There’s no shortage of visually impressive starcraft in the works of sci-fi, but the list of realistic spaceships in fiction is definitely lacking. Often, creative storytelling takes precedence and fictional spaceships are designed to be whatever the plot needs them to be, but every so often filmmakers consult the actual experts and put together something that shows what space travel might look like in the future.
Sadly, some of the most beloved craft in sci-fi, like the Millennium Falcon and the USS Enterprise, just don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. However, that just makes the limited set of starships that do pass the feasibility test all the more impressive.
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
The trip to Mars depicted in The Martian via the Hermes is a fairly accurate depiction of what humanity’s first visits to the red planet might actually look like. Everything, from the eight-month length of the journey to the fact that the Hermes stays in orbit while Mars Ascent Vehicles transport astronauts down to the surface, represents the often less-than-exciting reality of interplanetary travel. The rotation-induced gravity is also quite feasible.
Author Andy Weir, who wrote the novel that The Martian is based on, even went to the trouble of designing a realistic trajectory for the Hermes to follow on its way to Mars.
If anything, the Hermes can ironically be criticized for being a little too fancy, despite the mundane nature of its operation. As aerospace engineer Dr. Robert Zubrin argues:
It’s just that the ship was so big and elaborate and expensive-looking. Going to Mars is not about realizing the vision of a giant science-fiction spaceship, it is about sending a payload from Earth to Mars that is capable of supporting a small group of people, and then sending that or a comparable payload back. There’ll be ships like that some day, just like there were ocean liners a few hundred years after Columbus made his voyage. But if Columbus had waited for ocean liners, or even clipper ships, he never would have gone anywhere.
The Nauvoo - 'The Expanse'Photo: SyFy
The gargantuan spacecraft originally known as the Nauvoo serves many purposes throughout the plot of The Expanse - first as a ship intended to ferry Mormon missionaries into deep space, then as an asteroid-destroying projectile, and finally as an intergalactic way station. At every step along the way, it is depicted with impressive scientific accuracy.
This includes the Nauvoo’s construction, which takes place in orbit at Tycho Station, thus removing from the equation the significant difficulty of getting such a sizable ship off-planet.
Like many artificial habitats in the franchise, the craft induces artificial gravity via a constant rotation. It also makes use of The Expanse’s trademark Epstein engines, which allow for constant acceleration until the midpoint of a ship’s journey - made survivable by the inclusion of gel-filled crash couches and drug cocktails on board.
The show doesn’t cut corners when it comes to depicting just how much effort and energy would be required to get an object this size moving, as its launch sequence is displayed in painstaking detail over several minutes.
The attention to detail doesn’t stop there, as aiming the ship accurately would also represent a difficult task. As producer and co-author Daniel Abraham explains, however, this is solved by the use of stellar tugboats:
They're little tugboat drones that are repositioning the Nauvoo so that it is in the right orientation and the right distance from Tycho, so that when the engines come on it doesn't melt Tycho into slag. One of the points that tends to get overlooked with the Epstein drives is that all the drives that are pushing these ships are also weapons. The energy that's coming off the back of those could do a tremendous amount of damage. You need to be able to move things around locally so you don't hurt yourself.
- Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Despite hitting theaters way back in 1968 (before humanity had even reached the moon), 2001: A Space Odyssey is still renowned for how accurately it predicted the future of space travel, and there’s a reason for that. Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and his crew actually collaborated with NASA for the production, and even based the design of the Discovery One on concepts the space agency had drawn up in the early '60s for a potential trip to Mars.
As former chief of computational sciences at NASA, Peter Norvig put it:
[Kubrick] may not have gotten the time right, but I think that eventually it's roughly accurate in terms of the types of technologies and the science of how they were portrayed. [...] They paid attention to science, so there weren't explosions in space. They didn't cheat and have instantaneous transportation all the way across the solar system. It still took them a couple of years to get to Jupiter, and it took 10 minutes for transmissions to get back and forth.
Since the craft itself was mostly based on the extrapolation of early space technology, everything on board is also well within the realm of modern-day feasibility. As astrophysicist Dr. Gemma Lavender describes it:
This is one of the more accurate spacecraft in the movies. Its range was just interplanetary, and its crew compartment span to produce a centrifugal force to simulate the effects of gravity. Its engine is nuclear powered. The nuclear reactors heat gas and turn it into a plasma millions of degrees hot, and this plasma is funneled out through the exhaust by powerful magnets, propelling the ship forward. NASA is even developing a theoretical model of this kind of engine, called VASIMR, or Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
The film Silent Running may be unknown to all but the most dedicated of sci-fi fans, yet the spaceship at the center of its plot, the Valley Forge, has earned some serious accolades for its simplistic and realistic take on human life among the stars.
The ship itself, a mile-long and rather straightforward hunk of metal, stands out because of the bio-domes attached to it, in which the last remaining vestiges of Earth’s biodiversity exist. Not only is the maintaining of natural and agricultural ecosystems necessary for the future of long-term space travel, but it’s also something that is already happening today. As Dr. Gemma Lavender notes:
At the moment, we’re growing food on board the International Space Station with success, so this is definitely going to be feasible at some point in the future. The sheer size and scale of Valley Forge’s biodomes might take some time to work up to - and there’s the question of whether we’ll be able to sustain the greenery for such long periods of time - but it’s definitely something engineers working on future space technologies have their eye on.
Light sources and excess radiation remain an issue to growing cosmic crops, but they’re certainly not insurmountable. The Valley Forge might not get anywhere in any sort of a hurry, but it serves an important role no matter where it's located. In the future, it's likely that humanity will also come to rely on spacecraft meant for purposes other than travel.