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In Star Trek, the warp core of Federation starships is literally yards away from where the engineering staff works. Is there any point in having something so dangerous (and prone to breaches every other episode) so close to crew members, especially since engineering staff always work on the warp core using remote consoles? Doesn't it make more sense, both design and safety wise to have it closer to the nacelles?

P.S. I know the writers acknowledged this problem in Enterprise, when one character asks "Is it safe to be so close to that thing?", but I don't remember an acceptable answer.

  • 7
    If the core breaches, you won't really care WHERE on the ship you're located. At least, not for long. – Omegacron Apr 9 '15 at 18:36
29

I figure that this is to minimize the chance that the core itself, or a primary energy conduit, will be hit during a ship to ship fire fight.

Keeping the warp core (arguably the most critical piece of the ship) someplace that is the hardest to hit in a ship to ship fight, the hope is that it will be less likely that the warp core will take a direct hit. Same with the primary energy conduits. having the core in the middle of the ship limits the length of these vital arteries, reducing the probability that they'll be directly damaged in a fight.

Of course, as you pointed out that doesn't seem to matter much in practice as the warp core has a tendency to overload every other episode anyway (so several times a year in-universe), fight or no fight.

  • "Whoops, I accidentally dropped a potato chip into the engine. But I'm sure it'll be-" BWOOOOP! "WARP CORE BREACH!!" – Zibbobz Apr 3 '14 at 19:13
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If the core breaches, it really doesn't matter where you are on the ship. If you don't get the thing out in time or stop the breach, everybody is toast. Seeing that maybe proximity to the core gives you the slightest edge over remote-access-only, I'd say it makes sense to have the core close (especially for maintenance, where they do have to physically access the core from time to time).

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    +1, and IIRC, the dilithium crystals are practically in the warp core, and need to be replaced manually. – Izkata Mar 18 '12 at 15:46
  • +1 to @Izkata. There was an episode in STNG early season 2 or late season 1 where manual replacement of the dilithium crystals was featured. – Iszi Apr 4 '12 at 15:28
  • @Iszi That was season 1 Skin of Evil you're thinking of, when they had to "realign" the dilithium crystals for some reason. – Xantec Mar 31 '16 at 16:02
5

In the event of a breach, nowhere on the ship is safe. The same is true with modern-day nuclear vessels.

The reason nuclear vessels have the reactors separated from the engineering compartment is due to the nature of its shielding. Reactors are shielded through physical means using various metals including iron to limit the amount of radiation that escapes. Even the most advanced physical shielding still allows harmful radiation to get through, so crew can only spend so much time near the reactor without experiencing negative effects. Additional segmentation of the reactor sections and engineering section further limit radiation exposure.

Warp reactors, on the other hand, use magnetic containment, whereby the harmful radiation and other particles are contained via a non-physical mechanism. They have to use magnetic containment since there's simply no material strong enough to contain so much energy.

The actual materials of the warp core do not contain its energy, rather a veritable force field does. Given this fact, its not necessary to keep the reactor separate from the crew since there's both no physical material strong enough, nor is there the need due to magnetic containment.

  • This was my initial thought, but I remember a number of scenes from TNG and VOY where non-catastrophic breaches result in the evacuation of engineering. The safety bulkheads seal to protect the rest of the ship from plasma and radiation. Those who make it through to the corridor outside are safe. – HNL Mar 19 '12 at 3:27
  • @HNL Those cases are similar to filling a balloon with a small hole in it. The containment failed in a small spot so some energy is leaking out. This can be contained by additional force fields and bulk heads and later repaired in specialized gear. I think Paperjam probably meant in the event of a full breach nowhere would be safe, as in that case the energy reaction would be too great to contain with secondary systems and the ship would be consumed. – Xantec Mar 19 '12 at 17:42
  • This brings up a completely unrelated question about why Navy ships with nuclear reactors don't use water, which would be abundant for the environment they operate in, to handle shielding instead. Hmm, time to search for an appropriate Stack to ask. – Ellesedil Mar 31 '16 at 17:12
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You also have to realize no ship is like the Enterprise, always rushing into battle, saving entire planets, and battling entire armadas single handily. A Warp Core is very safe...in day to day space travel where you're not always under fire, and siege. Watching the Enterprise with all these warp core malfunctions depicts them as not safe, but then again would it be interesting to watch if the Enterprise didn't have some life threatening critical problem with the core that'll blow up the ship causing the Borg, or someone to invade, enslave earth, and rule the galaxy unless the engineer be it Trip, Scotty, or Geordi invert the Antimatter flow through the main deflector dish discharging a FTL tachyon pulse while at the same time frantically tunning around engineering screaming through the coms, and yelling orders at others?

  • 1
    You get the +1 just for getting me to literally LOL – Generic Geek Mar 25 '16 at 4:02
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The original series Enterprise layout evolved during the show's development, drawing input from various people about how a starship ought to be designed. It began as a saucer in which the crew lived and worked, with the nacelles separated off for safety, as was the secondary hull which contained the primary propulsion engine (warp drive). That's what led to the familiar shape of the TOS Enterprise. Subsequent shows and movies had to update or otherwise tinker with the look of the ships for aesthetic purposes. In those later productions, speculative considerations took a back seat to cool exterior views. Consider the Enterprise engine room as depicted in the 2009 movie. It's absurdly large, looking more like some sort of chemical factory or distillery than the powerplant of a spacecraft. It would have been designed to facilitate the action and scenes - Scotty's ride through the plumbing and the foot chase - rather than portray a believable section of a spacecraft.

Bottom line: you can't look at stuff like that too closely and expect it to remain plausible.

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Another possibility is that Federation ships are big expensive propaganda machines. Similar to the US nuclear carriers. That way when you are showing potential recruits around, you get to wave your huge core of di lithium at them, showing that you are wealthy, advanced, etc. A big glowing core is far prettier than if it were encased in a bulkhead.

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    I doubt they would sacrifice engineering viability for show, no matter how cool it looks. Further, nuclear aircraft carriers don't have exposed reactor compartments. In fact, the power plants of all nuclear-powered US vessels are among the most highly-secure areas on the ship. Further still, carriers are far from being mere propaganda. – Chad Levy Mar 19 '12 at 3:08

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