These little editorials/rants seem to be getting some more attention than I expected, so I had better speed them up!

The Details

Bear with me, as this section does seem rather broad.  We will be jumping around a tad, but for the most part we will be centering on the hull.

Windows

The original Enterprise was amazingly spartan in its design.  That wasn’t an accident, as designer Matt Jeffries went out of his way to make sure it looked like a functional ship based off of warships of the time.  It may have also been because he was working on a budget and windows out into space are expensive, but who’s going to nitpick . . .

Killing dinosaurs with Nerf guns isn’t easy, but it sure helps the budget.

To understand why the windows are such a problem, we need to look back at history and an airplane named the de Havilland Comet.  The Comet was the world’s first jet liner and was a miracle of engineering . . . right up until it started disintegrating for no apparent reason.  Teams of engineers from across the industry descended upon the plane’s design in an effort to find out what was happening and apply whatever fixes they could across all manufactures.  After all, if all jet liners were going to be falling apart the same way EVERYONE had a problem.

The problem was a laughably small one:  The Comet had square windows.  Sharp points are what’s called “stress concentrators“.  This is why you will never see a window with a 90 degree corner on any airplane you ever fly on (at least not one that was designed to keep you alive).  Even with the rounded corners, however, the stress is still in the supporting structure.  Now it’s just been reduced enough that the frame can withstand it.  This is also why windows on airplanes can’t be above a certain size or too close to each other.

Immediately I can see two arguments coming up from people about this, so let’s get them taken care of right away:

  1. “But Zuke, the windows on Starfleet ships aren’t square either!  They have rounded corners too!”  You are absolutely right!  Whether because they knew of this principle or to make us feel like it was designed more like a modern airliner, the modern Enterprise does not have square windows.  However, to make them look pretty for TV, they’re HUGE.  They’re also EVERYWHERE!  Remember that the rounded corner doesn’t remove the stress; it only lessens it.  Being in space with a pressurized ship is a lot more stress on the windows than being in a Comet.
  2. “Yeah, but I’m sure the futuristic materials the ship is made out of can handle it!” I can’t really argue this one; it’s fictional material.  It’s very possible that the window is just transparent metal (like “transparisteel” from Star Wars), in which case the window is merely a huge source of heating loss.  Working on a basic understanding of physics and engineering, however, points out it’s a very bad design.

It’s like there’s a window for each set of chairs to be ejected through, Dr. Evil style.

Shuttlebays

Many of the larger ships in Star Trek have their own shuttlebay, an intersteller car-park where you can leave your ride.  The Enterprise D has three of them, all rear facing.  The problem with shuttlebays are that they are very complex parts of the ship and take up a lot of room.  Inevitably, something important is going to be put near them that shouldn’t be.

“Why does this matter?”, you ask your monitor as you read this.  In the shows we see the little shuttle come in and land gingerly in a perfectly executed manner.  This is mostly because of two issues; 1) special effects are cheaper that way, and 2) humans don’t see things in scale very well.  That shuttle may look small and it’s moving at a slow pace, but remember that if you were next to it it would be about the size of a small bus.  A small bus that just traveled the length of the ship (642 meters) in a few seconds and now needs to stop and land like a downy feather.  A downy feather that just went from being in zero-g to within the Enterprise’s gravity well in under a second.  While perhaps I’m being unkind, this does sound a bit like landing on an aircraft carrier.

“Well they do THAT all the time!”, you say, forgetting your monitor doesn’t care.  Yes, they do. That’s not the point.  The point is there’s still a lot of danger to it, and the more shuttles you launch or retrieve the higher your risks that something WILL go wrong.  Put another way, the shuttlebay is the one area of a ship that you are expecting large mass objects at varying speeds to get dangerously close to the hull.  So why would you then put something dangerous right next to them?

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In each of these, you have a worst case scenario that ranges from killing civilians to killing the senior staff to blowing up the ship. Of course, some ships are better designed than others (namely the Sovereign and the Luna).  Many of the ships in Star Trek, however have turned something that was already stressful (landing on a carrier) into something potentially catastrophic (landing on a carrier runway lined with propane tanks, pressure switches, and kittens).

Weapons

This one isn’t actually that bad, but since we’re talking about little details I thought we should still add it.  Some ships in Star Trek have their weapon loadouts already in place when the ship is being designed.  Other ships don’t really have any set specifications until the writers decide what should be on it, long after the model was built.  The USS Defiant from DS9 is a perfect example of the later; there are no obvious weapon ports on the ship as writers didn’t really decide what the ship would have until after it was made.  As a result, phaser bursts and torpedos just kind of “appear” from spots on the front.

For the ships that are properly designed, however, you can tell a lot of care went into the placements with one major exception . . . the fore torpedo launcher.

The phaser strips you see on a ship are pretty noticeable and usually cover every arc of the ship.  Many times they even overlap for additional protection and redundancy.  It’s worth noting that the phaser banks are not only meant as offensive weapons but also defensive tools to keep asteroids and debris away from sensitive areas of the ship.

The fore torpedo launcher, on the other hand, is typically on the “neck” of the ship, just under the saucer.  This does give it a nice firing arc, just so long as your target is beneath you.  It doesn’t seem to matter which ship you’re talking about either (with the exception of the Akira-class, Miranda-class, and Nebula-class); if it has a saucer section, the torpedoes will launch from under it.  This means that any enemy that has the common sense to come in from “above” you is free and clear from your most powerful weapon.  It also gives them a nice clean shot at your bridge.

There aren’t any real reasons given as to why this is (at least none that I can find).  If I had to guess, I’d have to say it was purely for dramatic reasons.  If the Enterprise is ever firing its torpedoes, it’s doing so from a superior position.  This lends itself well to a pleasing cinematography, as anytime you see it firing it’s front weapons it looks like the “hero”.

I am so much better than you! Now die!!

Docking

Do you know where the docking port is on these ships?  In the most inaccessible part of the ship.  It’s not entirely the designers’ fault as ships built this way were clearly never meant to dock with anything as large as another ship.  They put it wherever they could!  Want to dock the Enterprise to DS9 (like they did in the pilot)?  You can’t!  Not unless  you decide those arms on the station are now ALSO docking points and they plug into some arbitrary point on the saucer.  Want to dock the Defiant?  Tough luck.  Unless you just want to smash its nose up against the docking ring like a kid terrorizing the animals in a zoo enclosure.  Let’s ignore the fact that the nose is also the deflector shield emitter AND the top secret break-away weapons package (see my earlier notes on weapon placements).

The fact is that by making these ships as curvy as possible, designers limited them on the way they can link together when docking.

 

How Do We Fix It

In this case, it’s really up to whoever wants to.  Since none of these things is really about elementary physics (with the possible exception to the windows), it really is up to the designer.  Maybe a certain designer WANTS their ship to be at a tactical disadvantage.  Maybe another designer decides their ship doesn’t need a shuttlebay at all.  Where Matt Jeffries designed his Enterprise to be “Navy-like”, the Enterprise D was designed to be a “space Hilton“.   Unlike the other parts of how Star Trek Ships Are Wrong, the details are less about what is straight up wrong  and more about what isn’t taken into consideration enough.

 

Next is Part 5: The Conclusion

 

  • Stephen J. Grenleski

    It was shown in Star Trek First Contact that they didn’t use glass, it was force fields.

  • You know, I had completely forgotten about that scene! I have no idea why anyone would want to have a window that required a constant power supply just to keep from killing you. Seems like a slightly bad idea, wouldn’t you think?

  • Ruben

    “This is why you will never see a window with a 90 degree corner on any airplane you ever fly on (at least not one that was designed to keep you alive).”
    ->The Douglas DC-3 has flown since 1935, and still flies today, with 90-degree cornered windows.
    -> In the golden age of aviation most airplanes had 90-degree cornered windows (Ford Tri-Motor, Fokker XVIII, etc).
    The problem you cite is only about pressurized cabins, where the air inside the plane pushes the aluminum skin and creates stress where the rivets hold the skin. That never happened with the DC-3, the Ford, etc. They never disintegrated in flight because of the shape of their windows.
    And although the Comet (1949) was the first jet airliner, it was not the first pressurized airliner. That was the piston-engined Boeing 307 stratoliner (1938). The 307, with pressurized cabin, had 90-degree cornered windows before the Comet, and no incident regarding pressurization ripping the cornered windows happened to it.

  • Johnny Humphrey

    Remember in Star Trek 4, Mr Scott built a holding tank for whales from transparent aluminum. I assume the windows would be made from the same material.

  • Ruben,

    Those are some awesome facts! Thank you! As you seem to know more about them than I do (not being sarcastic, you really do) could you tell me if there was a difference in cruising altitude or some other factor that might explain why the Comet and jetliners after it follow this but it didn’t happen to the 307?

    This is an assumption (believe it or not, but I’ve never actually been on a starship in space) but I’d imagine the interior pressure of the Enterprise would be greater than that of a jetliner. You are correct about the DC-3, however, so I should probably say you aren’t LIKELY to fly on an airplane with 90 degree angles on the windows.

    Thanks again!

  • Johnny,

    That’s an assumption I could get behind! It makes a lot of sense, and as it happened long before these ships were “made” in the future it would fit the timeline perfectly. I say we go with that.

    Even so, the walls of any ship should be thicker than a single layer (or even a few layers) of transparent aluminum. Assuming that the ships didn’t need a massive cooling network to keep heat expansion at bay, you’d still be loosing a large amount of heat and energy through those massive windows. With display technology where it is, it’d most likely be far more economical to make high definition “window displays” that could show the outside, a favorite scene, a park, your calendar, etc. The amount of power used for devices such as this is already being pushed down with modern innovations and I can’t help but feel that in a couple hundred years they’d be the better choice. There might still be the occasional window or view port, but not every few feet on every wall like you see on the Enterprise-D.

    Thanks for your comment!

  • On DS9, those “arms” are called the docking pylons. As the name suggests, they allow ships, such as the Enterprise, to dock with the station (17 Ships, 6 Run-About class shuttles, total). Also, the Enterprise D’s docking port is on the neck of the ship. And p.s. to Mr. Grenleski: Picard opens an access hatch to show Lily that she is in space; it’s not a window.
    Not trying to sound snooty, I just really effing love Trek.

  • You are right about those pylons. Still doesn’t mean it’s well-designed. :-\ I did not know that was an access hatch!