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The Real-Life Engineering Inspirations Behind Star Wars' Spacecraft

From darts to outboard motors, here's what inspired some of the iconic Star Wars ship designs.

The Real-Life Engineering Inspirations Behind Star Wars' Spacecraft
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It is no secret that the events and technology of World War II heavily inspired George Lucas' vision of a galaxy far, far away. However, some of the nuts and bolts of the ships featured in the series had some very unlikely and frankly surprising origins. 

Buckle up.

1. The Star Destroyer was based on real-life warships, sort of

real-life inspiration of star destroyer
Source: Brick Ninja/Flickr

Perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring vessels of the Star Wars Universe, the Imperial Star Destroyer is one of sci-fi's most iconic spaceships. Designed by Industrial Light and Magic's Colin Cantwell, these ships were inspired by the look of real-life battleships, at least in part.

Early examples were made using parts from modern warship model kits ("kitbashing") but were given more protrusions than a warship, for a more "three-dimensional" feel, and were given a "dagger" shape to make them look more threatening. Their iconic grey color is a direct reference to their warship origins, but was also a design choice, so the model would contrast better with bluescreen backgrounds. 

Originally, these ships were going to be two-pilot starfighters, but this was later revised to the ship we all know and love today.  

2. The Mon Calamari Cruiser is basically a giant pickle

real life inspiration mon cal cruiser
Source: Karl Loefller/Flickr

Since we've mentioned the Star Destroyer it would be remiss of us to include another of the universe's iconic starships -- The MC80 Mon Calamari Cruiser. Completely alien and sleek in design, these ships feature truly inspired designs. 

Designed to be as different from the Imperial Star Destroyer as possible, their final organic design was unofficially given the nickname "pickle ships" by the team at Industrial Light and Magic. Interestingly, this is one of the few ship designs in the franchise that precluded the ability to "kitbash" them together from existing model kits. Instead, the original models were made using a process called vacuum forming.

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While not officially based on a pickle, the ship's designer, Colin Cantwell has also not officially ruled it out. "It was about 30 years ago that I came up with the concept. I just guess I have a vivid imagination," he said in a Reddit "Ask me anything" 

3. The Death Star's design was a mixture of planning and screwups

real life inspiration death star
Source: Inside the Magic/Flickr

The planet-destroying space stations, called the Death Star(s), are another of the Star Wars franchise's most well-known model designs. As well as posing an interesting problem within the Star Wars universe, the real-life inspiration for them is quite interesting. 

The overall ball shape was inspired by some of the artwork of John Berkey. His work, incidentally, also helped inspire other aspects of the Star Wars universe. However, some elements of its final design were not planned.

When Cantwell was told the station was going to be shown near planets, he decided to make the entire station silver, so it could be easily seen from any angle in space. Cantwell also hand-etched and inscribed all the details of the station so they showed when the light was cast on it.

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According to Colin Cantwell, the model was also not originally intended to have a trench. 

When building the Death Star prototype, Cantwell ordered a styrene globe. It arrived in two halves, and he scribed the individual hemispheres to create a "villainous effect". However, when he tried to connect the two halves together, Cantwell discovered that the equator of the plastic had shrunk around the edges. It would have been almost impossible to connect the halves so that stage lighting would not show this flaw. 

So instead, he came up with a cunning plan for the station to have a trench all the way around its equator, between the two halves, "where the opposing sides would be shooting at each other in dramatic fight scenes." To convince Lucas, Cantwell suggested that the exhaust port be placed inside this trench, and the Rebels could fly along inside it. Not only did Lucas like the sound of this, but it also saved Cantwell a lot of work.

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This serendipitous mistake would turn out to become one of the franchise's most iconic moments. 

4. The X-Wing is actually based on a dart

real-life inspiration X wing
Source: Alan Wilson/Flickr

The Incom T-65B X-Wing Starfighters, the mainstay of the Rebel fleet, is yet another fan favorite the world over. Its sleek, dare we say sexy, contours really make this fantasy craft look like it could actually fly. 

And that is exactly the point. The design, according to its creator, Cantwell, had to be "ultracool". Drawing inspiration from real-life jet aircraft, the design of the X-Wing is one that has really stood the test of time.

But the main inspiration for its overall look is something you might not expect -- a dart. Colin Cantwell, when asked on this very subject, said he was inspired to create the design when watching a game of darts in a British pub. 

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Building on that initial starting point, the first prototype models were "kit-bashed" using pieces from model kits, like the nose section from a 1/16 scale model dragster model. Cantwell has said that the S-foils were inspired by the look of a cowboy drawing a gun.

The original plan for the X-Wing was said to include wheels on the landing gear. This was because George Lucas had hoped to hire the Spanish Air Force and redress their F-104 fighter jets as Rebel fighters, then film them taxiing and taking off. When this was found to be too expensive, Cantwell replaced the wheels with landing pads.

5. The "Millenium Falcon" was partially based on the Boeing B-29 "Superfortress"

star wars ships inspiration millenium falcon
Source: William Warby/Flickr

The "Millenium Falcon", a modified Corellian YT-1300 light freighter, is one of the most iconic and recognizable craft from any sci-fi film ever made. So many of us are familiar with its form, that it can be hard to imagine that it was once just the figment of its designer's imagination. 

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But what inspired it? 

The cockpit, at least the internal view, is famously inspired by the real-life cockpit of the B-29 Superfortress heavy bomber from WWII. The original model of the "Falcon" was also made from many bits and pieces of other model kits -- like Panzer tanks, Tiger tanks, Messerschmitt ME 109 fighters, etc.

As for the main fuselage, the design was allegedly a blend between a half-eaten hamburger and a flying saucer.

Interestingly, the now equally iconic sound of the "Falcon" came from the real-life sounds of a P-51 Mustang flyby. Industrial Light and Magic engineers Doppler-warped the recording and mixed it with the odd thunderclap or lion's roar!

6. The CR90 Corvette "Rebel Blockade Runner" was based on an early design of the "Millenium Falcon"

real life inspiration tantive IV
Source: Jeremy Keith/Flickr

The very first vessel that audiences were treated to during the opening sequences of "Star Wars: A New Hope", is the "Tantive IV," another iconic sci-fi spaceship. A version of the Corellian CR90 Corvette (from the canon), the original remit was for a ship that looked utilitarian, durable, and modular. 

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The design of this ship actually comes from a concept piece developed by Colin Cantwell that was intended to be, at least initially, the "Millenium Falcon". However, when a similar design was released in the Space: 1999 TV series, Industrial Light and Magic decided to mix things up a bit.

The initial concept for the "Millenium Falcon", according to Cantwell, was a ship that resembled an alert lizard with its legs extended.  

The newer concept was scaled down and revised with the WW2-style cockpit, and mid-section gun turrets being retained. After filming had finished, the model found its way into the collection of Grant McCune, until it was sold in 2015 for an eye-watering sum of $450,000.

7. The TIE Fighter's design is like nothing of this world

real-life inspiration tie fighter
Source: Guido Gloor Modjib/Flickr

The Imperial TIE Fighter is possibly one of the greatest designs for any spacecraft ever conceived. Completely unique, this craft is instantly recognizable by anyone who has ever watched the films. 

Designed by Colin Cantwell, the idea behind the craft's design was to make it as alien and villainous as possible. According to Cantwell's own recollection, the design came quite as an accident as he was scribbling a drawing. 

Within his scribble, he noticed something that would eventually later be fleshed out into the final design as we know it. The ship's function was intentionally left as a mystery, and it was never explained how the pilots would enter or exit the craft.

How the craft landed or took off was also left purposefully unexplained. However, Cantwell's original designs were pretty thin on detail. His colleague, Joe Johnston, added some extra features like the ball cockpit window and attachment points for the solar panel wings. 

Some have also pointed out that the TIE Fighter may have also be inspired, in part, by orbital satellites -- hence the fighter's famous wings. The original idea was to paint the TIE fighters blue, but this was later revised to grey for better contrast against a bluescreen.

In later films, you may notice, TIE fighter colors actually change to a muted blue. If you don't believe us, you now have a worthy excuse to watch the films to check. You are welcome. 

8. Queen Amidala's starship was actually inspired by a real-life jet

real life inspiration nubian starship
Source: Starwars.fandom.com

Switching trilogies to the prequels, Queen Amidala's shiny and sleek royal transport ship is another iconic vessel from the franchise. Technically a J-type 327 Nubian Royal Starship (according to Star Wars canon), this ship is a truly inspired design. 

According to some sources, the overall sheen of the craft was inspired, in part, by the chrome hood ornaments seen on older 1950s automobiles. Her overall shape is, in case you haven't guessed, a nod to the equally iconic Lockheed SR-71 "Blackbird" reconnaissance jet. 

Interestingly, the original script for "Star Wars: A New Hope", was to feature a "small silver spacecraft [emerging] from behind one of the Utapau moons". This was later amended to feature the now-famous chase sequence between "Tantive IV" and the Star Destroyer "The Devastator"

9. The Nebulon-B frigate was based on an outboard motor

real life inspiration nebulon B
Source: starwars.fandom.com

And finally, another iconic, if lesser-known, Star Wars spacecraft is the "Rebel Medical Frigate", or EF76 Nebulon-B Escort Frigate for Star Wars fans. Designed by Industrial Light and Magic's Nilo Rodis-Jamero and Joe Johnston the spaceship's design is very unique.

Allegedly the design was inspired by George Lucas' suggestion to make it resemble an outboard motor. The final model was made under tight time constraints and funds and include components leftover from other "kitbashing" exercises. 

Parts used included space battleship hulls and artillery pieces. The final model, as featured in the films, was just under 2.5 meters (100 inches) long, and around 1 meter (40 inches) tall. 

And that, Star Wars fans, is your lot for today. Information on the inspiration behind the starship designs is pretty thin on the ground, so let us know if you have any insider knowledge on any of these, or other, Star Wars craft. 

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