Design Engineering

Editorial Viewpoint: Force Powers

Mike McLeod   

Like many Star Wars fans, you may be puzzled over how the Death Star’s designers could overlook such a fatal flaw in their schematics.

Photo courtesy of Flying Cloud

Shown a picture of the Death Star from the Star Wars series, could you say with certainty where on its surface the trench is located? If your first thought was, “what trench?” then you’re clearly not a mechanical engineer.

However, if you thought, “Of course, it runs around the middle of the Death Star like an equator,” then one: You’re wrong and two: You were most likely a kid in 1977 when you were entranced by the original Star Wars movie for the first time. You probably also geeked out about the movie, the background characters, the vaguely alluded to cultures and planets, and so on.

And, like many Star Wars fans, you may have puzzled over how the Death Star’s designers could overlook such a fatal flaw in their schematics. As anyone who has seen the recent Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, knows, the answer (spoiler alert) is that it wasn’t a flaw at all but rather done intentionally.

However, for nearly 40 years, prior to Rogue One’s release, people have consciously or unconsciously assumed some team of fictional imperial engineers made a mistake (or that George Lucas simply couldn’t think of a better plot device). Whatever the reason, it seemed a big enough issue to the people who make such decisions that the plot of another movie should revolve around clearing that point up.


While Rogue One portrays the Death Star’s flaw as subversively intentional, a more realistic scenario would have been that one or more imperial engineers spotted the problem, called it to management’s attention and then were either ignored or pressured to doctor their results. After all, who wants to be the whistle blower when commanders are getting Force choked? It would be easy to understand their reluctance to make a stink.

In the real world, barring any serious quality assurance oversight, too many seeming engineering failures are due to ethical compromises rather than technical incompetence. Under pressure to meet deadlines or budget constraints, engineers may be tempted to think more like accountants, or simply let an issue go rather than risk the wrath of their bosses and the subsequent career consequences of being labelled “the stickler.”

Those outside the profession may not appreciate the considerable creativity, technical knowledge, attention to detail and, often, moral courage it takes to be an engineer. In the end, the general public counts on engineers to use their Force powers for good and protect them from what they don’t understand. After all, stormtrooper TK 421 probably didn’t understand the potential danger posed by a thermal exhaust port leading directly to the Death Star’s main reactor; he simply trusted that whoever designed the Death Star did.

By the way, if you answered the question about the trench, “Weren’t you listening during General Dodonna’s pre-mission briefing? The trench runs longitudinally from just above that massive dish-like weapons array to up towards the Death Star’s ‘northern’ pole, sheesh,” then you’re definitely a fan, probably an engineer and it may be time to move out of your parents’ basement.

Mike McLeod - Editor (laws of robotics)


– Mike McLeod, Editor

I enjoy hearing from you so please contact me at and your letter could be published in an upcoming issue.



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