You can find this in countless Sci-Fi works: Big Starships which don't land on any planet, but establish an orbit around a planet if necessary. If crew want to land on a planet, they use shuttle pods or teleportation or something else.

This is a very good and smart concept. Mankind can use it in real world, too.

Which Sci-Fi work introduced this idea?


  • I am limiting the question to interstellar travel only. That's because only then the usefulness of the idea really comes into picture.

  • The Starship involved can be anything so long as its motion is controlled by an intelligent life and it is used as a tool for interstellar travel.

  • Although I want to know the first Sci-Fi which mentioned it, you can also include non-fiction work which originated the idea.

  • 6
    That is pretty much how they did the Apollo lunar landings.
    – Boelabaal
    Mar 29, 2015 at 11:01
  • 2
    @Boelabaal Apollo orbiter did return to the Earth surface. BTW, Star Trek is older than Apollo landing.
    – user931
    Mar 29, 2015 at 11:04
  • 16
    Odd, I never thought of someone coming up with the idea. I always thought it was just the sci-fi equivalent of a ship being anchored off shore and the crew having to row to shore in small boats.
    – Boelabaal
    Mar 29, 2015 at 11:25
  • 3
    Come to think of it, all the golden-age SF stories I remember off the top of my head have the whole ship make landing. Star Trek may have been the first televised/movie version of the main-ship-in-orbit trope.
    – Joe L.
    Mar 29, 2015 at 13:27
  • 2
    I said television/movie, not written works.
    – Joe L.
    Mar 29, 2015 at 14:14

4 Answers 4


Generation starships go back a long way:

The concept of generation starship is a good example of how science and fiction influence each other. Many space scientists and engineers who contributed to the concept of a generation starship were also science fiction writers. The first written thoughts can be dated back to Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, who wrote "The Last Migration" (1918). In this manuscript he described the death of the Sun and the necessity of an "interstellar ark". The crew would face the centuries of travel by sleeping and would be awakened when they reach another star system.

You'd didn't land these behemoths.

  • What about other conditions? Does it land on a planet?
    – user931
    Mar 30, 2015 at 12:17
  • The usual design was a hollowed out asteroid or similar. They wouldn't take the stress of landing, unless you invoked inertialess drive or anti-gravity or some such. Mar 30, 2015 at 12:24

There must be older examples (I vaguely suspect that some ships in E.E. Smith's Lensmen series would be unable to land, he had a thing for all things gigantic), but the earliest book in my collection where this is actually discussed is J.W. Campells "Invaders from the Infinite" from 1961. I can't really quote (I have only a german translation), but after Arcot and Morey create their one-and-a-half mile long battleship "Thought" they build a smaller ship because their behemoth is to big to land on a planet and would make the ground collapse under the spaceship.

From the Gutenberg text mentioned in the comment:

"But, we need one more thing, Arcot. That could never land on any planet smaller than Jupiter. What is its mass?" suggested Morey.

"Don't know, I'm sure, but it is of the order of a billion tons. I know you are right. What are we going to do?"

"Put on a tender."

"Why not the Ancient Mariner?" asked Wade.

"It isn't fitting. It was designed for individual use anyway," replied Morey. "I suggest something more like this on a small scale. We won't have much work on that, merely think of every detail of the big ship on a small scale, with the exception of the control cube furnishings. Instead of the numerous decks, swimming pool and so forth, have a large, single room."

"Good enough," replied Arcot.

As if by magic, a machine appeared, a "small" machine of two-hundred-foot length, modified slightly in some parts, its bottom flattened, and equipped with an attractor anchor. Then they were ready.


This article pegs the lunar-lander concept to the early 1950's.

Early Lunar Landing Concepts in Sci-Fi

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, a controversy arose in NASA and other scientific communities about the best approach to landing on the Moon. Two concepts flourished: the direct ascent mode (DA) and the lunar orbit rendezvous mode (LOR). Additional debate dealt with the type of spacecraft needed to support the alternate methods of going to the Moon. Science fiction artists portrayed each type as seen in the following artwork.
     The direct ascent mode, championed by Werner von Braun, employed an enormous Nova class Earth launch rocket of 12-14 million pounds of liftoff thrust. (The Apollo Saturn V had seven and one half millions pounds of thrust at liftoff.) The concept launched a single vehicle from Earth to the Moon's surface. After a retro type landing on the Moon's surface, the vehicle would take off intact for the return trip to Earth. The lunar liftoff would approximate an Earth launch, a single rocket launching its crew for a voyage to Earth.
     The lunar orbit rendezvous approach employed two vehicles, a command or mother ship for travel to lunar orbit and a lander or lunar module for descent to and ascent from the Moon's surface while the command ship orbited the Moon awaiting for the return of the lander. Still a third approach ( also favored by von Braun) proposed an Earth orbit rendezvous before leaving Earth's orbit for the Moon's surface. The third approach was much like the direct ascent as far as the vehicle which would land on the Moon. It would be a single stage rocket with powerful engines for the retro landing and later lunar ascent.
     The lunar orbit rendezvous approach proved most efficient, requiring a much less powerful Earth launch booster. It is thought that the Russians attempted the direct ascent approach by building a Nova class booster which exploded on the launch pad sometime in 1967. Fortunately, the LOR approach experienced no such catastrophe.

  • Were these artistic representations that existed already, or ones drawn up for the purposes of illustrating these concepts? Mar 29, 2015 at 14:16
  • I think they're images created at the time that is discussed in the article.
    – Joe L.
    Mar 29, 2015 at 14:24

Edmond Hamilton's novelette "Thundering Worlds", first published in the March 1934 Weird Tales (available at the Internet Archive), seems to satisfy the requirements stated in the question. The "starships" are the nine planets (including Pluto of course) of the solar system; needless to say, they do not land anywhere. (Unfortunately this silly story beats Laurence Manning's classic "The Living Galaxy" by six months.)

Julud of Saturn faced us from the dais of the chairman, a sheaf of papers in his hand. He spoke calmly to us.

"There is no need for me to rehearse what has brought us here today," he said. "We must make today the gravest decision that the human race has ever been called on to make.

"Our sun is dying. Our nine worlds' peoples are menaced by awful and increasing cold, and unless something is done soon their inhabitants will perish. We can not hope to revive our dying sun. Its doom is already close at hand. But out in space there lie other suns, other stars, many of them young and hot with life. If our nine worlds revolved around one of those hotter, younger suns, we could look forward to new ages of life for our race.

"It has been proposed, therefore, that we cause our nine worlds to leave our dying sun and voyage across space to one of those other suns! That our nine planets be torn loose from our sun and steered out into space like nine great ships in quest of a new sun among the countless suns of the universe! That we carry out a colossal migration of worlds through the vast interstellar spaces!

"This stupendous plan to voyage out from our sun into space on our nine worlds has a sound scientific basis. Our worlds can be propelled in space under their own power just as our space-ships are. Our ships, as you know, are moved through the void by atom-blasts that fire backward and thus by their reaction hurl the ship forward. It is possible to apply this principle on a vast scale to our planets, to fit our worlds with colossal atom-blasts which will fire backward with unthinkable power and push our worlds forward in space!

"Our worlds would be so fitted with atom-blasts that they could move at will in space, could turn in any desired direction. They would become in effect vast ships, and just as a ship has its controls centered, so would our worlds' propulsion-blasts have their conrols concentrated so that one man could guide each world, at will.

"The plan is that our worlds should by this means tear loose from the sun's hold and voyage out into space in a great column or chain. The worlds with moons would take their satellites with them, of course. The nine planets would head toward the nearest sun, which is the yellow star Nugat. It would only take months to reach Nugat, as our sun is much nearer to other stars than it was in ages past.

"If Nugat proved satisfactory as a sun for our worlds, they would be guided into orbits around it. If it was not satisfactory they would go on to the next nearest sun, to Antol or Mithak or Walaz or Vira or others. They would voyage on through the starry spaces until they found a sun satisfactory to them, and when they found it they would halt there and become planets of that sun!


[The motion is agreed to, the plan is carried out, and the nine planets minus Mercury (lost in a battle with hostile aliens) eventually take up orbits around another star.]

  • But, this just satisfies Starship concept. Does this include landing on the other planets in the way? That's when it'd satisfy the purpose because this is special case.. Not leaving the Starship in the end at all.. :)
    – user931
    Mar 30, 2015 at 8:13

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