Slashdot had some great articles today (maybe Sunday is a good day because lots of people have lots of time to write?). I came across one dealing with a guy who’d created a web site to compare the starships of various science-fiction books and movies. This is, of course, a classic debate amongst fans of, say, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”.

As usual with Slashdot, the commentary drifted from the original topic and I found a great description of why you never see “realistic” space battles in movies or computer games. Here it is, with minimal editing:

Any ship with more acceleration then the other ship can always escape.

Unless you use an unrealistically slow amount of thrust, you tend to have these ships zipping by each other at the very least hundreds of miles per hour, leaving you with a fraction of a second to meaningfully fire on the other ship, then it’s turn back around and do it again. Since you’re a human you can’t whip around instantly, and it takes time to move the ship, so every time you miss and come around for another pass, you’re going a little faster since you had more time to accelerate.

It is virtually impossible to tail someone. If you’re matching their thrust vector, you’re not pointing at them– you’re pointing in the same direction they are. Now, if you had a gunner this might be OK, but when you’re both piloting and gunning, this doesn’t work.

It takes time to learn how to land on things! Typically to get somewhere in an airplane-like space simulator you point your ship at it, apply maximum boost, and stop when you get there. Do that in a real simulator and you’ll whack into the object (or miss it) at a significant fraction of the speed of light. You have to learn to turn at “midpoint”, which, inconveniently enough, is also when you’re going the fastest and this is fairly hard for a human to do correctly. (If you’re on autopilot, it’s easier, but if you’re on autopilot you’re not really playing…) Turn around a little too soon, and you have to creep up on the target object, which might literally take several minutes or even hours. Turn around a little too late and by the time you realize it you’re on an unstoppable collision course. *Whack*.

“Random” encounters are impossible without cheating. I would routinely see enemies boost across the system, probably hitting the 1/3 light speed, on an intercept course, and the instant they reached me, “suddenly” they’re on basically the same vector as me so they can fight me. Reality is they should have zipped across my radar so fast it would be unlikely I would even see them.

Space is big. By the time ships are moving in real Newtonian mechanics and not taking years to get from Earth to Mars, you’re incapable of handling the scales as a human. The computer cheating helps but not enough (and it’s frustrating as all computer cheating is). A tactics-level simulator might be cool, but flying around in Newtonian space is no fun at all. If it was, we’d have more simulations based on that.

Also note this demonstrates space piracy is virtually impossible unless your acceleration is on par with your maximum speed, because you just can’t intercept ships to save your life. (Literally, in some cases.)