Several Starfleet ships are saucer-shaped with tabs on the bottom, while other races’ ships are shaped like winged predators or skyscrapers. But due to the need for space ships to maintain artificial gravity, control the environment, and travel at warp speeds, how realistic are Star Trek ships and do they make sense? Can they do all they need to do by being saucer-shaped?
Star Trek ships make sense in the world of fiction, but realistically, a spherical ship would hinder its ability to move very well. But starships are round because the warp field creates a bubble around the ship, making it advantageous to the ships’ ability to travel through space.
Sci-fi writers take many creative liberties with the technology, but it may not always be realistic. Let’s continue with this exploration of why Star Trek ships are not realistic, shall we?
Ships in Reality vs. Ships in Fantasy
Starships of the day are a lot more clunky than starships of science fiction, especially of the Star Trek universe. Popular Mechanics tackled this topic recently, and they found that, in reality, starships won’t look anything like airplanes or any of the sleek starships found on Star Trek. They will be more like a sideways skyscraper complete with the technology that will keep people alive.
Artificial gravity and environmental controls will take up a large portion of the ship. When you consider that propulsion and engines must be a significant size to move the vessel, there will be little space for the crew’s luxurious living quarters.
However, Star Trek ships are sleek, round, and have comfortable living quarters for the entire crew. And these ships have gravity plating and warp engines that don’t take up a large space. If the Enterprise were based in reality, they would be a lot larger with less room for living quarters.
Of course, the ships are based on what could be, given the technological advancements in 200 years. But based on what is known today, the Enterprise and other Star Trek ships are not realistic.
Why Do Starships Need to be Aerodynamic in Space?
If there is no air in space, why do starships need to be aerodynamic? Round ships are not aerodynamic, but some Starfleet ships are shaped like certain Earth vehicles that are built to travel faster while combating the wind. The starship Voyager is one of these ships, but it can only go at warp 9.975–an impressive speed, but it is not that much faster than other ships of its time.
So why would ships need to be aerodynamic in space? The reality is that they don’t need to be and are only shaped that way as a concept from the writers and designers of the Star Trek franchise. Ships are based on ground and air vehicles to make them more attractive to fans. But they are ineffective for speed in space since there is no wind or air to slow down the vessel.
Gene Roddenberry’s original requests to the writers were that nothing on the ship was to be aerodynamic because there is no air in space. Later writers, however, tried creating a sleeker ship that looked more like Earth vessels that needed to deal with wind resistance.
Shuttles, on the other hand, would need to have wings due to entering the atmosphere of several planets more often. The main ship would stay in space, but smaller shuttlecrafts would fly from the ship to the planet’s surface. For that reason, shuttlecrafts are more realistic than the ships they come from.
Why Are Star Trek Ships Saucer Shaped?
Vulcan ships are cylindrical with a hollow circle at the back of the ship. The Klingon and Romulan birds of prey are shaped like birds in flight. The Borg have cubes that, when you think about it, shouldn’t move very fast. But it does, and it is faster than Starfleet ships. There must be some reason why a Borg ship moves like it does, given how clunky it is.
But not all of Starfleet’s ships are round. The Enterprise ships through the years have been saucer-shape. The most famous Enterprise from the Original Series was a Constitution-class ship designed for exploration, as were the other Enterprises. A round ship allowed for exploration, with perhaps a few weapons if the ship goes into combat with an enemy ship.
They also designed the ships to look like they have power. A round ship can be intimidating to some races, especially ones that are technologically inferior to the Federation. That doesn’t mean that several races didn’t try taking on several Enterprises.
Warp engines also create a bubble. When a ship is round, it uses the space within the bubble more efficiently than if it were a different shape, saving energy over time.
Ships like Voyager that were not round didn’t make efficient use of their warp bubble and regularly lost energy. But somehow, they managed to get home after being 70,000 light-years away without losing a lot of efficiency.
One other explanation for ships to be round is that the living quarters were in the saucer section away from the warp engines. If there was a radiation leak from the engines, the crew could seal off the lower part of the ship from the living quarters, saving people’s lives in the process.
Warp Speed Might be a Bit Slow in Reality
Even at warp 9.9, it would take a ship almost 18 hours to reach the nearest star or planet. In a video by one of the technical advisors in the Star Trek franchise, it grounds warp theory in reality. Since there is no guide or rulebook to measure what warp speed is, the Star Trek writers had a lot of freedom with what warp speed was.
However, since the video, warp speed became a depressing thought to Star Trek fans, as it shows how slow warp speed is.
According to the video, warp 1 is the speed of light, making a ship look like it’s sitting still by the sun. Warp 9.9 is 2,083 times the speed of light. Traveling at warp five, a ship would take over a week to reach the nearest star.
In theory, a round ship would make warp speed faster, as the warp bubble would circulate around the ship. A ship would need to be the same shape as the bubble to make it more efficient for faster speeds, as mentioned earlier.
Starships Would Not Need Wings or Flying Devices in Space
Gene Roddenberry, when designing the Enterprise, didn’t want any wings or other atmospheric flying devices on it. Since there was no wind resistance in space to contend with, ships didn’t need aerodynamics or wings. But ships that enter multiple atmospheres might need to be able to contend with wind resistance. Since most spaceships never enter the atmosphere, they don’t need to have wings.
There are other Star Trek ships besides the Enterprise that did land on a planet a few times. Voyager is one of those ships, and it wasn’t round, but rather an elongated oval, which made it easier to land on planets easier.
But other than that, a round saucer-shaped ship did not need to be shaped like any air vehicles around today.
Star Trek Ships Are Way Too Fancy for Reality
In reality, anything that weighs down the ship, like carpet or furniture, would not be on a space ship designed to travel faster than the speed of light. Star Trek ships have carpet, fancy furniture, supplies for long missions, and other things that people need or want to make life comfortable while in space.
A ship that needs to create artificial gravity would need a lot of mass to create sufficient gravity. While carpeting might do the trick, it’s not the right type of mass for this purpose. Gravitational mass needs to be heavy, like the Earth’s mass. Furniture and carpet do not add to the mass, yet it creates extra weight that could hold a ship back from achieving light speeds.
But would a space-faring vessel have all those luxuries in reality? Maybe in several hundred years and with several advancements in technology, spaceships may have these little extras. But for now, starships will only have the most basic things on board for ship maintenance and the crew’s survival. There would be no carpet, no fancy furniture, and nothing else that would not be needed.
The Bridge of the Enterprise Was an Easy Target for Enemies to Hit
In the Original Series, the bridge of the Enterprise is at the top of the ship, with a transparent dome covering them. If an enemy wanted to destroy the Enterprise, all they needed to do would be to hover over the ship and fire on the unprotected bridge. However, the ships have shields that would protect them against enemy fire. But once the shields are down, the bridge is vulnerable.
A saucer ship with a bridge at the top of the ship is not believable, especially if the crew met any enemies who would be more than eager to kill the bridge crew. In reality, the ship’s bridge would be several decks lower and central to the ship to avoid being hit in battle. And it would be more difficult to cut off communication or life support from the rest of the ship.
However, other Starfleet ships kept their bridge lower so as not to be targeted as easily. For example, Intrepid-class ships like Voyager were built as a fast battleship to fight the war against the Dominion. Their bridge was further down and protected against unseen enemies with cloaking devices that might sneak up on them.
Star Trek Ships vs. Other Sci-Fi Ships–How Do They Compare?
Red Dwarf is a British dramedy involving a man who survived a radiation leak by being in stasis for three million years. The ship’s creators made it remarkably true to real-life capabilities and scientific principles. It is made in a skyscraper shape with a Bussard Ramjet, which makes the ship go using space itself. The Ramjet looks like a radio emitter at the top of a radio tower. The ship doesn’t travel faster than the speed of light like other sci-fi ships do.
In Firefly, the ship Serenity is shaped more like an aerodynamic bird with retro rockets on either side of it. It was designed to enter multiple orbits on different planets that contain different atmospheres. As it looks more like a rocket than a spaceship, it resembles modern ships rather than futuristic spaceships.
The ship on Battlestar Galactica was more of a submarine than a ship, and it was elongated to simulate a rocketship. Because the ship was utilitarian rather than luxurious, it stood up to several battles, asteroids, and other items that would have destroyed an ordinary ship. It was old, but it was sturdy.
How Do These Ships Compare to Star Trek Ships?
The ships in the other sci-fi series were more realistic about how space travel works. A realistic ship would be rectangular shaped rather than round because of how artificial gravity works in space. It is also more realistic to travel slower than the speed of light using a Bussard ramjet like the ship Red Dwarf had.
Star Trek ships were built to be pleasing to the eye rather than for functionality. They were also built with comfortable living quarters for the crew, with an eye on deep-space assignments. Comfort and quality of life aboard a starship catering to exploration were more important than other science fiction ships’ utilitarian design.
What Is the Difference Between Each Starfleet Ship?
Each Starfleet ship was built differently for each series to accomplish the directives of each series. Star Trek: Discovery had a ship that used a spore drive to jump instantaneously from one point in space to another. While it was a round ship, it also had an inner circle and an outer circle. When the ship would jump, the inner circle spins, and the ship folds upon itself to make the jump.
In Enterprise, the ship was a saucer with an indentation at the front of the ship, which was the bridge. It was the first warp five ship, and it was a prototype that was part of the NX Project, which is why the designation as NX-01. The ship was bare-bones, but it was functional and comfortable for the crew.
Star Trek: The Original Series made history with the first Constitution-class ship made for exploration. It is the ship that this article discusses the most, so there is no need to discuss it further except to say that it was bulkier than the NX-01 in Star Trek: Enterprise.
The Enterprise-D, as shown in Star Trek: The Next Generation, is a sleeker version of TOS Enterprise, but it was a Galaxy-class starship. This meant that the weapons systems were upgraded, the living quarters were upgraded, and the first holodeck was built into the ship for deep-space missions. The saucer section could be separated from the propulsion section.
Star Trek: Voyager highlighted an Intrepid-class starship built for light missions and a smaller crew of around 150 compared to the Enterprise-D, which had over 1,400 people onboard. The ship had bio-gel packs that powered many of the ship’s systems, and it had more powerful weapons.
Because they were stuck in the Delta Quadrant, they built a shuttle that could handle the region’s rigors. They named it the Delta Flyer, and it was similar to the Defiant that the crew of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine built.
There Are Several Design Flaws in the Enterprise
The original Enterprise that James Kirk commands have several flaws in its design that, in real life, would create many problems for the crew. These flaws include a separate phaser room, no seat belts, and one transporter room for a crew of over 500 people.
No Seatbelts for the Bridge Crew
Seatbelts are mandatory in most vehicles on the road and in airplanes for taking off and landing. But the bridge crew on the Enterprise and other Star Trek ships aren’t required to wear seatbelts. They appear like they are sitting in their living rooms enjoying a cup of coffee, rather than on a spaceship in a vessel moving faster than the speed of light.
The original Enterprise crew doesn’t even have extra seats for the crew that happen to come on the bridge.
Why would the ships have no seatbelts for the bridge crew? If the ship constantly comes into contact with asteroids or enemy fire and gets thrown around frequently, wouldn’t it be advantageous to the crew to install seatbelts on the bridge seats?
One Transporter Room for 500 People or More
If people are transporting to different places on away missions or trying to beam up in a short time from a dangerous situation, why would the Enterprise have only one transporter room? Granted, the Enterprise-D had more than one transporter room. They may have had at least three or four for over 1,400 people who lived on the ship.
But the original Enterprise had only one transporter room. What were people supposed to do in a crisis? There were instances where the Enterprise needed to rescue several people at once because their ship was about to blow up. If one transporter pad could handle six people at one time and needed to rescue a crew of 150 in a few minutes, they wouldn’t be able to do it.
One transporter room for 500 or more people is not very realistic, especially when one pad can transport six people at a time.
A Separate Phaser Room for Firing
The original Enterprise had a separate phaser room for firing, which in reality would be a problem as it would be impossible to communicate with the bridge should ship-wide communication be cut off. And in actuality, after that happened in one of the Original Series episodes, they moved phasers to the bridge at one of the main consoles.
Another reason this is a design flaw is that if they transport prisoners from one planet to another and a couple of them happen to escape from the brig, go into the phaser room, and fire on an unsuspecting ship or planet, The Enterprise could then be blamed for starting a war.
Moving the phasers to the bridge would stop that from happening and keep all would-be criminals away from the ship’s sensitive areas.
In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Enterprise crew thought that someone fired phasers on the Klingon Chancellor’s ship. Had the phaser controls been on the bridge of the Enterprise-A, instead of in a separate room, they would have been able to supervise anyone that might have fired phasers.
Of course, it turned out that another Klingon ship underneath the Enterprise fired on their ship while cloaked.
The Bridge Can Be Cut Off From the Rest of the Ship
Ship wide communication was easy to tamper with and shut off, leaving the bridge crew in a vulnerable situation. They wouldn’t be able to talk with Engineering, Security, or others who have critical jobs aboard the starship.
In the “Space Seed” episode on the Original Series, Khan cut off communication and life support to the bridge to take over the Enterprise. He almost succeeded in his plans, but he would not have gotten that far had it not been so easy to cut off communication with the bridge.
This design flaw carried over to ships on the other series and movies, which wasn’t such a good idea in retrospect.
The Enterprise Is Easy to Destroy
All of the Enterprises were easy to blow up or destroy. Whether it be from an enemy or from the inside, the Enterprise was not designed to withstand minor tinkering with the bypass valve in the matter/anti-matter control room. The room was adjacent to the main engineering, and it was easy for anyone to get in that room. If that bypass valve were tinkered with in a certain way, it would explode, causing the entire ship to blow up.
The Enterprise-D also had its fair share of design flaws. The warp core breach occurred no less than six times, and their solution was to eject the core before it exploded and destroyed the ship. Of course, that meant that they would have to travel on impulse engines only to the nearest starbase to get a new core.
Enemies could also destroy the ship pretty easily. All they needed to do was drain the shields, then hit the warp nacelles. Boom! No more Enterprise to get in the way of their plans. In reality, however, it would make sense not to put the nacelles where just anyone would hit them and destroy the ship.
Life on Spaceships Might Get Depressing
Finally, the idea that people would be happy in space or have normal relationships in space is not believable. Humans and other humanoid life forms need natural light and dark cycles for several reasons.
Natural light is necessary for brain development and maintenance, and no amount of artificial light can change this. Rats were tested to see how the lack of natural light would affect their brain development. After being in an artificial light environment for a time, their brains showed significant damage. They even showed levels of depressive activity and behaviors.
The study showed that natural light is needed for proper brain maintenance and development. It is also necessary for mood stabilization and control, a healthy sleep-wake pattern, and Vitamin-D production. Natural light boosts the immune system, which is a powerful part of mental health.
One would think that if people were so enlightened about health in the future, that they would create some way to get natural sunlight on a ship in space.
Living on a starship with no natural light for several months or years might make life difficult and somewhat depressing. There are several ways on a starship that can reduce depression and brain damage, such as a holodeck, imitation sunlight, and atriums with plants and other bio-matter.
But do these things help create the same effect as natural sunlight? No, which is why several episodes in the series focus on the crew either getting back home or going on shore leave to some M-class planet.
It is not realistic to live life on a starship without ever having time on a planet in natural sunlight.
Starships in the Star Trek universe might make sense with enough advancement in technology. But scientists and engineers will need to overcome several issues that present problems in today’s terms.
Round, saucer-shaped ships can work if the warp bubble theory supports it, and the time travel theory is solved. The theory suggests that if a ship is traveling faster than light, it goes through time faster than what everyone else is traveling. For those on the ship, time is normal. But for those on a planet, time would be far behind.
Once those issues are solved, we should be able to have space-faring vessels one day.
- Memory Alpha: Enterprise (NX-01)
- Quora: Star Trek Round Saucer Section Question
- Business Insider: Warp Speeds In ‘Star Trek” Are Achingly Slow
- Tech Republic: Why Did the Starship Enterprise Have Such a Stupid Bridge?
- Popular Mechanics: What Would a Starship Actually Look Like?
- Gizmodo: Top 10 Biggest Design Flaws in the U.S.S. Enterprise
- Tor: Living On the Starship Enterprise Would Actually Be Depressing as Shit
- Mashable: How Realistic Are Sci-fi Spaceships?
- Sci-Fi Stack Exchange: Why Did Starfleet Choose Saucer-Shaped Starship Design?
- Titlemax: Federation Starships and Vehicles of Star Trek