A brief illustrated history of great pop-culture spaceships
Space. The final frontier. Also: so hot right now! This year, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy—to say nothing of the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens—continued feeding audiences’ appetites for all things extraterrestrial, picking up where the Oscar-winning Gravity and rebooted Star Trek series left off. There are sequels coming for Star Trek, Prometheus, and Guardians, Marvel will keep expanding its cosmic universe in Captain Marvel, and, on the small screen, Syfy is planning a rebooted version of the grandaddy of all space operas, Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001.
What does that mean for fans? Well, among other things: more spaceships. Whether from movies, TV shows, graphic novels, or sci-fi literature, the great fictional spaceships of the past century-plus have cemented their place in the pop-culture canon as they soared through the cosmos. As we steadily approach the era of Peak Spaceship, it’s worth revisiting some of sci-fi history’s most memorable crafts. To that end we enlisted minimalist illustrator S. Preston of S. Preston Designs, who also provided commentary for each of his spaceship reinterpretations.
1950: X-FLR6, the spaceship designed for Tintin in Destination: Moon and Explorers on the Moon
S. Preston: This spaceship is already minimalist since it comes from a cartoon. That made it easy to design—I only needed to crop just enough of the checkerboard pattern to make it recognizable.
Franich: Created by beloved French graphic novelist Hergé a decade before the first actual moon landing, the design resembles a V-2 Rocket, which means it looked futuristic when it first appeared and now looks positively vintage. The X-FLR6 is one of the great Pop Art images—at one point, the Pompidou, a modern art museum in Paris, proudly had a building-sized poster of the spaceship outside.
1966: Enterprise, the Constitution-class Federation starship from the original Star Trek series
S. Preston: It blows that the USSE has gone through more design changes than Lady Gaga does costumes. I decided to just crop and find an angle that is simple yet recognizable. Sorry, no lens flare.
Franich: There is something simultaneously stately and strange about the Enterprise, especially when you see it on the original series, sailing through a spacescape with primordial special effects. The glowing warp drive, the pizza-platter upper level. No one can ever quite agree on just how big the Enterprise is supposed to be, and years of adventures revealed a whole elaborate world within: a bridge, a bar, living quarters, endless corridors, and endless Jefferies Tubes veining throughout.
1968: Discovery One, first seen in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey
S. Preston: Deep space is inherently minimalist. So I used the negative space to help recreate a minimalist memorable moment in 2001 when Hal chooses to off Frank.
Franich: The Discovery is one of the great “realistic” spaceships, reflecting both Kubrick’s and Clarke’s penchant for rooting their far-flung philosophical explorations in a gearheaded factuality. A centrifuge creates the illusion of gravity, leading to the memorable scene of astronaut Dave Bowman jogging around his spaceship like a hamster wheel. Any filmmaker who attempts to create a “hard sci-fi” movie is always working in the shadow of Kubrick, Clarke, and the Discovery.
1975: The Eagle Transport, from runaway-moon TV cult classic Space: 1999
S. Preston: I’m in my 40s and this is a major flashback even for me. I didn’t need to over-think this design—if you get it, you get it (and you’re old, too).
Franich: The chintzy majesty of Space: 1999 is a delightful throwback aesthetic from the era before glistening digital visions of space travel. The show imagined a Moonbase in the far future of 15 years ago, with the lunar citizens hurling through space. Their preferred method of travel: The Eagle shuttle, a vaguely geodesic gray vehicle.
Next page: The greatest spaceship of them all?
1977: The modified YT-1300 light freighter known as the Millennium Falcon
S. Preston: Every sci-fi fan knows the Falcon, so using anything with the physical shape was too obvious. With this, I had the liberty of choosing a more obscure approach to my design.
Franich: The Millennium Falcon is the polar opposite of the Discovery. Where the earlier spaceship was designed to emphasize the impossible realities of space travel, the Falcon is a hot-rodding fantasy: a suped-up junker that appears to be assembled from a couple million spare parts. The asymmetrical design gives Han’s baby more character than the usual spaceship, with the jutting cockpit on the starboard side.
1977: The Falcon’s in-universe adversary: TIE Fighters, the preferred method of transport for expendable Imperials
S. Preston: Sometimes, a good minimalist design is not about how the image is cropped or that it’s a shape we recognize. It may simply be that a pattern is all you need—a pattern you just can’t quite put your finger on.
Franich: Perfectly designed enemy shiplets, TIE Fighters don’t make much sense on a scientific level but work perfectly as fantasy. They’re like giant technological bats, flying through the emptiness of space making a monstrous roar. Part of the running joke about the TIE Fighters is that they’re so cheap that the worst X-Wing pilot in the galaxy could take down three of them by accident.
1982: The SDF-1 Macross, from classic anime Robotech
S. Preston: I lurve Robotech, so this was pretty exciting. So much to choose from! But one thing I always remember is the choppy animation of the shoulder cannons rising into the sky when it transforms to battle mode. #TeamMiniMe
Franich: The Macross is actually an alien spacecraft designed for giant extraterrestrials. If the Discovery is realistic and the Millennium Falcon is fantastical, then the Macross is a hallucination made barely manifest: an impossibly massive battleship that can transform into a skyscraper-sized attack bot, Transformers-style. It’s one of the great unhinged visions from the sci-fi anime genre.
2014: The Ranger from Interstellar, shown here on Planet Point Break
S. Preston: I saw Interstellar and had to design this right away when I got home. This is the point of the movie when the stakes suddenly got really high.
Franich: Christopher Nolan’s space epic is an explicit 2001 homage, but Nolan’s aesthetic splits the difference between Kubrickian metal-realism and a trimmed-down kineticism that recalls early George Lucas. That’s best demonstrated by the Ranger, the tiny shuttle used by the astronauts for their away missions. Flat and aerodynamic, it’s a stealth plane that moves like a helicopter, and it represents a fine intergalactic marriage of form and function.
Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens