How to Design Spaceships in Sci-Fi: A Complete Guide for Authors
Is there anything more iconic in the sci-fi genre than spaceships? The USCSS Nostromo, the Heighliner, the Millenium Falcon, Serenity, the Hermes… I’m sure at least one of those famous spacecraft evoked some fond memories in your head, and I could go on for ages listing off even more.
The thing about these spaceships is that they become more than just another detail in your story. They can be a setting, a crucial tool for your plot and fictional crew, and even somewhat of a character themselves (especially if they have some built-in artificial intelligence).
And if you want the spaceship in your novel to be a reader’s new favorite, you’ve come to the right place. Heck, even if you’re just looking for a guide to writing a good spaceship, I’ve got your back.
In this (inter)stellar guide, we’ll be discussing:
- The fundamentals of spaceship design
- Integrating futuristic technology
- Developing aesthetics and iconic features
- Mapping out the interior of spaceships
- Designing alien technology
- Balancing realism and your imagination
This is going to be a fun one. So do a final systems check, punch in the coordinates for Gliese 667 (or whichever star system you want to visit), and prepare for liftoff.
Foundations of Spaceship Design in Science Fiction
Before we can think about navigating wormholes and equipping our crafts with planet-destroying cannons, we need to understand the basics of spaceships. Assuming the vast majority of people reading this article (myself included) aren’t NASA engineers or astronauts, this can be a daunting task.
As science fiction authors, there are a few things we need to accept:
- A good amount of our readers gravitate towards this genre because of its scientific accuracy or plausibility;
- We need to do more research than most other writers, especially compared to other literary fiction authors;
- Even with those two things, someone, somewhere, will find a scientific flaw in something you write;
- And that’s okay
That last item on the list might be the most difficult to accept, but it’s also the most important. We’ll touch more on balancing realism later in this article, but remember that half of science fiction is fiction; while we dissect the basics of spaceship design, don’t feel like you need a Master’s degree before you start brainstorming.
The spacecraft you dream up and write about will be your own, as unique as the science fiction novel you’re writing. That said, there are some elements that every star-sailing vessel needs to have.
Function: What Your Spaceship is For
Before you even think about lascannons, jump drives, or the food your crew will be chowing down on in the final frontier, you need to figure out what your spaceship is used for.
There’s a ship for basically anything. Some functions might overlap, while some out-of-this-world designs only serve one purpose. But what your ship does dictates how it looks, what it’s made of, what tools and weapons it would have, and more.
I can’t tell you what your spaceships will be used for; that’s for you and your imagination to figure out. But here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Near-space travel (to moons or nearby planets)
- Long-distance travel (to other solar systems or galaxies)
- Cargo transport
- Spaceship carrier
- Mining or salvaging
- Interdimensional travel
Ships designed for near-space travel won’t need the fuel capacity, cryosleep pods, or resources of a long-distance craft. A mining or salvaging ship doesn’t need the weaponry of dogfighters but will need more than a vessel transporting goods from Jupiter to Io. A crew jumping through dimensions will want a much more durable hull than most other spaceships.
Figure out the purpose of your ship before spending time on all the other details.
Form: What Your Ship Looks Like
First, you want to think about the shape of your spacecraft. With our technology, our current space shuttles are very aerodynamic in their design, because they have to fight against the drag created by our planet’s atmosphere as they attempt to leave orbit.
This sort of design is mirrored in X-wings in Star Wars, some of the most iconic ships in pop culture.
But what if your spaceship was built on a space station or a lunar colony? What if there is no atmosphere to create drag in the first place? That opens up a lot more ideas for the form of your spacecraft.
Think about both the function of the ship and the stressors it’s going to experience. That will help you figure out what shape it’s going to take on.
Materials: Consider the Structural Integrity
Speaking of stressors, your ship is going to face a lot of them. We’re talking different atmospheric pressures, varying gravitational forces, solar storms, space debris, and potentially combat.
Material extends beyond the metal shell keeping everything inside your ship, too. What are the interior components made of? Who is needed for repairs? Is the spaceship modular?
You also need to figure out if the materials you use are real or part of your sci-fi worldbuilding. Either way, I suggest looking into current spaceship construction and architecture then draw a line from where we are to where your current setting could be.
Propulsion: How Your Ship Moves
When you consider what actually makes your ship move, you start to venture from what we currently know to what could be possible in the future or in your fictional world.
I’m not going to pretend to understand the complete science of it (and I’m not one to just rip off Wikipedia and pretend to be smarter than I am), but technology like ion thrusters are grounded in modern science and thus more realistic.
However, more fictional and futuristic science is brought into the fold when you introduce warp drives or hyperspace engines.
While the propulsion systems of your ships will be largely determined by the ship’s function and the technology your builders have access to, this feature will affect the overall design of a spaceship, including size, shape, and layout.
Survival: Considerations for Life Support and Habitability
The last must-have for your ship is how it keeps its occupants alive.
Space isn’t life-friendly, at least not for any sort of life we know about. Oxygen is pretty important. Our bodies are fine-tuned to a particular atmospheric pressure. It’s freakin’ cold out there, too.
The life support system of your ship ties back to its function. A dogfighter doesn’t need to provide multi-day habitability if it is only meant for combat that lasts a few hours. On the other hand, though, colonization and exploration vessels need to sustain life for months, years, or even decades.
Life support can include air recycling, water purification, waste management, living quarters, agriculture, artificial gravity, birth and funeral capacities, medical bays, and more.
Does this mean you need to know or write about every single aspect of your ship’s life maintenance systems? No. Most readers don’t care about interstellar waste management.
But at least understand the basics of how your spaceship keeps its crew alive. Then dig as deep as you want.
Coming Up With Your Own Technologies
Let’s be real: one of the best parts of writing spaceships in your science fiction story is coming up with your own tech. Yes, grounding your ship in real or plausible technology is important, but imagining the gadgets and scientific breakthroughs in your unique world is a lot of fun and can lead to incredible, memorable books.
There’s no limit to what you can come up with, so this section won’t cover every possible imaginary technology. I mean, you could create a craft that melds its pilot into it with some technorganic interface. Or it’s controlled by psionic powers. Or it’s just Joe from down the street blasting off into the great unknown with retro-style control panels.
Truly let your imagination run wild, then make sure everything makes sense (or as much sense as it needs to). Here are some techs to get you started, though, and some principles to consider.
Call me a nerd (I wear it as a badge of honor), but energy sources are one of my personal favorite parts of sci-fi. Maybe it’s because we ourselves are on the cusp of an energy revolution. Maybe it’s because the root of all technology and possible advancements are contingent on energy sources.
Whatever the reason, I want you to be as excited about fictional or futuristic energy sources as I am. Or at least a little bit excited about it.
Here are some ideas for you to consider:
Fusion power - A theoretical step above our own capacity of fission, fusion energy is often depicted as cleaner and more suitable for long-distance travel. This is mimicking the energy creation process of stars themselves, so you might consider radiation shielding, heat dispersion, and magnetic containment fields in your designs.
Antimatter reactors - Take a page from the USS Enterprise’s playbook and fuel your ship with an antimatter reactor. If your society has the science and budget to use the stuff that makes the space between everything we can see to propel vehicles forward, it can lend a solid case for warp drives and the like. Consider how dangerous these reactors can be and what sort of space or design they need to take up in your ships.
Zero-point energy - I’m going to be honest, zero-point energy is a bit above my head. It’s harnessing the power of the vacuum of space itself, and some folks theorized that there is enough zero-point energy in the vacuum of a single light bulb to, if handled properly, boil the world’s oceans. This can drastically reduce the size and increase the efficiency of your spaceships, but you won’t catch me on a spaceship toting around that much energy unless scientists have done a few more studies.
Energy Sources and Worldbuilding
One thing to consider, regardless of the energy source you go with, is how that energy affects your worldbuilding.
I can guarantee you that a society harnessing zero-point energy isn’t just using it for space travel. They can be powering supercomputers and hive cities with it. It could be monopolized by some dystopian megacorp.
Think about the ways your energy sources affect your broader world, especially when it comes to ethical considerations and conflict.
Fantasy readers (myself and my better half included) love their maps. It only makes sense, then, that sci-fi readers love their navigation systems. Unfortunately, we can’t slap these nav systems onto a page at the front of our sci-fi novel.
But what we lack in visual representation we make up for in possibilities. Here are some nav system ideas to consider.
AI-driven systems - There will come a time when our need for scientific calculations and analysis will outweigh human capacity. When you’re hurtling through the abyss of space, you need real-time data processing and decision-making in navigation. Explore how AI systems can handle complex tasks like plotting courses through asteroid fields, navigating nebulae, or calculating FTL (faster than light) jumps. Also consider how an AI-driven ship affects your crew.
Multi-dimensional mapping - If you want to get really trippy, think about mapping beyond our own knowledge of three dimensions. This could take time into account or track elements like gravitational anomalies and antimatter. How can you translate this information into something we can understand?
FTL navigation - Faster than light travel is common in a lot of sci-fi, but that doesn’t mean you should take it for granted. Think about the challenges of FTL navigation, like avoiding collisions, navigating in hyperspace, or dealing with relativistic time effects. You can use this navigation to complicate your narrative with FTL mishaps, if you want to be a mean author, too.
Navigation Systems and Worldbuilding
Guess what? Your nav systems will affect your worldbuilding, too. If you’re able to jump from one galaxy to another in a matter of hours or days, that completely changes trade, diplomatic relations, the reach of a civilization, and access to new resources.
Alternatively, mapping more than the three dimensions we can see opens up more possibilities than I can fathom without another cup of coffee.
Theoretical Physics and Cutting-Edge Technology
Energy sources and nav systems are concrete examples of tech you can come up with yourself, but I’m sure your sci-fi author mind is already brimming with your own spin on things.
To that end, here are some elements of emerging science and technology that you can incorporate into your writing and spaceships.
Emerging technologies - Sci-fi and new real-world tech has always had a two-way relationship. They guide one another, so take a look at advancements in artificial intelligence, nanotech, and materials science. Think about how you can extrapolate these into self-repairing hulls, AI-powered androids, and lightweight, ultra-durable craft.
Theoretical physics - There is almost always a place for theoretical physics in science fiction novels. Do your research and see how you can incorporate string theory and quantum mechanics in a way that is not only feasible but accessible to readers who aren’t experts in those fields.
Science consultants - If you’re willing to pay, there are experts out there who are willing to give you feedback on your ideas, introduce you to a better angle, or dump a fraction of their knowledge on you. Just make sure it fits in your budget and you will actually use the information you get.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again before we’re done with this guide: whatever you introduce—whether in your spaceships or elsewhere in your science fiction novel—has to have some kind of link to our understanding of science. It doesn’t have to be direct or obvious, but your reader needs to be able to grasp at least a fraction of it.
Aesthetics and Iconic Features in Sci-Fi Ships
Beyond their practicality and technological marvels, the aesthetics and iconic features of spaceships cement these galactic crafts into our memories and define the culture of the fictional universes they inhabit.
The design of a spaceship is more than just a shell for its advanced technology; it reflects your story’s tone, the culture of its creators, and the era it represents. Just as the sleek lines of Star Wars’ X-wings capture a sense of agility and readiness, the formidable appearance of Star Trek’s Borg Cube instills a sense of ominous, mechanical coldness.
Crafting Iconic Spaceship Designs
Iconic spaceship designs often blend functionality with a distinct aesthetic appeal. A spaceship's design can be a reflection of the culture and history of its creators, all while putting a unique twist on the craft’s function.
Culture - A ship built by a warrior race might boast aggressive, angular designs with protruding weaponry, while a vessel from a peaceful exploratory society might favor sleek lines and unobtrusive features.
Technology - The level of technology available to a civilization will greatly influence its spaceship designs, too. A society harnessing zero-point energy will have compact, efficient ships, while one using bulkier fusion reactors might have larger, more robust designs.
Genre - The genre of your story can also influence spaceship aesthetics. In a hard sci-fi setting, designs might lean towards the realistic and practical, mirroring contemporary space technology. In contrast, a space opera might feature more extravagant and fantastical designs that prioritize dramatic effect and narrative symbolism over technical feasibility.
Once you’ve considered these big elements of design, think of a way you can make important spaceships stand out from the crowd.
This could mean a distinct paint job representing the skilled pilot. Or maybe it’s a different design entirely, like the Millennium Falcon’s oblong disk shape with a protruding cockpit. Alternatively, it could be something so alien and weird, like the aforementioned Borg Cube, that it lingers with your reader for a while.
Don’t overdo it, though. Pick one, maybe two features of your spaceship and give them a little twist based on the elements above.
Interior Design and Practicality
Up until now, we’ve mostly been focusing on the exterior of a spaceship: what it looks like, how it moves, what you’ve slapped on the hull.
When we venture into the heart of a spaceship, the interior design becomes as crucial as its exterior. This isn't just about crafting a visually appealing cockpit or a futuristic mess hall; it's about creating spaces that are functional, impact the characters, and reflect life within the void of space.
Breaking Down a Functional Spaceship Interior
When you’re writing a sci-fi story, a spaceship’s interior is where the abstract concepts of space travel meet the concrete realities of daily life. The design of these interiors tells a story… one of technological advancement, social hierarchy, and the day-to-day challenges faced by those who call the void their home.
Living Quarters: More Than Just Sleeping Pods
Designing the living quarters on a spaceship is a balancing act between space efficiency and comfort. In a ship bound for distant stars, these quarters can be your characters' (and your reader’s) sanctuary.
Let this fit in with the overall function of your ship and the culture and economy of the civilization it comes from. Are living quarters tight and compact like a modern-day submarine to accommodate a smaller profile and more complex weapons and nav systems?
Or is your starship more akin to a cruise liner with luxury bedrooms, private baths, and room service? Do some people get access to luxury while others are packed in like sardines?
The Bridge: Command and Control
The bridge or command center is the nerve center of any spaceship. Here, form and function merge to create a space that’s both operationally efficient and indicative of the ship's hierarchy.
The design of this area, from the placement of the captain's chair to the configuration of control panels, speaks volumes about the leadership style and the operational dynamics of the crew.
It's also a stage for key narrative moments—battles, tough decisions, and the ever-present hum of a ship carving its path through the cosmos.
Recreational Spaces: A Glimpse into Daily Life
Spaceships are not just about the journey; they're about the lives lived during that journey. Recreational areas, dining halls, and common rooms are as important as any other part.
These spaces offer a glimpse into the social dynamics of the crew, their leisure activities, and how they maintain their mental health in the isolation of space. A well-designed common area can become a hub for character interactions, plot development, and a showcase of the ship's culture.
Alternatively, the lack of recreational spaces can show the reader insights into the culture of your spaceship.
Engineering and Maintenance: The Unsung Heroes
The engine room and maintenance areas are the unsung heroes of spaceship design. These spaces are a testament to the ship's technological prowess and the skill of those who keep it running.
The maze of pipes, wires, and machinery must be more than an industrial backdrop; it should reflect the ship’s age, technology level, and even the resourcefulness of its crew. It's here that we often find characters tinkering, problem-solving, and showcasing their technical expertise.
Medical Bay: A Refuge in Space
In the unforgiving environment of space, the medical bay is one of the most crucial components of any ship. Its design needs to reflect the technological level of the civilization, the types of medical issues anticipated, and the level of care available.
It’s a space that combines the sterility of a hospital with the intimacy of a place where characters are at their most vulnerable.
Similarly, laboratories and science bays tell us what our crew is after. These are places where understanding meets ambition and can be ripe for character and plot development.
The Impact of the Spaceship’s Interior on Characters
More importantly than any room, the design of a spaceship's interior directly impacts its inhabitants. It shapes their daily routines, affects their mental health, and dictates their interactions.
The cramped corridors of a fighter ship can create a sense of intimacy or claustrophobia, affecting crew dynamics. A spacious and well-appointed vessel, on the other hand, might indicate luxury but also detachment and isolation.
As a science fiction writer, when you design the interior of a spaceship, you're doing more than mapping out rooms and corridors. You're creating a setting that will become integral to your story. It's where your characters will live, work, and play; it's where they'll face challenges and celebrate victories.
So, you know, put some real thought into why your rooms are the way they are.
Alien Spaceships and Extraterrestrial Design
Now we’re getting to the extra fun stuff. I mean, everything up until this point (including, if you’ll remember, the thoughts on power sources) has been fun. But, to some sci-fi authors and readers, aliens are the best part of science fiction.
While designing an alien civilization could be a massive article itself, we’re focusing in on alien spaceships for this guide. Before we go on, you need to recognize that these crafts are more than mere vehicles; they're a representation of their entire civilizations.
This is especially true in first-contact situations, so you need to be intentional about their design. That’s a polite way of saying you can’t just throw on spikes because spikes are cool (that’s indisputable), because that imagery will automatically paint those aliens in a certain way for your reader.
At their core, these vessels offer a unique opportunity to explore the creativity and imagination that define the genre, blending the alien with the familiar, the bizarre with the believable.
Here’s how we can do that.
The Creative Process of Designing Alien Spaceships
Designing an alien spaceship is an exercise in creative freedom and speculative science. It starts with a vision—perhaps a shape, a texture, a color—something that sets it apart from human design. From there, it's about building a world around that vision.
Starting with a Concept
Begin with a concept that reflects the nature of the alien species. Are they warlike or peaceful? Technologically advanced or primitive? This initial idea will serve as a cornerstone for the entire design.
Also think about what you want the ship to be used for. War? Mining? Exploration? Commerce?
Even though these are alien spaceships, we can’t ignore the must-haves we established at the start of this article.
Shape and Structure
The shape of an alien spaceship can be a reflection of the aliens’ psychology, culture, or environment. A species that evolved in a dense jungle or aquatic environment might have ships that mimic the flowing forms of nature.
In contrast, a highly logical and communal species might favor geometric, symmetrical designs that reflect their organized society.
Color and Texture
Colors and textures can convey a lot about the aliens’ aesthetics and technology. A ship with iridescent scales could suggest a species that values art and beauty, while a dull, rugged exterior might indicate a utilitarian approach or a ship built for endurance.
Cultural Influences on Extraterrestrial Vehicle Design
An alien culture’s history, beliefs, and societal structures can significantly influence spaceship design. These aspects can be subtly woven into the design, providing depth and backstory without you needing to infodump a neutron star’s worth of exposition.
Use these ships as another tool in your sci-fi toolkit. Here are some things to think about.
Design as a Cultural Expression
Every element of a spaceship can be a cultural expression. Emblematic designs can be incorporated into the hull, the layout can reflect societal hierarchies, and even the choice of materials can tell a story of resource scarcity or abundance.
Even if grimdark isn’t your thing, I’d suggest checking out the variety of ships in Warhammer 40k to understand how alien ship design can mimic culture. I’ll never forget the first time I saw one of the Imperium’s cathedral-shaped ships. Talk about defining the importance of their messed-up faith with a single image.
Technology in an alien ship can be a direct manifestation of the species’ cultural values. A species that reveres nature might develop bio-technological ships that are grown rather than built. Alternatively, a culture that values conquest and strength might create imposing, armored vessels.
Also bear in mind that the disparity between the ships of different civilizations will play a massive role in your worldbuilding and any conflict between those cultures.
Biological Factors Influencing Design
The physiology of the alien species is a critical factor in their ship design. Their size, shape, and physical abilities will dictate the ergonomics of the ship.
Accommodating Alien Biology
Consider the living conditions required by the species. Do they breathe a different atmosphere? Do they prefer darkness over light? These biological needs can greatly impact the interior design of the ship.
Control and Navigation
How the aliens interact with their ship is heavily dependent on their biology. A species with multiple limbs might have complex control panels, while a telepathic species might control their ship through mental commands.
Integrating Technology and Biology
In alien ship design, the line between technology and biology can be blurred. Organic ships, living systems that are part machine and part organism, can be a fascinating area to explore.
This can even extend to ships that are truly alive.
Living ships can be characters in their own right, with their own needs, desires, and abilities. This concept opens up a myriad of storytelling possibilities, from symbiotic relationships between the ship and its crew to ethical dilemmas about the nature of consciousness.
The Role of Alien Ships in the Narrative
An alien spaceship is more than a setting; it can be a catalyst for the plot, a symbol of the alien culture, and a source of conflict or alliance.
The design can reflect broader themes of your story. A ship that is a hodgepodge of different technologies might represent a culture that has grown through conquest and assimilation, while a harmonious, organic design could symbolize a society that lives in balance with its environment.
Really, the only limit is your imagination. These vessels are a way to explore new ideas, to challenge our perceptions of technology and culture, and to bring to life the diversity of the universe.
Whether through sleek lines or organic curves, through bright colors or muted tones, each ship tells a story—of its creators, its passengers, and the worlds they inhabit.
No pressure, but remember that every decision, from the largest structure to the smallest detail, is an opportunity to enrich your world and captivate your readers.
Balancing Realism and Imagination in Ship Design
Listen up, your spaceship isn’t just for deep space exploration or cool dogfights. It serves as a bridge between the known and the unknown, between scientific reality and your imagination.
And getting that balance right is tough.
Science fiction thrives at the intersection of fact and fantasy, which means we’re blending accuracy and invention. The key is to know when to adhere to scientific principles and when to allow your imagination to take the helm.
Understanding the Basics
Start with a foundation in current scientific understanding. Grasping the basics of space travel, propulsion methods, and life support systems can lend credibility to your creation.
This doesn’t mean you need a PhD in astrophysics, but a general comprehension of how things work in reality sets the stage for believable deviations.
When to Bend the Rules
Once you have the basics down, identify where you can bend or even break the rules to serve your narrative.
This might mean faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity, or energy shields—elements that, while currently in the realm of fiction, are rooted in real scientific concepts.
Creating a Believable Yet Fantastical Spaceship
The art of designing a spaceship in sci-fi lies in making the incredible seem plausible. Your creation should be awe-inspiring yet relatable, futuristic yet grounded in some form of reality.
Consistency is Key
Ensure that your ship’s design is consistent within the world you’ve created. The technology and aesthetics should align with the level of advancement and cultural attributes of the civilization that built it. Inconsistencies can jar the reader out of the world you’ve built, breaking the spell of your storytelling.
Detailing for Depth
Details can be a powerful tool in making a spaceship feel real. Think about the materials used, the layout of the ship, and how the crew interacts with various systems. These small touches can make the difference between a generic vessel and one that feels like it has a story to tell.
Tips for Balancing Realism and Imagination
Finding the sweet spot between scientific realism and creative liberty can be a nuanced process. Here are some tips to guide you:
Do your research - Spend time researching current space technology and theories. The more you know, the more confidently you can innovate.
Define boundaries - Decide early on how far you are willing to stretch scientific facts. Setting these boundaries helps maintain internal consistency in your story beyond your spaceships.
Use analogies - When introducing complex or purely imaginative concepts, analogies can be a great way to help readers understand and relate to these ideas.
Consult experts - If possible, consult with scientists or experts in the field. Their insights can add authenticity to your work and spark new ideas. Not that there are a lot of experts in the field of alien spaceships, but you know what I’m saying.
Focus on the story - Remember that the story is paramount. If a scientifically accurate detail doesn’t serve the narrative, it’s okay to modify or omit it. I give you a free pass.
In the end, the believability of a spaceship is not solely dependent on scientific accuracy but on its fit within the story and its ability to captivate the reader’s imagination.
Every aspect of the spaceship’s design should serve the narrative in some way. Whether it’s a feature that becomes crucial to the plot or a detail that deepens the reader's understanding of the fictional universe, ensure that your design choices enhance the story.
A well-designed spaceship should ignite the reader’s imagination. It should be a vessel that readers would want to board (or are terrified to), filled with mysteries and wonders they can only discover by flipping the page.
Set Course for the Far Reaches of Your Imagination
If you’ve made it this far, I’m promoting you to captain of this ship. You’ve put in the work to craft your own killer spaceships in your sci-fi novel, so you deserve the commendation.
Unfortunately, your mission is only just beginning. Now you actually need to get to work and bring that spaceship, its crew, and your universe to life. That’s no small feat.
Don’t worry, I’ve got some tech of my own for you.
First, head on over to this link for a full guide on writing your science fiction story.
Then, get the best nav system/writing tool in the known universe: Dabble. You can grab it for free for 14 days, giving you access to powerful plotting and worldbuilding tools, writing anywhere on any device, goal setting, and so much more without even putting in your credit card info.
Finally, click this link to grab our sci-fi template to give you a leg up on your story.
Now go visit some of those billions of stars and planets with your spaceship.
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