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.
The Expanse has only been on the air for a few seasons, but it has already gained a well-earned reputation for scientific realism - and that’s especially evident in the design of its central spaceship, the Rocinante. Like all ships in the franchise, the Roci makes use of an “Epstein drive,” a type of fusion drive that allows a craft to continuously accelerate until the halfway point of its journey, after which it flips around and begins to decelerate.
According to showrunner Naren Shankar, who earned a PhD in engineering at Cornell:
They fly with realistic physics. You see conservation of momentum, conservation of angular momentum: all of the things that would actually occur in space. You don’t see control surfaces and aerodynamic flight, because they’re all moving in a vacuum. You see realistic objects changing orientation with thrusters. Personally, I’m quite tired of seeing spaceships fly around like fighter planes in the Pacific in World War II.
In order to compensate for the inhuman g-force created by such travel, ships like the Rocinante are equipped with gel-filled “crash couches” that prevent occupants from being crushed. They also take “juice,” a drug cocktail that prevents their brains from stroking out under the pressure. The force brought on by the propulsion is also the only source of gravity available, with no artificial gravity machines to be found.
Other scientifically reasonable details scattered throughout the Roci include its vertical design, less-than-instantaneous communication systems, and even its weaponry. As Shankar puts it, “The spaceships on The Expanse shoot at each other by flinging pieces of metal really, really fast.”
The USCSS Nostromo from Alien avoids the scientifically implausible issue of light-speed travel by simply doing away with it. Passengers on board are instead placed into suspended animation for the duration of their journey through the stars. According to astrophysicist Dr. Gemma Lavender:
While designs have been produced by scientists for spacecraft that use fusion engines to reach about a fifth the speed of light, it would still take many decades or centuries to reach a destination. This long time in space would require the crew to enter suspended animation...
The inclusion of the MU/TH/UR 6000 artificial intelligence on board makes it feasible for the Nostromo to continue operating even when everyone on board is in hypersleep.
Beyond that, the ship is intentionally designed to be big and bulky due to its purpose as a commercial hauler. Its realistic roots in earthbound capitalism are further evidenced by the fact that several real-world corporations, like Lockheed Martin and Rolls-Royce, played a role in its construction.
Interstellar avoids the complications of its titular form of travel by having its ships move through wormholes. However, it makes up for that fiction by ensuring that the ships are as scientifically realistic as possible.
The best example of this is the Endurance, which features 12 modules that constantly spin around a central hub at a rate of 5.6 times per minute, perfectly reproducing Earth’s gravity for those on board.
Each of those modules serves a purpose related to long-term space exploration, including agriculture, resource recycling, and suspended animation. Even its windows are designed to make use of the light patterns available on a cosmic journey.
The Endurance has been criticized by some, however, for its lack of a feasible propulsion system. As astrostatistician Dr. Roberto Trotta writes:
For interplanetary space travel, you need a lot of fuel and so a large percentage of the spacecraft mass is fuel. You can’t imagine what sort of propulsion Endurance is using. It becomes obvious when they reach Saturn: how do they slow down? You need a big rocket in the front of your spacecraft, the same size as the one you used to accelerate up to speed to begin with. It’s as simple as that - otherwise you will just miss the planet and fly past. The little retro rockets we see in the film are much too small.
The Serenity has gained a reputation for being one of the most realistic starships in all of science fiction, and that’s due in large part to the many features it borrows from real aeronautic design, including control yokes, throttles, and oxygen masks.
However, those earthly origins have been extrapolated upon greatly, giving the Serenity some abilities that humanity has yet to achieve in the present day - like a ship that can hop from planet to planet with ease. As astrophysicist Dr. Gemma Lavender puts it:
Quite a scientifically feasible spaceship, Firefly’s Serenity features an aerodynamic design that’s useful for when it enters the atmospheres of planets - important in all spacecraft design. Also, the retro rockets it uses during landing employ a technique we’ve definitely seen before in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo designs, where they use a "flipping" action of their wings to increase drag, slowing themselves down in planetary atmospheres - this ensures that they do not crash to the ground.
Firefly-class ships get their name from the bright and enormous engine located at their rear, which would be necessary to propel craft like the Serenity through space - even if the actual method of propulsion is left a little ambiguous.
Each thruster can be operated independently, allowing for great maneuverability. Less feasible is the rotating ring around the ship’s midsection that is said to produce a gravity field and allow those inside to move around more freely.