Sci-Fi Space Battles and Submarine Warfare

Want to know one of my favorite sci-fi space battle scenes of all time? Definitely in my top five is the space portion of the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. Even if you’ve seen it dozens of times (and if you haven’t seen it shame on you) go watch it on YouTube real quick and get reacquainted with it.

Still awesome, right? Nothing like that CGI mess at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith. Despite the Battle of Endor being one of my all time favorite space battles, there’s one thing wrong with it: space combat will never be like that. In fact, I have a feeling space combat will be more like submarine warfare.

It’s no secret that George Lucas based a lot of his space battles off old gun camera footage from WWII aerial battles, and it shows. X-Wings and TIE Fighters behave more like airplanes than ships fighting in a vacuum. In fact it’s not until Empire Strikes Back that you actually see a ship do something “spacey”. While trying to escape from Hoth, the Millennium Falcon is being chased by a Star Destroyer and two more are moving to cut it off from the front. This is a good move…if they were on an ocean. In space you have three dimensions to work with, and finally it seems like Han realizes that. He dives the Falcon straight “down” at a 90 degree angle. Because of the Star Destroyers’ mass and inertia they’re unable to make the same maneuver in time and end up crashing into each other.

But that scene still isn’t a very “realistic” depiction of a space battle either. (Yes I know “realistic” isn’t quite the word because to this day there hasn’t been an actual space battle. Just bear with me.)

The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series gets it a little better. The Galactica resembles a submarine more than anything else. Its bridge isn’t exposed on the top or front of the ship. It’s buried in the middle under layers of armor. The crew has to rely on a vast array of sensors and projections to keep track of enemy positions. Still because it’s a TV show, the space battles have to be exciting, so most of them take place at very close ranges where the Galactica and Cylon Basestars. This allows the viewer to see the two ships firing conventional kinetic weapons at each other along with barrages of missiles. Still some aspects of the combat feel more like naval vessels fighting each other than space ships.

However, given the vastness of space, it’s unlikely that two ships engaging each other would ever get close enough to establish visual contact–especially given that light can only travel so fast. If you were far enough away, any visual you’d receive would already be outdated. Therefore space combat will probably take place at great distances and based around highly sophisticated guess work.

Instead it’ll be like two submarines trying to outmaneuver and outguess each other. Submarines have to rely on sonar and other instruments to figure out where their enemies are. My guess is that space combat will be more like that. More like a chess match than two heavy brawlers punching each other in the face. Still that kind of fight doesn’t make for very entertaining movies and TV episodes, doesn’t it? So while my head knows that space battles will happen one way, my heart will still be fascinated by swooping fighters, flashing lasers, and big explosions. I think I’m going to go watch that Endor clip one more time.