Created By: AltseHashke on March 10, 2013 Last Edited By: AltseHashke on March 15, 2013

Orbital Maneuvers Are Easy

Science fiction makes achieving orbit from a gravity well look too easy, and usually has ships for (de)orbiting also make orbit-to-orbit maneuvers.

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Getting into orbit from a gravity well is difficult. Fully 69% of the liftoff mass of the Space Shuttle was the semi-disposable rocket boosters used just for achieving orbit. Yet ships in science fiction routinely do orbit in a single stage (without any visible propellant tanks, which could very well be its own trope—sometimes even with propulsion systems like ion engines, that basically don't work in atmosphere).

Relatedly, not only do ships in science fiction get off planets easily, the same ships are used for achieving orbit as for orbit-to-orbit interplanetary flight. This is unlikely in the extreme; people are more likely to use dedicated shuttle-like entry vehicles, or else methods like space elevators, to get to orbit, and then, once in space, board dedicated system rockets for orbit-to-orbit. Especially noticeable when ships that can do this—what is, again, basically impossible—are described as "pieces of junk" or similar, often because they belong to the tramp steamship...uh, spaceship...captain.

Relevant external link here. Probably a subtrope of Space Does Not Work That Way and Artistic License – Physics, as well as involving Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale, namely regarding the amounts of energy involved. Sometimes worked around by Phlebotinum.

Examples:
  • The Serenity can do SSTO and orbit-to-orbit, yet is routinely called a clunker and a piece of junk.
  • Ditto the Millennium Falcon.
  • Both averted and played straight by the Halo franchise. Military ships seem to have no problem landing and taking off again, at least on the eponymous Big Dumb Objects, but most humans and their cargo seem to get to planetary orbit by means of space elevators or, in the case of the Sabers in Reach, by means of Two-Stage to Orbit rocket boosters.
Community Feedback Replies: 20
  • March 10, 2013
    Tuckerscreator
    Well, in Halo the large ships appear to have a form of anti-gravity, hence why they have no underside thrusters. Smaller ships like the Sabre, however, don't have the power to run on of those, so they use boosters to achieve orbit. Even for the large ships, at least twice have some ended up being caught in a large planet's gravity well without the possible output to reach orbit again.
  • March 10, 2013
    Chabal2
    Mostly averted by Warhammer 40 K: the huge ships use shuttles to get people on and off planets, and are constructed in orbital dockyards. The ability of most ships to escape orbit without enormous tanks is usually Hand Waved by the use of prometheium, a very high-energy fuel.
  • March 10, 2013
    Koveras
    • This is all over Exosquad, where Mini Mecha-riding soldiers hop from orbit to planet surface and back with practiced ease. Even the fact that they are powered by small nuclear fusion plants doesn't explain how little time it takes.
    • Star Wars in its various incarnations is generally a big offender. Taking a tiny starfighter off any Earth-like planet is as simple as taking a bus.
    • Averted in the various Gundam incarnations, where going from Earth to space or the other way around is always treated as a big event, with at least half an episode revolving around it.
  • March 10, 2013
    Tuckerscreator
    • Averted in Enders Game. The shuttle that takes the kids to Battle School has to be refueled mid flight because it simply would not have been to take off with all the fuel it needed to break out of orbit. Later, Ender notes that space battles in orbit will affect their fighters' fuel output, because gravity will make it harder to ascend rather than descend.
  • March 11, 2013
    StarSword
    Re: Star Wars: The setting has antigravity (called repulsorlifts) and makes use of it for this purpose. Firefly has inertial reduction technology (see the RPG), which also enables rapid acceleration to relativistic speeds for interplanetary travel.

    TV:
    • The Stargate Verse does this almost as often as Star Wars. According to supplemental materials and SG 1: "Tangent", the Tau'ri reverse-engineered inertial reduction technology from the Goa'uld, who in turn cribbed it from the Ancients, who presumably developed it alongside the Ori before their schism (Ori motherships can land on planets, too). No explanation is given for the Asgard (seen docking capital ships at a dirtside shipyard in SG 1: "Small Victories") or the Wraith.
    • Star Trek normally avoids this, seeing as how one of the original reasons for the transporter in TOS was to save on the special effects budget by not having to show the Enterprise landing. The only ships regularly seen landing and taking off are shuttlecraft, when the writers can remember that the ship is equipped with them. The 2009 movie shows the Enterprise-Nil under construction in a dirtside shipyard, but we don't know how they got it into orbit.
    • Averted in Starhunter. The crew always leaves the Tulip in orbit and takes a shuttle to the surface.

    Video Games:
    • Explicitly justified in Mass Effect by the ubiquitous element zero. Ships use their eezo core to lighten their mass to make it easier to get out of gravity wells. Even then, only smaller ships like the Normandy are generally capable of doing so on a regular basis. As usual the Reapers are an exception (the two-kilometer Harbinger-class Reapers are seen taking off and landing frequently), but the ME3 codex mentions that this requires a gargantuan eezo core, and even then so much field strength must be diverted to mass-lightening that their kinetic barriers are severely weakened.
  • March 11, 2013
    CobraPrime
    ^^ Voyager from Star Trek Voyager can land, but this is an explicitely unique feature of the Intrepid-Class.

    • In Star Wars, every ship can land, even the mile-long Imperial-Class Star Destroyer (Landed Venator-class star destroyer are seen in Episode III). Though capital ships do so rarely, instead relying on shuttles and transports.
    • Averted in Warhammer 40K, the majority of interstellar, warp-capable ships are incapable of landing due to their sheer size and the strain gravity and re-entry would exercise on their hulls. There is one notable exception: The Tau Manta is capable of both atmospheric flight and landing, while still being an interstellar-capable ship.
  • March 11, 2013
    elwoz
    This shows up all over the place in Pulp Magazine era written SF, in which it counts as Science Marches On. No one had yet built an actual rocket ship, and while the mass requirements were spelled out in the 1903 paper The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices, hardly anyone -- even in Russia -- read that before WWII.

    The instance that sticks in my mind is Robert A Heinlein's Space Cadet, in which single-stage reusable orbital rockets are so common and reliable that they get used in, er, Space Cadet basic training, and when one blows up, the viewpoint character thinks it can't have been a real accident, it must have been staged.
  • March 11, 2013
    StarSword
    @Cobra: No, actually the Venator-class is the only star destroyer type that can land. Victory- and Imperial-class vessels use shuttles. Which reminds me:

    Literature:
    • At the end of The Krytos Trap, the Executor-class super star destroyer Lusankya blasts its way off Coruscant where it had been buried by Emperor Palpatine. Notably the Lusankya was surrounded by a massive repulsor cage to help it climb out of the planet's gravity well, which was then jettisoned; it never landed again.
  • March 11, 2013
    jatay3
    Averted in Traveller. Not all ships can land; those that can have to be specially designed. These are for specific jobs like landing in ports that haven't a orbital component.
  • March 11, 2013
    zarpaulus
    As a general rule, Mile Long Ships are unable to enter atmosphere and send shuttles or Drop Ships instead. Though frequently those landing craft are subject to this trope anyways.
  • March 12, 2013
    jatay3
    The Tramp ships in Traveller in any case are stated by the game to be multimillion dollar investments that an owner could spend his life paying for. As presented in canon, the idea of a run-down tramp ship is averted; no sane captain can afford not to take good care of it. And any captain who owns a tramp or part of one will be a mover-and-shaker back in his old neighborhood even if not much compared with a big Merchant Prince.

    Be that as it may, entering the atmosphere is a special design and costs points in cargo capacity.
  • March 12, 2013
    CobraPrime
    @Star Sword

    They can still Do Atmospheric Flight, really, they could land if they wanted to and had a facility to recieve them. And even it they don't its still an example since they go from flight to orbit really easily and effortlessly.
  • March 12, 2013
    StarSword
    Ok, I didn't know that. Never mind.
  • March 13, 2013
    zarpaulus
    ^ Star Wars seems to suffer a bad case of too many writers.

    • In Star Craft anything that flies is capable of both atmospheric and space flight. Even ungainly capital ships like Battlescruisers.
  • March 13, 2013
    Antonymous
    This should be about any case where spaceships do things they don't have enough delta-v (or thrust) for, including fast interplanetary trips, not just launch and orbital maneuvers. Unlimited Delta V? Space Travel Is Easy? Low Speed Space Travel? Fast Flight Slow Ship?

    This is only interesting in settings where delta-v is scarce. If you have enough Applied Phlebotinum for interstellar travel or even just accelerating at one gravity for days on end, then you do have enough delta-v for orbital maneuvers, and it's not an instance of this trope.

    Subtrope of SciFiWritersHave.No Sense Of Velocity. I'm not sure there are enough straight examples to justify a separate page.
  • March 13, 2013
    elwoz
    I like Unlimited Delta V, but is it too techy?
  • March 14, 2013
    Antonymous
    ^Maybe, although this is a technical-accuracy trope, so a techy name is probably OK. However, Unlimited Delta V sounds like a different trope: spaceships with lots of delta-v, rather than spaceships doing things they don't have enough delta-v for. Only the latter is a Sci Fi Writers Have No Sense Of Scale problem.

    Delta V Is No Object? Who Needs Delta V? No Sense Of Orbital Speed? Not Enough Delta V?
  • March 14, 2013
    Koveras
    Some Rolling Updates would be nice...
  • March 15, 2013
    CobraPrime
    Delta V just means a change in velocity. All those titles with Delta V mean nothing since they could equally apply to a toddler walking or a car.
  • March 15, 2013
    StarSword
    Video Games:
    • Mostly averted in the X-Universe series. Ships capable of taking off and landing from planets are few and far between, and most of them were expressly designed for that purpose. A good example is the Terran Atmospheric Lifter in X3: Terran Conflict, which is purely for moving cargo from planet surfaces to orbiting space stations. (Bit of Gameplay And Story Segregation here: the Atmo Lifter is quite prized among TC players as it has the largest cargo bay of any TL station transport. You can board it, capture it, and use it like any other capital ship.)
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