3DAD 007 : Sci-Fi Spacecraft Design: Is It Really Rocket Science?

I’m discussing the question of  “Sci-fi spacecraft design : is it really rocket science?” with two special guests: Rob Caswell, who we’ve previously interviewed as a DAZ Studio artist in Session 3 and secondly Tom Peters who likewise publishes artwork on DeviantArt.

The topic is whether more science should be involved in sci-fi ship design, or should we just go with cool looking ships that would end up burning up in the nearest atmosphere!

After listening to the discussion, I’d love to know your thoughts on sci-fi spacecraft design – are you more pro-science or pro-cool looking design in not worrying about the science or somewhere in between.

You can download the podcast 

      1. here

About Rob Caswell

Since his fingers could hold a pencil, Rob has been passionate about designing sci-fi spacecraft. He was trained as scientist but is terrible at math, so he’s spent his career as an illustrator and designer.

He’s produced illustrations for many games, in many formats, and has done interior illustrations for a number of sci-fi novels. You can see his current works on his Deviant Art profile under the username Arcas-Art.

About Tom Peters

Tom Peters has been thinking about spaceships since his childhood. He isn’t a rocket scientist, but he’s worked with some, as a Technical Illustrator for a NASA subcontractor. He’s been an Illustrator and designer in the computer and paper game fields, and has done cover art for science fiction novels.He’s also a Insturment-rated Private Pilot.

You can check out his illustrative works at Deviant Art under the name Drell-7.

Covered in this Session:-

1. What separates a “bad” sci-fi vehicle design from a “good” one?

Factual spacecraft have their designed firmly centred in function. But you would hope that fictional spacecraft design should hopefully be advanced enough to include more aesthetically pleasing features. A bit like the Ford Model T vs the DeLorean.  Early cars such as the Ford Model T doesn’t even have cup holders, but the DeLorean has cool doors and is made of out stainless steel and it’s so good it gets its own movie!

Science fiction has an audience, that includes scientists that design space hardware– but even they want to be entertained! Organisations creating real world spacecraft now have tight funding, so designs can’t afford to be superfluous.

What is “bad” and “good” depends on your scii-fi audience. You could broadly divide sci-fi audiences into:-

  1. Functional nerds. (2001 :  A Space Odyssey)
  2. Entertainment fans. (Star Wars) (They don’t care about function – just speed)
  3. A Mix of the Two (Star Trek) . They like nice looking ships, but they would prefer some explanation (even if its an attempt) about how some of the bits work.

But perhaps an official answer is that a good a sci-fi spacecraft design has the majority of it based around function, rather than cool looks or too many greebles.

2. Since it’s science fiction, does it even matter?

It matters if you want to earn a fast buck and fill movie seats or have your sci-fi authored books fly off the shelf!

What do you want your audience to do? To react with “cool” and drool, or to talk about the finer points of how ion drives work?

By coming up with designs that have style you can just “reverse engineer” the functionality back into it. Imagination will find a way.

3. What do you think of as some of sci-fi’s “bad” designs, and why?

Find out in the podcast what we consider the worst designs in the universe to be.

4. What about the genre’s “good” designs, and why?

5. Isn’t it asking too much for artists to be scientists AND engineers as well?

Yes. It’s hard enough to learn all the knobs and buttons to create a 3D digital model in the first place. The artist is craving feedback as well; is he going to get it by designing a functional and ugly spaceship?

6. Are there any cases where what you call “bad” designs that could be good?

Is this  a case of “reverse engineering” the functions back into a sleek (or bad) design.

7. What do you see as the forces that have shaped scifi spacecraft design through the years?

– Designs influence other designs…eg Leonov influenced Omega Class Babylon V destroyers. There’s a rotating space station and a streamlined space shuttle in George Pal’s 1954 Conquest of Space that prefigured 2001 A Space Odyssey by some 15 years.

– Industrial Light & Magic’s (ILM) Colin Cantwell created the concept model that established the TIE fighter’s ball-cockpit and hexagonal wing design for A New Hope. Initially given a blue color scheme, the TIE fighter models for the first Star Wars movie were grey to better film against a bluescreen; TIE fighters in the next two movies shifted back to being a muted blue.

Budgets due to popularity of sci-fi at the time. Eg Star Wars was produced on a low budget from models made with bashed up model kits.

– It depends on how the illustrators and production designers were directed. 2001 was driven by functional accuracy so NASA input was involved?

– Star Trek Star Trek art director Matt Jefferies designed the original Enterprise, which was originally named Yorktown in series creator Gene Roddenberry’s first outline drafts of the series. Jeffries’ experience with aviation led to his Enterprise designs being imbued with what he called “aircraft logic”.

– According to Star Wars creator George Lucas, the Falcon’s design was inspired by a hamburger, with the cockpit being an olive on the side.  The ship originally had a more elongated appearance, but the similarity to the Eagle Transporters in Space: 1999 prompted Lucas to change the Falcon’s design.

8. Who do you see (directors, production designers, and/or artists) doing the best spacecraft design today?

Action Items

  • If you feel compelled to do so, leave us a review on iTunes!
  • If you have an opinion on spaceship design, leave a reply to this post.
  • What is your favourite spacecraft design? Your worst?


1. So you want to build a rocket and get some good science on how to do so?


2. Tom and Rob decided to design the Leonov spaceship model from the description and concepts written in “2010” by Arthur C Clarke. This ship was agreed to be one of the more scientifically accurate spacecraft in popular fiction.

You can see artwork with the resulting model here:-


3. More handy rules for designing spacecraft “Atkin’s Laws”


4. A light hearted list of the top 100 spaceships in movies



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