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The Federation orbital shuttle was a type of shuttlecraft utilized in and around Earth and the Earth Spacedock.

Many of these lost power when the Whale Probe bombarded Earth with humpback whale signals in the late 23rd century. (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)

Shuttles of this design remained in service on Earth and in orbital facilities even past the mid-24th century. (TNG: "11001001", "Conspiracy")

List of shuttles



Background information

No technical details were established for these models filmed in the Spacedock scenes, but a highly detailed model was numbered '5' in Star Trek IV and '6' (and '7') in Star Trek III. The measurement information is based on the scale against the figures in the cockpit of the studio model. The shuttle can again be seen in Star Trek IV stock footage of Starfleet Headquarters in season 1 of TNG.

Studio model

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, was one of the few Star Trek productions that introduced a multitude of new space faring designs at once, six in this case, including the orbital shuttle. The orbital shuttle was purely an ILM initiative to beef out the atmosphere inside Earth Spacedock, as the craft has never been mentioned nor described in any of the scripts of the productions it has made an appearance in. Nor was it ever, aside from its visual appearances, referred to on-screen. It was Michael Okuda, apparently unaware of model maker Bill George's intent, who had to come up with the designation "orbital shuttle" for its inclusion in the Star Trek Encyclopedia, faithfully copied into the Star Trek Fact Files (Part 160, 2000).

Design process

Early design concepts of the orbital shuttle (below right) and the Oberth-class

For The Search for Spock a unique approach to designing was adopted, not seen before or after in the Star Trek franchise. Instead of the traditional way of thinking out a design, devising a design, coming up with detailed drawings to be approved of by visual effects supervisors and building models from blueprints, this time visual artists David Carson and Nilo Rodis of Industrial Light & Magic produced their pre-visualization artwork and handed it over to model makers Steve Gawley, Bill George and their team to be translated into study models, in essence inviting them to use their own imagination to finish up on the design. Very much a collaborative effort, Carson later remembered,"We'd churn out quite a few sketches. Then the ones that were most promising we might polish up a little in color for presentation. It wasn't uncommon for me to do a drawing that would inspire Nilo, who would then turn it into his own drawing that would be much more impressive! He would often inspire me." (Star Trek: The Magazine Volume 3, Issue 8, p. 48) Once turned over to the model makers the resulting study models were presented to producer Harve Bennett and/or director Leonard Nimoy for appraisal or as supervising model maker Gawley put it,"You had all these models sitting on a table so that the director could really get a feel for what we were talking about. It just made everything easier to understand, and insured that everybody was on the same page. It also made it easier to give cost estimates." (Star Trek: The Magazine Volume 3, Issue 8, p. 20) Director of Photography Kenneth Ralston elaborated further,"From the beginning, once Nilo Rodis, one of the visual effects art directors, had done a sketch and they got an idea of what direction to go, the model people all built prototypes. The space dock had four or five small prototypes. The Bird of Prey, I think, had only two because we all knew this one design would work and we were selling that one. The Merchant Man and the Grissom also had several designs. When Leonard and Harve and Ralph Winter came to meetings we presented them with three dimensional models. It really is a lot better doing it that way because they can physically see how different angles would work."(American Cinematographer, August/September 1984, p. 62)

The physical studio model

Orbital "5" model

Bill George further refined Nilo-Jamero's preliminary design, and the design went through at least two study models. [1] However, he specifically stated "It's a tug" and built the eventual filming model as such. He intended the array of quarter-circle ribs on the back of the ship between the engines to be tractor beam emitters. [2] The idea behind the concept was that these craft would act as tugboats in spacedock, which is why they were moving around the USS Enterprise, ready to guide her if necessary, very much like present-day harbor tugboats. To further reinforce the notion of the craft being a heavy-duty utility vessel, he clad the pilot miniature figures, seated in the cockpit, in environmental suits.

The model was filmed twice at ILM, labeled "7" for The Search for Spock [3], and relabeled "5" for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Every other subsequent appearance has been stock footage of these two filming sessions. The model has not been seen since, and its current whereabouts are unknown, though George has retained ownership of the two study models. [4]

The model as matte painting
Federation Council grounds matte painting photographed by ILM's Craig Barron.jpg
Matte painting photographed by Barron
Federation Council grounds.jpg
Finalized composite shot

The two vessels, seen parked on the tarmac of the Federation Council grounds in The Voyage Home was not footage of the physical studio model, but were rather executed as a matte painting, undoubtedly using the model as reference. A hard-edged matte was left out the foreground of the painting, to be filled in by a live action plate that was photographed on an open expanse of concrete at the Oakland International Airport. The interaction of the costumed extras with this footage combined with the artwork was composited into the final footage by ILM's Matte Painting Supervisor Chris Evans, while his colleague Craig Barron provided the footage of the painting itself. (Cinefex, issue 29, pp. 9-10) A third craft seen taking off in the upper right was footage of the studio model, composited into the shot. Cropped versions of the shot were later reused in TNG: "Conspiracy" (cropped to the left) and VOY: "Non Sequitur" (cropped to the right).