Nostromo: what’s really under that off-axis hooded frame?


Having studied the Nostromo from many angles (literal and figurative) over the years, I’ve amassed quite a few notes from those observations.  And it all started with this photo:

Brian Johnson, next to the 12-foot miniature used for the landing sequence.

This was the clearest photo of the spaceship I found after seeing the movie back in 1979.  And it set my imagination on fire!

Since then, I’ve pondered things like:

  • The Nostromo is such a vast ship to only carry seven crew.  To what are the interior spaces devoted?
  • Can the crew enter the refinery complex through the retractable umbilical seen as the Nostromo disengages from the platform?
  • What is the location of the lift that Dallas, Kane, and Lambert use to reach the planetoid’s surface?
  • Where does the crew sleep while out of hypersleep?
  • How long does the crew normally spend out of hypersleep?
  • Are those diapers the crew wear in hypersleep?
  • What are the observable effects of hypersleep on the crew?
  • How long are the bridge view ports?
  • What is the location of the airlock from which Kane’s body is ejected?
  • Is the boom on the starboard bow a docking tube?
  • Where are the auto-destruct controls found?
  • Where is the shuttle located?
  • How was Kane moved from the airlock to the autodoc?
  • Where is Ash’s science blister located?

Many of these questions have been answered over the years, but there remain several that have not.  I began to think of entertaining ways to arranging and exploring my research, and the first glimmers of a “Nostromo technical manual” entered my imagination.

The task of compiling such is in direct proportion to its subject’s apparent size.  But isn’t that the fun of these fan pursuits?

The idea was inspired by the following:

First, the grand-daddy of them all:  the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, written by Franz Joseph Schnaubelt (Franz Joseph),  originally published in 1975 by Ballantine Books.  The book is presented as an in-universe collection of factual documents in technical note format.  At 192 pages, it covers a wide range of material, from the starships, to navigational concepts, to equipment.

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Expanding on this concept, Lora Johnson (known as Shane Johnson at the time) wrote and illustrated Star Trek Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise.  In its pages can be found coverage of the post-refit USS Enterprise from the viewpoint of the ship’s chief engineer.  It was first printed and published by Pocket Books in 1987.


Then came the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, written by Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda and published in 1991 by Pocket Books (God bless ’em!).



Of course, Rick was Senior Illustrator and Mike was Scenic Art Supervisor during the show’s seven-season run, so not only did they have access to hours of on-screen proofs, they had established most of the background information themselves.

Their technical manual is outstanding in that it uses broad strokes to establish just enough believability, while avoiding the superfluity that breaks that illusion.   It is laid out like the space shuttle technical manual, with diagrams to illustrate key concepts.   I still read it today, admiring its style and enjoying my favorite starship described in a way that pulls together all I’ve seen of it on the show.



The Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual (written by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and published in 1995 by Boxtree Ltd.) is the first reference manual of its kind for the Alien universe, and there was a lot to cover.  Lee pulled it off with style.  The text and diagrams within fill in the blanks for fans of the Colonial Marines, their gear, and vehicles.  It showed us not only what we had seen in the movie, but other in-depth extrapolations into the operations of the Corp.  And he even managed to devote a bit of space to the Nostromo , giving the ship a broader context in which to exist.

And also in the mix is this relic from the past:

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This is a screen grab of the web-mastery of one Ray Fincham (c. 1996), whose ALIEN Legacy website brought together information from the Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual and some info on the cultural influences whose subtexts weave throughout the film.

(For example, did you know that the Nostromo was named after the eponymous character in the Joseph Conrad novel of the same name?)

It has been “a long strange trip” of discovery over the years, but it’s time to dive back in.

My early efforts at Nostromo technical information started back in the late 1990s, with blueprints, as seen here with some other artwork:

Bow view, from the Halcyon model kit plans.
Stern view, from the Halcyon model kit plans.
This started off with the Deck A set plans and went from there, adding things seen and probable, like a lavatory, and large tankage spaces.
Bottom view. This was a real challenge, since the model kit had no bottom view. I took the top view and using White-Out! and an X-acto knife, removed the top view detail and made a photo copy; then I cheated detail back onto it using snips of paneling from a copy of the top view. I hand-drew the thruster quads.
Port cutaway. Using an X-acto knife, I cut the landing feet into separate ‘toes’ and rejoined them to get some idea of what they’d look like retracted into the ship. From this came my understanding of how big that chamber was in the film. I also took a stab at the vast engine room we see from outside engineering.
Top view, from the Halcyon model kit plans. I added the detail panels to the two aft secondary engines, what I think of now as the “hairy legs” effect. This one made it into the Weyland-Yutani Report book.
Portside view, from the Halcyon model kit plans.
When Prometheus showed us how that ship deployed its debarkables, I applied that logic to Nostromo. Here’s the bow view.
In The Book of Alien, there’s a production sketch of an airlock chamber underneath the ship, with extendable lift. Here is my take, supposing the airlock does extend below the ship’s outer hull, but retracts to Deck B.
Here is how I figured out where everyone slept, using on-screen proof and behind-the-scenes photos.
Port cutaway, with White Out! and some cut-n-paste (literally) magic. I drew the inner configuration in MS Paint after scanning the drawing into my PC.
And lately, puzzling away at what’s inside those massive nacelles.
B-Deck. At the time, I imagined the airlock/elevator lift to be portside, guessing from the camera angles in the film as a basis for the decision. I also added another shuttle. Note the retractable starboard docking tube up front.
And port side, with cargo pod deployed.
Here’s a port side view of the turbines that might drive those massive thrusters.
C-Deck. I went a little crazy with maintenance rooms, based on the chambers we saw for the “Jones-shocked” and “Lambert-Parker-meet-their-end” scenes. I included the garage and landing gear chamber where Brett meets his doom.
And a stern view of the cargo pod.
An illustration of my port side lift location. This was corrected when Graham drew his plans.

I did it for myself, really.  The website was an afterthought; a way to learn the new technology and to share what I’d done in a way not previously possibly.  In those days, there was no social media to conveniently connect to and get feedback from large groups, but I established connections with fans across the globe with similar interests.

Only fairly recently have I realized how many others have seen my old site and remember the drawings.

Humbling, that is.

Think about it the next time you wonder if anyone’s paying attention to your website labor of love.  Just because it’s not on the top 10 list of trending items doesn’t mean it’s unnoticed.

As I’ve picked up the threads of the old site and begun this new project, it felt good to share this backstory as it helped sharpen my focus.  This is my fan-tribute to Alien and its creators:  a comprehensive guide to the Nostromo, a framework for exploring the ship, its technical operations, dockside supports, ports of call, and many other systems needed to keep a mining supply chain running smoothly, as depicted or implied in Alien.

Wouldn’t it be neat to consider:

  • What does the Nostromo‘s dry-dock look like?
  • How does the ore get from the planetary mines to the orbital refinery?
  • What does a spaceport that supports these vast towing vehicles look like?
  • What are the environmental impacts of their flight operations in atmosphere?
  • What does the larger space-faring merchant marine industry, in which Nostromo functions, look like?
  • How does the pay-scale work for officers and crew serving on FTL and sub-FTL voyages?
  • What caused the rebellion on Torin Prime, which created an intersection in the lives of Parker and Dallas?
  • What would the personnel documentation of Ripley’s lawsuit with Weyland-Yutani look like?
  • Is there more to the story behind Kane and Elisabeth?
  • What was the impact of the UAS Archangel disaster in Dallas’ personal and professional lives?
  • Were the crew dossiers, presented at Ripley’s inquest, ‘doctored’ to objectify them by presenting the crew in an unattractive light?
  • Since the Nostromo is “out of the Solomons”, would ship-board time be based on SBT, or  Solomon Island Time?

The Nostromo was very richly imagined and well executed in its many forms.   There is plenty from which to work, just limiting oneself to the first film and its special features.

If you are intrigued by these ideas, or want to share some of your own, I welcome constructive input.

In the meantime, I’ll keep you posted…


P.S.  The odd title of this post comes from a line in the Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, describing the “top hat” section of the Nostromo:

An off-axis hood frame mounts the docking latches for towed cargo.

Thanks, Lee.

Also: a Very Special Thanks to Ray Fincham, whose ALIEN Legacy website provided hours of enjoyment for me when I did not have access to the material from any other sources.  Cheers, Ray!  wherever you are…



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