Analysis

Five Illogical Design Choices in Spaceships

Most science fiction authors do not have the credentials to actually design a spaceship. Even authors of hard scifi have to handwave a few things that our current technology has no answer for. Instead of striving pointlessly for exact realism, we usually design our ships based on what role they play in the story. The danger is getting carried away, creating a design that does what the plot requires but sacrifices all reason in the process. Avoid sabotaging your ships with egregious problems like these.

1. Exceptionally Vulnerable Weapon Systems: Star Trek

voydv

For a show about peaceful explorers, Star Trek has a lot of space battles. That’s fine, because even the benevolent Federation’s vessels are armed to the teeth. They’ve got phasers and photon torpedoes aplenty, until suddenly they get hit in something called the “weapons array,” and then they’re out for the count.

The term “weapons array” first started popping up in The Next Generation as a catchall term for the ship’s weapons. The name was misleading because it implied that the weapons were all in one place when they were actually spread out, but no harm done. Not until Voyager, anyway.

In Voyager, a ship could be hit in the weapons array. When this happens, every weapon goes offline. How does that work? If you look at the diagram above, Voyager has four phasers just on the top of the ship.* It has even more underneath, plus four photon-torpedo launchers. What could an enemy possibly hit that would take all of them out simultaneously?

The most generous interpretation would be that the bad guys are knocking out power to the weapons and not the weapons themselves. But in episodes where this happens, Voyager rarely loses power. Instead, it’s like the hostile aliens have reached out and flipped a switch. Do all the weapons run through the same junction box?

Of course, the real reason this happens is that the writers got lazy. They wanted space battles to end at a certain point in the episode, so they invented an easy way for Voyager to be taken out of the fight. Nevermind that it makes the Voyager seem like it was designed by someone who’d only heard of spaceships by rough description.

2. Fighters That Do Nothing: Battlestar Galactica

Bsg-viper

The 2004 Battlestar Galactica (BSG) series features some of the most practical spacecraft on television. Galactica has a secure CIC instead of a bridge sitting at the surface of the ship for all to see, and its weapons can’t be easily disabled by hitting one fuse box. So what could the show have done to end up on this list?

The problem is with Galactica’s iconic Vipers. Put simply, they do nothing and are a waste of space. Despite how awesome it is to watch them locked in combat with Cylon Raiders, Galactica’s Vipers have never done serious damage to a Cylon Basestar. They can’t, because the Basestars’ armor is too thick. At the same time, after the first or second episode, the Cylon Raiders stopped carrying the missiles that made them a potential threat to Galactica. Every time humans and Cylons clash, the engagement is decided by the capital ships. Galactica is even really good at shooting down Raiders, and often it has to delay firing off its flak rounds because there are friendly Vipers in the way. Just imagine how powerful Galactica would be if there were guns where the Viper pods are.

Vipers are quite good at protecting unarmored civilian ships, which Raiders can damage, but that can’t be what they were designed for. Galactica is a ship of the line if ever there was one, meant to stand in pitched battle with the enemy. At most, it might have a few fast interceptors for utility, nothing like the massive squadrons we see in the show.

This problem arises from a misunderstanding of the dynamics BSG is based on: naval engagements of the WWII Pacific Theater. Those fleet actions included both small airplanes and massive capital ships, a style BSG dearly wishes to emulate. What BSG misses is the reason those planes were there: to sink enemy ships. Torpedo bombers could destroy or seriously damage a ship, and so air superiority fighters were necessary, both to destroy enemy bombers and to protect friendly ones. BSG is missing the bombers.

At first, it was possible Galactica just didn’t have any bombers, but then Pegasus showed up with its modern complement of fighters and still not a bomber to be seen. They could have even strapped some missiles to a Viper, as it was common in WWII for the same plane to fill both bomber and fighter roles.

3. Hyperdrives on Short Range Fighters: Star Wars

Hyperdrive must be in there somewhere. Hyperdrive must be in there somewhere.

This is just not a good post for fighter craft. When designing a ship, especially a spaceship, mass is the main limiting factor. Every feature and system you add increases the ship’s mass, decreasing its acceleration and maneuverability.

Any feature you add to a fighter should make it better at fighting. Yet for some reason, the Rebels in Star Wars strap hyperdrives to their single pilot ships. The Imperials, on the other hand, do not. That means, kilogram for kilogram, Imperial fighters are getting more bang for their space buck than the Rebels. I don’t know how much a hyperdrive weighs, but it can’t be light.

What reason would the Rebels have for equipping their fighters with a hyperdrive? Escape wouldn’t be practical unless they were making a really short jump. Pilots can only stay in a stationary sitting position for so long, and that’s assuming the flight suit takes care of their bathroom needs.* For the same reason, single-pilot starfighters wouldn’t work for long patrols, even with a hyperdrive.

In both situations, it would be better to use a cheap freighter to ferry the fighters through hyperspace. According to soft-canon sources, all you need is a few hooks on the freighters’ exterior to secure the fighters, no docking bay required. That way, when the Rebel starfighters face their Imperial counterparts, they won’t be at an inherent disadvantage.   

4. Prisons Without Doors: Star Trek

Danar_tests_force_field

In the enlightened Federation, prisons cells look quite different than they do today. Sure, prisoners are still housed in small rooms with few amenities, but this time they are kept in by a high-tech force field rather than anything so outdated as a door.

This has two immediate effects. One, it means the prisoner has no privacy from the guard outside the forcefield because it’s transparent. Unless there’s a separate room for the toilet that they never show us, that’s gonna get awkward fast. Two, it means that any time the ship’s power goes out, the force field drops and the prisoners may frolic as they choose.   

If you’ve ever watched Star Trek, you know the power fails a lot. Why the brig* doesn’t have a redundant power system, I have no idea. But whenever you see an episode of Star Trek focusing on a dangerous prisoner in the brig, you can be sure that at some point the warp core will hiccup and down the force field will go.

Oh, and in case that isn’t enough, force fields are also very vulnerable to tampering. More than one episode has shown us that touching a live wire to a force field will short the whole thing out. These live wires are a lot easier to find inside a holding cell than you might imagine.

No one in their right mind would design a jail this way. The only reason Star Trek does it, as far as I can tell, is to facilitate dramatic, face-to-face confrontations between the protagonists and their prisoners. Star Trek Into Darkness actually had a better solution for that: just make the cell doors clear. It’s the future, and they can do amazing things with transparent aluminum.

5. Inadequately Shielded Weak Points: Star Wars

ds16

We all know the story of the Death Star, that mighty battle station brought low by a single, unforeseen weakness. Destroyed by a single-pilot starfighter, there are few stories that better embody the underdog victory. Lucky for the Rebels, no one spotted the exhaust port in question in time to do anything about it.

Except someone must have spotted the flaw because the shaft is ray shielded. Ray shields, for anyone not up on their Star Wars terminology, protect against laser-type weaponry, which is why Luke had to use a proton torpedo. Ray shielding isn’t universal on the Death Star because the X-Wings’ lasers destroy tower and surface guns without any problem.

So, why ray shield a small exhaust port? Most likely, an engineer spotted the flaw, realized the danger it posed, and then phoned in a solution. “Ah, just put a ray shield over it. No way anyone can get a proton torpedo in there, even with a targeting computer.” I would really hate to be that engineer after the events of A New Hope.

What’s more, during the battle, one of Tarkin’s aides even mentions that the Rebels’ attack has a chance to succeed. Tarkin doesn’t want to evacuate, fine, that makes sense. But was there really nothing else for them to launch in defense of the most expensive weapon ever created? The Death Star is the size of a small moon, so it must have a few more TIEs beyond the few dozen that we saw launched in the film.


A clever reader will note that all of these franchises are very popular despite flaws in ship design.* Regardless, they were good or lucky enough to overcome their flaws and achieve popularity. Is that something you want to gamble on with your own stories? It’s better to address any flaws ahead of time, so your story is the best it can possibly be. Otherwise, you know nerds are gonna pick it apart. That’s what we do. 

P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.

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Comments

  1. Paul

    Dorkly tackled the Death Star thing in an amusing and interesting way

    http://www.dorkly.com/post/75953/the-death-star-architect-speaks-out

    • Hunter-Wolf

      Hahaha, that was actually very amusing, and it actually makes perfect sense as well, the plan in the movie would have never worked if Luke wasn’t there.

  2. Chris Sham

    Does interstellar travel in Star Wars really take more than 12 hours? Luke got from Hoth to Dagobah without trouble, and then from there to Bespin, all without any apparent need to refuel. Obiwan spent half of Episode II playing detective in a single-seat craft, hopping from world to world. Starkiller Base was reached by hyperdriven (hyperdrived? hyperdrove?) fighters.

    The problem is not the X-Wing design. It fits logically and practically into a setting that has a childishly poor sense of galactic scale.

    But there’s a nice overlap too between points #2 and #3. X-Wings DO carry torpedoes and are useful against capital ships. So the ability to jump them out to meet attacking capital ships, instead of waiting for the capitals to close to short range, seems like a handy ability.

    Interceptors, as a sub-type of fighter, have also historically traded a lot for more engine mass, because catching attackers further from their target gives much better odds of being able to shoot them down in time. Perhaps the TIEs defending the Death Star might have been more successful if they could have jumped right into orbit of Yavin IV and fired on the X- and Y-Wings as they rose from the surface. Or if they’d been able to rush to a more open space, halfway between the two bases, where being nimble counts more, instead of letting the attackers get within the cover of the trench.

    The history of real combat aircraft suggests there is no absolute answer to that question. Whenever one side decides to make any trade-off between performance traits, the other side is likely to redesign their own fighters to take advantage of whatever trait has been diminished. But that means they’re making a new trade-off of their own, inviting the first side to make yet another redesign, etc. It’s a constant contest.

  3. Adam Reynolds

    On the issue of Star Trek ship durability, this is actually quite consistent with what happens in real navies when they are at peace. The US Navy stopped armoring its warships in the 1980s, until the British experience in the Falklands and the attack on the USS Stark reminded them why it was used in the first place. The Arleigh Burke class destroyer was much more heavily armored than its predecessors, which is what led to the USS Cole surviving the 2001 suicide bombing. Which also fits what happens with the Defiant in Star Trek.

    Though in general, modern warships are far more fragile than their predecessors from World War two. The problem is that modern weapons are too accurate for armor to have much of a significant impact. And hitting the right spot on a modern destroyer might not only defeat their ability to launch weapons, but could potentially detonate them. Which is why modern warships use offense as defense. The defensive radar system on modern US warships is called AEGIS for a reason, it serves as the ship’s shields.

    Though despite all of the above, I would agree that Star Trek takes things too far in that direction. American warships have two sets of missiles, on the rear and front of the ship respective, so that if one is damaged, the other survives. You would have to do a great deal of damage to the ship in order to completely prevent it from firing, unlike in Star Trek. While things like radar are still extremely vulnerable, there are alternatives, like firing missiles blindly and letting another ship’s radar guide them.

    I also can’t possibly even begin to justify force fields in Star Trek. Though there actually is a deeper problem here, and it is likely at least partially related to that of vulnerable ship design. One major problem in Star Trek is that they seem completely unable to use low technology solutions to problems. If someone in Star Trek wanted to develop a firearm, it would feature some exotic high technology solution, like using replicated ammunition or a transporter to fire the weapon(this was actually seen) rather than a conventional projectile fired by gunpowder and loaded by a magazine. In reality, weapons developed a century ago are still perfectly adequate. Slightly updated versions of the M1911(first created in that year) are still extremely popular overall, with updated versions still occasionally carried by American soldiers or police officers. This is not to say that phasers are even remotely inferior to firearms overall, except in ergonomics, but it serves as a useful illustration of the problem with technology in Star Trek.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    On the issue of Star Wars vessels, hyperdrives are justified by the fact that the Rebel Alliance is fighting a guerrilla war. In that context, the ability to engage and disengage strategically is worth whatever tactical cost it gives. As we see at Endor, hyperdrives also allow the Rebel fleet to jump ready to fight. Had the Empire been on the offensive, they would have had to launch fighters after dropping from hyperspace.

    There is also the fact that the energy needed for that hyperdrive can also be used in other systems on the ship, like the sublight engines. So you are making up for the greater mass with more engine power, in a similar fashion to most American fighters in WW2. This is seen with the significantly larger visible engines on X-wings or Y-wings than on TIE fighters. Though TIEs are still faster and vastly more maneuverable overall.

    As for your freighter idea, what happens if a Star Destroyer suddenly appears? It would mean that your entire fighter force is obliterated. While if they have hyperdrives of their own, they are free to disengage at will, which is critically important when you are utterly outnumbered. There is also the similar hyperspace ring used in the prequels. But that has an even worse flaw, that an enterprising enemy can rather easily destroy your hyperspace rings and strand you, as they have even less defenses than a freighter. They are most effective if used for a one way trip, rather than needing them to get back out.

    Another factor is that the Rebel Alliance seems to have vastly superior pilots than the Empire overall, due to the fact that nearly every Rebel pilot is a combat veteran, while the overwhelming majority of Imperial pilots have never been in real combat. This is especially seen in the Battle of Endor, in which Rebel pilots gain and maintain fighter superiority throughout the engagement. The Empire is never able to prevent them from carrying out their objectives, while Imperial fighters do no appreciable damage to the Rebel fleet.

    As for the Death Star exhaust port, I have two related theories. The first is the technical one, based on the limitations of SW shielding technology. SW shields, most notably show with the Gungan shields in The Phantom Menace, are permeable under certain circumstances. This is also why the Empire uses walkers on Hoth without speeders of their own, as only the walkers could physically cross through the shield. In both of those cases, the shield is permeable because it is touching the ground, and if it were not permeable at that point it would overload by burning the ground, objects pass through by fooling the system into treating them as part of the ground, which is why they have to move so slowly. Droidikas also have this flaw as well, in which they can poke their own blasters through their shield at low speed, but enterprising clones or Jedi can do the same in reverse.

    Ray shields also are capable of stopping physical objects, given that they are used in Revenge of the Sith to trap Obi-Wan and Anakin. So my theory is this the ray shield was only vulnerable at a specific low angle, necessitated by the fact that it is an exhaust port. Because that permeability issue goes in both directions, if exhaust can come out, torpedoes can go in. Notice that Luke’s torpedoes make a sharp 90 degree turn, pulling tens of thousands of G’s in the process. If it were possible to fire from a less extreme angle, they would have presumably done so, as it would have made a hit vastly easier.

    Also, the Death Star has more than one shield. The first outer shield was what the Rebel fighters initially flew through in a similar fashion to passing through the Gungan shield. This was the one in which they referred to “passing through the magnetic field” and putting their deflectors to “double front”. Immediately after this, they also mention accelerating to attack speed. To me, this indicates that they slowed down to pass through that first shield, pushing through it in a similar fashion to the Trade Federation’s battle droids. This was the lack of a “tighter defense” that Dodonna mentioned during the briefing, due to the perceived lack of threat that starfighters provided. It is also lilely that this similar weakness also applies to other SW shields, which justifies why fighters can be effective against capital ships in general. Though it is somewhat more complicated that the simple weakness of the Death Star.

    The second issue is political. What is interesting is that R2 and the Rebel technicians discovered the flaw almost immediately. What is also interesting is that Vader seemed to suspect that they would, hence his desire to recover the plans and his immediate orders to launch fighters, even flying out to cover the exhaust port himself. The Imperial officer that advised Tarkin on the threat only did so after Vader launched, presumably noticing the connection and taking a closer look at the exhaust port.

    Perhaps the flaw was intentional, in the event that Tarkin decided to become too uppity for the Emperor. Because of the bizarre location that was extremely difficult for any pilot without Force powers, it as such that Vader was one of the only people who could possibly hit the target. Notice Vader’s amused arrogance during the briefing sequence, about the superiority of the Force to the Death Star. Officers like Motti believed the Death Star was powerful enough to challenge the Emperor, which is why Vader found his lack of faith disturbing. He meant faith in the Emperor as much as faith in the Force. Also notice that the Emperor decided to take command of the second Death Star himself, such that no one else could possibly use it to threaten him. The Emperor wasn’t quite as powerful as he appeared.

  5. Frauke

    In defense of the Star Trek brig, my theory is that whoever designed it was probably a big fan of “Support your local Sheriff”

    • GeniusLemur

      Too bad “your local sheriff” is Worf.
      *Cue montage of Worf getting swatted aside by the threat of the week from 87 different episodes.*

  6. Tyson Adams

    I remember reading a canonical Star Wars expanded universe novel about Luke travelling around looking for apprentices. In that his X-Wing was modified for hyperspace travel, which implied most of them couldn’t jump. So it could be that the writers aren’t consistent with how X-Wings are built.

    Anyone read more of the novels and other Star Wars universe stuff? Because the schematics show a hyperdrive and week’s worth of life support….. but no rational method of pitch and rotation control, so physics doesn’t have to be obeyed.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      What did he do when he found an apprentice, if he was in a single seat fighter? Get real cuddly on the ride back?

      • Adam Reynolds

        That was the old Star Wars EU for you. Luke always used an X-wing because he had in the movies, regardless of whether it made sense in the context of the story.

        These were the same stories that featured: lizards that could block the Force, superweapons R US, Imperial officers that were sufficiently stupid one wonders how they ever gained command of star destroyers, even Palpatine’s clone coming back. It all culminated in an extra-galactic invasion of the Star Wars galaxy by aliens that existed outside of the Force, which then led to a New Empire forming and wiping out the Jedi again.

        The old EU was mostly awful. Though there were a few stories that were enjoyable, I can’t say I am sad to see it go in favor of the new movies. Whatever their flaws, they can’t be as bad as that crap. The underlying problem is that it was authors trying to both one up each other and trying to fit their pet ideas into canon, regardless of how well or badly it fit. Notable examples of the latter included a droid rebellion on the Second Death Star and Mandalorian(Boba Fett’s group) superiority to Jedi. When you are writing in someone else’ universe, you have to fit your stories to the existing ideas, you can’t insert your own regardless of how well they fit.

        • Jesse

          Didn’t Dark Sabre have a weird interdimentional being/monster for Luke to fight?

          #1 sin of the EU was turning Chewbacca into a full time babysitter who never did anything.

  7. Hunter-Wolf

    You forgot a sixth big flaw, as a Geth once said “windows on a spaceship are a structural weakness” (Geth are a sentient-collective race of robots from the video game Mass Effect in case you don’t know).

    All Geth ships and space-stations in the game has no windows whatsoever, so when a Geth joins your team as soon as he sees the windows on your ship he comments saying how windows are a structural weakness, and he actually has a point, the longer i thought about it the more it made sense, space battles actually happen across hundreds if not thousands of kilometers in space, a window will not have any function in terms of seeing your enemy.

    You need hi-tech scopes and other forms of detection (thermal, sonar, .. etc etc) to actually detect and see your enemies in space, the only purpose a window serves is looking at pretty stars, which compared to the negative effect it has on the structural integrity of the ship isn’t really worth the risk (you can just put a screen that looks like a window from the inside if the windowless spaces might have a negative psychological effect on the crew), and it is a fact that any part of the ship with a windows will have much less armor plating than the other parts around it, even if there are shutters on the window, it can’t be as thick as the typical wall of the ship, which also results in a lot of cases of decompression and crew members getting sucked into space due to having windows on the ship, totally not worth it.

    So i grew to actually respect any spaceship design that doesn’t have any windows on it, the Geth were right!

    • NelC

      Real-world engineers are reluctant to put windows in the ISS, for example. Besides the Cupola module, which can be sealed off from the rest of the station if necessary, I think there’s just one window in the whole station. And that window and the Cupola’s windows all have metal covers for when the windows aren’t being used.

    • Unorthodox Platypus

      Precisely.

      I’ve actually been pointing this out for years. The best bet for any spaceship is to have a swarm of camera drones with it that have the capacity to repair themselves, along with various sensors mounted across the entirety of the ship’s hull.

      A window is never going to be as strong as a hull, no matter what it’s made of. Games like Star Citizen wave this away with ridiculous notions like transparentanium, which can be seen through without sacrificing hull strength. Even if such a material were to exist, you’re still pointing out a vulnerable area of your ship to your foes. You may as well just build your entire ship out of transparentanium just to confuse them.

      Furthermore, if you’re a small, simple-minded spod sitting in a seat in an archaic jet fighter spaceship; using your cute, little window to navigate? Then a variant of paintballs become the ultimate weapon in space. If you’re able to splatter something over their windscreen that has the consistency of glue and blocks their vision? You’ve won. Paintballs win everything! Our faction of the human race goes extinct because we’re using windows and our enemies aren’t, and they’re using paintball weaponry to completely disable us. Woo, go us!

      Spaceship windows are almost a familiarity fetish that only exist to please ‘member-berry munchin’ old men who can’t let go of the original Star Wars. Even retro sci-fi was better about not making everything about old jet fighters magically being in space because of woowooium, or whatever other ridiculous thing they’ll come up with.

      It annoys me because I’M an old man. I just have more imagination than most, still, it appears. And that’s incredibly depressing to me. I want the future to look more like Outlaw Star rather than Star Wars. The sci-fi element of Star Wars isn’t very good. At all. In fact, it’s crap. Sorry, but I’m not sorry. Star Trek isn’t much better, either. Too many ‘member berries. Far too many.

      I look forward to sci-fi games which forego windows and actually give us something futuristic. Even Titanfall (and its brilliant sequel) understand why windows in mechs are just the most painfully just… dumb, really dumb idea that anyone could have come up with. Windows! Show the position of your pilot! Make your pilot vulnerable! Yes. That’s a good idea. Keep chomping on those ‘member berries, fellahs. I’d rather have a mech that’s all securely plated, with me safely huddled up inside. I want an armoured robocrab with one, giant glass eye that anyone could shoot my eyes out through. No thanks.

      Windows aren’t just a structural weakness, they aren’t even just stupid (as NelC pointed out with the ISS, which I would have too if they hadn’t). It’s a fetish. It’s a verisimilitude fetish. You just have these old men that can’t let go of their Star Wars ‘member berries.

      And that’s 90~ per cent the reason sci-fi as a genre has died.

      • Thorsten

        Hello Unorthodox Playtypus,

        in general youre right about the windows on spaceships, but without windows, Apollo 13 wouldn’t have made it back to earth because they had to do the burns by navigating with the stars. Thats where you need them, at least one or two windows should be on any spaceship, for the point that sensors are failing for whatever reason.

  8. Chris M

    The biggest flaw with nearly all sci-fi spacecraft are the engine layouts, whether it be in a film, TV show or game. We see them with big engines pushing backwards and none forward. Big engines pushing backwards are great for accelerating fast but what happens when you want to slow down quick? You need just has much thrust pushing forward if you want to decelerate at the same rate. We do hear these craft described as having manoeuvring thrusters but they are not very big in comparison to main engines.

    I know the sci-fi genre is free to exploit creative freedom but all good sci-fi has a grounding in real science and that adds to the believability. But ignoring the laws of motion is quite different. Before you say anything, I am aware FTL travel is breaking the laws of physics, but they do work around it a plausible manor, such as the warp drive.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      After thinking about this a lot, I think the big engines facing one direction makes the most sense. Cause it seems to me that it’s way more efficient to install one engine, then rotate the ship with maneuvering thrusters so the engine is pointed in the right direction, than to install engines pointed every direction you might want to move. That’s how Nasa has done it until now, anyway.

      • Chris M

        That’s called a the ‘turn and burn’ method is how spacecraft are controlled in real life and no doubt will be for many years to come. It’s not something you see in sci-fi though, or at least not very often. You see ships come to a quick stop without any hint of the large amount of thrust required to do so.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        For sure. The Expanse is the only popular sci-fi franchise I can think of that features the flip and burn.

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