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Old August 10 2013, 02:18 PM   #1
Robert Comsol
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Location: USS Berlin
Oberth Class the missing link between Enterprise and Reliant

Last year I did an analysis and design study of two VFX models from ST III (The Search for Spock) which I felt had been vastly neglected, and which I considered to be long overdue: First the Earth Spacedock, next the Oberth Class.

Both studies were written for a possible website publishing (including footnotes with quotes and annotations) but for a thread publication here at the BBS I omitted information most BBS participants are probably abundantly aware of and restructured the text to keep it shorter:


Because of its ongoing appearances in TNG (most likely because of budget restrictions) there seems to be the widespread assumption that the design of the USS Grissom (or Oberth Class), introduced in the third Star Trek movie, should be a design of the late, but not the early 23rd, and most definitely not the late 22nd Century

I dare to say that this is some sort of retcon bias which we shouldn’t consider as relevant. IMO, it’s only relevant, what the producers of ST III and/or the ILM model builders had in mind to be the backstory for the USS Grissom (and the Oberth Class) as far as we can tell and conclude from the available information. They designed, picked and put in on screen, so they should know best.

What do we know?

With all the major attention attracted by the (then) Klingon Bird of Prey and USS Excelsior in 1984, the press neglected further in-depth coverage of the USS Grissom and so did the subsequent literature.

The August 1984 issue of Cinefex (page 43) merely classified it as a “scout class vehicle” (i.e. smaller ships compared to the “largest and most powerful man-made ships in space” according to The Making of Star Trek).

The June 1987 compilation issue of Cinefantastique illustrated ILM’s originalsize comparison chart (later supplemented with TNG ships by Andrew Probert: This chart specified a length of “395’ O.L.” (395 feet or 120 meters overall length) for the F.S.V. (Federation Survey Vessel) Grissom and the Oberth Class (but its correct size was only shown in the films, including Star Trek VII at the end).

One thing that should really raise a couple of eyebrows is the study model of the Grissom (selected by the Star Trek III producers from different design proposals) that wore the name “VALIANT” (but no NCC registry number whatsoever!).

This looks like a clue what the early 23rd Century “USS Valiant” of the ill-fated Earth mission to Eminiar VII (50 years prior to TOS) could or should have looked like, according to the ILM model makers and/or film producers.

ILM had provided the VFX model of the Reliant but may have felt compelled to provide the (yet) missing design link between the Enterprise and the Reliant, possibly inspired by this original sketch of Matt Jefferies which had been available to everyone owning a copy of The Making of Star Trek.

The film itself provides scarce information: USS Grissom has a warp and impulse drive, a transporter system, sophisticated surface sensors - and armament (otherwise Kirk wouldn’t be wondering if Grissom would open fire on the Enterprise upon its arrival at the Genesis planet).

Neither does the Klingon “Shoot first and ask questions later” policy provide a clue. If the Klingons are familiar with the Oberth Class they just know as James Kirk that the Grissom has armament of some kind. Should it be a new design unknown to the Klingons they wouldn’t know what kind of armament it might have. Thus, to cripple the ship is the only way the Klingons can keep their tactical advantage either way and so their knowledge (new or old design) remains inconclusive.

More revealing is the Klingons’ direct hit on the large bottom pod of the vessel, instantly causing the destruction of the ship and the death of its crew.

Grissom’s Captain Esteban may have been on overcautious “by the book” Starfleet veteran, but he wasn’t insecure and hesitant like Captain Harriman of the Enterprise-B.

On the contrary one may have expected Esteban to either orbit the Genesis planet with permanently active deflector shields or at least to activate these at the first sign of possible trouble. Of course, if your ship doesn’t have strong or any deflector shields because it is an older design, there is little the captain can do but pray (which Esteban did). The hydrodynamic streamline shape of the large pod and the sturdy round caps of the warp nacelles suggest a design that’s rather based on passive than active deflection (i.e. generated shields) of space particles and debris.

Does Grissom’s registration (NCC-638) hint an older ship?

While the details of the registry scheme for the whole of Star Trek seem inconclusive, early ships have a three-digit code (e.g. NCC-173 USS Essex), ships of the mid 23rd Century have a four-digit code and those of the 24th Century usually carry a five-digit-code.
I say that this is how the average Star Trek viewer identifies a ship and its era and there’s no reason to assume that the producers of Star Trek III intended otherwise, IMO.
  • USS Oberth is NCC-602 (Star Trek VI, Operation Retrieve page four)
  • USS Copernicus is NCC-623 (Star Trek IV, renamed and renumbered Grissom model trapped inside Earth Spacedock)
  • USS Tsiolkovsky is NCC-640 (only the model, which could indicate dissent between the creators of the Grissom and the producers of TNG. Who knows better what era the Oberth Class belonged to?)
It would appear that Epsilon Nine’s message to the “scout” USS Columbia (NCC-621) in Star Trek I should also indicate an Oberth Class vessel (at least it has a pair of warp engines ).
And with two of the three fathers of rocket science honored (Oberth and Tsiolkovsky), it stands to reason that one (NCC-601?) bears the name Robert Goddard.

According to Matt Jefferies (the creator of Kirk’s television Enterprise who stated that ”the "Enterprise" was the 17th major [starship] design of the Federation, and the first in the series: 17-01!") the Oberth Class would have been Starfleet’s 6th Starship Class (later downgraded to the Scout Class) and therefore an older one that predates the Enterprise and her sister ships.

Stay tuned for Part II and for an inevitable in-depth design study of the configuration and surface details of the Oberth Class and more. Enjoy!

"The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth" Jean-Luc Picard
"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
Albert Einstein
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