The Art and Science of Spaceship Design I: The Xiezhi from Revolution 60

Here at Giant Spacekat Productions, we are a little company making a big videogame.  Thus, we all wear many hats.  I am, inter alia, Executive Producer, Second Line Texture Artist, the entire Legal Department, and Number One Sandwich Maker and Coffee Bringer to the Head of Development, my wife Brianna Spacekat Wu.
But the title I wear with the greatest solemnity and honor is “Chief Spaceship Designer”.  The wording of this title echoes that of the “Chief Designer,” the mysterious, unnamed genius who ran the early Soviet space program.  While it seemed that our rockets always blew up and our boys always botched it, this Werner Von Russkie had fired the first satellite into earth orbit and shot the first man into space.  My title also speaks of Frank R. Paul, whom I dubbed The First Man to Ever Make a Living Drawing Spaceships.  And also Matt Jefferies, who designed the original Enterprise and Klingon Battlecruiser (though Wah Chang did the Romulan Bird of Prey).  And Ralph McQuarrie, who designed ships for the first Star Wars movie.

These people are giants, and I am humbly walking in their footsteps.

I learned from them that good spaceship design is a confluence of both aesthetics and engineering logic.  Those mandibles sticking out of the front of the Milennium Falcon?  They are for loading smuggled cargo, AND their straight lines play against the curves of the hull and cockpit.  And why are the engine nacelles of the Enterprise so beautifully spaced apart from the rest of the ship?  So, they can be jettisoned, or if they leak radiation or blow up, they won’t kill everyone else.

Spaceship designers, always thinking.

So then it came time for me to design the Xiezhi, the main ship for our game Rev60, all this and more came into play.

Xiezhi beauty shot 21

My first consideration: I wanted a complex shape that would look different from many angles.  This is not the case with, say, the Discovery One from 2001, which is essentially a ball on a rod.  (The designers do get bonus points, though, for symbolism.  The ship is shaped like a skull and spinal column, thus representing the crowning achievement of mankind’s intellect.)

Most modern designers, to get a complex three-dimensional shape, work it out on a computer.  But I didn’t know any 3D programs at the time.  So I started with an older material: Cardboard box.

Xiezhi cardboard 21

This was followed by cleaner, more precise images I made in Photoshop.  These were unbelievably multi-layered and complex, as the ship consists of various engines, spars, oddly-shaped plates, egg-shaped cockpit, and weird pieces like a locust’s mouthparts.  But the diagram could be used by a 3D modeler to generate a computerized version.

Xiezhi Diagram 21

The texture maps for the ship were designed to emphasize and accentuate the curves.


Xiezhi texture maps 21

I wanted this thing to have lots of parts that looked like they could stab you, slash you and grab you.  Something scary as it came at you from the depths of space.  And yet beautiful.

The main design element that does that is the curved spars coming off the engine bells (these curves are echoed throughout).

But, as spaceship design is derived from both art and engineering, I do have science-y explanations for what the spars do.

At the very tip of each spar is a collection of sensor equipment, and a particle beam weapon.  If the weapon were affixed to the side of the ship, the ship itself would create a huge blindspot.  Spaced apart, the weapons have a wider field of play.

Xiezhi Blindspot 21

Another thing that the spars do is act as heat radiators.  The Xiezhi has two sources of excess heat: the engines and the weapons. Particle beams generate a lot of excess heat, and that can damage and deform the collimators (the rings that focus the beam).

Excess heat dissipation is not a new problem for space travellers.

This was such an issue for Apollo that a third of the Service Module is covered by space radiators. Electrical equipment in Command Module heated up, but a system of heat sinks and pipes filled with water and glycol carried excess heat to the radiators.  There the water and glycol would boil off directly into space through micropores.
Sometimes, though, it was necessary to warm the ship, as when it passed through the shadow of the moon, and then the system was shut off.

Uneven heating from solar energy was also a problem: the sun-facing side of the ship could reach 200 degrees Celsius, other side -150.  This could lead to cracking of heat shield and freezing or over-pressuring RCS engines.

The solution? The ship would be slowly rotated every 20 min.  Astronauts called that “Barbecue mode”.

Apollo space radiators 21

Heat radiation was also justification for a ship I designed for an unpublished short story by Jim Terman.  This was about the Chinese space program, and Jim calls his story “The Mandate of Heaven”.  But I like to call it – with a nod to Dan Quayle and Pamela Sargent – “Chairman Mao Goes to Mars”.  This story features a ship, the Chairman Mao, run by sonofusion.  This hypothetical power source, which has since gone the way of cold fusion, uses sound waves to cause cavitation in heavy water.  Essentially, tiny bubbles would form, and when they collapsed, fusion would occur.  The problem with this system was that there was too much energy produced, requiring the use of enormous heat radiators.  So the ship is shaped like a giant flower on Mars:

Chairman Mao 21

And all of that thinking about Apollo and sonofusion and BBQ mode when into our justification for having elegantly curved spars on the Xiezhi that act as space radiators and limit blindspots.

And the spars themselves became this element that tied the entire ship design together, and spurred the creation of a whole design universe.

And, thus, ladies and gentlebeings, I present a descendent of the Xiezhi, another vessel from our game, the massive killer spaceship, the Death Lotus!

Death Lotus 21

I will be back later to talk about the art and science behind how I designed other spaceships!

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  1. First thought: Sponson! That's perfect, Geoffrey. I had been looking for a word to describe these arches. Ah, yes, wikipedia and tell me that they are extensions off the hull for things like fuel storage (not relevant here) or landing gear stowage or added bouyancy to a ship (also not relevant) – but sometimes used for mounting guns. Bingo! That's exactly what we do here.

    Second thought: Spaceship as "masterpieces of art". Those few pieces regarded as "masterpieces" are those that pass through time's gauntlet that, essentially randomly, determines which objects stride through the ages and which do not. I'd like to think that, in many milennia, if we do not survive as a race, one of the things that will remain of us, the stuff that goes into future museums, will be our spaceships. The probes we left buried in the sands of Mars, the descent stages from LEMs, the little robots on their lonely journeys out of the solar system. The earth may be destroyed, or all evidence of mankind buried under glaciers or sandstorms or radioactive debris… but the little probes we've scattered around the solar system will be that which survives.

  2. Jack Vance's "Wyst: Alastor 1716," refers to one spacecraft as follows: "The great hull, with its various sponsons, catwalks and rotundas, had long bee regarded as a masterpiece of the naaetic* art."

    The footnote reads:

    "* From naae: a set of aesthetic formulae peculiar to the Sapce Ages: that critique concerned with the awe, beauty and grandeur associated with space ships. Such terms are largely untranslatable into antecendent languages."

    I believe that this post proves that such grandeur can indeed be encapsulated in an "antecedent" language. Nice job.

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