Spaceship Design

In September of 2002, I discovered that there are no good single books to tell science fiction authors and script writers how to design realistic spacecraft. As anyone who has watched sci-fi movies or TV shows can attest, most spacecraft shown bear no relationship to real engineering, and operate by principles completely separate from known physics. In short, they’re nonsense.

The tragedy is, a spaceship does not to be bunk to be interesting or dramatic. There’s absolutely no reason in the world why an author or an artist cannot produce a spaceship that conforms to known science… except that many do not know science. Spaceship Design intends to be a single-source book that will tell them what they need to know.

Spaceship Design is being written so that a modern aerospace engineer could take the data presented and produce a workable first cut of a spacecraft (in fact, thought is beign given to taking a cut-down and further refined version and turning it into a straight conceptual design manual for launch vehciels and manned spacecraft for the actual aerospace industry). However, it will present more than just state of the art data… it will attempt to describe every reasonable possibility for spacecraft. Propulsion systems will range from catapults to photon rockets, from sugar and saltpeter rocket to Alcubierre Warp Drives. This book will present all relevant data and equations, but will do so in a way accessible to anyone with a calculator. A mathematics degree will not be required.

Along with describing how the spaceship and its subsystems work, Spaceship Design will describe and explain factors important for writers. What can a spaceship do? How does it fly? Maneuver? Fight? What are its maintenance requirements? What sort of weapons can it have? What are its power requirements? What does the crew need to stay alive? What does it look like? To do this, Spaceship Design will use a combination of description, data and illustrations.

Spaceship Design will allow the science fiction writer to design realistic spacecraft based on many levels of technology. Alternate history stories and stories set on other worlds could well involve the use of spacecraft built with technology much more primitive than what is available today; also, an author could set their spaceship into the near future or the far future. Consequently, the technologies given will be separated into five sections:

  1. Now
  2. Real Soon
  3. On the Horizon
  4. Beyond The Horizon
  5. Magic


The "Now" class of spaceship is what can actually be built today, with equipment more or less off the shelf, or new designs that make no noticeable advancements on existing equipment. This would include such things as conventional staged, expendable launch vehicles (from small to very large), to space capsules, small spaceplanes, Shuttle-type vehicles, basic inter-orbit tugs, lunar landers and the like. All would be powered by such propulsion systems as chemically fueled rockets – liquid, solid and hybrid; some use of low thrust systems like ion engines and resistojets. These technologies, used wisely, allow for the early commercialization of near-Earth space and the limited manned exploration of the Moon, Mars and some nearby asteroids.

The "Real Soon" class of spaceship would include the use of technologies that have received considerable ground testing, but have not been used. These are devices and technologies that the engineers behind them are virtually certain will work, but will require development. Such spaceships would include fully reusable two stage to orbit launchers, early single stage to orbit vehicles, solar sails, Mars landers, and nuclear thermal rockets such as the NERVA. There are a few materials of note in the "Real Soon" category that would be of interest, such as high temperature ceramics and aerogels. The "Real Soon" designs would, somewhat arbitrarily, encompass those available beginning around 2010-2030, and are the sort of technologies that would allow for true commercialization of near-Earth space (including the Moon and, possibly, near-Earth asteroids) and the manned reconnaissance of the inner solar system.

The "On The Horizon" designs would include the use of technologies that have received only very preliminary testing, and are largely "vaporware." This class would include such things as airbreathing single stage to orbit vehicles, nuclear pulse vehicles, gas-core nuclear vehicles, laser-propelled launchers, early fusion and antimatter drives. These technologies, which may become available around 2030-2060, would allow for the low-cost commercialization of near-Earth space (including the Moon), tourism to Mars, and the manned exploration and exploitation of the entire solar system, with early missions to the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt.

The "Beyond The Horizon" vehicles would be where things start to get really interesting. These would include the use of technologies that scientists have only the barest preliminary theories of, and engineers are currently very uncertain as to how to even contemplate their use. However, it is in this area where the first interstellar propulsion systems become available. Pure antimatter "photon" drives, Bussard ramjets, advanced pure fusion drives and the like. "Beyond the horizon" technologies have the potential of making the entire solar system accessible as the steam engine made the world accessible. These technologies may become available in the second half of the 21st Century and beyond.

"Magic" technologies are those for which even a theoretical basis is almost totally lacking, or which current theory does not support. Warp drive, hyperdrive, jump drives, wormholes, time travel, gravity generators, zero-point energy generators all fall into this category. They have the potential of making the entire universe accessible. However, with the highly hypothetical nature of these technologies, putting even a vague handwavy date on them is not reasonable. They may be impossible; they may equally be demonstrated within a few years.


The table of contents will include sections on the following topics (subject to revision and reshuffling):

What Does It Do?

Getting to Space

Standard Orbit





Re-entry and Atmospheric Flight

Landing Systems



Environmental Requirements and Control


Click here for a description of each subject heading.

As of late November, 2002, progress on the book has been slow but noticeable. About 55 pages (all text, no illustrations incorporated as yet) completed, so far focussing on the Propulsion section. A rough guess puts completion of the rough draft sometime in late 2003.