Designing Earth Spacedock

Industrial Light and Magic’s David Carson and Nilo Rodis designed Earth Spacedock for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Carson told Star Trek: The Magazine in 2002 that he was thinking of ways to make the space station interesting and thought, “What if it is so big that the Enterprise actually goes into it?”

I did a drawing of a space station that was big enough. It was a bit clunky, but Nilo took that and in his typical fashion turned it into a really wonderful design. So we presented this idea.

“We pitched a whole bunch of design ideas to Harve [Bennett] and Leonard [Nimoy],” Rodis recalled. “I wanted to make sure it had nothing whatsoever to do with Star Wars.”

The original plan was to rotate the facility as it proceeded on its orbit, which meant that starships maneuvering into the station would have to synchronize their motion with the dock. This was dropped.


The scale of the spacedock presented a challenge. It had to look massive on the inside without making the Enterprise look small.

Enterprise in Spacedock
Enterprise seen through the windows of Spacedock in Star Trek III

Seeing the ship dock through a large group of windows partly solved that issue. The presence of people in the foreground provided a reference point for scale.

“Because there was no architectural detail on the inside, I needed an element that defined how big this space was,” explained Rodis.

The only way I could really give you the sense of distance was by establishing some kind of perspective. We could do that vertically, but we also needed to do it between them with beams or columns of light.

The inclusion of lights also added a sense of grandeur. “Without that element,” Rodis said, “it just wasn’t magic.”

Building the model — twice

Spacedock model
Spacedock model under construction

A full-scale studio model was built at ILM. To represent the interior of the Spacedock, a large 30-foot miniature was constructed. “That was an elaborate electronic feat with all the neon and the working doors,” Ken Ralston remembered.

There was kind of an interesting weird soft light in there, and I was so specific about the color I wanted to achieve inside that spacedock. I went round and round on it for a long time and then fought with the lab to print it correctly.

The miniature was destroyed after Star Trek III, which meant a new one had to be built for the next movie.

Modelmaker Jeff Mann later told The Making of the Trek Films that rebuilding the model was a “major undertaking”.

We had wanted to use stock footage of the interior of the spacedock from Star Trek III. We hoped that we could take some of the old effects elements from that scene and composite them with some new movement, but nothing worked quite right, so we had to refurbish and rebuild it.

No fresh scenes were show for Star Trek V, but Art Director William George wanted something original for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He told Cinefex in 1992 that he looked at the model from all angles and ended up lying down on the ground to look up before he realized that was the perfect shot. “It hadn’t been seen before, plus it was the natural angle of approach if you were coming up from Earth.”


I entirely agree with Andrew Probert, the Enterprise being a very large and formidable spaceship would have no logical reason to go inside the “Spaced Dock” space station. That feature of the “Space Dock” in basic engineering terms would be an extreme waste. That idea is as bad as building the Enterprise on the ground instead of space where in a space faring era it would be easier and more economical, as it was in JJ’s movie.

Robert B. (Apr 16, 2013)

But it looks cool! Also having starships dock inside a spacedock goes all the way back to the old Starfleet Technical Manual.

cbspock (Feb 7, 2019)

Even aircraft carriers have to port. Spacedock makes sense for repairs and construction.

Watcher (Feb 16, 2019)

There are reasons for a grand scale spacedock. 1) Being able to defend inoperable ships from casual inspection or attack. 2) Control access to potentially valuable strategic secrets. 3) Protect human operations crew while doing their work from radiation, attack, debris, etc. 4) Win friends and intimidate enemies.

jbanks (Mar 20, 2019)

Every sci-fi movie I ever saw chose theatricality over the more interesting real features of space as a home away from home. I’m hoping one day I can watch real space in a movie as depicted in Arthur C. Clarks and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Robert B. (Apr 16, 2013)

Truly one of the classics in sci-fi effects. You really get a sense of the scale! Somehow this would just feel so… ronky-ponky and fake if they made this now, since it would almost certainly be done in CG. Practical effects forever!

Tim (Feb 13, 2020)

Submit comments by email.