Upper deck detail of the Latent Pulse, showing crew related features.

Upper deck detail of the Latent Pulse, showing crew related features.

I find that designing deck plans for imaginary spaceships to be a meditation into pseudo-engineering. At its most basic level, it draws us further into the imaginary world of our creations, encouraging us to think about aspects of it we wouldn’t do otherwise. As a writer and game designer, I’m able to visualize the action of my stories, or the progress of a player, or the inhabitants of this imaginary environment. At the other end of the spectrum, it is an exercise of applying all kinds of reasoning to its imaginary function, strengthening a concept and bringing change to it to make it feel more… real, though it is unlikely any of these exercises will be made into real things.

There is no real methodology for the process of creating one – our approaches will be entirely different based on our purpose for hashing the design out from thin air. It may be about visualizing the environment, so one can describe a single room; it may be the act of arranging obstacles or furnishings to provoke game play strategies, it may be to stage an action sequence in a novel, or an encounter in a tabletop RPG.

Copyright Ken McCulloch 2012

Latent Pulse development Concept sketch

What is going to be put forward here is a collection of points for the Starship designer to consider while planning their decks, in the hopes of drawing about a deeper sense of accomplishment and rationality within the design. Regardless of the actual result of the process – whether a “realistic” design is achieved or not, since how can we prove it one way or another – the most rewarding aspect of it is the thoughts that arise from it. Just as in meditation.

These thoughts are what came to me as I designed the Latent Pulse, a medium sized FTL freight/trading vessel from my WIP novel, Pan Spectrum Analyzer. Each one forced me to move elements about, rethinking their placement, use and relevance both to the design and to the narrative of the novel.


This question will define much of the ship deck plan as much as any other.  Will there be artificial gravity?

If yes, then is it of the deck variety, which will allow your spacer peeps to walk around normally, as if by magic, or it will need to be created by means of spin habitats. The former can be laid out easily against a ship outline. Spin habitats will need to be organized in terms of the topography of the habitat itself: a tube or circle, opened flat.

If there won’t be artificial gravity, then your decks will be laid out with “down” being along the axis of the ship, the idea being that once it is accelerating, gravity will be created in the opposite direction. Older (hahhah, older, meaning near future, rather than far-future) ships, with primitive technology might have this layout, or the ship builders were feeling rather cheap that day.

Finally, for the ultimate in cheap-skate ship-architects (or primitive space farers), there’s no gravity, in which case feel free to draw deck plans for the walls and ceilings as well as floors.

The Latent Pulse is an old ship, but has snazzy artificial gravity to make my job easier, and it is also a feature of the action in my novel.

Keep similar things together

Ships are masses of cables, tubes and vents tying many kinds of systems together. Where possible, these should be grouped together by function, then by location. Having all the bathrooms in the same place, or close by, is a good thing, and these by definition should be near to the water recycling machines, etc.  The things that need fuel – powerplant, maneuvering drives, shuttle -etc, should be located near the fuel tanks, or vice versa.

Partitioning the hull. A rough sketch calling out general areas and locations.

Partitioning the hull. A rough sketch calling out general areas and locations.

Keep the human (or alien) user  in mind

A large part of engineering is ergonomics. People have to use these things. Move around them, get into and out of chairs,  rooms, use computer consoles, sleep in beds, do surgery in sickbay, etc. There needs to be space to do these things and they should be placed, angled or designed to make their use as easy as possible. Yes, there can be bad designs, but one has to remember that designs that are eventually built are usually the most workable ones. A bad design is built only because it is cheap, or easier to make, or for some outstanding factor that makes it more attractive to the builder than it being a good design, which may be more appropriate for your design. Not saying either is better, just pointing it out. In the Latent Pulse designs, I wanted a confusing, claustrophobic feel in the lower, more system-oriented decks, as that is how I described it in the novel; I started with an easy access grid and started placing kinks and corridors that went the longest way around, or placed rooms that blocked the full grid to be accessed. Eventually, placement of lifeboats and maneuvering thrusters that had to be placed here and nowhere else (see below) meant that certain low-priority features like staterooms could be placed wherever and gave the plans some eccentricity.

Sick bay had a double wide corridor so that gurneys could be moved in an out easily, but the corridors leading to it were all single-wide, so this didn’t make much sense.

Control consoles where necessary. As per Traveller style, I called out significant control consoles. That is, computers designed for true control of the ship. Small computer terminals, such as entertainment or database access terminals that might be found in personal possession or in personnel quarters are not marked. In the far future, it is not unreasonable for a single portable computer to control the workings of the entire ship, but as far as the Latent Pulse is concerned, its rather backward and must be controlled by peeps sitting in chairs.

My stateroom for a Hydro-wrench!

The other large part of engineering is Logistics. People doing things need things to do them with!  Where are they?  Larger items, such as replacement engine parts, Mr. Fusion cores/generators, fire-fighting equipment, might be stored separately from personnel sized objects, such as vacc-suits, computer accessories, freeze-dried meals and so on. Their location would be ordered similarly – large stuff near where its going to be needed most: in engineering, the smaller stuff near the crew areas. Engineering would have its own lift systems (joining all decks), tool storage and machine shop. The shuttle-bay (the Pulse has a small aerospace plane) would have a storage closet for its own specialized needs. Same goes for the “crawlers”, compact six-wheeled ATVs for getting out and about when landed.

If the crew need to lug heavy or bulky equipment about, they need wide doors and corridors. Some areas started out with double wide doors/corridors and as the design progressed, specified only a few of them as equipment hauling routes and the rest were shrunk to normal size. The equipment haulage paths connect the cargo lifts and storage rooms in the engineering section to the potential places where large equipment might be needed. Redundancy went the same way, with feature duplication on each side of the ship, but compromised on this as it was taking up too much room.

Deckplan Article-2All this leads to questions like, “How far does a spacer have to walk to take a part from supply to engine, or a personal instruction from bridge to same?”  Imagining scenarios like this help tighten up a design. If the vessel is of a highly efficient nature – military, or crewed by machine-like aliens, perhaps – then the arrangement will have been laid out upon the needs of typical operations. Civilian ships will be more laid back if efficiency is not seen as a direct requirement. Trade or business types might need to squeeze out every Cr/$ from every run, while a personal yacht, scientific research vessel, might be loose and open.  For the Pulse, I wanted the bridge to be almost isolated from the rest of the ship, mainly to drive the action and not have them have direct help from the crew outside it, so it was situated on a long “neck” conning tower/pod that extends from the Ops deck. People who were on the bridge, stayed on the bridge and didn’t need (or want) to leave, as everything was so far away. This in turn would cause some characters, such as engineers, some anxiety during emergencies – they’d have to run a long way to get to where they were needed.

On the other hand, do you need to have a two meter wide tunnel when a one meter wide one will be fine.  How do the crew get in and out? Can they get to the outside of the ship from the inside to affect repairs or mid-flight inspections. Where is the gear for EVA stored? Tools, meals, consumables. Are they near to where they need to be used?

Safety first!

Its a space-ship and that means there there’ll be space outside it! Pretty much all the time. Hostile environments need to be kept at bay and taken seriously. Even Worse Things Happen in Space, or so they say. Your designed ship should take this into account.

All outside doors should have airlocks –  paired doors (hatches, or more iconically, iris valves) only one door should open at one time, sparing the ship/section from accidental decompression. Important areas should have hatches. They might be fire or blast doors to minimize the spread of fire or explosive damage, sealable/pressurized to prevent decompression, or to restrict unauthorized access. On the Pulse, most doors are hatches. Doors to washrooms, personal quarters, the mess, lounge and the like are standard hinged, lockable doors.  In dangerous areas, hatches/blast doors have multiple redundancy. The corridors that connect the crew quarters with the engineering section are flanked by fuel tanks, and so have blast doors/iris valve hatches every 10 meters to minimize damage in the case of fire or explosion.

Lifeboats, emergency equipment – where is it? Are they easy to access quickly? Are there backups and redundancies? Is there more than one way to get to them, in case one is cut off. Where is the machinery for launching, entering , or maintaining them? And the most famous question of all, unless you want your ship to follow in the wake of the RMS Titanic – are there enough lifeboats for everyone on board?  The Pulse is designed for a crew of 46 – its lifeboats take 8 peeps apiece and so it has a comfortable 6, in addition to the aerospace shuttle (potential 6 rescues) a large amount of vacc-suits stored by each of the major egress points. A 7th might be added for redundancy and symmetry purposes.

Practical Operations

The ship has been built for a specific purpose, and so it needs to fulfill that purpose. Passenger/Merchant vessels need passenger berths, recreational facilities, traders/freight haulers need cargo space and the equipment to load their cargoes, warships need weapons, ammunition, multiple-redundancy of systems to weather damage and armour.

Where is the equipment and can it function properly situated there? Thrusters and other directional devices need to be pointed toward where they need to be. Vernier thrusters need to be in pairs on opposite sides of the ship, and not pointing toward other parts of its parent vessel. This last was a consideration on the Pulse, because of its bridge “pod”, it was situated over the area I had placed a vernier. In the “engineering” terms, moving the vernier meant that it would no longer be synchronized with the others and special software be used to compensate for it being not as far off access as its counter part – that is, since its not as far away, it would need to burn longer/harder to provide the same impulse as its companion would – so the bridge was moved further out from the main hull.

Not all of a ship is usable deck!

Machinery greebles added. Some are shaped to give an impression of function. The white areas are accessible.

Machinery greebles added. Some are shaped to give an impression of function. The white areas are accessible.

Quite simply, the machinery of the vessel needs to go somewhere.  Have you considered: computer core rooms, life support/environment control (air conditioning/scrubbing, heating/cooling, oxygen storage), fuel tankage, access tunnels for repairing these systems, engines, powerplants, vents/exhausts, gravitic lifters, jump drives/plates, etc.

Extensible wings, sails, fins, antenna, landing gears, need space to fold up in when not in use. Although some might be too small to consider, large, non-collapsible, rigid frame equipment needs to be accounted for: lifeboat launch tubes, shuttle-bay doors, loading ramps, lift equipment/cranes, etc.

Landing gears –  Are there sufficient numbers of pads to support the ship? Larger ships will need many gears, or fewer larger gears. Looking at the biggest aircraft Humanity has built, we see that landing gears sometimes have up to 20 wheels per gear, and some of them have gears/wheels on wing tips to support them while landed. Calculations suggest that there is a limit to how much weight can be displaced over wheels before the number or wheels become ridiculous and landing pads or skids are required.

How did I get here from there?

Its easy to look back over a process after its done, so how does one progress from beginning to end? Well, that’s probably best left to its own article, but here is a generalized process.

The preliminary work was done using Traveller ship-design processes (or just parts of them) to get an idea of the size of ship I wanted. This is purely optional. Sketches of what the ship would look like were drawn to taste, and spreadsheets helped me outline a list of rooms and their anticipated sizes, as well as the number of people that had to use them, and the total numbers of those features.  These were then sorted into groups which enabled me to place them within a rough outline of the ship,  drawn on 5mm graph paper.

The plan details that accompany this article were drawn in Adobe Illustrator. Once again, I started with the hull outline, starting at the widest/largest decks. I used my spreadsheet to work on Staterooms, drawing a generalized bed, chair, etc, to establish human scales and worked from their. Each room, or feature, began with a drawn outline which was filled in, reshaped and populated to get a sense of size to judge the ergonomics, and adjusted if they failed my criteria.  Each room’s objects was grouped and sometimes grouped with similar rooms, forming blocks I could move around the drawing quite easily within the hull outline.  Rooms such as engineering were defined by where the machinery was placed and the crawlspaces the crew would need to maintain it. Once those were in position, greeble details filled in the gaps.

Everything seemed to be going swimming until I realized a nasty error in my reasoning: the scale I was using was off. The idea was to draw the plans in Illustrator at 15mm scale, but a lapse in mental lucidity had me thinking that at that scale one meter was 15 mm, rather than 15mm = 1.5m  so my plans are very large. I will have to rescale them once they are done. Either that or pretend it was designed for a race of ancient albino giants.

At the time of writing this article, the deckplans are about halfway done, so there will be a final article in this series presenting them as a finished piece. If I’m lucky, I’ll get my paws on the final Trav5 ship design process and refine the stats into something useable as well, which sort of suggests that in the long run there’ll be a supplement for the Latent Pulse for use in tabletop games…

Related Articles:

Starship Construction for Writers 101

Starship Construction for Writers 102

Even Worse Things Happen in Space: Spacers, part 2

All images, Ken McCulloch.