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Designing a Spaceship

Streamlined Spaceship Picture

Pleasure Cruise Excerpt by Jim Plaxco

As a part of the Windycon Science Fiction Convention I will be participating in the panel “Designing a Spaceship.” From the panel description:

“How does an artist go about designing a realistic looking spaceship? How do authors make their spacecraft believable?? As they discuss the process, a rocket scientist will comment on their progress and process.”

From the lineup I see that one of the other panelists will be accomplished artist and 2006 Hugo Nominee Stephan Martiniere. He certainly has some impressive work on display in his web site galleries. If you like SF art, I highly recommend a visit there. The other panelist are Jeffrey Lilly, Francisco Ruiz, and Donna Waltz.

This promises to be a very interesting topic because different artists and authors have portrayed spaceships in such vastly different ways over time. Even within a single series of stories we see fantastic variety. Take Star Wars for example – there is the moon mimicking Death Star (with no visible propulsion system); the highly compact TIE fighter (complete with hyperdrive, deflector shield generators, laser cannons, not to mention life support); to my personal favorite – the ultra-sleek and very shiny Nubian Cruiser which has not a greeble in sight. For more information about these ships, see the Wikipedia List of Star Wars capital ships.

It’s interesting to look back over the years and see how depictions of spaceships have changed. Way back in the 1930’s spacecraft were primarily blunt nose bullet shaped objects with rocket engines at the back. Perhaps the best example of this design is Zarkoff’s Rocket Ship seen in the Flash Gordon serial. This seems to have been the dominant form until after World War II. Perhaps influenced by the real world design of the German V2 rockets, spaceships took on a more streamlined shape in the late 1940’s and throughout the 1950’s. These spaceships were sleek, smooth surfaced affairs with large tail fins. Of these my favorite must be the Cosmostrator from the movie “First Spaceship on Venus.” Of course the premier artist from this time was Chesley Bonestell.

The late 60’s saw the arrival of what I will call the “segmented look”. Spaceships took on more of an industrial look with an abundance of girders and modules. A classic example of this type of spacecraft is the Discovery from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Another popular example would be the Nostromo from the movie “Alien.” Perhaps the move in this direction was influenced by the decidedly unaerodynamic shape of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module.

The onset of computer graphics has seen a competition of sorts in the addition of complexity and detail to the spaceships that artists are creating. Much of this additional detail comes in the form of greebles or nurnies. Greebles and nurnies are the small shapes applied to the exterior of a spacecraft to give it added detail or texture. The intent is to make the spaceship look more technologically complex. According to the Wiki page on greebles, the term greebles was first used by the Star Wars special effects crew.

Shining examples of the visually complex spacecraft created with 3D software are the creations of my friend David Robinson. David creates incredibly detailed spaceships using the boolean tools in the 3D graphics package Bryce. You might want to check David’s web site to see what I’m talking about. Be sure to check out the spaceship USS Shenandoah.

At some point though one needs to stop oohing and aahing over how cool a spaceship looks and ask the question “just how believable is this design?” Believability is a design detail that should not be overlooked as it is one element in the viewer’s perception of the picture in question. There are a couple things that have always bothered me about many of the fictional spaceships one sees on book covers and in movies. First is that apparently unlimited fuel and/or power is contained within amazingly small spacecraft – kind of like the old westerns where it seemed the revolvers had an unlimited supply of bullets. What makes this most bothersome is that many of these spaceships are apparently powered by traditional chemical propulsion systems. Physics is physics and fuel can only be compressed so much.

The second aspect that I find troublesome is what I’ll call design impracticality. Many depictions of spaceships can be likened to a Rube Goldberg device in that they are ridiculously complex or nonsensical. One look and you say to yourself “no rational engineer would build it like that.” But this aspect does not bother me nearly as much as the size issue since taking liberties with the design makes the spaceship more visually interesting. I poked around on the net for an example of a design that would lead one to ask the question “why” and came up with a piece of cover art for Science Fiction Monthly by Bruce Penningtion. I won’t go into the questions I have about this design but rather leave it up to you to ponder why a ship would be designed in this way.

If you’re attending the Windycon Science Fiction Convention and want to know more about spaceships, be sure to attend our panel.

About the Picture Pleasure Cruise
The picture shown at the start of the post is titled “Pleasure Cruise.” I created this piece about 5 years ago using a combination of Bryce and Adobe Photoshop. The original picture is on a much larger scale and features a blue giant star. I cropped the image back to just the spaceship and downsized that for posting here.

Ad Astra, Jim

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4 Responses to “Designing a Spaceship”

  1. Jeff Lilly says:

    Hi there,
    This is Jeff Lilly, one of the other panelists. I’m one of the writers working on the update / re-releases of the Terran Trade Authority Handbooks, made famous by original author Stewart Cowley and all of the fine SF cover artists of the day. I look forward to seeing everyone at Windycon!

  2. Plaxco says:

    Hi Jeff,

    It’s nice to hear from you. I hope that you bring along at least one copy of your book “Spacecraft 2100 to 2200 AD.” I think that the audience will find ours to be a very interesting panel.

    There was also a proposal for a panel on “Fantastic Landscapes” described as:
    “How does an artist accurately depict landscapes which are unknown, from alien planets to ringworlds to discworlds? What are some of the obvious and non-obvious traps?”

    While I signed up for this panel, unfortunately only two others did as well. By Windycon’s criteria this was not enough to make it into the final program.

    See you at Windycon.

    Jim

  3. Jeff Lilly says:

    I will indeed bring some books, including the TTA roleplaying game, hot off the presses. I’m doing a TTA panel on Sunday as well…
    This is going to be a cool panel. You can discuss starship design from an artistic / aesthetic POV and I can talk about it from a literary angle… and having a real live rocket scientist there to critique and blow holes in everything should make it livelier still…

  4. John says:

    Very good article. I love starships 🙂 and I have my own personal spaceships 🙂 I like very much the worlds made by Stephan Martiniere.