Battlestar Galactica (here meaning the mini series that launched the show, not the 4-season show itself) is based around an extremely large battleship/carrier spaceship and the crew that serves on her. The Galactica is a vessel more than 50 years old, and was built during a time when humanity was in a life or death struggle with the Cylons—a species of sentient AI and robots.
And, as usual with these reviews:
The Cylons haven’t been seen since the end of that war, and the Galactica is one of the few ships from that time still operating. It’s seemingly backwards and simple technology was dictated by the enemy. Cylons were able to hack into and take over any networked device, which meant that only the simplest weapons could be used to fight them.
We catch the Galactica just at the end of its life, as it’s about to be decommissioned and turned into a museum. It is at that moment that the Cylons strike humanity again by firing nuclear weapons at every major city in the 12 Human Colonies.
The entirety of Humanity’s army is quickly scrambled to fight the Cylons, but they have infiltrated the networks that run all of the current weapons and ships that Humanity has available. By the end of the first episode, only the Galactica (that survived due to it’s old design) and a small flotilla of civilian ships has survived.
The Galactica and its crew then spend the rest of the miniseries attempting to fight their way out of the Cylon ambush to safety.
The Battlestar Galactica’s Combat Information Center, or CIC, is a medical-theater-like room that acts as the military nerve center and brain of the Galactica. It is located near the center of the ship, is heavily armored and protected by armed guards, and has a staff of between 35-50 people.
The two highest ranking officers on the ship, Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh, typically stand at the center of the auditorium around the Command Board. This position lets them hear status reports from around the room, and issue orders to the entire ship.
Various pods of workstations provide seating for the rest of the staff. These stations are grouped by function. We see Navigation crew sitting near other navigation crew, weapons officers near other combat functions, communications near the center, and engineering given a special area up top.
Phone kiosks are placed throughout the CIC, with two high profile kiosks on the Command Board. Large display boards and the central Dradis Console provide information to the entire crew of the CIC.
The CIC is dealing with a lot of information from all over the ship and trying to relate it to the lead officers who are making decisions. There is a lot of activity related to this information overload, but the design of the CIC has organized it into a reasonably effective flow.
Teams communicate with each other, then that decision flows forward to lead officers, who relate it to Admiral Adama.
Orders flow in the opposite direction.
Admiral Adama can very quickly shout out an order from the center of the CIC and have his lead officers hear it all around him. It can also act as a failsafe: other officers can also hear the same order and act as a confirmation step. From there, the officers can organize their teams to distribute more detailed orders to the entire ship.
Large screens show information that the entire CIC needs to know, while smaller screens display information for specific crew or groups.
Overall, the stadium-like construction of the CIC works well for the low tech approach that the Galactica takes after. Without introducing automation and intelligent computer networks onto the bridge, there is little that could be done to improve the workflow.
Faster than light travel (FTL) is a(n as-yet) fictional trope that is used to allow stories to happen on scales larger than a single solar system. Nothing we’ve found so far indicates that faster than light travel is possible, let alone practical, but it makes things like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica possible as stories.
As noted on TV Tropes, there are three broad ‘favorites’ when it comes to FTL:
“Warp” Drives: the ship distorts space around it to go really fast, so it stays in this universe but breaks the laws of physics in ways we haven’t figured out how to yet. Star Trek has made this a household word.
“Jump” Drives: the ship finds itself in a special point in space, does some math, pushes a button, and appears instantly at its destination. This is the kind that the Galactica uses.
“Hyperdrives”: the ship somehow breaks out of our current universe into a place where the ‘speed of light’ is faster. Star Wars and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy prefer this type of FTL.
The Battlestar Galactica has at least two Faster-than-Light engines (which might be easier to think of as teleportation engines), activated during a complex sequence. The sequence involves:
An explicit, direct command from Commander Adama
Complex calculations on dedicated computers
Double-checking by a large portion of the CIC staff
and finally, a dedicated key and button to initiate the actual jump
Making an FTL jump is not a standard procedure for the Galactica, and it is implied that it has been decades since the ship carried out an actual jump. This is because of the danger in landing off-course, the difficulty in the calculations, and wear on what is likely a very expensive component. We see that many civilian ships do not have FTL capability.
The FTL engine allows the Galactica to instantly travel between one point in the star system, and another point in the star system. Dense books of pre-made calculations are kept in the Galactica’s CIC to enter into the ship’s FTL computers.
Multiple teams each begin separate calculations, using the Galactica’s FTL computers as giant calculators for their hand-written/typed equations. The teams then cross-check their answers against each other, using a senior officer (in this case, Lt. Gaeta) as the final confirmation.
Once all teams agree on an FTL jump coordinate, the information is plugged into a separate system to “spool up” the FTL drive.
Lt. Gaeta then pulls out a special key that fits into a dedicated slot in the FTL system in the CIC. The key has two cylindrical pins that each glow a distinct blue, and are each different lengths. The handle of the key has a matching shape on the console as well, so that the key can only fit in one way.
Once the key is inserted, Lt. Gaeta turns the key and announces that the FTL drive is active. Commander Adama then gives the order to jump, and Lt. Gaeta pushes a separate button (which has until now been inactive) that jumps the Galactica to the coordinates entered.
After the Galactica finishes its FTL Jump, Commander Adama asks for confirmation that they have arrived successfully at their destination. Lt. Gaeta runs across the CIC to a navigation console and checks the screen there for the ship’s location. From the information on that screen, Lt. Gaeta confirms that the Galactica has re-entered real space at exactly the place they were intended to be. (Or might report an error, but we never see this.)
The entire CIC lets out a breath of relief and begins clapping in celebration. Lt. Gaeta congratulates his navigation team for their work, and the CIC slowly resumes their task of running the ship. The CIC crew is clearly unnerved by the jump, and everyone is thankful when they arrive safely at their destination.
The Current Position Screen
This is the screen that Lt. Gaeta uses to confirm that they have successfully landed at their current target: geosynchronous orbit above their target body of mass. He does not visibly use any of the controls on the console. The screen autonomously zooms in on the ‘X’ marker, then displays a large, red, blinking triangle with “BSG 75” written above it (The Battlestar Galactica’s registry code). The red ‘X’ is written inside a large sphere, which appears to be the object the Galactica was attempting to jump to.
All of the lines on this graph describe arcs, and appear to be orbital paths. The Galactica is marked as being directly on one of these arcs. Dotted arcs connect many other objects on the screen to each other. These have no clear purpose or legend.
At the bottom center of the screen are the words “Waypoint Time”, “Waypoint Distance”, and “T.O.T.” Above those words is a small label: “Synthetic Gravity Field 74.56”. To the left of those words is an area of data that has been boxed off with the label “Optic Nav System Control.”
More text to the top left lists out information in a table format, but is unreadable to the viewer due to the resolution of the screens in the CIC. The two rows of data beside the labels do not have column headers or unit indicators.
The FTL Jump process on the Galactica has several safeguards, all appropriate for a ship of that size and an action of that danger (late in the series, we see that an inappropriate jump can cause major damage to nearby objects). Only senior officers can start the process, multiple teams all sign off on the calculations, and dedicated computers are used for potentially damaging computations.
Even the actual ‘jump’ requires a two stage process with an extremely secure key and button combination. It is doubtful that Lt. Gaeta’s key could be used on any other ship aside from the Galactica.
The process is so effective, and the crew is so well trained at it, that even after two decades of never actually using the FTL system, the Galactica is able to make a pinpoint jump under extreme duress (the beginning of human extinction).
The one apparent failure in this system is the confirmation process after the FTL jump. Lt. Gaeta has to run all the way across the CIC and personally check a small screen with less than obvious information.
Of the many problems with the nav’s confirmation screen, three stand out:
It is a 2d representation of 3d space, without any clear references to how information has been compacted
There are no ‘local zero’ showing the system’s plane or relative inclination of orbits
No labels on data
Even the most basic orbital navigation system has a bit more information about Apogee, Perigee, relative orbit, and a gimbal reading. Compare to this chart from the Kerbal Space Program:
The Galactica would need at least this much information to effectively confirm their location. For Lt. Gaeta, this isn’t a problem because of his extensive training and knowledge of the Galactica.
But the Galactica is a warship and would be expected to experience casualties during combat. Other navigation officers and crew may not be as experienced or have the same training as Lt. Gaeta. In a situation where he is incapacitated and it falls to a less experienced member of the crew, an effective visual display of location and vector is vital.
Simplicity isn’t always perfect
This is an example of where a bit more information in the right places can make an interface more legible and understandable. Some information here looks useless, but may be necessary for the Galactica’s navigation crew. With the extra information, this display could become useful for crew other than Lt. Gaeta.
The Captain’s Board is a double hexagon table at the very center of the CIC. This board serves as a combination of podium and status dashboard for the ship’s Captain. Often, the ship’s XO or other senior officers will move forward and use a grease pen or replacement transparency sheet to update information on the board.
For example, after jumping from their initial position to the fleet supply base in the nebula, Colonel Tigh replaces the map on the ‘left’ side of the board with a new map of the location that the Galactica had just jumped to. This implies that the Galactica has a cache of maps in the CIC of various parts of the galaxy, or can quickly print them on the fly.
After getting hit by a Cylon fighter’s nuclear missile, Tigh focuses on a central section of the board with a grease pen to mark the parts of the Galactica suffering damage or decompression. The center section of the board has a schematic, top-down view of the Galactica.
During the initial fighting, Lt. Gaeda is called forward to plot the location of Galactica’s combat squadrons on the board. This hand-drawn method is explicitly used, even when the Dradis system is shown to be functioning.
The transparency sheets are labeled with both a region and a sector: in this case, “Caprica Region, SECT OEL”. More text fills the bottom of the label: “Battlestar Galactica Starchart…”
Several panels of physical keys and low-resolution displays ring the board, but we never see any characters interacting with them. They do not appear to change during major events or during shifts in the ship status.
The best use of these small displays would be to access reference data with a quick search or wikipedia-style database. Given what we see in the show, it is likely that it was just intended as fuigetry.
Charts and maps are an old interface that has been well developed over the course of human history. Modern ships still use paper charts and maps to track their current location as a backup to GPS.
Given the Galactica’s mission to stay active even in the face of complete technological superiority of the opponent, a map-based backup to the Dradis makes sense in spite of the lack of detailed information it might need to provide. It is best as, and should be, a worst-case backup.
Here, the issue becomes the 3-dimensional space that the Galactica inhabits. The maps do an excellent job of showing relationships in a two dimensional plane, but don’t represent the ‘above’ and ‘below’ at all.
In those situations, perhaps something like a large fish tank metaphor might work better, but wouldn’t allow for quick plotting of distance and measurements by hand. Instead, perhaps something more like the Pin Table from the 2000 X-Men movie that could be operated by hand:
It would provide a shake-resistant, physical, no-electricity needed 3-D map of the surrounding area. Markups could be easily accomplished with a sticky-note-like flag that could attach to the pins.
After the Galactica takes a nuclear missile hit to its port launch bay, part of the CIC goes into Damage Control mode. Chief Tyrol and another officer take up a position next to a large board with a top-down schematic of the Galactica. The board has various lights in major sections of the ship representing various air-tight modules in the ship.
After the nuclear hit, the port launch bay is venting to space, bulkheads are collapsing in due to the damage, and there are uncontrolled fires. In those blocks, the lights blink red.
Colonel Tigh orders the red sections sealed off and vented to space. When Tigh turns his special damage control key in the “Master Vent” control, the lights disappear until the areas are sealed off again. When the fires go out and the master vents are closed, the lights return to a green state.
On the board then, the lights have three states:
Green: air-tight, healthy
Blinking Red: Fire
Off: Intentional Venting
There does not appear to be any indications of the following states:
Damage Control Teams in the area
Open to space/not air-tight
We also do not see how sections are chosen to be vented.
Why it works
The most effective pieces here are the red lights and the “vent” key. Chief Tyrol has a phone to talk to local officers managing the direct crisis, and can keep a basic overview of the problems on the ship (with fire being the most dangerous) with the light board. The “vent” key is likewise straightforward, and has a very clear “I’m about to do something dangerous” interaction.
What is confusing are the following items:
How does Chief Tyrol determine which phone/which officer he’s calling?
Who is the highest ranking officer in the area?
How does the crew determine which sections they’re going to vent?
How do they view more complex statuses besides “this section is on fire”?
As with other systems on the Galactica, the board could be improved with the use of more integrated systems like automatic sensors, display screens to cycle through local cameras, and tracking systems for damage control crew. Also as with other systems on the Galactica, these were deliberate omissions to prevent the Cylons from being able to control the Galactica.
One benefit of the simplified system is that it keeps Chief Tyrol thinking of the high-level problem instead of trying to micromanage his local damage control teams. With proper training, local teams with effective leadership and independent initiative are more effective than a large micro-managed organization. Chief Tyrol can focus on the goals he needs his teams to accomplish:
Putting out fires
Evacuating local crew
Protecting the ship from secondary explosions
…and allow his local teams to focus on the tactics of each major goal.
What it’s missing
A glaring omission here is the lack of further statuses. In the middle of a crisis, Chief Tyrol could easily lose track of individual teams on his ship. He knows the crews that are in the Port Hangar Bay, but we never hear about the other damage control teams and where they are. Small reminders or other status indicators would keep the Chief from needing to remember everything that was happening across the ship. Even a box of easily-grabbed sticky notes or a grease-pen board would help here and be very low-tech.
Possible indicators include:
Secondary lights in each section when a damage control crew was in the area
A third color indicator (less optimal, but would take up less space on the board)
A secondary board with local reports of damage crew location and progress
Low oxygen states
High oxygen states (higher fire risk)
It is also possible that Colonel Tigh would have taken the local crews into consideration when making his decision if he could have seen where they were for himself on the board, instead of simply hearing Chief Tyrol’s protests about their existence. Reducing feedback loops can make decision making less error prone and faster, but can admittedly introduce single points of failure.
Colonel Tigh and Chief Tyrol are able to get control of the situation with the tools at hand, but minor upgrades could have lessened the stress of the situation and allowed both of them to think clearer before jumping to decisions. Better systems would have given them all the information they needed, but the Galactica’s purpose limited them for the benefit of the entire ship.
Dradis is the primary system that the Galactica uses to detect friendly and enemy units beyond visual range. The console appears to have a range of at least one light second (less than the distance from Earth to the Moon), but less than one light minute (one/eighth the distance from Earth to the Sun).
How can we tell? We know that it’s less than one light minute because Galactica is shown orbiting a habitable planet around a sun-like star. Given our own solar system, we would have at least some indication of ships on the Dradis at that range and the combat happening there (which we hear over the radios). We don’t see those on the Dradis.
We know that it’s at least one light second because Galactica jumps into orbit (possibly geosynchronous) above a planet and is able to ‘clear’ the local space of that planet’s orbit with the Dradis
The sensor readings are automatically interpreted into Friendly contacts, Enemy contacts, and missiles, then displayed on a 2d screen emulating a hemisphere. A second version of the display shows a flat 2d view of the same information.
Friendly contacts are displayed in green, while enemy units (Cylons) are displayed in red. The color of the surrounding interface changes from orange to red when the Galactica moves to Alert Stations.
The Dradis is displayed on four identical displays above the Command Table, and is viewable from any point in the CIC. ‘Viewable’ here does not mean ‘readable’. The small size, type, and icons shown on the screen are barely large enough to be read by senior crew at the main table, let alone officers in the second or third tier of seating (the perspective of which we see here).
It is possible that these are simply overview screens to support more specific screens at individual officer stations, but we never see any evidence of this.
Whatever the situation, the Dradis needs to be larger in order to be readable throughout the CIC and have more specific screens at officer stations focused on interpreting the Dradis.
As soon as a contact appears on the Dradis screen, someone (who appears to be the Intelligence Officer) in the CIC calls out the contact to reiterate the information and alert the rest of the CIC to the new contact. Vipers and Raptors are seen using a similar but less powerful version of the Galactica’s sensor suite and display. Civilian ships like Colonial One have an even less powerful or distinct radar system.
2d display of 3d information
The largest failing of the Dradis system is in its representation of the hemisphere. We never appear to see the other half of the sphere. Missing half the data is pretty serious. Theoretically, the Galactica would be at the center of a bubble of information, instead of picking an arbitrary ‘ground plane’ and showing everything in a half-sphere above that (cutting out a large amount of available information).
The Dradis also suffers from a lack of context: contacts are displayed in 3 dimensions inside the view, but only have 2 dimensions of reference on the flat screen in the CIC. For a reference on an effective 3d display on a 2d screen, see Homeworld’s (PC Game, THQ and Relic) Sensor Manager:
In addition to rotation of the Sensor Manager (allowing different angles of view depending on the user’s wishes), the Sensor Manager can display reference lines down to a ‘reference plane’ to show height above, and distance from, a known point. In Homeworld, this reference point is often the center of the selected group of units, but on the Dradis it would make sense for this reference point to be the Galactica herself.
Overall, the crew of the Galactica never seems to be inhibited by this limitation. The main reasons they could be able to work around this limitation include:
Effective communication between crew members
Experience operating with limited information.
This relies heavily on the crew operating at peak efficiency during an entire combat encounter. That is a lot to ask from anyone. It would be better to improve the interface and lift the burden off of a possibly sleep deprived crewmember.
The Dradis itself displays information effectively about the individual contacts it sees. This isn’t visible at the distances involved in most CIC activities, but would be visible on personal screens easily. Additionally, the entire CIC doesn’t need to know every piece of information about each contact.
In any of those three cases, crew efficiency would be improved (and misunderstandings would be limited) by improving how the Dradis displayed its contacts on its screen.
The phone system aboard the Galactica is a hardwired system that can be used in two modes: Point-to-point, and one-to-many. The phones have an integrated handset wired to a control box and speaker. The buttons on the control box are physical keys, and there are no automatic voice controls.
In Point-to-point mode, the phones act as a typical communication system, where one station can call a single other station. In the one-to-many mode the phones are used as a public address system, where a single station can broadcast to the entire ship.
The phones are also shown acting as broadcast speakers. These speakers are able to take in many different formats of audio, and are shown broadcasting various different feeds:
Ship-wide Alerts (“Action Stations!”)
Local alarms (Damage control/Fire inside a specific bulkhead)
Radio Streams (pilot audio inside the launch prep area)
Addresses (calling a person to the closest available phone)
Each station is independent and generic. Most phones are located in public spaces or large rooms, with only a few in private areas. These private phones serve the senior staff in their private quarters, or at their stations on the bridge.
In each case, the phone stations are used as kiosks, where any crewmember can use any phone. It is implied that there is a communications officer acting as a central operator for when a crewmember doesn’t know the appropriate phone number, or doesn’t know the current location of the person they want to reach.
There is not a single advanced piece of technology inside the phone system. The phones act as a dirt-simple way to communicate with a place, not a person (the person just happens to be there while you’re talking).
The largest disadvantage of this system is that it provides no assistance for its users: busy crewmembers of an active warship. These crew can be expected to need to communicate in the heat of battle, and quickly relay orders or information to a necessary party.
This is easy for the lower levels of crewmembers: information will always flow up to the bridge or a secondary command center. For the officers, this task becomes more difficult.
First, there are several crewmember classes that could be anywhere on the ship:
Without broadcasting to the entire ship, it could be extremely difficult to locate these specific crewmembers in the middle of a battle for information updates or new orders.
The primary purpose of the Galactica was to fight the Cylons: sentient robots capable of infiltrating networked computers. This meant that every system on the Galactica was made as basic as possible, without regard to its usability.
The Galactica’s antiquated phone system does prevent Cylon infiltration of a communications network aboard an active warship. Nothing the phone system does requires executing outside pieces of software.
A very basic upgrade to the phone system that could provide better usability would be a near-field tag system for each crew member. A passive near-field chip could be read by a non-networked phone terminal each time a crew member approached near the phone. The phone could then send a basic update to a central board at the Communications Center informing the operators of where each crewmember is. Such a system would not provide an attack surface (a weakness for them to infiltrate) for the enemy, and make finding officers and crew in an emergency situation both easier and faster: major advantages for a warship.
The near field sensors would add a second benefit, in that only registered crew could access specific terminals. As an example, the Captain and senior staff would be the only ones allowed to use the central phone system.
Brutally efficient hardware
The phone system succeeds in its hardware. Each terminal has an obvious speaker that makes a distinct sound each time the terminal is looking for a crewmember. When the handset is in use, it is easy to tell which side is up after a very short amount of training (the cable always comes out the bottom).
It is also obvious when the handset is active or inactive. When a crewmember pulls the handset out of its terminal, the hardware makes a distinctive audible and physical *click* as the switch opens a channel. The handset also slots firmly back into the terminal, making another *click* when the switch deactivates. This is very similar to a modern-day gas pump.
With a brief amount of training, it is almost impossible to mistake when the handset activates and deactivates.
For a ship built in the heat of war at a rapid pace, the designers focused on what they could design quickly and efficiently. There is little in the way of creature comforts in the Phone interface.
Minor additions in technology or integrated functionality could have significantly improved the interface of the phone system, and may have been integrated into future ships of the Galactica’s line. Unfortunately, we never see if the military designers of the Galactica learned from their haste.
The Viper is the primary space fighter of the Colonial Fleet. It comes in several varieties, from the Mark II (shown above), to the Mark VII (the latest version). Each is made for a single pilot, and the controls allow the pilot to navigate short distances in space to dogfight with enemy fighters.
Mark II Viper Cockpit
The Mark II Viper is an analog machine with a very simple Dradis, physical gauges, and paper flight plans. It is a very old system. The Dradis sits in the center console with the largest screen real-estate. A smaller needle gauge under the Dradis shows fuel levels, and a standard joystick/foot pedal system provides control over the Viper’s flight systems.
Mark VII Viper Cockpit
The Viper Mk VII is a mostly digital cockpit with a similar Dradis console in the middle (but with a larger screen and more screen-based controls and information). All other displays are digital screens. A few physical buttons are scattered around the top and bottom of the interface. Some controls are pushed down, but none are readable. Groups of buttons are titled with text like “COMMS CIPHER” and “MASTER SYS A”.
Eight buttons around the Dradis console are labeled with complex icons instead of text.
When the Mk VII Vipers encounter Cylons for the first time, the Cylons use a back-door computer virus to completely shut down the Viper’s systems. The screens fuzz out in the same manner as when Apollo gets caught in an EMP burst.
The Viper Mk VII is then completely uncontrollable, and the pilot’s’ joystick-based controls cease to function.
Overall, the Viper Mk II is set up similarly to a WWII P-52 Mustang or early production F-15 Eagle, while the Viper Mk VII is similar to a modern-day F-16 Falcon or F-22 Raptor.
The Viper is a single seat starfighter, and appears to excel in that role. The pilots focus on their ship, and the Raptor pilots following them focus on the big picture. But other items, including color choice, font choice, and location are an issue.
Otherwise, Items appear a little small, and it requires a lot of training to know what to look for on the dashboards. Also, the black lines radiating from the large grouper labels appear to go nowhere and provide no extra context or grouping. Additionally, the controls (outside of the throttle and joystick) require quite a bit of reach from the seat.
Given that the pilots are accelerating at 9+ gs, reaching a critical control in the middle of a fight could be difficult. Hopefully, the designers of the Vipers made sure that ‘fighting’ controls are all within arms reach of the seat, and that the controls requiring more effort are secondary tasks.
Similarly, all-caps text is the hardest to read at a glance, and should be avoided for interfaces like the Viper that require quick targeting and actions in the middle of combat. The other text is very small, and it would be worth doing a deeper evaluation in the cockpit itself to determine if the font size is too small to read from the seat.
If anyone reading this blog has an accurate Viper cockpit prop, we’d be happy to review it!
Fighter pilots in the Battlestar Galactica universe have quick reflexes, excellent vision, and stellar training. They should be allowed to use all of those abilities for besting Cylons in a dogfight, instead of being forced to spend time deciphering their Viper’s interface.