Created By: Kizor on May 22, 2011 Last Edited By: Tuckerscreator on September 1, 2015

Space Docking

The finer points of docking and boarding spaceships

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
Other names: Spacecraft docking, spaceship docking, docking (is "space" redundant?)

Connecting spaceships together. Bringing two complex, expensive, fragile machines to meet, at velocities that can be difficult to even contemplate. This is a major concern in real spaceflight and in related fiction. The Apollo program succeeded because it could send out a dinghy instead of landing a whole ship on the Moon, and there would be no space stations without resupply ships.

Science Fiction tends to take the wonder out of ordinary docking, but it also introduces a delightful variety of complications, such as First Contact and boarding. The hull of a spaceship is a precious thing, and opening it in ways it wasn't designed for can be quite demanding. Several types of solutions have emerged.

This is how we do it:
  • Docking adapter: The simplest option is a mechanism designed specifically to fit its other half. All real-life docking has used these. Wikipedia lists nine docking mechanisms and two adapters. Adapters have the worst of it: the one on the Apollo-Soyuz flight had to double as an airlock between two breathable atmospheres, because one of the ships used pure oxygen. Docking systems may or may not be androgynous, able to enter as well as to receive - very useful for rescue missions.
  • Universal adapter: Five of the nine docking mechanisms ever built are present at the International Space Station. At this rate, spaceships may end up bristling with more adapters than the bathroom of a Mos Eisley cantina. Establishing a one-size-fits-all solution spares everyone a lot of headaches, whether it's done through technological wizardry or just a common standard.
  • Docking bay: One craft swallows the other. The simplest option to use once it's built, and implies either a need to service ships, or that someone thinks he's too good for airlocks. Nearly universal in craft that carry starfighters, and may feature runways, because runway = carrier. Docking bays may be called "hangars," which are storage halls in Real Life. They may even be one and the same, though it's generally convenient to keep one's landing area (a common site for death-defying manouvers in crippled spaceships) separate from one's maintenance area (a common site for ordnance and ship fuel).
  • Teleporters: Forget runways. If the Phlebotinum lets you get away with it, why would your docking bay need a door?
  • Mooring: One craft latches, locks, clamps, lassoes or otherwise attaches onto another. This can be used alongside or even instead of other methods, particularly in seedier cosmoses where people may have disagreements over such things as docking fees. Someone is likely to mention "releasing the docking clamps," except when they're called magna-locks.
  • Using the door: A ship forms an airtight seal around the other craft's airlock, and the crew enters through it. Some people are known to cheat by not connecting the ships and setting up a portable airlock on the other ship's hull, thoroughly frustrating any space mutants in residence.
  • Breaking and entering: Forced entry can involve creating a delicate seal around a section of the target's hull. Alternatively, it can mean pulling a ship open like a tin of sardines. No attempt needs to be made to maintain the target's air, though an attacker may wish to do so in order to avoid inconvenient winds.
  • Ramming: Flatlanders decelerate. Real spacemen make their opponents do it for them. Ramming is suicide without exotic materials or extreme finesse, and with those things it's generally also suicide. Brute force seems crude, but anyone who can dock by ramming and get away with it is clearly a force to be reckoned with.
  • Other: Bring a ship out of hyperspace inside another ship! Merge both ships into a stronger, faster ship! Go intangible and slip through the hull! Whee!

This article includes boarding, since we'd never manage to draw a line between boarding craft and full-fledged ship. It also counts berthing, or bringing a ship in with a remote arm, as docking to avoid heady metaphysical questions.

See also Boarding Party, for the things boarders do once they arrive.


Should we only sort examples by medium, or not have them at all? I've sorted them by docking type to avoid dozens of "In show X ship Y docks with Z," which would add next to no information. A folder system like the one used in Naming Your Colony World should make this manageable.


Examples of purpose-built docking

  • A major pain in Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space. Docking is the only part of spaceflight where safety can only be improved with live testing, not with R&D. Much of the mid-game will be spent fumbling around with docking target vehicles (and firing new ones into orbit as they fall down). Lunar landers are also built around specific capsules, so if an Apollo mission explodes, you can't strap an Eagle lander to a Gemini while Apollo is being redesigned.
  • Star Control 3 features what we can only hope is this. -ZCE

Examples of universal adapters

  • In Schlock Mercenary, humanity has finally settled on a common shape for docking mechanisms, with the drawback that images of docking are now rated R.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has universal adaptors, but never really explains how they work — the ships connect to the docking pylons, the aliens come through the big cogwheel doors, and presumably it all fits together somehow.

Examples of docking bays

Film
  • Ubiquitous in Star Wars, but it's not until Episode III that we see one close its doors. The bad guys seem to keep theirs sealed with force fields, presumably so that incompetent crew members will blow themselves into space.

Live-Action Television

Video Games

Examples of teleporters

  • In Schlock Mercenary, receiverless teleportation seems to be making docking bays obsolete. It also works with missiles, so there were an awful lot of very short wars until the area denial system was invented.

Examples of mooring

  • In Tom Swift [Jr.] and The Cosmic Astronauts they discuss mooring - Swift rocket ships usually dock at the Swift space station but the specially designed "space kite" he's in doesn't have the mechanism to dock so they have to moor instead.

Examples of entering through an airlock

  • Halo: Combat Evolved. In the space battle at the beginning, aliens use our own ship's rescue airlocks against us; dropships come in as escape pods leave.
  • In the Sector General story "Combined Operation," the heroes place a portable airlock on the hull of a derelict alien ship. It's placed against the largest entry port on the hull (which could be an access panel, for all they know) and described as wrinkly, transparent plastic, meant to be inflated by the ship's air when the port is opened.
  • Happens in the intro of Turrican II. -ZCE
  • Classic Traveller. Adventures The Kinunir, Annic Nova and Death Station involved the PCs having to dock with and board derelict starships and a space station. They went into great detail as to how they could gain entry, such as by blasting their way in (highly discouraged), just using the airlocks, and even by using the garbage dessicators (which exposed garbage to space to dry it out).

Examples of B&E

  • Babylon 5. In "Severed Dreams," we see a breaching pod insert marines into the titular station. They don't wear pressure suits, suggesting that the pod maintains pressure. The station is boarded again in "A View from the Gallery."
  • In Space Quest V, the player must sneak a maintenance pod onto the hull of an enemy ship, and go through the hull with a cutting torch.
  • Space Crusade. -ZCE
  • In Schlock Mercenary -ZCE

Examples of ramming

  • Battlefleet Gothic: The Ork Brute ship is functionally a giant ram designed to get its troops inside the breach. Perfectly par for the course for the Orks, whose main method of interplanetary travel involves strapping engines to passing asteroids and firing off.
  • In Schlock Mercenary, controlled gravity and inertia mean that the members of one faction take to showing up in missiles. Other people consider this pretentious. "We needed a land line, so I... umm... landed."
  • Robotech/Macross. The Cool Ship gets a force field that can only cover small parts of the ship. Ten minutes later, they've turned it into a weapon: they use it to cover a protruding hatch, which they ram into an enemy ship. Once it comes to a stop, they open the hatch, and all the Humongous Mecha behind it fire.
  • Starcrash! BEHOLD the manpedo! -ZCE

Other examples

  • In Arthur C. Clarke's Earthlight, a stricken spaceship and a rescuing ship find that they can't dock. The stricken ship is evacuated by lining up their airlocks and having the ship's crew jump.
  • Doc Smith's Triplanetary has complex orbits, early Deflector Shields, and Smith may have invented the Tractor Beam - but human ships in the book may not be able to dock. When a main character needs to transfer to another ship, the ships line up their airlocks and an attendant offers him a coil of cable.
Community Feedback Replies: 43
  • May 22, 2011
    Rolf
    Schlock Mercenary, the godlike AI invented a way to ram dock very effectively. Petey then says "This is a ''really'' useful trick for gaining access. I'm glad I will have thought of it".
  • May 22, 2011
    Chabal2
    • I seem to recall that there was an incident in which a Soviet and an American spacecraft were scheduled to dock to each other, and negotiations didn't go anywhere because both wanted to have the male docking mechanism, forcing the engineers to come up with a universal one. Not sure if it's true or a fabrication though.
    • Battlefleet Gothic: The Ork Brute ship is functionally a giant ram designed to get its troops inside the breach. Perfectly par for the course for the Orks, whose main method of interplanetary travel involves strapping enginges to passing asteroids and firing off.
  • May 22, 2011
    Gatomon41
    Good start.
    • Babylon5: When Babylon 5 declares Indepence from the Earth Alliance, Earthforce attempts to take the station back. During the battle, a Marine Breaching pod breaks through the station, and inserts Marines. It's preumed that the Pod maintains presure, si nce said Marines don't wear any pressure suits.
    • Star Trek: Transporters are often used for boarding, or stealth. Starfleet does maintain Docking Bays for its shuttle craft.
    • Star Trek Nemesis: The Enterprise-E does this aginst Shinzon's Warship. Surpringly, both survive.

  • May 22, 2011
    Rolf
    Updated my example above
  • May 24, 2011
    Arivne
    Tabletop RPG
    • Classic Traveller. Adventures The Kinunir, Annic Nova and Death Station involved the PCs having to dock with and board derelict starships and a space station. They went into great detail as to how they could gain entry, such as by blasting their way in (highly discouraged), just using the airlocks, and even by using the garbage dessicators (which exposed garbage to space to dry it out).
  • May 24, 2011
    randomsurfer
    In Tom Swift [Jr.] and The Cosmic Astronauts they discuss mooring - Swift rocket ships usually dock at the Swift space station but the specially designed "space kite" he's in doesn't have the mechanism to dock so they have to moor instead.
  • May 25, 2011
    Deboss
    Given the length of the factual tangent, I suggest splitting that part off into a useful notes.
  • May 25, 2011
    Kizor
    What part is the factual tangent? I'd argue that the *s are not a tangent at all, since they're elementary descriptions of the trope's flavors, and not factual, since only the first * (you know, the only kind of docking that's actually happened) has real science and history behind it. All the others are solidly in the realm of make-believe.

    I gather that you think the description sucks?
  • May 25, 2011
    DaibhidC
    • Star Trek Deep Space Nine has Universal Adaptors, but never really explains how they work -- the ships connect to the docking pylons, the aliens come through the big cogwheel doors, and presumably it all fits together somehow.
  • May 25, 2011
    Rolf
    I guess you missed this one..

  • May 25, 2011
    Kizor
    I put that in as "Controlled gravity and inertia mean that the members of one faction take to showing up in missiles." I should've said that I did, sorry. I don't think we need to have the specific quote, since it makes no sense to anyone who hasn't read the story, and there's no real reason to spoil people about what happens to Petey. "Ram dock" is a great expression, though.
  • June 2, 2011
    JonnyB
    "The Enterprises in Star Trek ostensibly have shuttle bays. Transporters are easier on the budget, so the audience doesn't start seeing them until The Next Generation." That's not true; shuttlecraft and the shuttle bays were shown several times in TOS. In "Court Marshal", "Metamorphosis", "Galileo 7" and "Journey to Babel," just off the top of my head. But it was cheaper to just show the beaming.
  • June 2, 2011
    ChimbleySweep
    Ramming Example: Battlestar Galactica's series finale.
  • June 9, 2011
    LarryD
    The first Star Trek movie also showed a shuttle-pod docking to the Enterprise, one of the few examples of locking to an airlock in the series. Another was when the Vulcan warp-shuttle carrying Spock docked.
  • June 9, 2011
    jaytee
    I'm kind of failing to see how this is a trope. It seems like People Sit On Chairs... Spaceships are going to have to dock somehow. We don't have a trope of all the ways to enter a house, y'know?

    On the other hand, it'd be a great Useful Notes page.
  • June 10, 2011
    Kizor
    That's kind of why I'm doing this as a collection. Spaceships docking per se isn't a trope, but using a ridiculous contraption for a one-size-fits-all solution is a trope, and so are boarding pods that work by crushing their way through the hull.

    I'm aiming for the kind of effect that's present at Naming Your Colony World: the fact that planets get named isn't a trope in itself, particular naming conventions are.

    You'd also have to go into more detail about how this could work as a Useful Notes page. Not all that much of the draft deals with reality, most of it has both feet planted firmly in the air,
  • June 10, 2011
    MC42
    Star Trek Deep Space Nine is definitely an example of Space Mooring and they frequently mention the docking clamps whenever a ship docks or undocks.
  • June 10, 2011
    randomsurfer
    In Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda Magog Swarm Ships clamp themselves on the outside of a ship and then pierce the hull allowing the Magog to swarm in. The "can-opener method."
  • June 15, 2011
    Generality
    Not sure where this goes, but in Outlaw Star ships dock by using cables to get the ships aligned, then extending a corridor from each to create a seal between two airlocks. Space Pirates board by actually puncturing a corridor through the hull.
  • June 15, 2011
    jaytee
    ^^^^You know, I had never seen that planet naming page before. I just assumed that pages like this went under /Useful Notes rather than /Main, even if they're not based in reality.

    Carry on.
  • June 16, 2011
    MetaFour
    If nothing else, this article can collect examples until we have enough of each subtype to make separate pages.
  • June 22, 2011
    hawthorn
    In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, an old fashioned docking method is to fire a tethering line at the other ship, put on a space suit, and climb across the line to the other ship's airlock. This occurs in Foundation's Edge, the fourth book, between a very old Empire ship and a very new Foundation ship, one of the most advanced ever made. It's either implied or stated that the Foundation ship has far more advanced docking technology.
  • May 4, 2015
    eroock
    Is this a trope worth pursuing?
  • May 4, 2015
    zarpaulus
    • Crimson Dark has Universal Docking Systems (U.D.S.) on some ships.
  • May 4, 2015
    FerrousFaucet
    I just came to say that the information in the Star Trek example isn't correct. The shuttle bay does indeed appear on the original series, particularly in the episodes "The Galileo Seven" and "Journey to Babel". According to the Star Trek wiki (which cites their source as a book called The Star Trek Compendium), the shuttle bay was included in "Journey to Babel" specifically because it was cheaper to reuse Stock Footage from "The Galileo Seven" instead of animating a transporter effect.

    Oh I see now that someone above has already pointed this out, but the OP hasn't been changed to reflect it.
  • May 4, 2015
    Antigone3
    Breaking and Entering — I don't know if it's used in the game, but in the Warhammer 40K Ciaphas Cain novel The Emperor's Finest orks use boarding torpedoes to get onto a Space Marine ship.
  • May 6, 2015
    Chabal2
    • Starcraft II: In Wings Of Liberty, the city-sized battlecruisers are apparently equipped with docking tubes and can use them offensively, as shown by Raynor to board the Bucephalus (though in this case, the Bucephalus had its shields down since Valerian wanted to see Raynor).
      • In Heart Of The Swarm, Kerrigan's (moon-sized) Leviathan uses huge Nydus tentacles both to breach the Moros and deliver troops, and to hold the ship together during its self-destruction.
    • Warhammer 40 K starships use docking bays for their onboard craft (shuttles, landers and fighters).
    • Also from Ciaphas Cain, "The Emperor's Finest" has him join a boarding team on a Space Hulk. One of the priceless technological artifacts they see are the systems automatically closing and pressurizing the docking bay for their craft without anyone to crew the hulk.
    • While not a spaceship, the Fair Folk in Artemis Fowl use shuttles that are just as futuristic as spacecraft, known to have magnetic clamps to help with docking (and use to rescue trapped people wearing metal as well).

  • August 25, 2015
    zarpaulus
    Literature
    • The Eldraeverse has universal docking adapters, detailed here.
    • MCA Hogarth's Paradox universe usually uses "Pad" teleporters, though they're one-way Pad-to-destination and some civilian ships don't have them. They're forced to use some unspecified docking mechanism.

    Live Action TV
    • Goa'uld ships in Stargate SG 1 have Rings, basically miniature Stargates, for transferring men and materiel, and docking bays for small craft like deathgliders and cargo shuttles. Asgard ships have transporters that are basically identical to Star Trek. While Earth's first big starship, the Prometheus, started out with small bays and a stolen Ring system, and was later upgraded with Asgard transporters, which were made standard in the later Daedalus class ships.

    Oh, and the Boarding Pod trope is specifically designed for B&E.
  • August 26, 2015
    Arivne
    Mooring example

    Tabletop Games
    • Star Fleet Battles. Most ships dock to bases and each other with tractor beams. A few, such as Fast Patrol ships, dock to their tenders using mech links.
  • August 26, 2015
    StarSword
    You can link the B&E section to High Speed Hijack and Boarding Pod.

    Multiple types:
    • The X-Universe games hit several of the high points.
      • Most stations have external universal docking hubs that ships up to M6 corvette size can use, while shipyards, equipment docks, and military outposts feature external berths for capital ships. TM military transports also have external fighter berths.
      • Some stations feature internal hangars for ships up to M6, operating on a Clown Car Base principle (i.e. no limit on how many ships can dock). A popular Game Mod for X3: Terran Conflict adds internal docking to player-built factory complex hubs, plus two capital berths. M1 carriers, TL large transports, and some M7 frigates also have internal docking for fighters, but space is limited.
      • Players can also equip ships with a teleporter add-on to transfer personnel and cargo ship-to-ship.
      • Finally, M7M missile frigates can be loaded with Boarding Pods to capture other capital ships.
  • August 26, 2015
    robbulldog
    For a Docking Adapter example; the Enterprise NCC-1701-D could separate into the saucer and stardrive sections; and then would have to reconnect by a docking maneuver. Picard made his new first officer do it manually in the first episode, which was the only time that the reconnect was shown on screen. (Saucer separation was only used in two other episodes, and in those, the reconnect was not shown, and one movie.)
  • August 26, 2015
    StarSword
    ^The Enterprise is also shown with a docking tube connected at the main shuttlebay door at one point.
  • August 26, 2015
    zarpaulus
    There's a few Zero Context Examples in the Docking Bay section.

    • Babylon Five: The titular space station has a docking bay in the "hub" of the cylinder. Ships entering have to match spin. And larger vessels need to send shuttles.
    • Battlestar Galactica: Battlestars have two hangar pods for landing and launching Vipers and Raptors. Though the actual hangars are below the bay decks and accessed by elevator airlocks, similar to modern-day aircraft carriers. There's also docking tubes in the bays for ships that are too big for the elevators such as Colonial One.
  • August 26, 2015
    robbulldog
    For "Universal Adapter". (It's been a long time since I read the novel of "Red October", so I don't remember if the generic docking collar was mentioned in the book or not, but I do remember it in the movie)

    • In The Hunt For Red October, Jack Ryan goes to a shipyard to talk with a submarine expert. While at the shipyard, he's shown the DRSV rescue sub, being outfitted with "a generic docking collar" that would allow it to dock onto any other submarine. This becomes a Chekovs Gun, as the DRSV is later used to get him and officers from the Dallas on board the Red October.
  • August 26, 2015
    zarpaulus
    Tabletop Games
    • Current Traveller:
      • Universal adapter: If two ships have incompatible airlocks they can extend plastic tubes that adapt to each other.
      • Docking bay: Many ships have what are basically slots that shuttles or modular cutters fit into.
    • Hc Svnt Dracones: Most large and capital-sized ships have drone bays that can accommodate Attack Drones, flimsy shuttles that can't enter atmosphere but are useful for transfers between ships or stations (which capital ships are too big to dock with), or boarding pods. Ships of medium size and larger can be fitted with Landing Bays that can carry small ships.
    • In Myriad Song a lot of smaller starships hitch onto the exteriors of massive "cavalcades" to make interstellar trips.

    Video Games
    • In the Star Fox series Arwings launch from a bay on the Great Fox's lower bow area. There's a short landing ramp on the back of the ship.
    • Homeworld the Mothership and equivalent ships have a large bay from which smaller craft are launched, apparently right after being manufactured. And where resource-gatherers return to drop off their loads and all the ships rush back in before a hyperspace jump.
  • August 30, 2015
    zarpaulus
    Is this still going?
  • August 31, 2015
    StarSword
    Removing a hat until examples and crosswicks to existing tropes are added. Remember a hat means "I think this is ready to launch", not "this is cool".
  • August 31, 2015
    Tallens
    Might want to also mention the Mega Maw Maneuver, one ship swallowing another.

    The examples section looks really messy to me. The type sub-sections seem prone to ZCE abuse, and I think ultimately we'd be describing how the docking is working in the examples anyway.

    And the Spacedock from the Star Trek films, would that be considered a very large docking bay, or would it be something else entirely?
  • August 31, 2015
    JGarnj
    I think the film Interstellar is a good example of docking gone amiss.
  • August 31, 2015
    oneuglybunny
    Film
    • Docking is used in Stanley Kubrick's Two Thousand One A Space Odyssey to transfer Doctor Heywood Floyd from a Pan-Am space plane to Goddard Station. Scored to the Blue Danube waltz, it illustrates the complexity of a rendezvous in space with a geosynchronous station moving at about 26,000 mph in a slow curve while rotating to maintain artificial gravity.

    Western Animation
    • All kinds of methods are used in Don Bluth's Titan AE:
      • Purpose-built docking when the Valkyrie connects with the salvage station Tau 14.
      • Free-space jump occurs when young Cale and Captain Korso eject from their damaged craft, and propel themselves with a fire extinguisher into the hangar bay of the Valkyrie.
      • Universal adapters at the end of long, clear tubes are used to move people and supplies between starships and New Bangkok, which is a "drifter colony" cobbled together from several different spacecraft.
  • August 31, 2015
    Tuckerscreator
    • In Apollo 13, the crew of 13 is skeptical of their new crewmate Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon), especially after during a docking simulation he screws up and crashes their ship. Thankfully, when doing the real thing there are no accidents. (In real life, Swigert was plenty experienced in docking and the other astronauts could have taken over if he couldn't do it.)
    • In the final Animorphs book, an Andalite docking craft is deployed to dock with an unknown ship. It's described as rather ugly, being covered with all sorts of protusions to attach to surfaces, including an alien equivalent of Velcro.
    • In Halo Evolutions, future-Admiral Preston Cole, "surrendering" to a rebel ship holding his ship hostage, uses their docking tube as a makeshift missile tube, firing an explosive directly into the rebel ship's docking bay.
  • August 31, 2015
    shimaspawn
    Zero Context Examples have been tagged for repair or removal.
  • September 1, 2015
    Tallens
    I just noticed there is a considerable gap from 2011 to when this was picked up again a few months ago. Is anyone willing to take this over?
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