Adam, a captain in the United States Army, has been writing fiction most of his life. He is a contributor to several online periodicals, and absorbs as much science as his mortal body can take. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his fiancee, and plans to keep writing until his fingers fall off. His latest novel is When the Stars Fade.
Luke Skywalker races his X-Wing through the Death Star trench, pursued by the villainous Darth Vader and a team of Tie Fighters. Our hero’s ship banks left and right, weaving between bits of hull to dodge incoming laser fire. He kicks in the afterburner and races forward. The exhaust port beckons up ahead. With his targeting computer safely stowed, the Jedi-in-training reacts on instincts and feelings. Sparks fly as an errant shot scorches his friendly R2 unit. Luke is alone. Suddenly, incoming fire knocks Vader and the other pursuers off the chase. Luke is clear! He fires off two torpedoes, his Force powers gently guiding them into the exhaust port. He yanks the yoke back, barely missing a conning tower at the end of the trench. The entire Death Star rumbles with activity, preparing to fire its deadly weapon. Seconds after Luke and his friends reach a safe distance the moon-sized station erupts into a massive fireball, sending a shockwave of energy cascading through the system.
It’s a scene we can replay in our minds with alarming clarity, which makes it a shame that absolutely none of that is even close to portraying actual space combat. Star Wars, like pretty much every space drama of the past 40 years, is more in the realm of fantasy than science-fiction. Though our understanding of arriving and surviving outside the atmosphere has grown tremendously, our representations of such acts in film and literature remains steadfastly in the realm of fiction. In my series The Gray Wars Saga, I am equally guilty of playing space battles more for the drama than the science. Why is it that every auteur from Heinlein to Abrams showcases a false image of the dark void above? Let’s take a look at the realities of space combat and see if we can find out.
1) Explosions are Pretty, Space-splosions are not.
In any space opera worth its salt, a massive ship is bound to explode. As an audience, we anticipate it the same way we expect anyone in a dark hat to be a bad guy. To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if you show a spaceship in Act 1, you’d better be blowing it up by Act 3. But explosions, and fire in general require three elements to exist: Heat, Fuel, and Oxygen. You’ll notice I bolded the last word, as it is fairly important. Space is famously lacking in O2—to the point where people think you explode if you’re ever exposed to the vacuum (also not true, but Cracked already covered that, so let’s move on). Space explosions look more like the time you dropped your LEGOs on the kitchen floor than when you dumped a pack of Mentos into a 3 liter of Diet Coke. The rapid expansion of heat (literally the definition of an explosion) will rend your big ol’ ship into pieces, and those shards will head in every direction until acted upon by another force (thanks, Newton). No fireball, no awesome ring-shaped shockwave. Just scrap.
Look at Gravity, a movie that used incredibly effects and mostly-real science to distract from the highly impossible plot. When Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and a few red shirts end up in a shower of plot devices, what happens to their ship? It looks like the end of a BlendTech “Will it Blend” video. It’s hugely dramatic, visually stunning, and gets across the same message as any number of Michael Bay-esque explosions: S#*! just got real.
So why are we still having fiery blossoms of magic in space? Well, for the exact same reason we have sound in these films. As humans, we define the world by our senses. Why do you think Christopher Nolan keeps paying that tuba player to blast a monotone all over his movies? Because super-loud noises terrify us to our core. It’s a primal fear, one that stems from our caveman days. In the past, our ability to detect fearsome predators—or explosive acts of nature—kept us alive long enough to reproduce. Have you ever heard a rattlesnake shake its tail? It’s pants-fillingly horrifying at an instinctual level.
Real space may not be able to carry sound (no oxygen, so nothing to carry the vibrations) but a movie theater with a THX monster system can. If we’re going to allow musical cues in our cinematic experiences to pull our emotional strings, we can surely forgive a few foley artists getting creative with the sound design. It allows the truth of the drama to reach the audience on more levels. And if playing to one of our senses for the sake of drama makes the cut, then allow us science-fiction writers the joy of delivering fiery ends to our marvelous creations.
2) Spaceships are NOT Fighter Jets
Let’s go back to Star Wars III for a moment. Remember EVERY space battle from that series? I do. But let’s focus on one in particular. The battle at the beginning of the movie, where Obi Wan was attacked by robot ladybugs (seriously, Lucas, WTF?). Remember how awesome it was to see Anakin and Obi zipping about in their ships (Eta-2 Actis Interceptors) amidst a sea of droid fighters and Asteriks-Wings (ARC 170s)? Well, none of that is possible.
Since movies and books began to feature space ships, they’ve been treated in one of two ways: Either they are ocean liners in space, or they are jet fighters with lasers. It makes sense, from a storytelling perspective. We don’t have a point of reference for what an actual space battle looks or sounds like (though, as previously mentioned, it would sound like marshmallows pillow fighting). In Braveheart, the director trusted audiences to understand that HUGE splashes of blood and gore meant someone just ate an axe with their face. People are able to wrap their minds around Jon Woo gunplay in Hard Boiled and Mission Impossible. But no one has a reference for space fighters nimbly weaving through waves of bad guys. Mostly because that’s not how space works.
Before we get to the short-range craft, let’s pull back and check out the big guns. Namely, the carriers and destroyers. In most space operas, we are treated to a scene in which heavily armed and armored dreadnoughts trade blows like boxers in a ring. One ship fires a salvo of rockets, the other blasts with an ion cannon, and many hapless extras are sucked out of breached hulls into the darkness of space.
Sorry. That’s just not how it works.
Space travel is a war between fuel and mass. The bigger or denser your ship, the more fuel it takes to move. With the exception of Battlestar Galactica, I’ve never seen a franchise address the limitations of moving these behemoths. The fact of the matter remains that, with the exception of forward operating bases, military equipment needs to be mobile. In order to make our modern spacecraft viable transports, we make them as light as physically possible without completely sacrificing hull integrity. That means, in a military standpoint, that we are sending ships into space naked, but with a powerful rocket strapped to their fourth-point-of-contact (that’s Jargon for butt).
Super-armored juggernauts would waste so much fuel getting up to speed, they’d barely have enough to stop before needing to top off the tank. That also brings into the play the concept of armament. In both Star Wars and Star Trek, larger ships blast away with cannons and lasers and missiles. In reality, only one of those would be realistically effective. Can you guess which?
As with modern day dogfighting (which doesn’t really happen anymore), missiles are the standoff weapon of choice. Fighter pilots use their incredibly powerful computer guidance systems to find a target, then send a shrieking stick of death toward it at three times the speed of sound. They probably can’t even see the explosion when the warhead meets its target.
In space, cannons present the annoying issue of Newton’s Third Law. When you fire off a round, the energy that send the shell forward will also kick you right the hell back. In my novel, When the Stars Fade, I have my ship commanders compensate by deploying engines to counter the effect. It’s a fix, but an unrealistic one. Again, fuel use must be economical. Why would an Admiral utilize cannons for warships, considering how much that will cost and how ineffective an unguided round will be in space (more on that soon), when a missile is ten times more reasonable?
Again I turn to Battlestar Galactica for some reason. The weapons used in large ship battles are mostly missiles and flak, and any guns fired send tracer rounds in every direction. Which brings us back to the fighters. In Star Wars III, we see ships banking left and right around exploding carriers. In space, there is no such thing as banking turns. See Newton’s First Law. Once more, Battlestar is the closest to functional, with fighters using RCM jets to correct their course while they dogfight with Cylons.
So we’ve forgiven the superfluous movement of spacecraft (since it’s the only way audiences can relate to the action), and we’ve come to understand the flash and thunder of space-splosions (even though both are impossible). What’s left to nitpick?
3) Space Battles Are Basically Improbable Impossibilities
One of my all-time favorite science-fiction dramas was Firefly. Joss Whedon did so much right in that show, from the characters to the pseudo-realism, that I easily forgave one of the silliest moments in the pilot. While traveling to a nearby planet—at what I can assume is a pretty decent clip, considering how far apart those pesky heavenly bodies can be—Mal and his crew come across a strange ship. The older model is traveling without core containment, which the pilot remarks would be “suicide.” Mal, a war-vet and well-versed hero, realizes with horror what that means.
The two ships glide slowly past each other, like a schooner passing a ghost ship on the high seas. The tension is palpable while we wait for the crew to get far enough away to feel safe. It is a pivotal moment in the pilot, and a defining moment for several characters. In a word: Awesome.
In another word: Nope.
Here is how the interaction would have gone in reality.
PILOT: We have another ship on our scope, twelve o’clock.
CAPTAIN: Another ship? On this exact plane in three-dimensional space? Coming directly at us as though there were travel lanes in space? How soon will they reach us?
PILOT: Oh, we passed them the second I spoke. You see, we’re travelling THOUSANDS of miles per second, so they didn’t even have time to flash their high beams.
CAPTAIN: Cool. I’m going to make passive-aggressive comments toward our space hooker.
PILOT: Have fun. I’m a leaf on the wind.
You see? Not much drama. The distances in space are staggering. You quote one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Looking back at Gravity, one of the biggest leaps of logic made was the position of the three main locations (Hubble Space Telescope, ISS, Tiangong Space Station). Each of those objects orbits our planet at significantly different heights, speeds, and directions. To hop from one to the other would require a spacecraft, a powerful computer (or the ability to do super math in your head), and fuel. You may recall that Sandra Bullock makes it to each with nothing but moxie and space boxer-shorts.
In Star Wars V, the entire plot of the opening sequence hinges on the idea that escape ships can only take ONE path into space. If that were true, all satellites and shuttles would launch from Florida (there are, in actuality, over 40 locations on Earth where satellites launch). While NASA uses Cape Canaveral for several smart-guy reasons, why did the Rebellion choose to send its vulnerable transports up against the ONLY THREE STAR DESTROYERS in the sky? Couldn’t they have skirted the surface for a minute before leaving? Maybe come up a few hundred miles away? We never hear them arguing about fuel, so I doubt that was the issue.
The reason is pretty simple. It’s the same as why many plays take place on a single set, or why alien invasion always seem to target New York. Audiences understand scale to a point. The Death Star is the size of a moon? Yeah, we get that. Luke, Han, and Chewy walk to the prison section in about ten minutes? No one is asking questions. Movies and books take dramatic liberty with size and distance to keep the drama high and the action tight. No one wants to watch 24 if ever episode features a five minute bathroom break (twenty minutes if Jack Bauer has Candy Crush). We skip the boring parts of the story and get straight to the creamy center.
Reality is a boring mess when compared to the fantastical world of film and literature. Space battles would be impossible due to a number of factors: Ships are travelling too fast, they are too fragile, and they can’t even shoot each other because Newton was a monster. So why do we, as readers and viewers, accept this fiction with alarming regularity?
Well, because it’s fiction. It’s a story. We know lightsabers aren’t real (and are the most dangerously impractical weapons ever created), but we love them all the same. So don’t get too hung up over the unrealistic portrayal of the military in space. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride while it lasts. If at the end you were taken on a fantastic adventure, who cares if the science is 100% kosher? Rule #1 of entertainment is: Thall shalt not bore. Anything beyond that is just for bragging rights.
Now who’s ready to wake up the Force?