The Galaxy class starship was once the pinnacle of Starfleet technology, but it had plenty of flaws.
Lasting seven TV seasons and four movies, Star Trek: The Next Generation left an undeniable mark on science fiction pop culture. That said, and perhaps second only to the original Enterprise from the 1960s TV series, the famed USS Enterprise NCC 1701-D (commonly referred to as “Enterprise-D”) is one of the most recognizable starships in the Star Trek franchise.
Although the Galaxy class starship represented the best technology Starfleet had to offer when it first launched, the ship was plagued with poor design decisions from the start. Some of these issues were addressed as a matter of necessity as the show progressed, but other problems remained until the Enterprise-D was destroyed in Star Trek Generations and replaced with a Sovereign class vessel (Enterprise-E).
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Breaking Down The USS Enterprise
The one thing to keep in mind is that in the Next Generation era, Starfleet didn’t build warships, so the Enterprise wasn't made to win fights. Instead, the Galaxy class starship was designed to serve a variety of peaceful functions, including exploration, diplomatic missions, and scientific research, among others.
Embarked on a multi-year deep space mission, the Enterprise was the first Starfleet vessel to have a large permanent civilian population as part of its crew, which included children. As a result, the interior of the ship was spacious, with extra-wide corridors, apartment-sized private living quarters, recreational amenities such as holodecks, service centers, a school, and a dining area that looked like a private restaurant to support a crew of over a thousand people.
The ship itself was about 642.51 meters long, comprised of 43 decks that housed advanced medical and scientific facilities. Its warp core, which took up 12 decks of vertical space, produced 12.7 billion gigawatts of power, and the ship could sustain warp 9.6 for 12 hours. If needed, engineering controls could be transferred to the bridge.
Even though the Enterprise is meant to foster galactic peace, Starfleet understands the hazards of space exploration. That’s why the ship was outfitted with a full complement of weapons, including powerful shields and 14 Type-10 phaser arrays that could fire in an arc from the saucer section. The ship was also armed with two photon torpedo launchers and an antimatter minelayer. The main deflector dish could discharge an energy blast, occasionally turning it into a makeshift weapon. A third torpedo launcher, warp nacelle-mounted phaser banks, and more powerful shields were later added as part of a wartime retrofit. The Enterprise was also equipped with powerful sensors as part of its exploration mission, which often complemented its weapons systems.
In essence, the starship was a cross between a mobile city, a luxury liner, and a battlecruiser. Other features included the ability to detach the saucer section, which would become a massive lifeboat, from the main ship. Meanwhile, the Enterprise had a secondary battle bridge located on the ship’s neck in the event of a saucer separation. Since the saucer has phasers and an aft torpedo launcher, it could potentially become a secondary support vessel in combat situations.
Flaws in the System
Ok, time for the negatives. The main issue with the Enterprise is that it was built with too many functions in mind, resulting in massive inefficiencies. For instance, according to the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, about 35 percent of the ship was just empty space, set aside for “future expansion.” That meant the Galaxy class ship was 35 percent larger than it had to be, and it was spending energy moving around empty space.
That inefficiency almost doubled during the Dominion War, when Starfleet built a fleet of Galaxy class vessels for battle. As a result of their rushed construction, most of these new ships left drydock with almost 65 percent of their volume empty. This indicates that Starfleet only needed a ship that was 35 percent the size of a Galaxy class ship to do battle. Perhaps it should have put its resources building more Defiant class ships.
But even if the Enterprise used its space efficiently, that still wouldn’t address some of the fundamental problems with its design. The first and most obvious one is the strange quirk that causes control panels on the bridge to explode every time the ship takes a hit – even if the impact occurs on the other side of the vessel.
Additionally, the bridge is needlessly exposed and vulnerable, set atop the center of the saucer section, making it a prime target for foes to lock in on. To make matters worse, the bridge uses a large window as a viewport that doubles as a screen. That window, and sometimes the entire bridge, has been destroyed on the Enterprise and other ships, which resulted in half the bridge crew getting sucked into space.
The Star Trek technical manual reveals that the saucer section was poorly designed from the start. Its large size made evasive maneuvers difficult while giving enemies a prime target. Its aft torpedo launcher was only usable after separation. Otherwise, it aimed directly into the main ship itself. In a worst-case scenario, a saboteur could come aboard and blow the ship up with its own ill designed weapon. Best case, the ship doesn’t have access to an arsenal of 70 torpedoes for most of the time.
Additionally, the saucer section is slow to detach and does not come equipped with landing gear. In fact, the technical manual illustrates that the only way to land is to crash, causing massive destruction to a planet’s environment. Making matters worse, the saucer and much of the ship has a full complement of escape pods that can all land safely on a planet’s surface, making the separate saucer concept redundant and unnecessary.
The final issue is with the warp nacelles, which are attached to the ship using extended arms with only shields to protect them. To be fair (and with all respect to Matt Jeffries), most ships in the Star Trek universe are designed this way. But there are ships that don’t have completely exposed warp nacelles, with the Defiant being a prime example.
Redesigning the Starship Enterprise
Galaxy class starships were already being replaced by the Sovereign class vessels by the time The Next Generation concluded. After facing both the Borg and the Dominion, Starfleet learned its lesson and designed these new hybrid ships with increased emphasis on battle capabilities to support their peaceful exploration missions. Sovereign ships sported a smaller saucer section, no adjoining “neck” section, powerful shields, ablative armor on its hull, and no civilian crew. As such, it’s likely that the separate saucer function was done away with entirely.
As powerful as the Sovereign class ships are, we prefer the design of the Nebula class. While originally designed for scientific research, they were repurposed for battle during the Dominion war and were eventually used to patrol Federation space. In fact, the ship was fitted with more Galaxy class hardware, like a larger deflector dish, and was practically armed to the teeth by the time the war concluded.
Its saucer section is large, but the ship is arranged more vertically when compared to the Galaxy class. The saucer is located directly above the main body of the ship and its warp nacelles, offering greater protection for its sensitive areas and a wider firing arc for its phasers. Its nacelles would benefit from more armor, similar to the Defiant, but its compact design makes it ideal for both combat and exploration. Given how a large portion of Galaxy class starships were comprised of empty space, we think it’s possible that the Nebula could have given Starfleet’s flagship a run for its money.
However, both ships still have flaws that practically all Starfleet ships share. Exposed warp nacelles notwithstanding, the ships still have vulnerable bridge sections. Given Starfleet’s advanced sensor and communications technology, there’s simply no reason for that vulnerability to exist. Instead, the bridge should be located deep inside the ship with no windows. That would leave the crew completely reliant on its sensors, but let’s face it, if you’re stuck with nothing but a forward-facing viewport in a space battle, you’re pretty much screwed anyway.
We’re hoping that Starfleet did more than just add guns and shields to its ships after facing two catastrophic threats, but history has shown that the Federation is usually much better at diplomacy than it is at military science. For instance, the Enterprise never learned to randomly modulate its shield frequencies automatically after fighting the Borg. That security flaw directly led to the Enterprise-D’s destruction in Generations. The Klingon Duras Sisters were able to learn the ship’s shield frequency, allowing their weapons to pass straight through it, and it was on to Enterprise-E from there.
Things don’t seem promising, since bridge control panels still blow up like Ford Pintos whenever the ship’s hull is struck. But, as Captain Picard said in Star Trek: First Contact when the Enterprise-E was set to self-destruct, there are still “plenty of letters left in the alphabet.” No doubt, the Enterprise will continue to boldly go forward into space no matter the setbacks.