Seeing them take off, as light as the atmosphere itself and able to traverse the galaxy quicker than light, we tell ourselves that Sci-Fi spaceships are much cooler than an Ariane rocket. But we also tell ourselves that there must be a reason why NASA hasn’t recreated the Millenium Falcon in order to scour space. After all, what is so realistic about these ships from far far away?  

Ships that are not compatible with our reality

On April 1961, while fiction had already sent a couple of ships to space, it is the Russian rocket Vostok that is used to make Man’s first foray into space. We are still very far from “Star Wars”, “2001: A Space Oddissey”, or even “Star Trek”.  Today, only a small part of the galaxy is accessible to us, no vessel can go faster than light, and space travel conditions are not as optimal as Matthew McConaughey’s in “Interstellar”.

When certain directors looked questions of science and technology, others just reinvented a cosmos where everything is possible, which in turn explained spaceships that defied reality. George Lucas, for example, did not hide the fact that he wanted “Star Wars” to have “spaceships you could get into and drive around as easily as cars.” , reports American site Mashable.

No room for the superfluous

For a spaceship to have good handling, it needs to be as light and uncluttered as possible. Why is “Star Trek”’s famous USS Enterprise’s cozy and fleece-lined interior too good to be true? Because of the carpets that cover its floors confirms astronautical systems engineer Bobak Ferdowsi to Mashable. “If you look at spacecraft today, there’s a bare bones aesthetic,” he adds. This has nothing to do with a lack of taste when it comes to decor, but with a simple physical phenomenon: the heavier an object, the more energy will need to be used to move it. Small spaces and bare floor are thus privileged.

Thus, “Interstellar”’s ship, judged by experts to be pretty realistic, still has a major flaw: that it offers big spaces to its crew. This is not credible in the universe of space travel, states Bruno Jardin in his interview with Konbini. “The rocket which sends the shuttle should not be as spacious. In any case, astronauts had to get into America’s first capsules with a shoe-horn.”, he says comparatively.

Neither can embellishments find their way to the cockpit. According to the Irano-American engineer, the dozen of computers and their incessant lights seen in some fictional ships are thus a “terrible choice”. So that the crew does not miss any important warnings, or so that they don’t lose track of their navigation signals, a system that completely shuts down any lights and leaves astronauts in the dark seems to be a much wiser option. “Which means that if a blinking light needs your attention, you see it instantly.”, analyses Bobak Ferdowsi.

About the colour of Captain Kirk’s vessel in “Star Trek”, it seems that the series’ director got it right, even if a ship that could turn from white to black would be best. The fact that it is of only one colour avoids a catastrophe if a part of the ship is exposed to more heat than the rest. Furthermore, the fact it is white allows it to avoid accumulating too much heat when it is near a star and can also use its reflective surface as a “natural” propulsion.

Mayday mayday! We have a problem!

Where is the engine in all this? That question is hotly debated, because just as Bobak Ferdowsi applauds the enginuity of the USS Enterprise’s system, the physics researcher Bruno Coutinho judges that “there is no way it can function”. The engine is in fact connected by tubes to the rest of the ship, which does protect the crew from “dilithium” crystal chambers, but would not withstand strong pressure according to Bruno Coutinho in an interview with the Huffpost.

If there was one ship that he would board to go to Jupiter, astrophysicist John McCarthy tells us that it would be Discovery One. The machine invented by Stanley Kubrick  possesses a nuclear engine placed at its rear, which helps it gain a “strong push” all the while protecting the crew from any radiation it emits. The researcher tells us that both commander and crew are indeed placed at the very front of the ship within a spherical space in order to “maximise pressurised volume all the while reducing weight”.

Kubrick’s ingenuity does not only come from the director’s genius, nor does Arthur C. Clarke’s, whose writing was the inspiration for “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Indeed, to write the scenario of the feature film, both men were helped by an old member of NASA, who advised them throughout the creation of their mythical spaceship.

As for the Tie Interceptor’s Ionic engine, it would certainly allow for “Star Wars”’s stormtroopers to be launched into space, it would not allow for space wandering, and even less so for their agile maneuvers. Because even if it does not consume a lot of fuel it only offers very weak acceleration, as Griffin Jourda, a self-proclaimed “history and space geek” underlines on the Q and A site Quora.  

Part ship, part asteroid

The Red Dwarf that gives the series its name could in itself inspire a new generation of spaceships. The ship from the 90s show is in fact partially built from an asteroid. This is a technique that Bobak Ferdowsi defends: “Asteroids are full of resources, you can mine them, they are very practical, and are already floating in space.

The European Space Agency (ESA) seems to also believe in the use of asteroids for space travel. They have been supporting the “Evolving Asteroid Ship” construction project, an evolving ship built inside an asteroid, since last April.

Underwater aesthetics

There is also an existing Sci-Fi tradition: transforming submarines into spaceships. For Bobak Ferdowsi, there is logic to that, and he praises examples like the aerodynamics of the Serenity in “Firefly”, or even the length of the Galactica’s frame which acts as shock absorption. According to the specialist, the best way to leave our atmosphere remains “to be as small as possible, to save on fuel. On the way in, you want to be big and wide as possible” — to increase drag and slow the ship down so that the crew are guaranteed a smooth landing.

And because fiction and Science Fiction makes everything possible – so too are these ships finally realistic. That is, if we consider that their heroes are able to create force fields, control gravity, go faster than light, travel through time down wormholes, or even rely on Wooky warriors that are as good a co-pilot as Chewbacca is!