What puts a starship in the running for “coolest in the multiverse”? It’s a combination of iconic design, real-life science, and sheer style. To keep things interesting, we’ve avoided multiple entries from the same sci-fi universe and picked some lesser-known ships that deserve a bit more attention.
Buckle your seatbelt and prepare for hyperdrive: here are five of the coolest starships in science fiction.
The Swordfish II, Cowboy Bebop
The show may be named for the Bebop, but Spike Spiegel’s Swordfish II is the real star of the classic sci-fi anime Cowboy Bebop. The Swordfish is actually a heavily modded racer retrofitted as a starfighter, and packs enough speed and maneuverability to outclass most other ships in a dogfight.
The most epic episode showing the Swordfish in action is probably “The Real Folk Blues, Part 1”, where Spike has to fight off a swarm of attack ships before they destroy the Bebop. Here’s a clip:
Apart from the sleek, needle-like design and plasma cannon, a big part of the Swordfish’s cool factor comes from the show’s soundtrack.
Cowboy Bebop is a love letter to blues, jazz, and classic rock, but it always seems to switch to a melancholy tune when the Swordfish launches into space. The above clip features the song “Road to the West”, which captures the feeling of one lonely starship searching among the stars.
SA-23E Mitchell-Hyundyne Starfury, Babylon 5
Babylon 5 is one of the forgotten gems of sci-fi TV: apart from winning two Hugo Awards (the same number as Star Trek: The Original Series), the show was a pioneer when it came to bringing large-scale CGI to television. If you’re looking for realistic space battles, Babylon 5 has it in spades, and the Starfury is at the center of it all.
The Starfury is a four-engine craft that looks like a cross between a TIE Fighter and an X-Wing. It’s designed for recon and interdiction—in other words, attacking enemy ships and supply lines before they get to the front lines. It’s also an excellent dogfighter, partly because it can pull off maneuvers like 180-degree turns and sudden stops, which allows it to get its guns into position and blast enemy fighters from any angle.
You won’t see those kinds of moves in normal space battles because it’s usually easier to treat starships like fighter planes—PBS even did a video on the physics of space battles:
The Starfury set a new standard for fictional spaceships, which is why it deserves a spot on this list.
Rocinante, The Expanse
Want to know the difference between a geek and a nerd?
A nerd will tell you that they love the X-Wing because it’s the starship that blew up the Death Star. A geek will tell you that they love the Rocinante because it features realistic depictions of physics. Actor Cas Anvar himself geeks out over the scene where his character, Alex Kamal, pulls off some zero-g beer-drinking.
Contrasted against the sleek starships like the Normandy from Mass Effect, Anvar has described the ships in The Expanse as more like "skyscrapers strapped to rockets." They’re not very maneuverable, and they’re definitely not safe—even pulling off the “flip and burn” maneuver the show is famous for requires a safety lockdown for all the crewmembers (including mouth guards). But this is the kind of stuff that makes the Rocinante cool—as Anvar himself said:
"[The Expanse is] the only science fiction show where science is made into a character. It's an extremely real-world, extremely hostile [show]…It's a look at what we're going to be dealing with in the future—as human technology grows, our foibles and flaws grow with [it]."
USS Enterprise, Star Trek
There have been a lot of Enterprises over the years, from the weird, squat-looking NX-01 to The Next Generation's NCC-1701-C. In fact, the name “Enterprise” has become so synonymous with space travel that a write-in campaign convinced NASA to name a Space Shuttle after it.
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic named one of their commercial spacecraft “Enterprise” of their own volition (though that ship crashed in 2015). With all that in mind, we’re going to play it safe and say the Enterprise that started it all, the original NCC-1701, is the coolest of the lot.
Here are just a couple cool facts about the original Enterprise, in case you needed convincing:
First off, the Physics Department at the University of Queensland tested the design of the Enterprise in a wind tunnel-like device that simulated Mach 5 speeds and extrapolated that the ship might actually be able to handle the stress of Warp Speed.
Secondly, the bridge of the Navy’s fully autonomous stealth destroyer ship, the USS Zumwalt, appears to be partially inspired by the bridge layout of the Enterprise—the US government even found that the navigator-helmsman-captain chain of command used in the show would be an effective way to run a ship.
Millennium Falcon, Star Wars
We could have put a lot of ships here, but the Millennium Falcon still beats all of them. Not just because it’s arguably the most iconic ship in Star Wars, but because it’s got the most character. Sci-fi is dominated by sleek, high-tech ships with fancy chrome interiors and working hyperdrives, but the Falcon doesn’t have that cool factor off the bat—instead, Luke takes one look at it and calls it a piece of junk.
It’s only later, over the course of space battles, daring escapes, and badly timed short-circuits, that the Falcon starts becoming The Little Starship That Could.
The Falcon’s appearance (and malfunctions) imply a long history of jury-rigged systems, sloppy wiring, and a series of pilots who scraped by on the bare minimum. The flaws make it endearing, and give it a human element that cold steel and digital lights can’t evoke. When Gareth Edwards went to make Rogue One, he tried to emulate the same grungy, gritty tech the Falcon had in spades.
The Force Awakens also understood the magic of the Falcon: one of the high points of the film comes when Rey rips open a panel in the cockpit and starts yanking out wires, then excitedly exclaims to Han Solo “I bypassed the compressor!” The pride on her face at mastering the Falcon’s slapdash circuitry is enough to warm a wampa’s heart, and perfectly encapsulates what makes it such a memorable starship.
Featured still from "Star Wars: A New Hope" via Lucasfilm