Space Docking
The finer points of docking and boarding spaceships


(permanent link) added: 2011-05-22 12:22:35 sponsor: Kizor (last reply: 2011-06-22 06:56:07)

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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.

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. In the space battle at the beginning, aliens "use our rescue airlocks against us." Troopships 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.
  • 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.
  • In Schlock Mercenary

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 enginges 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.
  • 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!

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.
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