In the Star Trek universe, when one space faring race encounters another they always have at least one thing in common. Both their ships are oriented the same way vis a vis up/down. But space has no objective up/down axis. Nonetheless, every time the Enterprise runs into some Romulans it always looks like this:

But it’s just as likely the two ships would encounter each other as such:

This could cause some confusion.

The only way to explain why different star ships always meet each other right side up is to postulate some sort of galactic standard. But this wouldn’t explain all the alien civilizations the Enterprise discovers that also fly at the same angle. This could have made for great story lines where alien races are offended by the upside down approach of the enterprise.

However, it bears mentioning that at least one species is an exception to this phenomenon.

no one can upside down the borg

Because of their simple ship design the Borg cannot be flanked, dropped onto or attacked from behind. The Borg have assimilated all three spatial dimensions into their ship design and they always appear right side up.

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142 thoughts on “Space and the Y Axis

  1. A very amusing piece. However, I must point out a slight, but significant, error on your part. The Enterprise shown in the last picture is clearly of the Kirk era, specifically of the motion pictures made with the original cast several years after the original television show had been canceled. As any self-respecting Trek fan knows, this ship never encountered a Borg ship; such encounters came only later with the Next Generation. Perhaps you can correct this issue in subsequent publications of this otherwise thought-provoking and humorous piece.

  2. Well, what WHITNEY has failed to realize is that the whole goddamned series has been rebooted with that latest movie, so NCC 1701-A could very well come into contact with a Borg cube. As I’m sure we’re all aware, the Borg pre-date human warp capability.

    ALSO the Borg cube could be viewed as “akilter” if you came on it while it was standing on the Z axis on a point, like some monstrous dreidel. BUT the Borg ALSO have the Borg sphere, so problem solved right there.

    I remember realizing this shit back when I was playing with toys. The toys were Star Trek ships, and they would often meet at “akilter” angles.

  3. Reminds me of the first time the US docked with the MIR space station.

    There were long complications with getting the airlock setup, and all that. It was being broadcast live from the US side on NasaTV, and I was watching it.

    As soon as the opened the hatch, they realized that they had oriented each other 180– one of the astronauts says “Hey — you guys are upside down!”

  4. Galactic plane and all that shit. Also, the z axis and three dimensions get a passing reference during the hunt/battle scene in ROK. God do I feel nerdy.

  5. There actually might be an unspoken explanation for the angles of ship travel being relatively similar, despite race. Because our galaxy is a spiral galaxy, most of is mass is oriented in 2 dimensions.

    Even though the ships are much much smaller than the “thickness” of our spiral galaxy, with warp drive, you travel large distances and the probability of you traveling in those two dimensions is higher.

    It doesn’t explain the upside-downess, but maybe the lack of weird angles.

  6. Whitney – your comment about the Enterprise-A never meeting cube would also theoretically apply to the warbird as well. Warbirds were never seen in the Kirk era movies but the Romulan ships TOS enterprise did encounter were not of the 23rd century warbird model.

  7. Even better than assimilating three dimensions was that the Borg assimilated all three levels of consciousness, from the id to the ego to the superego. So the borg is an It.

  8. Don’t forget the Borg’s “Escape Ship” in “First Contact.” If’s a sphere! Even harder to sneak up on!

    Great article.

  9. Heh, I have to admit that it’s pretty amusing to think that perhaps all of these years we’ve been running into the Klingons upside down. But, I think they pretty much beat this one to the curb with the later series (DS9, Enterprise, and even Voyager to a degree) by actually remembering that there are 3 dimensions to everything.

    Sorry, I know it was meant to be funny >.<

  10. The bigger question is how come the ships in star trek fly around like planes in an atmosphere. BSG had that shit sorted out. Come on!

  11. @Booger: That explains why we never see other angles. But we should still see ships upside down. Of course, a lot of the minor Trek races had XY-plane symmetrical ships. Bajorans (I think), the Children of Tama, Tholians (sort of), Katarians, Terellians, and, of course, the Borg.

    As for the Romulans and Klingons, they’re nearly always encountered decloaking, so THEY set the orientation – they’re orienting themselves into the best tactical position. As for everyone else, there are still 50-50 odds that each would pick the same “up” as Starfleet, greater, if there was a rationale for that decision – perhaps something to do with the galaxy’s motion within the local group?

  12. Maybe in the ST universe the writers made the jump into thinking since all ships seem to be capable of scanning each other they do so before approaching and as they navigate closer they make it so their deck crew is the same side up as on the other ship which so happens to make both ships right side up

  13. Thanks for the laugh! This was great. I think my favorite part is the ship coming up from underneath the other two. The movie poster from “Jaws” popped into my mind and I just couldn’t stop giggling!

  14. I would say a lot of the time, they meet other ships in orbit. In that case, down is obviously towards the planet. However, you could extend the idea that down is whichever direction had the highest gravitation. In deep space, down would likely be the largest nearby star. Down.

  15. The same thing always perplexed me while watching SG-1. A bunch of Goaould vessels would come out of hyperspace, and they’d all magically be on the same plane, even when it wasn’t parallel or perpendicular to the planet’s surface. WTF?

  16. Leave it to a Trekkie to explain the flaws in a joke. Get some friends you retarded Forceless Nerf herding nincompoop! Beam me up, these comments are like listening to computers. If your comment resembles a dictionary answer, save us the time. Don’t bother. Star Wars, woo! And Kirk, he killed fools. Now go quote Picard!

  17. I hate to admit I know this or that I feel the need to write about it… but, the Borg are a collective of species, not a single species.

    Anyway, this article still made me laugh hard.

  18. @Ben #9, your comment about the first shuttle mission to Mir was so intriguing that I had to look it up.
    Thanks for sharing this interesting anecdote!

    STS-71 was the first of the Mir docking missions. Charles Precourt, the shuttle’s pilot on STS-71, described the docking event during an oral history interview [PDF] (p. 13):

    So we opened the hatch, and Hoot was going to shake hands with Dezhurov, but he was upside-down, and so we yelled across at Norm and said “Norm, you guys are upside-down.” He says “No. You guys are upside-down.”

    And then Precourt’s interviewer replied “And everybody was right, I guess.”

  19. Something to remember: The galaxy is shaped like a thick disc. This raises the chances that vessels are going to be traveling on a similar plane.

  20. It’s funny that they do address that in Wrath of Kahn while in the Nebula – Spock describes Khan’s search pattern as “two-dimensional thinking”, and Kirk then gives the “Z minus 10,000 meters” command – but true, they always consider there to be an unwritten standard (“Attention all space travelers- For proper orientation, you must keep Alpha Centuri on the TOP of your viewing screen”).

  21. I discussed this problem with a friend once and I suggested they might use some sort of alignment system, that would align the angle of ships that come across each other.

    However, as you mentioned, this would not work with ships from undiscovered civilizations.

    A question can also be raised about why most of the ships (apart from the Borg cubes) have a front, back, left, right, up and down side at all. Water and airships are built to maneuver as well as possible in water and air respectively. Since start trek spaceships spent the vast majority of their time in space, where aerodynamics hardly apply, there is little sense giving the ship an actual front, back and so forth.

  22. And why is the earth “right-side-up” only when the north pole is at the “top” of the world? Why can’t it be the other way around?

  23. Odd very odd, why so very much why do you need to explain this. TV would be boring with smart ass’s in Holly land…. Could explain much about the people living and working there. Oh well.. Trekie’s live on…

  24. The problem with the “alignment system” theory is that some alignment systems would be Windows based, thus would be non-standard relative to Mac or Linux based alignment systems.

  25. Although space has no real up and down, left or right, it also has no time. Time is purely man-made. How is it that all the other civilizations, when asked to meet, fire or retreat, do it at the same time?
    On Earth, there are time zones based on lettered designations as Zulu is the base (GMT). Is there a Galactic time zone?

  26. Interesting post, and humorous too. Though the Trekkie in me wants to rain on the parade and inform everyone about the adherence to the galactic plane being the standard for Up and Down.

    Also, Miles, you complained about finding line art for your Borg/Enterprise meetup, you can always pull the one from here to replace the Constitution class refit version you have there:

    http://www.cygnus-x1.net/links/lcars/blueprints/uss-enterprise-ncc-1701-b-sheet-12.jpg

  27. Perhaps the nav computers have some sort of algorithm that is based on diplomatic protocol. They look at the sensor readout and try to orient themselves according to the other ship.

    It would be pretty funny if there was a situation where both ships are trying to orient themselves according to the other and so they just keep spinning over and over again around the Y axis.

  28. Come on, it’s just a function of the universal translator. We know it has visual editing capabilities, because when aliens speak in their own language, their lips are synced to the translation.

  29. This is hilarious. :)

    It made me think:
    One explanation for similarly angled ships’ travel could be that they are travelling to planets with similar atmospheres and therefore (as I understand it) similar angles of entry so as not to burn up in the atmosphere. Just a thought.

    ~Bonnie~

  30. Perhaps angle of approach (which could be any angle, not just perpendicular)would be like body language and people misinterpret that all the time. :)

  31. “Up” is defined by the internal gravity of the ship. There have been episodes where the gravity was “flipped” (or turned off) in certain sections.

    Also, they communicate through radio transmission (audio and visual), so no matter which way the ship is positioned relative to each other, they still appear “up” because the cameras are recording “right-side up.”

    There have never been any episodes where you look “out the window” at another alien ship and see the relative position of the aliens through their window (and thus would be able to see their relative orientation).

    The only time “up” has to be the same between ships is when a shuttle craft is docking (so it doesn’t dock upside-down and only the shuttle has to be positioned accordingly). This is the only way we ever tell “which way is up” by watching the shows.

    When transporting over to another ship, the sensors automatically detect the local gravitational pull and positions the crew accordingly.

  32. Perhaps, since they always view each other on view screens (as opposed to windows), maybe they never actually are in alignment with each other, but sensors and targeting systems compensate for this and display it in a way that is easier for the crew members to comprehend?

  33. @Mark #46: I remember reading somewhere many years ago that the Enterprise D was designed to more efficiently glide through space. Perhaps the engineers were discovering the flat boxy shapes of the TOS ships were experiencing too much “drag” or something, and made them more “astrodynamic”…

  34. I THINK THAT AT THIS POINT INTIME THEY HAVE SENSORS TO DETECT THE SHIP FAR AWAY AND PERHAPS THEY JUST ROTATE THEIR SHIP BEFORE THEY MEET

  35. Actually there is an explanation for this.
    If you look at the milky way you quickly realize that it does have an up and a down.
    It is a spiral galaxy that rotates around a central core. So if you look at an up and down scenario, each planet would have an up based upon its rotation around its star(s) and in interstellar space an up would be represented the same way only based on rotation around the core. The exception to this would be when you went beyond the galaxy into the local globular cluster. Then what is up would be dependant on the galaxy you were in. If you were in no galaxy then up or down would be depend upon your home orientation so you can find your way back.
    :)

  36. Admiral: So, captain Picard, where exactly were you?

    Picard: Started up on his 6, when he pulled from the nebula, and then I moved in above him.

    Admiral: Well, if you were directly above how could you see him?

    Picard: Because I was inverted.

    Worf: [coughs whilst saying] Bullshit.

    Riker: No, he was man. It was a really great move. He was inverted.

    Admiral: You were in a Warp 3.2 inverted dive with a Klingon Bird of Prey?

    Picard: Yes, sir.

    Admiral: At what range?

    Picard: Um, about two kilometers.

    Riker: It was actually about one and a half I think. It was one and a half. I’ve got a great Holoroid of it, and he’s right there, must be one and a half.

    Picard: Was a nice picture.

    Riker: Thanks.

    Admiral: Eh, captain, what were you doing there?

    Riker: Communicating.

    Picard: Communicating. Keeping up intergalactic relations. You know, giving him the bird!

    Riker: [The Admiral looks puzzled, so Riker clarifies] You know, the finger

    Admiral: Yes, I know the finger, Commander.

    Riker: I-I’m sorry, I hate it when it does that, I’m sorry. Excuse me.

  37. who is to say… which side of the two dimensional spiral of the milky way is up? what we perceive as the top of the milky way galaxy, could be, in relation to, the universal center, the bottom…. ill agree with the spock’s ears comment… which ever way they point… was up.

  38. I don’t usually comment but I enjoyed this so much I just had to say thanks! It never occurred to me before that pretty much all space sci-fi is guilty of this cliche… Very funny, thanks again!

  39. “And why is the earth right-side-up only when the north pole is at the top of the world? Why cant it be the other way around?”

    It IS upside down when all you Yanks make space movies.
    Why do you think we Aussies don’t go into space? We don’t want to constantly be seeing all you Yanks upside down, and having to explain to you that the South Pole IS the top of the world, mate!

  40. I’d say that most encounters happen within a few parsecs of a solar system too — that would provide alignment – although up and down would still be questionable, z axis would be settled.

  41. The reason the ships are always right side up is the same reason everyone speaks English. Not that foreign English but Hollywood English! :)

  42. —————-
    gob wrote:
    Whitney – your comment about the Enterprise-A never meeting cube would also theoretically apply to the warbird as well. Warbirds were never seen in the Kirk era movies but the Romulan ships TOS enterprise did encounter were not of the 23rd century warbird model.
    ————————–

    Hrrmm? There are Klingon Birds-of-Prey in Star Trek III, IV, V, and VI

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  44. Actually those 2 ships wouldn’t encounter each other at all. The Romulan D’deridex Warbird was unveiled in the year 2364 to the Enterprise-D, a Galaxy Class starship. The Enterprise shown there is the Enterprise-A, a Constitution Class starship. Those were decommissioned by the end of the 2290s.

  45. “Morley wrote:

    This all makes me wonder what direction the enemy’s gate is in.”

    I fucking love you right now.

  46. Love it. Many an argument I’ve had with my OH about this. The thing is though… if you are encountering a ship for the first time, how would you knew the design is upside down?

  47. Because I am demented and have nothing better to do, I always thought about this problem, but my conclusion is: it would make some sense to fly in space aligned with the plane of the galaxy. Why would anybody bother doing so is the problem…

  48. I always wondered why there weren’t globes made with the hemisphere’s reversed. It seems that they would be big sellers in Australia!

  49. Well…I believe we can assume that the Romulans or whomever came from a planet that had a gravitational force (says general relativty!) then they would orient ships up-down like we would since they would have evolved under gravitational conditions.

  50. Actually, its possible that all the intelligent races that they meet have thought of this problem and have a long range detector that figures out the other ship’s orientation, so they adjust their own to match. or that the viewscreen changes the image automatically to have both ships on the same frame of reference

  51. I’ve been complaining about this for years. But my complaints went unheard partly because I was telling my cats, and partly because my complaints weren’t FRIGGIN’ HILARIOUS like yours! That picture of the Vulcan’s looking at the upside down Enterprise and saying “What a Dick” has made me laugh like 20 times. I sent this to a friend and he allegedly spit out his drink. Well done, sir. I tip my ears.

  52. It was a TV show written with a barely there budget. And it made me happy to watch it, with all of its flaws; I could pretend that we might someday go into space. Never going to happen. Asimov said it would be boring anyway.

  53. Nice work.

    Being a Trek lover (not necessarily a Trekkie as I don’t take any of this stuff that seriously) I have pondered this.

    I think the simplest answer to most of this is: Gravity.

    All planetary civilisations evolve with a concept of ‘up’ and ‘down’. Therefore they will design technology with a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’ and that will extend to their spaceships and shit.

    So it’s not that surprising that most ships fly round on the 2-D plain.

    I suppose their could be aquatically evolved species that created a more 3-D tech base. Or even avian races I suppose. Or zero-G gas cloud beings that zoom up and down the middle of the galactic core.

    But seeing as they’d all speak English anyway it seems barely worth worrying about…

  54. Speaking of up and down- it’s a wonder that noone was ever beamed aboard upside down… and how do the sensors recognize where a floor is vs a sealing when it is not transporter to transporter. Ahh, and then forget *how* gravity is generated, but if the ship that creates its own gravity is impacted, how would its occupants realize the momentum shift? Speaking of momentum and friction- how did the Enterprise back away from the Scimitar in Nemesis?

  55. Pingback: space thread
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  57. Even though space is infinite, our galaxy is not and it does have a shape, being that of a spiral which is broad but thin like a disk. Even though various planets would be oriented in different ways due to orbital trajectories, the Milky Way Galaxy does have a “top and bottom” so it would be possible to determine which way is “up”.

    Regardless…Star Trek is imaginary and you’re all a bunch of nerds.

  58. You all need to get avfreakin life. It’s a damn TV show for christs sake…maybe I need to get a life for reading this shitband actually enjoying it…

  59. I think this whole thing was addressed in First Contact when they have to go out on the hull with mag boots on.
    Love the thread though

  60. It is mentioned in one of the official books (technical guide or encyclopedia, one of those by Okudoa etc) that there is an alignment system built in. The writers mentioned later that it wasn’t just a simple explanation to overcome what you noticed as an issue but also based on NASA established fact where they found that it was necessary to establish an Up and Down on Skylab and the ISS as humans require it.

    1. Sure but when you say “humans require it” I think what you or the writers mean is an up down internal to the vessel. Not the entirety of space.

  61. This is so great.. It’s one of those situations where you go: “why didn’t I think of that?”. I could see Picard now: “Enterprise: comin’ at you fools sideways, what what!”

  62. I believe the title should be “Space and the X-Axis. Please check the Cartesian plane if you think I’m incorrect, however those ships are flipped/mirrored on the X, not the Y-Axis.

  63. Haha superbly written.

    The Star Trek writers betray their confusion about 3d space again in the episode ‘the enterprise incident’ when our heroes are ambushed by Romulans

    SPOCK: A second ship has appeared. Correction, there are now three. We are surrounded.

    No you’re not! Three ships define a plane. Flee to the normal!

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