Matt Jeffries: The Man Behind the Iconic USS Enterprise

Source: Star Trek, 1966

The classic design of the starship Enterprise used familiar shapes in a new way to birth a design that still stands the test of time today, all thanks to the work of one man: Matt Jefferies.

It must have been so strange. At 8:30pm on September 8th, 1966, television viewers in the United States were introduced to a curious object flying in from stage left, clad in muted whites, greys, and reds. The starship Enterprise, as conceived by Gene Roddenberry and designed by Matt Jefferies, would quickly become an icon of not only Star Trek, but also science fiction and escapism, with familiar shapes brought together to create a refreshing and innovative design unlike anything previously seen.

The Enterprise Can't Be Boat or Rocket

Matt Jefferies. Credit: Memory Alpha
Matt Jefferies. Credit: Memory Alpha

Science fiction films set in space were plentiful in the first half of the 20th century, from Georges Méliès' Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) in 1902 to 1950's Rocketship XM, and for the most part, the spaceships that followed had similar patterns. Movies, television, and pulp novels and magazines displayed images of flying saucers, rockets, and cigar-shaped objects before the American imagination was captivated in the late 1940s by apparent sightings of these objects. Flash Gordon, for example, visited the planet Mongo in a rocket, while Gort and Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still visited us in a flying saucer.

Star Trek creator Roddenberry was adamant that the Enterprise not be anything like a rocket. He wanted a believable, unique design that was based somewhat on existing science, and how that might evolve in the future in the show's 23rd Century setting. From that, Jefferies, who had previously been an engineer and co-pilot during World War II and an aviation illustrator after his discharge, thought about the practicalities of pushing a spaceship to warp speed.

"I was concerned about the design of ship that Gene told me would have warp drive," said Jefferies. "I thought, 'What the hell is warp drive?' But I gathered that this ship had to have powerful engines – extremely powerful. To me, that meant that they had to be designed away from the body. Boy, I tried a lot of ideas."

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From that came the classic Star Trek nacelle. A French word that originally referred to the car underneath an airship (the literal translation is "pod"), nacelle is a term that has become synonymous with the franchise. The large cylindrical objects that span out from starships and propel them to great speeds, nacelles are commonly featured in designs from most races across the franchise. Legend has it that Roddenberry had a rule that ships in Star Trek could only have nacelles in pairs, with the use of vessels with one or three nacelles appearing only in alternate timelines, such as the Kelvin timeline seen in the new films, or the possible future timeline in "All Good Things...," the series finale of The Next Generation.

Designing the Enterprise

Credit: Inside Star Trek
Credit: Inside Star Trek

Jefferies used another cigar shape for the secondary hull, but when it came to designing the primary hull and the front of the ship, his original design ended up being fairly different from the classic shape we know now. Jefferies' original concept was to have a large sphere as the primary hull, which he justified as being the soundest scientific concept for traveling in the vacuum of space. However, this was eventually changed. He explained that, "For the hull, I didn't really want a saucer because of the term 'flying saucer', and the best pressure vessel of course is a ball, so I started playing with that. But the bulk got in the way and the ball just didn't work. I flattened it out and I guess we wound up with a saucer!"

Interestingly, Jefferies' spherical design was featured in the franchise in a couple of variations; as a model of the Daedalus-class U.S.S. Horizon in Commander Sisko's ready room in Deep Space Nine, and in a more futuristic variation as the Olympic-class medical ship U.S.S. Pasteur in the aforementioned "All Good Things..." But all of the Enterprises, no matter how updated and advanced they are, still retain his configuration and basic design after 53 years. Jefferies did get to update his own design for a short time in 1977, however, when Paramount planned to produce a third series known as Star Trek: Phase II. "Basically, what I did to it was change the power units and make a slight change in the struts that supported them. I gave the main hull a taper, then I went flat-sided and thin with the power units, rather than keeping the cylindrical shape. Trying to work out the logic of the refit, I knew a lot of the equipment inside would change, but I didn't see that there would be any need to change the exterior of the saucer."

Credit: Cygnus-X1.Net
Credit: Cygnus-X1.Net

While Phase II eventually became 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Jefferies' new design updates were still kept for the new Enterprise refit, with further additions from Andrew Probert and Richard Taylor to make sure the ship had as much detail as possible for the cinema screen. And when the new Enterprise debuted in December 1979, fans fell in love with it all over again, proving that its innovative design was as powerful as ever, all thanks to a designer who truly had gone where no man had gone before. 

Quotes from interviews are published in Star Trek: The Original Series Sketchbook, The Making of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Magazine, Star Trek Phase II: The Lost Series.

Contributing Editor

Charlie Brigden has been obsessed with spaceships, horror films, and film music since a young age and can usually be found across the internet writing about one of those three. He lives in South Wales UK with his family, cats, dogs, and tarantulas.