, I suspect.”

     The ships were slowing now, approaching cautiously. They were less than fifty miles away now. Atkill could see them clearly with the naked eye now as dots of light. He went back to the power-room and started the gyroscope device. It had been improved in the months that had passed, and was now a quite efficient machine for swinging the ship as he wished.
     Anxiously he watched the ships approach. Finally a lone, small ship came out of one of the three greater spaceships, and approached slowly. It circled the earth ship at a distance of a few hundred yards, then finally came toward them. A long metal arm reached out from the ship, and the machine came gently directly toward the out-jutting terminal Atkill had arranged.
     “Tex — get set as I showed you at the controls — one, two and five switches closed, four and six open, three at the midpoint. When the Flame starts, snap the dial seven to 458-23. Got it?”
     Atkill was working at the single, tiny lock. He closed a switch and the magnets ground slightly in their supports, pressing away from each other. Swiftly he made several further adjustments, and watched the ship. Absolute space — an almost perfect insulator. Would the discharge-shock be sudden enough to give the result he so desperately needed? Or would it be a slow leaking that would be perfectly useless?

     The discharge rods were less than a foot apart. Slowly the pilot of the stranger ship maneuvered them skillfully together. There was a terrific strain out there now — enough to have started his Flame if he had been in position to use it.
     They came within an inch — then suddenly they touched. A blinding, roaring smash of electric energy crashed across the gap between Atkill's discharge points. Less than two inches of separation, creating an electric field of terrific intensity. Atkill could feel the charge leak suddenly from his body — and cried out in exultant triumph as the clear white of the Release Flame suddenly sprang into being on his little block of iron. A tiny flame no larger than a flashlight bulb, a dazzling white point of light that pulsed for an instant, steadied, and glowed as it would glow for hundreds of millennia if left undisturbed.

From THE SPACE BEYOND by John W. Campbell jr. (1976)

(ed note: Our heroes on the Venus Equilateral space station are trying to invent an electron particle beam weapon. This hobby project takes on some urgency when a fellow named Murdock becomes a pirate and terrorizes the entire solar system. Engineers Channing and Walt brainstorm how to make the weapon work.)

      "Another thing, whilst I hold it in my mind," said Channing thoughtfully. "You go flinging electrons off the station in basketful after basketful, and the next bird that drops a ship on the landing stage is going to spot-weld himself right to the south end of Venus Equilateral. It wouldn't be long before the station would find itself being pulled into Sol because of the electrostatic stress— if we didn't run out of electrons first!"
     "I hardly think that we'd run out— but we might have a tough time flinging them away after a bit. Could it be that we should blow out a fistful of protons at the same time?"
     "Might make up a concentric beam and wave positive ions at the target," said Channing.
     "Don," said Walt in a worried voice, "how are we going to replace the charge on the station? Like the bird who was tossing baseballs out of the train— he quit when he ran out of them. Our gun will quit cold when we run out of electrons— or when the positive charge gets so high that the betatron can't overcome the electrostatic attraction."
     "Venus Equilateral is a free grid," smiled Channing. "As soon as we shoot off electrons, Old Sol becomes a hot cathode and our station collects 'em until the charge is equalized again."
     "And what is happening to the bird who is holding on to something when we make off with a million volts? Does he scrape himself off the opposite wall in a week or so— after he comes to— or can we use him for freezing ice cubes? ("frozen" is slang for "fried to a crisp and stuck to the wall") Seems to me that it might be a little bit fatal."
     "Didn't think of that," Channing said. "There's one thing: their personal charge doesn't add up to a large quantity of electricity. If we insulate 'em and put 'em in their spacesuits, they'll be all right as long as they don't try to grab anything. They'll be on the up and down for a bit, but the resistance of the spacesuit is high enough to keep 'em from draining out all their electrons at once. I recall the experiments with early Van de Graaff generators at a few million volts— the operator used to sit in the charged sphere because it was one place where he couldn't be hit by man-made lightning. It'll be rough, but it won't kill us. Spacesuits, and have 'em sit in plastic chairs, the feet of which are insulated from the floor by china dinner plates. This plastic wall covering that we have in the apartments is a blessing. If, it were all bare steel, every room would be a miniature Hell. Issue general instructions to that effect. We've been having emergency drills for a long time; now's the time to use the grand collection of elastomer spacesuits. Tell 'em we give 'em an hour to get ready."

(ed note: Murdoch's two other ships are destroyed by the electron gun, and his ship is crippled by a glancing blow)

     Murdoch's radio was completely dead. His ship was yawing from side to side as the static charges raced through the driver tubes. The pilot gained control after a fashion, and decided that he had taken enough. He circled the station warily and began to make a shaky landing at the south end.
     Channing saw him coming, and with a glint in his eye, he pressed the lever for the fourth and last time (firing the electron gun at nothing, but energizing Venus Equilateral's structure with a powerful positive charge).
     Murdoch's ship touched the landing stage just after the charge had been driven out into space. The heavy negative charge on the Hippocrates met the heavy positive charge on Venus Equilateral. The ship touched and from that contact, there arose a cloud of incandescent gas. The entire charge left the ship at once, and through that single contact.
     When the cloud dissipated, the contact was a crude but efficient welded joint that was gleaming white-hot.
     Channing said to Walt: "That's going to be messy."
     Inside the Hippocrates, men were frozen to their handholds (meaning the dead carbonized bodies are stuck to the handholds). It was messy, and cleaning up the Hippocrates was a job not relished by those who did it.

From RECOIL by George O. Smith (1943)

Airlock Tunnels

Sometimes they are docking adaptors, with a different type of connector on each end.

Docking in the Eldraeverse

While IOSS 52114-compliant docking adapters are commonly used in most polities throughout the Worlds, in selected regions and on the fringes non-compliant docking adapters are found in use. For this situation, IOSS 52114 also defines the IUSI-NC universal adapter, consisting of an inflatable tunnel with an IUSI-compatible adapter at one end, and an open end coated with a nanotechnological bonding compound capable of adhering to all commonly used hull materials, releasing upon mesh command without altering the attachment surface. The IUSI-NC can be installed during an extravehicular activity when pressurized transfers are required.

– The Starship Handbook, 155th ed.

From Docking by Alistair Young (2015)

     "One more thing, Captain."
     Rod knew something tricky was coming. Horvath had Dr. Hardy ask for all the things Rod might refuse.
     "The Moties want to build an air-lock bridge between the cutter and the embassy ship," Hardy finished.

     "Doctor, I don't like the idea of joining the two ships."
     "But, Captain, we need something like this. People and Moties are constantly passing back and forth, and they have to use the taxi every time. Besides, the Moties have already started work—"
     "May I point out that if they join those two ships, you and everyone aboard will thenceforth be hostage to the Moties' good will?"
     Horvath was ruffled. "I'm sure the aliens can be trusted, Captain. We're making very good progress with them."
     "Besides," Chaplain Hardy added equably, "we're hostage now. There was never a way to avoid the situation. MacArthur and Lenin are our protection, if we need protection. If two battleships don't scare them—well, we knew the situation when we boarded the cutter."

     The lock was begun as soon as Rod gave permission. A tube of thin metal, flexibly jointed, jutting from the hull of the Motie ship, it snaked toward them like a living creature.

     The landing boat was a blunt arrowhead coated with ablative material. The pilot's cabin was a large wrap-around transparency, and there were no other windows. When Sally and her Motie arrived at the entryway; she was startled to see Horace Bury just ahead of her.
     "You're going down to the Mote, Your Excellency?" Sally asked.
     "Yes, my lady." Bury seemed as surprised as Sally. He entered the connecting tube to find that the Moties had employed an old Navy trick—the tube was pressurized with a lower pressure at the receiving end, so that the passengers were wafted along.

From The Mote In God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)

There weren't the questions about cargo or permits. The invaders had come in like they owned the place, and Captain Darren had rolled over like a dog. Everyone else—Mike, Dave, Wan Li—they'd all just thrown up their hands and gone along quietly. The pirates or slavers or whatever they were had dragged them off the little transport ship that had been her home, and down a docking tube without even minimal environment suits. The tube's thin layer of Mylar was the only thing between them and hard nothing: hope it didn't rip; goodbye lungs if it did.

From Leviathan Wakes by James Corey (2011)


Rockets don't got windows. At least nothing like the huge panorama picture windows you see on the Seaview or the bridge of an Imperial Star Destroyer.

When NASA was developing the windows for the Apollo spacecraft, there were some failures. After that, they decreeded the following: A spacecraft window is structurally defined as any piece of glass that is thermally or mechanically stressed and will endanger the crew or mission success if it breaks.

Huge windows on a spacecraft are not a good idea for many of the same reasons as they are not used on a submarine.

  • Window frames create a structural weakness in the hull.
  • If they break they let all the air out of the compartment, killing everybody. At the least you need airtight shutters.
  • They let in deadly space radiation.
  • If the spacecraft performs aerobraking or aerocapture the windows have to be protected from the blowtorch heat. This was a headache when NASA designed the Apollo Command Module. Windows melting or shattering could ruin your whole day.
  • With a few exceptions, there isn't anything to see. Outside of the exceptions the only things to see are
    • Endless black space dusted with stars
    • The eye-melting fury of the Sun
    • The planet you are orbiting, for the small fraction of the total space mission time that you are close enough to see the planet.

"But…but…but…!" you protest, "what about watching the dazzling spectacle of a space battle?" RocketCat does a face-palm at your naïveté. Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, et al to the contrary, space battles will NOT be fought at spitting distance. Directed energy weapons will force ranges such that the enemy ships will only be visible through a telescope.

Watching a space battle through a port hole, you will either:

  • See nothing because the enemy ships are too far away to see without a telescope
  • See nothing because a reflected laser beam or nuclear explosion has permanently robbed you of your eyesight

Instead of windows, spacecraft will have lots of external sensors and video monitors inside for the crew to watch. Much like watching a football game: you will get a far superior view of the game if you stay home and watch it on TV.

As points of reference, the side windows on the Apollo Command Module (CM) are 33 centimeters square. The CM docking windows were 20×33 cm. The Apollo Lunar Module landing windows were 64×71 cm triangles, with the top edge further from the hull so the pilot can look down at the landing legs. The windows on the Space Shuttle airlock hatches were 10 cm in diameter.

The Cupola on the International Space Station has the largest windows used in space to date, the top window is an 80 cm disc. Yes, it has very thick shutters (made of Kevlar and Nextel). It is used to conduct experiments, dockings and observations of Terra. It also helps with the use of the amazing Canadarm2 remote manipulator.


Places where windows might be worth the drawbacks are"

Window Construction

This is from Apollo experience report: Spacecraft structural windows

Trusting the astronaut's lives to something made out of glass is nerve wracking, since glass is notoriously brittle. The strength of glass is measured by the modulus of rupture (MOR). A safety factor of 3.0 was used.

The Apollo command module has five double-pane windows, as shown in the diagram.

All five windows are double-panes of aluminosilicate glass. The space between the panes is evacuated and fill to 7.0 psia with dry inert nitrogen gas.

Every attempt is made to prevent stress on the windows. The mounting process was designed to preclude installation stress. The frames were design to avoid loads on the window. This was done by injecting a silicone elastomer around the edge of each pane and curing it in place. This potted the windows in their frame and provided an air-tight seal.

The only load was the pressure of the nitrogen, since there wasn't anything that could be done about that.

The aluminosilicate glass thermally tempered to 25,000 psi MOR for hatch and side windows and 23,200 psi MOR for the rendezvous windows. A safety factor of 3.0 was used. Each pane of a double-pane has the same thickness. Hatch 0.23 inch, side 0.25 inch, and rendezvous 0.20 inch. All panes are coated on both sides with a high-efficiency antirefection (HEA) coating.

The double-pane windows are covered with a 0.7 inch thick fused amorphous silica pane as a heat shield. When the command module does its flaming re-entry, the windows have to be protected or the results will be most unfortunate. They will be exposed to thermal loading for about 15 minutes.

The heat shield panes are insulated around the edge by a 0.02-inch-thick fiberglas layerr using a silicone elastomer bonding agent. The 0.080-inch-thick steel frame and retainer were designed so that the flat glazing would fit on the conical hull. It had a 0.05 inch gap on all edges between the insulation and frame so the shell could contract when it hit the cold Pacific ocean without shattering the glass. The pane had an outboard coating of magnesium fluoride, and an inboard blue-red coating.

Docking Window

Docking or rendezvous windows are generally aimed parallel to the axis of the docking port. Since the NASA Apollo CS module and the Russian Soyuz have the docking port on their nose, their docking windows are aimed straight ahead.

There may be a "docking control station" with special windows, either for guiding small craft to docking ports or for bringing the ship itself up to dock to another ship or a station. You could use video screens, but a viewport is simpler, and less likely to go to "snow" at the worst possible moment. The docking control station might be out on a boom or otherwise elevated to give a better field of view.

The Russian Soyuz does not use either a video screen nor a window. It uses a periscope which rear-projects onto a frosted glass screen. This is an admirable low-tech solution. There is no electronic screen which could malfunction, but neither is there a large vulnerable glass window letting in radiation.

Virtual Windows

With the advent of virtual reality there is a semi-plausible solution to the spacecraft window problem: use virtual windows instead. Mount some huge computer monitors on the walls and have them display what would be seen through an actual physical window in that location.

Or even more cyberspacelike: wear some virtual reality goggles, and have the computer paint a fake window wherever you want in your field of vision. With this you can change the location of the windows at your whim. All the immediacy and instinctual utility of a physical window, but with none of the vulnerability.

Except of course if the virtual reality computer is stopped or destroyed, suddenly you are trapped in a metal box you cannot see out of. You might want a couple of emergency physical windows you can unshutter for just such an situation.


Lia was pleased to notice on the ride to the command deck that the ship’s containment field held at a steady one gee. The bridge itself was about twenty-five meters across and held command-nexus stations for the various specialists, as well as a central table—round, of course—where the awakened were gathering, sipping coffee and making the usual soft jokes about cryogenic deep-sleep dreams. All around the great hemisphere of the command deck, broad windows opened onto space: Dem Lia stood a minute looking at the strange arrangement of the stars, the view back along the seemingly infinite length of the Helix itself where heavy filters dimmed the brilliance of the fusion-flame tail that now reached back eight kilometers toward their destination—and the binary system itself, one small white star and one red giant, both clearly visible. The windows were not actual windows, of course; their holo pickups could be changed and zoomed or opaqued in an instant, but for now the illusion was perfect.

From ORPHANS OF THE HELIX by Dan Simmons (1999)

(ed note: in the novel everybody wears virtual reality goggles called zeespecs. They can paint items over your field of vision, like fake windows. They can also paint the controls on your spacecraft control panel, so you can have your station on any convenient flat surface.)

      No windows in Louis Pasteur—have I mentioned that? But there were camera dots embedded in the hull that could assemble a visual image and project it through a zeespec. Somehow, I was coherent enough to manage this task, and so was watching as the exit portal irised open in the ceiling above us. Our ladderdown reactors hissed to life. Propulsion came online.

     The worst of it was that my allocation duties were quickly done with, and everyone else seemed to have a job to do. So it was that I pulled up an external window and a navigation graphic, had time to correlate the two, and made the announcement: “Our orbit takes us right past the starship. I mean, right past it.”
     “Departure conic,” Darren Wallich said distractedly, his eyes on instruments I couldn’t see. “‘Orbit’ usually means you’re not still under thrust.”
     “Not by my dictionary,” I fired back, unaccountably annoyed at the contradiction.
     “Possibly. But learn the language while you’re here, right?”
     “Anyway,” I continued, “our departure conic looks like it’ll bring us very close, like within a couple of kilometers. It should be coming over the horizon right about now.”
     “Coming over the limb,” Wallich corrected. And chuckled. Oh, this was going to be a fun voyage.

     But now everyone started stabbing at the air, pulling up exterior-view windows to see what I was talking about. Here is what these windows showed: a circular opening in space, a hole not only through the ship’s hull but through chairs, instrument panels, and people—a hole looking out at focus infinity, no matter what was in the way. Not so hard on the eye, really, but it takes getting used to, especially the way it tracks head but not eye movements. Turn to look at someone, and suddenly there are stars showing through where a face or a heart should be.

     “You might want to look outside, Baucum said. “Three o’clock high, twenty degrees. We have a visitor.”
     Oh. Reluctantly, I turned and opened a round exterior window, anchoring it to the bulkhead beside me. Where Baucum was pointing, there hung a…smudge? Cloud? No, of course, it was a transient megastructure, a diffuse bloom of loosely interacting mycora, massing maybe twenty or a hundred kilograms smeared across thousands of cubic kilometers of space.

From BLOOM by Wil McCarthy (1998)

Interior Arrangement

In all the crew's "blastoff stations", they will have acceleration couches. As most space fans know, the human body can tolerate more gravities of acceleration when lying horizontal than when sitting upright in a chair. Crew members who will have to operate controls while under multi-gravity acceleration will have fancy chairs which hold their bodies horizontal, vital controls at their fingertips, and critical dials, telltales, repeaters, and read-outs mounted above them in easy view. The rest of the crew will be lucky to get glorified cots or hammocks (They will probably be stuck with using whatever it is that they sleep in. Tough if they are using a "hot bunk" system.). In the movie DESTINATION: MOON, the pilot had the important controls located on a sort of lap-board for easy access. For real high gravity acceleration, the crew will have to use couches that are high-tech waterbeds.

And remember that Rockets Are Not Hotels. They are going to be cramped. Though keep in mind that in free-fall the entire three-dimensional living area can be used so it won't be as cramped as the floor space might lead you to believe.

The corridors will have cables, pipes and ducting either exposed or behind easily removable panels. This is to facilitate repairs. The panel brackets can double as hand-holds. The main function of panels is to protect the cables from clumsy crew members flying in free-fall. Of course all the cables and pipes will be color-coded. If the designers are smart they will double-key them as well.

The corridors will become instantly dark if the power goes off (since port-holes let all the radiation in the ship won't have any). Navy veteran Jennifer Linsky says that US Naval ships have so-called "battle lanterns." They are located in all corridors and most compartments. Each contains a rechargable 12 vold battery hooked to the ship's power grid, constantly charging. If the power grid goes dead, the lamps switch to battery power and turn on. They have red lenses to preserve the night vision of the damage control teams.

This also means that all those color-coded pipes and cables will also have stenciled labels or other double-keying, since red lighting renders color coding worthless.

In James Blish's SPOCK MUST DIE, shuttlecraft have "glow-pups", which are tubes filled with (imaginary) "ethon" gas excited by a built-in radioactive source. They will glow with no power for millions of years.

As with so many other things, high tech items predicted by Star Trek have come to pass. The modern version is called a "Gaseous Tritium Light Source", and is used in submarines. A tube of borosilicate glass is internally coated with a phosphor. It is filled with a trace amount of radioactive Tritium gas and sealed. It will glow for about 10 to 20 years, and is not particularly radioactive. Even if the tube breaks, the gas is too rarefied to be a health hazard. They sell these things in England as glow-in-the-dark keychain fobs.

Glow-pups will be in strategic places for lighting, and will also be placed to indicate hatches and sharp corners of equipment. Anywhere to help getting around in the dark.

"In there. Find your locker and wait by it." Libby hurried to obey. Inside he found a jumble of baggage and men in a wide low-ceilinged compartment. A line of glow-tubes ran around the junction of bulkhead and ceiling and trisected the overhead: the 50ft roar of blowers made a background to the voices of his shipmates.

From "Misfit" by Robert Heinlein (1939)

Rick Robinson notes that the corridors will probably not be cramped like those on a submarine. The main reason subs are so claustrophobic is because the entire sub has to have, on the average, exactly the density of water. Spacecraft don't have to. (spacecraft designers do have to worry about how much air it takes to pressurize the lifesystem, and the mass of the bulkheads enclosing the interior space.)

While not cramped, the interior will probably be similar to the inside of a conventional Naval vessel. That is, it will be full of sharp corners and hard girders to bark your shins or to give you a concussion. The rule in the U.S. Navy is "one hand for the ship, one hand for you." In other words, always keep a hand free, and when moving through the corridors, you put you hand on the thing sticking out into the passageway as you reach it.

The duty stations of the crew members will probably be cramped. In NASA speak the "work envelope" will be small.

Ladderways may be offset between decks. You don't want to have a five story fall awaiting somebody who slips off the ladder. Especially if the spacecraft is pulling three gees. If they are offset, the farthest one can fall is one deck's worth. However, Rick Robinson has an interesting alternate solution. He notes that moving equipment and supplies through a ship is always a problem, and will be exacerbated by offsetting the ladderways. His solution is to have the ladderway openings in a straight line, but while the spacecraft is under thrust, the ladders will be inclined to become stairs. The stairs will prevent fall-through. When the spacecraft enters free-fall, the stairs are rotated to a vertical position, becoming a ladder again and allowing the ladderway to become a fast route for moving equipment. The stair/ladders can be secured in either position by cotter pins. Don't forget to attach the pins to the ladders with wires to prevent them from floating away while the ladders are rotated. And obviously places where the ladderway penetrates a pressure bulkhead will have large hatches.

has some important observations:

Another thing you might want to think about, based on my naval engineering days: how big are the biggest parts in the engineering spaces? That is, what's the size of the biggest thing you might have to move in and out of the craft for repairs or replacement? The radiators are already on the outside. Are there reactor vessels, fusion containment cells, or some other nifty big bits that cannot be broken down into smaller parts? How about tanks (for algae, fuel, water, sewage, recycling, air)? You're going to need a way to get that stuff on and off, and a way to handle the large mass safely.

Barry P. Messina

In the movie Forbidden Planet, there is a small crane mounted over a deck hatch to facilitate moving equipment between decks. It is shown in the scene where the invisible monster enters through the hatch into the bunkroom full of sleeping enlisted men. It is the long metal arm that the invisible monster bumps out of the way.

Submarines In Space

Several times in science fiction, a reactionless drive or antigravity/paragravity drive is invented. And then the scientist gets the bright idea that if they mount the drive inside a submarine they will have Instant Spaceship.

In reality this would not work very well. A submarine is build to resist stronger pressure outside pressing in, not stronger pressure inside pressing out. And if the submarine is nuclear powered, you had better attach some kind of heat radiator. Nuclear submarines get rid of heat by sucking in cold ocean water and spewing out hot heat sink water. This won't work in space, there isn't any ocean. Not to mention the fact that a sub nuclear reactor's coolant system requires gravity to work.

This trope seems to have been invented by John W. Campbell jr., in an article he wrote about the Dean Drive in 1960. Other novels that use this theme include The Daleth Effect by Harry Harrison (1969), Gilpin's Space by Reginald Bretnor (1983), Salvage and Destroy by Edward Llewellyn (1984), and Vorpal Blade by John Ringo (2007). There is a mention of an "inertial drive" (another name for a Dean Drive) in Randall Garrett's Anything You Can Do but there it is used as a way to make recon drones float in the air.

This also seems to have influenced a certain Matt Jeffries, designer of the original Starship Enterprise, Klingon Battle Cruiser, and related works. A couple of his designs feature a "sail" or "conning tower" which are common to submarines. Perhaps he read Campbell's Dean Drive article and was inspired. If the first few starships were actually refitted submarines, maybe purpose-built starships would retain the conning tower for tradition.

The first Matt Jeffries design with a conning tower was the Botany Bay aka DY-100 from the Star Trek episode "Space Seed." It was later re-used as Automated Ore Freighter Woden in "The Ultimate Computer".

Around 1967, the AMT plastic model company wanted to cash in on Star Trek mania. They wanted to make a line of plastic model starship kits, but of their own design. So they hired Matt Jeffries to make a starship, the Galactic Cruiser Leif Ericson. Again it had the signature submarine conning tower. Unfortunately the kit was a financial disappointment, and further starships in the line were cancelled. The kit was re-issued in 2011 due to demand from those who had the original kit when they were young.

In the early 1970's, when Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle were writing the classic The Mote in God's Eye, they used the Leif model as the inspiration for the INSS MacArthur.

Around 1975 Matt Jefferies was hired by George Pal to work on a TV series based on THE WAR OF THE WORLDS. As you can see the Hyperspace Carrier Pegasus is an outgrowth of the Leif Ericson. Note that instead of two side engines, the Pegasus has four, two on each side. For the TV series, Jefferies actually had the Pegasus upside down in relation to the Leif Ericson, in order to make the connection less obvious. The TV series was never picked up, alas. But this is a facinating glimpse of what might have been.

Occasionally in later science fiction illustrations one again finds the submarine conning tower.

Analog Dean Drive Article

A modern nuclear-powered submarine needs only relatively minor adaptations to make an ideal spaceship; it has everything it needs, save for the space drive.

The Dean drive requires a rotary shaft drive; our nuclear submarines turn nuclear energy into heat, produce steam, drive a turbine, and generate electric power. Electric power is perfect for running the Dean drive.

The modern submarines are — we have learned from past sad experience — equipped with lifting eyes so that, in event of accidental collision, quick salvage is possible. Pontoons can be towed in place, sunk beside the ship, and hitched to the built-in lifting eyes, and the ship refloated. The eyes are, of course, designed into the ship so that the structure can be lifted by those eyes without structural damage to the hull.

Dean drive units could be attached directly to the existent eyes. (ed note: you can see this in the image. The two bands around the submarine's waist hold the Dean Drive units. This also means the ship's direction of motion is in the direction the conning tower is pointed, which would make sense.)

The pressure hull of modern submarines is designed to resist at least 600 feet of water pressure; its actual thickness is a piece of classified data, of course, but we can guesstimate it must be at least 4 inches thick. After the second Bikini bomb test, the old submarine Skate was still in pretty fair condition; the light-metal streamlining hull looked like the remains of an airliner crash, but the pressure hull was perfectly intact. Stout stuff, a sub’s pressure hull.

And very fine stuff indeed as protection against the average meteor; the light streamlining hull would stop the micrometeors, of course.

Not even 4 feet of steel would stop primary cosmic rays, of course… but those inches of armor steel would have considerable damping effect on the Van Allen radiation belt effects.

The nuclear subs have already been tested with full crews for 30 continuous days out of contact with Earth’s atmosphere; their air-recycling equipment is already in place, and functions perfectly. What difference if the ‘out of contact’ situation involves submersion in water, instead of out in space?

The modern nuclear submarine is, in fact, a fully competent space-vehicle, lacking only the Dean drive.

With the Dean drive, the ship, if it can lift off the Earth at all, can generate a one-G vertical acceleration. Since that acceleration is being generated by engines capable of continuous operation for months — if not years — at a time, the acceleration can simply be maintained for the entire run; there would be no period of free-fall for the ship or crew. Therefore the present ship structure, equipment, and auxiliary designs would be entirely satisfactory. Also, a sub has various plumbing devices with built-in locks so the equipment can be used under conditions where the external pressure is widely different from the internal.

In flight, the ship would simply lift out of the sea, rise vertically, maintaining a constant 1000 cm/sec drive. Halfway to Mars, it would loop its course, and decelerate the rest of the way at the same rate. To the passengers, and to the equipment on board, there would be no free-flight problems.

There is one factor that has to be taken in to account, however; the exhaust steam from the turbine has to be recondensed and returned to the boiler. In the sea, seawater is used to cool the condenser; in space, the cold vacuum would do the job.

The tough part would be the first 100 miles up from the Earth; ice could be used.

As a crash program, this could have been done — if work started when Dean first applied for his patent — in 15 months. The application went in in July 1956; 15 months later would have been October 1957.

Under the acceleration conditions described above, a ship can make the trip from Earth to mars, when Mars is closest, in less than three days. And even when Mars is at its farthest possible point, on the far side of the Sun, the trip would only take 5 days.

It would have been nice if, in response to Sputnik I, the US had been able to release full photographic evidence of Mars Base I.

from "The Space Drive Problem" by John W. Campbell, Jr in Analog Magazine June 1960

The Daleth Effect

Analog December 1969. Illustration for Harry Harrison's "In Our Hands, The Stars", which was later expanded into the novel The Daleth Effect.

Harry Harrison wrote an amusing but cautionary tale called The Daleth Effect. In the novel, an Israeli scientist discover the principle for a reactionless drive. Naturally the first real test is the Submarine Spacecraft trick.

He returns to his native Denmark to develop it. He wishes to develop the idea without it falling into the hands of the military, since it also has potential as a weapon. Good luck with that.

Denmark keeps it a secret until they feel obligated to use the technology in public to rescue some cosmonauts stranded on Luna. Any fool could have told the Danes that no good deed goes unpunished.

Naturally the US, Soviet Union, and other powerful nations will stop at nothing to lay their hands on this technology. The race is on! They try all sorts of tactics to pressure the Danes but to no avail. They look on with helpless rage as the Danes establish a Lunar base and make a large ship for a visit to Mars.

Like absolute idiots the Danes invite foreign dignitaries to ride on the Mars trip. Naturally pretty much 100% of the dignitaries turn out to be secret agents. Hilarity ensues. And then the novel has a most ironic and satisfying ending.

Gilpin's Space

Eccentric but brilliant scientist Saul Gilpin invents a magic hyperspace faster-than-light propulsion system / antigravity surface-to-orbit gadget which can be cobbled together from parts available from your local hardware store. He mounts it on a submarine and has instant starship. Then he and the submarine depart for parts unknown.

This makes the totalitarian government very unhappy. They want to use this technology, they do not want citizens getting their hands on it. Makes it far to easy to escape the totalitarian state. Then they find out that Gilpin has mailed blueprints of the gadget to quite a few people. Hilarity ensues.

Salvage and Destroy

An ancient alien interstellar empire is worried about the large US and Soviet submarine fleets. Once Earth discovered anti-grav and FTL drives, the warlike unstable Earthlings would have a ready-made fleet of combat starships. This could turn into a nasty problem.

(ed note: aliens on Earth are covertly observing a US submarine)

“She’s an attack sub.” Joshua altered course as the black hull came sliding toward us out of the dawn mists. He gave one blast on the horn. “Mark, can you read the number on her sail?”

“SSN-767.” Mark put down his binoculars and took Jane’s Fighting Ships from the book rack in the wheelhouse. “USS Muskelunge. Four thousand six hundred tons dived. One hundred and ten meters overall. Six torpedo tubes plus subsurface attack missiles. Pressurized water-cooled reactors feeding two steam turbines. Speed dived-fifty knots plus. Complement—one hundred and ten.” He closed the book. “She’s among the most powerful warships in the Cluster—now the Ult fleets are laid up.”

“Fit that sub with inertial drive and she’d be ready for space!” said Joshua. “And there’s over four hundred like her at sea.”

An instant space fleet!” remarked someone on the foredeck.

“They couldn’t make a vortex passage. They couldn’t get out of this starfield. They wouldn’t have anybody to fight.”

“They’d find somebody. Or settle for fighting each other!”

Add inertial drive and Earth would have a space fleet! However unlikely, the idea was chilling. The men and women with me would gladly crew a human fleet, apparently blind to the outcome of such madness, as the Terrans were blind to the imminent effects of their own folly.

From nuclear submarine to inertial spaceship—an immense leap. Yet that hunter-killer exemplified a leap of the like magnitude. From sail to atomics in a hundred years! If the Terrans survived the next hundred would they leap into the dark? Into the Cluster?

I shook myself. Not even their present exponential advance would take them to vortex transits within a century. But within centuries? Up to the stars or down to hell?

from Salvage and Destroy by by Edward Llewellyn (1984)

Vorpal Blade

Shortly after they'd stopped the invasion, the Adar had given him another strange device. On first tests, it had appeared to be the world's most powerful nuclear hand grenade. Any electrical power sent to it, so much as a spark of static, and, well, there was a boom. A really big boom. "There should have been an earth shattering Ka-Boom!" boom. Putting three-phase on it had, in fact, erased a solar system.

The Adar didn't know what it was supposed to do but Weaver had basically guessed that it was, in fact, some sort of Faster-Than-Light drive. It took nearly a year of tinkering, and two more planets, to figure out that it was, in fact, such a drive. It had taken another year to create the first prototype starship.

By then, Weaver had switched sides in the ongoing sales war, leaving the Beltway and taking a direct commission in the Navy, which was the lead service in developing the world's first spaceship. He'd pointed out even before switching sides that the Navy just made more sense. The President wanted a presence off-world as fast as possible. They'd picked up enough intel in the brief war to know that the Dreen had some sort of FTL as well. Finding out where the Dreen were, whether they were headed to Earth through normal space, was a high priority. The only way to make a spaceship, fast, was to convert something. The obvious choice had been one of the many ballistic missile submarines that were being decommissioned.

So Weaver, while continuing to consult on engineering issues, was now the astrogation officer of the Naval Construction Contract 4144. Despite a couple of shakedown cruises around the solar system, the Top Secret boat had yet to be named. The 4144 had all the beauty and problems of any prototype. Most of the equipment was human, much of it original to the former SSBN Nebraska. Other bits were Adar or Human-Adar manufacture. The fact that it worked at all was amazing.

"How fast are the missiles? I mean, space is big, right, so they have to be fast?" Miller continued peering out the window, on a submarine, in front of him. The window seemed to be harder to get used to than the fact that he was standing inside humanity's first starship. A freakin' window on a submarine, he thought.

"The propulsion system is a mix of Adar tech and human. The thing is basically designed around the old nuclear thermal rocket concept but uses a small quarkium reactor instead of a fission reactor. No radiators needed and we use a dense Adar coolant for propellant instead of LOX or hydrogen or water. The Adar stuff gives us waaaay better m-dot. Using an Adar material for the nozzle we were able to get over eight thousand seconds of specific impulse out of it."

(ed note: 8,000 Isp is an exhaust velocity of about 78,000 m/s. Which would make that propulsion system a torch drive. Freaking missile has performance better than a blasted Zubrin nuclear salt water rocket.)

from Vorpal Blade by John Ringo (2007)

Non-scientific Media SciFi Ships

If you want to ignore this entire website and just make a tired old standard TV or Movie spaceship utterly without scientific accuracy, Mythcreants has you covered. But don't let RocketCat catch you or he will give you an atomic wedgie.

But if you actually want such a thing, what are you doing in this website in the first place?

Mythcreants: Designing Your Spaceship

What Is Your Ship’s FTL Propulsion Method?

It turns out space is big. Really big. Getting around means you’ll have to massage your way past Einstein’s rule that nothing can go faster than the speed of light.

Going Really, Really Fast

Your ship just pours on the speed, never mind what physics says. Despite the talk of warping space, this is essentially the Star Trek method. While the ship accelerates to well past the speed of light, it never leaves normal space. It can still scan the area ahead,* so it won’t be taken by surprise if there’s a hostile fleet lying in wait. Another consequence is that going FTL is only an escape if you’re faster than the other guy. They can still track you after you’ve kicked it up to full throttle.

Visiting a Pocket Dimension

Since this universe won’t let us go FTL, let’s go to another one. This is the hyperspace of Star Wars and Babylon Five (B5). Exiting our universe completely, these ships tunnel through their own personal dimension to get where they need to go. Usually, this means that activating the ship’s FTL drive makes it safe from attack. There can be exceptions, but jumping to hyperspace will usually be a moment of relief. Because it’s such a powerful way to get out of trouble, there should be limits on when it can be used. In Star Wars, ships can’t go into hyperspace within a planet’s gravity well. In B5, it requires specially constructed gates for all but the largest ships.


Even more extreme than the pocket dimension, there’s no travel time at all with this method. The ship simply disappears from one place and reappears in another. It’s most famously seen on Battlestar Galactica (BSG), but it appears in other stories as well, such as the Solar Clipper series by Nathan Lowell.

Ships with this form of propulsion can travel truly massive distances. Even if the jumps they make are relatively short, the only limiting factor is how quickly they can recharge for another one. This means that ships can easily escape any kind of trouble so long as their engines are working. BSG limits this with time consuming FTL equations and a delay as the ship drives spool* up. As a side benefit, a teleportation drive means that ships often end up nose to nose, rather than millions of miles apart.

It Doesn’t Have One

It turns out that the speed of light is a difficult speed limit to break, and authors looking for a more science-friendly story often stay below it. Your ship can still go plenty fast with sublight engines, fast enough to make interplanetary travel a breeze. You’ll be limited to one solar system, sure, but look how much there is to explore right in our own backyard. Limiting your ship to sublight speed will make it more realistic, and allow you to engage in nitty gritty science fiction.

How Does Your Ship Move at Sublight?

No matter what your FTL method is (if you have one), your ship will still need to get around in normal space. How you do this will have a big influence on the level of your setting’s technology, not just how you get from place to place.

On a Carefully Projected Course

This is the current method for navigating our solar system. 21st century spacecraft have very limited fuel, so they have to plan nearly every bit of thrust, leaving nothing to chance. The course that Rosetta took to rendezvous with the comet 67P, for example, is incredibly complicated, and full of complex math. When Apollo 13 suffered a damaging explosion, they couldn’t just turn around and fly back to Earth. They had to keep going on the course they’d committed to.

Using this method will make fuel management an active part of your story. The characters won’t be able to go wherever they please; they’ll have to be constantly watching their tanks. It’s very limiting, but the good news is that because this is how real spaceships work, there’s plenty of reference material. This is hard scifi at its finest.

A variant is to use engines that have extremely long-lasting fuel sources but produce little acceleration. Ion engines fit the bill nicely. Ships can get going at a good clip with a long enough burn, but deviating from their course will be very difficult because of how long it takes to build up thrust.

With Impulse Engines

This is the standard for the vast majority of space-going scifi settings. The ship employs some kind of extremely efficient reaction drives to push it where it needs to go. When Captain Picard orders his ship into orbit of a new M-class planet, he’s not worried about running out of gas before they get there. Even in Firefly, when Mal does occasionally fret about running out of fuel, it’s understood that this isn’t a problem for better funded ships. When in doubt, this is the option to go with. It’s tried and true, letting you explore your setting without much fuss.

By Raising the Solar Sails

This is a quirky third option if you want to give your ship more of an old-timey feel. Solar sails are a real technology that uses solar wind ([sic] They use solar photons, not solar wind) to generate thrust. Your ship will work more like a sailing ship, and who doesn’t want sailing ships in space? With a bit of handwavium, you can even borrow a bunch of nautical terminology to spice up your setting’s jargon. Your ship can tack across the port quarter and run up the mainsail.*

Practically, this method of propulsion has some caveats to consider. Ships will be slower further from the sun,* and going toward the sun will be more difficult than going away. The sail itself is also important. It would be huge and no doubt prone to damage. This is your chance to get an astronaut swinging through the rigging to repair meteorite impacts!

What’s the Interior Like?

The inside of your ship is at least as important as the outside. Do your characters feel at home within its hull, or is each day a strain on their nerves?

NASA Chique

If you ever take a look at the International Space Station, you’ll notice that it’s incredibly crowded. There’s stuff floating everywhere because space is at a premium. This is the look you go with if you want your ship as close to modern technology as possible. There probably wouldn’t be artificial gravity. The food would mostly be slurped from bags. Using the bathroom would be… complicated.

This is the kind of ship one has to be very dedicated to serve on. It lends itself to explorers making the first push to Mars or maybe homegrown space enthusiasts cobbling together their own ship form whatever is lying around.

Military Practical/Cold and Austere

These two are different sides of the same coin and are essentially the difference between Battlestar Galactica and Battlestar Pegasus. Both are function over form. Practicality reigns over comfort. Everything has a purpose, and nothing is wasted. The difference is that on Galactica this is reassuring. Everything is running like a well-oiled machine. On Pegasus it’s unnerving. All human comforts have been swallowed up by the unfeeling ship. On the TV show, they achieve this with lighting, camera work, and music. In prose, you can do this with positive and negative descriptors: “clean” vs “sterile” or “disciplined” vs “controlled.”

Characters on this kind of ship are most likely military or maybe high-level corporate types. They’re here to do a job. That won’t be the only aspect of their characters, but it will be ever-present. They’ll all be part of something bigger than themselves, whether they want to or not.

Warm and Lived In

Welcome aboard either Serenity or the Millenium Falcon. These ships are homes as well as machines. Even if the characters don’t necessarily want to be on board, the ship’s environment will have a calming effect. This works on the audience as well, if you do it right. They will start to feel comfortable with the ship, like slipping on an old sweater. They’ll react viscerally if the ship is threatened by intruders. Use this to set up poignant stories.

This kind of ship is often independently owned but not always. Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine space station fits the bill, as does Babylon Five. It’s a place where people live as well as work, and they can’t help but leave their mark.

Like a Space Hotel

This is an odd choice pioneered by Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise D is so well appointed that it often feels like some kind of cruise ship. The quarters are palatial, anyone can have anything they want to eat whenever they want it, and the holodecks provide endless forms of entertainment. This kind of ship is meant to awe the audience. To make them think, “Wow, the future is amazing!”

There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can make your characters harder to identify with. Drama loses some of its edge if the characters can return home to their cabins and order a three course meal while getting a deep tissue massage.

How Good Are Its Sensors?

Unless you’re in very old science fiction, your ship’s going to need more than the mark one eyeball to see with. Looking out the window just won’t cut it in the cold vacuum.

Only Blips on a Screen

This level of technology is pretty close to what we have today. Sensors will tell you that something’s out there and maybe its mass, but that’s it. Unless the mystery object is broadcasting a signal, you won’t know anything about it. This is great for building tension and suspense. What’s that blip out there? It’s getting closer. Should we open fire?

The downside is that it’s a very involved method. Your characters can never just know what’s going on with another ship. They’ll always have to question their information, and the audience will want to know how they learned it.

Like Long Range Eyes

The next step up are sensors that give you about the same information as a visual examination of whatever’s being scanned. You can tell that little blip is a TIE fighter, that it has Imperial markings, but not that it’s carrying Lord Vader. This method provides a decent balance, allowing you to easily describe what’s happening around your ship without giving too much information to the audience. It works particularly well for a setting like Star Wars, in which the space battles are clearly analogous to historical naval combat when visual range encounters were common.

They Give a Full Spectrum Scan

Star Trek sensors can tell you what an approaching ship is made of, how many people are on board, and how many of them own cats. There is seemingly no end to the pinpoint information these scanners can produce from remarkably far away. This is another case of wowing your audience with the wonders of the future. It also allows you to put on dazzling displays of description as the characters learn absolutely everything about what they’re looking at. Of course, you have to be good at description in order for that to work.

The drawback to having such powerful sensors is that sometimes drama depends on the characters not having certain information. Many an episode of Trek features the previously all-seeing scanners inexplicably not noticing that a hostile ship was charging weapons. You can sometimes explain this by saying there’s some kind of interference or another, but that excuse will get tired if you aren’t careful.

How Does It Fight?

Space battles are an ever-present element of science fiction, and chances are if there’s a ship in your story, it will eventually be attacked. How does it defend itself? Or, if its crew is a bit more proactive, how does it attack other ships?

It Doesn’t

One of the novel things about Firefly was that, as Jayne so eloquently put it, “A transport ship ain’t got no guns on it.” Serenity was completely unarmed, which made things interesting when it ran into hostile vessels that weren’t. If your ship has no weapons, your characters will have to be more inventive. They can’t just blow the attacking space pirates out of the sky. They have to run and hide or cobble some kind of weapon together. It limits your options, but it can be engaging.

With Directed Energy

Whether it’s a simple laser or something more complicated, this is a beam of energy projected across space at the speed of light. It has very long range. It’s precise and accurate. If you can see something, you can hit it with this weapon. Space battles with such a weapon will be short, as there isn’t a lot of maneuvering to be done when incoming fire is moving at the speed of light. This is good news if you’re in a visual medium with a limited budget, but perhaps bad news if you want to film the Battle of Britain in Space. Early Star Trek used this kind of weapon a lot, before Deep Space Nine (DS9) took things in a more WWII type direction.

Using Space Guns

These are any weapons that operate more or less the way modern firearms do. BSG has actual space guns – that is, shells propelled by explosive chemicals. Star Wars has space guns disguised as directed energy weapons. They call them lasers or blasters, but they clearly operate more like battleship cannons. The biggest advantage to this style of weaponry is that building dramatic space battles is easy. You just take your inspiration from historical naval battles, especially WWII. You can have giant capital ships slugging it out broadside to broadside while fighters dogfight around them.

The downside is that you aren’t taking full advantage of being in space. Space is a completely alien environment, and it’s limiting to focus exclusively on how battles used to be fought.

By Lobbing Missiles

As mentioned, space is really big. Your ships will often be so far apart that light will take several minutes to cross the gulf between them. At that range, even a laser is useless. Instead, your ship could use guided, self propelled projectiles that can travel to the target and adjust their course to ensure a hit. This type of weaponry is seen in the Honor Harrington series, where it introduces a completely different dynamic to space combat.

Battles become tense waiting games as enemy missiles come burning in. The fire-and-forget nature of these weapons means that once they are launched, the characters can only watch and hope for a hit. The main action of combat focuses around using countermeasures against incoming fire. It requires a different mindset than the more fast paced battles with space guns, but it has an appeal all its own.

It Sends Out Fighters

From X-Wings to Vipers to Star Furies, fighters are a mainstay of space combat. If your ship is big enough, it may fight primarily by launching smaller craft to attack the enemy. This allows for some excellent drama. Dogfights between fighters are perfect for moments of individual heroism, and fighter pilots will always be popular as main characters. Plus, removing your characters from the safety of their mothership is a great way to ratchet up the danger.

Of course, this method isn’t always practical. You need a ship big enough to carry fighters, for one thing. For another, space fighters aren’t terribly realistic. Targeting systems would probably be too accurate for dodging and weaving to be an effective defense. Fighters also imply your ship is purpose-built for combat, which won’t work in many stories.

It Uses a Mix

Chances are very good that your ship will use some combination of the above options. Galactica has both fighters and space guns. The Enterprise has directed energy weapons with its phasers, while photon torpedoes are much more like missiles. The key is to remember what each kind of weapon means for your story.

How Do Characters Get Off It?

No matter how cool your spaceship is, eventually the characters will have to leave it. How do they do that?

By Landing and Docking

If your spaceship is on the smaller side, it may let people off directly, whether that means landing on a planet’s surface or docking with a space station. Larger ships can do this as well, but it starts to get impractical, especially with landing. Having this be your ship’s primary means of egress puts a major limit on your characters’ freedom of movement. They can only go where the ship goes. It also means that if the ship is damaged, getting off it will be more difficult, which is great for drama.

On Shuttles

The most practical method, especially for larger vessels, this means your ship carries a number of smaller craft that are fully functional spaceships in their own right. They have a limited range of course, but they’ll get you to the ground and back. This increases your characters’ freedom of movement, allowing some to visit the big city while others explore mysterious alien ruins. It also opens the possibility of a story with one or more characters trapped and isolated on a damaged shuttle.

The important thing to remember is that the ship breaking doesn’t mean the shuttles are broken. If the ship has a power failure, the audience will immediately ask why the characters don’t divert power from the independent shuttle engines.

Via Teleportation

While transporters were originally a way for Gene Roddenberry to save money on landing sequences, they have since carved out a place for themselves in science fiction. These are devices that move a character from one place to another instantaneously. They can work via matter energy conversion, micro-wormholes, or anything else that sounds reasonably scientific. They offer unparalleled freedom of movement, getting your characters into places they’d have no other way of reaching. You no longer have to spend time on travel sequences or explain how the characters arrived so quickly.

The drawback is that sometimes you’ll have stories that only work if your characters can’t get somewhere. Teleportation is such a powerful way of getting around that you may have trouble writing it properly. If you’re going to use this method, establish early what can and can’t be teleported through, and then stick with it.

How Does It Look?

In this last section, we consider your ship’s physical appearance. We’re looking at broad strokes rather than specific details. Decide on the shape and paint job once you’ve considered some broader themes.

Old and Beat Up

As seen with Serenity, the Millenium Falcon, and every other independent trading vessel ever featured in a science fiction story. This is the look of the underdog. It’s a scrappy ship that’s got heart. In other words, something we will always root for. It’s great for communicating how outmatched and poorly equipped the main characters are, which is something the audience will love.

Big and Mean

This ship means business. If it’s not bristling with weapons, it’s some kind of mega cargo carrier that can fit a dozen lesser ships inside it. This look projects power. It is imposing, and communicates a level of seriousness to your story. You don’t want to use this look for a lighthearted romp through the solar system, but it’s perfect for an epic war with evil robots. Note that the ship doesn’t actually have to be large. DS9’s Defiant is a small ship, but it’s definitely Big and Mean.

Sleek and Sexy

The true ship of the future, a triumph of technology and engineering. This ship will dazzle the audience with all its swanky design features. Pair this with a Hotel in Space look for the interior, and you have the Enterprise D. Ships like this work best in optimistic settings, where they portray the awesome heights humanity can achieve. Your protagonist may come off as something of a tool if they’re flying one of these in a gritty, realistic setting where people have to scrounge for survival.

By now you should have a pretty good idea what your spaceship is like, at least in terms of the big picture. The rest can be added as you go. These steps will get you a skeleton, but you’ll still have to fill in the rest. How comfortable is the captain’s chair? What kind of noise do the engines make? These smaller scale questions should be addressed as they come up, but now you have a solid foundation to base them on.

Organic Spacecraft

This section has been moved here


Yes, alien spacecraft are not going to look like ISO Standard Human Spaceships. But it is debatable that they will look as if designed by Cthulhu.


The sci-fi equivalent of a guy wearing a black hat and twirling his mustache. Or rather, one thousand razor-sharp metallic mustaches twirling all at once with the energy of a thousand suns glowing beneath its armored plates.

Or, if you prefer, the Badass Longcoat of spaceships.

Obviously if a spaceship is meant for atmospheric maneuvers too, it would make sense for it to be aerodynamic. This is not about that. Nor is it about dagger-shaped Star Destroyers. No. This is about spaceships with way more than any practical numbers of sharp edges.

This trope describes a spaceship that ranges from a dart-like multi-pronged fighter to a gigantic armored Kraken brimming with blades, spikes, antennae, metallic claws and for good measure, a huge glowing maw at the front like some hellspawned sea creature. Unfortunately, this trope has becoming close to generic, and a new design trick when coming up with such vessels is to make them asymmetrical and thus slightly less conventional.

At first, this kind of starship design was a radical departure from what at the time was standard in film and TV, but with advancing technology, especially computer generated imaging, TV and movie spaceships became increasingly complicated as programmers could animate smaller and smaller individual segments. This has caused an explosion in the number of sharp edges and non-functional moving parts assigned to antagonist spaceship designs to the point where most people in fiction powerful enough to threaten a planet are seen flying around in giant metal squids with a hundred vicious claws and blades on every tentacle.

On the inside, these ships are usually just your standard blue-lit control centers, huge docking bays, and very long metal corridors. But the sheer number of metallic blades and tentacles just screams "Look at me, I am so marvelously evil!"

As a general rule, the spaceships become more squid/octopus-like as they grow in size and in the number of spikes and blades they possess. Often they possess a Wave Motion Gun and for extra points, the ship has to radically and slowly transform its shape just to use it, giving the heroes enough time to disarm the superweapon.

While it makes sense for a small ship designed for atmospheric maneuvers to be aerodynamic and sleek, the larger "Kraken" varieties are almost always Awesome, but Impractical.

If a ship has two long, spear-like engine or weapons pods, it's technically not this trope. This is about when enemy spaceships go way overboard on the sharp edges to impractical levels. How does a pilot climb inside such a ship without tearing their pressure suit?

Compare Spikes of Villainy, the costume version of this trope.

Also compare Eldritch Starship, which can really look like anything, but utilizes mind-bending, conceptually alien principles in its design and may or may not look like a giant metallic sea urchin.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


...something astonishing and strange had happened to Volyova’s ship. The ship had remade itself into a festering gothic caricature of what a starship ought to look like... He had heard of ships being infected with the Melding Plague... but he had never heard of a ship becoming so thoroughly perverted as this one while still, so far as he could tell, being able to continue functioning as a ship.

—Clavain describing the Nostalgia For Infinity, Redemption Ark

The polar opposite of ISO Standard Human Spaceship, these are spacecraft, time machines, and/or interdimensional vehicles whose weirdness goes beyond Living Ship and possibly into Alien Geometries or a mobile version of the Eldritch Location.

The milder form of this usually begins with Bigger on the Inside or dimensionally transcendent in some way other than bog-standard Faster-Than-Light Travel, and it only grows weirder from that point on. May involve Body Horror or invoke elements of Cosmic Horror Story.

They might be constructed from unconventional materials, powered by unconventional power sources, be dimensionally transcendent, or have an Unusual User Interface. Their interiors may even look like they were designed by M. C. Escher. There's no guarantee that the crew or the ship itself won't change its interiors (or even its exterior) from time to time. Frequently they are a Genius Loci or function as a Setting as a Character. They are always surreal in some way that a typical spaceship in fiction just isn't.

The trope has three major variations (with a lot of overlap), but beyond these three archetypes there is much, much variety:

  • "Starfish" Spaceship - as in Starfish Alien, only for technology. These are spacecraft whose very conceptual design, let alone its performance, seems to defy the laws of physics both in-universe and in Real Life.

  • "Changeling" Spaceship - spacecraft that is physically possible, but transforms radically (not just extendable wings and the like). The interior, exterior, or both could transform.

  • "Lobster" Spaceship - spacecraft that is physically possible, and probably has engines, a bridge, etc., but much of the ship seems to be a Lovecraftian mass of antennae, spines, blades, metallic tentacles and other parts of uncertain function.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


Eldritch Starship: Oh, there are a few.

Take esseli starships, for example. Unlike the link!n-Rechesh (who would be another fine example), they know better than to try to grow fully organic starships, so from outside the hulls and drives look relatively normal. Then you go through the airlock, and it’s all flesh, all the time, with heart-valve doors, neuron-cluster control interfaces, food-secreting glands, recycling intestines, and suspicious organic gurgles everywhere. Mining ships have refinery stomachs and tentacles.

Múrast starships are carved out of ice bodies, with the necessary technology fitted within, and then refrozen. Which is all very sensible when you consider their favored environment, but doesn’t explain why they always carve them into baroque cathedral-like structures rather than anything more utilitarian.

And then there are the seb!nt!at, who as creatures of nuclear forces that dwell deep within stars, do not build their starships out of matter in any conventional sense.

Starfish Aliens build Starfish Starships, basically, just as far as physics will allow.

The tortured structures built by rogue mining drones and other wild mechanicals are about as Gigeresque as it gets, though.

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