What can we learn from the ultimate sci-fi geek chart of warships?
- By Michael PeckMichael Peck is an award-winning writer specializing in defense and national security issues. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers University.
If Captain Kirk had to fight Darth Vader, he’d had better hope that size is not everything. Because the starship Enterprise battling an Imperial Star Destroyer would be like a flea attacking an elephant, if Dirk Loechel is right.
Loechel has created a size comparison chart of ships from nearly 40 sci-fi TV shows, movies, and video games. It shows a Star Trek Constellation-class starship, of which the Enterprise is the most famous progeny, being only about 300 meters long. A Star Wars Executor-class Super Star Destroyer, one of the largest ships on Loechel’s chart, is 19,000 meters long (or 11.8 miles, because the Empire would be evil enough to reject the metric system).
A starship size chart may be the ultimate in geekery, but the notion that size reflects naval power is not. A 2,000-ton ship-of-the-line was reckoned more powerful in a Napoleonic fleet action than a 900-ton frigate; likewise, 20th-century naval powers raced to have mammoth battleships and cruisers, because larger ships could carry bigger weapons and thicker armor. Today’s U.S. supercarriers aren’t just awesome because of their firepower; these ships are also as long as football fields.
One conclusion from Loechel’s chart: Hollywood science-fiction screenwriters and video game designers are megalomaniacs. Or, perhaps writers of naval science-fiction suffer from naval dwarfism. The 19,000-meter-long Star Wars Super Star Destroyer is joined by the 18,000-meter Ragnarok-class Titan from the EVE online game and the 10,000-meter Eternal Crusader mobile Chapter Fortress from the Warhammer 40K tabletop miniatures game (Loechel’s chart doesn’t even include the Death Star). In contrast, most Star Trek ships seem like faster-than-light midgets at less than 500 meters long (not hugely bigger than a U.S. Navy Nimitz-class carrier at 330 meters). Even a dreaded Borg Cube is only about 1,500 meters, while the famous Doomsday Machine, which was slicing up planets 10 years before the Death Star was born, comes in at only 2,700 meters. Most Babylon 5 starships run about 1,000 to 2,000 meters, while the Battlestar Galactica is 1,445 meters long. The ships from David Weber’s Honorverse series of novels — the sole book-based universe on Loechel’s chart — are mostly 500 to 1,000 meters.
Loechel himself confesses to being surprised at the size difference between the universes. "I was surprised how different universes scale," he told Foreign Policy. "Star Wars has a much wider spectrum of ship sizes than, say, Star Trek or Babylon 5. The biggest surprise, though, has been Babylon 5. I really thought those ships were larger. And the Wall-E ships, which turned out significantly larger than I had thought from the movie." Impressive as the chart is, it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the starship pantheon, according to Chris Weuve, a naval expert and former professor at the U.S. Naval War College, who also writes extensively about science-fiction space warfare. Missing are ships from TV shows such as Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, Doctor Who, and Starlost, as well as numerous novels such as the Lensman and Perry Rhodan novels.
And despite their size, power and ability to travel through space, many of these ships would be conceptually familiar to the U.S. Navy. "Oh, there’s an occasional ‘marauder’ or ‘titan’ or some such name to mix it up a bit, but I see lots of frigates, destroyers, cruisers, carriers and the like, perhaps with a superlative like ‘heavy’ thrown in to the name for good measure," Weuve says. "This says a lot about where creators of science fiction go for inspiration. They go to the past."
But let’s get to the elephant in the room. How does Loachel even determine the size of fictional starships when Jane’s Fighting Ships doesn’t (yet) include the specifications for Romulan Birds of Prey? It’s not easy, says Loechel, who first became interested in the project as a way to compare ships between the Star Wars and Warhammer 40K universes. He was forced to scour information from a variety of sources, notably the somewhat dusty Starship Dimensions site. "Generally, my sources for length, if at all possible, are from Wikipedia. Sometimes, like with Mass Effect, I have to guesstimate sizes of ships from comparison charts. Some of the sizings may be up to debate, especially Stargate, where official stats are highly contradictory. I also repeatedly ran into wikis confusing foot and meter measurements, like with the [Wing Commander] Kilrathi Superdreadnought. Some things I wanted to include, like the movie The Fifth Element, are on hold because I cannot get even guesstimates of the ships’ size."
Loechel believes projects such as his starship size chart make science fiction richer for fans. "It’s just nice to see and be able to imagine what a meeting of, I don’t know, Babylon 5 and Star Wars would look like. It’s these kinds of mind games I sometimes play, and I am sure others do to."