If you have seen ‘Star Wars,’ then you know the scene. Obi-Wan and Luke go to Mos Eisley, the “hive of scum and villainy” on Tatooine, to find a pilot to take them to Alderaan. To convince them to hire him, Han Solo claims his ship, the Millennium Falcon, “made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” Many have scoffed at the line, saying George Lucas used the term “parsec” incorrectly because it is a distance; a parsec is a unit of measurement in Astronomy that equals the distance light can travel in 3.26 light years. However, Han’s claim may have some merit because space travel has a unique set of obstacles that one does not encounter on the surface of a planet.
The main criticism of the line is that a parsec is a distance. Han saying that he made the run in 12 parsecs is like a runner saying she ran a marathon in 26.2 miles. This would be a legitimate criticism if the Kessel Run was a set distance like a marathon. In most cases, there are several different paths from point A to point B. For example, I live next to a lake, and there is a house across this lake. The direct route from my house to this house is to swim across the lake, but swimming is not an option for me because I can’t swim. To get to this house, I have to walk or drive. The same applies to the closest Target, which is a little over a mile away. To walk directly there, I would have to swim across a lake (a different one; I live in Minnesota) and walk across a freeway. Again, driving five miles is the best way for me to go to Target. On Earth, certain obstacles prevent a straight course; instead, a path around these impediments is the best way to travel.
In space, the obstacles are numerous. Planets, asteroids, comets, meteors, and black holes are just a few of the features a pilot has to navigate around in order to arrive at a destination safely. When Han has to get away from Tatooine, he tells Luke, “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy. Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova, and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?” According to the material in the expanded ‘Star Wars’ universe, the Maw is a cluster of black holes on one of the possible routes to Kessel. The safest course is approximately 18 parsecs. For Han to have completed the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, he would have had to travel near this cluster of black holes, which is dangerous. A black hole has a strong gravitational pull, and getting too close to one could result in the ship either being destroyed or pulled into the black hole to face an unknown fate. Traveling a direct route in space can be risky, and it takes a skilled navigator to plot a course that will get a ship to its destination in one piece.
Han proves with his statement that he is a great navigator, but his statement doesn’t sell him as a great pilot. The vital piece of information he omits is time. He fails to tell Obi-Wan and Luke how long it took him to travel the 12 parsecs. How long did it take Han to complete the Kessel Run? A week? A month? A year? Did Han travel straight through or did he stop somewhere? Navigating the 12-parsec route successfully is an accomplishment, but without knowing the time, the accomplishment may not be one worth boasting about.
Not knowing how long it took him to travel the Kessel Run explains Obi-Wan’s reaction. After Han makes his claim, Obi-Wan looks at him, and his expression says, “I’m not an idiot. You’re a good navigator, so what? What else you got?” Han, realizing he is not dealing with a foolish old man, backs up his Kessel Run statement with more boasts about his piloting ability. “I’ve outrun Imperial Starships,” Han says, “Not the local bulk cruisers, mind you. I’m talking about the big Corellian ships, now.” By adding more details about his skills, we get a better picture of Han’s piloting abilities. The Millennium Falcon is fast enough to get away from Imperial ships, and Han is probably able to maneuver the ship quickly in order to get away from the Empire. His assertion about his deftness as a pilot is really for the audience; Obi-Wan is desperate to get to Alderaan without drawing any attention, so Han’s résumé is for us to get to know him, learn that he is no friend of the Empire, and to set up the reasons why Lucas wants us to believe Han’s help is needed to destroy the Death Star.
The problem with the Kessel Run claim is the fact that Han says the line as an answer to a question about speed. Obi-Wan says he is looking for passage on a fast ship. Han asks, “Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?” Obi-Wan replies, “Should I have?” Then Han says the famous line, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run is less than twelve parsecs.” A parsec is a unit of distance, and distance is distance. You drive 60 miles; it could take you three hours if you go 20mph or one hour if you go 60mph, but you still travel 60 miles. Speed is determined by the relationship between time and distance. Again, without knowing how much time it took Han to complete the Kessel Run, the comment is an attribute to his navigating skills and not the performance of the ship. If Han has said, “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in 11.7 parsecs in 3 days,” then the speed the Millennium Falcon could be determined, giving Obi-Wan an actual answer to his inquiry.
Taken by itself and not as an answer to a question about speed, the claim about traveling the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs is not a ridiculous statement. There are many different routes to Kessel, and each route is a different distance. It is like when you use Google maps, and you are given three suggested routes from your location to the destination. If Han took the most dangerous course, then he could have made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. However, using this boast as an answer about speed is the source of the problem. Han could have been trying to test Obi-Wan and Luke, gaging their response. The more informed the passenger, the less of a price hike he could get away with. Or the line could be an example of poor writing by George Lucas. All Lucas needed to have added is time. With just one extra detail, then the debate about the line could have been avoided.