If you're looking for another random assortment of galactic hotrods, you've come to the wrong top 10 list.
Don't get me wrong, I love cool spaceships just as much as the next guy. Who doesn't? The inner geek longs to climb into the cockpit of an X-wing starfighter, open up the Swordfish II on the galactic tarmac and slingshot a Klingon Bird-of-Prey around the sun.
But this article is going to answer to a higher calling. It's not enough that a ship is merely redonkulous. Free from the restraints of engineering or even basic physics, most fictional spacecraft manage redonkulousity just fine.
Nope, this list is concerned with which fictional spacecraft would actually benefit humanity in a meaningful way, which out-of-this-world rides would awaken a true space-faring civilization and save us from ourselves.
Let's fire up the engines, shall we? Engage.
Humans are amazing creatures, capable of achieving just about anything we set our minds to. The thing is, we tend to blow our limitless potential on foreign wars and new episodes of "Fear Factor" instead of scientific advancement. Sure, space colonization might ensure the long-term survival of the human race, but we'd far rather watch game show contestants drink donkey semen on network TV.
What if we could just steal spacefaring technology instead of developing it ourselves? That's what makes the SDF-1 Macross from the "Robotech" anime series so appealing. This massive alien battle fortress mysteriously crashed in the South Pacific and, since no one immediately reported it missing, humans spent close to a decade stripping it down like a stolen Honda Civic in a New Jersey chop shop.
Of course, the evil, alien Zentraedi fleets eventually came to look for it, but by then we'd benefited from the stolen science and learned to use the SDF-1 Macross as our own planetary defense system.
Sure, the "Dead Space" video game mostly depicts the USG Ishimura as a haunted-house spaceship overrun with disgusting corpse monsters. But if that's all you remember, you're missing the big picture. This fictional 25th century vessel is also the Earth's largest planet cracker, a class of industrial starship designed to carve up a planet like Thanksgiving turkey and harvest the choice slices.
Sound dastardly? Well, it beats carving up our own planet for delicious mineral ore. When not fueling our worst nightmares, the USG Ishimura represents an industrially motivated and financially sustainable space program. You know, one fueled by money and greed. A planet cracker like this would revolutionize the space exploration business in no time. Orbital shipyards would spring to life, spawning fleets built and fueled from the bones of destroyed worlds.
Sure, we might also unleash a living hell of alien body horror, but somehow I think that's a risk big business is willing to take.
Space exploration is costly, but economic gain isn't the only motivator for human megaprojects. Just consider the pyramid tombs of Egypt or China's vast defensive wall. According to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, war and devotion to divine royalty could also push humanity out into the void [source: Tyson].
So clearly, this Imperial Emperor-class Battleship from the "Warhammer 40,000" universe is exactly what we need. The dark fantasy gaming world exists in a distant future consumed by total war. The human race battles endlessly for its very survival against enemies both alien and heretical.
The result? Well, on one hand, you wind up with a universe of constant, horrific bloodshed. But the upside is that survivalist fear and devotion to a godlike emperor pumps tons of time and energy into spacefaring technology, producing an entire Imperial Navy of gothic vessels such as this one.
Did I mention that it travels faster than light by dipping through an alternate dimension of demonic chaos? Yeah, there's always a downside.
Here's the problem: Human lives are brief, and outer space is really freaking huge. In order to explore the cosmos in a reasonable fashion, we need to travel fast, which takes a toll at the gas pump.
We're talking silly amounts of power here, such as an infinite amount of energy to reach the speed of light (thanks, physics!) or the converted mass of Jupiter to achieve warp travel. So what we really need is a spaceship with a truly phenomenal power source.
The Starship Heart of Gold answers all these prayers, as it depends on what "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams called the Infinite Improbability Drive. Exact descriptions of the technology are somewhat sketchy, as the power source essentially thrives on a blend of theoretical quantum physics and random, surrealist nonsense.
According to Adams, it generates the "infinite improbability field needed to flip a spaceship across the mind-paralyzing distances between the farthest stars." The same technology, he explains, could also cause all the molecules in a person's undergarments to leap simultaneously one foot to the left.
Other side effects include hallucinations, mutations and the spawning of enormous marine animals. Hey, everything comes with a price.
Whether enjoying a Caribbean cruise or enduring a red-eye flight to Boston, you'd probably prefer a thoroughly sober captain -- not one tripping inside a massive vat of drugs.
At least that's the norm in our universe -- not so in the pages of Frank Herbert's "Dune" saga. Yes, the next spacecraft on our list is one of the Guild's heighliners, ships massive enough to carry entire planetary populations, gargantuan payloads and whole armies across the known universe.
Who can you trust to safely pilot such a craft? Not a mere human, that's for sure -- and certainly not a machine. Clearly, you'll want to pass the wheel to a secret society of navigators who imbibe ghastly quantities of the drug Melange.
Also known by its street name "the spice," Melange induces prescience (insight into future events) in the user. This effect allows the navigators to dodge safely the many disasters that await a heighliner on an interstellar jaunt. Heavily atrophied and mutated by their addiction, these navigators float in thick clouds of the stuff, enclosed within special chambers.
Think of it as the ultimate safety feature in a vehicle that also allows us to fold time and space.
Outer space really is the worst. The temperatures are extreme, the gravity is awful and the breathable atmosphere is nonexistent. Forget about creature comforts -- there aren't even any creature necessities up there.
Humans didn't evolve with space travel in mind, but what if there were creatures that did? Science fiction provides us with a wide range of fleshy, living starships to choose from, but few are as attractive as the Leviathans of "Farscape." These sentient, biomechanical organisms thrive in the void of space, while also providing a habitable internal environment. They even grow to meet the specific life support needs of the crew inside it.
The Leviathan Moya serves as a central character in the "Farscape" series, bonded with a special pilot species in a symbiotic relationship. The result is a spaceship that feels an emotional bond to the crew that it sustains and protects.
A spaceship that loves us? Sounds like the way to explore the cosmos.
Living spaceships and psychic navigators are fantastic ideas, but humanity's future in the cosmos is undoubtedly a robotic one. The technological singularity approaches, promising an age when computer intellects outpace the cognitive abilities of their human masters.
Sure, the machines might go all "Matrix" and enslave every last one of us in a battery tank, but what if they proved benevolent? What if they tackled all the complex scientific, political and social problems for us and left us to do absolutely anything we want?
That's where the General Systems Vehicles of Iain M. Banks' "The Culture" series enter the picture. These titanic vessels house vast populations, factories or defense forces -- each controlled by a trio of extremely powerful artificial intelligences called Minds. These number crunchers do all the heavy lifting while the humanoids in their charge are free to peruse whatever sort of hedonistic or altruistic lifestyle they desire.
Wouldn't that be swell? Life in the Culture's utopia doesn't always go so swimmingly, but it does mean interstellar travel without ever having to understand how it works.
Benevolent supercomputers, organic ships made from alien creatures -- it all feels a bit dishonest, doesn't it? Humanity's future in space should be born out of our fascination with the universe, not out of a lazy desire to cruise the stars.
Behold the bridge of the Spaceship of the Imagination, cosmologist Carl Sagan's own fictional starship from the 1980 television series "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage." Outside, the vessel resembled a glowing dandelion seed. Inside, it was all glowing new-age Star Trekery, cathedral ceilings and the ethereal vibes of electronic composer Vangelis.
Fueled by curiosity, Sagan's flagship traverses the far-flung galaxies of the known universe, leveling the twin photon torpedoes of science and physics against even the darkest of cosmic mysteries. The man himself is no longer around to pilot it for us, but his legacy inspires us still.
Every year, a forested area the size of Costa Rica vanishes from the Earth, along with all the dependent species that called it home. A portion of the blame falls to natural causes of deforestation, but millions of hectares yield to the ravages of human climate change and modern agriculture [source: U.N.].
The spaceship Valley Forge, however, might just help matters. Featured in the 1972 environmental sci-fi classic "Silent Running," this converted American Airlines freighter boasts an array of geodesic greenhouse domes, each devoted to a different terrestrial ecosystem and Joan Baez song. A fleet of these vessels keeps the dream of a green Earth alive near the orbit of Saturn, awaiting the day they can return home to revitalize a poisoned and barren world.
That is, assuming the powers on Earth don't decide to nuke the forests and return the ships to commercial service. Leave it to greedy corporations to outfit an environmental seed ship with atomic detonators.
What if Neil deGrasse Tyson is right? What if the only forces capable of pushing us to greatness are economics , war and religious fervor? Is there something broken in the human psyche that prevents us from achieving more? Perhaps it's a blessing that we're sequestered to this single, insignificant world.
If that's the case, we need a fictional spacecraft that can fix us -- a vessel that can travel faster than the speed of human ignorance and escape the gravitational pull of our violent hearts.
In Grant Morrison's comic book epic "The Invisibles," a sentient satellite known as Barbelith intercedes in human events to help the species realize its true potential. Vaguely resembling a dying sun or blood-red eye, the craft allows one character to feel humanity's collective suffering and ultimately enables the heroes to defeat the forces of darkness and achieve enlightenment.
An enlightened civilization of spacefaring humans -- now there's a fiction worth clinging to.
The rides in our favorite sci-fi series are often out of this world. Test your knowledge of sci-fi spacecraft with this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Fictional Spacecraft We Wish Were Real
You don't have to look far on the Internet to find a top 10, 20 or 100 list of awesome fictional spacecraft. All they really have to do is look awesome and do gnarly things. In this article, I attempted to highlight spaceships that illuminate something real about the dream of true cosmic exploration. What hurdles do we have to overcome? What holds us back from, as Carl Sagan puts it, wading out from this shore on the cosmic ocean?
Plus, yeah, I made sure to pick some extremely gnarly spaceships. I hope you enjoyed reading about them as much as I enjoyed writing about them.
More Great Links
- Adams, Douglas. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Pan Books. 1979.
- Banks, Iain M. "The Player of Games." 1988. Macmillan.
- "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage." The Science Channel. 1980.
- "Dead Space" Official Web site. Electronic Arts. 2012 (Feb. 22, 2012) http://deadspace.ea.com/
- "Farscape." The Jim Henson Company. 1999.
- Games Workshop. 2012 (Feb. 22, 2012) http://www.games-workshop.com
- Herbert, Frank. "Dune." 1965. Chilton Books.
- Morrison, Grant. "The Invisibles Vol. 7: The Invisible Kingdom." Dec. 1, 2002.
- "SDF-1." Robotech.com. 2012. (Feb. 16, 2012) http://www.robotech.com/infopedia/mecha/viewmecha.php?id=6
- Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Personal interview. Sept. 22, 2011. (Feb. 16, 2012) http://blogs.howstuffworks.com/2011/09/22/stbym-interview-astrophysicist-neil-degrasse-tyson/
- United Nations. "Deforestation in decline but rate remains alarming, UN agency says." UN News Centre. March 25, 2010. (Feb. 17, 2012) http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=34195