Space Travel in Sci-Fi

Exploring the various ways interstellar journeys are portrayed in science fiction

Whether it be in Star Wars, Interstellar, or The Martian, space travel has cemented itself as a popular theme in science fiction movies, capturing the imagination of the public and making us question our ability to explore the universe. While outer space and space travel are key components of these movies (and many more), the method of travel illustrated in these works varies widely, from fully fictional to scientifically plausible to realistic and lifelike. 

Perhaps the most famous cinematic depiction of outer space, the Star Wars trilogy portrays a completely fictitious form of space travel. In Star Wars, spaceships are able to travel across the universe incredibly fast using a hyperdrive.  A hyperdrive allows the vessel to go faster than the speed of light and travel through an alternate dimension called hyperspace (1). Hyperspace is a smaller parallel universe where three-dimensional objects have “shadow” counterparts (2). Careful navigation is required to avoid hitting these shadows, as hitting them would mean colliding with a planet or star. However, hyperspace allows for spaceships to enter “at a point corresponding to one location in ordinary space and exit at a different point corresponding to another location after traveling a much shorter distance” (1). This type of travel is not possible in reality due to technological restraints. The most obvious restraint is that travel to hyperspace would require one to travel faster than the speed of light. Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity states that an object “would acquire an infinite mass when it approaches lightspeed,” meaning that an infinite amount of energy is required to move it (3). Since getting an infinite amount of energy is impossible, achieving faster-than-light speeds is also impossible. 

Although the speeds needed to get to hyperspace are not possible, other science fiction movies depict other, seemingly more plausible ways to take shortcuts through space. In Interstellar, one of the key plot points involves going through a wormhole, which is “essentially a tunnel from one place in space to another” (4). In Interstellar, an alien intelligence creates the wormhole that the characters travel through. In reality, however, wormholes have never been proven to exist, though physicists believe they are theoretically possible (4). Rather than being caused by alien intelligence, however, a real-life wormhole would likely be created by 2 incredibly massive objects (like black holes) bending the nearby curvature of spacetime (4). Spacetime is the concept that the three dimensions of space are connected with time in a single four-dimensional continuum. The more massive an object is, the more it bends spacetime. If we had a super massive object like a black hole, it could be “one side of a wormhole” (4); if there was something similar on the other side of spacetime, the extreme curvatures might connect and form a wormhole.

Visualization of how a wormhole might bend spacetime.

But even if wormholes did exist, space travel through them would be unlikely. Wormholes collapse quickly; according to Stephen Hu, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Oregon, without the use of “some very exotic type of matter in order to stabilize a wormhole,” travel through wormholes would be impossible (4). Even though recent science points towards wormhole travel being impossible, it has some scientific grounding, making it more believable and less fantastical than travel through hyperspace.

In contrast to Star Wars and Interstellar, The Martian presents a highly realistic view of space travel. In this movie, the main character, Mark Watney, is stranded on Mars while the rest of his crew is aboard a spacecraft called Hermes. This spaceship uses ion propulsion to travel between Earth and Mars (5). Ion propulsion technology involves shooting electrons at molecules of xenon (or other gasses) and propelling them out the back of the engine to create thrust. This method of propulsion is highly efficient and requires 10 times less fuel in weight compared to traditional chemical propulsion engines. Unlike wormholes or hyperspace, ion propulsion technology currently exists. NASA has already used ion propulsion in spacecraft such as the ones used on the Deep Space 1 mission (6), and is continuing to improve the technology (7).

New Ion Thrusters being tested by NASA in 2023

As filmmaking techniques and human knowledge of outer space evolve, filmmakers will undoubtedly continue to envision futuristic forms of space travel. Even without wormholes and hyperdrives, depictions of space travel will undeniably keep the audience immersed and enhance the setting of the film. As long as science fiction continues to thrive, space travel will remain a powerful reflection of humanity’s desire for exploration and curiosity.  


  1. Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, December 28). Hyperspace. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. 
  2. Contributors to Wookieepedia. (2023). Hyperspace. Wookieepedia; Fandom, Inc.,the%20rest%20of%20the%20galaxy
  3. Howell, E. (2017, December 15). Why Don’t We Have a “Star Wars” Hyperdrive Yet?; Space.
  4. Nola Taylor Tillman, Harvey, A., & Sohn, R. (2022, January 13). What are wormholes?; Space.
  5. Howell, E. (2015, August 25). “The Martian” Shows 9 Ways NASA Tech Is Headed to Mars.; Space.
  6. Ion Propulsion. (2018, October 23).
  7. Jones, A. (2023, November 9). Powerful new thrusters for NASA’s moon-orbiting Gateway space station get a test (photo).; Space. 


  1. Dejan. (2023, November 17). What are wormholes? An astrophysicist explains these shortcuts through space-time. Astronomy Magazine. 
  2. Jones, A. (2023, November 9). Powerful new thrusters for NASA’s moon-orbiting Gateway space station get a test (photo).; Space.