Spaceships, Airships, & Other Fantastic Crafts:
Things To Think Out & Consider
Planning to write a space opera about a crew of interplanetary explorers? Or perhaps a cyberpunk fantasy with airships? Or maybe a future-set sci-fi where flying battlestations are a fact of life? In any case, it's helpful to think out a few things about the fantastic crafts you'll be using to avoid plotholes, writing yourself into a corner, or things that just don't really make any sense. So, here's a list of things to consider about any fictional craft you're creating.
Table of Contents
Crafts In General
What your craft is designed for: You're not likely to find suites with queen-sized beds and eat five star meals on a craft designed for combat - but you would find heavy-duty weapons and defense systems that you wouldn't find on other ships. A cargo ship will probably have plenty of room for carrying things around, but wouldn't have the resources and hardware necessary for carrying much in the way of people. A passenger ship would have all that (bunking space, food, waste management systems, etc.), but wouldn't have room for large amounts of cargo and certainly wouldn't be carrying heavy-duty combat weapons.
Fuel: Whether it's rocket fuel, dilithium crystals, or unicorn farts, something makes your craft go. What is it? How long does it last (bearing in mind that it doesn't take any fuel to maintain speed and direction in a gravitationally-smooth vacuum, if you're creating a spaceship)? How easy is it to refuel if it's running short? Where can you go to refuel as necessary?
Other power: What do other systems (eg, computers, air conditioning, life support) run on? Is it the same as the propulsion systems, or is it something else? (It's not really practical to run a computer or air conditioner on rocket fuel, after all.)
Air management: Any closed craft will need a system to keep air fresh, possibly renew the air supply, and clear out potentially noxious gases and particulates.
Waste management: Bodily waste and trash will have to be dealt with somehow, whether it's disposed of or recycled.
Food and water management/storage: If your passengers and/or crew aren't going to be in stasis, they'll need to eat and drink. If they're munching on goods brought aboard, those goods will require storage space. Furthermore, longer trips mean having to store more food, and that the food will have to hold up for long periods of time - fresh bananas aren't going to last over a six-month voyage! If your craft has the capability to replicate food, then the replicators will have to draw power from somewhere.
Cabin fever prevention: Being isolated from the rest of the world while being stuck in a relatively small space over a long period of time can result in restlessness, crankiness, anxiety, depression, and even paranoia. If people are going to be in it for the long haul, what measures are taken to help keep cabin fever at bay?
Fitness management: If your crew is going to be spending a long time working on your craft, how do you make sure that they don't start going all soft 'n mushy? What kind of workout equipment is available? What kind of workout program is recommended? (And remember, it's critical to look after people's' physical fitness in zero-g conditions!)
Damage & repair management: What does the ship carry in terms of spare parts, and how many? (Remember, spare parts take up storage space.) If, say, a fire broke out, how would it be managed? Who or what fixes broken or damaged hardware? If the damage is too extensive to be fixed by whatever or whoever is kept on-hand to fix technical problems, where can the craft potentially go for repairs?
Docking/landing: Where can your craft land or dock? Does it require specialized docking bays/ports, or can it land anywhere sufficiently stable without too much trouble?
Gravity management: Due to shows featuring spaceships being A: filmed on Earth, and B: simulating artificial gravity being expensive and tricky, artificial gravity is a standard feature in science fiction ships that people take for granted. Assuming your ship has artificial gravity of some kind, it's going to need something to generate it.
Getting anywhere on time: Space is huge - so huge that going anywhere even at the speed of light (which goes as fast as it's possible for anything to go) would take months, if not years. (The whole thing where going at near-light speeds compresses time for the people on board can certainly help them get around before they've spent too much time in space, but if other people are waiting for them, that might be a problem.) If you're not going so fast that time is passing extremely slowly in your craft, are the people on your ship put into stasis to keep them from aging during those long voyages? Or does your ship have the capacity to make use of wormholes? Or maybe your ship has a way to travel through some sort of subspace, or some other place where faster-than-light travel is possible. Or maybe the light barrier just doesn't exist in your universe.
Stasis management: If faster-than-light or wormhole travel isn't available, then you might put your crew into stasis to keep them from aging and dying before they reach their destination. The main question is how. Cryonics have been used by some authors, but can easily break the suspension of disbelief of more science-savvy audiences because in reality, frozen people would die due to the freezing process creating ice crystals that would tear their cell membranes apart. Maybe your stasis process has something to keep ice crystals from forming, or maybe it uses some kind of funky time distortion effect, or something else.
Air pressure problem management: High altitudes can cause a number of health issues in people due to low air pressure and low amounts of oxygen. Does your airship simply cruise at relatively low altitudes and avoid this problem altogether, or can passengers and crew head belowdeck into a pressurized environment when it takes to high altitudes? Or can the deck seal off and pressurize somehow?
Power failure contingency plans: If the airship's total weight is heavier than the air and it doesn't have the ability to glide without power, it's going to end up sinking like a stone if the power goes off. What measures are there to preserve the people aboard, and possibly even the craft if such an event occurs?
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External Resources & References: