Rocket Man! Nick Bradbeer on Spaceship Design for Writers

Of all the people I’ve ever met, no-one is as qualified to talk about designing sci-fi spaceships as Nick Bradbeer. He’s a naval architect, a sci-fi geek, and a charismatic public speaker. So when he gave a talk on Space Design Considerations for Writers at Nine Worlds, it was bound to be good.

How History Shapes Our Writing

The reasons we imagine the world the way we do are always fascinating. Nick started out by delving into this territory, talking about the history of how authors have depicted spaceships.

Before the 1950s, space could be whatever the writer wanted it to be. No-one had been there and the reading public had few preconceptions about how space flight should work.

In the 1950s, writers started depicting spaceships in a style similar to airplanes. Rocketry was the hot new thing, jet planes were in the skies, it was natural to see this advanced new technology as the future of space. This led to the Star Wars style winged fighter ships, but also to some more realistic designs based on real rocketry.

Then came Star Trek and with it all the trappings of a navy. The bridge as command point. Crew structures based on those of warships. Bulkheads and metal beams.

It’s a model that’s continued to the present day because it’s familiar. It’s something we recognise from the real world and so can easily wrap our heads around.

But space isn’t really an ocean and that model isn’t inevitable.

Maturing Technology

To understand how technology will be shaped, we need to know who’s shaping it.  This was the next part of Nick’s talk.

Borrowing from the Rocketpunk Manifesto blog, he discussed how technology goes through four stages of maturity:

  1. Experimental – It’s unusual, sometimes unreliable, and almost no-one has it. Like space flight in the modern world.
  2. Government / megacorp – The technology is mature enough to be replicated and used, but so expensive that only the largest organisations in the world can have it. Like submarines or a weaponised Boris Johnson. (I’m kidding. We all know there’s nothing mature about Boris Johnson.)
  3. Commercial / rich – The technology is common but ownership of it isn’t widespread. It’s owned by large organisations and the rich. Like airliners, or maybe access to Boris Johnson. (Just because it’s costly doesn’t mean it’s worth having)
  4. Personal / ubiquitous – The technology is cheap enough to be widely available to individual people. Like smartphones or a platform from which to make cheap jokes about Boris Johnson.

Technology generally moves down this list as it matures. Look at how portable communication devices have gone from the toys of the wealthy to something most people rely upon in the western world. To understand how space travel fits into your setting, it’s important to think about where it is on this scale.

Design Fundamentals

The further down the tech scale something is, the more freedom people have in designing it. They aren’t just bound by function anymore. Aesthetics can play a larger part.

Which brings us to the fundamental factors to consider in ship and so spaceship design:

  1. Role – What is the spaceship meant to do? What features does it need to do that?
  2. Sizing – How big is this spaceship? How big does it need to be to fulfil its role? How much space do you have for all the people and gadgets you want?
  3. Layout – How do the parts fit together? What’s the most efficient way to do this? For example, should the stores be near the galley? Do you want ammunition easily accessible from the big damn gun on the front, or do you want it mostly stored further away to avoid destructive accidents?

Having taken that into account, you get into issues of structure. What is it built from? Is it a skin of some material over reinforced beams, like in real life ships and planes? Does that structure show?

And then there’s your near-inevitable faster than light drive. It’s the big damn lie powering any sci-fi spaceship. But hey, this is speculative fiction, you need a few of those lies.

The People Side

And then there’s the people side. As Nick said, “Technology miniaturises but people don’t.” People need somewhere to sleep, to eat, to work, to rest. They need to exercise. They need meals. They need air. They need to be protected from the heat created by engines and from the icy void of space.

Odds are, people and their needs will take up a lot of space on your ship. Are they given lots of space because it’s a luxurious cruise liner, or crammed in together in a dystopian manufacturing fleet? How does this affect the ship’s size and other requirements?

And something that wasn’t touched on in the talk, but that fascinates me – how does that affect the behaviour of those people? What dynamics arise depending on how a ship is laid out?

Questions About Space

This talk didn’t provide answers to the question “what should my spaceship be like?” Instead, it provided something far more valuable – a host of questions for writers to consider when designing their ships. It was a great talk with lots of food for thought.

Here’s hoping Nick can be persuaded to do one on airships next year.


One of the things I love about writing challenges is the different ways people interpret the same brief. It’s fascinating how our minds go in different directions from the same starting point.

My friends and I went through a similar experience last week when I set them a Lego building challenge. It was:

Build a Lego spaceship called the Terrible Turtle, to whatever scale and style suits you. It has to have:
– space for at least two crew
– a secret compartment
– some obvious propulsion system

And here were the results:

The Terrible Turtle by Dr Nick
The Terrible Turtle by Dr Nick

First up is Dr Nick’s Terrible Turtle. Dr Nick had an edge on the rest of us, as he’s a naval architect, so pretty expert at ship design. But he’s also a very busy man who ran out of time for a big build, so made the most of ‘whatever scale suits you’. I like how much you can evoke with so little Lego, like when the perfect word tells you everything about a scene or character. Also the lasers are firing, which is cool.

The Terrible Turtle by Monkey Ghost Presents
The Terrible Turtle by Monkey Ghost Presents

The next Terrible Turtle was designed by Matt, who does cool illustrations as Monkey Ghost Presents, which you should all check out. It turns out he’s also something of a perfectionist, who got really into working out how to make functional landing gear. This picture doesn’t quite capture the full majesty of those mechanisms, but does show what a sleek, functional minifig-scale ship he came up with. I also like its backstory, in which it’s made up of parts from different ships. Thinking about the history of places and characters can help inspire interesting details, in writing as in Lego.

Andy spaceship
The Terrible Turtle by Andrew Knighton

Last is my own entry. If you’re thinking ‘that looks like half a castle stuck on top of a frisbee’ then you’re not far wrong, as I didn’t check whether I had ship-shaped bricks before setting the challenge. Still, there’s a detailed engine under the hood and a secret compartment under the captain’s cabin.

Space Batman wants to know who stole his face
Space Batman wants to know who stole his face

Being a writer, I of course got into thinking about characters too, and assembled a distinctive crew. They may not be the heroes this universe needs. In fact, given that they’re drunk in charge of a spaceship, they’re probably not heroes at all. But I had fun inventing them.

If anybody reading this feels like assembling, drawing, writing about or otherwise presenting their own take on the Terrible Turtle I’d love to see it. But for now it’s Saturday, and I’m off to play with my Lego.

Have a fun weekend!