ASK A ROCKET SCIENTIST

Rocket Scientists Weigh in on the Best and Worst Sci-Fi Plot Devices about Space

In honor of May the Fourth be with You, we asked our Aerospace engineers and scientists about their favorites.

The Aerospace Corporation
12 min readMay 4, 2023

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Happy May the Fourth*, Space Enthusiasts! With this unofficial Aerospace holiday approaching, we reached out to the most knowledgeable people we know — our own engineers and scientists—to ask what we can believe from our favorite movies and TV shows about space.

The responses were impressive! Read on to learn about the most unrealistic space movies, what really annoys rocket scientists, and whether we will ever actually see flying cars.

The Good: Science Fiction that’s now Science Reality

There are so many advancements inspired by epic space adventures. It’s exciting to see how many of these once-fictional devices are now part of our lives. From artificial intelligence to advanced propulsion systems, space technology has made remarkable strides in recent years.

Pulling water from the air

“The ‘moisture vaporators’ of the Lars Homestead’s moisture farm on Tattooine have sprung into existence on Earth where some companies are selling office water coolers replenished by condensing water vapor from the air.”

Brian—Technical Staff

Moisture vaporators on Tatooine (left) Credit: Véronique Debord-Lazaro; C-3PO speaks six million languages, the ultimate universal translator. Credit: Lucasfilm

The Universal Translator

Some of my favorite sci-fi requires a number of distinct civilizations to have baseline communications and understanding, which allows them to either fight or foster relations. If we can’t speak each other’s language, we can’t coexist. That holds true here on Earth, too, and the leaps and bounds by which universal translation technology has evolved are amazing to watch!

Parker—Comms Strategy

The Tricorder and Sickbay

“The ‘tricorder’ handheld scanner is also a reality, at least for certain phenomena. I can wave around a portable sniffer for hazardous chemicals and radiation, read temperatures and heartbeats from arm’s length, hunt for buried metal, or zero in on faint radio signals…not all with the same box of course, at least not yet!”

Jim — Project Engineer

“The medical tricorder. The X Prize Foundation launched the Tricorder X PRIZE in 2012 promising to award $10 million. Today’s Apple Watch can measure not just heart rate but also oxygen level and alert at irregular heartbeats.”

Josef — Systems Director

A multifunctional hand-held device that can perform environmental scans, data recording, and data analysis, the word “tricorder” refers to the three functions of sensing, recording, and computing.

“Sickbay-inspired medical devices. Today you can buy many products that help determine your vital signs and other health clues simply by touching your body. The next step could be medical scanners that can be simply waived over your body to read your vital signs, determine any illness, and create a cure in real-time that can be injected within minutes of the diagnosis.”

Leslie—Principal Director

Our Everyday Devices

From earbuds to iPads to Alexa, some of our favorite shows and films imagined them first.

“Lt. Uhura’s wireless communications earpiece essentially the same thing as wireless earbuds we see today.”

Randy — Principal Director

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura made everything look cool (left); Newspads from 2001: A Space Odyssey (right).

“The iPad. In the book and movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, the astronauts used ‘newspads’ that were flat-screen tablet computers. They have even been cited in patent disputes between Samsung and Apple.”

Ted—Consultant

“In 2001: A Space Odyssey, so much tech has become reality. The Newspad is the modern tablet and HAL is pretty much running most home automation systems.”

Tracy — Technical Staff

“Speech Recognition was commonly used in science fiction well before it became commonplace. Captain Kirk was speaking with his computer in the 1960s Star Trek series, but useful speech recognition technology did not become commonplace until the 2000s. Of course, now we have intelligent digital assistants like Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, and Cortana.”

Paul — Principal Director

“The Sonic Screwdriver from Doctor Who created many spin-offs like dental sonic cleaning devices.”

Alex — Senior Project Engineer

Maybe it just needs a colorful straw?

And… Smoothies?

“As a child, I couldn’t believe people in the future would really drink a grey, disgusting liquid for sustenance, i.e. the kind served by Aunt Beru in STAR WARS (1977), but walk into a Jamba Juice nowadays and you’re like, ‘Wow — that TOTALLY came true!’”

Darren—Agile Practices Manager

The Bad: No, just no.

Not all technologies depicted in space movies work in real life. While we’ve seen some incredible depictions of space travel and exploration, the reality of space is quite different. Our experts have some thoughts about what just won’t work.

Jet Packs

Jet Packs? Not so much.

“It seems to me that most Star Wars jet packs would have a thrust vector that does not go through the center of mass of the user. In attempting to take off, the pilot would be sent forward into a low arc and then crash face-first into the ground some meters from where they started.”

Brian— Technical Staff

“Red Shirts from Star Trek. In reality, most everyone has an equal chance of dying.”

Jim—Senior Project Engineer

Faster than Light Speed?

“Faster-than-light communication. If it worked, it would unravel the universe as thermodynamics would be able to run backward.”

Joe—Principal Scientist

“Faster than light travel and time travel: Both break the laws of physics, cosmology, and quantum mechanics to our current understanding and level of knowledge. Maybe when we truly have a unified theory of everything, modifications to those laws will change.”

Alex—Senior Project Engineer

“My personal favorite is the Infinite Improbability Drive from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Probably the most unusual and inventive solution for faster-than-light travel I’ve ever seen, regardless of its inherent (and intentional) ridiculousness.”

James—Sr Project Engineer

“Ludicrous Speed, when Light Speed’s too slow.”

Scott — Sr Project Engineer

Stealing the Space Shuttle?

“Moonraker (1979), the James Bond movie where he flies into space starring Roger Moore opens with a couple of goons stowing away on a Space Shuttle while it’s being carried across the Atlantic Ocean. They flip a few switches, light up the engines, and fly it off the back of the carrier aircraft to steal it.

One small problem: the Shuttle didn’t carry any fuel for its main engines! That was all stored in the big orange External Tank, which was always transported separately by barge—and it’s always empty until it gets to the launchpad!”

Jim—Project Engineer

Transporters and Replicators

“I really wish I could “beam” to wherever I want to go. Sadly, this one seems pretty far from reality any time soon.”

Tracy — MTS

We might need an extra outlet for these. Images courtesy of: Paramount Televsion

“Matter-energy-matter devices such as transporters, food, and component synthesizers, etc. I’m referring to things above and beyond individual sub-atomic particles such as in the large hadron collider. Everyone’s favorite Einstein equation tells us that creating your dinner in that microwave-sized or even much larger device would require roughly the energy of an atomic bomb. Multiply that by at least 100 for a human being.

As aggravating as airline travel almost always is, I’m not standing on that pad or paying that power bill…”

Lee—Sr Project Leader

Image courtesy: Buena Vista Pictures

“In the movie Mission to Mars, I’m amazed they think they can jump from a spacecraft arriving on a hyperbolic orbit at Mars to a spacecraft in orbit around Mars. The relative velocities are huge and would be worse than a bug hitting a windshield.”

David—Sr Project Leader

Han Solo still makes it look easy.

Asteroids

“One that really annoys me is the super-crowded asteroid field or space debris field. NO, just no. Asteroids don’t float about in these enormous clusters that you have to dodge around. Space debris from a battle would just keep spreading out, so you wouldn’t see clusters of wrecks floating near one another. In general, fiction never seems to realize how vast and empty space is. Probably because it would look pretty boring on the screen.”

Ted—Consultant

It’s hard to land on an asteroid. On Oct. 20, 2020, OSIRIS-REx unfurled its robotic arm and, in a first for NASA, briefly touched down on asteroid Bennu to collect dust and pebbles from its surface in a maneuver known as “Touch-And-Go” or TAG. Image courtesy NASA.

“My favorite nonsense is when spaceships maneuver between asteroids without being affected by their gravitational fields, but then somehow “land” on one of those small asteroids and stay “adhered” to it.”

Paul–Sr. Project Leader

Special Effects

“If the movie is terrible and I can’t sufficiently suspend disbelief, I start picking apart the science. In particular, I cringe every time I see huge flames in the vacuum of space. I wonder, where is the oxygen supply that’s fueling that fire?”

Twain—Systems Director

In space, no one can hear you scream (or do much of anything else, because there are no sound waves). Image right credit: Disney.

“Explosive gasoline-like flames in the vacuum of space.”

Tim—Sr. Project Engineer

“The entire Armageddon movie. Fun movie — totally not anchored in science or astrodynamics.”

Angie—Tech Fellow

“Sound effects in space like the Tie Fighter roar don’t work because there is no air to transmit the sound waves.”

Peter — Engineer

Sounds of explosions in space. Space is a vacuum and won’t carry sound.

James—Engineering Specialist

Artificial Gravity

Artificial gravity is something that comes to mind. No spinning parts of a spacecraft to create gravity, just gravity everywhere is something of a mystery.

Mike—Engineering Specialist

Artificial gravity in spaceships is very common in science fiction but is relatively difficult to produce in reality. 2001 Space Odyssey and the TV show Expanse are some exceptions that portrayed more realistic adaptations using rotating structures or magnetic boots.

Paul—Principal Director

The Future Looks Bright

It’s always fun to dream about what’s possible.

Medicine

The ‘autodoc’ featured in The Expanse! Have a seat in the chair, slip your arm in the cuff, and get diagnosed and cured of what ails you.

Jim — Project Engineer

Autodoc from The Expanse (left), Image courtesy of Amazon Prime; Luke’s new hand from The Empire Strikes Back (right).

AutoDocs like Star Wars 2–1B Medical Droid attaching Luke’s artificial hand at the end of Episode 5.

Randy — Sr Project Engineer

“The most wonderful and scariest concept for me is the notion of molecular-level medicine that can be used to repair almost any damage, even if a suitable baseline is needed. Being able to cure any disease via remote manipulation, even if only from feet away, would be incredible.

On the scary side, that capability could be applied to the brain to erase memories, learning, and knowledge, and to plant false memories, learning, and knowledge. I don’t see how the “good” genie could be let out of the bottle without releasing the “bad” one at the same time.”

Paul — Sr Project Leader

Propulsion

“Shuttles to and from space stations using some type of propulsion system other than rockets. Some type of efficient clean energy producing construct.”

Mike — Engineering Specialist

The Epstein Drive in the Expanse: You accelerate towards your destination at whatever G-Force you can handle, and then flip and decelerate at the halfway point. While I’d love to teleport, use wormholes, or faster-than-light travel, this method of transport seemed the most plausible.

Tracy — MTS

“More of a wild dream: New propulsion and a different understanding of physics that would allow faster than the speed of light space travel. Cross vast distances of the universe within a human lifetime, to reach and explore other Earth-like planets.”

Twain — Systems Director

“Fusion space drive. Directed hydrogen fusion could create plenty of energy and thrust using very little mass to at least take us anywhere in the solar system (if not farther). The fuel is everywhere. No new physics, wormholes, or warping of spacetime is needed. A well-designed radiation shield might be a handy addition though.”

Lee — Sr Project Leader

“Virtual reality headsets and online gaming are bringing the holodeck closer and closer to reality.”

Leslie—Principal Director

Interplanetary Travel

Humans returning to the moon and landing on Mars.

James—Engineering Specialist

Mark Watney, Space Pirate. Credit: 20th Century Fox

Struggling to survive on an environmentally hostile planet like in The Martian.”

Tim — Sr. Project Engineer

“Forced genetic evolution to enable long-term space travel and populate other planets, e.g. The Titan”

Josef–Systems Director

“Clavius Base is a fictional lunar research base on Earth’s moon featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey and its film adaption. It is described as one of the largest permanent lunar bases, with a vast majority of its structure underground. I think setting a permanent base on the moon will happen in our lifetime. NASA may build more than one moon base for Artemis lunar missions. Hopefully, there will a mysterious obelisk found as well!”

David — Microelectronics Assembly Technician

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — multi-national, multi-galactic governing structure with several biomes coexisting somewhat peacefully.”

Sarah — SciFi Nerd

Neural Links

“Neural links between humans and computers. We already working on those today!”

James—Sr Project Engineer

Image courtesy: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

“The sensory array system from “Brainstorm”. The ability to record someone’s experiences and then play them back into another person’s brain would be the greatest advance ever in communication. However, it might lead to the end of humanity as we all play tapes of eating great meals while we starve to death in our recliners.”

Tony—Sr Project Engineer

Flying Cars

“In ‘Total Recall’ with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Johnny Cab—a taxi piloted by a robot—seems well within our reach since we already have driverless cars.”

Denise—Technical Publications

Credit: Warner Brothers

“To me, it is the idea of “flying cars” as an everyday means of transportation, with 3-D traffic control including a vertical component. There are a multitude of movies in a futuristic urban environment, like Bladerunner, Star Wars, etc. but I was first promised a flying car by The Jetsons!!! That cartoon was meant to be in 2062, 100 years from its airing in 1962… dang I’m old.”

Randy — Principal Director

Image courtesty Jan Thijs

“Different ways of expressing ideas that aren’t strictly temporal-linear like the alien language in Arrival. I wonder if it’s why we have trouble decoding dead languages on ancient artifacts.”

Joe — Principal Scientist

AI-Enabled Assistants

“Androids and AI-driven robots look to be very feasible in the short term. It would be nice to have intelligent help for jobs too risky for humans to undertake.”

Mike—EIS Director

“Much more versatile household robots and artificial ‘general’ intelligence. Baby Shark is vacuuming the house as I type this, but she is an idiot with a gift for interrupting Teams meetings.”

Ted—Consultant

Time Travel

“This is probably a long shot, but someone may discover how to time travel. As in the sci-fi indie PRIMER (2004), that’s the way it will happen — two people in a garage trying to invent something else entirely, and BOOM — it’s three hours earlier the day before and suddenly you’re robbing the stock market, and trying to kill your doppelganger.”

Darren — Agile Practices Manager

“Hopefully not time travel. I hate time travel.”

John — Sr. Project Leader

*Dear Star Wars purists, At Aerospace, we observe an inclusive May the Fourth, celebrating all things sci-fi and hold no official stance on Star Wars vs. Star Trek, etc. We are awed by the creativity that has sparked imaginations and inspired generations to explore our universe. Learn more about us at aerospace.org

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