Colin Cantwell, Star Wars designer behind the X-Wing and Death Star, dies aged 90

Colin Cantwell, the man who designed the spacecraft in the Star Wars films, has died at the age of 90.

Sierra Dall, Cantwell’s partner of more than two decades, confirmed to the Hollywood Reporter that he had died at his home in Colorado on Saturday.

Born in San Francisco in 1932, Cantwell attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he got a degree in animation. He also attended Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture.

In the 60s, he worked at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on educational programs about flights. During the 1969 moon landing, Cantwell worked with Nasa to feed updates to the journalist Walter Cronkite as he narrated the historic broadcast.

Cantwell’s love for both architecture and space combined when he began to work on Hollywood films, including Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cantwell and Kubrick became friends during filming, with Cantwell regularly visiting Kubrick to discuss how the film was going “over turkey sandwiches” at midnight.

“I worked closely with Stanley Kubrick and persuaded him not to start the movie with a 20-minute conference table discussion,” he told a Reddit Ask Me Anything thread in 2016. It was Cantwell who created the dramatic space opening that followed the films’s iconic “dawn of man” beginning.

In 1974, Cantwell was introduced by friends who worked on American Graffiti to a director, George Lucas, who invited him to work on his next film, Star Wars. Cantwell designed the prototypes for several ships in the Star Wars franchise, including the X-wing, TIE Fighter and the landspeeder, as well as the film’s iconic Death Star. He also created the design of the Tantive IV, the ship which Leia is attempting to outrun Vader in at the beginning of the first movie, which was originally intended to be the Millennium Falcon.

Colin Cantwell with concept art for an X-Wing fighter
Colin Cantwell with concept art for an X-Wing fighter. Photograph: Jerod Harris/WireImage

He said “a dart being thrown at a target in a British pub” gave him the concept for the X-wing, and explained how he accidentally designed an iconic feature of the Death Star that became a crucial plot point: the meridian trench, used by the Alliance and Luke Skywalker as part of their attack on the mighty battle station in A New Hope.

“I didn’t originally plan for the Death Star to have a trench, but when I was working with the mould, I noticed the two halves had shrunk at the point where they met across the middle,” he told Reddit. “It would have taken a week of work just to fill and sand and re-fill this depression. So, to save me the labor, I went to George and suggested a trench. He liked the idea so much that it became one of the most iconic moments in the film!”

Cantwell also worked on the films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and WarGames, and wrote two science fiction novels.

“I could not have picked a better time to have been born,” he once wrote. “So much has happened so quickly! Our dreams of space flight are maturing and I believe one day soon we’ll be exploring the next waiting wonders of our galaxy.”

He is survived by Dall, his partner of 24 years.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

The Guardian