I am attempting to write a Hard SF story. It involves a couple of rather roomy spacecraft capable of interstellar travel, both of which are big enough to contain another, smaller spacecraft (a la Discovery’s pods in 2001).
The obvious terms that spring to mind to describe these spacecraft are “starship” and “mothership”.
I absolutely, positively detest the term “space ship.” I want to avoid using the word “ship” in any form, in any association with any kind of spacecraft. It is my firm belief that the term “space ship” did more to damage and distort the image of what real space travel would be like than any other factor. (And, yes, I’m looking at you, Mr. E. E. “Doc” “Ships of Space” Smith!) The image of sea-farin’ captains and their motley crews, sailing out of port for the unknown and uncharted, banging away at each others’ wooden hulls with cannons, is about as far from what real space travel would be like as World of Warcraft is from the real Middle Ages.
What colloquial terminology would you use instead of “starship” or “mothership”, which doesn’t sound clunky or inobvious? (“Starcraft” and “mothercraft” sound just plain wonky.)
In the aerospace/astrospace world we simply call anything that carries instruments or people into Earth orbit or beyond as “spacecraft”. I suppose you could use the term “vessel”, but this isn’t qualitatively different from “ship”. Frankly, “ship” is just a good a term as any for a spacecraft that carries people; it does pretty much the same things that a watercraft does (propulsion/weigh, protection from elements, et cetera) except in a celestial environment.
If we want to speak in terms of interstellar spacecraft (which by any extrapolation of known technology are just about as far from reality as Smith’s “speedsters” and “destroyers”) then the reality is that they probably won’t be “roomy spacecraft,” but rather will be distributed, robust, self-repairing, semi-autonomous probes somewhat akin to Dyson Freeman’s Astrochicken. The reasons for this are obvious to anyone who is involved in or appreciative of the technical limitations of human space transportation; not only the impingement of high energy cosmic radiation, the enormous energies required to get a craft of any significant size up to speeds capable of crossing interstellar distances in anything like a reasonable timeframe (even given “generation ships”), the hazard of collision with even the small amount of matter at velocities approaching a fraction of a percent of the speed of light, and the problem of logistics and recycling, but also the energy required to operate a small-scale ecosystem and the thermodynamic limitations of eliminating waste heat from a closed system via radiation.
No doubt some nation will, sooner or later, establish a permanent and mostly self-sustaining human presence in orbital or even interplanetary space. The amount of resources available in even the Near Earth Objects make this an appealing enterprise for the long-sighted investor. Orbital habitats are not dramatically far from projections of current technology, and interplanetary vessels are a reasonable extrapolation of existing and conceptual propulsion systems. But interstellar transit is another bag of tricks entirely, and without some kind of beyond-science-fiction breakthrough, explorers to other star systems won’t be running around in brightly colored spandex uniforms setting phasers to stun; they’ll be self-replicating, possibly organic (or at least, organic-like) proxies for humanity, possibly containing some of our genetic heritage but not resembling our form.
If the smaller ones aren’t for combat (which seems unlikely for a “hard” SF story, given that there’s probably not much use for the sort of thing we think of when we say “fighter” in realistic space warfare), you could call them “shuttles.” That pretty simply sums up their likely purpose: to move people or cargo between two points, namely between a carrier and a planet, or between two carriers.
I’m also writing an SF story – not really Hard SF but leaning in that direction – and that’s the word I use. I don’t eschew the word “ship,” though, which I allow the characters to use to refer to the larger, interstellar craft. It’s a difficult word not to use.
If “spacecraft” won’t work, could you use the model/brand name for the spacecraft? Like “we docked with the big Lockheed” or “they were close enough to see the silhouette of the Argo IIIb—military vessels, and this one being no exception, typically went unnamed—against the lunar disc.”
Submarines, no matter how large, are always referred to as a “boat”. That has a certain sense of claustrophobia about it. It’s not much better than “ship”, though, and also conjures up images of Firefly.
It could be a “liner” (which would carry “launches”). That suggests a scheduled service, like the old ocean liners, which doesn’t sound like what you have in mind.
You could come up with a proper name for it, like Discovery, and just have the characters use that. That sidesteps the whole problem.
If there’s a main drive unit pulling, or pushing, other habitat units, etc., it could be a ‘tug’.
Or if your craft has a particular type of drive, call it after that, or after a slang term for the drive. A ‘boombox’ could be the accepted parlance for referring to a ship powered by repeated nuclear explosions, for instance.
Jack Vance called his small spaceships ‘explorators’ iirc, because their main function was exploring. Decide it’s main function and mangle it a bit!
“Submarine” is another good word. Think about it: they didn’t call them “underwater ships”, did they? They gave them a name based on where they travelled. Using the same logic, a possible term for a FTL starship would be an “Interstellar” or “Superstellar”.