When did we start referring to spacecraft in nautical terms?

Something has been bugging me for a while, in a lot of stuff, most notably Sci-Fi, we have a tendency to refer to spacecraft and their crew in nautical terms, bonus points if they’re also military craft.

Spaceship (or shortened, simply “ship”)
“On Deck”
“Ashore” (those last two are less common, but they were used in Mass Effect)
Crew (debatable I suppose, crew is pretty generic)
Pilot (technically)

Pretty much the ONLY things (other than the obvious tech that doesn’t have an obvious parallel) that isn’t referred to in nautical terms is distance, probably because Nautical Miles don’t translate too well in places without, you know, latitude.

When did this start and when did it catch on? Has anyone tried to propose unrelated terms or did we accept these as “good enough”? At first I thought it was because we’d been using the terms for other things for years and there was no reason to invent new ones, then I threw out that suggestion when I realized that’s never stopped anyone (especially the imaginative bunch that Sci-Fi writers are) before.

Yeah kind of a stupid question, but whatever.

It’s not a daft question at all – quite interesting, actually. This suggests an early use of “spaceship” was in science fiction from 1894, in “Journey in Other Worlds”. Even zeppelins were known as “airships” – possibly because grand travel by sea to other places was and still is ingrained in imagination.

Nautical miles were often used, and are still used in many places, although newer programs tend to use SI units. There is a fairly clear line of continuity from the Navy to the Air Force to the space program, at least in the USA. Before the invention of the airplane, the Navy were the experts in navigation, and this had a strong influence on aviation.

Sounds like the kind of thing Steampunk / Jules Verne’s ilk would’ve originated.

The question would be; why invent new names for something that is already well understood? Sometimes it just makes sense to follow convention.
You already know what a deck and an Admiral are. You already grasp what engineering spaces are. The terms “dock” and “port” and “bay” already make sense. If I’m writing early sci-fi, I am already spending a fair amount of time explaining “gravitational shields,” I don’t want to have to coin new terms when old ones work just fine. Writers like J. Verne and H. G. Wells used nautical terms whenever possible: they work.

Above a certain size and anything is going to be called a ship, small moons not excepted.

On deck would probably relate to ordinary people that read the books or watching the movie , have a reference point.

Ashore is not a term that I have run across in most scifi novels , planet side, stationside , down the well , dirtside and the like , but not ashore.

The navy has had the most influence in scifi with regard to vessels , so having a bridge instead of a flight deck is a given. Admiral and Captain are both organizational ranks commanding individual vessels and squadrons to fleets as needed.

At least the airforce gets pilots, Im not sure how naval aviators would translate into purple.


Nitpick; “flightdeck” and “pilot” are Navy terms

In what context though.

Flightdeck being the part of an aircraft carrier that launches and recovers the aircraft or the control section of the ship ?

Pilot being an aircraft driver or a specialized navigator that temporarily take over the ship to bring it into harbor ?


As with navies - and unlike other military organizations - the basic unit for any spacefaring force will be the individual vessel. As a result, it would not be much of a leap to assume that naval organizational terminology (inlcuding ranks) would be used.

Plus, it’s more romantic.

The flight deck is also a synonym for the cockpit of an aircraft.

I agree. There’s a natural affinity between the two since they’re both vessel oriented. And travelling planet to planet across the black sea of space also echoes the maritime culture of voyaging from port to port on the ocean. The first large, non-ocean-going vessels were airships. Much of the development of airships was undertaken by the worlds navies, which could help further the maritime terminology for non-sea-vessels. Plus, early sci-fi writers didn’t have air force history to give them ranks like Wing Commander or Flight Leader.

try shore leave

Um, in Stargate they use Air Force terminology for their spaceships

It seems to me that it’s a question of crew size. There are very few airplanes which have a crew of a dozen or so, but that’s fairly small for a “spaceship” crew. You do occasionally have single-person space vehicles in fiction, like the X-wing, but I don’t think those are usually called “ships” (rather, something like “fighters”).

Flightdeck as a place on an aircraft doesn’t come about until the large bombers, (and crews), of WWll. Aircraft carriers had flightdecks in WWl.
Pilots are not just for “sea & anchor details,” (pulling in and out of port). Pilots handle the wheel of all river boats. Most small boats have a pilot.
Cockpit is also taken from small boats; the coxswain is usually the pilot of a boat and this is where he steers from. Usually they were junior officers, and they lived right under the aft steering; the cockpit.

I happened to be in the airport museum at SFO the other day and I noticed that some of the early air travel advertisements used nautical terminology as well, such as “flying clipper ships” to refer to airliners.

There are a number of similarities between vessels traveling on water and vessels traveling through space. Each is enclosed against the medium in/through which they travel. Most vessels of either kind require crews, usually of a fairly significant size (excluding such things as the early space programs, or early seafarers on rafts or in canoes; most stories of space travel aren’t about the beginning, but about mature technology), and somebody must be in charge, absolutely - no ifs, ands or buts. Since the earliest science fiction writers who wrote about space travel lived in an era when most long distance travel was on water, the similarites were probably even more overwhelming than they might seem today.

I could give a rather long list of writers over the last ~150 years who quite automatically and naturally defaulted to nautical terms, but I should think that Verne (one of the two earliest who wrote of space travel) by himself should be suffcient. However much SF writers may like to innovate, the successful ones nearly always hate having to introduce too many strangenesses into their stories - or at least, their editors do. :stuck_out_tongue: Too many weird new things make a story less accessible even to the average SF reader - and therefore less likely to hold their interest.

So you can have some idea what I mean by too many strange things overwhelming the story, I offer an example: David Brin’s Uplift Universe died an untimely end when his 3rd-6th books had too many weird new species, and had them as principal protagonists. Quite unintentionally, he made them even less accessible by switching POVs too frequently and too fast. I consider it a dreadful shame, as I’m among those who were avid fans of the first three books in that universe. But he’s unlikely to write more books in that universe, as those books have never sold half as well (or been nearly as well received) as the first three - or, for that matter, nearly every other book he’s ever written. Or, for all I know, no editor is now willing to take a chance on it. It is indeed a pity, as I suspect he’s learned his lesson (the hard way). What’s an even greater pity is that he can’t do revised editions of those stories. I’ve always thought that they’d have been vastly improved just by rearranging them to stop switching POVs every other page or two.

Sooo. The nautical terminology is readily accessible to anyone who enjoys adventure stories of any kind, and has been since Homer. It helps to put a comfortable and comprehensible frame around stories that are otherwise intended to have at least one strange - or even uncomfortable - new idea, object or being in them.

Not only that, but people working in commercial aviation also seem to use ‘nautical miles’ or, when referring to speed, even ‘knots’. Or maybe they don’t anymore, but I know they used to. Also specifications for types of planes often list cruising speed in knots.

Knots are speed through a medium independant of latitude and longitude. A nautical mile is the distance traveled in one hour at one knot, absent current. I have stated it this way as the knot preceded the nautical mile. BTW, Knot is not a corruption of naut’. Literal knots on a line (connected to a “log” thrown overboard) were counted while a glass ran out. Results were recorded in the log book…later shortened to just log… It is no accident that 1 kt. is very, very near 100 ft/minute…it was intended to be exactly such, and it is only rationalization with modern improvements in measurement created the <1% difference.

Aww, come on, if the truth is boring you could at least TRY to make something up! Come on the government isn’t keeping the writer paid off to not… never mind. :stuck_out_tongue:

So it was basically a combination of “we’re explaining tons of things already, don’t make us explain more!” “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” and “too many strange things scare people.”

I guess I was just expecting that after the wackier things became tropes used constantly the other stuff would follow eventually, but I guess those became standard too nullifying that though. I suppose I also should have considered that at the dawn of Sci Fi new books were churned out at alarming rates due to low pay, and they were paid by the word so they didn’t really have time to do anything other than move from one bullshit plot point and techno device to another.

Any more input is still welcome though. It’s been informative so far.

I know what a knot is, but I thought a nautical mile was just the distance of one minute of arc on any miridian/change in latitude (with a “standard” Nautical Mile being the mean of all the arcs at different distances from the equator). In fact I was sure that Nautical Miles were completely independent of Knots. Or is that the “improvement” you were talking about?