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Rick Sternbach
(Interview conducted via email in June 2001)

Rick Sternbach has made many contributions to the science-fiction art world. From print media to television and feature films, his unique combination of artistic talent and technical knowhow bring both aesthetic appeal and a heightened sense of verisimilitude to his designs. A member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists, Sternbach has created images of spacecraft of the past, present, and possible futures, and of both fact and fiction. Perhaps Sternbach's most famous design is the USS Voyager from Star Trek: Voyager.

Click here to visit Rick Sternbach's web site.

Tyler: Tell me about yourself. (e.g. where/when born, education, hobbies, etc.)
Sternbach: I was born and raised in Connecticut in the early 1950s, a solidly middle class postwar Baby Boomer. My dad was an architect and my mom was a registered nurse, and from a very early age I was exposed to science, technology, and art. As a kid, I climbed all over steam locomotives, went to airports to see planes take off and land, got taken to lots of museums like the Franklin Institute, read books about space travel before there was such a thing, and absorbed huge amounts of television viewing, and newspaper reading. The space flight interest was pretty much my own doing, because my dad was feeding me other things to tinker with, particularly electric trains. I'd have to guess that it was mostly the repeated viewings of movies like Destination Moon and Forbidden Planet, seeing the art of Chesley Bonestell and Jack Coggins and Mel Hunter, and experiencing the real-life explosion in the sciences that crystallized it all for me. The flights of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo (and news of the Soviet flights) were terrific to follow all through school. I began attending the University of Connecticut starting in 1969 as an art major, switched in midstream to biology, and then left in 1972 to begin illustrating books and magazines because I found I really could draw and paint the way my dad had hoped. Regardless of the impulsive and ultimately aborted bio major switch, space flight continued to drive me, because by the time my first cover illustration appeared in 1973, I had already attended three Apollo launches at the Cape; Apollo 11 from nine miles away, Apollo 13 from the Kennedy Space Center press site, and Apollo 17 from offshore on a science conference cruise ship. In a few scant years, I had met dozens of scientists, engineers, and science fiction writers, and the stage was set to plunge headlong into space and SF art.
Tyler: How did you become interested in art and design?
Sternbach: The specifics of my interest in art and design go back to the drawing and machine influences from my dad. He taught me how to draw, how to do shading and coloring. Pretty obvious bits of knowledge for an architect to pass along. I became fascinated with mechanisms, electricity, pyrotechnics, military equipment, all the typical guy things. I know now that once you learn how a steam locomotive works, you can figure out anything. Even computers, in a weirdly logical way. I've also learned that you can't separate art and engineering and science; it's all part of the same universe. There is beauty in a finely crafted machine like a Saturn V or a Ferrari just as there is beauty in a painting by Monet or a sculpture by Michaelangelo.
Tyler: How did you become involved in cover illustration for magazines such as Galaxy Science Fiction and Analog?
Sternbach: When it became apparent in 1972 that my art might actually be good enough to publish, I had already known G. Harry Stine, a former White Sands missile engineer who had moved to Connecticut from New Mexico some years earlier. Harry had instructed me and hundreds (ultimately thousands?) of others in the fine art of model rocketry, actually going back to 1964. Harry gave me the engineering to go with my dad's tutelage in art. I had been working up a lot of tempera paintings and pen sketches of space flight subjects and showed them to Harry, who in turn showed them to Ben Bova, then editor of Analog. Ben took a chance on giving me a cover to go with one of Harry's articles in 1973, and the professional jobs began coming in.
Tyler: What or who are sources of inspiration in your designs?
Sternbach: I mentioned Chesley Bonestell, who really is the deity to most every one of us who has pursued space art. Bob McCall is another of the prolific artists who understands the link between art and technology and whose sweeping canvases must be seen in person to be appreciated. No doubt Syd Mead has also played a key role in driving shape and color into my brain. Ralph McQuarrie has a rich artistic sense and a great knowledge of hardware. Of my colleagues in organizations like the International Association of Astronomical Artists, I look to Don Davis, Don Dixon, Paul Hudson, Ron Miller, Pat Rawlings, and Aldo Spadoni. All of these people understand the designs and the place of technology in the world (and off it), and people's relationship to that technology, and a few of them are real rocket scientists.
Tyler: How much creative freedom have you had working on Star Trek versus working on covers for science-fiction magazines, or other artistic venues?
Sternbach: Every job has a different set of requirements and a different set of personalities, but I must say that over the fourteen continuous years of working Trek from TNG onward, I've had a huge amount of freedom, due mainly to the fact that the producers trusted me and the other members of the art department to know what Trek needed from a design standpoint, and soon thereafter, what Trek needed in the science and technology areas. Yes, there have been times when either the art director or the producers or the visual effects folks required something specific that I didn't exactly agree with, but those times were quite few and far between. I didn't run the show; I gave them what they wanted, but I also tried to educate them where I could about things I knew something about. It was somewhat similar in print media, though because I was working in such a niche market, my editors and art directors left it to me most of the time to come up with art that would sell books and magazines.
Tyler: How did you become involved in Hollywood?
Sternbach: In a change of direction similar to my notion to become a marine biologist, I started looking into film and TV work late in 1976. Star Wars hadn't come out yet, but I saw Ralph McQuarrie's paintings and my jaw dropped. Lucas had hired a Boeing aerospace artist to do science fiction designs, and I thought, there ought to be a way. The short story is that I moved to California in 1977, worked for a bit for Disney, did a few more cover paintings, visited briefly with Joe Jennings at Paramount (where the Star Trek II TV series was moving along slowly), and began preliminary work on the PBS series COSMOS.
Tyler: What are your memories of Gene Roddenberry?
Sternbach: Gene always struck me as terribly interested in science and technology and space flight, and quite sincere about it. I first met him in New Haven at a showing of "The Cage" at Yale University, and after the showing, we sat in his hotel room for about an hour talking about the future. Remember, the triumphs of the Apollo program were still fresh in our minds, despite the flights being cut off after 17, the shuttle was a reality that was rapidly building, the joint Apollo-Soyuz flight was in the works, and Skylab was still flying. We were in heady times, and a new Star Trek would have been just perfect, though as we know it would take a little longer for that to happen. Gene has often been described as a visionary, and I would have to agree with that. I can't say I envied the producer's workload he had to shoulder, but I was definitely impressed with the things he did to promote space travel and the idea of the optimistic future. Unfortunately, times have changed and his successors haven't done anything nearly as memorable.
Tyler: How much influence have earlier incarnations of Star Trek had on your designs?
Sternbach: All of the designs and concepts from the original series provided a wonderful foundation for the things we did on The Motion Picture and every series and feature to follow. It gave me an anchor point from which to evolve the hardware, from the largest ships to the smallest hand props. In TOS, the earliest notions of warp drive, subspace communication, future weaponry, and computing may not have been worked out to the same level of exacting detail as later efforts, but we were able to build on those fledgling mechanisms and procedures, partly for our own satisfaction and partly to instruct the writers on how things worked so they wouldn't need to reinvent the wheel. Back in the TOS days, the writers and producers actually talked to respectable scientists and engineers about the technology, and the 24th century systems we take for granted today were born.
Tyler: How did you become involved in Star Trek: The Motion Picture? What were some of your responsibilities on ST:TMP?
Sternbach: I got involved by leaving my resume with Joe Jennings back in 1977, when he had no work for me on the Phase II TV series. In April 1978, Joe called to offer me an illustrator position on TMP, the day before Paramount announced the feature. I worked alongside Mike Minor, the lead illustrator, on various bits of set sketching, prop designs, and a lot of control panel graphics and shipboard signage. Ships and other spacecraft weren't part of the mix because those were already well underway for the Phase II series by the time I came on board. I worked up the controls for Chekov's weapons station, the travel pod, some bridge controls, and signs attached to the set walls. I also designed a few electronic clipboards for propmaster Dick Ruben. I helped Mike Minor with some of the readout animations, particularly the asteroid and wormhole bits, which were shot on an animation stand on the lot over at Howard Anderson Co. V'ger, based on a NASA Voyager probe, was fun because I was able to zero in on the right folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to obtain a full set of engineering drawings of the probe, which set designer Dick McKenzie worked up into the full size (and nicely modified) V'ger set piece. JPL and other NASA field centers were helpful in providing a lot of techy computer graphics in the days when only they had access to the hardware. We were even offered some actual backup cameras for the Mariner 9 Mars probe as props, but I cautioned that we probably couldn't afford to insure them. To return to what I said about Gene, he came out to JPL with us, and looked and listened and asked questions, and then told us to go do what we needed to do to.
Tyler: How did you become involved in Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Sternbach: The story I usually tell is that late in 1986, when Paramount announced TNG, I heard it over the radio while driving on the freeway, pulled off to a pay phone, and talked to Susan Sackett, Gene's assistant, all within about 25 seconds. I had a few meetings with Bob Justman, Gene, Dorothy Fontana, and David Gerrold, left my portfolio, and was officially hired on in January of 1987. Andy Probert and I were the first two artists brought in, even before an art director, and for the first few months we worked up a foamcore model of the bridge and hundreds of sketches of all the things a good Star Trek production should have. We initially worked up generic items, but eventually we got into story-specific sets and props for "Encounter at Farpoint."
Tyler: Does working on a Star Trek production take away some of the "magic" that is seen in the eyes of the typical viewer?
Sternbach: Not really. Sure, we know how the story usually ends, and we get to watch filming on stage and how the models or CGI elements are produced, but it's still fun to watch the final edited show with the music and effects. It might be different for the editors or producers, who watch these things over and over until it's time to pump them to the satellite, but for most of us it's a new experience each week. It's actually been a lot of fun seeing how something we've created gets worked in.
Tyler: What have been some of your favorite contributions to Star Trek?
Sternbach: As I've said a few times, the U.S.S. Voyager has to be my favorite ship and as such my favorite thing in Trek. Other favorite ships and props would fill a few pages, but generally I'm amazingly happy with the Delta Flyer, Klingon Attack Cruiser, Mars Orbiter, Galor class Cardassian warship, Jupiter Station, the phasers, communicators, tricorders, and other standard equipment of Star Trek. Some vehicles and hardware not often talked about but close to my heart are the space elevator from "Rise!," Gegan's research vessel, timeships Aeon and Relativity, Hirogen training base, a few of our stasis chambers, and the Romulan disruptor.
Tyler: A number of Star Trek technical publications were made during the 1970s and 1980s. Did any of those influence the technical side of "canon" Star Trek as it began to develop during Star Trek: The Next Generation? Some fans have expressed a concern that newer Star Trek technical material often contradicts earlier material, such as Franz Joseph's Star Fleet Technical Manual and Star Trek Blueprints, and Shane Johnson's Mr. Scott's Guide to the Enterprise.
Sternbach: Well, I've given up on the term "canon," since even the series and feature writers have contradicted themselves and earlier material, either from not researching, not remembering, or simply ignoring potential conflicts in favor of making a dramatic point. I learned early on that this is not something to get upset about, since you can get so caught up in rationalizing and revising and trying to make sense of it, that you lose sight of the fact that this is just a TV show or a movie. Entertainment companies make these things to entertain. The side effects of creating the Star Trek universe do expand to encompass serious thoughts about the future, about how to attempt interstellar flight, how to make our world better, no doubt about it. All folks like me can do, if I decide to try at all, is to offer the best scientific and technical knowledge I have, or point the writers at people who know what I don't, and hope it makes a difference. As far as the fan- and insider-produced tech info goes, I've attempted to keep things accurate, plausible, and evolved, and have tried to catch the major "errors." I don't want to say "get a life," but would rather tell folks to learn, understand, and discuss, and have fun with it all. Within Star Trek and without; there's a huge world of science and technology going on around us, and you might be surprised how much of it doesn't end up on television because the folks in charge don't know about it.
Tyler: You shared authorship of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual with Michael Okuda. What were some of your specific contributions to that book?
Sternbach: I wrote about half the book and either drew or contracted out about half the illustrations, based on my preliminary sketches. Sections 5 and 6, on the propulsion systems, were particularly fun to work out. The model for the book was the Space Shuttle Press Reference, which at 1000+ pages went into excruciating detail on shuttle systems and structures.
Tyler: You shared authorship of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Technical Manual with Herman Zimmerman and Doug Drexler. What were some of your specific contributions to that book?
Sternbach: In this case, I wrote all of the text, and provided sketches for a handful of the illustrations, mostly hardware that we hadn't seen in depth on the show.
Tyler: What were some of the biggest challenges in drafting the Star Trek: The Next Generation USS Enterprise Blueprints?
Sternbach: The biggest challenge was getting them done! We were in a transition period between being able to do some things adequately on the computer but not all, primarily due to memory and CPU limitations. Fortunately, I used the computer and hand-drawn ink artwork each to the best effect, and merged them. The project could not have been done without the superb talents of Todd Guenther, Jeanne Rogers, and the late Dan Gauthier, all of whom understood ink and computer and technical matters.
Tyler: Where does the starship Voyager keep all those shuttles? Don't the Delta Flyer and Neelix's ship take up most of the space in the shuttlebay?
Sternbach: Jeri Taylor used to say that the Maquis were always down in the lower decks building more shuttles as we used them up in explosions, crashes, et cetera. The weren't all packed neatly in the Shuttlebay during Season 1. I made the case that rare parts, like warp coils, were small enough to stack like new tires in a cargo hold, but the shuttle hulls were made as needed from more common materials.
Tyler: With all that we saw of Voyager's Deck 15 in "Good Shepherd," including a newly created window on the exterior of the ship, is there room in that area anymore for the antimatter storage pods and landing feet?
Sternbach: I placed the "new" window in a spot that didn't conflict with the feet or anything else. There's actually room for a lot of systems and people on Deck 15.
Tyler: If Paramount were to ask you what you'd like to see in a future Star Trek television series or feature film, what would you tell them?
Sternbach: That's unlikely to happen (laughs); but if anyone else asks what I'd like to see, I could give them quite a few pages of concept ideas, I'm sure. There are still lots of Trek stories to tell; perhaps the new show will tell some good ones about the early days. There's nothing I can tell them that they probably haven't already thought about and that would keep within the present producers' style. In the old days of science fiction, Star Trek would have described as "space opera," which is fine; there's a lot of it on TV and at the movies, so we have a lot from which to choose if we want a weekly escape. I'm waiting for something more sophisticated to come along, perhaps another 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or a logical extension of COSMOS, to examine what it will really involve to get humnas out in space. Truth be told, I'm not going to wait for it if I can help make it happen.
Tyler: Is there anything you'd like to say to Star Trek fans, or to science-fiction fans in general?
Sternbach: My thanks go out to all the folks who have watched, and written, and with whom I've sat down over a few beers and enjoyed talking about and creating things no one has ever seen before. The conversations, the exchange of ideas, the explorations are the fuel that will make the future the optimistic one we're all hoping for. From 1966 until now, we've been through some rough spots, but we've also begun that human adventure for real. Let's keep it going.
Note: As of December 2001, Rick Sternbach is reported to be working on the upcoming tenth Star Trek feature film. Congratulations and best wishes, Rick! We look forward to seeing your new designs on the big screen!

Interview copyright 2001 by Greg Tyler and Rick Sternbach.

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