I often hear the term 'spooling' used in connection with preparing various FTL drives for operation in space science fiction; e.g. "spooling FTL drive - prepare for jump" (or warp, etc.)

This seems a popular term, but I haven't much notion of what it's actually trying to say is going on. Is the general idea that the FTL drive is accepting a coordinate set via some kind of spooler so that it can engage independently of any operation from the ship's main computer? In other words, is it just meaning that the FTL drive is queuing up coordinates so that it doesn't have to interface with the main computer for directions as it hits each coordinate leading to the ultimate destination?

If not, what's it all about?

Note: this question was closed as "too broad", but I'd like to push back on that. I'm not looking for the answer in context of a specific universe or lore, I'm trying to arrive at a consensus of what the common understanding of the term is among this stack's users to better inform my own understanding of how the term is being used generally, with allowance for the fact that many different writers have likely had varying takes on the term reflected in their respective works. As such, I don't see a realistic way to narrow this question without arbitrarily excluding relevant opinions.

  • What show are you talking about? Jun 24, 2016 at 3:45
  • I've seen it used in a number of different games and short films, most recently for the Quantum Drive effect in Star Citizen, but based on the responses here I'm going to attribute the first use to BSG. I'm asking more abstractly as to what the term could mean in general, not as tied to a specific IP, but it would be useful still to know what individual IPs have assigned the term to actually mean.
    – Brad
    Jun 24, 2016 at 4:49
  • 2
    In abstract terms, spooling the FTL drive means getting the engine to necessary RPM to jump (or equivalent unit of engine workload)
    – Petersaber
    Jun 24, 2016 at 5:37
  • Hmm, ok. So it can generally be assumed that engines that spool are involving some kind of rotational component to generate <handwavium> for FTL travel. I think that sounds like a valid argument.
    – Brad
    Jun 24, 2016 at 6:50

4 Answers 4


"Spooling up" is a term commonly applied to engines and other mechanical devices to describe the time it takes to reach operating speed. The usage of this term in Battlestar Galactica seems like it references that. We don't know exactly what happens when an FTL drive is "spooling up", but it is plausible that there is some kind of warm-up process, which would be analagous to a jet engine (or some other kind) coming up to speed. I doubt it has anything to do with printer spooling, which is different and seems to have an uncertain origin.

  • Right, but isn't that a term unique to things like turbofans, with which 'spool up' is used to describe upping the rpms before shutting bleed valves and actually converting to thrust? That seems like a uniquely atmospheric term, how does it relate to FTL drives? Or are you suggesting that the term is simply being inherited as a generic way to express that the engine is warming up?
    – Brad
    Jun 24, 2016 at 6:48
  • 2
    @Brad, the second one, exactly.
    – Austin
    Jun 24, 2016 at 7:03

The only use of "spool" in relation to FTL drives that I can think of in in Battlestar Galactica. The Galactica Wikia entry for FTL describes a "spooling up" followed by a "jump" (an instantaneous transfer to another location).

The verb jump is commonly used to describe the process of travelling via FTL drive. Dialogue states that the drive itself is "spooled up" prior to use.

This BSG forum post suggests that the time taken to "spool up" depends on how far you are going to jump. That suggests that spooling is either

  • The process of storing information about the destination (as suggested in the question). In this case the term is being used in a way similar to print spooling in late 20th/early 21st century computers.
  • The process of building up the energy required to make the jump. In this case the term suggests a process of winding up like 20th century and earlier clockwork engines.
  • Interesting. I won't say this is a definitive answer, but it's close. I've seen the term in several other sources, but couldn't put my finger on a major television IP that used it, so this is a good start. BSG was a fun watch, but I haven't gone back to see it again in nearly a decade, so I totally forgot they 'spooled'.
    – Brad
    Jun 24, 2016 at 4:52
  • There was at least one scene I recall from the BSG 2007 series in which very large (diameter similar to man height) shafts with what looked like universal joints were turning -- in context, this appeared to be connected to the star drive in some way; my own read was that their jump drive required physical rotation of one more more components to operate, hence the need to "spool up" before a jump.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jun 21, 2018 at 15:53

Most FTL theories that don't involve hand-waving require an enormous amount of energy and an enormous amount of mathematical calculations to avoid obstacles. For example, imagine travelling at 5 c and you run in to a star you couldn't see coming. Game over. For you, the star you ran into, and its surrounding solar system.

Authors usually gloss over the details, but it's implied that the energy required is more than say, the world's annual production of electricity (or perhaps even more than humanity has generated in all history), or more CPU calculations than the entire world could calculate in a lifetime on modern hardware. Some obscenely large value that they anticipate we could theoretically reach one day.

The massive energy requirement usually comes from needing to "fold" or "tear" space-time, usually based on scientific theories by physicists or other authors. In other words, the ship itself does not travel at/greater than the speed of light, but it covers distances that qualify as FTL from a single observer's point of view. This is usually because, during research, authors discover that the mass required to actually travel faster than the speed of light would be beyond infinite, so it would require far less energy to alter space instead of trying to move through it.

Sometime it's a wormhole, other times it's accessing "sub-space" or "hyper-space", and yet others a "warp bubble" (a bubble of gravity waves, which NASA is actively researching...), and rarely is some more exotic form of travel, like a tesseract. No matter what it is, though, it is implied that it is some technological feat beyond what we can do today, from generating copious amounts of anti-matter, to charging up something like a zettawatt of electricity and releasing it all at once. The more impressive it sounds, the better. The point is, unlike pure fiction (say, a crime drama with real physics), we only have conjecture, so authors try to make it plausible, even if it's really only theoretical.

Finally, it should be noted: drama. If you can just push a button and instantly end up have a universe away, there's no tension, no drama (or, it's just not part of the story, so they hand-waved it). Instead, you need 10 seconds to calculate the necessary route, but you'll be caught in a supernova in 9 seconds. Or, you need to dodge enemy fire/fighters while the computer calmly tells you that it's working as fast as it can, several shots narrowly missing a nacelle. You get the idea. You'll notice how FTL seems to take no time at all when they're not in combat or racing to save someone's life, but takes forever otherwise.

  • While I was looking for a generalized lore-driven answer, the "it's a plot device" fallback is always a good one. A for effort, though not the answer I'm looking for.
    – Brad
    Jun 24, 2016 at 9:38

It's simply transferring stored energies from your batteries to the massive FTL capacitors to acquire enough potential energy from the batteries and turn it into kinetic energy for the warp. Batteries have a limited output, but capacitors can release it all at once.

One reason this is so difficult during combat situation is that you're using a hell of a lot more power resources including max shields, thruster power, and weapons capacity. This is draining the functionality of your warp drive, which should be done from a secure location using minimal amount of system power.

To spool can be defined as winding something around a container. In this case it is a magnetic core in the capacitors that "winds up" raw energy around it, and then is able to release it. This is why they say "spooling" because "Wind up the warp capacitors!".

This is based on what I know from the game Interstellar Rift.

  • Welcome to SFF! I've made some slight edits to your answer just to keep it more in line with the spirit of the site. Here we are a Q/A site and not a discussion forum. If you haven't done so already I'd recommend you take the tour and don't forget to register your account!
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Jun 21, 2018 at 15:23

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