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The opening shot of A New Hope features a fight in space between the rebel ship, the Tantive IV, and an Imperial Star Destroyer. I understand why the Tantive IV would be (uselessly) firing at the Empire's ship since the Rebels were running for their lives. But why would the Star Destroyer shoot at the Tantive IV? A misplaced shot could destroy the ship altogether. Indeed, at one point they hit the middle of the ship, causing an explosion.

It's my understanding that the Empire was trying to recover the stolen Death Star plans, not destroy them. They wanted to recapture the plans, detain the crew and probably torture them for information on the Rebellion. This is reflected in Vader's commands.

VADER: Commander, tear this ship apart until you've found those plans and bring me the passengers. I want them alive!

Since they were going to capture the Tantive IV in their tractor beam anyway why risk destroying the ship and its precious cargo?

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    The real question is why didn't it wheel around, have the crew leave by escape pod, and then go to light speed into the star destroyer? :) – Robert Grant Feb 4 '18 at 22:33
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    @RobertGrant - This is actually heavily hinted at in The Last Jedi, if not spelled out explicitly (they come pretty close though). It's easy to detect when a ship is going to jump to hyperspace/lightspeed. The First Order had the opportunity to move out of the way, but made a mistake by not doing so - clearly they thought the ship was escaping as a decoy, not attacking. There's plenty of Star Wars plot holes, but this isn't one of them :). – Maverick Feb 5 '18 at 5:52
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    @Maverick pretty sure the commander panics when he realises what's going to happen! If it were well known that it's that easy to kill the silly ubership, I doubt they'd be so blasé until the last minute. I doubt they'd even have big ships, even. – Robert Grant Feb 5 '18 at 14:39
  • At point blank range a full on salvo from the batteries would've pulverized the ship -- or a direct hit to the engines would've made the whole point moot. – Shadur Feb 5 '18 at 19:47
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The goal was to disable the ship with precision fire rather than destroying it. Their main targets were the ship's navigational array, solar fin and the engines at the rear of the ship. Hitting these left the ship with no navigation (and no hyperspace), no capacity to land and no sublight engines, making the Tantive IV easy prey.

Both vessels had just entered Tatooine’s orbit when the Devastator’s lasers scored a direct hit on the Tantive IV’s primary sensor array. The array exploded, and the blast overloaded the starboard shield projector — which caused another explosion, damaging the power generator system and triggering a chain reaction throughout the ship. With no starboard shield and no power to its engines, the Tantive IV was effectively crippled.

Star Wars: A New Hope - Junior Novelisation

and

One of those probing, questing beams succeeded in touching the fleeing ship, striking its principal solar fin. Gemlike fragments of metal and plastic erupted into space as the end of the fin disintegrated. The vessel seemed to shudder. ... “Yes, I suppose they did have to shut the drive down,” Threepio admitted, “but what are we going to do now? We can’t enter atmosphere with our main stabilizer fin destroyed. I can’t believe we’re simply going to surrender.”

Star Wars: A New Hope - Official Novelisation


When they shut down the reactor (and with it the ship's guns) the Devastator immediately stopped firing and they tractored the ship into their main bay and prepared to board it.

Did you hear that?” C-3PO said to R2-D2 as the Tantive IV’s engines powered down. “They’ve shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness!”

Star Wars: A New Hope - Junior Novelisation

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    For the record Vader didn't want to recover the plan, he wanted to be certain that they weren't in Rebel hands. He's have been more than happy to destroy the Tantive IV if he could be certain that they had the only copy on board. – Valorum Feb 4 '18 at 20:11
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    @TheDarkLord - Because they might escape – Valorum Feb 4 '18 at 20:39
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    @TheDarkLord there's always risk is everything we do. To cower in fear because you might make a mistake is not the mindset of people who Get Things Done. – RonJohn Feb 5 '18 at 0:25
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    @RonJohn - Vader strikes me as the sort of person who embodies the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Sith Overlords. – Valorum Feb 5 '18 at 0:33
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    @Valorum - not sure about all 7. Sure, he got as far as 6, "throw your master into a bottomless pit when his attention is on something else", but seems to have failed at 7, "make sure you survive the attempt"... – Jules Feb 5 '18 at 9:47

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