Posted by: movieotaku | April 24, 2007

Spaceship Maneuverability

Some of the coolest looking FX sequences can be seeing spaceships maneuvering in space. But ever notice that these space ships move more like fighter aircraft in an atmosphere than a craft in space?

In an atmosphere, a plane can turn by banking towards the new direction then pitching the nose into the turn. The air will slow the plane’s forward momentum, and the air deflected by the wings and surface controls will push the plane into the new direction. In space, when you bank and pitch the nose with your engines still running, you will very likely lose control.

The biggest difference between flying in an atmosphere and traveling in space is the atmosphere. That big ocean of gas provides a very convenient medium to bank against, redirect and fly through. Wings can get lift from it, and surface controls can redirect it to move the plane.

In space, which is a pretty good vacuum, your ship will keep going in its current direction unless some other force acts on it. Surface controls are useless because there’s nothing to deflect! Any changes in pitch, yaw or roll must be accomplished by thrusters or their equivalent. To make a 90 degree turn in space, you must first decelerate then accelerate in the new direction. Not as simple as banking and turning in a jet fighter, is it? The only TV show I know of that got it right was Babylon 5. But I guess if it looks cool, that’s all that counts in Hollywood.



  1. One of the guffawingly silliiest scenes I’ve ever seen is that of the ditzy pilot bimbo in “Starship Troopers” looking behind her to reverse the freighter – like she’s reversing a Mini!

  2. The newer Battlestar Galactica actually got this right – there was a scene where a pilot flipped his fighter around and shot a pursuing missile.

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