Development of the fourth Star Trek series started in the middle of 1993, during the last season of The Next Generation and the second season of Deep Space Nine. Executive Producer Jeri Taylor decided as early as August that the new ship should be sleeker and smaller than the Enterprise-D.
Rick Sternbach, who was then working as an illustrator and tech consultant on The Next Generation, was brought on board the following month. He wasted no time getting the design process started.
It was the first lead ship Sternbach designed. He had been responsible for various alien ships and shuttlecraft on The Next Generation, including the runabout, but his predecessor, Andrew Probert, had created the Enterprise-D.
Sternbach’s early sketches for Voyager show a streamlined vessel with a dart-like primary hull and a flattened, elongated engineering section, sporting swept-back runabout-like warp pylons.
Pieces were added and subtracted and hull contours, both gently curved and angular, were explored in perspective over the course of weeks and months. Hull cross sections were drawn in blue pencil to check internal deck heights, total number of decks and possibly overall ship length. Sternbach prepared comparisons with familiar Starfleet vessels to help the producers decide.
They added to his challenge by deciding that Voyager should be able to land on a planetary surface. That meant the ship needed deployable landing gear.
By the spring of 1994, something resembling the Voyager we now know had emerged. The slightly angular dart front had been smoothed off and nestled into the engineering section — still assuming a separation capability — and sweeping pylons ended in a set of long nacelles. The nacelles had doors to open up the warp coils for some kind of new energy jump. Impulse thrusters were buried underneath, similar to the runabout, and a large triangular wedge sat atop the ship, possibly acting as a scout craft or long-range sensor array.
Notable details included a large forward sensor cutout and a stepped engineering hull that supported a ring of large cargo bays and impulse engines. The first would stay; the second design element was later eliminated.
This was a fast-looking ship, with a hint of solid engine hardware showing on the outside.
When the producers signed off, Sternbach proceeded to the initial blueprint and study model stages. He scaled up a top plan view of the ship to a length of 48 inches, the presumed size of the motion control model at the time. From this, he derived bottom, side, fore and aft views. The side elevation and resulting cutaway suggested that the ship would be about 1,000 feet long, the same size as Kirk’s Enterprise from The Motion Picture.
Following the Starfleet tradition, Sternbach reserved space for the bridge on Deck 1 and a variety of placeholder windows on the hull, which would be built into standing sets.
Windows are an important design factor because of the coordination needed between the studio and outside model makers for continuity between the exterior and interior of the ship. Since Voyager would be smaller than the Enterprise-D, the windows would be proportionately larger and more visible on the small screen. That made it even more important that they matched the sets.
Just as Sternbach was about to produce a final set of blueprints for the model makers (he had even produced a small mock-up model himself), Taylor came back and asked if he could not make Voyager a bit curvier after all.
Saucer separation was no longer necessary. This allowed Sternbach to integrate the primary and secondary hulls more smoothly.
He continued to play with the nacelle placement. Should they be on pylons, like on the Enterprise-D? Or downturned, like a runabout? Early in July, the final nacelle movements were completed with the 45-degree wing-up angle being approved by the producers.
Sternbach drew up five orthographic projections of the final version: top, bottom, starboard, forward and aft elevations. These went to the model builders in August: Tony Meininger’s company, Brazil Fabrication. They also received detailed sketches from Sternbach as to supposed function, color or whether a lighting effect was required.
Two months later, Meininger delivered the model to Image G for shooting, although some modifications and detailing continued until December.
Voyager came on the air at a time when huge advancements were being made in computer-generated imagery (CGI). Over the course of the first few seasons, models were phased out and digitally-created starships entered service. By the time of the fourth season, in 1997, Meininger’s studio model had become redundant. It was sold off at auction in 2006 to an Englishman for $110,000.
Stock footage of the model would continue to be used, though. You can tell the two versions apart from the windows underneath the shuttlebay. The windows are lighted in the CGI model. There was no room to install electrical wiring in the physical model, who whenever those windows are dark, you know you’re looking at the real thing.
Sources for this story include: Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens, The Art of Star Trek (1995); “Designing the U.S.S. Voyager,” Star Trek: The Magazine 1, #19 (November 2000); and Stephen Edward Poe, A Vision of the Future — Star Trek: Voyager (1998)