Is there a difference between a spaceship and a starship?

I've been wondering... is it like boats and ships?

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    In which works? Feb 10, 2012 at 18:50
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    Also, "like boats and ships" - what exactly does that mean? Feb 10, 2012 at 18:54
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    @DVK Boats are small, ships are big. And/or, boats don't have a captain, I think?
    – Izkata
    Feb 10, 2012 at 22:17
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    @Izkata - close enough :) "Well, we could get technical, I suppose. Among sailing vessels, the distinction between ships and boats is that a ship is a square-rigged craft with at least three masts, and a boat isn't. With regard to motorized craft, a ship is a large vessel intended for oceangoing or at least deep-water transport, and a boat is anything else. " - straightdope.com/columns/read/754/… Feb 11, 2012 at 0:46
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    Obviously: space ships fly through space, starships fly through stars. Oh wait...
    – zzzzBov
    Feb 11, 2012 at 2:50

6 Answers 6


"Starship" implies travel between stars (e.g. ships that can only fly within a given solar system are probably NOT going to be called "starship")

Source: Wikipedia

A starship or interstellar spacecraft is a theoretical spacecraft designed for traveling between the stars, as opposed to a vehicle designed for orbital spaceflight or interplanetary travel.

On the other hand, "Spaceship"/"Spacecraft" (used interchangeably) is any kind of vehicle for extra-planet travel, be it within star system or between stars.

A spacecraft or spaceship is a craft, vehicle, vessel or machine designed for spaceflight. Spacecraft are used for a variety of purposes, including communications, earth observation, meteorology, navigation, planetary exploration and transportation of humans and cargo. (src: Wikipedia)

In other words, "starship" category is a special subset of "spaceship" category.

Having said that, these are common definitions.

There is absolutely no guarantee that a particular SciFi author would abide by them and never call intrasystem craft "starship"

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    "There is absolutely no guarantee that a particular SciFi author would " -- that one phrase says it all; these are common-usage definitions. Much like questions about Vampire powers/needs/limits, it depends on the Author, but DVK has given you the 'accepted norm.' Just don't expect everyone to stick to it; having 'Star' in the name SOUNDS cooler to some, so they will use it erroneously.
    – K-H-W
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:27
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    Douglas Adams poked fun at this in the Hitchhiker's series (TRATEOTU): "Again, the star buggy was a small ship – a totally misnamed one in fact, because the one thing it couldn't manage was interstellar distances. Basically it was a sporty planet hopper dolled up to something it wasn't. Nice lines though. They passed on."
    – K-H-W
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:28
  • So the Winnebago in Spaceballs is technically a spacecraft, as opposed to a starship? Feb 10, 2012 at 20:53
  • @Slytherincess - it flew between the stars, so it's both Feb 10, 2012 at 21:08
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    @Alenanno -- I agree; some things SHOULD be unmodifiable.. But the reason I used the Vampire example is that they have been established, well understood, and so forth, at various times.. but that never stopped an author from redefining them if they chose to (Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, etc.) So it is with SciFi writers; gah.. even some of the major writers can't be consistent with Telekinesis and related works..
    – K-H-W
    Feb 10, 2012 at 22:08

A spaceship can travel through the vacuum of space between, say, the earth and the moon. A starship can travel from solar system to solar system. At this point in time, we have spaceships whereas viable starships have yet to be built.

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    Don't directly say "Galaxy to Galaxy"... Starships of Star Trek & Star Wars deal with its own galaxy only..
    – user931
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:27
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    @Jeff I'm not so sure the shuttles could have gotten passengers to another star system alive (and I'm not entirely sure they could pass the bow shock anyway...)
    – Kevin
    Feb 10, 2012 at 19:38
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    @jeff It's not specified in the question whether or not the crew needs to survive, but I think it's implied. Feb 10, 2012 at 19:41
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    @Jeff: The shuttles didn't have the delta-v to escape Earth, let alone the sun. Feb 10, 2012 at 20:47
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    @Jeff - calculations or it didn't happen! Feb 11, 2012 at 1:22

Spaceship implies the capability to travel through space. Starship implies the ability to travel between star systems. Therefore, all starships are spaceships but not all spaceships are starships.

In the Star Wars universe for example, all spacefaring vessels could be called spaceships but only ones equipped with a hyperdrive could accurately be called a starship.

  • Not necessarily. What about some sort of gate system that requires a special ship to traverse it? I'm thinking about the novel "Contact"--it seems to me that's a starship but not a spaceship. Feb 10, 2012 at 20:49
  • Hmmm. I haven't seen/read Contact but as I understand it The Machine used wormholes. This means it didn't travel from point A to point B in a traditional sense (it didn't pass through the space between A and B). I would consider that closer to a teleportation device than a starship. But I might not fully grok what The Machine does having not seen the movie or read the book. Feb 10, 2012 at 21:02
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    It's a teleport capsule, NOT a star/space ship Feb 10, 2012 at 21:09
  • @DVK: A teleport capsule meant for interstellar voyages. Why is that not a starship? Feb 11, 2012 at 1:18
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    @LorenPechtel - same reason you wouldn't call a teleport capsule between London and New York either a "ship" or a "plane". Feb 11, 2012 at 1:20

Yes, it's like boats and ships. Boats (spaceships) are carried by ships (starships), while boats can never carry ships, models and toys aside. (Just as a truck can carry a car, but a car can't carry a truck.)

  • Hi! It looks like you've made a good attempt to answer this question, however as it stands you've not provided an compelling evidence for your claims. Part 1 sets up some intresting, if uncited information about Boats, ships and subs of both kinds. But this isn't tied into part two. I'm going to make an edit to your post, but if you could improve on it further that would be great.
    – AncientSwordRage
    Mar 15, 2013 at 13:53
  • Ooops, looks like Kevin beat me to it!
    – AncientSwordRage
    Mar 15, 2013 at 13:55
  • Oh, hi! I didn't know what the hell was happening when I suddenly got interrupted while writing an answer. By coincidence I came back here and learned that you folks did to me. Okay, "Pureferret", right? "Kevin"? Huh? What am I supposed to do, clip and paste from "Wikipedia"? All I did was cite from memory. I actually read encyclopedias and other books on the subject, when I was a boy in the 1970s. So by now it is just plain common sense to me, or put another way, if you read my rants on "Facebook", you know I have a thing about semantics. My comment isn't compelling?! Apr 12, 2013 at 17:13
  • As for submarines, I just read up on them to refresh my memory, by going to "Wikipedia". If I use them as my so-called source link, why bother with your pages at all? It seems rather redundant to me. What's wrong with explaining how submarines came to be called "boats" when they are ships? Apr 12, 2013 at 17:21
  • Jimmie, unlike wikipedia we try to address specific questions, whilst it helps to have them as a source we rely on your sort of expertise to expand on this sort of information. The main issue I had (and re-reading, I see I missed the point with my comment) isn't that you didn't back up your information on ships and boats, but your link from those to spaceships and starships is unfounded...did you read it somewhere? Did you see it on a TV-show? The answer's hear aren't meant to be anecdotal posts on facebook etc, but an objective attempt to answer the question. For more, see the faq.
    – AncientSwordRage
    Apr 12, 2013 at 17:39

Starship is a subset of Spaceship. Starship is that spaceship which could travel from one star system to another star system.

  • I don't mean to be rude, but is there any reason why you posted an answer that's basically just a re-word of a single sentence from an answer posted 2 hours before yours? In other words, "starship" category is a special subset of "spaceship" category. Feb 11, 2012 at 0:53
  • Seems like a vote down with a reason would be an approach more in line with the nature of SE than inviting discussion in this way...
    – Chuck Dee
    Feb 13, 2012 at 18:47

not really a difference. starship just sounds cooler because when people think spaceships they think about flying saucers and orbital shuttles. the star dose not really imply interstellar travel. its like astronaut vs cosmonaut. starship/spaceship is a generalisation as well. its better to just call space faring vessels by their hull type. a shuttle is a shutle and a lander is a lander and in the future a frigate will be a frigate and a cruiser will be a cruiser.

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