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

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


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  1. Robert Grant


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

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

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Fail yourself.

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

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

      1. Andrew Moore

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

        1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

          Re: Fail yourself

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

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

        2. King Jack

          Galactic Up

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

      2. Willington

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

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

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

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

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

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

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

        If shape doesn't matter then why not?

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

      4. Sampler

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

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

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

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

      5. Vic

        Of gravity...

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


        Imagine trying to walk between two such regions...


        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

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

      6. CD001

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

      7. Marshalltown

        Different directions??

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

    2. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

      (Some) Starfleet ships are designed for atmospheric flight too

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

    3. TeeCee Gold badge

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

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

    4. PatientOne

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

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

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

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

    5. Alexander Rogge


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

  2. Adam T

    Giant sphere

    Surely the obvious choice.

    Just don't put the exhaust somewhere obvious.

    1. Ru

      Its a bit dull for Hollywood

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

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

      1. Eddie Edwards
        Thumb Up

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

      2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

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

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

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

        No Nuclear BBQ icon? Tsar Bomba, then.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge


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

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

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

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

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

        2. Peter Mc Aulay

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

    2. Willington

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

      1. NorthernSands


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

    3. LaeMing

      The big advantage of a sphere

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

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

    4. Robert E A Harvey


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

      And we are back to 2001.

    5. Marshalltown

      Been there

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

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

        I was going to trot that one out.

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

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

  3. Steven Jones


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

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

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

    1. TRT Silver badge

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

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

    2. NorthernSands

      I'm not so sure

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

    3. Captain Hogwash

      Sound effects

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

    4. Shakje

      That's the point that Krauss makes though

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

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

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

    5. TeeCee Gold badge

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

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

    6. DaddyHoggy

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

  4. Gavin McMenemy

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

    Other than that an interesting article.

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    1. Andrew Moore

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

      1. Ru

        I stand corrected!

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

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    >"streamlined space shuttle"

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

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stargate SG-1

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

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

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

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

    1. geekclick
      Thumb Up


      The franchise had some excellent ones.. Notably

      Daedalus class

      Ancient Warships

      Wraith Hiveships

      Asgard Beliskner and O'Neill class

      Replcator Ships

      and Last but not least Destiny from SGU

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

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

      1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

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

        1. geekclick

          Aww i liked SGU

          Not at first mind but it got better!

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

        2. Andrew Moore

          Don't forget the incredibly dire Stargate:Infinity

          1. BristolBachelor Gold badge

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

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

      2. techfreak
        Thumb Up

        Thanks for including these links

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

    2. alphaxion

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

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

  9. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

    Try this artist

    Chris Foss

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

    Perhaps this will give people a taste.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Peter Elson.

  10. Titus Aduxass

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

    I want a refund, dammit.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


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

      1. LaeMing

        OP was referring to the little probe thingies.


  11. Scott Broukell

    What ...

    no Fireball XL5

  12. TRT Silver badge

    The form...

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

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

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

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

    1. Eddie Edwards

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

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

    2. TRT Silver badge


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

    3. Richard Brown
      Thumb Up


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

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

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

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

  13. Wombling_Free

    Why do we keep trotting out 2001?

    The Discovery is the most realistic? PAH!

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

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

    'Icarus 2' from 'Sunshine'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Realistic in one sense

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

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

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

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

      1. Daniel 1

        Re: Realistic in one sense

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

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

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

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

    2. kiwi8mail

      Gravity in the podbay

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

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Windows? to look out of, of course

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

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

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

      i.e. after the movie.

    4. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      Re: The Discovery

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

  14. David Given

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

    Doesn't make it any less bad, though.

    1. Chris007

      bit harsh I think

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

    2. Eponymous Cowherd
      Thumb Up

      Yeah, but, its got.....

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

    3. Captain Hogwash

      Clone War?

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

    4. Captain TickTock

      It's not like..

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

      Secret of its success.

      1. Anonymous Coward

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

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

        1. Saucerhead Tharpe

          Yes I've seen the Hidden Fortress.

          It was OK

      2. JEDIDIAH

        Both Kurosawa knockoffs...

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

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

    5. Anonymous Coward

      No it's not, it's a

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

      But yeah, it's great.

  15. SkippyBing

    Wings and things

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

  16. Matthew 3

    "Engine on a stick"

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

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

    1. Chris Harrison


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

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

      1. TeeCee Gold badge

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

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

    2. Graham Marsden

      @Engine on a stick

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

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

  17. Vladimir Plouzhnikov


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

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      OK I correct myself...

      Let it be CoM instead of CoG.

    2. Robert E A Harvey

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

      That will be why voyager's nacelles fold up?

  18. AndrewG

    Form follows function

    Who's got time to prettify on that level?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  19. geekclick

    You missed out Stargate

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

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

  20. Roke
    Thumb Up

    More of these articles

    However - didnt Nostromo looked something like this:

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

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

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


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

    2. Eponymous Cowherd

      Tug on this....

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

  21. Mike Bell

    Alien Derelict

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

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

  22. Andrew Moore
    Thumb Up


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

    Including me I'm proud to say.

  23. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      yes it is..

      The picture at is the ore refinery attached to the Nostromo.

      See and for a model of the refinery with the Nostromo visible at the bottom left of the pic.

    2. Mako

      Yes, it is.

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

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

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

      1. majorursa
        Thumb Up


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

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

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

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

    4. TRT Silver badge

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

  24. David Webb

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

    1. TRT Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Ah yes...

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

      God, I loved that show.

  25. Tegne

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

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

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All this reminds me...

    ...of a fantastic joke from Futurama, when the ship is being dragged underwater by a giant fish and starts to creak under the pressure.

    Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Good Lord! That's over 5000 atmospheres of pressure!

    Fry: How many atmospheres can the ship withstand?

    Professor Hubert Farnsworth: Well, it's a spaceship, so I'd say anywhere between zero and one.

  27. TheOtherHobbbes

    The idea

    that spaceships are big objects made of metal - or its unobtanium meta-equivalent - has held film SF in a retro-conservative loop for the past few decades.

    Real spaceships, if they exist, are probably invisible and/or made of something so strange it has no familiar properties.

    Once you crack light speed, all bets are off with supporting technologies.

    Big metal boxes - or spheres, or blocky shapes with pointy aerials or glowing nacelles to indicate how technological they are - won't be on the menu.

    Alien technology probably won't even look like technology at all. You're more likely to experience it in totally unexpected ways than as something you can pick apart with a spanner.

    (And it won't have hexagonal corridors, either.)

    1. Asiren
      Paris Hilton

      Isn't there that saying...

      that magic is just technology you don't understand?

      <-- Because everything is magic.

    2. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      50% of the object you can see right now

      are tardises.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oooops one more

    The stunningly beautiful Cygnus from 'The Black Hole' - it's like the Crystal Palace has been fitted with a warp drive.

    And if I'm allowed just one more? The Orion Spaceplane from 2001 - so beautiful, so very nearly possible.

  29. Zmodem

    need something like the stealth bomber, which is what most aurora vids look like, ships need stream lining for a electro magnet force field, if you are picking up speed, the force field will just be a pocket of plasma from sun and all other gravitational fields and aero dynamics are needed if you want to fly through atmospheres

  30. Nextweek

    Safety first

    I've always thought that the Star trek design was a very safe design, the radiation risk means you want your engines away from the propulsion and living quarters.

  31. Pete 2 Silver badge

    General Products

    A #3 sounds like the best bet as a #4 hull could be a little difficult to park (but you wouldn't have to worry about dings and dents)

    1. Munchausen By Taxi

      Never buy dodgy hulls from a Puppeteer.

      If I remember rightly, they're not much use near neutron stars or anti-matter planets.

      1. Poor Coco

        The hull was indeed NFG around antimatter; but it was perfectly functional when it impacted the neutron star. Then same, however, could not be said for the contents, which crushed into neutronium at the nose. Also, the reason that craft crashed was the tidal effect from passing too close to the neutron star.

  32. Matthew 3

    Red Dwarf

    Surely the most accurate representation of all?

    No poncy aerodynamics and a plausible way of powering itself indefinitely. Plus it accurately portrays what we could expect from both feline evolution and human interaction.

  33. Sampler

    Red Dwarf or Battlestar Galatica - both unmentioned and I'd go for fairly realistic depictions of starcraft, though if you want balls to the wall crazy design you also have the cyclon base stars..

  34. Alastair Dodd 1

    hmm facts a bit wrong but entertaining read

    ‘engine on a stick’ approach was an influence on other TV sci-fi shows such as Blake’s 7 and (later) Firefly.

    In Firefly the main engine is the rear bulbous abdomen, the engines on a stick are maneuvering thrusters and rotatable so make perfect sense

  35. Plonkybear

    Have I overlooked the Red Dwarf......

    .....or have you?

  36. Chronos

    No mention...

    ...of the small rouge one? Fie! For shame! ;o)

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No mention of the C57-D from Forbidden Planet?

    Not just a flying saucer, but *gasp* one of ours.

    Also in the vein of that big bugger in Avatar is the Athena in Soderbergh's Solaris, which looks suspiciously like the offspring of the British Interplanetary Foundation's Daedalus probe and an Orion capsule, with the addition of an entire Maplins' catalogue of LEDs in the cockpit.

    1. E Haines

      Er, yes. The ship in Forbidden Planet was in fact mentioned.

  38. mark 63 Silver badge


    I'm upset to to see "serenity" lumped in with a load of unrealistic looking ships, including the enterprise , because:

    a) that ship, like some of the others , lands on planets with atmospheres, therefore may be due a little aerodynamics

    b) those engines arnt on sticks for the sake if it , its so they can be rotated to change direction

    c) It's the only TV series , and probly one of the only films to acknowledge the "no sound in space" law.

  39. Martin Howe

    Spherical space ships

    The Death Star. Just THE DEATH STAR. (OK it was an oblate spheroid, but close enough)

    The Borg cube is very efficient in terms of volume usage, but if the DS were that shape, the audience would likely not accept it as a spaceship. (Though given how weird most stuff in SW is, who knows?)

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    What about the vast variety of ships in the SG franchise?

  41. Ian Yates


    How have you not mentioned a design that (allegedly) NASA have expressed actual interest in producing:

    Can't find the relevant quote, but it was something to do with the design actually taking in to account the difference in how a spaceship would handle in and out of atmosphere.

  42. Jedit Silver badge

    Not enough love for Babylon 5

    Mentioning that the station itself was realistic because it revolved to generate gravity is not enough. The Starfury space fighter was also complimented by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab for being an absolutely spot on design for a small, manoeuvrable craft for use in zero gravity.

    1. Steven Roper
      Thumb Up

      About the Star Furies...

      I heard, back in the 90s, that JPL had actually asked JMS if they could use the Star Fury design as the basis of an actual orbital maneuvering unit prototype, and he told them, yes they could, but only on the proviso that they officially called it a Star Fury. I don't know if they ever went ahead with it or not, or even if it was just an urban myth, but I found it interesting at the time.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Also from Babylon 5 - the Shadows had nicely mad looking ships:

      Volrons has some interesting organic/sentient ships too.

      1. Jedit Silver badge

        Mad, yes ...

        ... but not exactly realistic.

        Interesting factoid: Foundation Imaging took the texture for the Shadow vessels from a dog's nose.

    3. Robert E A Harvey

      I had a lot of time for B5.

      It was written like a novel, with a start, a whole bunch of middles, and an end.

      The spaceships were variously feasible or deeply cool, and sometimes both.

      I just think they must have regretted the silly hairdos & cloak clad oddities by the end.

  43. Sgt_Oddball

    The oversized elephant in the room

    Has anyone thought of Red Dwarf yet? A behemoth of a ship, designed to never touch atmosphere, collect hydrogen from a frontal scoop and took so long to build in space that the exterior hull is a mass of different design styles and new ideas thought up while the ship was being built.

    It was also designed to consume astroids whole by attaching them to the exterior of the hull and have it be processed there.

    As for up or down, that all depends on what angle on the six sided ship you approach it from and is mearly a matter of perspective.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Well if we're gonna mention RD

      Then I HAVE to put forward Starbug - because it's cool, and silly, bllody indesctructable (how many times does it crash land?!) and gets improbably larger as the series' progress!

  44. TRT Silver badge

    Of course the greatest & best ship...

    would be able to alter its appearance in order to fit the mission profile. For example it could land in, ooh, let's say 1950s/60s London where it would assume the shape of, maybe, a Police Call Box. Problem is, the circuit that achieves this might well get stuck.

    1. Xenobyte

      Adapt its shape... Something like "Max" from Disney's "Flight of The Navigator"? - Whenever it had to go really fast it altered its shape to become much more streamlined.

  45. ph0b0s

    What should a sci-fi spaceship REALLY look like? Still waiting...

    So after reading 4 pages of sci-fi ship design history, the actual question that was asked in the headline hardly gets answered, except to say the ship for Avatar and 2001. Thanks for the time waste.

    1. LaeMing

      Just for those of us who can't handle open-ended questions without a temper tantrum:

      The answer to the article's title question is "Yes"



    2. Robert E A Harvey
      Thumb Up

      I'll give you an answer.

      Only one answer really. Anastasia, Dan Dare's private spaceyacht

  46. CD001

    Why limit yourself to film/tv?

  47. Qwelak

    Babylon 5

    As I recall the StarFurys from Babylon 5 were quoted by a NASA boffin as being pretty well as they may design a future starfighte. Having thrusters on the wing tips for maneuveriing and proper newtonian fligth machanics.

  48. Avatar of They
    Thumb Up


    I would have thought the fighters and cruisers of Babylon five would have been more realistic for what Earth will come up with, or the Stargate earth destroyer etc. Or those ships from space above and beyond. Lets be honest when we get round to making them, we will go for form over function and like ship design for the passed hundred years we will get large ugly looking rectangles that serve a purpose.

    Though for me the Avatar ship and the explorer vessel from B5 look the most realisic option for long range deep space missions, far more realistic that star trek etc.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Omega class destroyer, FTW!

  49. gjwolfswinkel


    There's some pretty wacky designs out there in, for example, Eve Online. Would be interesting to compare some of those to these movie ships too.

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Of course, all these designs are incredibly primitive ...

    A real "starship" should be a small blue wooden box. With a couple of clapperboard doors. That is also absolutely indestructible. Cast into existence by block transfer mathematics.

    That would be true sophistication.

  51. Dave 126 Silver badge

    @Ru & Roke re Nostromo, + JMC Red Dwarf

    The Reg have pictured the Nostromo correctly. Roke has linked an image to what the Nostromo was towing- i.e some sort of planet / refinery thing.

    and link at bottom of page for Chris Foss' version of the same events.

    And speaking of mining ships, JMC Mining Ship Red Dwarf, apparently some kind 'Hydrogen Funnel' design, hence its shape. No need for streamlining. Not sure why Lister has to paint it.

    -'STOP' icon, because there's no 'Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers'

    1. Sooty

      apparently some kind 'Hydrogen Funnel' design

      A bussard ramjet...

    2. Vic

      > Not sure why Lister has to paint it.

      Because he put hallucinogenic mushrooms in Rimmer's breakfast.


    3. LaeMing

      Lister has to paint it because

      he is being punished for infracting rule 5674.7b - no crewmember shall enter a zero-gravity area wearing a tennis skirt.

  52. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No need for aerodynamics?

    No need for aerodynamics in space? OK.

    But if solar sails work, and we're led to believe that they do, aren't aerodynamics to be replaced with solardynamics?

    Just a thought.

  53. TonkaToys

    No mention of Farscape then?

    Intelligent organisms as spacecraft.

  54. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Whoever designed Nero's ship for JJ Abrams "Star Trek" clearly took Douglas Adams maxim about the design of weapons to heart; It should have a right end, and a wrong end, and if it was pointed at you, you should be in no doubt as to which was which.

  55. Captain TickTock

    Silicon Graphics Workstation?

    Now there's a budget production

    Can't afford anything remotely new!

  56. Sean Baggaley 1

    Space may not *require* notions of "up" and "down"...

    ... but Homo Sapiens certainly does.

    This is basic cognitive science and psychology: humans evolved to walk on the crust of a planet. We haven't been brachiating for a very, very long time. This is bound to have an effect on how we design vehicles for any medium.

    Aliens would likely have followed a different evolutionary path, so that will have a huge bearing on how they design their own travelling machines.

    The TARDIS is a good example of the kind of lateral thinking you might see: why send the entire ship hurtling about the multiverse when you could achieve exactly the same results by keeping the ship tucked into a hidden dimension or 14, and move its cosmic user interface around the usual time-space frame of reference we're all familiar with instead?

    Why SF has become so fixated on unfeasibly large boxes farting about through "hyperspace" (or some effectively synonymous equivalent) is beyond me. Doctor Who is actually quite refreshing in that sense. An alien is as likely to appear in a child's bedroom cupboard as in a giant spaceship with gigawatts of flashing, blinking, lights.

    1. TRT Silver badge


      Children of the Dammed anyone?

    2. LaeMing

      I spent considerable time trying to work out a user-interface for a fictional spaceship for a space-born species that had no sense of up/down (or preference for left/right). With only the fore/aft reference frame left it was beyond me. I eventually had to reinstate up/down (in preference to reinstating a right/left bias) to get anything usable.

      Possibly a failure of immagination on my part. Suggestions welcome :-)

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Also ...

      Mummie Tardis has is a fully functional AI that isn't insane. She's fun, curious and adventurous. And as well as sometimes taking you places where you DO want to go, she sometimes has other ideas.

      Perfect starship. Perfect relationship.

    4. Hardcastle the ancient

      The only two space ships I ever wanted were Anastasia and the Tardis.

    5. Xenobyte

      As far as I know we've never seen the real TARDIS from the outside. We've only seen the part it has sticking into our dimension - which happens to look like a police call box...

    6. TRT Silver badge

      The "real" TARDIS

      In one episode the TARDIS returns to Gallifrey and appears in some sort of "TARDISpark" area. The non-chameleoned TARDIS machines nearby resembled large, grey office cupboards. In fact, knowing the BBC props department, they probably *were* large, grey office cupboards.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        Yes, like Sidrats (see The War Games). Tardis's are by default featureless grey boxes. And they are usually stored in a special area on Gallifrey to prevent them from causing pollution of the local Gallifreyan timeline.

    7. TRT Silver badge

      Ah yes. The pollution issue was of major concern for Gallifreyans. Unless you had a TARDOTA Priusdonian, of course.

      *gets anorak*

  57. Dave 126 Silver badge

    Starbug wasn't made of metal

    It was made of the "same plastic they make doll's heads from", on account of them always surviving plane crashes intact. (thus making the same point about editors of photojournalism as did season 5 of The Wire).

    One Iain M Banks novel (non Culture) features very long narrow ships, for use through wormholes.

    @ Captain TickTock: Why 'FAIL'? SGI are no longer synonymous with computer graphics as they once were, but there's no reason why their recent HPC boxes can't be used for rendering. However, I don;t think anyone uses Amiga VideoToasters any more (Terminator2, The Abyss, Babylon5)

  58. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What, no Captain Kremmen massive space cassette player?

    The post is required, and must contain letters.

    1. LaeMing

      I vaguely recall that.

      The landing vehicle was shaped like a cassette and launched from a bay on the top.

    2. Wombling_Free
      Thumb Up

      he had a spaceship?

      I was too busy staring at Carla....

  59. Barney Carroll

    Irrelevance of 'up' and aerodynamism

    I hope nobody calls me out for pedantry on a thread like this, but nearly every flying saucer I've ever seen in film has had to operate in atmosphere.

    As for up and down being irrelevant — as are left, right, back and forth, presumably? Again, I seem to remember relative space being incredibly important in pretty much every sci-fi film I've seen. People don't get into space and go "that X axis was really pissing me off!".

    1. LaeMing

      That vertical axis /was/ pissing me off (see an above post). And try as I might, I couldn't get rid of it. So your point more than stands.

  60. PeteT70


    There have been a few distictive ship designs I can remember not mentioned yet so what the hell...

    Gunstar - The last starfigher..

    Max or whatever you want to call it from flight of the navigator..

    Was battle beyond the stars before or after space raiders, cant remember off hand which one came first but both used the same ships.. both films probably equally as bad but hey ho..

    The ships from elite/frontier are fairly distinctive too..

    1. Medium Dave
      Thumb Up

      This thread is disturbingly E/E2F/FFE free

      Imperial Courier, FTW!


  61. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Starfuries FTW.

    I agree: The Starfury design is as hard sci-fi as it gets.

    I bet it could be built today, borrowing one thing or 234 from the Space Shuttle.

    It makes perfect sense, even to use the cockpit portion as an escape pod.

    But its surface controls would have to be borrowed from some other craft, like Helicopters, or more adequately, Harriers, because of the extra means to maneuver it.

    PS. The game Descent was truly 3D. You could move your ship in all 3 directions, and rotate in any axis. It was a nightmare to pilot it. Waterfalls within the game helped with the "up and down" concept a little, to avoid disorientation. I never used all buttons and sliders in my joystick, prior to that game. And they were not enough.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      3D control

      I found Descent really easy to control with keyboard + mouse. I also very quickly learned to turn auto-leveling off and that meant no disorientation.

  62. Asiren

    Flight of the Navigator?

    Didn't that ship look like a harmless bubble floating around, and then turn quite a menacing needle-like shape when it needed to go fast?

    Ships that change according to usage. Form fitting function, really.

  63. NogginTheNog

    Up and down in space

    I did have to laugh in Attack Of The Clones when Obi Wan referred to the star system containing the planet Kamino as being located "south of the Rishi Maze"!

    1. Hardcastle the ancient

      What, like doing the Kessel run in under 3 parsecs?

    2. Medium Dave

      No weirder than the Greenwich meridian defining East & West.

      You need *some* sort of reference frame. For our galaxy, "North" is at RA 12h 49m in Coma Berenices, according to the IAU...

    3. majorursa

      Not that strange really. There will be a need for a 3-dimensional grid and since there is no real center to the universe we probably will use Earth, or maybe our Galaxy's black hole as the center and two other galaxies to fix op the 'north' and 'west'. Position in space will probably be given in an angular notation (ascension and declination) + distance from 'center'.

      So 'south of' isn't really that weird.

  64. graeme leggett Silver badge

    Who did?

    those illustrations on 1970s sci-fi novels published by Panther and Sphere.

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge


      Chris Foss as mentioned above. Great artist though his genius paradoxically wasn't really in the spaceship design

  65. HMcG

    If anybody knows?

    "Geoffrey Landis is a scientist at the NASA John Glenn Research Center, where he works on Mars missions and on developing advanced concepts and technology for future space missions. Helpfully, he’s also a Nebula and Hugo award-winning sci-fi writer. If anyone knows about this stuff, he does:"

    The important point to take away from this is not that this guy does knows about it, but that currently nobody has the first clue about how to design an intergalactic spaceship. So as far as visual apperance goes, we don't have scooby. Streamlined design may or may not be important, for reasons we don't understand. Likewise 'up' and 'down'. So there is no point in pretending this guy, or anyone else, has a better idea what it should look like.

  66. Tempest8008

    Space 1999 anyone?

    The Eagle spacecraft seemed to me to be both functional and practical. I liked the exposed superstructure that allowed multiple add-on modules to be quickly bolted on. There was a central cargo hold, manoeuvring thrusters at each cardinal point and several different marques for different missions.

    In case you're looking for a pic:

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      One of the best

      (if not the best ) designs by Brian Johnson who was also responsible for the Nostromo and the Millennium Falcon. (I think those may have been mentioned.)

  67. Robert E A Harvey

    Does it matter?

    Once you reach the sophistication of 'The Culture' you can make your ships look like anything you want. I'd go for an LMS streamlined pacific and coaches.

    1. TRT Silver badge


      The explorers. A high-backed Wurlitzer pod.

  68. Nigel 11

    Starship design

    Sub-c starships that work will be the size of coke cans (or smaller), packed with virtual reality and (maybe) hardware for bootstrapping real reality from a comet after arrival. Note: one subjective year in VR equalling tens of thousands of real years is an advantage - the journey is fast enough not to get boring.

    A variant is dumb machinery that bootstraps a big computing substrate and interstellar comms upon arrival. Then you just beam your virtual self to another star system at the speed of light., while also going nowhere at all. You can build a galactic-scale civilisation this way. I like the idea that you press a "send" button and then have to look out of the (virtual) window to find out if you are the copy that stayed at home or the copy that travelled thousands of lightyears.

    Then there's the generation ship the size of a moon, but I have grave doubts that one can keep its inhabitants from destroying their ship in interstellar space, given that the journey will be hundreds of generations long. And if they can invent tech that will look after itself over millennia, they'll surely hit on the VR trick before building a generation ship?

    Super-c starships can be anything you care to imagine, because they're about as likely to exist as time machines (for much the same reasons).

    The best story about time travel (impossibility of) used the idea that the universe has to intervene actively to prevent causality violation and its own unravelling. One side in a war has worked this out, and tempts the other side to get itself destroyed by trying to build a time machine. Too late, they find out that the universe's idea of minimal local intervention is to make the sun explode prematurely. It's a big universe.

  69. Andy Enderby 1

    never in the movies .....

    but if it's a vast mothership you're after....... Ian M Banks Cullture, the GSV ships, and the one with the best name IIMHO - So Much For Subtlety

    1. Wombling_Free
      Thumb Up

      Not as good as...

      'No More Mr. Nice Guy'


      'Very Little Gravitas Indeed'


      'Eight Rounds Rapid'

      1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge


        "Very Little Gravitas Indeed" was my personal favourite just because it was a joke at the expense of a 'rival' civilisation that takes itself too seriously, so the Culture's ships decide to name themselves to take the piss.

      2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge



        Must be another Culture novel due soon, surely?

  70. SgRock

    Sci Fi Props Old School

    Greetings Regies:

    --When I was a lad, I suspended any disbelief months before a movie even came to town. I remember a Japanese Space Oater, The Mysterians, I think, where a man is a metalized rubber suit played a giant alien robot. I would watch and think "Gee, how can those terribly clever Japanese Boffins do this, it is completely believable. What genius."

    --A few years later I remember Harlan Ellison on the Tom Snyder Show, talking about Close Encounters and saying something like "Then a giant chandelier comes down and starts spitting out Pillsbury Dough Boys" What a hoot.

    Best Regards

    Clear Ether

    1. unitron

      The Mysterians?

      Was that the one with a bunch of guys in red spacesuits/uniforms and another bunch in the same thing, only yellow?

      Saw the preview at the theater but didn't get to go see it when it got to town.

  71. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I thought this question was answered by the BBC series "Space Odyssey - Voyage To The Planets" where the most realistic design for a spacecraft was used. For those that didn't see it, think 2001, but with a whopping big colision shield on the front instead of a ball.

    In fact the design was so spot on, that it was practically re-used again in the series "Defying Gravity"

    Suggest you torrent both if you never saw. I thought both were great series.

  72. KrisMac

    Future spacecraft (whether Earthborn or Alien) are unlikely to have ANY standard shape...

    As has been written about in numerous books, the most practical means of construction of a large star-faring vessel which does not bleed the home planet of scarce resources is to hook a few engines onto a hollowed out asteroid...

    ..end result is totally random configuration to account for the variability in shape of the original lump of rock... it could be anything from a flattened disk to an elongated peanut... pure spheres being unlikely unless the original rock was so massive that its internal gravity was strong enough to pull its sides in equally...

    ergo - discussion of 'design' is pointless until we get to the point of selecting a rock...

    1. TeeCee Gold badge

      Like Phage.

      Rocks are a phase you go through before you invent fields reliable and strong enough to render a hull redundant and build GSVs instead.

    2. Nigel 11
      Thumb Up

      Thistledown / Eon

      And then as your technology advances, you make the inside bigger than the outside. MUCH bigger.

      I wonder if Greg Bear got that idea from Dr. Who? It's like a Tardis, but ... bigger.

  73. Saucerhead Tharpe

    I once had to show Harlan Ellison around Glasgow

    He seemed amazed by a simple act of human kindness, like an optician (and a pricey high level one at the time) fixing his glasses, giving him spare screws and not charging him a penny

    His mate Norman Spinrad was slightly nicer, if more easily confused

  74. Eponymous Howard

    To long a thread to read all now...

    ....but it has been made clear that the coolest fuckin' alien ship ever, no exceptions, is the Shadow ship from Babylon 5, hasn't it?

    Just checking.

  75. Medium Dave
    Thumb Up


    ...a subject that allows El Reg Commentards to get their war on, but that doesn't involve Apple, MS or Linux. :D

  76. Rombizio
    Paris Hilton


    When you have enough resources and technology to create something like the Death Star, shape is irrelevant. Might be good to adhere to a few functional designs but honestly, it doesn't matter that much.

    And I don't care about this subject since no one will ever reach near-light traveling speed anytime soon. I am more interested in the Higgs Boson right now. Much more relevant and achievable.

    Paris: because for her shape is less important than speed...

  77. Andy Neale

    Best line of the piece...

    "..the Daleks went with a pleasingly retro saucer/conservatory hybrid..." *Splutters tea*

  78. Chris Beach


    I always thought that a space only fighter (i.e. just does dog fights in space) would be more spherical than any other shape. After all, just as 'up' is pretty irrelevant in space, so is 'forward'.

    You'd want an even 360deg propulsion, and weapon arcs, after all, why would you want to waste time doing a Immelmann to face the bad guy?

    Not sure how you'd control it though...wouldn't be a joystick for sure...

  79. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I can't believe...

    ...that Battle Beyond the Stars came up and no-one mentioned the fact that Nell, the hero-protagonist spaceship design, has breasts.

  80. Spoonsinger

    Wasp coloured spaceship on cover of

    IGB's "Clear Air Turbulence" album is the best designed craft.

  81. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    I hate* to be pedantic, however...

    "It seemed reasonable to Georges Méliès in 1902 that we could fire men to the Moon inside a huge artillery shell"

    Possibly, it seemed reasonable because Jules Verne had come up with the idea in 'From the Earth to the Moon' 37 years earlier?


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