Space Is Air when a work treats spacecraft as if they were aircraft; they bank into turns, keep their engines firing at all times, and may even have wings built into their design. Aircraft-style design can be justified
if the ship is capable of operating in atmosphere as well as in space (like the space shuttle), but the main
reason that this trope exists is because audiences are more familiar with how airplanes work than with how spaceships work. Thus, creators treat spaceships as if they are simply airplanes in space
instead of using realistic physics, in order to avoid confusing the audience
. This isn't necessarily a bad thing
— after all, it can be used to great effect to make things look really cool
— but it does push things down toward the softer end of Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness
The way airplanes work is dependent on the fact that they're travelling through the atmosphere. Wings provide lift, flaps and rudders can reorient the plane by redirecting airflow, and their engines must be on constantly in order to counteract the effects of friction and gravity — wings generate lift only when there's airflow across them, so a certain minimum airspeed is absolutely necessary for them to work. Because space is a vacuum, none of these things apply to spaceships — wings and flaps are useless, and the engine only needs to be on when the ship is changing speed or direction. This means that spacecraft use dedicated thrusters to reorient themselves, and change direction in sharp bursts rather than gradually. If you see a spaceship changing direction without using maneuvering rockets, or making wide, sweeping turns, then that's because Space Is Air. This trope occasionally extends to natural phenomena; for instance, the Sun is sometimes depicted, particularly in children's fiction, as literally on fire, implying that space is full of air to let it burn. Comets are almost always shown moving in the opposite direction to their tails, as if they were moving through air and their tails were the trails they left behind.
A subtrope of Space Does Not Work That Way
, and sister trope to Space Is an Ocean
. Also a frequent cause of Space Friction
, and may be why Batman Can Breathe in Space
. If you see Old School Dogfighting
in space, it's usually because this trope is in effect; it also dictates the appearance of many Space Fighters
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Anime and Manga
- Cowboy Bebop uses fairly realistic Newtonian physics for the most part, but during combat, Rule of Cool pitches the laws of physics out the window and they revert to Old School Dogfighting.
- Space Battleship Yamato combines it with Space Is an Ocean; capital ships act like sea-going vessels, while smaller craft act like airplanes, to the point of having dive bombers and torpedo bomebrs. Given that the show is very much in the style of World War II's Pacific theater Recycled IN SPACE!, it's to be expected.
- Superdimension Fortress Macross: Given that the Valkyries can literally turn into planes, it's no surprise that they act like planes even in space.
- The novelization of Macross' Westernized form Robotech handwaves it as the fighters being thought-controlled. Since most of the pilots were used to atmospheric craft first and foremost, their veritechs moved as if they were in an atmosphere.
- Star Wars may actually be the Trope Codifier, particularly with the Old-School Dogfight between Space Fighters.
- The Wing Commander movie takes this trope even further than Star Wars by having fighters take off from runways the same way airships take off from Aircraft Carriers and ships drop down when they leave the runway.
- The Star Wars Expanded Universe has a lot of this, reflecting the films.
- The Elder Things from H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness fly through space with their wings. Note that this isn't Science Marches On, as Lovecraft knew perfectly well that "aether" was a debunked concept, despite referring to it in-story to justify this trope; he just liked the idea of space being full of aether more than that of it being vacuum.
- Justified in Polystom, which is set in a star system in which the space between the planets really is filled with air.
- While Warhammer 40,000 normally tries to avert this trope, the novel Pandorax plays it dead staight with no excuse or shame.
- Taken to a literal extreme in The Little Prince, in which the Prince leaves his planet by catching migrating birds. Still, the story is less a science fiction tale and more a Fairy Tale with planets in it.
- Although the earlier incarnations of Star Trek tend more toward Space Is an Ocean, later shows start to treat ships as much like airplanes as like sailing ships. Not only are there shots of ships making expansive, banking turns like an atmospheric craft, but combat between ships is increasingly depicted as an Old-School Dogfight.
- Used extensively Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. With the same stock footage almost every time.
- Averted in Babylon 5 — the Starfury is clearly designed for operation in three dimensions and looks nothing like an airplane; the pilot is not even in a seated position, but standing.
- Even within the show, ships designed to operate in an atmosphere as well as space, such as the Raiders' delta-wing fighters or the Thunderbolt Starfuries, will have a more aerodynamic design at the expense of being less maneuverable in space combat. Raiders end up having to rely on superior numbers whenever possible, while the Thunderbolts are fitted with considerably more firepower.
- Battlestar Galactica generally averts this. In an early space battle, one of the Vipers does a head-to-tail 180 degree spin in order to fire at a bogey behind it, and most of the time the engines only fire when they change course.
- In Hankin's The Empire Strikes Back pinball game, every single aircraft and spaceship is shown leaving a swooping red-and-orange exhaust trail, including the Rebel Snowspeeders, Imperial TIE Fighters, Luke's X-Wing, and the Millennium Falcon.
- Played straight with the Space Fighters in Stellar Wars
- Used in BattleTech, where the rules for fighting in space are essentially identical to the rules for fighting on a planet — nevermind the fact that heat dissipation (a major factor in mech combat) would be completely different.
- Crimson Dark has space fighters and bombers which act like planes.
- Angels 2200 is about the pilots of carrier-based space fighters which look and fly like planes.
- Parodied in the very low budget show ''The Planet from Outer Space'', that appears in The Simpsons episode She of Little Faith, in which the crew of a ship chokes because of "space air"... until they put their googles on.