Ships of Exploration :
Santa Maria and Spaceship America

Click here and watch Santa Maria morph into Apollo 17's fleet and SpaceshipAmerica

Columbus's Fleet

Myth: Columbus's ships were specially constructed for the voyage to the New World.
Fact: The Spanish Crown conscripted existing vessels in consideration of a debt.

THE NINA AND PINTA (caravel class)

The three ship fleet of Columbus consisted of two ships known as caravels (Pinta and Nina) and a larger ship which served as Columbus's flag ship. This was the Santa Maria. The Santa Maria was not a caravel. Its design was of the nao configuration. Having shallower drafts, the caravels were more agile in the water than the broader beamed deeper keeled nao type vessels. As a nao, the Santa Maria had the elevated stern and forecastle characterized by the nao class of 15th century sailing vessels.

Ships of medieval exploration had special challenges. Though it was not simply a cargo carrying vessel, it had to journey extremely long distances with enough stores to sustain the lives of the crew. Additionally, it had to be able to sail into the wind, if required. Because it was essential for the vessel to return with the news, it had to be agile and an "overcomer" of perilous seas and storms. Those craft which served well on the Mediterranean with its relatively near shores and modest distances between ports were not well-fitted to ocean exploration.

The design of the caravel was especially suited to distant exploration of the seas. Their "lanteen" (slanting or triangular sails) made the caravel very maneuverable and capable of sailing into the wind. A small vessel, the caravel housed about twenty crew members. Sleeping accommodations were generally deckside with the possibility of going below in the event of inclement weather. Dimensionally, the caravel had a length of approximately 70 beam and beam width of 25 feet. Weight was about 50 tons with two or three masts adorned with lanteen sails. Of course, the caravel could readily be square-rigged as well, i.e. square instead of triangular sails raised on the masts. The Nina and the Pinta were acquired by the Crown from the city of Palos in consideration for a fine owed to the Queen.

Compared to the caravels, Nina and Pinta, the Santa Maria was indeed a "tub" with it ponderous mass, shape, and keel depth. However, it had the advantage of expanded cargo carrying volume as well as stability in heavy storms. But, of course, it was anything but a coastal craft. Its deep draft required it stay safely from shoals adjacent shorelines.

THE SANTA MARIA (nao class)

All discussion of the characteristics of the Santa Maria must begin with the comment: "No one knows exactly what Columbus's mother-ship was like." The best we can determine is to examine similar ships of the era. It is known the ship had a length of 75 feet with a beam (width) of 25 feet. Her draft (depth beneath the surface of the ocean) was 6 feet. There were five sails attached to the vessel's three masts. Most of the driving force of the craft was from the largest mainsail with the remaining sails used for "trimming." Though many mariners viewed the Santa Maria as an adequate vessel for her day, Columbus was not so kind with his assessment, "a dull sailer and unfit for discovery." Because of the deep draft (6 feet), the vessel was not suited for sailing near reefs and shallow island waters. In fact, the craft ran aground off Hispaniola and had to be abandoned.

The Santa Maria was a rented vessel owned by Juan de la Cosa, who sailed with Columbus as the first officer. Formerly, known as the La Gallega since its owner was from Galicia, Columbus renamed the vessel Santa Maria.

Square or Lateen Rigging of Sails?

The terms, square and lateen rigging refers to the shape of a ship's sails. The lateen sail is triangular in shape. Columbus choose to square rig all three vessels. Such a choice guessed that the winds blowing the vessels westward would be of a constant unchanging direction. This turned out to be the case for the voyage to the New World. A lateen rigging gives a sailing vessel greater maneuvering ability in varying wind directions.

Apollo 17's Fleet

Myth: The space shuttle carried astronauts to the Moon.
Fact: As configured the shuttle cannot journey to the Moon.

Apollo expeditions to the Moon employed two ship fleets. A ferry craft known as the command and service module (pictured on the above left) served as the mother ship somewhat in the same fashion as the Santa Maria served Columbus's fleet. The second ship of Apollo 17's fleet was the landing vessel (pictured above to the right). The Apollo 17 crew named their lander Challenger. The larger America was classified as a "mission module" while the agile lighter Challenger was known as a "planetary lander." The lander had room for two passengers for a two day expedition to the surface of the Moon. Its sortie excursion departed from the command ship, landed on the Moon and returned to the orbiting mother ship after the astronauts explored the Moon's surface.

The mission module had the capability of carrying three men to lunar orbit and back to Earth. Its length was approximately 35 feet. The diameter of the cylindrical vessel was about 13 feet. Adding the length of the lander gave the attached assemblage a length of approximately 55 feet, about the length of one of Columbus's three ships. Of course, the portion of the vehicles available to the crew was quite modest compared to the confines of any of Columbus's vessels...but the stay on board America would be at most two weeks not a month or more.


1. There is a term used to describe the ability of technology to serve a mission. It is called the "state-of-the-art." When Columbus got the idea of reaching Asia by sailing west, he had to contend with the state-of-the-art of sea travel. When President John Kennedy proposed going to the Moon, the United States, like Columbus, had to consider the existing ability of rockets to do the job. Discuss how the challenge Columbus and the United States faced differed.

2. Discuss the myths and facts listed above. Why do you think the myths came about? What are some things needed for the shuttle to reach and land on the Moon then return to Earth?

Return to Home Port

Last modified: Monday, 28-Aug-00 04:00:00 PM CDT

Author: Jerry Woodfill / NASA, Mail Code ER7,

Curator: Cecilia Breigh, NASA JSC ER7

Responsible Official: Charles Gott, NASA JSC ER7

Automation, Robotics and Simulation Division, Walter W. Guy, Chief.