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One Starship to Rule Them All

What can we learn from the ultimate sci-fi geek chart of warships?

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."

Indeed, many of these ships have shapes that resemble objects found on Earth, such as fish, pizza slices, or the Beatle's Yellow Submarine.

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 [video game] 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."

Dirk Loechl/DeviantArt

Feature

What Can You Buy for $24 Billion?

Here's what the U.S. government shutdown cost.

150 F-35s: The Pentagon's most expensive weapons program features jets that cost $159 million a pop.

Twitter: Some projections of the short-form social networking site's value after its IPO exceed $20 billion.

5 Large Hadron Colliders: The most powerful particle accelerator, which made last year's discovery of the Higgs boson possible, cost $4.75 billion to build (but it costs another $1 billion annually to operate).

13 Weeks of War in Afghanistan:  The United States spent $91.5 billion on the war in Afghanistan in fiscal year 2013 -- that's $1.76 billion a week.

Half a Warren Buffett: A little less, actually. The investment guru's net worth is $58.5 billion.

El Salvador's Economy:  The country's entire GDP last year clocked in at $23.86 billion.

Iceland's Economy, Doubled: Icelandic GDP for 2012 was $13.66 billion.

2 Aircraft Carriers: The cost of the newest U.S. carrier, CVN 78, which has been in production since 2008, is $12.8 billion.

6 Freedom Towers: One World Trade Center isn't the world's tallest skyscraper, but it is the most expensive, costing $3.8 billion to build.

16 Burj Khalifas: The world's tallest building was significantly less expensive than Freedom Tower: $1.5 billion.

9 Multi-Year Mars Exploration Missions: The Mars Curiosity Rover and Science Lab mission (including development, rocketing to Mars, landing, and rolling all over the Gale Crater) cost $2.5 billion.

14 percent of the Marshall Plan: The United States dedicated $17.6 billion to Europe's recovery in 1948. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to $165.59 billion today.

100 Louisiana Purchases: The United States paid France a cool $15 million for the Louisiana Territory in 1803. Even after two centuries of inflation, that's just $226 million.

15 Buckingham Palaces: The fanciest digs in the world was appraised at $1.56 billion by Britain's Nationwide Building Society last year.

1.75 Man-Made Island Paradises: The World, the failed effort to build a luxury private island complex in Dubai, cost $14 billion and was comprised of 300 islands dredged up off the Emirati coast. 

A (Theoretical) Nuclear Fusion Reactor: American and European scientists are trying to develop that holy grail of energy production: a fusion reactor. Optimistic assessments project technology could be advanced enough to build a fusion facility for $20 billion -- 15 years from now, maybe.

5 percent of the Starship Enterprise: Yes, the one from Star Trek. Raw materials, labor, computers, weapons, propulsion, and crew would come out to a whopping $479 billion.

0.000000028% of the Death Star: The Enterprise is a bargain compared to the Galactic Empire's behemoth space station, which economists at Lehigh University estimated would cost $852 septillion. (It looks like this: $852,000,000,000,000,000.)

15 Iron Mans: That's eight state-of-the-art armored, weaponized, flying suits and a playboy billionaire lifestyle (Malibu beach house and luxury cars included), at a cost of $1.6 billion -- 15 times over.

120 Hope Diamonds: The Smithsonian centerpiece, a whopping 45.52 carats, is worth $200 million.

Half the Beijing Olympics: New airport terminals, sports stadiums, hotels, staffing -- the whole shebang set China back an estimated $42 billion in 2008.

Two London Olympics: The Brits got a comparative bargain in 2012. Those games only cost $14.42 billion.

The Apollo Space Program: The two-decade effort to put men on the moon cost $25.4 billion -- in the 1960s. Adjusted for inflation, the program racks up a $150 billion check.