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In television and movies we have a very familiar bridge command structure: the captain gives orders like "shields up", "fire primary weapons", or "transfer power to sublight". I think this trope was probably first established with Star Trek, but it appears in everything from Stargate to Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica.

For day-to-day operations this seems fine, but in crisis situations (including but not limited to combat, disaster relief, search and rescue, etc) a starship of any appreciable size (assume crew of 200+) would need to react in a hundred different ways to a hundred different situations very quickly. Far faster than any one bridge commander, or even a group of system operators, could receive information and then issue an order in response.

EDIT: see this youtube video for a good example of the trope I'm referring to.

So my question is this:

What would be the optimum way for a starship to organize itself and its crew in a crisis situation while still maintaining a strong chain of command?

For the ship in question, I'll give the following assumptions:

  • The crew is large, but not massive. Say, between 200 and 800 crew members. (Larger than a Firefly/YT-1300, but smaller than the Executor).
  • The ship is equipped for the type of crisis it is encountering and the crew is well trained in their respective roles (i.e. not a cruise ship in a combat scenario).
  • Communication/automation technologies within the ship's systems are about as good as they are today. So no telepathic crew network, but auto-targeting missiles/point-defense weapons are plausible.
  • The ship has a number of different systems, including but not limited to:
    • Offensive weapons
    • Defensive weapons
    • Shields
    • Sublight and hyperlight engines
    • Fighter/interceptor/smaller vessels on board and appropriate hangar
    • Local and hyperlight communications
    • Typical sci-fi sensors (scan a planet in 5 sec, can't seen in an enemy ship)
    • Usual internals (lights, life support, bulkheads, security, etc)
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    $\begingroup$ Why do you think that "a starship of any appreciable size [...] would need to react in a hundred different ways to a hundred different situations very quickly"? I can imagine why a subsystem would need to react quickly, but the entire ship? The basic assumption behind the chain of command is that higher order units do not need to react as fast as lower order units; for example, if a squad comes under attack they must respond immediately but there is usually no need for the entire battalion to react instantaneously, thus allowing the colonel to be informed and issue the appropriate orders. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Aug 17 '17 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, perhaps I phrased it poorly. In a situation where a ship is engaging another large vessel, but then has to shift to defense against attacking fighters, the operators of the point-defense weapons shouldn't need to be told "fire at the bad guys". That shouldn't be something that the captain needs to worry about. But at the same time, how then does that subsystem receive commands from the bridge in an effective way? (Like if they need to not fire for some reason) $\endgroup$ – enpaul Aug 17 '17 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ Is there a reason a modern warship's command structure wouldn't be sufficient? I'm not asking sarcastically; I honestly don't know much about the navy. It just seems to me that the command structure on a modern ship wouldn't be much different from one in space, at least during a crisis. $\endgroup$ – MozerShmozer Aug 17 '17 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Mozer is right. Modern fleets already easily respond to many threats and mission profiles using current command structures, a carrier battle group can consist of multiple ships, and you'll have 5000+ sailors on a single carrier, which is far larger than your spacecraft $\endgroup$ – z - Aug 17 '17 at 23:23
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    $\begingroup$ May I suggest you begin with this article, "What Is It Like To Be The Commanding Officer Of An Aircraft Carrier?" and continue researching aircraft carrier command structure from there? $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 17 '17 at 23:46
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The command structure of the ship depends a great deal on what the ship is designed to do, and how many separate divisions are needed to do these tasks. A battleship has a different bridge structure than an aircraft carrier, to reflect the different roles of the ships, while a destroyer has a different bridge structure than a battleship to reflect the much smaller size and crew of the ship. Even the technology being postulated has a huge role in how the bridge is structured, the HMS Surprise (a Napoleonic era frigate) has a different bridge structure because it is a sailing ship, compared to a modern ship with an engineering division to run the power plant. (A nuclear submarine's engineering division is obviously different from a gas turbine powered Aegis cruiser).

So the first thing that needs to be defined is what sort of ship is this (the class or role), and then the technology needed to do the things required to run the ship and carry out the role. A ship with a large crew could mean that there is a lot of work which cannot be automated for whatever reasons (a wooden sailing ship needs a lot of hands to set the sails), or there are a lot of different tasks (an escort carrier with a similar sized crew is divided into many divisions to both run the ship and the air wing).

Once yo ave settled on that, then each division has an internal reporting structure, and each division has a senior officer who reports to the Captain, either directly on the bridge, or to the bridge via communications systems (having everyone on the bridge when the enemy photon torpedo comes crashing in is a bit of a difficult situation).

Within the bridge crew, there are also subdivisions. The Captain is on the bridge for critical operations, but when he is otherwise occupied there is an XO, and a Chief of the Boat to report to the Captain on issues regarding training, discipline and morale of the enlisted ratings and (on modern ships) perhaps civilian advisors from the various companies who make the systems that run the ship.

There are also military staff who are critical to the mission but not bridge staff, like the legal and political advisors for non military issues. There are also officers and crews like the ship's Purser, Quartermaster, Chaplain and Surgeon, who have critical roles to play and would be accessible to the Captain.

A realistic setting would have to split the action between the Bridge crew (on a modern warship, they would control the action below decks in the Combat Information Centre or CIC), various divisions which are separated from the Bridge and CIC for practical and safety reasons (the Engineering Division should be in a separate compartment, and an Air Wing equivalent would have several different compartments as well), and a conference room where the Captain can meet advisors during planning sessions outside of combat or sailing manoeuvres (the Captain would be on the bridge during docking or transiting through a spaceport, for example).

As a writer, there is no reason not to do this, but if you are contemplating shooting this for a film, TV show, Podcast etc. you can see the time and expense for setting up sets will be much greater than "Star Trek", where everything happens in one place.

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May I humbly submit that you're asking the wrong question? Tropes range from the ultra-advanced-automation of Golan Trevize's ship in Asimov's Foundation's Edge requiring but one person to operate the entire ship, to the half-dozen people needed to run Enterprise NX-01, to the veritable army of people needed to run a Star Wars imperial destroyer.

In your universe, you need to ask the question, "why do I need human intervention?" The problem with TV tropes, etc., is that telling a great story with beautiful sets and wonderful people is far more important than reality. Asimov discareded all the people by creating direct-to-brain automation: his story was focused on the search, not the ship, and dealing with a large command structure would have distracted from the story. Star Wars wanted to present the Imperium as a large Big-Brother that overshadowed personal liberty, so it needed all the people on the bridge it could get.

So, basically, if you're looking for justification, start with "how much human decision-making capacity am I willing to hand over to a computer?" If you think you can do it all with automation, you'll end up with Star Trek TOS episode, "The Ultimate Computer," where no one at all is needed to operate a ship. Not even a captain.

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    $\begingroup$ For practicality and in reality, you're absolutely right. We have automated drones today, there's no reason why a starship should need human pilots (a la Ender's Game). However, much like for the sake of the story in these shows/movies, I want the ship to be maintained by a traditionally large crew $\endgroup$ – enpaul Aug 18 '17 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ Then make a choice based on how your story needs to evolve as to where human interaction is important during a crisis. Humans are very good at making moral judgements. Computers are very good at making fast judgements. Alas, it's unlikely that the twain shall meet. $\endgroup$ – JBH Aug 18 '17 at 0:29
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Rather than a bridge the running of a large starship will probably resemble the command centre of NASA with a multitude of console jockeys overseeing the different functions of the spacecraft. They are essentially the ship's crew and the overall supervision level of the command centre would be the bridge as such.

The ultimate command and control technology for starships could be autonomous machine intelligence. This would be essentially an integrated network of computers connected to and overseen by a set of AIs. The human officers would be located in a monitoring room to ensure the starship is following orders and where they can issue orders. The monitoring room will be the bridge. The only humans on board will be the ship's officer corps and specialist personnel to assist with the starship's missions.

In this case, the starship itself is the body of the crew. It is tempting to call the officers parasites living in and off the body of their starship (but that's another story). There will need to be continuous communication between the bridge officers and the starship. Depending on speed of action and the response times needed, it is possible the starship will be briefed and given its orders, in advance, about which actions to take and how to respond in a range of situations.

For example, assume the starship has a jump-drive. It might be ordered to jump into a suspected hostile planetary system and if it encounters an enemy in superior numbers either evade them at sublight velocity or retreat to a safe distance with another hyperspace jump or if it encounters starships from a friendly species, advise the bridge and prepare to open communications.

A smart starship might be capable of making a range of its own decisions, but like all command structures it will be answerable to its officers.

In summary, a starship's bridge could be a NASA style controla nd command centre if large numbers of officers and crew are required or a small number of human officers commanding an intelligent, near-autonomous starship.

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