In Star Trek, what is the difference between the navigator and the helmsman? Generally, the helmsman seems to be much more important, or at least does much more manual work. Memory Alpha's descriptions seem to be pretty congruent in both its articles on helmsman and navigator. In the series, the navigators (Sulu, Tom Paris, Keyla Detmer, etc.) seem to have a much bigger and more important job (handling attitude, warp drive, etc.)

What is the difference between navigator and helmsman?

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    Not sure many starships had a navigator position. It seems like most have the navigator and helm combined into one role Jun 11, 2021 at 6:01
  • Memory Alpha describes Detmer as the helm officer. Paris is described is the "flight control officer". Jun 11, 2021 at 6:42
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    "Generally, the helmsman seems to be much more important" — well, they're a man, so yes of course. But I suspect both of them just press the "Hey computer, do what the captain just said" button while trying to make it look a bit more complicated than that. Jun 11, 2021 at 12:13
  • "In the series, the navigators (Sulu, Tom Paris, Keyla Detmer, etc.) seem to have a much bigger and more important job (handling attitude, warp drive, etc.)" - at least Paris and Detmer did have bigger problems "handling their attitude" at times. Jun 12, 2021 at 9:47

3 Answers 3


Helmsman/Navigator (Memory Alpha)

The helmsman (or helm officer) was the Starfleet crewperson who operated the helm console on 22nd and 23rd century Federation starships.

The helmsman of those vessels worked in concert with the navigator, who plotted the ship's course. On the USS Enterprise, the helmsman controlled both the speed and attitude of the ship, as well as the ship's weapon and shield systems.


By the 24th century, the helm and navigation stations became combined as the flight control officer position. Also, control of weapons and defenses is usually handled by the tactical station or the operations officer, rather than their 23rd century equivalents, under the control of the helmsman.

This later merging of the roles might be responsible for some confusion.

  • How did the helmsman handle flight and tactical at the same time?! Jun 11, 2021 at 14:02
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    @SovereignInquiry By sliding sliders and pressing buttons. Technical use of the Enterprise wasn't really explored or explained on Kirk's Enterprise.
    – user134768
    Jun 11, 2021 at 14:32
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    It's notable that airplane flight crews back in the 1960's (when Star Trek first came out) included a few extra people in the cockpit, one of whom was the Flight Navigator, a position which became largely obsolete by the mid-70's. It's likely the show was modeling on such real-world examples of the time, as were the later shows, which were created long after Navigators were a relic of the past, much like the Radio Operator - you'll notice there was no equivalent to anyone having Uhura's job in the later shows either. Jun 11, 2021 at 15:43
  • I’m guessing due to more advanced computers on the “D” and 24th century vessels, the navigator position dwindled into obscurity. So tactical positions replaced it. Although I’m curious as to what the left forward station was for that Data always used. Some sort of Ops or Science station? Jun 11, 2021 at 16:56
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    @MissouriSpartan - Ops is basically in charge of making sure that every department has what they need, when they need it, giving priority to the captain's direct orders, bridge operations, shields and weapons. This includes power generation, time on various sensor arrays, shutdown of facilities to perform systems analysis and so forth.
    – Valorum
    Jun 12, 2021 at 9:19

Like today on a ship:

Navigator: Plans how to get from A to B, and makes sure the ship stays on course.

Helmsman: "Steers" the ship, following the course planned by the navigator.

  • 13
    @Valorum a dictionary?
    – OrangeDog
    Jun 11, 2021 at 8:49
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    And to the point. Do you really need an in universe source for the definition of common words? If somebody asks "What's a "sandwich" on Star Trek?" do you need to quote Captain Picard reading a list of instructions for making a sandwich?
    – JRE
    Jun 11, 2021 at 13:44
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    Do you feel the need to have Doctor Crusher's title and job explained with an in universe definition?
    – JRE
    Jun 11, 2021 at 13:49
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    This actually isn't accurate for a military ship in general (my knowledge is from Royal Navy procedures, but it won't differ functionally from other navies): the person on the helm, i.e. with their hands on the wheel, is typically very junior. They follow instructions from the officer of the watch (terminology may vary) who is actually responsible for the ship's course. The OOW will have the route plan, know the current location/tides, adjust for shipping etc. The person on the helm will just repeat back commands and turn the wheel/keep the ship on a given heading as ordered.
    – dbmag9
    Jun 11, 2021 at 16:05
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    Handover of the helm just involves confirming the current course, speed, engine settings and limitations. Handing over the con (i.e. the OOW's job) involves considerably more than that in terms of navigation (time to next course change), communications, orders, internal activity on the ship, and more.
    – dbmag9
    Jun 11, 2021 at 16:10

The helmsman is like a guy in the driver's seat of a car, his hands on the wheel, his feet on the pedals, controlling where the cars goes and how fast.

The navigator is like a guy in the shotgun seat, reading a map, and telling the driver that he should take the next left turn in order to reach the destination.

  • Although not incorrect, can you offer any evidence to back this up?
    – Valorum
    Jun 11, 2021 at 12:13
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    This is my understanding of those terms from real-world sailing. A sailing ship's steering wheel cannot be left unattended for even a moment, or the ship will drift. The helmsman holds it, and turns it on instructions from superiors. The navigator is someone who has both hands free to operate navigational instruments, like a sextant, compass, and physical maps. The navigator and captain collaborate, and then instruct the helmsman.
    – Tom
    Jun 12, 2021 at 6:00

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