What would be the most expensive sci-fi spaceship to build if we were to attempt it today? A Star Destroyer? The USS Enterprise? How about the Battlestar Galactica?
A worthy question to answer, so join us as we make some very, very, rough estimations of their construction costs.
What resources would it take to build sci-fi spaceships?
Let's imagine that the world's largest economy, currently the United States, decides to use some, or all, of its military budget to build a working spaceship. How much would it cost? Could it be done?
Working on the most recently available figures, the United States defense budget is somewhere in the region of $778 billion. That's a hell of a lot of money, but is it enough to actually build a spaceship?
Let's have a look.
Please note, the following scenarios make a lot of assumptions about certain things, such as the size, weight, etc. of spacecraft. Since no actual "real" technical information exists for these figures, and since most of the technology they incorporate does not exist, the figures should be taken with a mountain of salt.
1. It would take a lot of resources, and time, to build an Imperial Star Destroyer
One of the most iconic spaceships in the entire genre of science fiction is the Imperial Star Destroyer (ISD) from the Star Wars franchise. Two main variants exist in the Star Wars universe, the Class-I and Class-II, with both stretching over 1 mile, or 1.6 km, long according to Star Wars lore.
Depending on the sources you use, Star Destroyers also have a height of about 3,199 feet (975 meters) and a width of 1,598 feet (487 meters).
With an iconic wedge shape, each ship is heavily armed and heavily armored and requires a crew of somewhere in the region of 37,000 people to operate and fight them. Armament includes a range of laser and ion cannons, as well as a series of missile launchers and a complement of tie fighters, bombers, interceptors, and other support craft.
According to Star Wars lore, at the height of the Galactic Empire around 25,000 of these mighty war machines, give or take, were built.
All very interesting, but what would it take to build one today, assuming we had the technology to do so?
Thankfully, some very clever people with perhaps a little too much spare time on their hands have already attempted to answer this very question. According to one source, a single Class-I Imperial Star Destroyer would cost around $636 billion apiece. And that's just for the basic parts.
Getting all that stuff into space would likely push the budget into the many trillions using conventional means like rockets. (Although building it in space using materials mined in space would be a cheaper option.) But, how was such a figure calculated?
The first step is to find some contemporary proxies to give us an idea of building costs for large war machines. A good starting point could be the latest United States supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford. This is the closest thing that exists today with regards to size and combat role, so is a good starting point.
Of course, simplifications would also need to be made to exclude technologies that don't yet exist. For example, the cost of hyperdrives, tractor beams, force fields, artificial gravity generators, etc. can't really be estimated so we'll just have to do without them. Costs also exclude very thick exterior plating or the use of yet-to-be-discovered exotic materials.
The calculations also assumed that the vessel would actually need to travel in "outer space" and escape Earth's gravity well.
Based on this, the first step was to calculate a Class-I Star Destroyer's volume, at around 52.8 million cubic meters. This value is a very rough approximation and ignores elements that extrude from the ship, like the bridge, domed power generator, etc.
That's a lot of stuff, but not beyond the capability of modern industry. Large ships, like the Allure of the Seas, for example, are roughly 1.188 million cubic meters in volume, so a Star Destroyer would be equivalent to about 44 Allure of the Seas.
But how about powering the thing? Returning to the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier as an existing proxy, its twin A1B PWR nuclear reactors kick out about 3.3 GW of electricity. The aircraft carrier weighs about the same as one Allure of the Seas, and so we can roughly estimate that a Star Destroyer would need about 44 times the power, at about 146.5 GWh overall.
With regards to propulsion, we are told a Star Destroyer is pushed along using giant ion engines or drives. The most powerful available are the NASA Evolutionary Ion Thruster (NEXT) which has a power rating of 7 kW and a thrust of 0.25 Newtons.
That is not much alone, but if, say, 14 million of these could be strapped to the back of the Star Destroyer, it should be possible to push the ship along with a combined total thrust of 3.5 million N, which would accelerate the ship at 0.8 mm/s²
This sounds tiny, but over time the ship could get up to some decent speeds. The rated speed of a Star Destroyer is about 270 m/s, or 972 kph, which would take about four days to reach with this setup. At an estimated $10,000 per thruster, the propulsion system would cost about $140 billion.
So, we now have a large chunk of material with some propulsion and power enough to keep the lights on, but it can't really do anything else. It needs some armament.
For the ship's defense systems and long-range main armaments, we are told a Star Destroyer has around 60 turbolasers and 60 ion cannons. These are clearly very powerful fictional weapons, but the closest thing that exists today is the ATHENA laser.
These are rated at about 60 kW and cost $33 million each. It is expected that this can be improved to 500 kW, which should be enough to enable them to disable planes and trucks.
Assuming we could get this more powerful version for the same price, and need four of them per turret, that's a total cost of $100 million for each turret. Nothing like an ion cannon exists today, so we'll swap them out for lasers, for a total cost of $12 billion.
But, Star Destroyers also have a complement of fighters and other craft, much like an aircraft carrier. Beyond the ion engines, there is little else around to use a proxy for TIE Fighters - especially with very high acceleration. So, taking something like the Lockheed Martin F-22 as a rough guide, with a cost of $150 million apiece, 72 TIE fighters and their derivatives, would likely cost around $11 billion. With added stuff like Imperial Shuttles, AT-AT walkers, etc, we can round that figure up to about $20 billion.
All in all, that gives us a grand total so far of:
- 44.4 aircraft carriers at $10.44 billion apiece = $464 billion
- Laser batteries, for a total of $12 billion
- Engines for a total of $140 billion
- TIE fighters, AT-ATs, etc, for a total of $20 billion
Totting all that up gives a grand total of $636 billion per Star Destroyer. Great, but we have some huge problems remaining - our large chunk of stuff is stuck firmly on Terra Firma and we have no crew! We also haven't paid the workers (or fed them) for building it - let's assume they are doing it for free as they love Star Wars so much.
As for getting all that material into space, the only practical solution at the moment is to use rockets, like SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. Each launch costs around £135 million in order to get about 13 imperial tons, or 13.2 metric tons into space.
With our Star Destroyer likely weighing in at several million kgs, this will take quite a few launches (hundreds of thousands in fact) with costs likely running into the trillions. At this kind of level of cost, it would probably be wise to invest in a space elevator or asteroid mining venture to support the operation.
So, based on 2020 U.S. Defense spending, we could get, very roughly, a single Star Destroyer, excluding shipping to space and crew costs.
2. The USS Enterprise from Star Trek would be an equally challenging venture
Since we've discussed Star Destroyers, it would be remiss of us to not consider what it might take to build the venerable USS Enterprise from Star Trek.
"But which one?" we hear you shout. For this very rough estimation of the resources needed we'll go with the USS Enterprise from Star Trek Beyond (NCC-1701-A in the "alternative reality" series) for no other reason than this is the only one that we found some calculations for.
This variant measures around 2,380 feet (725 meters) long which is roughly half a mile. It has a height of about 625 feet (190.5 meters), and the main saucer is about 1,000 feet (304.8 meters) in diameter. This also makes the USS Enterprise just over a third the length of a Star Destroyer, so, we can expect some savings here don't you think?
Let's find out.
According to some other people with a lot of time on their hands, the USS Enterprise would be very expensive but it should be possible to build a semi-working replica of one with some great effort. As with the Star Destroyer, it is necessary to make some comparisons to the closest thing they had at the time of calculation, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, namely the USS George H. W. Bush, commissioned in 2009.
This ship cost around $6.2 billion to build and is around half the size of the USS Enterprise, so we can have a very rough starting guide cost of $12.4 billion for the hull. We'll assume the engineers are able to develop a space-worthy, airtight, and working "model" of the Enterprise for that money.
Yes, not very scientific, but without detailed schematics of the floor plans of the USS Enterprise to hand (and the complex maths involved), this is the best guestimation we have.
OK, so for that we should get a Star Trek USS Enterprise-looking thing, but, as before, it needs propulsion and some weapons. We'll again forego the futuristic technologies that have no proxies like replicators, matter-antimatter reactors, teleporters, holodecks, shields, warp drives, exotic materials, etc.
We'll even have to do without a diverse crew of alien species, too, we are afraid.
Since this ship will likely need to defend itself, we'll start with armaments. The USS Enterprise is armed with phaser arrays and photon torpedoes as its main weapons systems.
We have nothing like photo torpedoes, but we could probably swap them out for nuclear missiles instead. One of the most advanced today is the UGM-133 "Trident II." While technically developed for launch from a submarine, it should be possible to modify them for space launch.
Each one costs around $31 million to build, so for a complement of say 38 (the number given for the USS Voyager), that's a total cost of $1.18 billion, give or take.
As for phasers, we don't have anything like this in existence, sadly. The closest things that do exist, as for the Star Destroyer, are the aforementioned ATHENA laser systems.
Apparently, the Enterprise has six phaser arrays, but that doesn't really give us an idea of the number of lasers needed. According to Star Trek lore, phaser arrays are strips along the hull that contain numerous phaser emitters in strategic locations around the ship.
We have no way of knowing exactly how many individual emitters are needed, so we'll use a figure similar to the Star Destroyer. That's another $12 billion added to the price tag, thank you very much.
Great, but the ship still lacks any form of propulsion. While "warp drives" are currently being researched, we don't have anything like that at present (at least as far as we know). For sub-light-speed propulsion, the Enterprise uses something called "impulse drives," which are apparently very similar in design to fusion rockets.
Amazingly, something similar has been in development in the past that uses something strangely similar to dilithium crystals. Using a combination of deuterium (a stable isotope of hydrogen) and Li6 (a stable isotope of lithium), this engine could work in a similar fashion to a fusion rocket. However, we are nowhere near being in a position to develop these fully, let alone bolt them onto an embryonic spaceship.
Again, these don't exist yet, so we'll have to make do with something else. So, we'll just use the same ion engines as the Star Destroyer. That increases the budget needed by another $140 billion.
Just like the Star Destroyer, if our "I can't believe it's not the USS Enterprise" is built on Earth, all those components need to get into space for assembly and launch. Using the USS George W. H. Bush again as a proxy, she weighs in at about 114,000 short tons, with a pair at double that. A short ton, in case you have never heard the term before, is 2,000 lbs, or 907.18 kgs.
At the current going rates for using something like SpaceX's Heavy Falcon again, that'll be a total of roughly $456 billion to ship everything to where we want it. It also completely ignores the cost of manpower to do all that work, or, of course, we only employ the services of Trekkie volunteers.
Either way, the crew of likely several hundred would need to be fed and watered. Since we don't have the technology yet to make true replicators, foodstuffs will need to be brought to the ship in orbit. The only real-life analog we have for this is NASA's contract with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp which had a budget of $3.5 billion when awarded to them in 2008.
This contract calls for the companies to deliver stuff like food to the International Space Station, so this could be extended (or added to) to feed our construction crew and ship's complement (at least while it's in Earth's orbit).
Just like the Star Destroyer, however, many of these transport costs could likely be significantly reduced if we plan on building more Enterprise-like ships by investing in a space elevator, skyhook, or completing everything in space by building a spaceport in orbit and using raw materials mined from asteroids, etc.
So, the "final" bill comes in at roughly the following:
- Roughly 2 Nimitz-class aircraft carriers for the hull = $1.174 billion
- Laser batteries, for a total of $12.4 billion
- Trident II missiles, about 38, for a total of $1.174
- Engines for a total of $140 billion
- Food for crew for a total of $3.5 billion
- Postage and packing to space = $464 billion
That gives us a very rough grand total of $622 billion. The 2020 U.S. defense budget could actually cover this with some cash to spare.
3. Let's build a "Battlestar," shall we?
Great, we appear to be hitting our stride, so let's try another ship. How about, for example, our own real-life versions of a battlestar, like the Battlestar Galactica?
Designed by human colonists on various worlds to combat a hostile alien species, called the Cylons, 12 or so of these behemoths were constructed. A mixture of an aircraft carrier and battleship in space, these ships, at least those that survived, are the only safe refuge for their human occupants after the Cylon Wars.
If you've never watched the original or reboot series of the same name, we thoroughly recommend it. For those of you more than familiar with old Galactica, let's try to estimate how much it would cost to replicate her today.
We've already covered some of the major points above with the Star Destroyer and USS Enterprise, so we'll take some shortcuts when pricing her up. Let's start with the hull.
According to the lore, each battlestar measures around 4,700 feet (1.4 km) long, with a width of 1,761 feet (536.84 m), and a height of 601 feet (183.32m). That's a very big ship, yet still dwarfed by the Star Destroyer we priced up earlier.
Using similar metrics of comparison, a battlestar, being about 15 percent smaller, could attract a similar percentage discount on construction costs. So, we'll bring that figure down to a nice $395 billion.
Thankfully for us, a battlestar is relatively unsophisticated with regards to its electronics, etc, as they were specifically designed to be as analog as possible in order to prevent systems from being "hacked" by the Cylons. This will probably mean that the costs for her construction might actually be a lot less than estimated above.
Also, unlike many other sci-fi franchises, battlestars, rather refreshingly, do not even attempt to install "shields," but rather rely on very thick and tough armor plating - much like an Earth battleship.
Armaments used are effectively projectile weapons for close-in defense much like many of our contemporary warships. Battlestars also come equipped with missile defense systems, too.
Little more information is provided for these systems, so we'll just install some contemporary versions of these weapons like the Phalanx CIWS system. Each weighs around 6.200 kgs, and each Battlestar has around 515 dual-barrel turrets. We'll assume we get each for the same price as a contemporary Phalanx, at $5.6 million each, or $2.88 billion for the complete complement.
Battlestars also come with large offensive turrets, similar to World War II-era battleships. According to Battlestar Galactica's official wiki, each ship has between 24 and 50 dual gunned turrets. No further information is available on these except the shells (either flak or "offensive" ammunition) are too large to be loaded by hand.
The largest caliber guns ever mounted on a battleship were the enormous 18-inch (457.2mm) guns of the Japanese super battleship Yamato, so we'll just use some of those, shall we?
No reliable costs are available for those kinds of guns (and turrets) as they are no longer used on modern warships. However, the WW2-era Iowa-class battleship's triple-gun turrets cost around $1.4 million at the time (minus the barrels). In today's money that would be about $28.37 million.
If we make some assumptions that turrets can be made to work in the void of space, we'd need about 38 of these at a total cost of $1.08 billion. Heaven knows how much the ammunition would cost, but let's give it some of the most advanced kinds available - the Raytheon-made "Excalibur" round for $70,000 apiece. They're smaller than the caliber we need, but let's assume they can be scaled up for about the same price (we'll be ordering in bulk after all).
Again using Iowa-class battleships as a proxy, each had around 1,200 rounds per turret, so we'll run with that.
With 38 turrets, we'd need 45,600 rounds for a total cost of $3.19 billion. These are guided rounds, which would be useful in space.
Battlestars also come with a small cache of nuclear warheads, too - which is handy. The only number we've been able to find is that Galactica has at least 5 of these, so we'll use that.
Again, using Trident IIs, we'll need another $155 million for those (though likely more in "reality"). All-in-all, our battlestar's total armament comes in at a cool £7.305 billion.
As for a Battlestar's fighter complement, Battlestars come equipped with 40 "Viper" fighters of various marks, and an unknown number of "Raptor" recon craft. If we equip our Battlestar with the most iconic variant, the Mark II, these are equipped with mass accelerator cannons, "Javelin" missiles, and are powered by "turbo thrust engines."
Since we have no aircraft currently capable of flying in both space and the atmosphere, like a "Viper," we'll just fill her hangers with 40 F-22s worth of craft for $6 billion or so.
As for propulsion, Battlestars are powered by ion engines for travel between local planets and "FTL," or faster than light drives for traveling long distances in a short period of time. As with the Star Destroyer and USS Enterprise, we'll just strap on the same NEXT engines as the Star Destroyer but 15% fewer of them. That gives us 12 million engines, for a total cost of about $120 billion.
So, the "final" bill comes in at roughly the following:
- 85% cost of a Star Destroyer's hull = $395 billion
- CIWS and offensive batteries = $7.305 billion
- Compliment of 40 "fighters" for $6 billion
- Engines for a total of $120 billion
That gives us a very rough grand total of $528 billion. As for other considerations, like manpower, food, etc, we'll just nick the values from the USS Enterprise, or $3.5 billion.
As before, to get all that stuff into space using currently existing technologies, and at a rate of about $4,000 per kg to get stuff spaceside, and a Battlestar probably weighing in the order of millions of tons, that's a lot of money. Probably trillions of dollars.
Like the Star Destroyer, we could probably pay for the main parts of a Battlestar, but couldn't afford to get it into space using the 2020 U.S. defense budget spending. Again, as before, this cost could be lowered by constructing the ship in space, although it would first require the outlay to develop spacedocks and mining operations.
As it turns out, if we were going to do this, the USS Enterprise might be the cheapest option. Being the smallest of three craft, this shouldn't really be a surprise - it is primarily a research vessel, after all, not a warship like the other two.
And that's your lot for today sci-fi fans. As you can see, if we were to attempt to build anyone of these spaceships today, the costs would be breathtakingly expensive if we could even manage it using existing industrial methods and capacities. The process could be made cheaper by offloading all the manufacturing into space, but that would require the facilities to be built in the first place. Quite a conundrum.
Perhaps one day it may be possible, but for now, barring some intergalactic threat to humanity, there is no real requirement for such a vessel to justify the cost.