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"UNEF's first starships had been possessed of a kind of spidery, delicate beauty. But with various technological developments, structural strength had become more important than conserving mass (one of the old ships would have folded up like an accordion if you'd tried a twenty-five-gee maneuver), and that was reflected in the design; stolid, heavy, functional-looking."
Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

Despite living in several unrelated continuities, it seems that human engineers in science fiction have managed to agree on two standards for spacecraft designs.

The first design, the Retro Rocket (often referred to as a “rocketship” and now a mostly Discredited Trope due to Zeerust) is (or was) a cigar-shaped needle with three or so large fins on the base. These are often either brightly coloured or chromed to make a Shiny-Looking Spaceships. This initial design is now usually found in parodies or homages to classic sci-fi.

The second design, mostly based on newer works and the “realistic” age of spaceflight, follows some simple rules:

  1. Human spacecraft should be grey or white. While some important parts may be coloured, the majority of the spacecraft should be the colour of unpainted metal.
    • Spacecraft in anime may be painted blue instead.
    • Or olive-drab if the creator's American.
  1. While not required, visibly being constructed from riveted metal plates is encouraged, as is Borg cube-like details called greebles or nurnies.
  2. Since Our Weapons Will Be Boxy in the Future, larger spaceships must be angular too; the standard human spaceship will be mostly rectangular with engines on one end and weapons on the other.
  3. Space Fighters and other small craft will be built around a cockpit and wings to look like airplanes, but may have some style.

While this is probably going to be Truth in Television for military spacecraft in the near-future (with the earliest favoring the tinkertoy/habitrail/industrial plumbing aesthetic of the International Space Station, just because of the limits of our launching methods-- cylindrical rocket sections bolted together in space), eventually it may become a relic of the near-present as space-based construction becomes easier. In space, there is no gravity or air resistance to design around, and due to the distances involved and other factors visual camouflage probably won't be much use either. Historically, armies put quite a bit of thought into looking good and only stopped when it became necessary to do so; given the chance, it's likely that looking grand will be back on the agenda. The engineers will probably hate it, but then again, they probably won't be controlling things. On the other hand, in this modern, cost-conscious world, the accountants might have a thing or two to say about wasting money on decor...to say nothing of what happens when news gets back to the Federation Parliament...will the voters ever have a fit when they hear about the gobs of cash being spent to paint their ships in gold for no reason other than "it looks pretty."

Existing spacecraft have so far had a mixed record: modern rockets and atmospheric landers tend to be white and aerodynamic, but blockier than sci-fi space fighters and only sometimes winged. Craft designed solely for vacuum are totally unaerodynamic, but extremely spidery and jumbled, covered in reflective foil (for heat management) and held together by networks of pipes and struts, looking much less solid than sci-fi capships.

On the other hand, the products of the emerging private spaceflight industry often feature curvilinear quasi-retro stylings which bear a close resemblance to early sci-fi rockets of the zeerust school. Contrast the lines of the Scaled Composites SpaceShip series with those of the Soyuz capsules, or even with the Space Shuttle. (Mind you, the SpaceShip series are just pop-up suborbitals, and reentry from Mach 3 (SpaceShipOne) or 4 (SpaceShipTwo) is between 40 and 70 times less energetic (and thus easier) than reentry from orbital velocity. SpaceX's Dragon is orbital, and quite chunky-looking. On the other hand, an SSTO usually has enough empty space inside to greatly ease the pain of reentry, and while you can still get fairly blunt designs, you can also get this...)

Also, some of these designs actually make some sense. For example, after the first two missions NASA decided to leave the external tank of the Space Shuttle un-painted because of the extra weight that pretty white veneer added (to give you an idea, the paint on a 747 jetliner weighs hundreds of pounds), not to mention the fact that it all burned up when it fell into the atmosphere anyway. For deep probes our designs are pretty non-blocky only because they are not meant for any kind of combat. Wings may be used on craft intended to work in atmosphere as well (like BSGs Vipers), even though it wouldn't probably be very practical to make a dual-purpose craft like that given the hugely different conditions, especially when considering the different atmospheres and gravities of alien worlds. Unpainted metal or reflective exteriors may also be justified if the ship is intended to fly near stars: this would reflect the light assist the ship in staying cool, similar to the way that skyscrapers in the southern USA and other hot places tend to be designed with reflective glass exteriors.

Note that fictional vessels tend to use enormous amounts of energy yet typically lack thermal radiators to shed waste heat (no air-cooling in space). Although that could explain all the so-called wings...

Space wings are also often used in fiction as places to put extra weapons (like missiles), and to store things (extra electronic equipment or fuel) inside them, although putting those things on or in the main hull makes more sense for a nonatmospheric Space Fighter, as spreading out the ship's mass makes little sense for a vessel designed to maneuver in vacuum in three dimensions-- better to keep it compact, to conserve angular momentum. You can increase maneuverability by putting thrusters on the tips of them a la Babylon 5 Starfuries, using the wing as essentially a big lever to rotate the ship faster, but a simple pole (especially a retractable one) would do the same job just as well and with greater shear strength (again, compactness helps here), making it less likely to bend or break off during high-thrust maneuvers whose direction is perpendicular to the broad planar surface of the wing. Internal gyroscopic flywheeels could do the same thing and be less visibly obvious tells to the enemy (no signal lights before a turn). Only Space Fighter craft designed to go both ways (atmosphere and deep space) actually need wings-- and some real airplanes don't even need them.

See also Standard Sci-Fi Fleet

Examples of ISO Standard Human Spacecraft include:


Anime and manga

  • Super Dimension Fortress Macross/Robotech; Except for the Macross itself (which was, of course, alien in origin), most human vessels are pretty close to this. It should be noted that the Macross was in fact redesigned closer to those lines. Later subverted with the later Macross-class ships which were more angular, and Robotech's SDF-3, which was originally designed/disguised with Zentraedi-like lines, but by the end of the Third Robotech War had the same Mospeada-style design.
  • While all the different factions are usually human in Gundam, the ships used by most incarnations of The Federation tend to be more boxy and utilitarian looking, generally designed to resemble naval battleships and come in shades of grey, olive or white, while the the various space colony factions tend to use more exotic, organic looking designs.
  • Blue Comet SPT Layzner is notable for the fact that the aliens have ships that look like this (though they may be descended from an ancient human civilization).

Film

  • Originally, the Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey was going to have large heat radiators to dissipate the heat from the nuclear reactor (and indeed did in the novelization). However, Stanley Kubric decided he didn't want to have to explain why a ship in space had what looked like wings. One of the very few instances in the movie they went with Rule of Cool over scientific accuracy.
  • Starship Troopers seems to follow this school of design.
  • Star Wars has spacecraft starting off as an Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age in the prequel trilogy, then evolving into the gray, straight-lined, utilitarian war machines of the original trilogy. Strangely, almost all the spacecraft in the SW universe, even thousands of years back, resemble in some way the ones from the original trilogy.
  • The mile-long ISV Venture Star from Avatar is designed to be realistic from a presently envisaged engineering standpoint, as a pure starship, never intended to enter an atmosphere. It's optimized for minimal mass, and thus has a wiry hollow look focused around the pair of giant front-mounted antimatter annihilation engines, with huge radiator panels glowing visibly to dissipate the engines' heat produced, and massive spherical fuel tanks carrying fuel and reaction mass for the relativistic ship. The relatively tiny habitation and cargo modules, pair of Valkyrie shuttles and even tinier artificial-gravity crew compartments are all dragged along behind. The Valkyries themselves are SSTOs, designed for atmospheric flight, and are thus fairly sleek winged designs.

Literature

  • Lampshaded in Anne McCaffrey's Acorna series, where the Linyaari are openly baffled as to why human spaceships only come in one color. Slightly subverted in that Linyaari ships are, to human eyes, painted in loud and garish colors.
  • Deliberately averted, avoided, hell, run away from in Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, where the Astronaut's spaceship --carrying only him and the Tree of Life within it-- is a huge transparent bubble that moves easily across space in its long, long journey from Earth to the star Xibalba. Word of God says that they chose this simple, but appealing design because not all spaceships have to look like “trucks in space.”
  • In David Weber's Honor Harrington series it's mentioned that all of the major powers use reactive pigments to give their ships a primary color to distinguish them in visual inspections, but it's also noted how easy it is to change the paint-scheme.
  • Subverted in David Drake's Reaches trilogy, where the main characters' ships have ceramic hulls to resist the corrosive atmosphere of their native Venus. Every other spacefaring culture uses metal hulls, and it's noted that when the stresses of Transit become too great, a ceramic ship falls apart all at once, with a total loss of life (one ship is seen to have come out of Transit looking like a cloud of gravel), while a metal ship's hull might hold together long enough for some of the crew to be rescued. Also, everybody's hulls tend to be rounded, usually more-or-less cigar-shaped, although they fly or land with the long axis parallel to the ground, unlike “rocketships.”

Live Action Television

  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Babylon 5 : Humorously lampshaded in “Legend of the Rangers” with the human design of the Valen looking like “a flying brick.” (No relation.) The later Valen class was made by the Minbari, further reinforcing the trope.

 Ranger Dulann: If human military designers had their way every colour of the spectrum would be removed except for grey, green and black and we would all live in windowless boxes.

    • Averted with Crusade's Excalibur, although it must be said it was a joint human/Minbari project.
      • You can see both design philosophies incorporated in it. You have the Minbari traditional triple-fin hull structure, but it's also dark grey similar to the Omega-class destroyers. Interestingly, the human Hyperion-class heavy cruisers are brightly-colored with white and blue. However, those (as mentioned in the fluff) were designed by a different military contractor than the Novae and the Omegas.
  • Firefly mostly averts this trope, with the majority of ships seen having either a large cylindrical design or a smaller, more agile (but still not blocky) design, such as with Serenity herself. However, the ships do tend to have very metallic appearances, and several of the ships briefly shown do fit the trope better than the larger Alliance vessels and Serenity.
  • The Red Dwarf is painted red, but that only serves to make it look more like a giant, flying brick.
  • Generally followed to a T in Space: 1999, with the show's signature Eagles being entirely utilitarian shuttles designed to function in the absence of an atmosphere, in lunar gravity. They were mostly grey, although some had orange details. The alien spaceships, on the other hand, were often brightly-coloured, in the style of contemporary sci-fi artists such as Chris Foss and Peter Elson.
  • Stargate : The F-302 is essentially a forward-swept flying wing with jet and rocket engines. The X-303 class battlecruiser Prometheus and the BC-304 class deep-space carriers however, being built out of a naquadah/trinium alloy, fit this trope perfectly.
  • The rectangular aspect is averted in Star Trek, but they're definitely grey metal plates.
    • Indeed, one of the technical manuals explicitly noted that aside from the hull markings, the tonnes of paint that normally go on ships was left off around the Constitution-class refits of the movies. If memory serves, they started thinking it looks neater that way too. And apparently Starfleet started retracting its normal way of avoiding bricks--see the Defiant.
    • ST ships also tend to have smoother outlines in the later series because warp fields act like hydrodynamics. The Galaxy class is the last class to have a highly distinct saucer and engineering section - later designs such as the Intrepid (Voyager), Sovereign (Enterprise-E) and Prometheus class have much more flowing lines where the join between the two sections is much less obvious, although most are still capable of separation, the Intrepid class being the only proven exception.
    • Actually, it seems worth noting that humans are pretty much the only guys we ever see on Star Trek traveling in Flying Saucers. Many of the Starfleet ships involve some sort of saucer shape (usually, but not always, connected to a larger non-saucer shaped hull, with warp nacelles).
      • Its aliens like the Romulans and Klingons who have clunkier looking hulls, and the most clunky looking ship on the show was designed specifically to look inhuman.
        • Not really Klingon designs so much, which tend to have a relatively sweeping design, with the various Bird of Prey designs' wings and neck, and the Vor'cha and Negh'var classes.
      • Originally, Roddenberry wanted them to be able to separate their saucers, like the Next Gen Enterprise eventually did. The saucers were there mostly because Roddenberry was a huge fan of Forbidden Planet.

Tabletop Games

  • BattleTech has mostly rounded ships, but otherwise adheres.
    • One model of Drop Ship in particular, the Leopard, was even called “the Brick” in the canon itself. Its slab-sided appearance, coupled with a small bridge, stubby wings and massive engines on what amounts to a nigh-rectangular chunk of steel means it falls squarely within this trope.
  • d20 Future (Science Fiction expansion to D20 Modern) generally presents this as the “default” look for spaceships.
  • Traveller : There is no standard for traveller; it depends on function and aesthetic taste and there are myriads of possible ship designs(indeed some traveller fans mainly like designing ships). Ships made to actually land on and take off from a planet generally have a "needle/wedge" design which looks something like a space shuttle. However this requires sacrifice in payload and the heaviest ships are generally serviced in orbit.
    • The Lightning-class ships a multipurpose merchant/scout/privateer built by the Terrans for viking like voyages into Vilani space is a handsome ship that looks like a long wedge with short stubby wings.
    • One cool(but not unlikely in Real Life) gimmick on Traveller ships is a programmable surface that can be used to display a giant "screen-saver". These are available both inside and outside. Another gimmick is the Shipboard Information System which is sort of the ships internet. This means that one can picture much of the dialogue of a given Traveller story taking place online from PCs and NPCs all over the ship, which can make for an interesting plot device and one not yet familiar to Space Opera .
  • In Battle Fleet Gothic, the trope is inverted in that the ships of the Tau fit this trope. The Tau have "only just" started traveling between worlds, compared to other races, so their ships have that same early utilitarian feel that a lot of current space vehicles and those from 20 minutes into the future have. Human ships, on the other hand, are space cathedrals.
    • And due to unpopularity with the fans, the new Tau fleet follows a more graceful, anime-inspired design.
    • Space Marine ships, on the other hand, fall somewhere in between. While they have elements of the regular Imperial design, they use more hard angles and less detailing. Also, while colour scheme varies by chapter, many of the promotional shots of the models are indeed rendered in mostly grey.
  • Played very straight in Firestorm Armada the human faction the Terran Alliance, their ships are usually flat, and shaped in squares, and triangles, with most of their color being blue and grey.


Video Games

  • Dark Star One
  • Caldari ships in Eve Online are like this: Gunmetal gray, blinking signal lights and angular shapes. Conversely, the Minmatar designs are even more utilitarian, containing only the bare minimum, welded together in a junkyard shop and come in various shades of rust-brown and red. However, some of the more modern Minmatar ships such as capital ships and the Maelstrom have a more 'finished' look, with complete, symmetrical hulls, although still mostly falling within the category. Some of the Minmatar ships also have large 'sails' that look somewhat like modern satellites' solar panels.
    • However, Gallente ships tend to have curvy organic-looking surfaces and Amarr ships are bright golden in colour and possibly most resemble the 'rocket ship' design in a few cases.
    • Justified Trope because each race's ships reflect their standardized personality.

 Caldari: Corporate, efficient, with emphasis on shields and electronics. Designs keep out the unnecessary.

Amarr: 1st back into space. Large powerful empire. Golden to reflect the wealth and impress the natives.

Gallente: Freedom loving more artistic, this more flowing and free designs in ships.

Minmatar: Freed slaves. So all “older” ship designs should look like junk heaps as that's all they had to work with

Thus cap' ships look more finished because they actually have an empire to support a cap' fleet.

  • Pretty much averted in the first Escape Velocity, which (in part due to the simple models) had ships with aerodynamic, rather anime-like shapes. Later games (especially Terrans and Voinians in Override, Federation and Aurorans in Nova) conformed more and more closely to this.
  • Free Space does this with all Terran ships (and with the Colossus, which was a combination Terran and Vasudan ship). For the Vasudan and Shivan ships, tendencies are to have more curved and smooth designs instead of blocky ones--the ships still tend to be paint free, but colored differently to give them a more alien look.
  • Halo, the UNSC ships are boxy in shape, in contrast to the curvy purple flowing aesthetics of the Covenant. Acts as a visual reference for both how far advanced the Covenant ships are compared to the clumsy human vessels, as well as their Scary Dogmatic Aliens status verus the practical human military.
  • Homeworld with the exception of the Mothership.
  • Infinite Space: mostly averted, especially in Adis, where the ships are both extremely funky-looking and pink, but it does happen: the Freedom and Nebula in particular are both grey, flying bricks.
  • Mass Effect averts this: the Normandy SR-1 and SR-2, the main ships in the series so far, are non-conventionally shaped, though vaguely reminiscent of rocket ship designs, and always brightly painted white. This is sort of justified, however, by the fact that visual recognition in space is almost impossible, so it doesn't really matter what color the ship is painted. Other ships featured in the series tend to follow the same philosophy, and the Destiny's Ascension is essentially a big flying cross with an oval cut out of the middle.
    • Other races' ships are shown and generally avoid this trope. Even the quarians, who claim to salvage any ship they come upon appear to have the exact same design (a cross between the Euro symbol and the letter Q) in the third game's cutscenes, except for their massive spherical liveships. The geth ships, for some reason, have an insectoid look, despite most geth platforms being humanoid in shape. Turians have ship designs similar to humans, although they prefer grey to human white-and-blue.
  • Sins of a Solar Empire: Played straight with the TEC, who modifed their ships from cargo and civilian vessels, but averted with the Advent(who are also humans, just psychic ones with a different culture). Advent ships are sleek, shiny, and definitely non-utilitarian in appearance.
  • Terrans of Starcraft operate these kinds of spaceships and put very little effort, if any, into making them look pretty. This is in stark contrast to the whimsical Protoss designs which seem to feature no straight lines or right angles whatsoever, and to the Zerg Organic Technology.
  • Sword of the Stars plays this straight. Human ships are oblong and consists of blocks riveted to a central frame and are the most utilitarian-looking of all the species: The only off part is the very noticeable ring structure around the engines (it's their faster-than-light drive). Because of this engine, human ships also have poor turret coverage on the back and tend towards front-heavy ships with forward-and-side firing arcs. While paint schemes for different sides makes some of the colour variable, the default ship colour for humans tends towards the grey with some red and green mixed in (by contrast, Tarka's ships are mostly bright red and deep green, the Hivers use beige, the Liir use turquoise, the Zuul blood red and the Morrigi deep purple).
  • In the Wing Commander games, the human ships have varied between the utilitarian, blocky gray designs of Wing Commander III and onwards, and more curvy designs of the earlier games. (Wing Commander III and IV used a primitive polygon Game Engine, as opposed to the first two installments' bitmap sprite graphics.) In all the games featuring the Kilrathi, most of the designs have a base tan color with various “warm” colors used for markings, but the manual notes that the color is the color of the metals used for their armor.
  • In the X-Universe games, the Argon, Terran, and Teladi ships all follow this. The Argon capital ships are flying gray boxes with red stripes while their fighters are Star Wars-esque. The Terran capital ships are flying (blindly) white boxes with red and blue highlights while their fighters are futuristic Space Shuttles. Teladi capital ships are flying off-gray boxes with protruding fuel tanks, engines, power lines, and greebles likened to "Flying junkyards", while their fighter designs resemble Star Wars mixed with a 1930s movie.
    • In particular the Terran 'AGI Task Force' or ATF seem to have taken this trope to heart with the Tyr Destroyer, and Odin Carrier, both gunmetal grey boxes with engines.
  • X-COM Interceptor tends to avert this, with the human ships actually using functional, forward-swept-wing designs, or in the case of the second-tier ship, rounded wings. All ships are also painted, and in the case of the X-1A tier one ship, even whimsical, with shark teeth painted on the nose.
    • The carrier MacArthur, which you have to protect during the final 2-part mission partly plays this trope straight.
  • Tachyon the Fringe has this for the Bora, whose warships are hastily-converted cargo haulers and mining ships. Some of the designs aren't so functional, though, like the Battleaxe-class fighters, which prominently feature a sharpened blade on the top. Mostly averted with other ships, although freighters still have an elongated, blocky look. GalSpan, notably, has sleek-looking ships with wings (fighters) and the blue-and-white color scheme.
  • The Terrans in Galactic Civilizations by default have a ship aesthetic midway between Star Trek and Babylon 5, with mainly rectangular shapes and stuff taken from this trope's catalogue with bluntly triangular wings, chunky radar dishes, large and blocky externals. Unless you reset the colour scheme, Terran vehicles come painted white and blue. When building your own, you can use far weirder-looking alien components to make them less blocky.
  • Civilization III, true to its fame of having everything dead realistic, lets you build an UN Unity spaceship that more or less looks like an extremely huge rocket. This has a practical reason though: the Unity requires an aerodynamic shape in order to cut through the Earth's atmosphere.
  • Played straight for the Colonials in Battlestar Galactica Online. Cylons, on the other hand, tend to use more sleek lines and curves.

Western Animation

  • Noticeable in Futurama where military spaceships are indeed mostly gray-white, but civilian ones come in all colors, the one used by the main characters being lime green and basically a short, fat version of a Zeerust Retro Rocket (possibly justified in that the rocket shape is seen as a styling ideal but one that has been heavily compromised to maximize cargo space on a delivery vehicle).
    • Despite the fact they only ever seem to carry one small box, or large crate at best, per delivery (except when they carried several barrels of candy hearts to Omicron Persei VIII).
      • Of course, they're never depicted as being a particularly competent delivery company.
        • One episode gives their takings from the year as 1/3 from their deliveries, and 2/3 from an $8 bank error in their favour.
      • They specialize in shipping things to dangerous or hazardous areas where the demand is high and supply is low, and presumably Hermes keeps the professor from shipping too much to keep up the recurring business.
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