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A mother ship or mothership or mother craft/mothercraft is a vehicle—whether ship, aircraft, or spacecraft—that leads, serves, or carries other smaller vehicles. Examples include bombers converted to carry experimental aircraft to altitudes where they can conduct their research (such as the B-52 carrying the X-15), or ships that carry small submarines to an area of ocean to be explored (such as the Atlantis II carrying the Alvin). A mother ship may also be used to recover smaller craft, or go its own way after releasing them. A vessel serving or caring for larger ships, meanwhile, is usually called a tender.
The term mother ship dates back to the 19th-century whaling trade when small, fast ships were used to chase and kill whales. The dead meat from several boats was then brought back to the larger, slower ship for processing and storage until the return to land. This model enabled a far more efficient method of whaling. Though whaling is much lower-scale than in earlier days, the single large storage ship model is still used extensively by fishermen. Such ships are known today as factory ships.
The mother ship concept was used in moon landings performed in the 1960s. Both the unsuccessful American 1962 Ranger landers and the successful Soviet 1966 Luna landers were unmanned spherical capsules ejected at the last moment from mother ships that had carried them to the Moon, and crashed onto its surface. In the manned Apollo program, astronauts in the lunar module separated from the command module in lunar orbit, descended to the lunar surface, and returned to dock in a lunar orbit rendezvous with the command module once more for a ride home to Earth.
Somalian pirates use mother ships to extend the reach of their attacking speed boats into the Indian Ocean.
The Short S.21 Maia experimental flying boat that served as the "mother ship" of the Short Mayo Composite two-plane maritime trans-Atlantic project design was one pioneering example of a fixed-wing aircraft mother ship in the 1930s, while the White Knight I and White Knight II aircraft are examples of contemporary mother ships in aviation.
In science fiction and UFO lore
The concept of a mother ship has achieved prominence in science fiction and UFO lore, extending the idea to spaceships that serve as the equivalent of flagships among a fleet. In this context, mother ship is often spelled as one word: mothership. A mothership may be large enough that its body contains a station for the rest of the fleet.
A variant of the term mother ship in this context can be traced to numerous claimed UFO sightings in the U.S. during the summer of 1947, when a woman in Palmdale, California, was quoted by contemporary press as describing a "mother saucer (with a) bunch of little saucers playing around it". The term mothership was also popularized in UFO lore through the sightings in the 1950s of George Adamski, who claimed to sometimes see large cigar-shaped Venusian motherships, out of which flew smaller-sized flying saucers.
- Airborne aircraft carrier
- Aircraft carrier
- Composite aircraft
- Factory ship
- Flight deck
- Milchkuh (German WWII submarine)
- Military spacecraft in fiction
- Parasite aircraft
- Hall, Mark A. and Wendy Connors. "Alfred Loedding & the Great Flying Saucer Wave of 1947", p. 55, quoting from the Palmdale South Antelope Valley Press, 10 July 1947, p. 1
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