Many popular fictional spaceship designs look sleek and powerful but that is not because they are well designed, their looks trigger memories of well known naval ship designs merged with jetfighter shapes and aspects. We have seen huge naval ships and fast and agile jetfighters for decades and learned to associate different impressions and adjectives with them. These were consciously or unconsciously taken over by writers and filmmakers and only superficially changed – often enough no thought at all has been put into what aspects of those Earth-bound designs would make sense in space. Comparing fictional ship design to existing space ship designs like the Space Shuttle or the ISS proves that point – on one side you find your Star Destroyers that are (pizza-piece-shaped) naval battleships in space with many tiny details that would actually make this model fail it’s role, on the other side you have rather characterless accumulations of tons, solar panels and steel beams.
Realistic space ships are not very exciting because we have no experiences that we can connect with them. They lack the power of massive steel bodies stomping through rough sea, bearing titanic cannons that produce noise like thunder and fire and smoke. We all know about the hardship of the life of a sailor, about crews of hundreds of men and woman that could easily die in remote cold waters. We know about the fierce aggressiveness of jetfighters, flying at Mach 3, about tense dogfights and the missiles and guns these death-from-above birds carry. The heroic image of the lone jet-fighter pilot, struggling with high Gees, anti-aircraft fire from the ground and enemy fighters in the air.
Nothing of that exists in space and civilian and military spaceships would actually be a rather dull and boring business.
Typical tropes or wrong design ideas for spaceships, that are actually obvious, but we often don’t see them without taking a moment to think about it:
Hundreds of Lights
Space is vast and dark. Except for the vicinity of a star it means – pitchblack, totally zapped out darkness. There also is nothing that is worse placing your headlights upon, nor would you have large enough headlights to light up stuff in the visual ranges. Passengers and crew would have no need to be able to see outside through windows. Except for a ship coasting through the rings of Saturn or coming very close to a planet, there is no breath-taking outside view for the passengers. Yet, most fictional space ship designs show myriads of tiny lights all over their hull, usually indicating windows, shafts, entry gates, openings of all sorts that allow the light from inside the hull to be seen from the outside. Rarely do these lights represent light sources that brighten up the hull surface for work drones or similar (and work drones would not need such lights for work). These tiny lights are actually used to express the immense size of the total ship as we know those lights from large cruise ships, each light from a single cabin, making up hundreds of lights. Thus, space ships must have large crews or many passengers aboard. More lights means more people means more impressive.
The problem is – space is not empty. Spaceships are being hit by micro meteorites constantly, the larger the surface, the more hits. At high speeds even dust grains are capable of penetrating metal hulls and damaging less resistant materials. Glass or plastic windows would have to be very thick and still prone to massive wear over time. The danger of such a window breaking and causing a leakage is in no comparison to the (pointless) luxury of having them at all. If the crew needs to have a look outside, it would use special telescopes that also deliver the required magnification. To inspect the hull from the outside would probably be done by sending out work drones that can send images into the ship. On luxury liners (a rather unealistic thing by itself) passengers would be shown high-definition images taken by outside cameras on screens, which could not be distinguished from real windows.
Allowing light to escape the hull could be a problem for military ships as this would make them an even easier target. In combat siuations ships could use blackout mode to avoid being detected or targeted, stopping it’s engines so no thrust torch and waste heat could be seen. Darkening thousands of windows would be rather impractical, switching off all interior lights would be dangerous and stupid. Even if the ship is under full acceleration and can be easily spotted by enemy vessels, it would not be smart to expose critical sections of the hull by marking them with lit up windows.
Many ships have rather simple shapes that follow streamlining and aerodynamic laws, which would not be applicable in space. Even when 90% of their surface is rather flat, the rest is made up by deep gorges, hundreds of towers, antennae and structures, creating endless additional surfaces. Such designs would be possible, but very impractical, expensive and dangerous. Every corner and every additional surface is prone to get hit by space debris, meteorites or enemy fire. Objects and systems protruding from the ship can be easily damaged or shot off. Again, these elements are actually only used to show the viewer the sheer size of the ship (like a vity view from the bird’s perspective). They have no real use or role, even weapon turrets would better be retractable under acceleration or non-combat situations. Space ship hulls would look more like classical submarines – one large flat surface on a more or less rounded shape. Bent surfaces are better at deflecting kinetic and direct energy, they make a sturdier infrastructure design and are cheaper to produce. Hard corners and angles are very problemativ for radar detection, are more expensive to build and are not as resilient against impact at high angles.
- Realistic ships will have only a few or no windows, ships would not look like a skyscraper at night.
- Realistic spaceship would avoid any interruption of a flawless smooth and plain surface at all costs. Objects that have to be used outside the hull, like heat dissipators or solar panels, would be able to be retreated into the hull under non-safe conditions.
- Realistic ships would aim for a single cylinder or pill shaped hull, if possible. An orb would be perfect but would provide more space than necessary and require huge engines to accelerate.