I haven’t been to see Rogue One yet. These days, I find the audio level in theaters too close to my own ears’ pain threshold, and wearing noise limiters for two hours too uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the movie has reignited one of my favorite Star Wars debates: the thermal exhaust port design flaw in the Death Star. In this essay, I assert that the port wasn’t a design flaw. An incredible list of other things had to go exactly right – or more often , exactly wrong – for the port to be a weakness at all.
The screening elements failed miserably at their job. In many ways, the Death Star is analogous to the aircraft carrier in a US Navy carrier strike group. Its purpose is to bring the offensive capability into range of the target. It’s not supposed to defend itself very well. The defense is provided by screening elements. Despite that being an inherent part of the defensive design, the star destroyers allowed the Alliance fighters to set up for not one, but two bombing runs on the Death Star. One of my questions from the time I saw the first movie has been “Where are the gigawatt lasers and computer targeting?” The star destroyers should have been able to pick off the fighters at the ranges involved without any leaking through. If our Navy’s screening elements turn out to be equivalently bad, our carriers are full of design “flaws” that make them vulnerable.
The port could only be targeted from a very limited range. In battle conditions, the port could only be targeted from inside the trench. (If not, why not try other easier approaches?) Navigating the trench at attack speed was difficult. We know that because in the original movie, fighters from both sides managed to crash. The only pilots not struggling to avoid that fate were both “wizards”. Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker had “magical” powers that – among other things – gave them superhuman senses and reflexes.
Trench-mounted weapons failed at their job. Still, the Empire had clearly considered the possibility. There were anti-fighter weapons in the trench and, considering how they were mounted, their only job was shooting down such fighters. Those weapons had miserable accuracy. Speaking broadly, they were less accurate than WWII anti-aircraft guns. One can think of any number of other ways to knock out a fighter in the trench that would be more effective. A row of weapons mounted in the floor of the trench, spaced closer than a fighter’s size, firing straight up at the appropriate time. Even simpler, fill the trench with a cloud of two-inch steel cubes at the appropriate time. Or use big f**king nets.
New weapons technology appeared unannounced. A physics-defying weapon was required to make the shot. How many hundred Gs did the “missile” pull when it made that right-angle turn into the thermal port opening? Luke’s shot is the first time that there’s even a suggestion that either side has the technology necessary to shoot around corners. And for the second time in the entire sequence, the human guiding the weapon required magic to time that turn; that the targeting systems were inadequate had already been established.
So, how many things did it take for the port to be vulnerable? The screening elements didn’t/couldn’t do their job. The trench-protecting weapons were woefully ineffective. A new shoot-around-corners weapon appeared. And a pilot with magical abilities made the bombing run.
Don’t blame it on the engineer that designed a (probably highly-efficient) straight-line thermal exhaust system.
Image credit: Image copyright LucasFilm Ltd. LLC, distributed by Disney for publicity purposes.