Why Are Spaceships Called Ships?

Are spaceships called ships because they are floating, or steering through space? Or are they named after their shape?

Why Are Spaceships Called Ships

Are they referred to as ‘spaceships’ in the modern world anyway, or is it more a term for science fiction?

Read on to find out more about the etymology behind this and what we can learn about the history of the term spaceship!

When Was The Term Spaceship First Used?

John Jacob Astor IV is thought to be one of the first people to use the term spaceship in literature.

In his book Journey In Other Worlds, in which a man designs a space-going vessel, J. J. Astor IV is usually given credit for coining the phrase in relation to ‘a manned spacecraft’.

The book is a futuristic tale set in the year 2000.

However, the term space-ship also appears in an 1880s issue of the Pall Mall Gazette, which references Jules Verne, the famous French science fiction writer, 23 years before the first airplane took flight, let alone space travel or anything similar.

Jules Verne’s depictions of flying ships in the sky in his novel Around The World in 80 Days is most likely to what this snippet is referring to, rather than the idea of a craft that could leave the orbit of Earth.

Any previous mention of the particular term ‘spaceship’ isn’t known of, though the idea of otherworldly exploration has been in the minds of humanity since we first set eyes on the stars.

An interesting side-note here is that J.J. Astor IV was the richest man to die on the RMS Titanic in 1912, and was also at the time one of the wealthiest people in the world.

Why Spaceships?

Why Spaceships

At the time of writing, the first aircraft, or plane, had yet to be invented and flown, though the idea had been in popular minds for a long time.

The first actual plane flight only happened in 1903, when the now-famous Wright brother successfully flew for the first time.

This answers the question of why the idea of spacecraft was not called ‘space planes’. The term was simply not used in the 1880s.

The easiest to translate description of what a potential space-faring vehicle would be was based upon the mode of transport that was currently used to traverse long distances, the ship, of course.

After the terminology used in J.J. Astor’s work, it also appeared in many science fictions and futuristic works of literature and study, with the term becoming somewhat synonymous with a space vehicle, and just simply made sense as a phrase.

The term ‘ship’ itself comes from the Latin word ‘scapha’ meaning hollow vessel.

Ships are of course often used to transport goods and people across oceans and large distances.

And of course, during ancient times and colonial expansion, they were also used to explore newfound lands.

The whole notion of discovery, new lands, and new journeys across other worlds were all linked to the exploratory discovery age where ships were the predominant mode of exploration across the globe.

Many other nautical terms still play a role in modern space travel, with the International Space Station using the terms Port/Starboard and Deck/Overhead.

Further Use Of The Term Spaceship

The science fiction genre is often concerned with ideas of futuristic travel, exploration, new concepts, and ideas, both in a dystopian and utopian concept.

The idea of interstellar travel, meeting new races among the stars, and fighting as part of a galactic empire all require some form of interstellar ships to achieve this.

In many fictional universes, a spaceship is often crewed as you would a ship, with a captain at the helm, a crew obeying orders and a course plotted and undertaken.

The term Spaceship isn’t the only term used to describe a space-traveling vessel.

Take the classic masterpiece and international phenomenon Star Trek, created in 1966 by Gene Roddenberry.

With the space race in full swing and the USSR and the US vying for dominance in the skies, the Star Trek universe gave a futuristic look into international planetary cooperation, with the crew of the Starship Enterprise searching out new worlds and making peace with new inhabitants of faraway star systems.

So, the term starship is another phrase that became synonymous with the future of space vessels thanks to Star Trek, with many of the larger ships being described as luxurious.

The Enterprise, for example, is capable of carrying a crew of 430 people, and later models have full-on deluxe bars, nightclubs, and space for over 1000 inhabitants.

Similarly, you have the many different terms used in the Star Wars universe, such as star cruiser, starship, spacecraft, space vessel, interstellar craft, starfighters, and star destroyers.

These are of course only a snippet of all of the various terms used in science fiction for outer space ships, but it captures a pretty decent selection of the zeitgeist.

In fact, the first Space Shuttle was actually called the Enterprise in honor of that famous ship.

Enterprise was used only for approach and landing tests, launching from the back of a Boeing 747 SCA and gliding to dead-stick landings at Edwards AFB, California.

It was the first of a line of the 1981-2011 Space Shuttles.

What Is A Starship?

What Is A Starship

A starship, starcraft, or interstellar spacecraft is a theoretical spacecraft designed for traveling between planetary systems.

Unlike a spaceship or spacecraft, the main aim would be to travel to other star systems and planets entirely, far beyond the current possibilities of space travel.

The term is, again, mostly found in the realms of science fiction but there has been theoretical work done on interstellar travel.

There are two main types of interstellar vehicle designs:

  • Interstellar ships (also known as interplanetary ships) – are large spaceships that carry hundreds of thousands of people. They are theoretically built to last for centuries, with the capability of long journeys through deep space.
  • Interstellar probes – These smaller devices are sent to explore distant solar systems. They may also be used to communicate with other alien civilizations if there are any to encounter in the great beyond!

While NASA’s Voyager spacecraft and Pioneer have both traveled within our solar system, their purpose was specifically interplanetary, and they are not predicted to reach other star systems.

Several preliminary designs for spaceships have been undertaken through feasibility studies with modern technology, using technology thought likely to be readily available in the near future (e.g., fusion reactors).

Is The Term Spaceship Used Today?

The term spaceship is sort of reserved for the likes of science fiction.

Whilst it is a term that you could use in conversation and people would obviously know what you were talking about, most people probably use the term spacecraft instead.

The terms “rocket” and “rocket ship” are also used to describe modern space-faring vehicles more accurately.

All these words are pretty interchangeable, though, so don’t worry too much about it!

Final Thoughts

And there you have it, fellow space enthusiasts — spaceships are called ships because that’s what they were referred to in early science fiction.

And the reason “ship” was used as the latter part of the portmanteau, rather than, say, plane, is because, at the time, ships were the only means of long-scale transportation — interesting, huh?

Gordon Watts