Journal of the Emerald Specter 95: Starship Design

This seems like a weird title, right? A topic that one wouldn’t necessarily see in a column about geeky stuff… right?

Wrong. Starships and their designs are as geeky as all get out and I’m going to say that there is probably going to be more images than any other column on the site, so sorry about the bandwidth usage on this one.

I didn’t want to make a brand new header for this one, so I’m tossing it under the Emerald Specter banner.

Starship design is a thing that has been around as long as the idea of starships has, and science fiction starship design is what I’ll be talking about (not the real space craft). The classic design of what people thought we’d get to space in looked a lot like the missiles we had been launching at each other on the Earth:

Your “rocket” is showing.

This is the “Buck Rogers” and corny B-movie science fiction space technology that people thought would take us to the stars. They had a weird failure to see some of the dangers that this type of vessel would pose but they also didn’t understand a lot about space at the time. Barbarella, for example, used liquids on a dark background as space and there is no liquid in space.

We did get better looking ships when Gene Roddenberry came onto the scene with the now infamous Star Trek. The Enterprise was a great design and an entire galaxy worth of ships came out of the design.

Looks pretty, but the bridge is an obvious target.

Another leap forward was made when George Lucas came out with everyone’s favorite Star Wars, changing up the starship looks from a template (like Star Trek) to just a free for all. The Millennium Falcon was the ship that everyone latched on to as a great look, and it is, but there are so many others that people tend to forget are great looking ships.

A small sampling of Star Wars ships.

There were X-Wings, TIE Fighters, Star Destroyers, Slave I, and a whole lot more. Each one unique, each one with a glorious look, and all of them fit together in the same universe because that’s just how things went.

Several other science fictions IPs have also got great ship designs and have taken those in their own directions. Babylon 5, Andromeda, Battlestar Galactica, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century are just a few of the options that popped up over the years. They each also had their own designs, flaws and successes alike.

Every single one of these has a good look for space and every single one of them has the same flaw (at least the larger, capital ships): they are laid out horizontally as if they were in constant gravity.

This brings me to the Expanse.

We understand a lot about space, though there is still tons more to learn. We understand how gravity in space actually works, and though the “artificial gravity” excuse works in the universes I’ve already listed, I’m old enough to appreciate the need to experience something a little more realistic.

I really wanted to call this column “How the Expanse Changed the Way Starships Are Designed” but went with a more generic title instead.

The Rocinante (originally the Tachi), is the perfect example of how starships would actually be laid out. Writers Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham wanted to have a more “hard sci fi” feel to the Expanse universe and making sure things worked the way they were supposed to was a start.Click the image to see it full size.

In the Expanse, all the ships are laid out like office buildings (tall) instead of like aircraft carriers (long). When you are under thrust you have gravity, thus you would need to be flying sideways if you were in the Enterprise, unlike the Rocinante that has decks designed for thrust gravity.

Does the Expanse take some liberties with some of the hard sci fi elements? Sure, like the Epstein Drive doesn’t exist but would need to in order for the story to be what it has to instead of a story about people constantly floating around looking for more fuel.

I’ve long tried to design a “cool” looking starship. I have made more than a few attempts at actually figuring out the ins and outs of accomplishing the milestone of having that “one awesome ship” that I can then design an entire fleet around. All of those attempts have been with the horizontal deck layout in mind.

Until now.

Some time ago, I came up with the concept of a “space submarine.” There is no wind resistance in space, so having all the winged looks, fancy domes, and swooping lines of most starship designs would be a waste of time and effort (considering how space is an extremely harsh place to operate in). So, I thought “why wouldn’t we just build a submarine in space and tool around in that?” I had the right idea, just not the right reasons.

When I ran this space submarine idea by a hard sci fi friend, they commented that the ship wouldn’t need to be aerodynamic in space. Well, sure, the space sub is aerodynamic to reduce drag in the water, but we also wouldn’t want to waste a lot of time making the thing look pretty because we need the utility to matter. Function over form, shall we say?

Then the Expanse hit the airwaves and I realized that there can be some extraneous elements on the ship itself but my biggest design flaw was the horizontal nature of the ship. Simple fix: all the decks now go from “port to starboard” rather than “bow to stern.” Throw some shielding elements on the outside (where the unique looks would start to come in), along with some weapons, and the space sub is now a space office tower that uses gravity realistically.

If you think about all the ships used on the Expanse TV show, every single one of them has this same basic layout. So, for example, the Donnager looks like it would be of the “horizontal deck” ilk but is actually just a much larger version of the Rocinante.

Click the image for a larger version, and the Tachi can also be seen in the pic.

The “top” of the Donnager isn’t the dorsal side not visible in that picture, it’s the tip of the ship launching the blue bolts. Everyone on board would have the tops of their heads facing the tip and that is how gravity would work without coming up with an “artificial gravity” excuse to make the pretty ship look the way you want it to… and if you look back up at the cutaway I posted, you’ll also notice the ships are modular!

I’m not saying that the other franchises are bad, I’m just saying that the way I’ll be designing starships from now on is more like the Expanse. I stopped reading way ahead on the books so I can experience the show (which is better than the source material) as the show is released.

There is another book series I read that utilizes realistic and hard sci fi elements into it: Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier. I would love to see this adapted to the screen but I’m guessing the sci fi is a little too hard in that one.

With this new design philosophy I’ve also started rejiggering an old project to utilize the new design process instead of trying to come up with reasons to use the horizontal layout. This has actually affected the “pre-space” history of the story a little, too, which is exciting. Hopefully I can have something written sooner rather than later.