15 Sci-fi Spaceships Ranked by Scientific Viability

By Erlingur Einarsson on at

 

Science-fiction can be a fascinating arena for humans’ far-fetched dreams and fantasies of the future. Often, the concepts are outlandish, the creatures impossibly exotic (although no alien can ever out-weird the terrifying and very real giant cuttlefish) and the technology fanciful and implausible.

But if you’re anything like us, you will undoubtedly have thought to yourself as you were watching an episode of Star Trek or the film Interstellar; “Wouldn’t it be great/absolutely terrifying if these spaceships actually existed?” Could we build a real-life Milano from Guardians of the Galaxy? Would the pod from Contact really work if we built one? And could a real Event Horizon build and contain an artificial black hole within its chambers?

Well, that’s what we're here to find out.

We’ll look at 15 famous spaceships, across genres from family-friendly adventures to space horror, TV & cinema, and fictional eras, from the near to far future, and order them from least to most feasible.

To aid us in evaluating the following spaceships’ feasibility, we’ve recruited the expert help of an actual astrophysicist, Dr Gemma Lavender, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of science magazines All About Space and How It Works.

Note: This is not a list of the 15 most realistic or scientifically viable sci-fi spaceships, and we encourage you chime in with your own additions and comments below.


#15: The Heart of Gold

From: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Key specifications:
Built: 1978 | Class: Light cruiser | Drive: Infinite Improbability Drive | Length: 150m | Range: Infinite

Now here’s a doozy. Fitted with all the latest technology, sleek design and an Infinite Improbability Drive, the Heart of Gold is capable of travelling to any place in the galaxy in the blink of an eye, in style. Except you won’t have a lot of control over how it does that. This ingenious creation borne out of the planet-sized imagination of Douglas Adams is a perfect metaphor for humanity’s extreme aspirations, the seeming randomness of life and the many anxieties we harbour for the evolution of technology. As your next commercial building project, however…

Dr Lavender says: “The Heart of Gold certainly isn’t feasible scientifically. A fictional infinite improbability generator at its heart that gives it the ability to travel to different point in the universe as quick as a flash is not possible. Not only that but the spaceship takes the form of a sphere in most interpretations or a white running shoe – both shapes that aren’t very aerodynamic at all. However, the AI that you see on the ship is entirely possible – you can see it in action wherever you go on Earth.”

Could we build it? Apart from the shell and sticking an Amazon Echo onto the bridge, categorically not.

Would it work? HAHAHAHAHAHAno.


#14: The Pod

From: Contact

Key specifications:
Built: 1997 | Class: One-person pod | Drive: None | Diameter: Ca 3m | Range: Intergalactic/None (up for debate)

This one is actually a tiny bit of a cheat, as it’s not technically a spacecraft, due to its complete lack of power source, instead relying on a complex machine that generates a wormhole to drop the pod into and send it on its merry way. But it’s cool as hell, it’s the brainchild of one of humanity’s greatest thinkers, Carl Sagan, and Jodie Foster is a legend, so we’re including it.

Dr Lavender says: “Designed from instructions (seemingly) received in a message from advanced alien life, the pod generates a wormhole to travel across the galaxy to meet the aliens that sent the instructions. Carl Sagan, who wrote the book that the film is based on, wanted to keep his method of interstellar travel as scientifically accurate, and so asked theoretical physicist Kip Thorne if there was any way to do it. Thorne did the maths and suggested wormholes. Of course, they would still require a technology and an energy far beyond what we possess.”

Could we build it? Probably not.

Would it work? Almost certainly not.


#13: USS Enterprise

From: Star Trek

Key specifications (NCC-1701):
Build year: 2245 | Class: Heavy cruiser | Drive: Matter/antimatter warp drive | Length: 288.6m | Width: 127.1m | Height 72.6m | Range: Unknown (but infinite)

One of the most iconic of all sci-fi creations, the USS Enterprise is immediately recognisable to even those who may not have seen a single episode or film entry of Star Trek in their lives. The Enterprise has had many iterations, but the first, NCC-1701, drew the blueprint (quite literally) for all its later versions. A gigantic cruiser, it holds a crew of hundreds (later versions pushing that number over a thousand) and can travel at over 500 times the speed of light, thanks to its revolutionary antimatter warp drive. It sounds fantastical, but there are people who think a sort-of warp drive could be built...

Dr Lavender says: “Miguel Alcubierre of the National Autonomous University of Mexico has shown how, in principle, it is theoretically possible to warp space in order to travel enormous distances. Unfortunately, he has also shown that you would need to convert the entire mass of a planet the size of Jupiter into pure energy, and that energy would require a negative energy density. So while in theory the Enterprise could travel with a warp drive, in reality no amount of dilithium crystals would make it possible.”

Could we build it? Give it a couple hundred years.

Would it work? Nope. Not even a little bit.


#12: Millennium Falcon

From: Star Wars

Key specifications:
Build year: Prior to 56 BBY | Class: Light freighter | Drive: Quadex power core with Isu-Sim SSP05 Hyperdrive | Length: 34.5m | Height: 7.8m | Range: Unknown

The Millennium Falcon gets Star Wars fans intensely excited every time it makes any appearance in a film or TV show. And who can blame them? After all, this iconic, oft-imitated light freighter flown (for the most part) by everyone’s favourite rogue, Han Solo, is fitted with a hyperdrive and did do the Kessel Run in only 12 parsecs, aft- oh yeah, parsec is a measure of distance, thus rendering that boast meaningless. But after Solo that’s mainly because he rounded the whole record down. That sly devil...

Regardless, it’s an impressive vessel, and the hyperdrive is awe-inspiring, allowing the ship to travel one and a half times the speed of light. Having one of those in my Yaris Hybrid would sure cut down the time spent commuting every day…

Dr Lavender says: It might be the “fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy”, but the Millennium Falcon can travel at 1.5 times the speed of light thanks to its ‘hyperdrive’ that takes it into hyperspace, a fictional dimension of space in which it’s possible to travel faster than light. In reality though, nothing can travel faster than light.”

Could we build it? Apart from the engine (which is kind of the important part), sure.

Would it work? Unfortunately, no.

 


#11: Event Horizon

From: Event Horizon

Key specifications:
Built: 2040 | Class: Heavy research vessel | Drive: Gravity drive | Size: Absolutely bloody massive | Range: Inter-dimensional

Forget hyperdrives or antimatter warp cores; what you really want to pimp out your dream space ride with is your own black hole generator. To use layman’s terms, the Event Horizon is capable of building an artificial Einstein-Rosen Bridge (wormhole) by creating an artificial singularity (black hole) using its one-of-a-kind gravity drive. You just want to avoid inadvertently travelling to the chaos dimension, resulting in the gruesome, torture-ridden death of all your crew. No biggie, right?

Dr Lavender says: “Lost on its way to the nearest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, the Event Horizon was powered by a ‘gravity drive’ that generates an artificial black hole that bridges two points in space-time, like a wormhole. While it’s theoretically possible to create a black hole – there were worries that the LHC would do such a thing – it would require a tremendous amount of energy, and there is no evidence that black holes link different points in space or that we can travel through them.”

Could we build it? If you’re as mad as Sam Neill’s William Weir, then you might have a shot, apart from the all-important gravity drive, of course.

Would it work? Fortunately, no.


#10: Battlestar Galactica

From: Battlestar Galactica

Key specifications (2003 version):
Built: Approx YR48 | Class: Military battleship and carrier | Drive: Tylium fission core & HyperJump FTL core | Length: 1,438.6m | Width: 536.8m | Depth: 183.3m | Range: Interstellar

If there’s one enduring impression of the gigantic Battlestar Galactica (both the 1978 and 2003 version), it’s that parts of it are always falling apart. As you would expect in a vessel of this immense size, maintenance and repairs takes up a lot of the crew’s time. Each chamber is realistically small and cramped, despite the massive total size of the ship, so surely the only obstacle to building one is sourcing all that metal, right?

Dr Lavender says: “Essentially a giant aircraft carrier in space, the original 1970s Galactica used ion engines. Spacecraft today use ion engines, but these are slow to work, taking time to build up thrust. Since the Galactica is so massive and manoeuvrable, ion engines would never be able to push the ship to the required speeds. In the rebooted series in the 2000s, the Galactica’s faster-than-light drive was never explained, but as Einstein showed, nothing can travel through space faster than light.”

Could we build it? Give us enough metal, a space dock and a few decades, then we could knock up a fairly convincing-looking full-scale model.

Would it work? Almost certainly not.


#9: The Milano

From: Guardians of the Galaxy

Key specifications:
Built: Before 1990 | Class: Light scouting and hunting “M-ship” | Drive: Jump Drive | Dimensions: Unknown | Range: Interstellar

It’s fast, nimble and really cool-looking, and among the MCU’s many outrageous air and spacecraft, the Milano is many people’s favourite. Star-Lord’s transport mode of choice, it’s part-scramjet, part-Millennium Falcon. And you can travel quite fast indeed thanks to its Jump Drive allowing instantaneous travel between interstellar destinations and its impressive conventional engine – which also boasts suspiciously good economy figures, seeing as there doesn’t seem to be a lot of space for a large fuel tank.

Dr Lavender says: “The Milano spaceship in Guardians of the Galaxy makes use of wormholes that allows the crew on board to make the ‘jumps’ and ‘stops’ that you hear them refer to in the films. Wormholes are a theoretical concept, and in order for a spaceship to jump from one world to another, you’d need some kind of weird matter to make the existence of one of these portals through space and time possible; matter we actually haven’t discovered yet.

Not only that, but the Milano travels at distances – according to information from the film – of almost 11,000 light years per minute. That would have some devastating effects on the human body and, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, objects get heavier and heavier the faster they move to the point where there’s not enough energy to move the object anymore. That’s why it’s not possible for us to travel faster than the speed of light.”

Could we build it? A full-scale model was actually built for the Guardians films, but as none of its technology is explained in any detail, that’s as far as we’ll ever get.

Would it work? Oh, heavens no.

 


#8: Icarus II

From: Sunshine

Key specifications:
Built: Ca 2056 | Class: Large solar freighter | Drive: Nuclear-powered | Length: Several hundred metres | Range: 1 AU

A vessel with a singular purpose, the absolutely ginormous Icarus II was built for a singular purpose, to deliver a nuclear weapon to the sun and detonate it in hope to save us all from our star’s fading light. The distance required of Icarus II is less than some of the real spaceships we’ve already built: from Earth to the Sun, exactly one Astronomical Unit. But to make it there without incinerating the crew, we come to its biggest engineering feat: the massive shield that protects the ship and its inhabitants from the roasting heat of the sun as it gets closer and closer. And that’s not the only scientific problem Sunshine faces…

Dr Lavender says: “Icarus II would go closer to the Sun than any spacecraft has in reality. Currently, the closest spacecraft planned is NASA’s Solar Orbiter, which will get as close as 41 million kilometres. Icarus II goes much closer, where it would have to tolerate temperatures approaching a million degrees in the Sun’s corona – an unlikely prospect. The idea of the Sun dying so soon and a nuclear bomb being able to reignite it is nonsense too.”

Could we build it? In a few decades, possibly.

Would it work? Not as intended.


#7: USCSS Nostromo

From: Alien

Key specifications:
Built: 2101 | Class: M-class starfreighter | Drive: Nuclear fusion drive | Length: 334m | Width: 215m | Height: 98m | Range: Interstellar

It’s big. It’s chunky. And it’s got a terminal parasite infestation. Apart from that, this is everything you need in a space vessel. Outrageous range, lots of storage space and a a large selection of hiding places in case you have to deal with an intruder. Fittingly coined by its own director, Sir Ridley Scott, as “a haunted house in space”, Alien’s setting is more akin to a floating building than it is to what we consider a sleek spacecraft.

The Nostromo is a super-heavy cargo vessel, after all, and due to a complete lack of any fanciful relativistic travel method, its journeys between destinations take so long the crew has to be put in hypersleep on the journey. Barring the astronomical amount of building material needed, we could build this, right?

Dr Lavender says: “While designs have been produced by scientists for spacecraft that use fusion engines to reach about a fifth the speed of light, it would still take many decades or centuries to reach a destination. This long time in space would require the crew to enter suspended animation, much like in the Aliens films.”

Could we build it? Fusion drive designs are still hypothetical, and hypersleep technology won’t be realised for a long time. Ask us again next century.

Would it work? Very slowly, but all the crew would die – if not from xenomorph attacks, then from old age.


#6: The Rocinante

From: The Expanse

Key specifications:
Built: Around 2350 | Class: Fast-attack frigate | Drive: Fusion-propelled Epstein Drive Length: 46m | Range: Interplanetary

TV series The Expanse trades equally on its perceived realism as it does on its futuristic vision. The technological advances of humanity and its expansion into the Solar System have brought on familiar social problems, but in new forms. Civil unrest, political grandstanding, the looming threat of war between opposing factions and the fact that the real victims tend to be the innocent bystanders. In among this tragically relatable narrative is a vision of future technology trading on the same bid for realism. Messages between planets and moons take time to travel, and the same goes for the show’s spaceships. The star of those, the Rocinante, isn’t too dissimilar to the Serenity in many ways, as parts of its technology are clearly inspired by and lifted from current real-world planes, ships and even submarines.

Dr Lavender says: “This interplanetary spacecraft uses the fictional Epstein nuclear drive, achieving just below 4% of the speed of light to travel between the planets in a matter of days, weeks and months to reach the outer Solar System.”

Could we build it? Not now, but seeing as 300 years ago, humans were just figuring out how steam power worked, then three centuries from now, we might well be reaching relativistic speeds in space.

Would it work? If the Epstein drive (or similar technology) is realised by then, yes, absolutely.


#5: Endurance

From: Interstellar

Key specifications:
Built: Ca 2070 | Class: Large research vessel | Drive: Fusion-powered Hybrid Variable-impulse Chemical/Plasma engines | Diameter: 65m | Range: Interplanetary

Thanks to a black hole appearing in our own solar system close to Saturn, the Endurance itself only requires interplanetary range, and with the help of revolutionary fusion-powered engines, it can reach said black hole in about two years, where it will slingshot itself through it to instantaneously make it to another solar system light years away, hopefully to find another habitable world for humanity. A lot of scientific research went into the Endurance’s design for Interstellar, which should mean the prospect of building such a ship within our lifetime is within our grasp. Right?

Dr Lavender says: “Another interplanetary vessel not too divorced from scientific reality, Endurance was able to travel to the black hole in another galaxy thanks to an artificial wormhole created by advanced beings. Like Contact, the wormholes in Interstellar are the brainchild of Kip Thorne, so while we may not be able to create them, in theory such wormholes could exist.”

Could we build it? Give us enough money and we could actually almost kind of pull it off. Sorta.

Would it work? Seeing as the whole black-hole business is entirely hypothetical, then only partially.

 


#4: UD4L Cheyenne Dropship

From: Aliens

Key specifications:
Built: Between 2160 and 2170 | Class: Combat transport aircraft | Drive: Dynamic turbine thrusters | Length: 25.2m | Width: 15.3m | Depth: 6.05m | Range: Trans-atmospheric

Looking slightly like a DeLorean mated with a bat, and the child produced then had another child with an Apache helicopter, the Cheyenne doesn’t look inviting, let alone aerodynamic enough to be able to fly. This shuttle’s boxy exterior, though, helps create extra space for not just a dozen crew, but some heavy-duty land vehicles to boot. Everything about it screams military-grade, and somehow, they could mould a triangular brick into the F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft, so who am I to judge?

Dr Lavender: “The Cheyenne is capable of both space and atmospheric travel, despite being rather un-aerodynamic. In reality, spaceplanes are being designed for air and space flight, such as the British-designed Skylon spaceplane, and these have to take into consideration aerodynamics. When it comes to the Cheyenne, it’s a case of style over substance.”

Could we build it? Most of the technology is here, including the vertical take-off tech, the materials used and the power plant. So yeah?

Would it work? Unfortunately, Bill Paxton was right: It would be an express elevator to Hell, going down.


#3: Serenity

From: Firefly and Serenity

Key specifications:
Build year: 2459 | Class: Mid-bulk transport vessel | Drive: Standard radion/accelerator core | Length: 269’3” (82.1m) | Width: 170’0” (51.8m) | Height: 78’8” (24.0m) (landing gear extended) | Range: 400 AU (max fuel) – 44 AU (max payload)

The Firefly series gained its cult status not only on the strength of its human protagonists and storylines, but also due to the strange allure of the Serenity itself. An old ship already at the start of the series, the Serenity became a character in its own right, suffering inconvenient breakdowns, and demanding frequent attention from its crew, who had formed a personal bond (often fractious) with the ship. As such, it became an inherently believable ship within its narrative, even echoing our own relationships with an old, temperamental car we may have had.

Lending further credence to its believability, the Serenity was kitted out with real aeroplane parts, including the pilots' chairs on the bridge, jet-style throttle quadrants in the engine rooms, Boeing-style control yokes, and even pilots' oxygen masks dotted around the ship. Also, each engine of Serenity is fitted with external navigation indicator lights you see on airliners.

Dr Lavender says: “Quite a scientifically feasible spaceship, Firefly’s Serenity features an aerodynamic design that’s useful for when it enters the atmospheres of planets – important in all spacecraft design. Also, the retro rockets it uses during landing employ a technique we’ve definitely seen before in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo designs, where they use a ‘flipping’ action of their wings to increase drag, slowing themselves down in planetary atmospheres – this ensures that they do not crash to the ground.”

Could we build it? Actually yeah, possibly.

Would it work? If we conveniently look past the fact the reactor uses a hypothetical propulsion drive, then maybe, or until the heat shield panels fall off, at least.


#2: Discovery One

From: 2001: A Space Odyssey

 

Key specifications:
Built: 2001 | Class: Large research ship | Drive: Nuclear-powered magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters | Length: 140.1m | Width: 16.7m | Height: 17m | Range: Interplanetary

Perhaps the oldest vision of the future featured on this list, you would expect the Discovery One to be wildly off the mark when it comes to transferring its fiction to real life. However, the technology imagined here is surprisingly believable, especially as it was conceived before the modern technological explosion of the last three decades. The rotating living chambers create artificial gravity for the crew to be able to walk around, the thrusters are conventional rocket-fuel ones, and the AI assistant isn’t quite as helpful as you expected it to be.

Dr Lavender says: “This is one of the more accurate spacecraft in the movies. Its range was just interplanetary, and its crew compartment span to produce a centrifugal force to simulate the effects of gravity. Its engine is nuclear powered. The nuclear reactors heat gas and turn it into a plasma millions of degrees hot, and this plasma is funnelled out through the exhaust by powerful magnets, propelling the ship forward. NASA is even developing a theoretical model of this kind of engine, called VASIMR, or Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket.”

Could we build it? You know what, let’s try!

Would it work? Very possibly (apart from the whole hypersleep business, but shhh).


#1: Valley Forge

From: Silent Running

Key specifications:
Built: 2008 | Class: Heavy freighter | Drive: Unknown (likely nuclear) | Length: 1,609m | Range: 9 AU (Earth to Saturn)

In the famous sci-fi drama Silent Running, The Valley Forge itself is a fairly simplistic construction. Basically a mile-long girdle with gigantic bio-domes attached, it is the last remaining home of Earth’s once-bountiful biome, including everything from deserts to rainforests. Without any outrageous technology apart from the bio-domes, the Valley Forge looks like a project humanity might be able to undertake, although there is that pesky solar radiation to consider when it comes to protecting our last few pieces of Earth’s nature.

Dr Lavender says: “At the moment, we’re growing food on board the International Space Station with success, so this is definitely going to be feasible at some point in the future. The sheer size and scale of Valley Forge’s biodomes might take some time to work up to – and there’s the question of whether we’ll be able to sustain the greenery for such long periods of time – but it’s definitely something engineers working on future space technologies have their eye on.”

Could we build it? We already are (in much smaller sample sizes, but still).

Would it work? Work on that radiation issue, and we’ll be up and running!