A Scientist Explains Why The Enterprise Can’t Go Underwater

And Devin explains why this niggling detail is, philosophically, a big deal.

In Star Trek Into Darkness the USS Enterprise hides underwater on an alien planet. You can see the moment in the latest trailer, and Ain't It Cool's Mr. Beaks, who has seen the first nine minutes of the film, explains that the ship is hiding there in order to not violate the Prime Directive on a pre-first contact planet. That means the ship is underwater on purpose, not because of some crazy event. Despite having shuttle craft and transporters, the ship has come to the planet's surface. 

This is phsyically unlikely in an enormous way, and occasional Badass contributor Raymond Wagner explains that below. Ray has a PhD in electrical engineering and is a research engineer working in the space industry. He's one of the guys paving the way for Starfleet.

But before I give you Ray's scientific explanation, I want to tell you why this bothers me on a fundamental, philosophical level:

Yes, this is a movie. Liberties can be taken to make a more exciting movie. Yes, many things in Star Trek canon don't make sense or wouldn't work. But Trek has always been a science fiction property, rooted in the idea that the stuff that happens on screen is, in some way, explainable through science. 

That's why Star Trek has been, for generations, an inspiration to scientists. Not only has the show driven young people into the sciences, the technology on the show has been an inspiration for modern advances. There are, today, scientists working on warp drive capabilities, and they will tell you they were inspired by Trek:

"I've been a devoted science fiction fan since childhood, and Star Trek has always been one of my favorites," Richard Obousy, physicist, advanced propulsion expert and co-founder of Icarus Interstellar Inc., a non-profit group of scientists dedicated to sending a probe to another star, told Discovery News. "While Star Trek is a space 'opera' at a superficial level, at its core, it is about human creativity and the vast potential of technologies that inspired human minds can construct." 

In a modern age where space exploration is being devalued and huge numbers of Americans still believe in Creationism, Star Trek's aspirational, human-level, technology-centered philosophy is more important than ever. I want the new Star Trek franchise to inspire the next generation of engineers and explorers. Instead it seems that JJ Abrams has taken the franchise into the Star Wars space fantasy direction, where characters misuse words like 'parsecs' and where basic physics are thrown out the window. There's definitely a place for this sort of fantastical fiction, but Star Wars is fantasy, not scifi. Star Trek should be scifi... and science is just as important as fiction in that portmanteau. 

So that's why I feel like this is more than a nitpick. Sacrificing basic physics for a cool shot is not in the best tradition of Star Trek. The best tradition of Star Trek is something that could really serve our world right now.

Here's Ray, giving you the science side of this:

I'll go on the record as saying that I wasn't a fan of the Enterprise being assembled on Earth and then flown up to orbit in 2009's "Star Trek".   Matt Jefferies' original design was a true spaceship, and all the design elements were focused around a ship harnessing powerful and dangerous forces to travel between stars.  It was anything but aerodynamic, and if the parts were built on Earth, they probably should've been assembled on orbit.  Those Trek ships that are capable of atmospheric flight tend to look like it - take the Klingon Bird-of-Prey, with its wings, and (though I hate to mention it) Voyager, with its more flattened-out, lifting body-like profile.  Anything else (including the Enterprise in TOS) tends to, at most, only dip the occasional toe into a planet's atmosphere in an emergency.(1)

Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman have the keys to the kingdom, though, so I'm willing to let them play the artistic license card and roll with it.  But this whole Enterprise-under-water business has gone too far!  Like most spacecraft, the Enterprise is designed to keep between one and several atmospheres of pressure in, while the ship itself is exposed to the vacuum of space.  This is a very different job than keeping out the pressure from tons of sea water over your head. (2) It just strains credibility to the breaking point to ask us to believe that those poor Starfleet engineers were told to take flying under water into account in their ship designs.  How often can that even need to happen during your average mission?  Spoiler alert: like, never. Or hardly ever.  You just wouldn't build that sort of thing into your space ship's requirements.  I suppose you could technobabble your way out of any criticism like this with structural integrity fields and blah, blah, blah, but come on - that's the sort of thing that eventually killed the TNG-era run of Trek.  If we're already at that point two movies into the reboot, we're in real trouble.

(1) There was actually a nod to the saucer section being capable of landing in the re-design for TMP, with four landing gear hatches included on the underside of the model, but this was never exploited in the TOS-era movies.  And, of all the parts of the Enterprise, this is really the only one that makes any sense in an atmosphere.

(2) For every 33 feet you descend in the sea, the pressure over your head increases by 1 atmosphere.  So, if something as big as the Enterprise is really hiding under water like all those extended trailer descriptions indicate, it's probably going to want to go deep to be stealthy.  And it won't take much depth to generate some crazy pressures!

Note from Devin: taking into account published, official dimensions of the Enterprise, it's possible the ship would need to submerge deep enough to get to 6 atmospheres just to be fully underwater.

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