News Ticker

[GUEST POST] S.K. Dunstall (LINESMAN, ALLIANCE) on Spaceship Design in Science Fiction

S. K. Dunstall is the pen name for Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall, sisters who live in Melbourne, Australia. Their second novel, Alliance, was released on 23 February.

Designing Spaceships (Or, Have Space-Box, Will Travel)

by S.K. Dunstall

Bruce Jensen, the artist who designed the covers for our books, Linesman and Alliance, did an awesome job. The first book, Linesman, has two spaceships on the front. The Eleven, surrounded by its protective field, and the Lancastrian Princess, both joined by lines. Book two shows another spaceship, the Kari Wang, as a Masson field slices her apart.

The only ship out of the three that we describe in any detail in the book is the Eleven. With its defensive field on, it’s a perfect sphere. Jensen has that picture perfect.

Take the field off and the ship is made of linked hexagons.

To be honest, if we had described the Lancastrian Princess or the Kari Wang, they wouldn’t be anything like the cover art.

In Linesman we talk about another ship, the Havortian, which had a damaged cargo hold. The captain of the Havortian purchases part of another ship, welds it over his own damaged area and finishes his run. Imagine what that ship must have looked like, with a misshapen lump sticking out on one side. Even so, provided the weld held, it shouldn’t have made much difference to how the ship travelled. (The weld didn’t hold, but that’s another story.)

Newton’s first law of motion tells us that once an object is moving at a steady speed, in a straight line, it will continue moving in the same straight line, at the same speed, until another force acts against it to slow it or turn it.

Here on Earth there are lots of forces to slow the object down. There’s gravity, which will pull the object toward the Earth. There’s air, which slows the forward motion of the object. That’s why aerodynamics is so important when we design aircraft. We need the air to flow over the wings and nose of the plane to create uplift and to reduce resistance.

But what happens if you’re in space? Especially if the ship is designed to never enter an atmosphere. (That’s what shuttles are for, and designing shuttles is a different exercise, with totally different requirements.)

In space there is no air to slow ships down. Nor, provided they keep away from objects like planets and suns, is there gravity to worry about. This spaceship doesn’t need a sleek nose or wings. Any shape should do.

You need something to apply a force to start the ship moving. And you need opposing forces to slow or turn it. So maybe one big rocket engine that applies the main force, and a few smaller ones dotted in strategic places around the rest of the ship to provide counter forces to turn or slow it.

Once you’ve got that sorted, then the rest becomes more a matter of economics. What’s the cheapest shape to build? The best shape for storage? What’s the easiest shape to attach to an already existing ship to extend the size of it?

It’s probably going to be a cube. They’re practical, easy to build, and they stack beautifully. Think container ships with a couple of add-ons.

Want to add more cargo? Clip another cube onto the outside of the ship. You won’t even have to unpack the cargo. Just unclip the cube at the other end.

Want more living space? Add another module. Order the fittings as part of the module, and when it arrives it’s ready to use.

That’s why real spaceships, when we start building them, may look more like Borg’s Cube, from Star Wars, than, say, the Starship Enterprise.

Probably one of the best descriptions of a likely spaceship comes from Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The Wayfarer is:

“Blocky and angular, with the exception of a bulging dome that stuck out the back like a warped spine … it looked as though the whole ship had been cobbled together, perhaps originating from other vessels.”

Putting a box, or a clunky, misshapen object onto the cover of a book doesn’t necessarily scream ‘space opera’. Part of what the cover of a book is supposed to do is identify the genre, as well as make you want to read the book.

We think Jensen succeeded in getting the ‘idea’ of the stories across, even if his spaceships aren’t quite the same as we envisage ours.

%d bloggers like this: