These are organizations that span that gray area between civilian law enforcement and the military. Much like the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is not a purely military force like the Navy, nor is it a civilian law enforcement agency like a transportation police. It performs some customs and security duties, but also does search and rescue functions plus environmental protection.


Note that all of this has only addressed the origins of space forces from scratch on colonies.  There are two other potential sources for space forces, existing Air Forces and the law-enforcement organization that will inevitably spring up to police human space presence (see Section 11).  This organization will be called the ‘Space Guard’ as it will likely be broadly analogous to the modern-day US Coast Guard.  The Air Force solution is somewhat unlikely, as it requires there to be a reason for current Air Forces to move into orbit in a major way, and the author cannot come up with a plausible explanation for this, even as an extension of their current responsibility for space operations.  The Space Guard would be unlikely to grow out of the Air Force, as it would initially be something more like transport police, and by the time actual military operations begin to occur, it would be the obvious candidate to become the Space Force.

This could have a major impact on the structure of Space Force.  In most sci-fi, there is a tendency to model Space Forces on Navies, although in reality, this is unlikely.  Even though it might bear more resemblance to a modern Navy than a modern Air Force, the Space Force will have evolved from whatever origin it had.  Either the force would have to have been split off from an actual wet Navy at the beginning (unlikely, as the Air Force would normally be given responsibility for the task) or it would have to consciously choose a naval model for itself.  There are two reasons why the later might occur.  If the space force is being created from scratch, it is possible that those responsible, likely influenced by sci-fi, will choose a naval model.  The alternative is that if the split between the Air and Space forces is acrimonious enough, the new Space Force might choose a naval model to distinguish itself from the Air Force.

The structure of a Space Guard-derived Space Force is much less predictable.  While they will likely evolve into something recognizably military, it is difficult to see what path they will take.  To use the US of today as an example, there are several different agencies (Department of Transportation/FAA, NASA, Department of Justice, Department of the Treasury) which might give birth to the Space Guard.  The use of police ranks is not unlikely, although they might transition to a more traditional military structure as they move into that role.

by Byron Coffey (2016)

Space Traffic Control

Outer space equivalent of terrestrial air traffic controllers. Monitors and controls the flight plans of local spacecraft. Generally only needed in "crowded" areas, such as the orbital space around inhabited planets.


Air traffic control (ATC) is a service provided by ground-based controllers who direct aircraft on the ground and through controlled airspace, and can provide advisory services to aircraft in non-controlled airspace. The primary purpose of ATC worldwide is to prevent collisions, organize and expedite the flow of air traffic, and provide information and other support for pilots. In some countries, ATC plays a security or defensive role, or is operated by the military.

To prevent collisions, ATC enforces traffic separation rules, which ensure each aircraft maintains a minimum amount of empty space around it at all times. Many aircraft also have collision avoidance systems, which provide additional safety by warning pilots when other aircraft get too close.

In many countries, ATC provides services to all private, military, and commercial aircraft operating within its airspace. Depending on the type of flight and the class of airspace, ATC may issue instructions that pilots are required to obey, or advisories (known as flight information in some countries) that pilots may, at their discretion, disregard. The pilot in command is the final authority for the safe operation of the aircraft and may, in an emergency, deviate from ATC instructions to the extent required to maintain safe operation of their aircraft.

From the Wikipedia entry for AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL

Almost all of the above discussion has revolved around a general war scenario, or at least some form of war.  But what happens if there is no war?  What about the missions like patrols, boardings, inspections, and interventions?  In this case, ambiguity is rampant, and thing get much more interesting for the storyteller and much more difficult for the soldier.

The scenario that most readily leads itself to this sort of interesting activity is one in which there are multiple space-going powers on or around a given planet.  This puts competing powers in close proximity, and throws out many of the rules of traditional space warfare.  Furthermore, this scenario is most likely to occur with respect to Earth, which means that there are almost certainly dozens of powers in orbit, adding a complicated legal mess to the situation.  The problem is that many of the concepts that exist on Earth with regards to jurisdiction have far less value in space.  Everything is constantly moving, generally with significant velocities relative to each other.  Defining any sort of “territorial waters” will be incredibly difficult, given that both the object that the “waters” are centered on and everything else is moving.  At a guess, territorial space will only extend as far as the standard safety zone around an object.  What exactly that will be is uncertain, but anything more than a few tens of kilometers is unlikely.  The size of the zone is small enough to not pose a serious impediment to navigation, and the zone itself might vary in size based on the nature of the object it is centered on, and the orbit said object is in.  Current ‘safety boxes’ for spacecraft vary somewhat in size.  The shuttle had a box that was ±5 km along its orbit and ±2 km in the other directions.  That of the ISS is ±.75 km radially by ±25 km in the other two directions.  These suggest that similar sizes may be used for the zones around future spacecraft.

The next question is what exactly gets jurisdiction.  The “territorial zone” is probably only going to exist around manned spacecraft in permanent, assigned orbits.  The logic behind this is simple.  In virtually all cases it prevents overlapping jurisdictional claims, and avoids giving people the ability to game the system.  It also limits jurisdictional claims to those that can be enforced, instead of leaving a complicated web of possible claims that are mostly pointless because nobody is around to enforce them.  This is not to suggest that unmanned craft and those not in permanent orbits would not have safety zones, however.  They simply would not turn the space around them into “territorial waters”.  

The small size of the safety zones (and the fact that it would probably be forbidden to pass through one unless one was headed somewhere inside the zone) makes the idea of routine boardings and inspections suspect.  The author is not an expert in space or admiralty law, but it appears that only under fairly restricted circumstances can craft be boarded.  It is legal for the flag state to conduct inspections anywhere in the world for purposes of safety and documentation (and possibly more, depending on local laws).  For any other vessels (in territorial waters only), the state must be affected by a crime, or it must have a request from the flag state to board.  These change if the vessel in question has docked in the state.  In international waters, suppression of piracy and slavery are about the only reasons involuntary boarding is allowed.

All of this casts doubt on any scenario that involves routine boardings, throwing the rationale for space fighters into doubt again, particularly given the spread of “flag of convenience” registration on the seas today.  If an inspection is required, it is probably better to do so when the vessel is docked at its destination, instead of spending the time and delta-V required to chase it down.  While the issue might occasionally come up, the presence of dedicated ‘boarding gunships’ is unlikely.  The ultimate arbiter of good behavior in this scenario is the threat of warships becoming involved.  While the boarding party might be lost if a vessel makes trouble, the crew of the resisting vessel will be as well, and they would know as much before they made trouble.  In many ways, the same situation is in effect today, and the number of cases where boarding parties are resisted is very small.

It has been suggested that some sort of international authority will be required to regulate orbital space, primarily for purposes of safety.   This authority could ensure optimal use of orbital space, quite possibly along the same lines that the International Telecommunications Union does for satellites in geostationary orbit.  In fact, given that the ITU plays a role in current spaceflight activities by ensuring clear communications, it is entirely possible that such an authority could evolve out of it.  Alternatively, the UN currently maintains a registry of ‘Space Objects’, which includes orbital data, and the registration system could evolve out of that.

The exact nature of the allocation of orbital slots is likely to involve thousands of lawyers and millions of man-hours, as the current system of first-come, first-serve is likely to prove inadequate under the increasing demands placed on space use.  One possibility is the creation of “bands” and the assignment of position within said bands.  A precedent already exists with the aforementioned ITU allocation of geostationary slots, although in this case the bands would be artificially created.  This policy recognizes the fact that for certain tasks, some orbits are more useful than others, such as the orbits used by GPS satellites, which have repeating ground tracks, or the sun-synchronous orbits used by many remote sensing satellites, which ensure consistent sun angles in the data.  Other applications, such as colonies and shipyards, do not have particular requirements, and can be placed in orbits that are not required for anything in particular.  In fact, the most optimal arrangement would be circular orbits with a number of craft sharing the same orbit, one behind the other.  These ‘rings’ allow virtually risk-free sharing of orbits while maximizing the number of slots available.  Certain bands may be designated for special tasks, such as deep-space arrivals and departures, with facilities in appropriate orbits for the various destinations.

It is also possible that the regulatory body would be charged with handling space debris problems, as a corollary to its primary duties.  The current problems with debris are unlikely to persist in a future in which there is significant activity in space.  While minor debris damage (paint flecks and such) are simply a fact of life, larger debris is mostly a result of the way space programs must be conducted.  However, there is no reason to abandon a satellite in the sort of setting under discussion.  Even if it is too old to be worth repairing, it is still a large amount of high-purity metal in orbit.  Instead of abandoning it and risking problems (not to mention tying up a potentially valuable orbital slot), an owner would probably scrap it in orbit or sell it to someone who would do so.  The same applies to upper stages of boosters, but to an even greater degree.  It might well be worth the sacrifice of a small amount of payload to allow the stage to reach a scrapyard, recouping much of the cost of the stage in the process.  Of course, this assumes that expendable rockets are still being used as the primary means of space launch.  If some other method is in wide use, the value of on-orbit material will drop.  However, so will the cost of recovering an older satellite, and novel launch methods will do nothing to alleviate congestion and debris problems.

Smaller, but still dangerous, pieces of debris would of course still exist, and be continuously generated by space activity.  Thus, some system (possibly a laser broom) would have to be constructed to deal with them.  Said system would continue to sweep the debris from orbit as they are generated, keeping the population below where it is today.  Prompt clean-up would eliminate a major potential source of debris, leaving orbital space much cleaner than it is today.  (Except in the case of a major war, as discussed in Section 6).

by Byron Coffey (2016)

The question of what actually constitutes ‘Sovereignty’ and what determines what is and isn’t a sovereign state is a complicated one.  There are two major theories.  One of them holds that a state is sovereign if and only if it is recognized by other sovereign states.  The other is that a sovereign state is one that has a population, a government, and territory.  Ultimately, however, the bar that a potential state on a celestial body must clear is very high.  When it comes down to it, sovereignty is defined by the ability to claim a piece of territory and defend it convincingly enough that others recognize it as yours.  Even during the Age of Discovery, when everyone was planting flags on every piece of land they found, control of the territory is ultimately what determined the eventual boundaries of national sovereignty, not what the law said they should be.  The same is likely to apply in space.  Particularly because of the Outer Space Treaty, any sovereignty claims made in space are likely to be either moot due to lack of enforcement, vague due to lack of test, or fought over.  The first case is most likely to apply in cases where someone claims an entire large body, such as the Moon.  Unless they are able to enforce their claim, it is both legally invalid and rather silly.  Such cases (and it should be noted that there are already several people who have claimed the Moon) are not a real precedent in space law.  

The second category is likely to occur before the third.  In this case, a much more limited claim of sovereignty is made, and because of the limited nature of the claim, it goes untested.  The most likely example is a case in which a small colony established for non-economic reasons declares independence and claims title to a small section of the surroundings.  This could be a group of people dedicated to making humanity multi-world, a religious group, or even just a bunch of people who want to set up their own state, and have the money to get into space.  Because they are not economically motivated, the financial impact on Earth is likely to be minimal, and there is no real point sending a large expedition to contest a bit of what the government might well consider tax evasion.  There are interesting questions about things like passports raised by this, but ultimately, it wouldn’t be worth anyone’s trouble to sort out.  Sealand on Earth today almost falls into this category.

The third category is that described above.  Someone stakes a claim to a significant portion of a planetary body, and then fights for it.  The resolution of the question then depends upon the outcome of the conflict.  It should be noted that this puts major powers who are not directly involved in a difficult position.  While supporting the revolt might well harm their rivals, it would also set the precedent that space colonies can be sovereign and independent of a state on Earth, something that is not allowed by the current Outer Space Treaty.  It’s entirely possible that this precedent would damp Earth support for any revolt.

by Byron Coffey (2016)
Space Traffic Controllers

     "Da. Engagement zones are expanded," Omer explains "United States, Europa, Bahia, all announce new requiremen five days ago.
     "Sounds like transition-to-war conditions."
     "Maybe. Commonwealth ships have had some problems. Some body soon maybe make a 'mistake' with a Commonwealth ship” Omer pointed out. "Or we get clearance that is wrong and take us into engagement zone. So I got from Kevin Graham new data showing positions of all orbiting objects and load into computer I will make sure clearance and trajectory do not lead us into danger."
     Twenty minutes before noon, clearance came over the up-link Omer checked it and gave me a thumbs-up. I accepted it. We made a straightforward departure with the catapult slinging the Tomahok into the air at a one-gee goose. I climbed out according to flight plan and watched while the air-breathers transitioned I scram-jet mode and finally lipped-over when the mains ignited at 60 kilometers. I wasn't particularly looking for anything happen at that point because we were still in international space over the Indian Ocean.
     The Tomahok was handed-off from Madras Center to Orient Center as we ascended through a hundred kilometers, expected something to happen then. It did.
     "Tomahok, this is LEO Orient Center. Amended clearance."
     It came on the up-link. Omer shook his head. "Bojemoi!" exploded. "Reject it!"
     "LEO Orient Center, this is Tomahok. Negative the amended clearance, sir."
     "Tomahok, what's your reason for refusal?"
     "What's your reason for issuing this amended clearance, sir?"
     "AmSpace Command request through LEO Canambah Center."
     "The amended clearance takes us into the engagement zone of Gran Bahia estacao baixo doze."
     "Tomahok, stand by. ... Tomahok, amended clearance: De-orbit for Woomera landing. We can't get you through."
     I knew what to do, and I let it all hang out. "LEO Orient Center, Tomahok. Negative the amended clearance. We are initiating no-clearance flight under I-A-R Regulation ninety-one- point-eight. We'll take her up to Ell-Five as filed under our responsibility to detect and avoid."
     Omer reached over and clapped me on the right shoulder.
     There must have been consternation in LEO Orient Center because it took several seconds for the traffic coordinator to acknowledge. "Uh, Tomahok, Center, roger! Service is terminated. Proceed on your own responsibility. Retain your current beacon code."
     I acknowledged and told Omer, "Get ready to thread the needle, Russkie! Let's see if we're good enough to make Ell-Five before somebody burns us with a hell-beamer!"
     There I was, flat on my back at 30,000 meters, nothing between me and the ground but a thin regulation.
     I'd invoked a seldom-used International Aerospace Regulation that harked back to Earth's oceans where a ship captain was an absolute monarch responsible for himself, his ship, and everything in it. It had been carried into the air by a rule that made the; "pilot-in-command" solely responsible for the safety and operation of his aircraft and everything in it, regardless of what traffic coordinators on the ground told him.
     In effect, I'd told the space traffic people I'd fly without their help.
Avoiding an engagement zone isn't difficult if you know where it is. Space is mostly empty.
     The various STC Centers would continue tracking our beacon to keep other spacecraft clear of us. Military trackers would do the same in case we broached their engagement zones, which would mean trouble for the Tomahok.
     I'd waived clearance while still under ascent thrust on our original trajectory to a 200-kilometer parking orbit. Our delta-vee margin was excellent

     "Russkie, I hope the League data's good," I told Omer. "Display our current flight path and the projected positions and engagement zones of other sky junk."
     "Blinking blips aren't in League data," Omer reported. The Kazakh became laconic when he was under pressure, probably because he was thinking in Russian and mentally translating into aerospace English with adrenalin pumping.
     I studied the display. A blinking blip indicated a polar orbiting satellite. In parking orbit, we'd broach its engagement zone.
     "There's our problem," I pointed out. "AmSpace Command recon bird. That's why the amended clearance. We'll burn out of parking orbit to miss him. What are the options?"
     Omer punched the keypad. A series of trajectories came on the display. "Take high delta-vee option. It will be obvious we're avoiding the reconsat."
     "But we may run into trouble with this one, Omer," I said, indicating another target with my finger. "It's displaying no code. What is it?"
     Omer queried the computer. "Not in League data. Unknown."
     "It's got to be registered! I'll query Center for identification."
     "Let it be for now. We handle when time comes," the Mad Russian Space Jockey suggested. "We take problems one at a time. Sandy, get us in parking orbit and watch engagement zones. I work on vector for transfer orbit to Ell-Five."

     Our burn out of parking orbit came as re-programmed. While, we were under thrust, we got a sensor alarm. "Targeting lidar!" I snapped. "Aerospace Force has seen us closing on the reconsat,"
     "We go laser-hard," Omer said, reaching for the switch.
     "Negative!" I snapped. "They'll see it, interpret it as a countermeasure, and try to burn us." I indicated another target on the display. "That's annotated as an unspecified military satellite; it's a ten megawatt hell-beamer."
     "Hokay, so we do a little tsig-tsag! Give me controls!"
     I did and continued to check displayed targets. Omer called out his actions. “Tsang plus-x ten meters per sec."
     I got a surface temperature warning signal. "Warning shot without a call. That's not SOP!" The Aerospace Force tapped the data stream from the world STC net and they knew we were the unarmed Tomahok out of Vamori-Free.
     "Maybe you got wrong freq. We did not broach engagement zone of reconsat, and now they see us burn into new trajectory. So we are out of hard place under rock for now. You fly now."
     Low earth orbit zone is tricky to work in. Velocities and closing rates are high. There isn't much time to detect, track, make decisions, and maneuver. It's full of sensitive earth-oriented reconsats that are automated and passive. They can't defend themselves or maneuver. Even though such unmanned skyapies are considered to be expendable scouts, my former colleagues were sensitive about them. Everyone knew where everyone else's were, and nobody bothered them for fear of retaliation. Fortunately, sensitive satellites advertised themselves with "no trespassing" signals.
     Hell-beamers were another matter. They were unmanned with auto defenses. Unless they spotted the proper beacon password— which we didn't have—they'd shoot at anything that broached their engagement zones. We had to stay clear of those. We'd been lucky once.
     Some that looked like hell-beamers weren't; they were decoys or legitimate R&D space telescopes. The sensor signatures were the same. If you wanted to find out if one was indeed a hell-beamer, you had to make a hands-on inspection which was very risky not only because of the auto-defenses but also because some of them were booby-trapped.
     Nobody liked the hell-beamers, especially the League of Free Traders. But the low-powered ones in LEO were no threat to people on the ground. And nobody had been burned in space by them, so they were tolerated as a necessary evil.

     Think of Earth as being at the bottom of a funnel-shaped well whose walls become less steep as you climb away from Earth.
     Paint the walls of the funnel in zones of different colors to represent the various space traffic control center jurisdictions. The ones nearest Earth at the bottom of the funnel are controlled from national centers that are, you hope, in communication with one another and swapping data. The ones further out are watched by seven other centers located in GEO. And the ones in the nearly-flat upper part of the funnel are four in number centered on L-4, the Moon, L-5, and a huge "uncontrolled sector" stretching around lunar orbit from 30-degrees ahead of L-4 to 30-degrees behind L-5 where there wasn't anything then.
     Now spin the funnel so the bottom part representing a distance up to 50,000 kilometers goes around once in 24 hours. Spin the top part from 50,000 kilometers altitude out to a half-million kilometers at the lunar rate of 29.5 days.
     Located on the walls of this madly turning multi-colored funnel are marbles spinning around its surface fast enough so they don't fall down the funnel. Some of them are deadly marbles; come close and you'll burn. Others are big and fragile, but massive enough to destroy your ship if you hit one. Still others are ships like your own, plying space for fun, profit, or military purposes. An unknown number of the last are capable of whanging you with various and sundry weapons.
     Your mission: without coming afoul of any of this, get to the flat tableland on top, then locate and dock to a group of fly-specks called L-5.

     Try it on your computer. Good luck.

     We'd run a gauntlet of low-orbit facilities and were coming up on geosynchronous orbit. Although we were several degrees above equatorial GEO where most of the civilian facilities were, we had to get through the web of military satellites in inclined geosynchronous orbit, weaving paths around the planet like a ball of yarn.
     Omer asked the computer to enhance the very weak returns from these stealthed facilities. We were going to come close to some Japanese and European targets, but not within their engagement zones unless they'd changed them and we didn't know it.

From MANNA by Lee Correy (G. Harry Stine) 1983 ]

Orbit Guard

This is more or less the space-going version of the Coast Guard. They are not military so much as they are a cross between a law enforcement agency and a search and rescue body.

Since the Coast Guard operates in the coast, the Orbit Guard operates within the Hill Sphere of inhabited planets.

Though the question of territory is a bit unsettled. A boat in the coast of Great Britain is stationary around Britain. But an orbital spacecraft constantly moves in its orbit around Terra, passing over many different continental nations on its ground-track. This isn't a problem if the entire planet is under one government, only if it is balkanized.

There is no hard and fast division between the Orbit Guard and the Patrol. They sort of blur into each other. In some cases they might merge into one organization. The Orbit Guard is more biased to the civilian/search-and-rescue end of the spectrum, while the Patrol is biased more to the military/pirate-hunting end of the spectrum.

Yes, I originally used the term "Orbit Guard" for those tasked with preventing asteroid bombardment warfare. I changed it for reasons explained here.


A coast guard or coastguard is a maritime security organization of a particular country. The term implies widely different responsibilities in different countries, from being a heavily armed military force with customs and security duties to being a volunteer organization tasked with search and rescue functions and lacking any law enforcement powers. However, a typical coast guard's functions are distinct from typical functions of both the navy (a pure military force) and a transportation police (a civilian law enforcement agency).


Among the responsibilities that may be entrusted to a coast guard service are:

During wartime, some national Coast Guard organisations might have a role as a naval reserve force with responsibilities in harbor defenses, port security, naval counter-intelligence and coastal patrols.

The Coast Guard may, varying by jurisdiction, be part of a country's military, a law enforcement agency, or a search and rescue body. For example, the United States Coast Guard is a military branch with a law enforcement capacity, whereas the United Kingdom's Her Majesty's Coastguard (HMCG) is a civilian organisation whose only role is search and rescue. Most coast guards operate ships and aircraft including helicopters and seaplanes that are either owned or leased by the agency in order to fulfil their respective roles.

Some coast guards, such as the Irish Coast Guard, have only a very limited law enforcement role, usually in enforcing maritime safety law, such as by inspecting ships docked in their jurisdiction. In cases where the Coast Guard is primarily concerned with coordinating rather than executing rescue operations, lifeboats are often provided by civilian voluntary organisations, such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in the United Kingdom, whilst aircraft may be provided by the countries' armed forces, such as the search and rescue Sea Kings operated by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, in addition to any of the HMCG's own helicopters.

From the Wikipedia entry for COAST GUARD

Longtime commenter Ferrell made an observation about growing space traffic in the discussion on Adventures in Orbital Space that fits neatly into the setting portrayed in The Weekly Moonship:

At some point, traffic control and enforcement would be needed to keep ... impending chaos under control. As more people start working in orbit, the more positive control will be needed, traffic growing exponentially.

In a word, yes. A rudimentary framework for space traffic control already exists; I believe that orbital slots, at least in geosynch, are assigned by the International Telecommunications Union. But as space traffic grows, so will the need for traffic management and enforcement, as well as emergency response services. On land these tasks are commonly divided between police and fire agencies; at sea they are combined in the Coast Guard (at least in US practice).

The mission will eventually call for suitably configured and equipped spacecraft. And like the Coast Guard and its cutters, the agency and ships will in some broad sense be quasi-military in character.

Okay, let's be honest. This blog does not encourage war in space (or anywhere else), but that certainly hasn't kept me from writing about space warfare, or kept you from reading about it. But here I specifically want to look at what may be called 'organic' military or at least quasi-military activity in space — missions that relate to other human space activity, not just earthly power politics.

The distinction is important in more than one way. Navies have historically been 'organic' to sea trade (even if the first mission of the Royal Navy was and is to prevent another 1066). For that matter, armies have generally been 'organic' to the lands they defended, oppressed, or both.

Even more to the point, several great powers already have large military space armadas, and have for half a century. We call them ICBM forces, and neither as spacecraft nor as weapons are they really all that interesting. This isn't just Armageddon aversion — their 1950s predecessors, the B-52 and TU-95 Bear intercontinental nuclear bombers (both still in front line service, though mainly in other roles) had just as horrific a mission. But they were and are seriously cool airplanes, indeed acknowledged classics. You can enjoy and agree with the message of another Kubrick movie of the 1960s; those B-52 sequences still totally rock. Yee-haaaa! Yee-haaaa! Yeee-haaaaaaa .....

I think we can draw a broader message from this. The spacegoing equivalent of a coast guard cutter may not match the Romance quotient of a 44-gun frigate close-reaching to windward, a bone in her teeth and her guns run out. But it is probably more interesting technologically and operationally than a robotic battle station designed to vaporize other robotic battle stations or the occasional city.

And, most of all to the point, the coast guard cutter is in almost every case a far better delivery vehicle for a payload of adventure.

So how does it emerge? I will start with the agency that deploys it, the Space Authority. This rather bland name is inspired by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency that in its mid-20th century heyday, under Robert Moses, was notoriously powerful and independent, and reshaped New York City (albeit in ways that are now widely deplored).

The Space Authority was founded in 2022 — or it might have been 2012; I haven't double-checked, and in its early decades the Authority was all but invisible. Its overall mission was and is to co-ordinate space activity, assigning orbital slots, enforcing safety regulations, and such. The Authority was set up by the major space launch players, but its guiding force was — and this is not a contradiction in terms — a shrewd, tough, and above all visionary bureaucrat.

To avoid endless wrangling over a tiny budget, this individual proposed a dedicated funding stream, a $10,000 fee for every ton placed on orbit. To the power players this was convenient and cheap, the fee coming to about 0.1 percent of contemporary launch cost. Even to penny-conscious Elon Musk it was chump change (and Musk might well have seen through the game and still figured it was worth playing, and paying).

And since space traffic had been fairly steady for decades, a few hundred tons annually, hardly anyone expected conditions to change. The Space Authority had just enough money, a few million per year, to rent some office space in Geneva or wherever, and hire a couple of sharp young attorneys as staff. Space law enforcement, in this early era, did not mean spacecraft with flashing red lights. It meant a letter, hand delivered on real paper (lawyers likes that stuff), directing attention to Section 28, Subparagraph h(3), 'Penalty for Noncompliance'.

Time marched on, and space traffic volume grew. By the time the moonship Henry Mancini is docked to Airlock 10-A, 100,000 passengers and 70,000 plus tons of cargo payloads are going into space every year, plus the upper stages of the shuttles that put them there. The Space Authority budget is now on order of a billion dollars a year, current value. Still chump change by Pentagon standards, but this is a real budget, enough to charter or buy and equip a couple of ships for special missions — and develop a more capable, purpose-built model. The need may not yet have fully arisen at the level I described, with its 6-8 passenger ships operating beyond low Earth orbit. But it is clearly on the horizon.

The primary mission of these first Patrol ships will likely be the noblest: space rescue. Rescue in deep space is problematic at best; the distances are simply too vast. By the time you reach a stricken ship or outpost it probably won't have any survivors left to rescue. But rescue in orbital and local space is a different matter.

We have already had a case where space rescue could have made all the difference. Had the extent of damage to Columbia's heat shield been recognized, a rescue mission would have been feasible in principle. I sadly suspect that NASA closed its eyes and grit its teeth because no rescue was possible in practice. Even the Russians, with their simpler, robust architecture, could not have cued up a double Soyuz mission in time, and Columbia was on an orbit that Soyuz, from its high-latitude launch site, probably could not reach.

But once space rescue is practical it is necessary, and the Authority needs a ship or two that is up to the job. This means sacrificing operating economy in favor of flexibility and performance, specifically the ability to deploy on short notice and reach as many orbits as possible, meaning plenty of maneuver capability, AKA delta v. Onboard equipment and facilities, in addition to sick bay, likely include storage and support for taxi craft and robo pods used to work around crippled, possibly tumbling spacecraft, plus a miniature onboard Mission Control for directing operations.

The first such ships will be handbuilt prototypes, thus costly; the Authority might need to issue revenue bonds to fund the development program. Follow-ons will be less expensive, though still more than commercial models since the mission is more demanding. Say $200 million per ship for a 100-ton ship (unfueled), and $60 million per year to keep each in service, plus propellant for training missions. Perhaps $150 million annually per ship, all up, so the Authority can keep three or four in service.

And it possibly has not escaped your attention that the major characteristics of these ships — their flexibility and performance — are very much what you would expect of warcraft. Throw in fittings like those (potential) weapon bays and CIC or tactical control center and you have the raw material of a handy basic space warship.

Even militarized, these Patrol ships would be no match in sheer firepower for the sorts of weapon platforms the great powers might deploy. But they are far better suited to exerting a presence in orbital space. Über battle stations leave policymakers with a pretty stark options menu — nothing between issuing a sternly worded letter of protest or blowing someone up. A Patrol ship can switch out the medics for a SWAT team, go out to any orbit, arrest someone, and haul them in to face charges.

And that is how you effectively and flexibly exercise power, or dare I say Authority, across local space.

What are the chances of some such agency and some such ships emerging? Given the scale of space activity I have portrayed — hardly a given — I'd actually rate the chances moderately high, say five percent to 20 percent. Someone will need to do it. The great powers won't trust each other, and won't want to spend their own money on forces suited to keeping order in orbit rather than overawing their terrestrial rivals. Business interests will want some law and order up there without getting too entangled in international power politics. Yet the outcome suggested also would mark, quietly, a beginning for space-centric political structures.

On Independent Orbit?

Potentially, at least for purposes of opera, it might be a good deal more than that. As noted here before on this historically significant anniversary, the Revolt of the Colonies has been a long-standing theme in space-oriented SF; particularly, for obvious reasons, 'Murrican space SF.

In the rocketpunk era the Space Patrol was commonly understood to be an arm of the American Empire Terran Federation. As such it would be cast in the role of the Redcoats in any Independence Day scenario. (Though, notably, Heinlein in Between Planets did not call the Federation forces, or any component of them, the Patrol; that name was reserved for stories where the Patrol and the Federation itself were good guys.)

But the Patrol as outlined above arises in different circumstances, where there is no Federation, certainly nothing like a world state, only the great-power muddle we have known since 1648 — or perhaps even a more thorough muddle, known to students of international affairs by the wonderfully Game of Thrones-esque name of neomedievalism.

In such circumstances, as suggested above, the Patrol is not an instrument of any terrestrial power, but one that arises from the circumstances of space itself, politically embodied in this account by the Space Authority. No one on Earth quite owns it, or can even agree on who should own it.

There would likely be no Declaration of Independence, no need for a gifted rhetorician to remake poor old George III into Caligula. Possibly the last thing the Authority wants is to call that kind of attention to itself and its expanding role, and gaining a seat in the UN General Assembly, or successor body, is the least of its priorities.

Unless, of course, the overriding demands of story call for a Concord, a Saratoga, a Yorktown. In that case, have at it.

From Rocketpunk Manifesto: THE SPACE AUTHORITY AND THE ORBITAL PATROL by Rick Robinson (2015)

Orbit Guard Ships


With the advent of lunar exploration and round trip lunar transport, both chemical and nuclear, there inevitably will arise malfunctions and emergencies. There will arise communication difficulties, navigational errors, propulsion breakdowns, and structural failures. There are possibilities of collisions between spacecraft and of fatal damage from matter in space. More likely, however, are onboard concerns of life-support malfunctions, auxiliary power irregularities, compartment over pressurization (in some cases, explosions), cargo shifting, and unforeseen disorders. These are the realities of increased space travel.

In anticipation of spaceflight realities, there would be need for a nuclear rescue ship operating in translunar space. The primary role of such a ship would be to save human life and those extraterrestrial specimens aboard any ill-fated lunar vehicle. A secondary role would be to salvage the spacecraft if at all possible.

This means that the rescue ship would require propulsive capability to drastically change orbit planes and altitudes. It would require excess ΔV to proceed with dispatch to rendezvous with a disabled spacecraft. In addition, capability would be required for transferring personnel and equipment, making repairs to a disabled vehicle, and even taking it in tow if conditions warranted. The latest advances in crew facilitation, passenger accommodations, repair shops, navigational devices, and communication equipment would be required. As an introductory concept, one arrangement of a nuclear rescue ship is presented in Figure 11-11 (see above).

A particular feature to note in Figure 11-11 is the use of two nuclear engines. Each engine would be of the lunar ferry vintage and, therefore, would be sufficiently well developed and man-rated for rescue ship design. These engines would be indexed by a nominal Isp of 1000 seconds; they would have a short time overrating of, perhaps 1100 seconds. This overrating implies conditional melting of nuclear fuel in the reactor for emergency maneuvers and dispatch.

A rescue ship would be characterized by a large inert weight compared to a regular transport vehicle. This means that large magnitudes of engine thrust would be required. However, during periods of non-emergencies, low thrusts could be used. The vehicle F/Wo characteristics (Thrust-to-weight ratio) would vary over a wide range: possibly from 0.1 during non-emergencies to 1 during emergencies. Two engines would provide the high thrust capacity for emergencies. During non-emergencies, one engine could be left idling; the other engine could provide low thrust for economic cruise. Furthermore, two engines would provide engine-out capability for take-home in the event of malfunction in one of the engines. For reactor control reasons, the two reactors would have to be neutronically isolated from each other. For this purpose, note the neutron isolation shield in Figure 11-11.

(ed note: Nuclear reactors are throttled by carefully controlling the amount of available neutrons within the reactor. A second reactor randomly spraying extra neutrons into the first reactor is therefore a Bad Thing. "Neutronically isolated" is a fancy way of saying "preventing uninvited neutrons from crashing the party." Related term is "Neutronic Decoupling")

A suggested patrol region for the rescue ship is indicated in Figure 11-12 (see above). Note that a rendezvous orbit has been designated so that the rescue ship could replenish its propellant from the nuclear lunar transport system. By having rendezvous missions with nuclear ferry routes, rescued personnel, lunar specimens, and damaged spacecraft parts could be returned to Earth without the need for the rescue ship returning. Also, rescue ship crew members could be duty-rotated this way. This would increase the on-station time of a nuclear rescue ship.

From NUCLEAR SPACE PROPULSION by Holmes F. Crouch (1965)
Orbital Patrol Ship
Exhaust Velocity4,400 m/s
Specific Impulse449 s
Thrust3.5×106 N
Thrust Power7.7 gigawatts
Total ΔV6,100 m/s
Mass Budget
Engine Mass7 mton
Heat Shield Mass15 mton
(15% re-entry mass)
Terra Recovery
parachute, retro,
landing gear
5 mton
(5% landing mass)
NonTerra Recov
landing legs
Luna, Mars
5 mton
(5% landing mass)
attitude jets,
electrical, etc.
20 mton
(20% dry mass)
farings, etc.
5 mton
(5% dry m)
Tankage body18 mton
(6% of
300 mton
hab module
cargo bays
25 mton
DRY MASS100 mton
300 mton
WET MASS400 mton
Mass Ratio4.0
booster rocket
? mton

This is a splendid spacecraft designed by Rick Robinson, appearing on his must-read blog Rocketpunk Manifesto. This was designed for his Orbital Patrol service, which he covered in three previous posts.

The important insight he noted was that if you can somehow get your spacecraft into orbit with a full load of fuel/propellant, it turns out that most cis-Lunar and Mars missions have delta V requirements well within the ability of weak chemical rockets. So you make a small chemical rocket and lob it into orbit with a huge booster rocket (heavy lift launch stack). This will be the standard Orbit Patrol ship.

It can also be boosted into orbit by a smaller booster rocket, then using the patrol ship's engines for the second stage. So as not to cut into the ship's mission delta V, it will need access to an orbital propellant depot to refuel. At a rough guess, you'll need 9,700 m/s delta V to boost the patrol ship into orbit (7,900 m/s orbital velocity plus gravity and aerodynamic drag losses). So the booster will need 9,700 m/s with a payload of 400 metric tons. Bonus points if the booster is reusable.

Actually, it reminds me a bit of the old Three Man Space Scout.

At a rough guess, Rick figures that if the ship is capsule shaped it will be about 12 meters high by 14 meters in diameter. If it is wedge shaped, it will be about 40 meters high by 25 meters wide by 8 meters deep.

In both cases, total interior volume of 1,200 m3 (of which 900 m3 is propellant), and a surface area of 800 m2

Present day expandable propellant tanks have a mass of about 6% of the mass of the liquid propellant. Rick is assuming that in the future the 6% figure will apply to reusable tanks as well.

If my slide rule is not lying to me, the 300 metric tons of H2-O2 fuel/propellant represents 33.3 metric tons of liquid hydrogen and 266.7 metric tons of liquid oxygen. About 470 m3 of liquid hydrogen volume (sphere with radius of 4.8 m) and 234 m3 of liquid oxygen volume (sphere with radius of 3.8 m). This is a total volume of 704 m3 which falls short of Rick's estimate of 900 m3 so I probably made a mistake somewhere.

Landing on Terra will use retro-rockets, the heat shield for aerocapture, maybe a parachute, and aircraft style landing gear for belly landing. Landing on Luna or Mars will be by tail-landing on rear mounted landing legs. That will also mean reserving some of the propellant for landing purposes.

Note that the heat shield is rated for the ship's unfueled mass (heat shield mass = 15% of ship's re-entry mass), there is not enough to brake the ship if it has propellant left. This assumes a "low-high'low" mission profile: start at LEO, go outward to perform mission while burning most of the propellant, then return to LEO or even land on Terra. So 15 metric tons for heat shield is for a ship with a mass of 100 metric tons at re-entry (ship's total dry mass).

If the ship is going to aerobrake then return to higher orbit, it will need more heat shield mass to handle the extra mass of get-home propellant. This will savagely cut into the payload mass, which is only 25 metric tons at best. For example, if the mission had the ship heading for translunar space from LEO after aerobraking, the extra propellant mass at aerobrake time will increase the heat shield mass from 15 metric tons to 31. This will reduce the payload from 25 metric tons to 8. But by the same token a ship that will not perform any aerobraking can omit the heat shield entirely, using the extra 15 metric tons for more propellant or payload.

Payload includes habitat module (if any) as well as cargo, since hab modules are optional for short missions. The gross payload is 25 metric tons, of which 20 is cargo and the other 5 mtons are payload bay structure and fittings. If you assume two tons of life support consumables per crew per two week mission; then the ship could carry a crew of five plus 12 mtons of removable payload, or a crew of 10 and 4 mtons of payload (the more that payload is consumables, the less mass needed for payload bay structure).

Patrol Missions
MissionDelta V
Low earth orbit (LEO) to geosynch and return5700 m/s powered
(plus 2500 m/s aerobraking)
LEO to lunar surface (one way)5500 m/s
(all powered)
LEO to lunar L4/L5 and return
4800 m/s powered
(plus 3200 m/s aerobraking)
LEO to low lunar orbit and return4600 m/s powered
(plus 3200 m/s aerobraking)
Geosynch to low lunar orbit and return
4200 m/s
(all powered)
Lunar orbit to lunar surface and return3200 m/s
(all powered)
LEO inclination change by 40 deg
5400 m/s
(all powered)
LEO to circle the Moon and return retrograde
3200 m/s powered
(plus 3200 m/s aerobraking)
Mars surface to Deimos (one way)6000 m/s
(all powered)
LEO to low Mars orbit (LMO) and return6100 m/s powered
(plus 5500 m/s aerobraking)

Representative samples of small space craft atop booster rockets:

Space Garbage Collectors

All that junk in Terra orbit could trigger the dreaded Kessler Syndrome. If it happens, mankind might be cut off from space for generations. The Orbital Debris Collection agency is tasked with preventing that unhappy state of affairs.

Kessler Syndrome

The Kessler syndrome (aka Kessler Effect, Collisional Cascading, or Ablation Cascade) is where the number of pieces of orbiting space trash becomes so high that a single collision can start a chain reaction. A collision turns two pieces of trash into twenty. Most of those twenty new pieces will suffer collisions, now you have 400. When those hit you'll have 8,000. A couple of more collision cycles and LEO will basically become impassable. No more space launches, no more astronauts, no more GPS, no more communication satellites, no more space station.

If it actually happens space exploration and even the use of satellites could be rendered impossible for many generations. Egads.

The cascade may not spread to geostationary orbit, but that will just slightly delay matters. As those satellites wear out, they cannot be replaced.

A fictionalized version of this was depicted in the movie Gravity. It was exaggerated for dramatic effect, but not by much.

It was also used in the science fiction novels Planetes, Ejner Fulsang's SpaceCorp, Ken MacLeod's The Sky Road, and Max Brooks World War Z.

Note that this will probably be only an issue in Terra (or alien homeworld) orbit for hundreds of years to come. Other planets will need that long before enough trash collects in their orbit to become a problem.


The 2009 satellite collision was the first accidental hypervelocity collision between two intact artificial satellites in low Earth orbit. It occurred on February 10, 2009, 16:56 UTC, when Iridium 33 and Kosmos-2251 collided at a speed of 42,120 km/h (11.70 km/s; 26,170 mph) and an altitude of 789 kilometres (490 mi) above the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia.


The collision destroyed both Iridium 33 (owned by Iridium Communications Inc.) and Kosmos 2251 (owned by the Russian Space Forces). The Iridium satellite was operational at the time of the collision. Kosmos-2251 was launched on June 16, 1993, and went out of service two years later, in 1995, according to Gen. Yakushin. It had no propulsion system, and was no longer actively controlled.

Several smaller collisions had occurred previously, during rendezvous attempts or the intentional destruction of a satellite, including the DART satellite colliding with MUBLCOM, and three collisions involving the manned Mir space station, during docking attempts by Progress M-24, Progress M-34, and Soyuz TM-17, but these were all low-velocity collisions. In 1996, the Cerise satellite collided with space debris. There have been eight known high-speed collisions in all, most of which were only noticed long after they occurred.


U.S. space agency NASA estimated that the satellite collision created approximately 1,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 centimeters (4 inches), in addition to many smaller ones. By July 2011, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network had cataloged over 2000 large debris fragments. NASA determined the risk to the International Space Station, which orbits about 430 kilometres (270 mi) below the collision course, to be low, as was any threat to the shuttle launch (STS-119) then planned for late February 2009. However, Chinese scientists have said that the debris does pose a threat to Chinese satellites in Sun-synchronous orbits, and the ISS did have to perform an avoidance maneuver due to collision debris in March 2011.

By December 2011, many pieces of debris were in a steady orbital decay towards Earth, and expected to burn up in the atmosphere within one or two years. By January 2014, 24% of the known debris had decayed. In 2016, Space News listed the collision as the fourth biggest fragmentation event in history, with Iridium 33 producing 628 pieces of cataloged debris, of which 364 pieces of tracked debris remain in orbit as of January 2016.

A small piece of Kosmos 2251 satellite debris safely passed by the International Space Station at 2:38 a.m. EDT, Saturday, March 24, 2012. As a precaution, the six crew members on board the orbiting complex took refuge inside the two docked Soyuz rendezvous spacecraft until the debris had passed.

A number of reports of phenomena in the US states of Texas, Kentucky, and New Mexico were attributed to debris from the collision in the days immediately following the first reports of the incident in 2009, although NASA and the United States Strategic Command, which tracks satellites and orbital debris, did not announce any reentries of debris at the time and reported that these phenomena were unrelated to the collision.[25] On February 13, 2009, witnesses in Kentucky heard sonic booms. The National Weather Service issued an information statement alerting residents of sonic booms due to the falling satellite debris. The Federal Aviation Administration also released a notice warning pilots of the re-entering debris. Some reports include details that point to these phenomena being caused by a meteoroid shower. A very bright meteor over Texas on February 15, 2009, was mistaken for reentering debris.


Events where two satellites approach within several kilometers of each other occur numerous times each day. Sorting through the large number of potential collisions to identify those that are high risk presents a challenge. Precise, up-to-date information regarding current satellite positions is difficult to obtain. Calculations made by CelesTrak had expected these two satellites to miss by 584 meters.

Planning an avoidance maneuver with due consideration of the risk, the fuel consumption required for the maneuver, and its effects on the satellite's normal functioning can also be challenging. John Campbell of Iridium spoke at a June 2007 forum discussing these tradeoffs and the difficulty of handling all the notifications they were getting regarding close approaches, which numbered 400 per week (for approaches within 5 km) for the entire Iridium constellation. He estimated the risk of collision per conjunction as one in 50 million.

This collision and numerous near-misses have renewed calls for mandatory disposal of defunct satellites (typically by deorbiting them or at minimum sending them in graveyard orbit), but no such international law exists yet. Nevertheless, some countries have adopted such a law, such as France in December 2010. The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires all geostationary satellites launched after March 18, 2002, to commit to moving to a graveyard orbit at the end of their operational life.

From the Wikipedia entry for 2009 SATELLITE COLLISION


(ed note: the following is real)

1978—NASA Scientist, Donald Kessler, predicts that the density of space junk in Low Earth Orbit or LEO will eventually reach a critical mass such that the random collision rate will exceed the orbital decay rate—not unlike a nuclear chain reaction. Objects in LEO maintain orbital speeds of over 26,000 kilometers/hour, enough kinetic energy for a 1-kg piece of debris to destroy a 1000-kg satellite costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Such a collision would shatter the satellite into hundreds more fragments that go on to strike still more targets. If this phenomenon is unmitigated, the collision rate will hit a tipping point, exponentially reducing the life expectancy of new satellites until space is no longer be commercially viable.

1985—US F-15A fighter shoots down a 907-kg Solwind P78-1 research satellite with an antisatellite (ASAT) missile producing an undisclosed quantity of debris.

2006—USS Lake Erie Ticonderoga class missile cruiser shoots down USA-193 spy satellite with a RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 producing an undisclosed quantity of debris.

2007—Chinese Xichang Satellite Launch Center shoots down a 750-kg Fengyun FY-1C weather satellite with an SC-19 ASAT producing more than 3000 pieces of space debris.

2009—A 560-kg Iridium-33 communications satellite and a 950-kg Kosmos-2251 communications satellite collided producing a combined total of 1788 pieces of space debris.

2013—Chinese Xichang Satellite Launch Center tested an improved SC-19 ASAT missile capable of reaching medium earth orbit (MEO), highly elliptical orbit (HEO), and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO). There are no satellites orbiting Earth that are not vulnerable to ASAT attack.

(ed note: from this point on it is science fiction)

2022—NORAD publicly announces that without increased funding from Congress and the exponential increase in fragmentation and mission-related debris, it will in the future only attempt to track large spacecraft and rocket bodies.

2023US Congress passes a bill stating that the role of NASA is as a risk-reduction agency for the commercialization of space, citing there is no further public demand for space exploration. Included in the bill is authorization to sell to private interests all NASA and Air Force facilities and equipment devoted to space launch, development, and science & exploration.

2024—Nuclear weapons, now commonplace among Second and Third world nations, are primarily seen as political immunity devices due to the international consequences of offensive use of nuclear weapons—the return of the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine (MAD). As a result, rogue nations turn to shooting down derelict satellites in LEO in order to advertise their status in the global arena.

2028—The average lifespan of a satellite is now less than three months due to increasing density of space debris. Lloyd’s of London declares it can no longer insure satellites. Commercial operations in LEO cease.

2030—SpaceCorp initiates construction of the SpaceCorp Space Station SSS Werhner Von Braun, a one kilometer spinning ring advertised as the first debris-proof instrument-hosting space station.

2038—The Von Braun is christened. 45 astronauts are killed and 427 wounded by debris strikes during its eight-year construction.

From SPACECORP by Ejner Fulsang (2014)

Orbital Debris Collection

Since the Kessler Syndrome could deny access to space for generations, it is logical to establish a (preferably multinational) organization charged with cleaning up orbital debris. But never underestimate the power of human stupidity.

Since politicians in general care little for anything happening beyond the next election cycle, they probably have little appetite for the money and poltical capital which must be spent to establish such an organization. Much like Spaceguard, actually. Action will probably be triggered by a close call or two.

And much like the manga Planetes the members of the serivce will be denigrated as "janitors" and "trash collectors".

Maybe after a partial Kessler the people (and corporations who suffer savage losses to their quarterly profits) will wake up and push for an orbital debris collection agency with teeth. Nations who recklessly launch rockets into risky trajectories will be hit with punishing sanctions. Or hit with an ODC commando team capturing the launch facilities.

And terrorists attempting to initiate a Kessler event will be a top-priority item with the counter-terrorism agencies of the world's nations. Classification: Hostis humani generis (Latin for "enemy of mankind"). Planetes had the The Space Defense Front, a terrorist organization that believes mankind is exploiting space without first curing global problems such as mass famine and the widened socio-economic divide on Earth.


The Earth is surrounded by human-made orbital debris in all shapes and sizes that includes everything from abandoned satellites and leftover rocket stages to the tiniest paint chips and droplets from spacecraft coolant systems.

The hazard is very much real. Given the ultra-fast speeds of objects in space (satellites in low-Earth orbit fly at 17,400 mph), even the most minuscule bit of rubbish could create havoc if it crashed into a functioning  spacecraft.

The question of how best to de-clutter outer space has produced a wealth of proposals: some whacky, whimsical or wanting of a sanity check. Many space junk clean-up ideas have already been proposed, including: catch-all space sweepers, fishing nets and harpoons, tethers, laser blasts, big and small space tugs.

One of the latest looks at the orbital debris quandary was completed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Released with little fanfare a few months ago, it was dubbed "The Catcher’s Mitt Study" – to assess the debris problem and its future growth, determine where the greatest problem will be for U.S. assets and then, if appropriate, explore technically and economically feasible solutions for debris removal. [Worst Space Debris Events of All Time]

Operation: Catcher’s Mitt

The report explains that active debris removal was found to be required at some point to maintain an "acceptable level" of operational risk.

"Although projections show that it may take decades for the risk to become unbearable," there are several reasons to begin development of a solution today, the Catcher's Mitt study states.

A central finding of the study is that the development of debris removal solutions should concentrate on pre-emptive removal of large debris in both low-Earth orbit (LEO) a few hundred miles above the planet, as well as geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), the realm of communications satellites and other key spacecraft about 22,400 miles (36,000 kilometers) up.

More a warning than background to the vexing dilemma of orbital debris, the Catcher's Mitt study explains that "failure to address this problem has significant implications for the success of future space missions due to the potential increased number of on-orbit collisions with non-trackable, yet lethal, debris fragments."

Significant, but manageable

Although space debris is a growing concern and will have to be addressed at some point in the future, even in the most congested low-Earth orbit altitude regimes, the current risk from orbital debris is significant … but manageable, said Wade Pulliam, manager of Advanced Concepts of Logos Technologies in Arlington, Va., and the former program manager of DARPA’s Catcher's Mitt report.

"By significant I mean that it can be one of the top single contributors to the lifecycle risk of a satellite, but manageable in that the risk is still sufficiently low that it doesn't require a change in operations," Pulliam told 

Pulliam noted that a recent study by The Aerospace Corporation projected the effects of the future debris environment over the next 30 years. It showed that for typical low-Earth orbit satellite constellations, the risk of space debris will add only 4 to 15 percent to the cost of the constellation, depending on the type of constellation.

"Of course, debris risk is statistical, so there may not be any problem at all or a collision will take out a satellite requiring a spare to be built and launched," Pulliam said. Still, a new significant debris event could statistically happen tomorrow which would greatly accelerate the growing risk and require a more immediate response, he cautioned.

Tragedy of the commons

In the big picture, Pulliam said that he considers orbital debris a human-made environmental problem.

"Although space is not an ecosystem per se, the problem is dependent on the cumulative effects of human activity over and above the ability of the nature system to balance like any other environmental challenge," Pulliam said.

Additionally, Pulliam advised that the constraints on finding an agreeable, cost-effective solution are remarkably similar to other current environmental issues. Specifically, the orbital debris problem can be characterized as a "tragedy of the commons."

The problem can also be explained by what is called "common but differentiated responsibility," which is also seen in other worldwide environmental challenges such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and global warming, Pulliam pointed out.

"It is likely new space-faring nations will make a similar argument if current mitigations efforts prove to be insufficient to forestall the deterioration of the low-Earth orbit environment and an international agreement on debris removal is required," Pulliam advised.

There is a "therefore" to Pulliam's view: That is, if you are one that believes that debris has become a risk which will soon make operations difficult in low-Earth orbit, then a top-priority has to be in continued research into cost-effective methods to remove debris mass already in orbit. That's because this mass is what will cause the future growth in the debris population. 

"There are many approaches that have been postulated for debris removal, but determining which are the most cost effective and demonstrating their utility is necessary to formulating a response to the overall problem with the lowest cost and risk," Pulliam said.

Up in the air

One lingering question that remains — putting think tank studies aside —is exactly who is in charge of orbital debris cleanup?

In the United States, the initial lead for Department of Defense (DoD) efforts regarding debris removal as called for in the new U.S. National Space Policy is reportedly the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

But still up for grabs (like space junk itself) is the delegation of the task to a particular organization within DoD. For example: the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory; the Space and Missile Systems Center; or perhaps the Naval Research Laboratory.

"I think that the DARPA's Catcher's Mitt study clearly said that going after large, trackable, derelict debris is the most likely best recourse for debris cleanup," said Darren McKnight, technical director at Integrity Applications Incorporated in Chantilly, Va. "However, the best means to remove the large derelict objects is very much up in the air."

If history is any indication of the future, "the first large derelict debris removal action will most likely occur with a complicated, expensive rendezvous, grapple and move with a traditional propulsion system … though this approach will not scale well for the multiple objects that will likely have to be removed over the next few decades," McKnight told

The price of delaying action

McKnight likens the orbital debris situation today to the observations of Nassim Taleb, author of "The Black Swan - The Impact of the Highly Improbable." The book describes the difficulty of dealing with highly improbable and highly unpredictable events that have severe repercussions.

Taleb accentuates the plight for those who try to prevent "Black Swans" because they are never appreciated if they are successful, since preventing something that was highly unlikely to begin with does not bring acclaim. Often, it is quite to the contrary; they actually get ridiculed for their attempts to prevent events that others have difficulty even imagining.

"I hope that we do not have such a situation with active debris removal actions. While the calculus of delaying action is much clearer, it will still require some vision from policymakers and technologists to act now to start real programs for active debris removal," McKnight said. "Nobody has won the Nobel Prize for preventing a disaster that never occurred."


At 16:56 UTC on August 29, 2009, an Iridium communications satellite suddenly fell silent. In the hours that followed, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network reported that it was tracking two large clouds of debris—one from the Iridium and another from a defunct Russian military satellite called Cosmos 2251.

The debris was the result of a high-speed collision, the first time this is known to have happened between orbiting satellites. The impact created over 1,000 fragments greater than 10 centimeters in size and a much larger number of smaller pieces. This debris spread out around the planet in a deadly cloud.

Space debris is a pressing problem for Earth-orbiting spacecraft, and it could get significantly worse. When the density of space debris reaches a certain threshold, analysts predict that the fragmentation caused by collisions will trigger a runaway chain reaction that will fill the skies with ever increasing numbers of fragments. By some estimates that process could already be underway.

An obvious solution is to find a way to remove this debris. One option is to zap the larger pieces with a laser, vaporizing them in parts and causing the leftovers to deorbit. However, smaller pieces of debris cannot be dealt with in this way because they are difficult to locate and track.

Another option is send up a spacecraft capable of mopping up debris with a net or some other capture process. But these missions are severely limited by the amount of fuel they can carry.

Today, Lei Lan and pals from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, propose a different solution. Their idea is to build an engine that converts space debris into propellant and so can maneuver itself almost indefinitely as it mops up the junk.

Their idea is simple in principle. At a high enough temperature, any element can be turned into a plasma of positive ions and electrons. This can be used as a propellant by accelerating it through an electric field.

The details are complex, however. In particular, the task of turning debris into a usable plasma is not entirely straightforward.

Lei and co focus their efforts on debris that is smaller than 10 centimeters in size, the stuff that laser ablation cannot tackle. Their idea is to capture the debris using a net and then transfer it to a ball mill. This is a rotating cylinder partially filled with abrasion-resistant balls that grind the debris into powder.

This powder is heated and fed into a system that separates positively charged ions from negatively charged electrons. The positive ions then pass into a powerful electric field that accelerates them to high energy, generating thrust as they are expelled as exhaust. The electrons are also expelled to keep the spacecraft electrically neutral.

Of course, the actual thrust this produces depends on the density of debris, the nature of the powder it produces, on the size of the positive ions, and so on. All this is hard to gauge.

And while the spacecraft does not need to carry propellant, it will need a source of power. Just where this will come from isn’t clear. Lei and co say that solar and nuclear power will suffice but do not address the serious concerns that any nuclear-powered spacecraft in Earth orbit will generate.

Nevertheless, the work provides food for thought. Space debris is an issue that looks likely to get significantly worse in the near future. It is an area where new ideas are desperately needed before the next big collision fills Earth’s orbits with even more debris.

(ed note: for more details, see: )

Ref: : Debris Engine: A Potential Thruster for Space Debris Removal


     Faced with the challenge of capturing tumbling satellites to clear key orbits, ESA is considering turning to an ancient terrestrial technology: the harpoon.
     Used since the Stone Age, first to spear fish and later to catch whales, the humble harpoon is being looked at for snagging derelict space hardware.
     Decades of launches have left Earth surrounded by a halo of space junk: more than 17 000 trackable objects larger than a coffee cup, threatening working missions with catastrophic collision. Even a 1 cm nut could slam into a valuable satellite with the force of a hand grenade.
     The only way to control the debris cloud across crucial lower orbits — like those that allow observation satellites to go on monitoring our planet at the same local time of day — is to remove large items such as derelict satellites and rocket upper stages.
     These uncontrolled multitonne objects are time bombs: sooner or later they will be involved in a collision. That is, if they don’t explode earlier due to leftover fuel or partially charged batteries heated up by sunlight.
      The resulting debris clouds would make these vital orbits much more hazardous and expensive to use, and follow-on collisions may eventually trigger a chain reaction of break-ups.
     To avoid this outcome, ESA’s Clean Space initiative is working on the e.DeOrbit mission for flight in 2021. Its sophisticated sensors and autonomous control will identify and home in on a target — potentially of several tonnes and tumbling uncontrollably.
     Then comes the challenge of capturing and securing it. Several different solutions have been considered, including a throw-net, clamping mechanisms, robotic arms — and a tethered harpoon.
     The harpoon concept has already undergone initial investigations by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage, UK.
     Harpoons rely on three physical actions to ensure safe and clean grasping: a high-energy impact into the target, piercing the structure and then reeling it in.
     A prototype harpoon was shot into representative satellite material to assess its penetration, its strength as the target is pulled close and the generation of additional fragments that might threaten the e.DeOrbit satellite.


laser broom is a proposed ground-based laser beam-powered propulsion system whose purpose is to sweep space debris out of the path of other artificial satellites such as the International Space Station. It would heat one side of an object enough to change its orbit and make it hit the atmosphere sooner.

Technical description

Lasers are designed to target debris between one and ten centimeters in diameter. Collisions with such debris are commonly of such high velocity that considerable damage and numerous secondary fragments are the result. The laser broom is intended to be used at high enough power to penetrate through the atmosphere with enough remaining power to ablate material from the target. The ablating material imparts a small thrust that lowers its orbital perigee into the upper atmosphere, thereby increasing drag so that its remaining orbital life is short. The laser would operate in pulsed mode to avoid self-shielding of the target by the ablated plasma. The power levels of lasers in this concept are well below the power levels in concepts for more rapidly effective anti-satellite weapons.

NASA research in 2011 indicated that firing a laser beam at a piece of space junk could alter velocity by 0.04 inches (1.0 mm) per second. Persisting with these small velocity changes for a few hours per day could alter its course by 650 feet (200 m) per day. While not causing the junk to reenter, this could maneuver it to avoid a collision.

Other funded research into this area refutes NASA's claim and demonstrates the precise physics involved, which shows that space debris is re-entered regardless of the direction of laser illumination. Using a laser guide star and adaptive optics, a sufficiently large ground based laser (1 megajoule pulsed HF laser) can deorbit dozens of objects per day at reasonable cost. This work was summarized in an article in Wired Magazine.

From the Wikipedia entry for LASER BROOM

The Patrol

The Patrol is sort of the space version of the the police, coast guard, border patrol, pirate fighters, spacecraft safety inspectors, and customs agents.

There is no hard and fast division between the Orbit Guard and the Patrol. They sort of blur into each other. In some cases they might merge into one organization. The Orbit Guard is more biased to the civilian/search-and-rescue end of the spectrum, while the Patrol is biased more to the military/pirate-hunting end of the spectrum.

In the realm of science fiction, the Patrol was created by many authors. But the most well developed was in the space operas of Andre Norton. Norton's Patrol is right in the gray area between civilian and military, a combination of the police and the space navy. They appear in Star Rangers, the Jern Murdoc series, Star Hunter, and the Solar Queen series.

I wasn't sure how to logically justify such an organization, but Rob Garitta has a brilliant solution in his essay below:


My series of posts have tried to wake up merchants and other spacers to the colorful travellers and phenomena of the space lanes. Mind the colorful people are usually pirates and barbarians and the phenomena you could usually do without. Sorry, those are the thought that come to me out of the ether. I just get custody of them, as George Carlin once said (I'd love to say I wrote this during a lightning storm with a bottle of Scotch in my hand but alas it's a sunny day and I'm sipping iced tea.)

Anyway besides your basic pirates there's another group out there to worry about. They are every bit as relentless (maybe more), they have better technology, they have excellent crews. The Polity Navy takes a dim view of them many times. I refer to the Patrol (with a nod to Lady Andre Norton of course).

There is no branch called the Patrol in most Polities but it's there. Politics indicates a Polity will field fleets to prevent invasion, and rebellion. These fleets will have the most powerful ships and weapons available as well as the highest technology level.

These fleets will be idle and trying to look busy 99% of the time. It's that other 1% that you keep them around for: war, blockades, rebellions, invasions, and spitting on the GHU-Emperor's statue. For fighting pirates these fleets are almost 100% useless. In building big ships to serve as deterrents you are concentrating your forces. Fighting a group of pirates or a smuggling fleet with a fleet like this is much like taking a sledgehammer to a swarm of gnats. The pirates go where the big ships aren't. Big ships require a scheduled route for political and defense considerations. This may be the same thing. Fleet Day may come early if your Planetary Baron is feeling uppity. Pray they leave early too.

Add to this that a remote central government probably doesn't give a chinchilla's ass about your local concerns or the distress call of that lousy 200 ton free trader ... Roland, Siegfried? I forget the name.

After paying their share of taxes for the Polity fleet member worlds with any sort of leaderships will tighten their belts and pay another tax for their local fleet, usually referred to as the Patrol. Yes it is part of the Navy, much as some regard the Marines as part of the US Navy. You try telling a Marine that and I'll take pictures. Apart from a temporary alliance the Patrol and the Fleet do not work that closely. While the Fleet exists to protect the Polity, the Patrol takes care of things on a local level.

The frontier navy does not have the budget of the Fleet. Small ships are used with local technology that do not require special bases or technicians to maintain. Crew are small. There's no Marine equivalent, ship troops handle boarding actions. Ship's boats (30 dtons or average of 8.4 metric tons) are used extensively to augment firepower in a sort of mini-battlerider strategy. These ships are crucial in raiding pirate bases that traditionally have landing fields that are a nightmare for large ships.

The Patrol has relatively small ships (800 dtons {2,230 metric tons} and under and darned few 800 dton ships {warships are more like 300,000 metric tons}). They do try to be everywhere. They use technology locally available and are built for lengthy patrols. Finally the Patrol skipper has a high degree of autonomy. Beyond a few scheduled stopovers for various concerns a Patrol skipper has a group of star system they patrol in whatever fashion they choose, barring orders from above.

The autonomy part gives pirates the fits. The Fleet makes a show of arriving and leaving and goes for shock and awe. It's like a marching band. The Patrol shows up where and when you least expect it, much like the guy who steps on a subway train, starts playing a flute and passes the hat around.

There's a difference in culture as well. Navy officers (and crew where possible) will often be stationed in ships and fleets far from their homeworlds. Their first loyalties and interests are to the Polity, not some locals (barring shore leave.) The crew of the Patrol are the locals. The Fleet regards anti-piracy missions as search and destroy missions (usually against a base or a lone ship with phenomenally bad luck/judgement). The Patrol uses local contacts and local rumor mills to ferret out the informants and fences so necessary for successful pirate enterprises. There are even instances of one pirate ring informing on another group invading their territory to the Patrol. After all locals look out for each other.

The Parol is also relentless in mounting sting operations often using upgunned merchant ships or captured pirate vessels. These stings extend to Patrol crew operating undercover in starports to report suspicious goings on. Besides their own contacts and agents the Patrol cultivates good relations with the Scouts and the Free Traders. Both are valuable sources of information on local shipping. In the case of the traders some helpful tips might lead to the Patrol looking the other way when you have some duty free cargo in your hold.

The system is not perfect. For one thing in some areas the Patrol amounts to a private navy beholding only to its homeworld and little else. In Polities that are confederations local navies may be dominant. These look to their own world leaders and admiralty for orders first then the Polity. The central government usually takes a dim view of this and restricts ship size and armament when it can.

Even so Patrols are often scenes of power struggles as local commanders do not always cooperate with others in a cluster funded navy. It gets worse if one or more worlds rebels against the Polity. In the case of a rebellion the Patrol is usually the first to get the ax. The Polity Fleet will regard them as possibly disloyal and move to disarm them and intern their ships. Similarly some local planets may regard them as tainted by offworld contacts and interests and move to eliminate their officers at the very least.

In a final  sign that the Universe's most fundamental force is irony: many Patrol ships faced with their homeworld turning rebel, turn pirate.

From THE OTHER FLEET by Rob Garitta (2016)

Yes, they will sometimes have to do naval boarding in the discharge of their duties.

Part of the Space Patrol's mission will involve checking out suspicious, rather than overtly hostile, activity, as with the present Coast Guard. If you know that Space Transport THX-1138 has been seized by Space Pirates (tm) who slaughtered the entire crew, you can lase it from a thousand kilometers away. If you're only guessing on the basis of some strange comm traffic, you've got to put a boarding party on the ship. If they are unarmed, you are only sending the pirates hostages.

From Dr. John Schilling

Evasion tactics? Easy enough. Axiomatically, it is impossible to stop a hostile ship in space. A cop can match course with a smuggler, but he cannot make an arrest unless the smuggler cooperates—or runs out of fuel. He can blow the ship out of space, or even ram with a good autopilot; but how can he connect airlocks with a ship that keeps firing its drive in random bursts? Brennan could head anywhere, and all the Outsider could do was follow or destroy him.

From PROTECTOR by Larry Niven (1973)

Related organizations are the Spaceguard, Laser Guard, and Santa Guard. These may be part of the Patrol, or totally separate agencies.


     THERE is an old legend concerning a Roman Emperor, who, to show his power, singled out the Tribune of a loyal legion and commanded that he march his men across Asia to the end of the world. And so a thousand men vanished into the hinterland of the largest continent, to be swallowed up for ever. On some unknown battlefield the last handful of survivors must have formed a square which was overwhelmed by a barbarian charge. And their eagle may have stood lonely and tarnished in a horsehide tent for a generation thereafter. But it may be guessed, by those who know of the pride of these men in their corps and tradition, that they did march east as long as one still remained on his feet.
     In 8054 A.D. history repeated itself — as it always does. The First Galactic Empire was breaking up. Dictators, Emperors, Consolidators wrested the rulership of their own or kindred solar systems from Central Control. Space pirates raised flags and recruited fleets to gorge on spoil plundered from this wreckage. It was a time in which only the ruthless could flourish.
     Here and there a man, or a group of men, tried vainly to dam the flood of disaster and disunion. And, notable among these last-ditch fighters who refused to throw aside their belief in the impartial rule of Central Control were the remnants of the Stellar Patrol, a law enforcement body whose authority had existed unchallenged for almost a thousand years. Perhaps it was because there was no longer any security to be found outside their own ranks that these men clung the closer to what seemed in the new age to be an out worn code of ethics and morals. And their stubborn loyalty to a vanished ideal was both exasperating and pitiful to the new rulers.
     Jorcam Dester, the last Control Agent of Deneb, who was nursing certain ambitions of his own, solved in the Roman manner the problem of ridding his sector of the Patrol He summoned the half dozen officers still commanding navigable ships and ordered them — under the seal of the Control — out into space, to locate (as he said) and re map forgotten galactic border systems no one had visited in at least four generations. He offered a vague promise to establish new bases from which the Patrol might rise again, invigorated and revived, to fight for the Control ideals. And, faithful to their very ancient trust, they upped-ship on this mission, undermanned, poorly supplied, without real hope, but determined to carry out orders to the last.
     One of these ships was the Vegan Scout — Starfire

     THE PATROL ship, Starfire, Vegan registry, came into her last port in the early morning. And she made a bad landing, for two of her eroded tubes blew just as the pilot tried to set her down on her fins. She had bounced then, bounced and buckled, and now she lay on her meteor-scarred side.

     “This system is far off our maps—very far removed from all the benefits of our civilization!”
     The benefits of Central Control civilization, yes. Kartr blinked as that struck home. His own planet, Ylene, had been burned off five years ago—during the Two-Sector Rebellion. And yet he sometimes still dreamed of taking the mail rocket back, of wearing his ranger uniform, proud with the Five Sector Bars and the Far Roving Star, of going up into the forest country—to a little village by the north sea. Burned off—! He had never been able to visualize boiled rock where that village had stood—or the dead cinder which was the present Ylene—a horrible monument to planetary war.

     “Go along and check the rest of the wreckage, fly-boy—”
     Fly-boy, eh? Well, the high and mighty senior service of the Patrol should be glad that the fly-boys were with them during this tour of duty. Rangers were trained to calculate and use the products of any strange world. After a crack up they would certainly be more at home in an alien wilderness than Patrol-crewmen.

     Because of the old division of the ship’s personnel—Patrol crew and rangers—Kartr did not know him very well.
     “You can easily accept the idea that we’re through,” the com-techneer was saying now. “You’ve never been tied to this hunk of metal the way we are. Your duty is on planets—not in space. The Starfire is a part of Vibor—he can’t just walk into the wide blue now and forget all about her. Neither can Jaksan.”
     “All right. I can believe that the ship might mean more to you, her regular crew, than she does to us,” agreed Kartr almost wearily. “But she’s a dead ship now and nothing any of us or all of us can do will make her ready to lift again. We’d best leave her—try to establish a base somewhere near food and water—”

     The rangers were not admitted to the inner circle of the Patrol—they were only tolerated. He was not a graduate of a sector academy, or even a product of the ranks. His father had not been Patrol before him. So he had always been aloof from the crew. The discipline of the Service, always strict, had been tightening more and more into a rigid caste system, even during the few years he had worn the Comet—perhaps because the Service itself had been cut off from the regular life of the average citizens.

     If Kartr felt alien in Patrol crews because he was not only a specialized ranger but also a barbarian from a frontier system, what must Fylh or Zinga feel—they who could not even claim the kinship of a common species?

     And Kartr knew that he must see too. As a ranger-explorer he had walked the soil of countless planets in myriad systems—nowadays he found it hard to reckon how many. There were some easy to remember, of course, because of their horror or their strange inhabitants. But the rest were only a maze of color and queer life in his mind and he had to refer to old reports and the ship’s log to recall facts. The thrill he had once known, when he pushed for the first time through alien vegetation, or tried to catch the mind waves of things he could not see, had long since gone. But now, as he scrabbled for a hand hold and dug the toes of his boots into hollows in the gritty rock, he began to recapture a faint trace of that forgotten emotion.

     The sled rode the air smoothly, purring gently. That last tune-up they had given her had done the trick after all. Even though they had had to work from instructions recorded on a ten-year-old repair manual tape. She had been given the last of the condensers. They had practically no spare parts left now—
     "Zinga," Kartr demanded suddenly of his seat mate. "Were you ever in a real Control fitting and repair port?"
     "No," replied the Zacathan cheerfully. "And I sometimes think that they are only stories invented for the amusement of the newly hatched. Since I was mustered into the service we have always done the best we could to make our own repairs—with what we could find or steal. Once we had a complete overhaul—it took us almost three months—we had two wrecked ships to strip for other parts. What a wealth of supplies! That was on Karbon, four—no, five space years ago. We still had a head mech-techneer in the crew then and he supervised the job. Fylh—what was his name?"
     "Ratan. He was a robot from Deneb II. We lost him the next year in an acid lake on a blue star world. He was very good with engines—being one himself."
     "What has been happening to Central Control—to us?" asked Kartr slowly. "Why don't we have proper equipment—supplies—new recruits?"
     "Breakdown," replied Fylh crisply. "Maybe Central Control is too big, covers too many worlds, spreads its authority too thin and too far. Or perhaps it is too old so that it loses hold. Look at the sector wars, the pull for power between sector chiefs. Don't you think that Central Control would stop that—if it could?"
     "But the Patrol—"
     Fylh trilled laughter. "Ah, yes, the Patrol. We are the stubborn survivals, the wrongheaded ones. We maintain that we, the Stellar Patrol, crewmen and rangers, still keep the peace and uphold galactic law. We fly here and there in ships which fall to pieces under us because there are no longer those with the knowledge and skill to repair them properly. We fight pirates and search forgotten skies—for what, I wonder? We obey commands given to us over the signature of the two Cs. We are fast becoming an anachronism, antiques still alive but better dead. And one by one we vanish from space. We should all be rounded up and set in some museum for the planet-bound to gawk at, objects with no reasonable function—"
     "What will happen to Central Control?" Kartr wondered and set his teeth as a lurch of the sled stabbed his arm against Zinga's tough ribs and jarred his wrist.
     "The galactic empire—this galactic empire," pronounced the Zacathan with a grin which told of his total disinterest in the matter, "is falling apart. Within five years we've lost touch with as many sectors, haven't we? C.C. is just a name now as far as its power runs. In another generation it may not even be remembered. We've had a long run—about three thousand years—and the seams are beginning to gap. Sector wars now—the result—chaos. We'll slip back fast—probably far back, maybe even into planet-tied barbarianism with space flight forgotten. Then we'll start all over again—"
     "Maybe," was Fylh's pessimistic reply. "But you and I, dear friend, will not be around to witness that new dawn—"
     Zinga nodded agreement. "Not that our absence will matter. We have found us a world to make the best of right here and now. How far off civilized maps are we?" he asked the sergeant.
     They had flashed maps on the viewing screen in the ship, maps noted on tapes so old that the dates on them seemed wildly preposterous, maps of suns and stars no voyager had visited in two, three, five generations, where Control had had no contact for half a thousand years. Kartr had studied those maps for weeks. And on none of them had he seen this system. They were too far out—too near the frontier of the galaxy. The map tape which had carried the record of this world—provided there had ever been one at all—must have rusted away past using, forgotten in some pigeonhole of Control archives generations ago.
     "Completely." He took a sort of sour pleasure in that answer.

     “Why don’t you just blast it?” demanded Snyn querulously. “All this stupid ‘don’t kill this—don’t kill that’! The thing’s only an animal after all—”
     “Shut up!” Smitt gave the crewman a slight push to set him going. “Don’t try to teach a ranger his business. Remember, if they hadn’t made contact with those purple jelly flying things we wouldn’t have come through the Greenie attack—those devils would have wiped us out without warning.

     Kartr studied him almost critically and then glanced down along the length of his own body. Their vlis hide boots and belts had survived without a scratch in spite of the rough life in the bush. And those blazing Comet badges were still gleaming on breast and helmet. Even if that Comet was modified by the crossed dart and leaf of a ranger it was the insignia of the Patrol. And he who wore it had authority to appear anywhere in the galaxy without question — in fact by rights the questions were his to ask.

From STAR RANGERS by Andre Norton, 1953.
Collected in STAR SOLDIERS (2001), currently a free eBook in the Baen free library.

Space Patrol Ships


This leaves the question of what sort of vessel would be used as a light patrol craft in orbital space.  This might be best described as a cutter or a patrol boat, and would be intended for use in a friendly orbit with nearby basing facilities.  Each watch would have a crew of at least three — officer, sensors/weapons, and helm, though the number might rise higher for workload reasons.  Particularly if there are a significant number of vessels to monitor, multiple sensor operators might be required.  After 6 hours on watch, efficiency drops dramatically, so while a short-endurance vessel might get away with one shift and a microwave, a vessel designed for anything more than that will need multiple watches, some facilities for off-duty crew, and probably a mechanic or two.  (In most circumstances it would make more sense to place all of this on a customs base of some sort instead of on the cutter itself.)

Because the cutter will be called upon to perform boarding missions, the crew might well be outnumbered by the Espatiers detachment.  Weapons fit would be limited, probably to a medium laser for takedowns, and maybe an EMP generator (assuming such a weapon is practical).  Heavy kinetics are unlikely to be seen on patrol craft for reasons mentioned in Section 6, although surface-effect and precise unitary ones are potentially useful.  The drive is most likely to be nuclear-thermal, though chemfuel is possible, particularly for smaller craft.

At the low end of the boarding-craft spectrum, we have a one-shift vessel with a crew of three, incapable of true independent operation.  It’s dispatched to hunt down a specific target and deliver a squad or two of Espatiers.

At the high end is a vessel ("large cutter") that has a crew of a two dozen, can operate independently for a month or more, carries a full platoon of Espatiers, and can serve as a light warship if necessary.  A vessel of this size might carry a small, probably unarmed parasite intended to transport a squad of Espatiers over to a potentially hostile vessel.  It has been suggested that this sort of vessel might have a modular troop/weapons bay, allowing it to serve as a corvette as well as a cutter.  The biggest limit on its endurance is the lack of a spin hab, which would adversely affect the health of the onboard Espatiers.

All of this leads to the question of patrol outside one’s own orbital space.  The scenario in question is one that resembles more than anything else is that of the various naval detachments of the 19th century, such as the Asiatic Squadron and the China Station.  The objective is to protect the power’s interests, and those of their nationals engaged in commerce, in a relatively wild part of space.

Several people have suggested some form of “patrol carrier” or “space control ship”, as discussed in Section 1.  This would involve a single large ship with several parasites, and possibly significant weapons of its own.

The parasites would be responsible for a number of missions, and would likely be a modular system.  At the largest end are the drives which serve as the basis for manned missions.  Option probably include general shuttle (passengers and light cargo), boarding shuttle (espatiers and maybe a few weapons), gunboat/scout (light weapons) and heavy lancers (used to threaten someone into seeing things your way).  Smaller drives would be used for recon, light lancer, and other uses.  The exact numbers and capabilities of each are dependent on both technical and operational details outside the scope of this paper.

It has also been suggested that modularity could be extended to the patrol carrier itself.  The parasite bays could be swapped out for supplies, quarters, or even additional weapons as needed for the mission.

The drawback to the concept is that the owing power’s entire presence in the area is dependent on a single ship.  If the patrol carrier is damaged or destroyed, the parasites will likely be sitting ducks for an enemy.  On the other hand, the same could largely be said of US aircraft carriers today.

The patrol cruiser carrier is more likely to be used in large areas, such as a planetary moon system, where there are multiple powers and multiple potential issues simultaneously.

If the objective is to keep an eye on one specific power, it makes as much sense to simply keep a single “frigate” on station.  This frigate would resemble the large cutter described above, but with more weapons and the capability to support its crew for months at a time.

Another alternative for presence missions is to keep most of one’s forces centralized, ready to react to situations.  Some small presence ships would probably remain on station to handle minor issues, while centralization would theoretically allow savings in forces.  The biggest potential issue is the possibility that the smaller ships will be unable to handle problems that could be stopped by the bigger forces.  This also suffers from the problems mentioned below involving variable transit time.

One potential issue that this type of ship (or any ship on a distant station) suffers from is the fact that it is several weeks to several months away from help.  This means that if any problem develops, it will have to deal with it out of its own resources.  The obvious comparison is to the age of sail, but that analogy falls apart when one considers that communication lags will be hours long at most.  Not only that, travel times will vary significantly with orbital positions.  Anyone trying to make trouble, particularly someone planning a rebellion, would take that into consideration.  At the same time, their opponents would be able to see the same thing, and would probably step up security at times when help is furthest away.

Another issue for distant stations is supply and operations.  The problem is quite simply that even with high-Plausible Mid-Future (high-PMF) drive tech, shipping in all of the supplies required is incredibly expensive, and the operational issues are even worse.  Typical wet Navy cruises are six months or so (including port visits.  SSBNs, which are probably the best analogy for long-duration spacecraft, only stay out for 90 days) and transit time will be at least a month.  This in turn means that it will probably take at least 4 ships for every one that is forward-deployed.  The obvious solution to this is to home-base the ships at the area to be patrolled.  This in turn requires a local ally, making it only useful in balkanized territories.  Even the use of a semi-neutral power for supply is a dubious proposition.  They could be pressured to cut off your supplies, or someone could slip a nuclear weapon aboard a supply shuttle.

It has been suggested that pre-positioned fleets could be used as forward defense against a potential enemy invasion.  This falls afoul of three issues.  First, as described above, the supply problems are likely to be horrendous.  Any power that is strong enough to pose a potential invasion threat is likely to dominate the area to the extent that a friendly supply base is not available.  Second, said enemy will be able to easily overwhelm your forward-deployed forces (see the 4 to 1 ratio described above).  Thirdly, the legal issues with deploying forces in their Hill Sphere are likely to be significant.  It would be a far better plan to use InterPlanetary Ballistic Missiles (IPBMs) to wear them down as their fleet approached, and concentrate your forces to defeat whatever arrives.  The fact that the operational costs of the deployment are not incurred would also allow the purchase of more vessels, and a better force ratio at home.

Another suggestion for military patrols is the use of cyclers.  A cycler is a large space station launched into a specific orbit so that it passes by two planets repeatedly and at predictable intervals.   Due to orbital mechanics, they generally make a quick passage in one direction, and a slow one in the other.  The idea behind cyclers is that they avoid accelerating and decelerating lots of equipment that is used on every trip, such as life support and passenger quarters.  The cycler itself provides no aid in accelerating and decelerating the passengers/cargo during transfers.  The problem is that this only makes sense when delta-V is very expensive.  The low duty cycle of the cycler is a significant problem, as is the need for perfect rendezvous with it.  In most PMF settings, nuclear-electric drives would render them obsolete.

For military use, the cycler is even worse.  To quote Milo: “So wait, are you postulating large, poorly mobile weapons platforms that fly past planets on predictable courses at high speeds?”  The actual concept proposed was to use the cycler more as a base than as the weapon platform itself, but a number of issues remain.  The cycler is vulnerable in the extreme to kinetics, even unguided ones, and it has a very low ‘duty cycle’ with respect to its target, which means either extremely high costs, low visit rates, or weak patrols.  It also greatly simplifies the task of anyone planning mischief.  They know exactly when the patrol will arrive and how long it will stay.  It has been suggested that the cycler could take care of some of the housekeeping issues for the carried warships, but this is impractical in operation.  The ships would be unable to fight over long periods, and would have to leave when the cycler did, or be forced to stay until the next pass.

An alternative to cyclers is some form of ‘Mobile Base.’  This is quite similar to the proposed cycler, but instead of swinging by every few years, it moves to the area of interest and stays until the problem is solved.  This base carries extra remass, supplies, ammo, repair equipment, and probably R&R facilities for the crews.  It can afford to use lower-powered engines and less delta-V than a conventional warship, as it is only intended to deploy for serious crises which will occur over prolonged periods.  The combat vessels would arrive early and stay on station until the base got there, and then use it to remain operational.

by Byron Coffey (2019)

It was true that officers were not supposed to leave a ship while under way, but notwithstanding the regulations, Beckley saw no good reason for making them forego their daily exercise. The Pollux was swinging lazily in a wide orbit about the Jovian System, her electronic blasts cold and dark, patrolling for routine traffic-control purposes. Forbidding men to go over the side was as senseless a restriction as to prohibit swimming from an anchored ship.

He made his way to the boat deck, and as he stepped out of the air lock onto the broad fin he was impressed by the size of the huge vessel. Its hull sloped upward and away from him, gray in the dim light of a dwindled sun, and he saw for the first time the row of alcoves let into the ship’s side that sheltered the boats. Those, he knew, were used for the reconnaissance of asteroids or areas too rugged to put the ship down on, or for minor searches, or for rescue expeditions. Star-class cruisers, being designed for all-planet service, were equipped with vertical and horizontal fins to stabilize them when easing into an atmosphere, and the horizontal ones made ideal landing decks for their boats.

It fell to Fraser’s lot to conduct the Abandon Ship Drill. The Polliwogs were tense as televox repeaters throughout the ship chanted the call to the boats. Number 3, on the starboard side, was a balky sl*t. Five times out of six her tube would not fire unless preheated with a blowtorch. It was a mystery why, for they had successively put in four spares and still Number 3 performed in the same erratic manner. But today she took off like a startled dove at the first touch of the coxswain’s button. Pure luck that was, for there was not a chance to use the torch with watchful umpires writing down all they saw.

The Castor Beans pawed through the returned boats, looking for error, but their search was unsuccessful. Boat boxes were correct, down to the first aid kit, as was the power installation and the handling. Fraser drew another four-o and was excused.

From ADMIRAL'S INSPECTION by Malcolm Jameson (1940)
Hab Module100 tons
Consumables25 tons
Other Payload75 tons
Total Payload200 tons
Propulsion Bus
Engine+Radiator200 tons
Tankages+Keel100 tons
Dry Mass475 tons
Loaded Mass500 tons
Propellant Mass500 tons
Wet Mass1000 tons

The discussion thread about 'Industrial Scale of Space' veered, among other things, into a discussion of patrol missions in space. My first reaction was that (so long as you aren't dealing with an interstellar setting) there is no place in space for wartime patrol missions. But the matter might be more complicated, and for story purposes probably should be.

According to The Free Dictionary, patrol is The act of moving about an area especially by an authorized and trained person or group, for purposes of observation, inspection, or security. This fits my own sense of the word, and is in fact a bit broader, 'security' including SSBN patrols, which are not observing or inspecting anything, just waiting for a launch order if it comes.

In a reductionist way you could say that all military spacecraft are on patrol, since they are all on orbit, and if they are orbiting a planet they have a very regular 'patrol area.' But this is not what most of us have in mind. We picture a patrol making a sweep through an area, looking for anything unusual, ready to engage any enemy they encounter, or report it and shadow it if they cannot engage it.

Back in the rocketpunk era it was plausible that, say, Earth might send a patrol past Ceres to see if the Martians had established a secret base there. But (alas!) telescopes 'patrolling' from Earth orbit can easily observe the large scale logistics traffic involved in establishing a base; watch it depart Mars and track it to Ceres. If you want a closer look you can send a robotic spy probe. If you engage in 'reconnaissance in force' by attacking Ceres, that is a task force, not a patrol.

In an all out interplanetary war there may be plenty of uncertainty on both sides, but very little of it can be resolved by sending out patrols.

But of course all-out war is not the context in which the Space Patrol became familiar. I associate it with Heinlein's Patrol; apparently the 1950s TV series had an independent origin (unlike Tom Corbett, who was Heinlein's unacknowledged literary child).

The rocketpunk-era Patrol, which in turn gave us Starfleet, was placed in the distinctly midcentury future setting of a Federation. This is as zeerust as monorails. But plausible patrolling is not confined to Federation settings. It can justified in practically any situation but all out war.

Orbital patrol in Earth orbital space will surely be the first space patrol, and could be imagined in this century. It might initially be a general emergency response force, because travel times in Earth orbital space are short enough for classical rescue missions. On the interplanetary scale, with travel times of weeks or more likely months, rescue is rarely possible. But eventually power players will want some kind of police presence or flag showing in deep space.

As so often in these discussions, I picture a complex and ambiguous environment in which policing, diplomacy, and sometimes low level conflict blur together. To take again our Earth-Mars-Ceres example, there are kinds of reconnaissance that cannot be carried out by robots (short of high level AIs). If Ceres closes its airlocks to liberty parties from a visiting Earth patrol ship, that conveys some important intelligence information.

The ships that perform these missions will be fairly large (and expensive). They must carry a hab pod providing prolonged life support for a significant crew: at least a commander and staff, SWAT team of espatiers, and some support for both.

Let us say a crew of 25—which is cutting the human presence very fine. Now we can venture a mass estimate. Allow 100 tons for the hab compartment plus 25 tons for crew and stores plus 75 tons other payload, for a total payload of 200 tons. Let the drive bus be 200 tons for the drive, including radiators, and 100 tons for tankage, keel, and sundry equipment.

Our patrol ship with a crew of 25 thus has a dry mass of 475 tons, mass fully equipped 500 tons, plus 500 tons propellant for a full load departure mass of 1000 tons. Cost by my usual rule of thumb is equivalent to $500 million, perhaps $1 billion after milspecking, expensive compared to military planes, cheaper than major naval combatants.

This is no small ship. If the propellant is liquid hydrogen the tanks have a volume of about 7000 cubic meters, equivalent to a 7000 ton submarine. The payload section is about two thirds the mass of the ISS and of roughly comparable size, though the hab is probably spun giving the prolonged missions.

Armament is necessarily modest. The 75 tons of additional payload allowance probably must include a ferry craft for the espatiers and an escort gunship or two, plus their service pod, leaving perhaps 15-20 tons each for kinetics and a laser installation. The laser might be good for 20 megawatts beam power, with plug power from the 200 megawatt drive engine.

This ship is no laser star, but the laser is respectable. Assuming a modest 5 meter main mirror and a near IR wavelength of 1000 nanometers, at a range of 1000 km it can burn through Super Nano Carbon Stuff at rather more than 1 centimeter of per second. Its armament is also rather 'balanced.' My model shows that this laser can just defeat a wave of about 1000 target seekers, each with a mass of 20 kg, closing at 10 km/s—thus a total mass of 20 tons, comparable to its kinetics payload allowance.

Deploying troops, or personnel in general, is impressively expensive: About three fourths of the payload and cost of a billion dollar ship goes to support and equip a crew of 25, with perhaps a dozen espatiers. For comparison the USS Makin Island (LHD-8) displaces 41,000 tons full load, carries a crew of 1200 plus 1700 Marines, and costs about $1.8. So by my model it costs about as much to deploy one espatier as 80 marines.

And this ship is about the minimum patrol package, so standing interplanetary patrol is a costly and somewhat granular business, something not everyone can afford.

From SPACE PATROLS by Rick Robinson (2010)

The comment thread on my previous post about space patrols raised the issue of base stations for more prolonged missions, extending to years.

This has application far beyond military or quasi-military patrols. In fact it is fairly fundamental to any extensive, long term human presence in deep space. Whether or not we put permanent bases on the surface of Mars, Europa, or wherever, we will surely place permanent or semi-permanent stations in orbit around them. Particularly because the stations can be built in Earth space, where the industry is (at least initially), and flown out to where they will serve.

Hab structures intended for prolonged habitation should be fairly large, if only because if you are going to live for years in a can it should be at least be a roomy one. And they must be thoroughly shielded against radiation, much more than ships that you only spend a few months aboard every few years.

So let us play with some numbers. Make our spin hab a drum, 200 meters in diameter and 100 meters thick. Volume is thus about 3.14 million cubic meters. The ISS has about 1200 m3 of pressurized volume and a mass of some 300 tons, for an average density near 0.25, but the mass includes exterior structures such as keel and wings. Let average interior density be about 0.16, for a mass of 500,000 tons.

If we allow 100 cubic meters per person the onboard population (whether 'crew' or simply residents, or a mix) can be up to 30,000 people. This is about twice the density of a middle class American urban apartment complex. Given that much of the usable volume must be working areas, public spaces, and so forth, the actual crew or population might be more on the order of 10,000 people, equivalent to a decent sized small town or a fairly large university or military base. Thus the hab has 10 times the volume of an aircraft carrier and twice as many people.

Spin the hab at 3 rpm and you get almost exactly 1 g at the rim.

By my standard rule of thumb the cost of this hab is on order of $500 billion. That is a steep price tag, but on the other hand it is only five times the cost of the ISS, and you need very few of these unless you are engaged in outright colonization.

Now, shielding. The standard for indefinite habitation is about 5 tons per square meter of cross section. (Earth's atmosphere provides about 10 tons/m2.) Portions of the hab where people do not spend much time, and exterior to where they do spend time, can be counted toward the shielding allowance. So let us say that the outer 10 meters of the interior (about 35 percent of the volume) are used for storage, equipment rooms, and the like. This provides about 2 tons per square meter of shielding, 40 percent of the requirement.

The remaining 3 tons per square meter of exterior shielding must cover about 125,000 square meters of surface, so shielding mass is about 375,000 tons, adding 75 percent to the mass of the hab, now 875,000 tons. This shielding need not be 'armor.' As I recall, water provides pretty good shielding against GCRs, your biggest radiation problem, and water is so useful that having 375,000 tons of it on hand in a reservoir will never be amiss.

Moreover, to move the hab you can vent off the water (or pump it out) and not need to lug the mass, assuming you can replace it wherever you are going. The deep interior of the hab, more than 25 meters from the surface (about 28 percent of the volume) is still shielded by the rest of the hab structure, so the hab can carry a reduced population during the transfer.

You are still moving a half million ton payload, so don't expect to rush it unless you have a really badass drive bus handy. Habs being repositioned across the Solar System probably travel on Hohmann orbits, and have drive accelerations of a few dozen microgees, good for about 1 km/s per month of steady acceleration.

For a smaller hab structure, scale down the linear dimensions by half, to 100 meters diameter and 50 meters thick. Structural mass, volume, and capacity are all reduced by a factor of 8, to 400,000 cubic meters, 60,000 tons, and a crew / resident population of about 1500-4000. Our 'mini' hab is now broadly comparable in volume, mass, and crew to an aircraft carrier.

Surface area is only reduced, however, by a factor of four, to about 30,000 square meters. Moreover, the smaller hab provides less interior self-shielding. If we keep the same proportions our internal reserved zone is just 5 meters deep and provides only 20 percent of the needed protection, not 40 percent.

We now need about 120,000 tons of shielding — twice the unshielded mass of the hab. If we move the hab fully shielded our payload mass is 180,000 tons. Remove the shielding and payload mass is just 60,000 tons, but no part of the smaller interior is fully self-shielded, so any crew on board during a 'light' transfer must be relieved every few months. On the bright side, if you have a 100 gigawatt drive bus floating around, or about $100 billion to buy one, you can take a fast orbit and get there in a few months.

The image shows a drum-hab station ship with a spin hab of the full sized type described above, 200 meters in diameter by 100 meters thick, fitted with a heaviest class drive bus for transfer. I am delicately ignoring details of the connection between the spin drum and the hub structures.

The shuttles approximate the NASA Shuttle, as a visual size reference. The deep space ships docking up to it are large fast transports, 300 meters long, ten times heavier than the patrol ship discussed last post. The station ship itself is about 675 meters long by 450 meters across the outrigger docking bays.

In my image the station ship is no aesthetic triumph. Allowing for my limitations as an graphic artist (compare to commenter Elukka, from the last comment thread), the transport class ships don't look too bad, but the station ship merely looks tubby instead of grand. Some modest architectural improvements might yield a more impressive appearance with little change in overall configuration.

Of course the interior will matter immeasurably more to the people on board. Mostly, presumably, it will resemble the interior of a very large oceangoing ship, corridors and compartments, probably including some fairly imposing public spaces, comparable to the grand saloon of a 20th century ocean liner or even larger. It can be as elegant or as sterile as you like (or both, depending on deck and sector). The third popular choice, rundown industrial gothic, is constrained by how far you can go in that direction before the algae dies or the air starts leaking out.

From HOME AWAY FROM HOME by Rick Robinson (2010)
Ray McVay
Rocketpunk Patrol Ship
Dry Mass76.2 metric tons
Wet Mass384.6 metric tons
Mass Ratio5
Length Z73 meters
Length Y20.1 meters
Length X15.2 meters
Enginex2 F-26-A LH/LOX
Thrust7.7×106 N
Acceleration0.5 g
ΔV8,200 m/s

This is the same one from the other day, only dressed up with a nice logo and some stats. These are realistic capabilities made courtesy of the charts and other information available from Atomic Rocket and inspiration from Rick Robinson's Rocketpunk Manifesto.

My PL differs from the one in Rick Robinson's article in a few key areas. The main difference is that it is not made for long hauls. It only has a delta v of about 8200 m/s. This will not get one far in the solar system but it allows a forward deployed Patrol Craft a sufficient "range" to perform many of the missions we discussed in the last post on Building a Space Navy. Our little A-Class has enough Delta V to shape a light-second orbit around a convoy in deep space, conduct SAR missions anywhere in cis-lunar space, or to reach any moon of Saturn from any other moon. Obviously, this rocket is mostly propellant (mass ratio 5). If you drew lines through the side view of the rocket that bracket the docking rings, you would encompass the entire pressurized volume. I've got to say, it's nice to work on a warship for a change — I don't have to make it economical to run!

One of the interesting things about this design is actually the freedom the little carried craft gives me. It was a throw-away touch, originally — a design borrowed from another project. But as I got to looking at the little thing, I realized that it's about the size of the Saturn V stage/Apollo/LM stack. That means it should be able to go from Earth Departure to Lunar orbit. That means that it has the Delta V to ferry crew to and from a Patrol Craft on station away from the convoy. That means, like submarines, our Patrol Craft can have two crews and stay out for a lot longer than otherwise. This is one of those realistic touches that I hope add to the charm of the rocket's design.

ed note: a 1500 nanometer near infrared laser with a 10 meter fixed mirror can have a 4 centimeter spot size out to 220 kilometers or so. A 4 meter mirror can have a 4 centimeter spot size out to 87 kilometers or so.


Mass drivers and other rockets can be used to alter the orbits of asteroids (and mass drivers can use rocks from the asteroid itself as a built-in source of propellant). Popular with asteroid miners who want to nudge their claims into different orbits. Unpopular with the astromilitary of all nations, who think that civilization-destroying asteroid bombardment is not a power one wants to give to rock-rats.

The "Dinosaur-killer" asteroid was probably about 10 kilometers in diameter, and it caused a freaking mass extinction of three-quarters of plant and animal species on Terra. There are approximately ten thousand asteroids in the belt of size 10 km or larger. And of course there are much more than ten thousand "fun-sized" asteroids, not large enough to wipe out civilization on Terra, but big enough to obliterate a nation that you dislike. Space faring nations with asteroid moving technology will look at the list of small asteroids, look at the list of nations hostile to them, and start to get ideas.

If asteroid moving technology is cheap enough it won't be a game just for nations, you might find mere corporations and James Bond villains getting into the act.

It would let me protect the Earth from asteroids. In fact, for a small fee I would protect the Earth on a monthly basis, locating rocks that could be steered into the Earth and then not doing it if the cheque didn't bounce.

From a comment by James Nicoll (2005)

Once asteroid-moving technology is available, one can foresee a branch of "spaceguards" in each astromilitary, patrolling the solar system to prevent unauthorized changes in asteroid orbits. Any rock-rat, corporation, or nation that wishes to move an asteroid will have to file a proposed trajectory and request a permit from the Spaceguard.

(ed note: Originally I called this branch the "Orbit Guard." I have gone to the trouble to change the name for two reasons:

[1] The term Spaceguard is already being used for this function.

[2] The term "orbit guard" is a much better fit for the space-going version of the Coast Guard.

I regret any inconvenience this has caused.)

The Guard would keep a close watch on all asteroids. If one starts to move without a permit, or if one with a permit strays off the filed flight plan, military spacecraft of the various space faring nations will pounce and blow the snot out of it. Spaceguard ships will be armed, since the evil asteroid movers will probably shoot back. Of course prior to that the evil asteroid movers will have all their crew and equipment scrubbed of anything identifying the nation behind this heinous act, since it easily fits into the category "act of war", or even "genocide."

Probably there will be a branch of spaceguards in all of the space faring nations. They will not just watch asteroids, they will also keep a close eye on the spaceguards belonging to other nations, just to keep them honest. If nation X has a spaceguard, enemy nation Y will want their own spaceguard as well. Otherwise nation X might be tempted to turn a blind eye to somebody targeting nation Y's capital city with an errant asteroid.

Requests for asteroid moving permits will have to be filed with the Spaceguards of all nations. Things might get a bit political here, since giving all the Spaceguards veto power can be abused. Say, if nation X was currently angry with nation Y, nation X might pressure their Spaceguard to automatically veto any asteroid moving requests from nation Y using specious reasons. Some kind of appeals process will have to be available.


A related matter of space law that is also likely to spark conflict is asteroid redirection.  Some plans for asteroid mining involve bringing asteroids to Earth orbit to mine, instead of mining them in situ, and shipping the resulting products back.  Of course, if the asteroid is a Class M (Nickle-Iron), then the entire asteroid will have to be shipped back anyway, and it makes sense to move it all at once.  Two conflicts over ownership are possible here.  First, if there are multiple people using an asteroid and one of them decides to move it, the others are likely to be unhappy.  Second, if someone is moving or has moved an asteroid and others decide to help themselves, then the mover will probably be annoyed.

However, neither of these is likely to be the biggest legal and political problem to come out of asteroid redirection.  Moving large lumps of rock near Earth is likely to make people on Earth very nervous.

A small asteroid (<1000 tons) will be no big deal.  Even if by some mistake it ends up headed for Earth, it is small enough that it should break up in the upper atmosphere and cause no harm on the ground.  Larger asteroids are a more delicate matter.  There is the potential for serious damage on the ground, and everyone on Earth has a good claim on having a say in the matter.  

There is likely to be the formation of some international body that will approve asteroid redirection plans as being safe, but said body would also probably be expected to be ready to step in and make the situation safe if something goes wrong.  For medium asteroids (on the order of 10,000 tons or so) this is relatively easy to do.  This is approximately the size of the asteroid that came down over Russia in early 2013, and such asteroids are really only dangerous if they come down over a populated area, and are only particularly dangerous if they are strong enough and big enough to break up in the lower atmosphere.  Rendering them safe would involve some combination of blowing them into smaller pieces and redirecting them to come in over somewhere uninhabited, probably the ocean, which can be cleared quickly and easily.  

Beyond that, asteroids begin to become a threat to the planet no matter where they come down, and the Asteroid Guard would have to either be able to redirect them to miss completely at a relatively late stage, or require trajectories that carry no risk of impact with Earth.  The astrodynamic feasibility of such trajectories is unknown, and asteroids which are large enough to pose a serious threat to Earth are also likely to be large enough to justify shipping processing gear out to them.

It should be obvious that the Asteroid Guard would also be able to provide protection against naturally-occurring asteroids, and it would almost certainly be tasked with both roles.  

by Byron Coffey (2016)

And who knows? Spaceguard might actually find an errant asteroid that just happened to be naturally on collision course with Terra, instead of uncovering a Sinister Plot by Dr. Evil. It will be real nice to have the spaceguards there to bump it off course. Just ask the dinosaurs. Oh, that's right, you can't because an asteroid made them all go extinct.

Those who think such impacts do not happen in the solar system anymore have forgotten about the multiple 6,000,000 megaton impacts that Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 inflicted on Jupiter in 1994.

Arthur C. Clarke invented an asteroid early warning system called "Project Spaceguard" for his novel Rendezvous with Rama in 1972. Clarke was most gratified when a real live Spaceguard was created in 1992 (duely giving Clarke credit for the name). David Levy stated in an interview "The giggle factor disappeared after Shoemaker-Levy 9." After the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, asteroid detection programs all over the world abruptly received greater funding.

The main point is it is quite easy to nudge an asteroid off collision course if you have a few decades of lead time. If you only have a few days notice you are going to have to use nukes. So start discovering and surveying all those Near-Earth objects right now.

Getting a Spaceguard system set up is going to be tricky. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? and all that.

Before spaceguards with space ships are established as a branch of the military, any civilian attempts at asteroid re-direction will have to be accompanied by a division of army solders. From several nations. Every propulsion event will have to have the math checked by military astrogators. Of each nation. And the execution of the propulsion events will be closely monitored. At gun point. Of each nation.

Don't forget the army fire-teams tasked with aiming their weapons at each of the foreign army divisions, just in case they try pulling a fast one. Don't drop an incandescent light-bulb or otherwise make a noise sounding like a rife-shot. Otherwise when the firing stops everybody will be dead and the room will look like a colander.

It is probably a requirement to have several nations establish spaceguards with space ships, since a single nation with a monopoly on orbit guards is dangerous. Not just that the owning nation might issue covert orders to "accidentally" drop an asteroid on hostile nation Y. There is also the danger that a spaceguard ship might revolt, be infiltrated by terrorists, be composed of enemy sleeper agents, snap under the pressure and go insane, be part of a military coup conspiracy, or otherwise turn rogue and drop an unauthorized rock on some nation. Including the owning nation.

If there are spaceguard ships from other nations constantly watching your spaceguard suspiciously, it becomes much more difficult for a ship to go rogue. It is much safer to have several nations with spaceguards.

Perhaps it would make sense to have something like the Two-Man Rule used in nuclear launch protocol. Spaceguard ships of a given nation would go in pairs, watching each other. Or in triples, in case one ship becomes disabled. You see how the complexity quickly snowballs.

And you want to set things up to make impossible any dangerous situations such as are found in Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe.

However the Two-Man Rule was designed to prevent something from happening, not to ensure something happens. If Spaceguard ships Alfa and Bravo are near an asteroid, and Bravo turns rogue and tries to push the asteroid so it obliterates Terra, then according to the safeguard of the Two-Man Rule ship Alfa will shoot the ever-living snot out of ship Bravo. Everything is fine.

What is not so fine is if ships Alfa and Bravo are trying to save Terra by redirecting an asteroid aimed by Dr. Evil. Ship Alfa can start the redirection process, only to get the ever-living snot shot out of it by the subverted Ship Bravo. In this case the Two-Man Rule fails to ensure the desired result happens.

The spaceguard ships also might contain self-destruct devices, controlled by the owning government. Though you'd better be darn sure the enemy doesn't get its hands on the destruct codes. Or you will be really angry when your entire spaceguard fleet goes poof!

However, a spaceguard can still be used for nefarious purposes, such as making an excuse to annex the Asteroid miners.



  • 1. Requirements and Procedures.
    • 1.1. Tamper Control Program. The Two-Person Concept (TPC) is central to nuclear surety tamper control measures in the Air Force. It is designed to make sure that a lone individual cannot perform an incorrect act or unauthorized procedure on a nuclear weapon, nuclear weapon system, or certified critical component.
    • 1.2. Concept Enforcement. Each organization with a mission or function involving nuclear weapons, nuclear weapon systems, or certified critical components:
      • 1.2.1. Identifies no-lone zones (where at least two authorized persons must be present during any operation or task).
      • 1.2.2. Enforces the Two-Person Concept.
      • 1.2.3. Develops procedures to limit entry to authorized persons who meet the requirements of paragraph 1.3.
    • 1.3. Team Requirements. (Refer to paragraph 1.6.1 for criteria on foreign nationals.) A TwoPerson Concept team consists of at least two individuals who:
      • 1.3.1. Are certified under the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), as specified in DoD 5210.42-R_AFMAN 10-3902, Nuclear Weapons Personnel Reliability Program.
      • 1.3.2. Know the nuclear surety requirements of the task they perform.
      • 1.3.3. Can promptly detect an incorrect act or unauthorized procedure.
      • 1.3.4. Have successfully completed nuclear surety training according to AFI 91-101, Air Force Nuclear Weapons Surety Program.
      • 1.3.5. Are designated to perform the required task.
    • 1.4. Two Person Concept Violations. Report a Two-Person Concept violation when a lone individual in a no-lone zone has the opportunity to tamper with or damage a nuclear weapon, nuclear weapon system, or certified critical component. Refer to AFMAN 91- 221, Weapons Safety Investigations and Reports, for reporting guidance.

After arriving at the LCF, a missile crew had their identification examined by the flight security controller and then began the authentication procedure with the on-duty missile crew. After they cleared security, they descended down the elevator to the LCC, also known as the "no-lone zone," because one could never enter the capsule alone. After arriving at the blast door a voice would shout "clear" from inside the capsule. The oncoming crew shouted back and the eight-ton door slowly swung open.

Once inside the capsule, the missile crew's shift began during a process called changeover, a formal procedure that allowed for the changing of crews in the LCC. The changeover included a ten-minute briefing on the weather report, call signs, a classified advisory on the day's war plan, and the placement of each crew member's padlock on the metal box that secured the launch keys. The changeover concluded with each departing crew member handing over three items to the deputy and commander— a three-by-five inch card encased in plastic and framed in metal with the day's top secret code to decipher commands from SAC; a key to be inserted into the console and turned in order to fire the missiles; and a .38-caliber revolver. The gun, worn in a holster, was for protection in the unlikely event of intruders. The missile combat crew was prohibited from taking off the holster while in the capsule.

After the capsule door closed, a new crew would check the maintenance logs and inspect support equipment. The duration of their shift was spent running practice drills or reviewing procedures to prepare for SAC's random Operational Readiness Inspections, an examination performed by an Inspector General to determine the effectiveness of the combat crews. The crew had very precise procedures for every task. If they ever received a launch command, both crew members would open the locked box that contained "cookies," or the authentication codes. Once the crew members agreed that the command was authentic they would insert the keys and turn them at the same time, launching a missile.

To launch a missile, an Emergency War Order (EWO) would have come over the SAC radio with a message that the crew had to authenticate. After they agreed that the message was authentic, they unlocked their padlock on the red metal box that contained two keys for launching the missiles. Each crew member would then buckle into their seats and the commander would count down. The deputy commander then flipped a row of "arming" switches for each of the missiles, making them readied for immediate launch. The commander opened the plastic cover over his launch control panel in front of him exposing the area for the launch key, and the deputy commander removed the plastic cover over the cooperative launch switch. Each crew member would insert their key and a "conference call" is ordered where the crew speaks via phone and headset to the squadron command post for readiness reports on other Minuteman capsules. The command post then issues a command to "launch on your count." On the commander's count, both crew members would have to turn the keys at the same moment. The two ignitions are situated far enough apart that one person alone could not reach both keys and single-handedly provide the go ahead to launch a missile. The Minuteman missile cannot be launched without a corroborating signal from another LCC, providing the second vote. Launch procedures were modified slightly in later years when a launch enable control group signal panel was added to the Deputy Commander's Control Console. An unlock code was required to be inserted into the "code inert thumbwheel switches" of the launch enable control panel to enable missiles for launch.


A separate but closely related duty performed by the Spaceguard is that of range safety officer. If civilian ships can be used as weapons of mass destruction, in an emergency the Spaceguard can trigger the civy ship's self destruct device. Spaceguard shares this responsibility with the Launch Guard. Generally the Launch Guard's range safety keep watch around spaceport launch sites while Spaceguard's range safety officers keeps watch everywhere else. As far as Spaceguard is concerned, a civilian spacecraft on collision course with a colony is the functional equivalent of a rogue asteroid. Only of artificial origin and hopefully already equipped with a handy self destruct.

Spaceguard is a nice concept for SF authors, since it gives a plausible reason for the very existence of astromilitary. And of course civilian boom-towns and settlements will spring up around any military bases. There is money to be made supplying all those enlisted people with gambling, whiskey, and prostitutes. Especially if the base is orbiting Saturn or somewhere equally remote. This gives SF authors an economic reason for an extensive manned presence in space.

Spaceguard spacecraft will probably have the following equipment:

Large telescopes and other tracking equipment
While there will be Spaceguard bases keeping a sharp lookout for unauthorized asteroid redirection, the fleet of ships on patrol in the solar system will provide an important part of the service's observational capacity.
Nuclear detonation detectors
Because the most quick and dirty brute force way to change an asteroid's path is with nukes.
Asteroid redirection gear
To undo the damage done by rogue asteroid movers, re-re-directing the asteroid into a safe orbit.
The rogue asteroid movers might fight to ensure their asteroid stays on its deadly track.

The Spaceguard spacecraft will carry their own high thrust equipment in order to re-direct errant asteroids. A nasty government might aim a large rock at an enemy nation then destroy the mass driver they used. The Spaceguard cannot count on the equipment being available to redirect the asteroid. The equipment might also become damaged in the battle to clear the asteroid of hostiles, especially if the bad guys use the mass driver as an impromptu kinetic energy weapon. The Spaceguard will be forced to neutralize the mass driver, which is never good for its warranty.

Scott Lowther figures that Orion drive style nuclear pulse units would be perfect tools for a spaceguard to redirect asteroids. They are more or less designed for the task (spacecraft pusher plate, asteroid, what's the difference?), they are powerful, small enough that any sized spaceguard ship can carry a large number of them (about 0.6 meters tall by 0.36 meters in diameter), and are certainly far more portable than lugging a full sized mass driver. If you position the charges far enough, the tungsten propellant will spread its impact evenly over the asteroid's entire hemisphere. This helps ensure that the asteroid is just nudged off course, not shattered into a deadly charge of cosmic buckshot still aimed at Terra.

The standard nuclear charge used in the USAF Orion report had a yield of one kiloton and would hit the asteroid with about 2.01 megaNewton-seconds of impulse. The Chelyabinsk meteor had a mass of about 10,000 metric tons. One USAF pulse unit would change its velocity by 0.2 meters per seconds. Doesn't sound like much but in the real world it's pretty good. So a single USAF charge could have made the Chelyabinsk meteor miss Terra by 100 kilometer if it was placed to detonate about six days before the meteor was scheduled to strike Terra. Or ten charges could make it miss by 100 kilometers if there was only 14 hours lead time prior to Terra impact.

(ed note: Isaac Kuo is of the opinion that standard Orion pulse units are sub-optimal for asteroid deflection.)

Given the extreme expense of the sort of nuclear bombs required for an Orion style propulsion system, and the stupendous cost of developing it, I don't think it's a good idea to develop it (there are numerous practical problems with using it, even if there were a budget to perform a mission with it).

In contrast, off the shelf nuclear bombs suitable for asteroid deflection have already been developed. The main expense is the weapons grade fission primary (which Orion style drives need oodles of), but the power of a nuke can be upscaled using cheap lithium deuteride stages — and using cheap waste U238 for the casing/tamper/etc. This results in a powerful nuclear bomb which spits out mostly neutrons — pretty useless for an Orion style drive, but ideal for asteroid deflection. These neutrons will penetrate into the asteroid and cause a nice layer of the asteroid to vaporize — producing thrust in an energy efficient (but mass inefficient) way.

This is the opposite of what you want for an Orion style drive. You do NOT want to vaporize the pusher plate of an Orion style drive, and if you're going to do something so mass inefficient you might as well use a low performance chemical rocket propulsion system instead.

Basically, the parameters of what's desirable for asteroid deflection and what's desirable (or even sensible) for an Orion style drive are too radically different. For asteroid deflection, it's actually good to have a specific impulse in the low triple digits (i.e., on par with chemical rocket Isp). This minimizes the energy required, and this in turn, reduces the mass of the nukes needed to deflect the asteroid. So what if you have to vaporize a significant fraction of the asteroid to do the mission?

And an Orion style drive does not play well with the fast neutrons of a lithium deuteride bomb. Fast neutrons penetrate a pusher plate...even if you downscale the nuke enough so it won't outright vaporize the pusher plate, the neutrons will cause damage. Lithium deuteride is good because it is much cheaper than fission bomb material and it gives more bang for a given amount of mass as well. The nice thing about upscaled fusion bombs is that the size/mass of the primary remains fixed (a fixed cost), while the additional lithium deuteride is very very cheap in comparison. But you know what you get if you try and use a few humongous nukes instead of thousands of little nukes to push an Orion style rocket ship? You get a blown up rocket ship.

The use of a 238U casing/tamper/etc doesn't really mix well with an Orion style drive either. The neutrons from 238U aren't so fast, but there are oodles of them. This is great for asteroid deflection because the extra oomph from 238U is extra energy in neutrons that are still nicely penetrative.

Isaac Kuo in a comment to a Google+ thread (2015)

If Spaceguard ships carrying Orion nuclear pulse units does not appeal to you, then perhaps the Spaceguard ships will have mass drivers as propulsion. And a large thrust bracing on the nose. After the resistance has been neutralized (i.e., all the evil asteroid movers have been blasted or are in custody) the Spaceguard ships will land on the asteroid, ship noses pressed into the aseroid's surface and the ship tails pointed skyward, deploy scoop conveyor belts to grab reaction mass, and start running their mass drivers at full bore.

Legitimate and illegitimate asteroid movers will probably have to make do with mass drivers instead of Orion pulse units. Most military forces are quite unreasonable about allowing nuclear devices into civilian hands. Evil asteroid movers might illegally use Orion units, but they will have to work quick. Multiple nuclear detonations will be visible all over the solar system and will quickly draw unwanted attention.

SpaceWorks Engineering did a study for NASA about deflecting killer asteroids on collision course with Terra. The concept they came up with is Modular Asteroid Deflection Mission Ejector Node (MADMEN) robots. They are unmanned, independently controlled, nuclear powered, and equipped with a powerful mass driver. The idea is to make a solution that is "scaleable". If the asteroid is larger, then send more MADMEN modules. Plus a few extras in case some of them suffer malfunctions.

A transfer vehicle delivers a MADMEN to the impactor asteroid. The MADMEN lands at the correct spot, the landing gear digs in to anchor the MADMEN, the heat radiator and mass driver unfurls, the reactor powers up, a drill head extend into the body of the asteroid to gobble rocks for mass driverpropellant, and the mass driver proceeds to lob the rocks at a rate of one per minute. If the asteroid is rapidly rotating, the MADMEN is intelligent enough to only fire a rock when the rotation brings the mass driver to point in the desired direction. The thrust of the mass drivers gradually alters the trajectory of the asteroid into a safe direction.

These would be useful to both Spaceguard and to evil asteroid movers. Spaceguard can station caches of MADMEN in strategic locations, without having to worry about life support for Guard crews (MADMEN are unmanned, remember?). Evil movers will not have to worry about Spaceguard capturing evil crews, who might be coerced into revealing which evil nation is responsible for the evil plot. MADMEN may also be easier for evil asteroid movers to secretly emplace on a lonely asteroid, but the onboard reactor and heat radiators will rapidly give away their positions once powered up.

Baseline MADMEN lander parameters
Ejection Velocity187 m/s
Ejecta mass per shot2 kg
Mass driver length10 m
Shot frequency1 per minute
Total surface time of proces60 days
Total power required42.2 kW
Length13.97 m
Height2.54 m
Width2.54 m
Dry Mass1,503 kg
Gross Mass1,621 kg
Baseline mission parameters
Delta-V imparted to Killer Asteroid0.2 m/s
Killer Asteroid Mass2.7 × 109 kg
Killer Asteroid Diameter130 m
Delta-V to get to Killer Asteroid5,423 m/s
Dry Mass (with MADMEN payload)2,207 kg
Gross Mass (with MADMEN payload)8,816 kg


(ed note: Ian Mallett says that the concept of a spaceguard is unworkable, and he admittedly does make a very good case for this.)

I conjecture that Spaceguard won't ever work.

Earth doesn't know where all the civilization-killing asteroids are, let alone the regionally-devastating ones. If you've found a new one, (already likely, for Belters), just redirect that and it will be indistinguishable from chance.

But let's neglect that triviality. It doesn't make sense to talk about "how many" asteroids there are in all, because it's a number that is too high to be reasonably estimated. City-obliterating asteroids (~80m diameter or so) number in the literally hundreds-of-millions, and there are exponentially more smaller ones that would still make effective weapons. There is literally no survey data on any of these, which, due to both the Yarkovsky effect and gravitational perturbations, makes their orbits utterly unpredictable. So even if we know all the objects (we don't) and can watch all of them simultaneously (we can't) for the required months (that defenders don't have), it turns out that pinning down precise orbit data is actually an impossible problem in the first place.

Leverage this with information warfare. You can plate your asteroid with mirrors to confuse estimates of its size, or tweak the computerized observatory data, or randomly perturb lots of little asteroids to waste Spaceguard resources tracking them and to disguise maliciously-guided ones. The mathematics works out so that, if the attacker plans far enough ahead, the perturbation can be arbitrarily small—and therefore unrecognizable. And you can use cold-gas thrusters or mass drivers or spread out absorbent Yarkovsky panels in key places instead of using a conventional rocket.

But mere detection isn't enough. Even without contending with dirty tricks like converting a conceivably-deflectable asteroid into a cloud-of-sand in the same orbit, or redirecting 10,000 asteroids at once using a fleet of mining drones, it's an open research problem how to deflect incoming asteroids in short periods of time. The popularly suggested "just nuke it" probably "doesn't really work", according to best evidence, since impulses are limited in absolute magnitude of momentum transfer and in any case inertia tends to fragment your target. The most (!) practical known method is to rendezvous with every single object, then deflect it. Depending on where you are in your heliocentric orbit, this may not even be possible, let alone feasible. The ΔV requirement for attacking, as before, can be arbitrarily small, but for defense (depending on how late you discover the attack), the ΔV requirement can be infinite. Because of the tyranny of the rocket equation, this means that even with perfect information, defense is exponentially more expensive than offense.

And of course, Earth-based Spaceguard is at a tremendous mass/$ disadvantage. The attacker can preliminarily target Spaceguard ships with, for example, mining outposts secret armored battle stations with tremendous heat-storage capability carved from the inside of asteroids . . .

Spaceguard, if it ever even exists, will be worse than useless. Besides the above, history has shown that when capitalism is involved, oversight is uncommon, ineffective, and unresponsive. In a mad gold-rush rapid-colonization scenario, with rocks being moved all over, there's absolutely no way the legal influence and police bureaucracy of multiple governments, let alone their infrastructure could follow rapidly enough to even try to prevent a fluke terrorist attack in those early years.

It's basically unstoppable.

(ed note: I will say that it seems like a spaceguard can be made possible if some of Mr. Mallett parameters are tweaked. For instance, some sort of legal or political interference to artificially slow down the rate of the gold-rush. Yes, most tweaks will result in an unstable situations that have temporary life spans.

Which might not be a bad thing. Spaceguards give science fiction writers a plausible excuse for the creation of national astromilitary branches. The point is that once the astromilitaries are established, the authors don't care if the spaceguards are then abolished. From the author's standpoint, they've done their job.

Or without tweaking Mr. Mallett's parameters, cynical nations might create spaceguards anyway, even though the service is worthless. It could be a boondoggle or a desperate attempt to make the illusion that spaceguard owning nations have the situation under control. Especially if they don't.

From a science fiction author's standpoint, I see a possibility for an entertaining background. Mr. Mallett notes that there is no way the bureaucracy of multiple governments could follow the gold-rush rapidly enough. Well, as an author, postulate that either this unfortunate fact was not obvious or was swept under the rug.

Initially all the governments with their spaceguards are ahead of the gold rush and everything is great. But things get tense as the gold rush starts to out-pace the spaceguard and the politicians start seeing it as a threat to their reelection bids. Draconian measures will be enacted, the corporations will push back to preserve their profits, the asteroid miners will start being squeezed and grow angry, the hustlers and chiselers will materialize out of the wood-work, and a large amount of hilarity will ensue. The situation is full of enough possibilities to provide an author with enough background material for an entire series of science fiction novels.)

by Ian Mallett (2016)

Spaceguards in Science Fiction


“Don’t tell me you’re busy?”

“Crushingly. Important?”

“No. I’ll be back later.”

The U.F.P. Justice hung in null-G, poised, as its burdened commander labored over the ship’s supercomputer terminal. Two hours ago, the call had come in: “Unauthorized asteroid deflection burn, Dec. -5.419°, R.A. 41.17°, class ξ asteroid 1999 RQ36 ‘Bennu’. Deflection Δv = 0.26±0.03 m/s.”

Small deflections make big changes. Even the emission of absorbed heat makes asteroids move unpredictably, unless their surfaces are mapped in detail. But with literally millions of asteroids, the Yarkovsky effect is not worth the bother.

But now someone has gone and moved one of them. A pretty big one, maybe half a kilometer on edge. That would probably utterly destroy one of Earth’s megacities, should it hit one.

Which means someone landed on it, did a thermographic survey, plotted its orbit to high precision, and then nudged it deliberately, in a particular direction, an exact amount.

So, the question–was it some unhinged terrorist bent on the obliteration of Los Angeles? Or a miner secretly moving a motherlode of priceless volatiles back to base?

In 51 years, he’d know for sure. For now, there’d be only guessing.


(ed note: In John Lumpkin's Through Struggle, The Stars, he has the creation of an astromilitary the other way around. Initially none of the nations of Earth have a space presence, since there is no compelling reason to spend all that money on a space program when there are so many problems at home. The unexpected great asteroid strike of October 17, 2031 changed all that.)

The Rock — Common term for Southern Ocean asteroid strike that took place on Oct. 17, 2031. The asteroid, about 280 meters in diameter, came from below the plane of the Solar System and was undetected by the meager capabilities of the (mostly volunteer) orbit watch organizations at the time. It created vast tsunami that inundated the coastlines of western Australia, southeast Africa, and southern Asia. Fatalities were estimated at more than three million. The event spurred Japan to develop a full-scale space program, initially aimed at preventing future potentially hazardous asteroids from striking Earth.


"If you guys just wanted to be left alone," said Murdoch, "why did you start the war? Why did you move Eros?"

"Ah, I see," said Vasily. "The propagandists have written your history books. We did not start the war."

"Like hell you didn't," said Murdoch. "Shifting Eros's orbit wasn't an act of war? It would have wiped us all out if it hit."

"Eros was an accident," said Vasily. "A few idiots who didn't double-check their math. We are not monsters, Murdoch. They never meant to aim the asteroid at the Pacific Ocean."

"Bad enough. And what's worse, you all banded up to protect Eros and make excuses for them, and when we asked you to help make sure it never happened again, you jerked us off."

"Your terms were impossible," said Vasily.

"Permits, Vasily," said Murdoch. "That's all we wanted. Is it that unreasonable? Each one of these rocks is a potential mass extinction event. Is filling out a form first that terrible?"

"Permits? No, they are not unreasonable," said Vasily. "An absolute veto for Earth over all orbital adjustments, no matter how minor or necessary? And the right to blow us out of the sky if we refused? No sovereign people would accept that."

"And war was worth that? It looks to me like that's what you ended up with anyway."

"Of course that's what we got," said Vasily. "You made us an offer we knew we would never accept, and then called it self-defense when you attacked us. It was imperialism. A smash-and-grab. You came, imposed yourselves on us, and forced us to mine your resources and buy the junk you made with it. You planned to do it for years, for decades. That's why you built your shining fleets. Do not try to tell me otherwise, good Murdoch. They had no purpose but to conquer us. Eros just gave you the excuse."

From THE LAST GREAT WAR by Matthew Lineberger (not yet published)

I thought I'd take the "spaceguard" idea one step further — if Earth has sufficient military power to punish the belters for any potentially dangerous orbit shift, they have the military power to rule the belters, period.

In the revised backstory, the asteroids were initially seeded by settlers when ships were too slow to make maintaining a military presence in the belt economical (the belters sent minerals to Earth in unmanned "slow boats" which were little more than chunks of ore with engines strapped on).

Then when the Zubrin drive was invented, the Great Powers suddenly had the means to extend their reach all over the Solar System, including the asteroid belt.

Vasily is largely right: Earth seized on a careless mistake as an excuse to conquer the asteroids and turn them into 19th century African colonies or Appalachia in Space — a place where poor local people dig out their natural resources at the behest of distant outsiders who "own" the land, get paid a pittance, and spend it on manufactured goods made by the same distant outsiders.

Matthew Lineberger

Asteroid 624 Hektor was actually two bodies, a contact binary which had originally been 370 kilometers long. The Belters who'd first settled it nudged the two rocks apart and now 624 Hektor A and 624 Hektor B orbited Sol about ten thousand kilometers from each other. A was slightly larger than B, 190 kilometers long, the largest body in the "Greek camp" Trojan asteroids which preceded Jupiter around the sun at the Sol-Jupiter L4, and served as the capital and main settlement of the grandiosely named Republic of Hellas. B, 180 kilometers long, was leased to the United Nations for use as a neutral port strategically located between the inner and outer system, conveniently close to Jupiter.

The Hellans or Hellenics or whatever they called themselves (Fitzthomas couldn't remember and didn't care that much anyway) didn't particularly like having what amounted to a fleet base for half a dozen inner system Great Powers ten k-klicks from their capital, but they liked it better than frigates like New Jersey and her Chinese, European, Russian, Indian, and Brazilian counterparts roving through the Trojans blowing up their stuff. The Great Powers, in turn, didn't like anybody who wasn't as attached to Earth as they were with their grubby rock-rat fingers on the "Go" buttons of potential mass extinction events, but they needed the metals and hydrocarbons and water locked up in the rocks, and it was a lot cheaper to pay Belters to dig them out than to do it themselves. And Belters may have been pests, but they were equal opportunity pests. The Americans, Chinese, Europeans, Russians, Indians and Brazilians didn't trust their fellow Terrans not to steal all that loot for themselves and gain an insurmountable strategic advantage given a chance, and they were probably right not to. Belters only cared if they got paid.

So Hellas (and its counterpart at L5, the Aeneian Confederation) got to keep their independence and make money, the Terrans got their resources and carte blanche to blow the holy living hell out of any rocks that started moving without a permit, and the UN given the unenviable task of administering the whole thing. And it could have been worse for the Hellenics. The Aeneians had to share their capital of 617 Patroclus with the UN, with two settlements on opposite ends of the asteroid and spies scuttling out of the woodwork every time an Aeneian sneezed.

From THE LAST GREAT WAR by Matthew Lineberger (not yet published)

The High Guard was one of the few truly international organizations operating out of Earth, a multinational task force designed primarily to monitor the outer reaches of the solar system, track asteroids and comets that might one day be a threat to Earth, and to watch for nudgers. The Earth Confederation had grown out of an economic partnership between the old United States and a number of other nations, most of them former members of the British Commonwealth—Canada, the Bahamas, Australia, and New Zealand. Several non-Commonwealth states had joined later on— Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and the Russian Federation.

The High Guard, however, included ships from the Chinese Hegemony, the Indian States, and the European Union as well, which perhaps made that organization more representative of the entire Earth than the Earth Confederation itself.

The Earth Confederation had become more than an economic alliance in 2132, toward the end of the Second Sino-Western War. In 2129, a Chinese warship, the Xiang Yang Hong, had used nuclear munitions to nudge three small asteroids in Main Belt orbits into new trajectories that, three years later, had entered circumlunar space, falling toward Earth.

The Xiang Yang Hong had almost certainly been operating independently; Beijing later claimed the captain had gone rogue when he learned of the destruction of his home city of Fuzhou, and had carried out what was essentially a terrorist operation. His plan had been to devastate both the United States and the European Union by dropping all three asteroids into the Atlantic Ocean, causing devastating tsunamis that would wipe out the coastal cities on two continents. U.S. and European fleet elements had destroyed two of the three incoming two-kilometer rocks in what became known as the Battle of Wormwood—a reference to a biblical prophecy in the Book of Revelation that sounded eerily like an asteroid hitting the ocean. One rock—a piece of it, actually, had gotten through, falling into the Atlantic halfway between West Africa and Brazil.

The devastation had been incalculable. The loss of life, fortunately, had been less than it might have been, since most of the world's coastline cities were already slowly being evacuated in the face of steadily rising sea levels. Even so, an estimated half billion people had died, from West Africa to Spain, France, and England, to the slowly submerging cities of the U.S. East Coast, to the vanishing islands of the Caribbean, to the coastlines of Brazil and Argentina. The ancient term weapon of mass destruction had, with that single deadly blow, taken on a radically new and expanded meaning. Coming hard on the heels of the deaths of 1.5 billion people in the Blood Death pandemic, Wormwood's fall into the Atlantic had come close to ending technic civilization across much of the Earth.

The partial success of the American-EU fleet, however, had spurred further cooperation, and the rapid expansion of the automated High Guard project that had been in place for the previous century. Every space-faring nation on the planet—even the recently defeated Chinese Hegemony—had contributed ships and personnel to the newly expanded High Guard, with the sacred charge that never again would mountains fall from the sky. The Guard's motto was "A Shield Against the Sky." Its headquarters was located in neutral Switzerland, at Geneva.

Two centuries later, with the Sh'daar Ultimatum, the High Guard offered the teeming worlds and colonies of the inner solar system their best first line of defense against this new and still mysterious enemy. Their charter had been expanded; besides watching for nudgers—the ships of nation-states or terrorists attempting to push asteroids or comets into new and Earth-threatening orbits—they were tasked with patrolling the outer perimeter of the solar system, identifying incoming ships and, if they were hostile, engaging them.

The High Guard's oath, a solemn and sacred promise sworn before the souls of those who had died at the Battle of Wormwood, both in space and in the thunderous doom of the incoming tsunamis, offered the lives of the High Guard's men and women as a literal shield against any threat from the solar system's depths.

It was an immense task.. .one far too vast to be practical. The High Guard currently numbered about two hundred warships, most of them aging Marshall-class destroyers like the Gallagher, or the even older Jackson-class frigates. At any given time, at least half of those vessels were in port for refit, maintenance, and resupply. Typically, they deployed for nine months at a time, patrolling out beyond the orbit of Neptune, serving as backup to the half million remote probes in the forty-AU shell.

That arbitrary shell around Sol gave scale to what was lightly called "the vastness of space." The surface area of a sphere with a radius of 40 astronomical units was over 20,000 square Alls., .close to 450 quintillion square kilometers.

That worked out to one ship per four and a half quintillion square kilometers—an obvious impossibility. In fact, both patrols and remote sensors tended to be concentrated within about 30 degrees of the ecliptic, which cut down things a bit...but there was always the possibility that an enemy would sneak in from zenith or nadir, where tens of billions of kilometers separated one sentry from the next.

Thinly spread or not, in the thirty-seven years since the Sh'daar Ultimatum, not one alien vessel had approached Earth's solar system, and the general perception of the civilian population back home was that the war was far away, too far to be a threat.

According to the data flooding in through Gallagher's sensors, that illusion of security had just been ripped away. At least thirty Turusch warships had materialized almost seven hours ago, some six light hours out from the sun and 25 degrees above the ecliptic., .roughly in the same part of the sky as Arcturus and Eta Bootis. Exactly what they'd been doing since then was not clear; the ships weren't registering on long-range tracking, and no more data was coming through from Triton since that one, quick, burst transmission.

But Lederer could make a good guess. Confederation tactics called for launching a high-G fighter or near-c bombardment of the target immediately, so that local defenses were overwhelmed. It was possible that enemy near-c impactors were already approaching Earth.


     Salazar leaned forward. She mimed tapping behind her ear, twice, then sliced her throat with a finger.
     "We're in the clear, Salazar. No deepers, no syncing. Also," Rivera waved her hand towards the ruins up the mountain, "This place is a bit creepy. And so are you."
     "Tell me how much time it will take to rebuild the facility."
     "You couldn't have asked directly? We have to play cloak-and-dagger games?"
     "I don't want outside interference."
     Rivera frowned, then tapped her chin for several moments. "It's going to take at least six months to find the right people, who can tell us if it can be rebuilt. A year, if you insist on keeping it a secret. Then they need to determine if it can be rebuilt at all, and how."
     "This is asinine. We are talking about a 150-year-old technology."
     "It's not that we're more advanced, but that our tech is different. We might need production facilities that were abandoned a century ago. Until we understand how the whole thing worked, all bets are off."
     "Still asinine."
     "Honestly, it would be faster to tear it all down and rebuild. It wouldn't be cheap, and might take a few years to complete under the best of circumstances. We'd need to design the replacement, first, of course."
     "No good. It's bad enough that someone might notice construction crews, but if the dome is gone, outsiders will notice. We might be able to mask a retrofit as renovations, but we must give them something."
     "Why do you care what outsiders think? Who'd come up here?"
     Salazar pulled out a soiled piece of folded paper, and handed it to Rivera.
     "There's a souvenir shop in La Serena that sells these genuine antique tourist guides. I understand they make sure the guides are genuine and antique, with a concrete mixer full of gravel and some watered-down coffee. But they copy from actual historical guides. Tourists buy them, sometimes fully aware they're being ripped off. But some of the guides include sites that were long abandoned."
     "So I can see. Is it possible for me to keep this? If this is based on authentic information, this might be useful for the reconstruction."
     "Certainly. But you see the risk. I scouted the area before you arrived. There have been people here recently. Slobs. No respect. We can't be too conspicuous."
     "I'm curious — why all the secrecy? I would have expected you to welcome the tourist trade."
     "Mars. That's why."
     "I don't get it."
     "Do you realize how dependent A União do Sul is on Martian data? Without their observations, we are cut off from the heavens."
     "That's a problem?"
     "Not today, but you pay attention to the news, no? La Fuente is projected to take control of the Senate next month."
     "And you really think they'll break off relations with Mars?"
     "Maybe not right away, maybe not totally. But they don't see the value of the data, and if they did, they wouldn't trust the data anyway."
     "And this changes anything, how?" Rivera stood, stretched, looked up the mountain.
     "La Fuente is of course wrong. We need to know about any asteroids that could potentially devastate A União."
     "We already know all the important threats to Earth."
     "We know them now. We can't guarantee that it will stay that way. More importantly — we can't guarantee Mars won't change the facts."
     "Altering the data, you mean?"
     "Or altering the system. If I were Mars and had to wage war against any nation on Earth, I'd start hurling rocks. A small asteroid would be tricky to aim, but not impossibly so; difficult to stop on short notice; and impossible to survive. Smart nukes may as well be firecrackers."
     Salazar paused. "We need to watch the skies, independently. As far as we know, it might be too late — there could be changes in place, already. But we can ward against any sudden changes if we watch carefully."
     "We can launch space telescopes. That would be cheaper still."
     "They could see the launch, and they could more easily knock it out of the sky and make it look like an accident."
     "They wouldn't know what it did."
     "They might not take the risk."
     "Doesn't the Comity have their own satellites? Can't we just access their telescopes?"
     "The current détente won't survive La Fuente. When that goes, so does any data-sharing scheme — which, I remind you, is already under heavy scrutiny. People would notice."
     "An option, if I am honest, but not an option to rush to. We're trying to minimize diplomatic incidents. And, this is beside the point. You should worry less about what other avenues we've explored, and worry more about how to get that thing working again." Salazar pointed up the mountain.
     "Very well. I need a team to start the process. We'll do what we can, as quickly as we can. If we can salvage or recondition any of it, we will, and if we can't, we'll figure out how to replace it. No guarantees on anything, except our best efforts under these conditions."
     "Get back to me before bringing anyone on-board who might view this as pro- or anti-Fuente. This should be treated neutrally."
     "We'll be talking much, trust me. Everything these days is either pro- or anti-Fuente." Rivera shrugged. "Honestly? This is a tragedy. Of all the reasons to re-open this facility, fear should have never been among them. You'll find that experts largely agree. Including the ones we'll have to hire."
     "Will they refuse?"
     "Not the ones I'm considering, no. It's a chance to demonstrate their patriotism while serving science. You may find some dissenters in any community, but the opportunities here are immense beyond security concerns.
     "Very well. I'll trust you to weed out any potential troublemakers. This project is too important to risk."
     "Are we done, then? I'd like to go up and take a look around, myself."
     "Of course. Contact me in three days with an update. We can't afford delays." Salazar stood as a ground car stopped near the bench.
     Rivera waved. "We'll be in touch." She began the hike up the trail to the dome, browsing the tourist guide. "'Fully automated,' eh? Unless La Fuente outlaws deepers — God forbid — that part should be easy to emulate or outright improve.
     As she emerged in a clearing, she got her first glimpse at the the dome. There was a piece of truss jutting out, and a few velours missing. Then she saw the hole in the side of the building underneath. According to the brochure, it was the Vertical Platform Lift. That didn't bode well. It was awfully close to the main pier.
     Decades earlier, a group aligned with La Fuente de Luz destroyed this telescope, which once beheld the entire sky every night for years on end, as a symbolic attack on space-loving Oggs. Now, La Fuente has come to power. And they wanted her to rebuild what they blew up. It would soften their anti-science stance, and prepare a defense against enemies. It'd mean putting astronomers to work, and a chance to serve A União.
     It'd mean feeding into anti-Augment, Earth First rhetoric.
     Rivera was also pretty sure that saying no was not a serious option. Salazar was the kind of bureaucrat that treated everyone like a potential enemy until confirmed. And keeping a project of this scale, with this much symbolic power, a secret, was beyond her. She was no spy. She was an astronomer, for Christ's sake. What did Salazar want, a barrier with a polite note? A platoon? Several square kilometers of stealth fabric?
     She sighed. Public service mattered. Being the Science Advisor, mattered. The Interior Advisor's requests, mattered.
     She wasn't being asked to betray country or refuse science — on the contrary. This data will hopefully benefit all humanity, some day. And it could save lives.
     Rivera kicked a stone, then fumbled behind her ear. "Quincy, fetch a car, please?"
     It's the right thing, Rivera told herself on the ride home. It is. And it's inevitable. And it's a good thing. It is.


“Detain the operative,” Colonel Sansom had said in his message, sent to her over a confidential channel. Alonza had seen the woman’s file, stored under the name she was using. This was a matter Colonel Sansom should have handled himself, but he had left suddenly to go to an asteroid tracking station two days ago, to supervise repairs after a micrometeorite strike had damaged three telescopes, and would not get back to the Wheel for another thirty hours at least. A more easygoing officer might have sent la subordinate to the station, but not the obsessively conscientious Jonas Sansom. Tracking the orbits of asteroids that might threaten Earth was one of the most important duties of Guardians, perhaps the most important. Colonel Sansom would report to his superiors that he had. seen to this task personally.

From FOLLOW THE SKY by Pamela Sargent (2004)
Big, flat, polyhedrals, 3000-8000m on a side, 300-1000m deep, three to 15 big annie plants. Battleplates are named for the big craters -- the sorts of events they exist to prevent (or, truth be told, cause.)

Battleplates were originally designed to protect planets from the sorts of events that create the geographical features for which the Battleplates are named. The student of geology should only need to hear names like "Chicxulub", "Vredefort", and "El'gygytgyn" to know that we're talking about large rocks landing where rocks ought not land.

While it might seem like overkill to have close to a hundred giant ships like these in one planetary system, that's because once you've moved all of the naturally occurring rocks-o'-doom from dangerous orbits, you begin to worry about someone else sending one at your homeworld from an oblique angle, and at velocities more typically associated with charged particles or recklessly-piloted warships.

Should a relativistic rock the size of a house hit your planet, it will ruin your entire day. Battleplates, with their swarms of long-range, hypernetted sensor drones, are insurance against that sort of event. And with their massively overpowered annie-plants, they're good for all kinds of things, including the odd spot of intimidation.

From the BATTLEPLATE entry at Ovalkwiki, for the hard-science webcomic Schlock Mercenary
RocketCat sez

Yeah, if you look at the following two stories you'll see that Sound Decision came out in 1956 while Industrial Accident came out in 1980 with a suspiciously similar plot.

A clear case of copy-cat syndrome? I don't think so.

They are both writing about universal truths:

  • Heavy spacecraft moving like a bat out of hell are kinetic energy weapons. If they are moving fast enough they stop being mere "weapons of mass destruction" and graduate to "civilization destroying".

  • Joe Smoe on the street doesn't know diddly-squat about science, and doesn't want to learn.

  • Most politicians are Joe Smoe. Even if they are not, their constituents are. So if the politician want to get reelected they pander to their base.

  • When a civilization-threatening scientific crisis with a short reaction time happens, a lower ranking person who does understand science will be forced to break laws in order to save civilization.

  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.

So naturally the two stories are very similar. And very educational. And an argument for the Haldane principle.


     It was inevitable that it would happen someday.
     And it did happen … and nobody will ever know why.
     Perhaps an electron did not move from one crystal lattice to another because of a solar X-ray photon or a high-energy cosmic ray, in spite of shielding. Regardless of cause, the effect was known. The book-sized package of nucleide electronics of the autopilot and guidance system did not send the command signal to the fusion-powered pulsed plasma space drive. As a result, the space drive did not swivel, causing TriPlanet Transport’s load SLZ-420 to perform the required end-over-end skew flip to begin deceleration for eventual Earth-orbit insertion. Instead, the glitch locked out the command receiver.
     SLZ-420 had boosted away from the planetoid Pallas at a constant acceleration of one-tenth standard gravity. This doesn’t sound like much acceleration. But, at the programmed turnover point, the SLZ-420 was moving at a sun-referenced velocity of more than six hundred kilometers per second.
     Now, instead of starting to slow down on its joumey to the space factories in orbit around the Earth, SLZ-420 kept on accelerating...

     ...Man-made meteors were rarely considered as one of the hazards of the Third Industrial Revolution.
     SLZ-420 had become such a man-made meteor. It was nothing more than a solid cylinder of planetoid iron fifteen meters in diameter and twenty-three meters long, weighing a mere thirty-five thousand tons … a grain of celestial sand on the beach of the solar system.

(ed note: currently with a kinetic energy of 6.3×1018 joules, about 1.5 gigatons)

     The glitch in the electronic guidance system had not affected the instructions to "go to Earth" that had been implanted in its memory on Pallas. Faithfully, it continued to do its job … except for that one little program step. Faithfully, the reliable constant-boost space drive continued to work, adding one meter per second to the velocity every second … in the wrong direction. Toward Earth. Toward eight billion people aboard a giant spaceship living in an ecology that was vulnerable to the man-made meteor. Toward people who were ignorant of SLZ-420 and who did not understand the consequences of what could and would happen. But., also, towards people who had not ignored the possibility that it would indeed happen someday.

     The House committee hearing room had not changed in nearly a hundred years. Established behind his elevated desk with the status symbols of the microphones before him sat a man who was almost indistinguishable from most of his predecessors. Representative Claypool Evans Perrin had served the people of his district for nearly a quarter of a century … or so they believed. However, he knew full well that politics was simply the interaction of various power groups … and thus he had remained in office through twelve election battles. He scorned implant lenses, preferring old rirnless eyeglasses. He felt that they lent a distinctive touch to his craggy face toppediby its famous shock of unruly hair, hair that was now pure white and wom long in the romantic fashion of the ancient seventies. Perrin believed it helped maintain his image as a young-thinking firebrand radical, the image that had served him well for all those years and all those elections.
     He peered now through those spectacles and fixed his stare on the man behind the witness table below him. “Please let me get this absolutely clear in my mind, Mr. Annitage.” He spoke in the measured cadence of his rasping voice. “The Control and Inspection Division of the Department of Space Commerce is requesting a budget line item of 4.7 billion dollars for something you term an ‘emergency accident system.’ If I understand this correctly, it’s for the development and deployment of interceptor-type space vehicles based at L-5.”
     Chuck Armitage was quick to attempt a reply. “Yes, sir, we—”
     But Perrin wasn't about to let the witness speak yet. “Under the terms of various United Nations treaties, some of them more than fifty years old, no nation is permitted to maintain any soit of deep-space military system beyond that necessary to police its own space operations … sort of the equivalent of the old Coast Guard, if you will. We’ve spent billions of dollars to ensure that the Space Watch can defend our national airspace up to a hundred kilometers, as we are permitted to do under intemational agreement.” He paused and shook his long white hair out of his face. “Mr. Armitage, isn’t the Department of Space Commerce asking Congress to let you build an armed force based in space and capable of carrying out offensive military acts against space facilities as well as against Earth?”
     It was a loaded question, and Chuck Armitage knew it. Hunching forward over the witness table, he looked intently back at Congressman Perrin while he collected his thoughts and tried to choose his words very carefully. His thinking processes were quite rapid in this environment because he had fought his way through many congressional appropriations hearings in the past.
     ‘ ‘Mr. Chairman, the department can’t do what you are claiming, as Secretary Seton has said many times. The intent of the budget line item request is quite different, and this is why Secretary Seton has asked me to speak for it in her stead. As head of the Control and Inspection Division, I am the policeman of our space commerce activities and—”
     “I have read your vitae, sir—” Perrin broke in, apparently with impatience. It was, however, a technique that he used very effectively with witnesses. But it didn’t work with Chuck Armitage.
     “Then you know what sort of situation I am faced with on a daily basis,” Armitage broke in himself. “In fact, for the past twenty-two years we have lived with the situation since the Whitney Drive was first used for constant-boost spaceflight…
     “Ah, yes, but for those twenty-two years, there have been no problems that space crews have not been able to solve.”
     “Those were manned vehicles, Congressman,“ Armitage pointed out. The exchange was becoming rapid-fire as both men tried to gain and maintain control of the situation.
     “What possible difference does that make?”
     “Problems could be solved in transit. But things have changed. The majority of cargo vehicles today are unmanned because of various govemmental restrictions—not in our department, by the way—that prevent the necessary capital accumulation required to finance manned ships.”
     “Well, such rules pertaining to the regulation of space commerce are not the province of this committee!”
     “No, sir, but the unmanned cargo ship is a consequence that we must deal with here. The solar system is full of unmanned ships right this instant, some of them boosting at more than a standard g. I am responsible for the safe operation of those ships of United States registry. And I am especially worried about the unmanned, automated vehicles. There is a finite chance that something could go wrong with an unmanned ship … and we would be faced with the prospect of a very large mass coming at us with terminal velocity approaching a thousand kilometers per second … In effect, man-made meteors. ”
     Perrin waved his hand. “That seems to be a rather remote possibility. Meteors have been hitting the Earth for millions of years. The government of the United States has never had to concern itself with any problems of protecting its citizens against falling meteors!” A titter of laughter ran around the hearing room. Perrin felt that he had counted coup on that one.
     “We are not talking about natural meteors, Mr. Chairman! Most of the natural meteorite material out there is no bigger than a pebble … or somebody would be mining it right now! We are concemed with a recent man-made phenomenon: un-manned constant-boost cargo ships. There are more than a hundred of them boosting toward the Earth-Moon system right now. We need only one failure—one faiIure—to have a worldwide catastrophe on our hands.”
     Come, come! I have never known you to exaggerate in your testimony before, Mr. Armitage. Worldwide catastrophe? Really!"
     “I wish it were not possible, Congressman. We estimate that the impact of a a thirty-thousand-ton planetoid ore carrier at five hundred kilometers per second would produce an effect equivalent to several hundred megatons of TNT (I calculate it as being closer to one gigaton, but who's counting?). But the scaling lafws break down because we cannot extrapolate from the results offearly thermonuclear warhead testing. The United States set off a ten-megaton thermonuclear device in 1952, and the Soviets blew off a fifty-megaton nuke shortly thereafter We are not sure that—”
     Perrin cut in again. “We’re not discussing military warheads Mr. Armitage”
     "No sir, but we are discussing the rapid release of large amounts of energy — and the only difference between a large nuke and a fast-movmg rock is the lack of radiation from the rock impact. In addition, when a large unmanned ship hits, it will be moving many times faster than a natural meteor, and its kinetic energy increases as the square of—”
     "Mr. Armitage. isn’t your division responsible for seeing to it that a runaway spaceship could never occur? Aren’t we discusing something so highly hypothetical as to be ridiculous. Aren't your people on top of the safety aspect?”
     "Yes, sir, they are. Our specifications and technical directives must be followed bv all manufacturers and users of equipment licensed or registered by the United States. By international agreements, all other spacefaring nations either adopt our rules or have rules that are compatible. Our field representatives inspect and sign-off all new equipment as it comes out of the factory door. They do the same for all routine maintenance, overhauls, and even for preboost checks.”
     Then what is it that could possibly go wrong Mr Armitage?"
     "Mr. Chairman, no technology is ever perfect. We are not gods; we are people with a very incomplete understanding of the way the universe works. Sooner or later no matter how diligent we are and no matter how exhaustixeour tests something will misbehave. Let me state categorically—and I’ll back it up with numbers at a later time if you wish—that there is a statistically valid possibility that the Earth will be impacted by an unmanned multithousand-ton cargo ship within the next ten years. We must have an emergency system of long-range deep- space interceptors — a dozen is all that we are asking for. They would be based at our L-5 facility. They have to be because of the negligible gravity well there and because of the fact that it is easier to intercept a runaway ship as far out as possible — and not even very easy under those conditions.”
     Perrin leaned back and made a steeple of his fingertips.
     “Isn’t the Space Watch prepared to take care of such matters?”
     “Ask the Space Watch.”
     “But I am asking you, Mr. Armitage."
     "The Space Watch interceptor force is Earth-based by treaty. The beam weapons at L-5 have limited power under the SWAP agreements with the Soviet Union, whose L-4 beam weapons are also limited. Ask the Space Watch, sir, because they are well equipped to handle defense against Earth-launched missiles or against anything the Soviets might try to do from L-4.”
     “You haven’t answered my question, have you?”
     “I cannot answer it in open session, nor am I privileged to know all of the sensitive details of the Space Watch systems.” Chuck Armitage did know these details. He wasn’t supposed to. He wasn’t cleared for that information, but he had his channels of information that were zealously protected. He had known for five years that the Space Watch did not have the capability to even deflect the course of an unmanned runaway. “This is why I suggested, Mr. Chairman. that you might ask the Space Watch to —”
     An aide leaned over Perrin’s shoulder and whispered something into the congressman’s right ear. Perrin nodded and glanced at his old-fashioned digital wristwatch. He turned his attention again to Annitage. “We have an important roll-call vote coming up in a few minutes. So we’ll not have time to discuss this further today. We may have a duplication of effort conflict arising between DSC and the Space Watch. The fine line of division between military and civilian utilization of space has been a major problem for nearly sixty years, and I doubt that we will find the solution to it today.” Perrin decided that he would mention the matter to the presidents of TriPlanet Spaceways and TransWorld Transit at dinner that evening to find out if there was any support for this program from the space transportation lobby…

     …"Too damned many things in space operations have been determined by political compromise rather than by technical or economic realities," Armitage continued to mutter. “I once thought that when private enterprise became involved, it would be the end of the political football game … but they just started playing again with new rules…"

(ed note: Armitage is told about the runaway ship SLZ-420)

     Chuck Annitage had a decision to make. and he waited until the very last moment to make it. In one smooth motion, he reached out and picked a telephone handset out of its cradle. When he punched the call buttons, his motions were sharp, rapid and almost vicious. “Tom, Chuck Armitage. It’s a ‘go’ situation. my friend. Let me know whether you or Kim decide to be number one. … Yes, it will be messy … I’ll take care of that. … Good luck, Tom … and arigato.” He put the handset back in its cradle softly. For minutes, he stared straight ahead at nothing…

     …Over the next thirty minutes, his guests arrived. Some were indignant. Some were quizzical. Some were somber. None of them knew the full story, some of them had snatches of data that they had agreed would not be discussed until Chuck had given them a full briefing, but almost all of them sensed that there was an aura of quiet, controlled, constrained terror in the air.
     “I’m sorry I interrupted your dinner, Congressman,” Chuck tried to apologize to Perrin. '
     Perrin’s reply was a growl from an important man who has had his arm twisted. “If it hadn’t been for Senator Davidoff, I would have considered this whole matter as a grandstand play resulting from the hearings. I’m still not certain that I …
     “Chuck Armitage does not make grandstand plays,” the young senator cut in. “I've know him too long to …”
     “How do we know this isn’t a dry run?” Perrin wanted to know.
     “I wish to God it were a dry run,” was Chuck’s reply. Raising his voice above the conversational hubbub of the room, he announced, “Please take a seat, everyone. I want to tell everyone what’s going on here.”
     Most of the people in the room knew one another … Star Admiral Jacobs, top man of the Space Watch; Joseph Hirschfeld of TransWorld; Andrew Watermann of Terra-Luna Transport; Jeremiah Morris of TriPlanet; foreign liaison professionals from Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union; and Secretary Helen Seton, secretary of the Department of Space Commerce with the gleaming Distinguished Space Star pinned like a brooch to her high-necked tunic covering the scars and prosthetics from the power satellite accident.
     “Ladies and gentlemen, you are here at the request of the president of the United States, who is fully aware of the crisis that now exists,” Chuck began. “George, please get the rest of the teleconference on the line. Now, to anticipate some objections conceming national security, I wish to further tell you that I am acting with the full authority and approval of the president in establishing this hologram teleconference with our compatriots in Europe, Singapore and the Soviet Union. Please stand by until George completes the circuits."
     The side wall of the room disappeared, revealing three more rooms similar to the one they were in. In each of the shimmering three rooms, the holographic projections from Europe, Singapore and the Soviet Union flickered into being as the circuits through the geosynchronous comsat platforms were given a final tuning. Brief greetings were exchanged, but they were short. The holographic participants seemed to know what the situation was, and they were all business.
     “We have a crisis on our hands with worldwide implications,” Chuck announced. “Our colleagues elsewhere must participate on a real-time basis. A space vehicle of United States’ registry has become a runaway, and it may impact Earth …”
     The room exploded with voices.
     “Gospodin Armitage,” the Soviet hologram spoke, causing the room to become quiet, “is it as bad as our information indicates to us?”
     Chuck nodded. “Here are the full details. TriPlanet cargo load SLZ-420 running in from Pallas at thirty-five thousand tons gross weight did not execute turnover at 17:10 Universal Time today. Because of the distance involved, our tracking net did not leam about this for almost two hours. Neither we nor the people at TriPlanet know what is wrong. Telemetry indicated that everything aboard SLZ-420 is operating normally, but the autopilot will not acknowledge nor execute commands. This should not happen with triple-redundant circuits, but it has.”
     Luxemburgwanted to know, “What is the inspection history ?”
     "Our records and those of TriPlanet indicate that all systems have undergone periodic inspections as required and that all spacewonhiness directives have been complied with. Our Pallas field office gave clearance to boost based on an affirmative preboost check.”
     “Can we compare computer data?” the Soviet asked.
     “Of course," Chuck said and noticed that Star Admiral Jacobs flinched slightly. “Call it up on our standard data transfer net. You can also get the graphic presentation we have on the walls here at center. At turnover, velocity was 612 kilometers per second, and it is still boosting toward us at one-tenth standard g. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is adding one kilometer per second to its velocity every sixteen minutes and forty seconds.”
     A few people in the room were rapidly keying display consoles, calling up additional data. But most did not know how. They sat there, responsible for the use of the technology, but unable to manipulate it.
     Senator Davidoff broke the silence. “But it doesn’t seem to be boosting wild. According to the shape of the trajectories you‘re plotting on the walls out here, its guidance system seems to be working."
     "Working perfectly and homing on Earth,” Chuck told him.
     “Have you alerted the Space Watch?” It was the first time Perrin had spoken since the briefing began. “Can they stop it?”
     Chuck indicated the star admiral.
     Jacobs was young, but he was both a competent engineer and an experienced leader. He first looked directly at the hologram of his Soviet counterpart. Then he turned to Perrin. “No,” came the flat answer.
     “But you’ve got an interceptor force!" Perrin complained.
     Jacobs glanced at the Soviet hologram. “I am not free to discuss it.”
     Chuck picked up a telephone. "As Secretary Seton can verify, the president has authorized complete cooperation and the total lifting of security restrictions. Shall I call him to satisfy you?” ,
     Jacobs hesitated.
     “Since we began this teleconference, SLZ-420 has added one hundred fifty meters per second to its velocity, Admiral,” Chuck pointed out, holding up the telephone. “Do you want me to get the president on the line for you, or are you willing to accept what I tell you?”
     Jacobs looked at Secretary Seton. “I spoke with the president,” she said quietly. “Speak freely, there is no security barrier.”
     “Our interceptors are Earth-based according to treaty. We’ve built some slight excess performance into them so that we could operate them de-rated,” Jacobs rationalized. “With a very great deal of very good luck and everything working perfectly, we might intercept with a nuke at a range of three hundred kilometers from Earth. But at that point, the SLZ-420 is moving at eight hundred kilometers per second … and those rates are beyond … are beyond the capabilities of … of our intercept system.”
     “You have exceeded SWAP treaty limitations!” the Soviet hologram objected strongly.
     “Gospodin!” Chuck snapped. “I would be very happy now if you had exceeded them to a greater extent!”
‘     “Burn it with your beam weapons at L-5 !” Perrin suggested.
     “Congressman,” Jacobs told him, “those beam weapons won’t make a dent in thirty-five thousand tons of iron! By treaty, they’re defocused beyond four hundred thousand kilometers. We can refocus them in about four days’ time … which is several days faster than I know my Soviet counterpart can manage. But even if we could refocus, we haven’t got enough time to input enough energy into the target. At the velocity it will be moving, it will take only seven minutes from time of crossing the lunar orbit until it impacts.
     “Mein Herr, do you have an impact prediction yet?” was the question from Luxemburg Center.
     Chuck paused to key a terminal. “Here’s the latest update, Fritz. Barring any malfunction of the SLZ-420’s guidance system, which is unlikely, the ship will impact near Genk, Belgium, in fifty-nine hours and approximately ten minutes from now. Entry velocity is estimated to be 867 kilometers per second, which means that the Earth’s atmosphere will have negligible effect on its mass from ablation or on its impact velocity. The impact will release kinetic energy equivalent to a 284-megaton bomb … and we do not know what the effects will be. The atmosphere shock wave will rebound around the planet several times, and the ground shock will certainly go off the top end of the Richter Scale. Some of the thirty-five thousand tons of iron will vaporize on impact, and some of it will get tossed clear around the planet as secondaries … some of which may pose a problem to near-Earth orbital facilities. Other than the brief burst of hard X-rays from the atmospheric entry plasma sheath, there will be no radiation other than heat … and the fireball of impact will probably rise to the top of the stratosphere and squat there, radiating most of its heat to space. The meteor experts at Flagstaff couldn’t even guess the effects on the planetary weather…
     “Is there any chance it may go into the Atlantic Ocean instead?” the hologram that was Fritz in Luxemburg asked.
     “That just makes it worse,” Chuck pointed out. “The impact might vaporize enough sea water to create a worldwide cloud layer … which in turn could raise the world temperatures by several degrees by virtue of greenhouse effect… Look, all of you, I just don't know everything that could happen because we have never experienced anything like this in all recorded history! We can’t even extrapolate from fairly recent strikes such as the Barringer Crater in Arizona … which was made by a small slowpoke in comparison to SLZ-420… ”
     There was complete silence for moments as the full import of the information sunk in. It was Claypool Perrin who lost his cool. “We've got to start evacuation of the impact area!”
     “Clay,” Davidoff said, “an announcement would start a panic.”
     “But millions of people will die! How can you just sit here and let the sky literally fall on those millions in Europe without telling them?”
     “Congressman, will you provide me with some guidelines on how to evacuate a whole continent?” Chuck said.
     “But you’ve got to do something!” Perrin exploded. “How can you sit here and watch blinking lights and program computers and let the world come to an end? This is madness! You’ve got to do something!”
     The people in the room. including the holographic projections, were now looking at one another, often with quick glances, sometimes with long eye contacts. Nobody said a word. Most were afraid to say anything.
     Slowly and softly, Chuck broke the heavy silence. “I have already done something about it.”
     The room exploded again in voices. Chuck merely held up his hand, and the room fell silent again. Of all the powerful people in the room, Chuck Armitage was now the most powerful. He turned around and pointed to a screen in the traffic room. Two green triangles were now leaving a green trail on the near-Earth display. One of them appeared to be accelerating rapidly. The display had been up for several minutes, but only Chuck had noticed. The others had been far too engrossed in the problem or did not understand the display.
     “Madame Secretary,” Chuck addressed his boss who, because of her astronaut training, had maintained her cool consideration of the affair. “You know nothing of what I have done. I haven’t told you about its planning. I initiated its implementation without your knowledge or approval. I utilized funds from several parts of the budget in such a way that the expenditures wouldn’t be noticed until GAO audits us. I’m sorry that I had to do it this way, but I had to protect you and the department from the storm that is to follow. I accept full and complete responsibility. ”
     “You still haven’t told me what you’ve done, Chuck,” Helen Seton pointed out with no trace of emotion.
     “First off, here is my resignation, effective immediately.” Chuck withdrew an envelope from his jacket pocket and proffered it to his boss.
     “We’ll discuss it at a later time when things are not so critical,” she replied with a wave of her hand, refusing to accept the envelope. What is going on now?” she asked quietly.
     “My grandstand play. Senator Davidoff said a few minutes ago that I don’t make them. That is not precisely true. I don’t make them until it counts. If I had yelled and made a bloody nuisance of myself over the runaway possibility when I took over here seven years ago, I would not have remained in the position for more than six weeks … ”
      “That’s a very astute observation, Chuck,” Davidoff told him.
     “I know. Jeremiah, your people, combined with those from TransWorld and Terra-Luna, would never live with any system that could reach into deep space. Neither would the League of Free Traders—”
     “Don’t try to put the blame for all of this on us, Armitage ” Jeremiah Morris growled. “Because of your unreasonable regulations. we've had to put safety devices on the satety devices … and something was bound to go wrong sooner or—”
     “Gentlemen!” Helen Seton’s voice was still quiet, but it carried both leadership and authority in its tone. “Please! There will be ample time for bickering later … if we survive. Let Chuck explain what it is that he has done behind the scenes."
     “Thank you. I did a bootleg engineering job that is something far less than perfect with high risk involved and exorbitant ultimate cost … hoping that I would never have to use it because others might be convinced to give us the means to do it right. Well, SLZ-420 forced the issue and pushed me into using my Plan B which is one-shot. We can never use it again, so we’ve got to get our heads together even while it is probably saving our necks … which is why the president acceded to my requests to bring you together here.”
     Perrin was on his feet, using his full-volumed House speaking voice. “I will not permit myself to be pressured in this manner. … Please excuse me!”
     “You will have some trouble getting out of here, Chuck Armitage pointed out. “Madame Secretary, do I not have the authority to seal off the center in an emergency?”
     “You do, and I will not countermand your order. But would really like to know what you are doing, Chuck. All of this preamble obviously seems important, and it probably is. But SLZ-420 is coming down our throats, and that is Priority Number One. Will everybody please be quiet and listen?” When she raised her voice with emotion in it, the shock rippled through the room, which instantly became silent.
     Chuck spun a chair around and literally fell into it. Fatigue was beginning to get to him, and there was a long time yet to go. “Those two green triangles boosting hard away from Earth are two of our deep-space inspection cutters from Hilo base, Hawaii. They have been highly modified and each is manned only by a single pilot.
     "Manned? Why manned?” Star Admiral Jacobs wanted to know.
     “Because we had neither the time nor the money to develop the necessary long-range active guidance and homing sylstems that are required for an interceptor that can, handle high closure rates at distances far beyond lunar orbit”, Chuck explained. “I had to use a guidance system that was already available: a human being. The first triangle represents the cutter Toryu, which is boosting at four standard g’s, the limit of sustained human endurance, under the control of Tomio Hattori. The second triangle represents the Shoki, boosting at two standard g under the control of Kimsuki Kusabake. In approximately twenty-five hours, the Toryu will intercept the SLZ-420. If Tom Hattori does the kind of job I know he can do, the impact of that two-thousand-ton cutter will do one or both of two jobs: deflect the SLZ-420 from its present trajectory and/or disable its constant-boost drive. If Tom doesn’t do the complete job, we have the Shoki following with Kim to finish it off … but that will be a tough one because of the increased closure rate …”
     Again, it was Congressman Claypool Perrin, the reelected romantic of the let-it-all-hang-out seventies, who broke in almost hysterically. “Do you mean to tell us that you have deliberately sent at least one person to a certain death? How can you possibly do this … this inhumane thing?”
     “I know of no other way to do it at this time with the tools that you have permitted me,” Chuck fired back. “And spare me the outrage. Ain’t nobody here but us chickens, fellas … and that is an American folk saying for the benefit of our teleconferencing guests. Every one of us in this room, including the teleconferencing guests, has contributed to this situation in his own unique way.”
     “Now, that certainly isn’t true, Chuck! This should have been a Space Watch job—” Star Admiral Jacobs started to say.
     “See what I mean?” Chuck said. “The Watch fought us tooth and nail when we instituted orbital sweeping for the thousands of dead satellites up there. No, they wanted high-power beam weapons installed in L-5 to do the job … And I know that your intelligence people knew that, Dimitri!”
     “That’s not a fair assessment!” Jacobs tried to break in. “The State Department didn’t—”
     "I don’t care who tries to put the blame on who!” Chuck said in exasperation. “Govemments, private enterprise, everyone involved in space commerce is right here. right now! Reading it on the news tube wouldn’t have helped toward a solution; you had to be here right in the middle of it living with the consequences of your actions. You had to see and experience it, and it is a very difficult thing to do. And please don’t think that taking care of this industrial accident was an easy thing for me to do, either!” He sighed deeply and rubbed his eyes. “But it will be an easy thing for Tom and Kim.”
     “What do you mean. Chuck?” Senator Davidoff asked.
     “Admiral Jacobs knows what I mean. There are always people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Some people seek self-destruction for a cause in order to give meaning to their lives. Our psychologists can spot them. And sometimes it is a cultural trait…
     “Kamikazes,” Jacob muttered.
     “Over two thousand pilots of World War II, and several thousand from time to time since then in suicide missions in bnishfire wars for a glorious cause greater than they believe themselves to be.” Chuck noticed that Perrin was now shaking his head in total disbelief. “No, Congressman Perrin, this job isn’t all technology. It deals with people because technical problems are rarely unsolved due to technical factors. In this case, I am giving two people the opportunity to fulfill themselves. Tom and Kim are out there by their own free choice. I have been the only one who did not have a real choice.”
     Most of the people present in the room sat aghast, with three exceptions—the hologram from Singapore whose Japanese features indicated full understanding, Secretary Helen Seton, whose own sacrifice on PowerSat One had made her life as a woman and mother impossible, and Star Admiral Jacobs, who nodded as though he had discovered in Chuck Armitage a man he could fully understand. “We have them in the Space Watch, too. No military establishment could exist without them,” he said with pride.
     It was now very quiet in the room again. Armitage looked around. “We have twenty-five hours before we know if Tom Hattori succeeds. In the meantime, we have placed the tightest possible worldwide news lid on this. There will be no leaks from Singapore or from the centers. Food and beverages will be available here, and there are secure rooms down the hall if anyone needs to rest. Your respective organizations have been notified that you are in a special international conference, which is no lie. We have all seen the consequences of our past activities. We now have the unique opportunity—to work out an arrangement so that this sort of thing can never happen again. Madame Secretary, you are the logical one to chair this ad hoc conference. Would you care for some coffee?"

     Tom Hattori and the Toryu did the job. The haggard group in the gallery of the center watched the displays as what was left careered around the Earth and plunged outward forever into deep space with a velocity that would take it to the stars. There were no cheers. The conference group was far too exhausted physically and emotionally. New agreements had been hammered out. A joint communiqué had been written and released to the news media.
     Both in space and in the center, the solutions were compromises … but workable compromises.
     Chuck Armitage was the first to leave the center.
     He discovered Senator Davidoff and Secretary Seton walking on either side of him.
     “Where are you going, Chuck?” Helen Seton asked.
     “Home. To stay.”
     “Take a few days’ rest. Then come and see me. There’s work to be done … lots of work.”
     “Madame Secretary … Helen … my resignation holds. It has to.”
     “Chuck, you’re a good man,” Senator Davidoff put in. “We’ve always needed good men. Why do you think you’re finished in your present position? With the new agreements, we need you more than ever. You were the spark plug that got it all together for us.”
     "Ah, my dear colleague from the good old days of the Shuttle missions!” Chuck Armitage replied. “Perhaps you and Helen can handle the political aspects of this and swing enough clout with GAO so that Justice does not indict me for misappropriation of funds …”
     “But you saved the whole damned world!” Davidoff pointed out.
     “Temporarily … until the next crisis in an era of crises.
     “I can’t be as dramatic as the senator,” the petite secretary of space commerce remarked, “but he’s right. We need you more than ever. When forced to make a decision, you didn’t waffle … and it was a very tough decision. Both the senator and I know such a thing is rare among people today, but absolutely necessary in space. Chuck, your career and job are not in jeopardy. I’ll stick by you, whatever happens …”
     “And I will do the same,” Davidoff added quickly, earnestly.
     Chuck stopped walking so suddenly that his two companions went two steps beyond him, then turned to face where he stood. “No. For several reasons. You’re on top of the hill, and I am down on a ridge. I see some things differently. I pushed around a lot of internationally powerful and influential people. I rubbed their noses in their own accumulated folly and made them admit to it by forcing them to come up with a new set of rules. I’ll never be one of them and I’ll no longer be able to work for them because I have proved that I am willing to rock the boat and make big waves. I am no longer to be trusted…
     “Nonsense!” Davidoff snorted.
     “You know it isn’t. I cannot ask you to risk your own careers. I’ve already sent one man to his willing destruction; I cannot ask anyone else to even risk it. In fact, my own personal values are making it very difficult for me to rationalize Tomio Hattori. In my own case, it doesn’t count. When I spoke of people willing to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause, I knew exactly whatl was talking about… Now, please excuse me. I’m very tired…”
     He turned and took a side path, walking away from them. In the star-specked evening, the ex-astronaut senator and the ex-astronaut minister watched him go. There wasn’t anything either of them could say.

From INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT by G. Harry Stine (1980)

(ed note: The interplanetary passenger liner Martian Queen had a little accident. Right before the scheduled flip-and-burn to decelerate, the nuclear converter in the engine room explodes. This turns the converter into radioactive slag, vaporizes the rocket motors, and of course kills the four engineers.

Of special concern is that the ship has a velocity relative to Terra of 32 kilometers per second, the ship has a mass of 500 metric tons, and has 184, sorry 180 living people on board. Yes, that's 2.56×1014 joules since at that speed it has 114 Ricks. About the same number of joules as seven Hiroshima atom bombs rolled into one.

Oh, and it is heading right at New York City. It will hit in about half an hour.

Captain Deering frantically checks all his options but there doesn't seem to be any. )

(ed note: meanwhile at White Sands Spaceport with General Neil Stanley commanding)

     Stanley picked up the phone. "Stanley here.”
     "General, we’ve got the fix on the Martian Queen.”
     "What’s the ETA?" Stanley asked.
     There was a pause at the other end of the line. "We haven’t computed the ETA, sir,” the voice said hesitantly. "There’s something wrong. The position is off, and the velocity is constant. The —”
     "Never mind,” Stanley said, cutting the man off in mid-sentence. "I’ll be right over.” He slammed the receiver down and pushed the phGne away.
     He left his office on a dead run, his lips clamped together in a grim scowl. When a radar fix can't compute the Estimated Time of Arrival of a spaceship instantly, there is something wrong—deadly wrong...

     ..."Never mind," Stanley said crisply. "Time to talk later.” He pushed back his cap and walked past them without bothering to ask questions.
     "Chart,” he murmured.
     They complied. Stanley looked at the blip on the scope and checked the reading against the chart, frowning worriedly. Something was definitely wrong; the blip wasn’t moving, which indicated a constant velocity. The Queen should have started decelerating long before this.
     A bead of sweat trickled down his heavily-tanned forehead, and he brushed it away impatiently. The data was there. The Queen wasn’t decelerating. Why? Who knew? Who cared? All that mattered was the bare fact.
     "Get me a direct line to Captain Deering!" Stanley said sharply, without looking up from the charts.
     "Yes, sir,” Sokolow said.
     Stanley rubbed his chin. The ETA charts were simplicity itself. The readings on the screen could be checked against the charts and the time for landing was right there; the figures had been computed long before. All the radar man needed to know was the ship's position, velocity, and negative acceleration.
     But this ship was off position and had no negative acceleration, and the charts weren’t set up for a situation like that. Preconceived rules are nice things to have, but they simply don't work in an emergency.
     While the radio man upstairs tried feverishly to get a direct communication to the Martian Queen, Stanley reached across the desk, pounced on the phone, grabbed it toward him, and dialed Routing.
     "Stanley here. I want a computation fast.” He glanced at the screen and rattled off the bearing, velocity, and direction of the blip on the radar. "I want to know when and where she’ll hit if she doesn’t decelerate. Got that?”
     When and where she'll hit. He said the words in a clipped, businesslike manner, concealing the feeling that lay behind them. It was impossible for him to get hysterical over the situation, but he certainly appreciated its ugliness. Spaceships are big, heavy things, traveling at fantastic speeds, and a man who had worked with them half his life knew' exactly what potential danger each one carried...

(ed note: on board the Martian Queen)

     ...Captain Deering’s jaw muscles tightened as he heard the words coming over the intercom.
     "Hagerty here. The engine room’s a wreck, captain. I sent Palmer in, but he couldn’t stay long; it’s too hot down there. We didn’t find out much.”
     "What about the main converter?” Deering asked anxiously.
     "Almost completely gone. It’s a wonder it didn’t blow into fragments when it went. God only knows what happened. The engine crew’s gone — died almost instantly, I'd guess.”
     "What’s the converter like?” Deering asked. He’d long ago forgotten about the lamentable but irreparable death of his engine crew; the important thing now was getting the engine room back together, not giving the four men a proper burial. That could come later—if there was any later to come.
     "The converter’s a mess,” Hagerty said. "Mostly molten metal, according to Palmer, though it’s beginning to solidify now. The shielding has kept the radiation from the rest of the ship, and it’s slowly dying out now.”
     "And the engines?” Deering asked, knowing that only a miracle could have preserved them. "Any chance of starting them?”
     "What engines?” Hagerty’s voice told the story without need of further explanation. "There aren’t any engines left to start.”...

     ...He turned away from the intercom and grabbed the radiophone, feeling as if there were cannons to the right and cannons to the left of him. "Deering here!” he barked. "What do you want, Neil?”
     "Buddy? Stanley here. What’s going on up there? Man, you've got to stop that thing!”
     Stanley’s voice held an ominous, imperative ring. Deering grinned sardonically. "Any suggestions? Black magic, maybe?”
     "What’s the trouble?”
     "Main converter shot all to hell, and so is the secondary. Engines out. I’m just getting moving on the thing. What’s our course?”
     Stanley's voice was harsh. "Never mind now. What happened ?”
     "God knows!” Deering said. "We'd just stopped spin for deceleration and something blew in the engine room. We’re powerless. Hagerty says there’s nothing but slag down there!”
     Stanley was silent for a moment, and Captain Deering stared impatiently at the radiophone in his hand. He felt a little better about things now that he knew Stanley of White Sands was with him. There was something reassuring about contact with the big catlike man, even when you were riding a spaceship straight to hell and he was sitting down there comfortably in an air-conditioned turret.
     "O.K., feed me your co-ordinates,” Stanley said at last.
     Deering glanced up at Lieutenant Blivens. The prune-faced astrogator was standing by tensely. "Course,” Deering demanded.
     The astrogator threw him a sheet of paper, from which Deering read figures. "That's as close as I can get,” he said, when he was through. "Do you have a fix on us?”
     "Checking it now,” said Stanley. "I’ve got some other things to do right now, but keep the line open. Off.”...

     ...The words were futile. The Martian Queen was falling toward Earth—powerless. Deering took the situation in, and he knew there was little sense in ordering Hagerty to work a miracle. There was nothing in space that could save the ship...

(ed note: at White Sands Spaceport)

     ..."What’s happening to that data?” he asked.
     "Coming out now, sir," someone at the other end said. "We fed DIRAC the figures you gave us. They’re not too accurate, but—Wait! Here it is now.”
     There was a long silence at the end of the line, while Stanley chafed his fingers impatiently together. "Sir!” came the voice finally. "They aren’t going to miss Earth!"
     "What? That checked?”
     "Yes, sir. Whatever happened, it threw them off course just enough so that they’ll still crack up on Earth even if they don’t decelerate. It’s a million-to-one fluke that they should be—”
     "Can it,” Stanley said. "What’s the intersection point of the two orbits?”
     "Somewhere along the East Coast, sir. We can’t get it any closer than that without more precise data. I’d say that it’ll hit somewhere near New York City if it doesn’t slow down !”
     "It figures,” said Stanley tightly. "It figures. How long before she hits?”
     "A little better than a half hour, sir. Can you get us more accurate data?”...

     ..."Experimental!” Stanley ordered. "And double quick.” The jeep roared off across the compound toward the Experimental Drive building.
     Almost before they had started, they were there. The jeep's wheels had barely stopped moving when Stanley sprang out of it and toward the building.
     Colonel Arthmore jerked his head up in surprise as the major general slammed into the room. The colonel didn’t even have time to give a proper salute before Stanley said:
     "Is that XV-19 ready to go? Can we have it in space within the next twenty minutes?”
     The colonel blinked and nodded. "I think so, sir, if we rush it. We—”
     "Rush it, hell!” Stanley snapped. "I want you to move faster than that ship can. It’s the highest acceleration ship we've got, isn’t it?”
     "Yes, sir! We—”
     "I want it ready to leave inside ten minutes. Take that as an order!”
     "Yes, sir.” The colonel had fully come to life now; he’d been galvanized into the same sort of quivering perpetual motion that was driving Stanley right now.
     "And I don’t want a word of what’s going on to leak out of here,” Stanley said. "Is that understood? If one word leaks, or if that ship isn’t ready to go. I'll see to it that you’ll never wear those birds on your shoulder again. Is that clear?”
     "Yes, sir,” said the colonel. "Anything else, general?”...

(ed note: at an emergency meeting General Stanley gives a briefing to civilian leaders )

     ...One of the civilians—no one had bothered to tell Stanley exactly which high-level members of the Administration he was dealing with—said, "Is there any way at all to get the drive of that ship going again? Don’t they carry repair technicians, or something like that?”
     "I have Captain Deering’s report,” Stanley said. "He states flatly that the main converter and the secondaries are absolutely and completely ruined. It would be, I assure you, impossible to fix them in the next fifteen minutes, even with the best intentions.”
     The civilian ignored the sarcasm. "Well, how about a rescue ship? Couldn't we get one up there in time to take those people off?"
     Stanley paused and said, "Sending up a rescue ship is impossible, sir.”
     "Why’s that?"
     "It would never make it. They would have to accelerate to take off, decelerate to match velocity with the Queen, and then accelerate again to keep from hitting Earth. Counting the time it would take to get all the passengers and the crew off of the Queen, it would require”—he made a rough mental computation—"more than an hour, even if we used all the acceleration the passengers could stand. I'm afraid it won’t work."
     General Hagopian said: "Then there's absolutely no way we can save them?”
     "None whatsoever, sir. There just isn’t time.”
     Another of the civilians said: "We’re just lucky this time, I suppose.”
     "What’s that?” Stanley asked.
     "I mean, it’s too bad all those people have to die, but at least they’ll only hit the Sound. It would have been catastrophic if they’d hit a populated area. Only by the merest whisker of fate did that ship aim for the Sound instead of any of the cities on the Eastern Seaboard! Can you imagine what would have happened if the ship had landed in—”
     "I’m afraid you don't understand, sir,” Stanley said. "It isn’t the Sound we have to worry about—it’s the sound.”
     The five men blinked.
     "What nonsense is this?” asked General Hagopian.
     "Just exactly what I said, sir. It doesn’t matter whether that ship lands in the water or not, because it’s never going to land in one piece anyway. That ship is coming into Earth at twenty miles per second. When it hits the atmosphere, it’s going to go to pieces in a hell of a hurry. It will burn and collapse. "But its actual impact with Earth’s surface isn't going to be the thing that will do the damage. It won’t matter whether it comes down in Long Island Sound or in Times Square—it’s the impact with the atmosphere that will cause about twenty million deaths.

     No one said anything. The five men in the screen looked at him in blank-faced horror.
     "You know what happens when a jet plane goes over a city too low?" Stanley said. "A supersonic jet can break windows. What sort of sound wave do you think a five-hundred- metric-ton spaceship will cause at—seventy-two thousand miles an hour?
     "I’ll tell you. It would flatten every structure for miles around. If that ship hits Long Island Sound, New York City will be toppling in ruins before it ever arrives! Every town on Long Island is going to be pancaked. From Newark, New Jersey, to Hartford, Connecticut, that shock wave will knock over everything standing. This isn’t a matter of a few people in a ship dying; it's a matter of millions!”
     The civilian looked at General Hagopian.
     “He’s right,” said the general, in a strangled voice.
     "How much time do we have left?” the civilian demanded, white-faced.
     "Only a few minutes,” Stanley said coldly. He looked at his watch. "Hardly any time at all.”
     "Why didn’t you call us before this?”
     "I called as soon as I heard,” Stanley said. "It took time to get all you people together. It took time to compute what was going to happen.”
     In the background of his screen, he saw two of the civilians engaging in some rapid-fire exchange of conversation. "Can we evacuate?” the third civilian asked.
     "In five or six minutes? Don’t be silly.” Stanley seemed utterly cool now, in sharp contrast to the five who faced him. "We couldn’t have gotten all those people out of that area even if we’d started evacuating the moment the Queen had its accident— or half a day before, for that matter.”
     The civilian looked angry, but he said nothing.
     “What do you suggest, general?” said Hagopian.
     "There’s only one thing to do,” Stanley said levelly. "We’ll have to send up a rocket with an atomic warhead and blast that ship into gas before it hits.”
     There was a stunned silence. Stanley counted five before anyone spoke. This was the moment he had waited for—the moment when he had to give the brass the only answer to the problem of what to do with the oncoming Queen. The reaction was as expected.
     The civilian said: "Are you crazy? Blow up a hundred and eighty innocent people? There must be some other way.”
     "But there isn’t,” Stanley said flatly. "There never has been. There is only one thing to do.”
     "But we can’t permit that!” the civilian protested. "It’s murder!”
     "Murder? Is it murder to kill people who are already doomed? Is it murder to save the lives of twenty million people? Pardon me for being melodramatic, but I don’t like the idea any better than you do. It was difficult for me to convince myself that there was no other way.”
     "There must be another way,” said the civilian frantically. "Send up a rescue ship immediately! Hagopian, order him to send up a—”
     Stanley’s jaw muscles stood out. Without waiting for the civilian to finish speaking, he said, "Look here, you blockhead. Do you understand that it’s impossible to send up a rescue ship? Do you understand that I can’t pull miracles out of a hat? It’s as impossible to send up a rescue ship as it is to catch the Martian Queen with your bare hands.”
     "You can't talk to me that way, general!’’
     Stanley glanced at Hagopian. The military man was saying nothing, but there was the faint suggestion of a smile around his thin lips.
     "I’m simply trying to get you to understand,” said Stanley. "All of you. There is no other way out! None! Those people are going to die. D-I-E. It would be better if they died without taking a few million people with them. Is that clear?”

     Stanley waited for a reply, and, sure enough, it was forthcoming. One of the other civilians said, "Couldn’t we divert it from its course somehow?”
     "Not without destroying it,” Stanley said. "Which is exactly what I want to get permission to do.”
     "I’m afraid that’s impossible, general. The public would never sanction —”
     "The public be damned! It’s the public who is going to die! Die! Do you understand that? Twenty million people! Twenty million corpses to dig out from under ten thousand square miles of rubble!”
     "That’s ridiculous!” said the third civilian. They were doggedly trying to talk Stanley out of insisting on this thing, it seemed. "How could a shock wave do all that?”
     "How could it do it? It’s done it! Didn’t you ever hear of the Great Siberian Meteor that landed around 1908? It only came in at a speed of ten miles a second or so —half the Queen's—and it laid waste hundreds of square miles of forest. Trees fell like matchsticks. And this ship is going about twice as fast!”
     "There must be something else we can do,” said the first civilian stubbornly.
     "All right,” Stanley said. "Start making suggestions.”
     "Exactly. There is nothing else we can do,” he repeated. He glanced again at the clock. "Do I have your permission to send up an atomic warhead, then?”
     "No!” came the answer. The first civilian was doing all the talking now. "That’s out of the question. There must be another way.”
     "There isn’t,” Stanley said. "And wishing won’t make it so. You can't wish away the laws of the universe —you’ve got to obey them. And that’s exactly what the Martian Queen is doing! And that’s exactly what New York is going to do when that shock wave hits!”
     He paused and stared at them. ”1 ask you again: Do I have permission to send up that bomb?”
     "I hardly see how we can sanction it, general. We’ll have to find some other way.”
     Stanley looked at the clock and sighed.
     "It’s too late now anyway,” he said softly. "While we’ve been haggling, the Queen has been falling. It couldn't wait. Even if you ordered it, I couldn’t get a bomb up there now.”
     Two of the men looked fearfully out of the window toward the north. Stanley caught the gesture; he couldn’t see the window on his screen, but he knew what they were looking for. From Washington, such a display would be easily visible.
     "Oh, it won’t land,” said Stanley. His voice sounded old and tired. "There won’t be any crash. I sent up an XV-19 under robot control several minutes before you gentlemen got together. It was loaded with a thermo nuclear warhead. Captain Deering will—or I should say has—guided it in. The Martian Queen was vaporized over a minute ago. It was the only thing to do.”
     One of the men covered his face with his hands. Stanley wondered who he was.
     "I presume you know what this means,” asked General Hagopian quietly.
     "I know,” said Staney. "If I get out of it with a whole skin, I'll still lose everything I’ve ever worked for. It doesn’t matter. At the courtmartial, I can still know that I’ve saved the lives of millions of people.”
     General Hagopian nodded. "That will be a point in your favor. But there’s nothing else we can do; you can see that. You’ll have to roast.” Then Hagopian looked steadily at Stanley. "You’re a very brave man, general. It’s too bad that most people will never understand what you did—and why.”
     Stanley forced a smile. "The people who matter will understand, general. And they’re the only ones who count.”

From SOUND DECISION by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett (1956)

Launch Guard

The Launch Guard operates around spaceports, where launches occur (obviously).

At a spaceport, bulk cargoes can be launched with huge mass drivers. People and cargo can also be boosted into orbit using laser launch systems. Both of these can be used as ground-to-space weapons powerful enough for a planetary fortress. The Launch Guard controls these installations [a] to ensure terrorist do not use them as impromptu terrorist weapons of mass destruction and [b] to repurpose them as weapons of mass destruction to wreck death and destruction on any suddenly appearing invading enemy spacecraft.

If a spacecraft is on a collision course with something valuable or full of innocent bystanders (like the spaceport), or behaving erratically or suspiciously, the on-duty Launch Guard Range Safety officer will spring into action. They will trigger the off-course ship's integral self-destruct device or use surface-to-space weapons to blast it into smithereens. The range officer will have the agonizing task of weighing the lives on the ship with the lives at the projected impact point.

If civilian owned spacecraft have propulsion systems frightful enough to be weapons of mass destruction then by law all such ships will be equipped with destruct devices controlled by the launch guard. Just in case a tramp freighter with an antimatter engine has a drunk pilot and starts heading towards a major metropolitan area.

If the destructive energy is from the wayard ship's engine (e.g., antimatter) the self-destruct charge will just have to neutralize the engine. But if the destructive energy is the ship acting like an impromptu kinetic energy weapon, the closer the charge can come to vaporizing the entire ship the better.

Most real-world boosters and spacecraft include self destructs to prevent lawsuits and massive negative publicity if the rocket goes off course. Manned rockets generally have some sort of launch escape system to propel the habitat module clear of the blast radius (with the notable exception of the Space Shuttle).

The range safety officer with their finger on the big red button are usually located at some distance from the object they are blowing up. So they will have some objectivity (i.e., not hesitate because they are scared of committing suicide).


The good thing about starship disasters is that they so rarely turn into catastrophes.

Which is to say, sure, you can kill yourself, and you get your crew and your passengers killed, and if you try hard enough, you can go hurtling out of the system into the deep black at ludicrous speed, even while glowing with enough hard rads that no salvor’ll want to touch your hull for the next hundred thousand years. But space is big, its contents are small, and dramatic screw-ups that manage to take out other people by the mucker-ton therefore require sufficiently extraordinary talent that the Fourth Directorate will be crawling all over the site even before the wrecker gets there.

That is unfortunately not the case with interface vehicles, where the gravity well and the atmosphere bend physics all out of shape.

And you are flying, let me remind you, a real starship. Not some dinky aluminum-balloon sounding rocket that will obligingly shred itself into confetti and fireballs if the launch goes wrong; you’re flying maybe 3,000 tons of titanium composite and cerametals — not to mention the hot soup — that will come down hard, and will not come down happy.

This is a problem.

It’s not a problem for long. Well, if you’re flying the vehicle in question, it’s a problem for even less long, but you know what I mean.

Most dramatic engine failures happen very quickly indeed — on the pad, or within the first seconds of flight — at which point the starport disaster team will be on hand to clean up both you and your mess. And if you can keep things running long enough to get to orbital altitude — even on a suborbital trajectory — the odds are good in any kind of developed system that someone has a tug or a powerful OTV that can meet you and drag you the rest of the way upstairs while you get on the horn and have an unpleasant discussion with your insurance carrier.

That leaves the couple of minutes in the middle. Too high and fast for the starport to assist you; too low and slow for help from on high.

So what do you do, in that situation, if your main drive is failing and the auxiliary isn’t kicking in and you’ve got a sad board on all your backups?

Make sure you have the other kind of backup.

See, they don’t leave handling that sort of situation up to the Flight Commander. They know the sort of people who become Flight Commanders, and that they’ll try to save their ship right up until the very last second after it becomes a major incident. As is right and proper, but does not lead to the optimal outcome in this sort of case.

And they don’t leave handling it up to space traffic control, either, as they come from the same kind of dedicated stock that will try to save their traffic up to the very last second, too.

It’s in the hands of one man, titled Downrange Safety, who sits in a bunker at the starport. He has a live feed of all the traffic control instrumentation, everything he needs to see when a launch or landing trajectory has gone grossly off-track and out of safety limits. He has priority “flammifer exigent” access to the orbital defense grid, and to the starport’s launching lasers, and to anything else that might be useful.

He has a fully-automated system with executive authority to blast any incipient disasters right out of the sky, and he has a button which holds that system’s fire.

For three seconds at a time.

And that’s why I don’t fly interface vehicles.

– Svínif Kalyn-ith-Kalyn,
Sailing Master,
former Downrange Safety at Anniax Interplanetary, 6022-6167

From TWO MINUTES by Alistair Young (2015)

It is a truism of celestial warfare that among the most valuable targets to seize in the course of a major planetary assault operation is the primary planetary starport or local starports close to the intended target(s) of the operation. Starports, for all the obvious reasons, make perfect orbitheads, offering existing facilities eminently suitable for the landing and disembarkation of troops and materiel in quantity. (Orbital elevators, by contrast, are usually considered too fragile and susceptible to sabotage for this purpose, if the enemy are willing to absorb the ensuing damage to their own planet, until the orbitals and the continental area surrounding the elevator have been entirely secured.)

Why, then, are combat drops rarely, if ever, targeted at the vicinity of starports?

Again, it is important to remember that which is unseen. The popular image of starports is heavily biased towards the facilities for ground-landing starships — understandably, since the giant launch/landing pads built to handle nucleonic-thermal ships, with their blast-deflecting berms, “hot” shafts, and motile structures are some of the most impressive structures ever built — and towards the shuttleport terminals used by commuters and starship passengers alike. Nonetheless, the majority of cargo in the developed Worlds is carried by dedicated spacecraft incapable of atmospheric landing, to and from which cargo is transported in high volumes using suitably cheap methods: either laser-launch/deceleration facilities, mass drivers, or both, in which case the former handles light or delicate cargo and the latter hardbulk.

What this means in military terms is that, any other defense grid aside, the majority of starports in the developed Worlds have at their disposal a multi-gigawatt-range phased-array laser system, and/or a pair of mass drivers capable of accelerating a solid slug the size of a shipping container (or, equally effective, a shipping container packed with rubble or cheap heavy-metal ingots) to orbital velocities — both, admittedly, equipped with safety systems designed to prevent them from being used in exactly the manner which is desirable for military purposes, but that is something usually corrected readily enough by a software change — along with all the high-resolution traffic-control sensor equipment needed to target them effectively.

It is also a truism of warfare in general that one shouldn’t stab a heavily-armed man in the front. That is doubly relevant when the things they’re using as weapons are also the value that you want to capture.

— Elementary Principles of Orbit-to-Ground Maneuver Plans, pub. INI Press

Beam Transit Authority / Laser Guard

Huge solar power stations (SPS) can power MagBeams to push little spacecraft in near orbit or to give them a kick to another planet.

SPS can also power titanic laser arrays used for beam-powered propulsion for laser-thermal spacecraft all over the solar system. Especially since non-beam powered solar sails can only do about 3 milligees and you need at least 5 milligees to be practical.

They can also launch laser sail spacecraft on interstellar missions.

Such stations would be valuable and useful pieces of space infrastructure.

All of these provide advantage to people using spacecraft, but with the cost of being at the mercy of whoever owns the SPS. Ship captains have to file their flight plan with the SPS, and have to follow it to the letter or the beam cannot stay focused. And if your bill isn't paid up Beams-R-Us will pull the plug. Sure Beams-R-Us will need massive investments to construct the powersats and laser arrays, but it will be quite lucrative.

But then there is the awkward fact that a beam which could power a freighter in the asteroid belt is also powerful enough to vaporize a battleship in cis-lunar space. Not to mention that any space garbage scow could suddenly become a laser spitting death machine with only the support of a powersat and a few half-silvered mylar balloons used as laser combat mirrors. You will have Powersat Weapons. The military will not be happy...

...Unless the military owns and operates Beams-R-Us.

Naturally this can quickly turn into a Mutual Assured Destruction situation once there are more than one nation in the beam business. Which could sabotage efforts for the first beamsellars to get established. Solar power stations are such big targets and so very fragile. There might have to be an international treaty forcing three or more nations to build large solar-powered laser arrays simultaneously.

In Rocheworld by Dr. Robert E. Forward the military had a series of such laser stations around Mercury. Given the plentiful solar energy each station could crank out a laser beam that was about 1.3 terawatts.

In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, the warlike alien Kzinti gleefully attack our solar system, knowing that the pacifistic humans had no quote "weapons" unquote. This disaster was called the Kzinti Lesson. Among other things the Kzinti discovered that even though terrawatt batteries of lasers used to push lightsail interstellar probes were technically "propulsion systems", nonetheless they could vaporize Kzinti warships like ants under a magnifying glass in the hot sun.


G. Harry Stine's (writing as Lee Correy) wrote a rocketpunk novel called Manna. In the novel, the military branches of the space-faring nations would like to put five gigawatt High Energy Laser (HEL) satellites in orbit. Using fancy techniques they are powerful enough to get their weapon laser beam through Terra's atmosphere and incinerate targets on the ground.

The trouble is the militaries want the HEL beamer satellites to be stealthy. The root of the trouble is that a five gigawatt HEL beamer containing a +five gigawatt power source is about as stealthy as a New York 4th of July fireworks display.

If only the power source could be at some distance from the HEL beamer, sending the energy by electromagnetic waves. You know, the same way a powersat sends microwave energy to ground power stations... hmmmmmmm.

That would work, the HEL beamers could be stealthy little dastards with no nuclear power plant, but rapidly unfurling a powersat reception antenna when it came time to zap something.

Now comes a bigger problem. Nobody can build any powerstats.

Why? Well, no corporation is going to embark upon a multi-billion dollar project like a powersat without insurance. And no insurance company is going to underwrite a multi-billion dollar installation which becomes a military target the instant it redirects its power beam from a power station in order to energize a HEL beamer. Especially a military target so huge, easy to hit, and incredibly fragile as a powersat.


How to solve the problem? Well, since it is an insurance problem, there should be an insurance solution.

Through a series of international agreements, the Resident Inspection Organization (RIO) was formed. This international group regularly inspected all powersats, and insured that they stayed pointed at ground power stations. In exchange, the insurance companies would underwrite the powerstats. If any powersat started to energize something that might be a stealthed HEL beamer, RIO would sound the alarm to all the astromilitaries, presumable giving the military units enough time to blow the living snot out of the powersat.

Naturally the astromilitary of Nation Alfa would be angry at RIO squealing when astromilitary Alfa tried to energize one of their HEL beamers. But astromilitary Alfa would be vary grateful if RIO squealed about astromilitary Bravo, Charlie, Delta or Echo doing the same thing.

     "I'm worried about RIO's reaction," Captain Kevin Graham remarked from the space port. "Our captains are concerned that PowerSat, InPowSat, and InSolSat powersats could have their power beams diverted to the American beam weapon stations on orbit . . . and we know where every one of them is stationed even though the Aerospace Force tried to hide them in inclined Clarke orbits."
     That was Top Secret information! How had the League of Free Traders found these battle stations, shrouded as they were with hard stealth technology?
     Ursila Peri reported from L-5, "I don't know if the powersat crews would carry out an order to redirect power beams to military battle stations. Whether the Aerospace Force has plans for a military takeover of the powersats is another matter, but such an attempt would put them in confrontation with the RIO teams on the powersats."...
     ...Vaivan went on, "Sandy, energy war isn't difficult to understand. Most low-tech countries will continue to do business with us in spite of any embargo or boycott. We provide value received and take very little off the top. The Tripartite may try to invoke sanctions against our customers by pulling their powersat plugs, but we'll be there with another plug. And we have a space port, space lift capability, primary metals and plastics industries, and the lunar mine and smelter at Criswell Center. You haven't see that yet, but it's just a lunar mine and smelter. Commonwealth Glaser's capable of supplying powersat electricity to anyone the Tripartite cuts off because they're now building powersats with lunar materials at a much faster rate than the Tripartite companies."
     "They'll react," I warned.
     "They'll go after your powersats."
     "In the face of international law and the Resident Inspection Organization? The insurance trusts won't stand for it," Wahak maintained. "Those trusts are controlled by the Tripartite, but not even a consortium of all the Tripartite banks could possibly cover the insurance losses. And there won't be any because the insurance trusts will place a rather strong damper on any military powersat takeovers. Then RIO will drive in the bung."
     "RIO teams are un-armed," I reminded him.
     "We'll see what happens when everybody shows their cards. RIO will have to become the first Space Patrol whether they want to or not because circumstances will force it ... and so will we."...
     ..."How much capacity has been dropped off the powersat net?" Ali tried to get back on track.
     "Fourteen gigawatts," Shaiko reported. "The cut-offs in­volved split beams, so no powersat is totally off-line, but One-Zero-Five-East and Six-Zero-East have near-zero loads."
     I didn't like that. "Which powersats will have near-zero if they pull the plug on Annom, Nireg, and Sorat?" I asked.
     Shaiko consulted a nearby display before replying, "Two-Zero-East and One-Zero-Five-East."
     "That drops One-Zero-Five-East down to zilch, doesn't it?" I observed.
     "Any load left on One-Zero-Five-East if Annom and Sorat go off?"
     "What are you worried about, Sandy?" It was Vaivan who caught my concern.
     "A ten gigawatt powersat can pump a big laser, Vaivan," I explained. "A high-energy laser—they're called hell beamers from their acronym, H-E-L—is limited in beam power density and range only by its energy source. If it's a self-contained unit, the space facility is large and vulnerable. But if a hell-beamer's energized remotely, it's small and hard to identify. Powersat One-Zero-Five-East could put its ten gigawatts into a hydrogen-fluoride hell-beam station to punch a beam right down to surface from GEO!"
     This was obviously news to them. Rayo Vamori broke the silence, "Is there a battle station over us?"
     "The Aerospace Force has them over all parts of the world in sixty-degree inclined geosynchronous orbits. Kevin Graham's captains have spotted them."
     Ali said slowly, "I'd better pay Peter Rutledge a visit."
     I went with Ali to the Resident Inspection Organization's headquarters, GEO Base Zero. Ali needed a pilot, and he wanted me to meet those upon whom the delicate stability of space power depended.
     I'd never known any RIO people. They kept to themselves as an anational paramilitary organization with a tradition of non-involvement. They had to be aloof. Thanks to RIO, there hadn't been a conflict in space since the Sino-Soviet Incident.
     Ali wanted to make certain that RIO knew what was happening with the powersats. He was also covering his anatomy by insuring that Powersat One-Zero-Five-East or any other powersat didn't get its power beam redirected to a hell-beamer.
     The approach to RIO Headquarters was a two-man job. The first challenge from RIO came at a thousand kilometers. We answered with the proper transponder code. Then we had to close at no more than ten meters per second, matching orbits and station-keeping ten klicks behind at zero closure rate. There we were thoroughly scanned. Once we proved we were sweet, pure, and unrefined as well as incapable of swatting a bee in revenge for being stung, they put a RIO pilot aboard. She strapped into the jump seat between Ali and me and flew the ship. It was rather disturbing to sit next to someone wearing about twenty kilos of Comp-X around her waist. From her accent as she reported on her comm set to RIO Approach, she was Japanese. I knew she wouldn't hesitate to self-destruct and take the ship and the two of us with her if we tried to ram GEO Base Zero...
     ..."He had to be. How much do you know about RIO and how it's run, Sandy?"
     "Only what I've read, which was reasonably extensive be­cause the Academy wanted future officers to understand RIO not as an adversary, but as a potential obstacle."
     The Resident Inspection Organization had been the factor which permitted the powersat network. Without non-national or international inspection, who was to know whether or not a powersat also contained a hell-beamer? Who could have ascer­tained whether or not an attack satellite was hidden in the structures of the photovoltaic panels? And who'd be sure that the power beam wouldn't be diverted—as Ali and I now feared— from the ground rectenna to an otherwise passive and silent hell-beamer satellite? Could someone really pirate the pilot beam that kept the power beam phased on the rectenna and then concentrate several power beams on an Earth or space target, even though the power density of a single powersat beam is only one-fifteenth that of a microwave oven?
     These questions left unanswered posed a military threat which in turn made a powersat a military target because nobody could take chances if an armed conflict appeared imminent.
     A powersat is a terribly vulnerable thing—square kilometers of solar panels and bus bars carrying megawatts of power. No businessman, entrepreneur, financier, banker, or investor would have risked a worn penny on a powersat that was a certain target in the opening moments of any future war. Neither Lloyd's nor Macao's would or could have underwritten the insurance re­quired for the long-term financing.
     Obviously, a non-political international inspection organization was required. But how could it be organized, financed, and operated to insure that it remained non-national? That had been an enormous problem.
     But technology always creates the new social organizations necessary to finance, manage, and control it.
     People hacked away at the problem until RIO was organized at the Hartford Convention. RIO was formed with the funding from the groups who'd lose the most if a powersat were attacked as a military target, whether it was an actual threat or not. The damage or destruction of a multi-billion dollar powersat would be an expensive loss to the insurance underwriters.
     The world needed space power and the insurance consortiums were the critical bottleneck. Whether or not there were economic pressures applied is a moot point today because the fraction of a percent that was tagged onto the kilowatt-hour consumer electric bill amounted to billions of dollars in insurance premiums which in turn more than paid for the 2,000 RIO inspectors and specialists with their independent communications and transportation systems.
     Rutledge had been accurate in using the sentry as the analogy for RIO.
     A lot of people didn't understand that an unarmed RIO was considered to be very effective. If a resident team or one of the ubiquitous spot inspection teams under the command of Rutledge found something unusual, there were two options open to the team leader: (a) report it covertly to RIO Headquarters for evaluation there; or (b) in a real emergency communicate the military activity to everybody. In the latter case, it was then important for RIO to get out of the line of fire.
     Because of its unique anational character and novel operational methods, RIO often acted in strange and unfathomable ways. Unarmed as they were, they posed no military threat to |anyone. But the threat of their capability to saturate the comm/info network with the danger cry of the watch dog was a sure and certain restraint on military space activities. I suspected—and knew in some cases—that RIO had intelligence operations which penetrated deeply into nearly every military organization in the world. It wouldn't have surprised me, either, if their intelligence activities also embraced the world of commerce.
     A lot of military planners had spent a lot of time and effort drafting plans and programs for circumventing RIO. The Aerospace Force—whose job was ostensibly to keep and guard the peace, too—had a continual highly-classified think-tank activity going on "should it be necessary to activate such plans and programs." But the job of any military service is to ensure the security of its nation...

From MANNA by G. Harry Stine (1983)

Power beaming stations might well be dual purpose, the space age equivalent of the military frontier posts of the American west.

The military purpose would be to protect Earth from infalling asteroids or whatever military threat develops in deep space, but they pay for themselves by beaming power to cooperative targets like friendly shipping or energy receivers mounted on NEOs. Unless there is a red alert, shipping takes priority and even if the beam is interrupted, the ships continue to coast on predictable orbits and can be picked up after the interruption is resolved (repairs made, asteroid vapourized etc.)

Life in Fort Heinlein revolves around maintaining the solar energy arrays and maintaining the tracking systems, and life will be pretty tedious. Daily routine includes system checks and battle drills, and screw-ups get to go out and polish the mirrors under the first sergeant's unforgiving gaze. A secondary economy of service providers (saloons and whorehouses) will grow around the "fort" to service the crew, and other business might set up shop as well, everything from contractor repair depots to futures traders monitoring ship traffic and energy consumption.

Lightweight ships tapping into this system have torch like performance, economy traffic might go by cycler (although the "taxis" might need torch like performance to match the cycler or slow down to orbital velocity after dropping off) and bulk traffic will still go by low cost transfer orbits.

Santa Guard

If you are trying to establish a base or colony on a moon or other terrestrial body, you've got a problem. Such installations will require thousands if not millions of tons of pre-fab structures and support material. The tyranny of the rocket equation is going to make establishing the base more expensive than a mobster loan shark, because every gram counts.

This would be a perfect place to use in-situ resource utilization. But it is one thing to roast some gypsum to obtain some water. It is quite another to use local ores to create electronics and pressurized domes. Its not like there is a machine you can shovel dirt in one end and get habitat modules and stuff out the other.

Or is there?

Enter the Santa Claus Machine. You actually can shovel dirt in one end and get hab modules out the other. As long as all the chemical elements you need for the module can be found in the dirt. Such a machine will be priceless for creating planetary bases and spaceports.

But the trouble is such a machine can be a little too useful. It can make other stuff, like nuclear weapons, artillery lasers, unstoppable robot armies, and whatnot. Not to mention small items like undetectable counterfeit money. Heck, even the disassembler input stage is bad enough. It can quickly and easily turn tons of uranium ore into a lovely set of weapons-grade highly-enriched subcritical uranium ingots and a pile of waste uranium.

Blasted Santa Claus Machine is worse that a beam-propulsion array powered by a titanic solar power station. Unbelievably useful, but not the sort of thing you want in unsupervised civilian hands.

Well, lets use the same solution. Have them controlled by the military. Just like we have the Laser Guard in control of beam-propulsion arrays, we can have the Santa Guard in control of Santa Claus Machines. Also known as "Santa's Little Helpers."

So at the site of the proposed new base, the Santa Guard will emplace one or more Santa machines, and construct a secure housing where they can be kept under armed guard. The construction crew will submit blueprints to Santa Guard. The Santas will closely examine the blueprints to make sure they are not for weapons of mass destruction or other contraband, and supervise the printing. They will also be on the lookout for sub-units in several separate print runs that might be cleverly disguised components of a contraband item.

And in cases of illegal blueprints or illegal output, the Santas will do their best to arrest and bring to justice those who have broken the law.

Spacial Customs

Sovereign nations almost invariably impose controls on the import and export of trade goods (unless the nation is a freeport or something). The controls kick in when trade goods cross a magic line called the customs border. The border is patrolled by that branch of the civilian military called the Customs: collecting tariffs, halting or confiscating contraband, and apprehending smugglers.

If the custom border is located inside a spaceport, patrolling the boarder is the responsibility's of ground-based (or space station based) custom service. But if the custom border is drawn around the entire planet at orbital height, or even around an entire solar system / interstellar empire, then the job belongs to the space branch of the customs agency.

The primary difference is that the spacial branch has cutter-class spaceships, instead of wearing out shoe leather walking around the 'port.

Naturally the latter branch is a bit more … exciting. Ground custom agent's main excitement is seeing the ship's captain break out in a cold sweat when you discover something irregular. By contrast space custom agents never know when that innocuous blip on the radar screen might abruptly turn into a running gun-battle with a heavily armed smuggler spacecraft.

Ground customs also never know the gut-wrenching terror when a seemingly routine board-and-search operation turns deadly. Ground customs might not bother to carry sidearms, but space customs agents on a boarding mission invariably do. Otherwise they are just giving potential smugglers free hostages.

Ground customs agents just have to pound the pavement keeping an eye on the few openings in the spaceport's custom border. Space customs, on the other hand, may need to maintain constant deep space patrols of the huge border surrounding the planet/empire/whatever. The ease of the task depends upon the range and discrimination ability of the custom ship sensors.


     The artifact was the shell of a solid fuel rocket motor. Part of the Mariner XX, from the lettering…

     …If he sold the tank through the Belt, the Belt would take thirty percent in income tax and agent's fees. But if he sold it on the Moon, Earth's Museum of Spaceflight would charge no tax at all.
     Brennan was in a good position for smuggling. There were no goldskins out here. His velocity over most of his course would be tremendous. They couldn't begin to catch him until he approached the Moon. He wasn't hauling monopoles or radioactives; the magnetic and radiation detectors would look right through him. He could swing in over the plane of the system, avoiding rocks and other ships.
     But if they did get him they'd take one hundred percent of his find. Everything.
     Brennan smiled to himself. He'd risk it…

     …John Fitzgerald Brennan was very much the average Belter. Forty-five years of age. Two daughters—Estelle and Jennifer—by the same woman, Charlotte Leigh Wiggs, a professional farming machine repairwoman in Confinement. Brennan had the beginnings of a nice retirement fund, though he'd drained it twice for trust funds for his children. He had twice lost loads of radioactive ore to the goldskins. Once would have been typical. Belters laugh at inept smugglers, but a man who has never been caught may be suspected of never having tried. No guts.…

     …The center of goldskin police activity was the center of government: Ceres. Police headquarters on Pallas, Juno, Vesta, and Astraea were redundant, in a sense, but very necessary. Five asteroids would cover the main Belt. It had happened that they were all on the same side of the sun at the same time; but it was rare.…

     …he told him about a childhood in Confinement asteroid, and the thick basement windows from which she could see the stars: stars that hadn't meant anything to her until her first trip outside. The years of training in flying spacecraft—not mandatory, but your friends would think you were funny if you dropped out. Her first smuggling run, and the goldskin pilot who hung on her course like a leech, laughing at her out of her com screen. Three years hauling foodstuffs and hydroponics machinery to the Trojans before she'd tried it again, and then it had been the same laughing face, and when she'd bitched about it he'd lectured her on economics all the way to Hector.…

From PROTECTOR by Larry Niven (1973)

(ed note: there was a news story about how the Volkswagen company was selling diesel automobiles containing a "defeat device" used to fraudlently pass emissions testing)

Tobias Klausmann

     This got me thinking: in an SF universe with spaceships (and possibly FTL), there probably is minimum standard for what is allowed to zip around at kilometers per second, as soon as space stations and the like are involved. Who does the certification? Even if there isn't an official body that tries to keep everyone safe, there will be a consensus, however muddy, about what (not) to do.
     When steam engines proliferated around the industrial revolution, there were quite a few horrendous boiler explosions, leading to the formation of standard bodies that would certify (and spot check, after initial approval) boilers.*
     Naturally, enforcing these standards is very difficult, especially if ad-hoc repairs are somewhat common on long missions. What you flew out with may have been certified, but what you came back with is just a mess of chicken wire and duct tape.
     In the case of only grass-roots "standardization", justice for endangering others with your hunk o' junk may be swift and airlock-shaped.

     * Historical side note: The organization that (among other things) checked vehicles for road safety in Germany (TÜV) was a descendant of such an organization (DKÜV, Dampfkesselüberwachungsverein, boiler inspection association), but these days there are various orgs that do this.

Ron Fischer

     Border or port inspections. Out system you'd be on your own, but as you got nearer populated colonies or Earth you'd be bored for an inspection, before proceeding. If I may say so this feels like a GREAT idea for some stories. Basically "Customs Police" in space.

Tobias Klausmann

     This naturally hinges on how the drive systems work. With choke points (like jump gates), this is easy, but with arbitrary-location jump drives, this becomes tricky. Naturally, arbitrary jump points are also a strategic nightmare, unless you can somehow see them coming, like jump-pre-echoes, for example.
     A problem I see with arrival inspections is that most ships can not be thoroughly inspected without a dock, and even then, testing all the fail-cutout machinery could easily take weeks, so short of having those components sealed, I don't see this as feasible, unless travel times are already in the neighborhood of months.
     It's also a question of system throughput: in a place where a hundred ships arrive a day and an inspection takes at least two days, you need an enormous amount of manpower to just do checks. And this manpower needs to be away from stations/ports, and thus becomes quite expensive.

Ron Fischer

     Interesting points. I wonder how its done now? Some of the inspection is done at the port of departure or even when a container is closed, no?

Tobias Klausmann

     There is a huge discrepancy between the two trades that come to mind first: aircraft and ships. For the former, airworthiness is a serious cost factor and it is baked into the manufacturing process of aircraft. For the latter, nobody gives a sh*t until something happens.
     The thing with space craft on mid- to long-haul service is that modification will probably be much more common. In a sense, they bridge the gap: they are as dangerous-delicate as aircraft, yet have away-from-port times as long as ships do (possibly longer).
     The problem is: a pilot is not expected to repair the aircraft mid-journey and there is often (but not always) a place to go in emergencies. A ship does not have that luxury, which, combined with a "healthy" dose of tradition and business sense means that repairs underway are somewhat common. The basic idea seems to be: if it floats, is not on fire or carrying disease, we're good.
     I am not sure how to solve the discrepancy when it comes to spacecraft. 

From a thread on Google+ (2015)

(ed note: the constraint is that the boarding actions occur in low to medium orbit, not in deep space. Author Grine_ is a moderator of Reddit's /r/hardsfbuilding and other subreddits)

So the traditional wisdom with respect to boarding tactics in space is that it's ridiculously impractical. I mean, combat occurs at Stupendous Range, it's all computerized anyway, yadda yadda. All of which is fine. But my setting doesn't quite work that way, for a variety of reasons: I've got thorium-nuclear and chemical rockets duking it out in low to medium orbit, for starters, and they're all using significantly crappier weapons than most hard-SF is used to. (This is all thought out quite extensively, and is a consequence of the universe's generally low tech-level and their FTL.)

Which gives boarders a chance in the first place, because approaching someone is actually possible. After all, you don't start that far from each other, and you're getting closer and closer very quickly. (Though something tells me that you'll want to approach prograde for any kind of docking or boarding action, since you're not trying to kamikaze them.)

I also had the idea that lasers (which are practical weapons in my setting) might be able to facilitate boarding actions. Of course, if you focus the death ray on them, you're going to blow shit up (it's called a death ray for a reason). But what if you take a continuous-beam laser and intentionally de-focus it? At low levels of focus, it's basically a sensor; focus it more, and it blinds enemy sensors; focus it even more, and you do generalized scorch damage, including destroying surface sensors and possibly maneuver thrusters. And, of course, you can blow them up if this is called for.

All of which sounds like a perfectly understandable and normal escalation of force for an encounter between a crook and a police spacecraft. The police scan someone, and use the information gleaned from that scan (and other sensors, and outside intelligence) to determine that this ship is suspicious. If the police believe that an inspection is in order, they can ask the ship to prepare for boarding. If they don't comply, the blinding starts; and if that fails, the scorching starts.

My assumption here is that the scorch damage will be able to disable the ship's ability to simply up and leave. If the scorch can disable engines, then a controlled boarding operation becomes possible, though it probably remains difficult.

My questions are:

  • Is this practical in the first place?
  • Could this situation result in an "equal" struggle between attackers and defenders? Or would this necessarily devolve into a hijacking where the defenders either surrender or go out with a bang?
  • Is this workable under combat conditions, rather than just police conditions?

(ed note: the constraint is that the boarding actions occur in low to medium orbit, not in deep space. This is a response to the question above. Author AntimatterNuke is a moderator of Reddit's /r/hardsfbuilding and /r/XenologyUniverse subreddits)

In any universe I can see some forms of boarding being possible. Say a group of terrorists or whoever seize a passenger liner and fly off with it. The pursuing space forces can't just vape it from Stupendous Range, there's hostages aboard. If they want to remove the terrorists, they must send people aboard. However this isn't classic swashbuckling-style boarding, while the terrorists could start shooting up the space marines as soon as they break through the airlock (and vice versa), it'd be far easier for the terrorists to threaten to execute hostages if boarding is attempted. The only sort of boarding that would occur would probably be something like a hostage negotiation team. So basically Speed IN SPACE.

The other type of boarding is taking control of a surrendered vessel. This happens in my universe, which is given over to the hard SF tropes of Stupendous Range Incredible Speed computerized combat. Inferior forces surrendering to you weeks or months in advance happens regularly during conflicts, and some people have built a whole military honor culture around it. But once again no one will actually shoot at anyone, it'd be a ritualized transfer of power, in which you put some of your people aboard the captured ship to ensure it stays captured, and take the enemy commander aboard your own ship.

If you want Space Swashbucklers, then as you say no side can have a great advantage over the other. However, I'm having second thoughts about this, because once your own people are aboard the enemy ship, you can't destroy it without killing them. To get around this you can move your own ships into close range so they can target specific parts of the ship, and have your swashbucklers wear armored space suits.

There are exceptions to every rule though, if there's some reason why you can't destroy the enemy ship or even risk firing on it (i.e. there is something/someone valuable aboard, or the ship itself is especially valuable), then you'll have to go in and manually remove the enemy crew.

That would still be an exception though, if you want boarding to be a regular feature of average combat, you need some way for all (or most) battles to end with a boarding. I'm going to guess the usual outcome of ship-to-ship combat must be both ships sustaining a roughly equal amount of damage, so in order to finish the battle you must approach and board the enemy ship.

So you'd use lasers to scorch the enemy's lasers and sensors, while taking similar punishment (you'll want both sides to have the same weapons range).

Here's how I think it would go:

  • One ship starts off with more delta-v capacity than the other, enough that it can run them down after matching orbits. Let's assume this is you, the attacker, for discussion purposes. Depending on how different your orbits are you might trade a few potshots as you try to get a long-range kill.

  • After you detect the enemy ship, you match orbits and start running them down from behind (i.e. traveling prograde). They try to run, but exhaust their delta-v capacity. Or they don't try to run and just prepare to fight. Either way the outcome is the same, it just takes longer.

  • (Aside) Since you're coming up on the enemy from behind you have to be wary of straying too close to their reactor. You could have a shielded command module, or you could come in ass-forwards, your shadow shield blocking their radiation, and your weapons peeking over it. Or maybe the enemy ship will point its nose at you to bring their weapons to bear, thus negating the problem. The enemy may draw things out by keeping their reactor pointed at you, or they may hide their engine if they consider it too vulnerable.

  • When you get close enough, the mutual eyeball frying and sunburning contest commences. You burn their sensors and lasers, they do the same to you. A few high-powered shots could destroy maneuvering thrusters. If you have missiles, those will get lobbed too. At close range they'll be deadly and hard to dodge, this might prompt a sudden end to the fight. But if you have countermeasures, or can target their missiles with your missiles, the fight continues. The latter case will have the interesting result of destroying all the missiles without damaging either ship. Presumably you want armor on these ships, so the low-power shots destroy the stuff on the outside but leave the ship and crew inside functional.

  • Now you have two ships with crippled weapons and attitude jets, drifting along on the same orbit pretty close together. The ship with the higher delta-v capacity could bug out now if it wants, if its objective was just to disable the enemy ship, not to capture it. But if you want to capture it you must board it. Your weapons are too damaged to threaten them with much punishment, so this isn't a "You have surrendered, I will send my people aboard to take control of your ship" situation.

  • You move in to board, feebly approaching with your crippled jets. If the enemy can move, they can draw things out again. If docking is too risky, just equip your swashbucklers with jetpacks and have them fly across.

  • Alternatively, attitude jets may be easy to armor--just hide them behind a little door in the armor. If that's possible then after all the weapons are disabled, you chase the enemy until they run out of propellant.

  • There may be a bit of a fight as your men make the crossing. The enemy may send people outside to shoot, in which case you can have part of your force hang back to provide fire support for the boarders. There will be an advantage in getting your boarders out the lock as fast as you can, to push the fight as close to the enemy ship as possible, and ideally inside of it.

  • Once aboard, your men seize control of the ship. If your boarders lose, or don't make the crossing fast enough, the enemy could end up boarding your ship, or both ships might be boarded by the other side simultaneously. Boarders will keep their space suits on; it's far too easy for the other ship to alter its breathing mix enough that anyone coming aboard without going through proper decompression will get the bends. People fighting the boarders may opt for suits as well, depending on how likely a hull breach is. So while one would think the swashbucklers would be huge testosterone-poisoned manly men, there may be an argument for using skinnier people, especially if powered armor/exoskeletons are available.

How likely is this to happen? Both sides must be evenly matched, so they both have motivation to build a more badass ship to roflstomp the other guy, but then the other guy can turn around and build an even more badass ship. This may actually be a very stable equilibrium because neither side will let their capabilities lag too far behind the other's. Since ships designed to fight in this way will take regular bloody beatings, the weapons, sensors, and everything outside the armor is probably modular and easily replaceable, so after a battle you go back to your supply ship, swap in new equipment, and touch up the armor.

Whether or not the boarding phase will happen depends on the orders given to both combatants and the particulars of the battle. Ships defending a planet or something else won't board attackers, since once the attackers are disabled they have nowhere to go for repairs. The defenders can just let them languish until they run out of air and voluntarily give up. But attackers will want to capture defender ships, since they can retreat for repairs.

Both sides could carry spare weapons and equipment. They can't effect repairs in battle, since anyone going outside will be cooked, but once battle is done they can use them to repair their ship AND the newly captured ship, which is now part of their fleet!

Laying out the requirements for boarding to happen:

  • Ships must meet for the first time traveling in roughly the same orbit. Given your engine tech trying to catch up with and board a ship orbiting in the opposite direction as you is probably impossible. The likely outcome of combat with that ship will be one of you getting perforated by kinetic buckshot moving at a combined dozen kilometers per second or so.

  • The attacker's delta-v capacity must be greater than or equal to the defender's. This might be true of any space combat, because if the defender has more, they can just run away or bug out once they've damaged the attacker enough.

  • The ships must be evenly matched, in number of ships and weapon strength. Otherwise the weaker side just surrenders.

This by no means guarantees a fight ending with boarding, it just makes it a viable tactic. I'm actually quite surprised that boarding seems eminently possible as long as you stick to these conditions, though a more rigorous analysis (i.e. crunch some numbers) would be called for in order to judge how prevalent it will be, relative to either destruction or surrender.

Your shields will affect this, I don't know if you've stated their exact capabilities, but I'd expect they'd make long-range kills harder, which is good, but draw out the close-in battle, which is bad but not horribly so. Your warp drive may throw a monkey wrench into this too, but I imagine a ship has to be precisely lined up before it goes to warp, else when it arrives it'll either go careening through the atmosphere of the destination planet or whizzing off into interplanetary space.

Bonus points: Ship design. A purely chemical ship designed for a boarding fight might resemble an armored sphere, with retractable doors protecting the weapons, airlocks, and engines. This will make it hard to defeat, depending on how strong the armor is it might be able to hold its own even against a nuclear-powered ship.

A ship with an atomic engine can't be armored all over, the radiation shielding would weigh too much. Maybe it would look like a cylinder or cigar atop a shadow shield with the engine aft of that. Presumably this ship will try to keep from exposing its engine to anyone it fights. If two of these ships fight they'll probably opt to point their noses at each other, which incidentally allows people to board without exiting the shadow-shielded area.


“There are two types of boarding action: non-contested and contested.

“The former is only moderately terrible: which is to say it is usually carried out in the course of routine inspections or interdictions, or after surrenders, and the starship being boarded has obligingly hove to when requested; one has been able to close with it without problems, and board it through the airlocks or by taking a cutter across; and in all other ways is being cooperative.

“In other words, if it goes wrong – which can happen quite easily even if everyone on the bridge is cooperating – it’s only house-to-house fighting, at point-blank range, in a maze, filled with fragile and dangerous industrial machinery, surrounded by vacuum, with hostile parties in control of the light, air, and gravity. If you’re lucky, no-one will be sufficiently in love with the idea of taking you with them to blow a hole in the reactor containment.

“And then there’s the difficult kind.

“There are actually very few contested boardings. Starship engagements typically happen at long range (light-seconds to light-minutes) and make use of weapons potent enough that surviving vessels are rarely in any condition to be boarded in any sense distinct from salvage and rescue. The exceptions to this general rule come when it is absolutely necessary to recover something valuable from the target vessel – be it hostages, a courier’s package, some classified piece of equipment, or the valuable data stored in the starship’s command computers – which will inevitably be destroyed if the vessel is forced to surrender.

“Achieving this requires a series of highly improbable operations to all go off perfectly in sequence.

“First, the approach: getting to the ship you intend to board; i.e., closing to suicide range, which may involve either surviving the fire from its cohorts, or cutting it out of its formation. This always, however, requires both surviving its fire while closing and depriving it of the ability to evade your approach and to take offensive action against the relatively fragile boarding party.

“So, in the course of matching orbits, you have to disable the drives, disable its weapons systems able to bear on your quadrant of approach, disable the point-defense laser grid (which can slice apart small craft at close range) and defense drones likewise, and disable the kinetic barriers that would otherwise hold off your approach to the hull; all of which you must do with sufficient careful delicacy that you don’t destroy the valuable part of the vessel that you want to claim in the process.

“Second, having achieved this, you must then board the target starship. In a contested boarding, you do not do this through the airlocks: they lead directly to designed-in choke points and people whose job it is to repel boarders, and if they retain attitude control, they can throw a spin on their ship that docking clamps won’t hold against. This is the job of the microgravity assault vehicle, affectionately known as the boarding torpedo, which serves to carry a squad of espatiers into an unexpected part of the target vessel – preferably near enough to the target within the target to make seizure easy, but not close enough to cause its destruction – by ramming, burning through the armor and the pressure hull, and crawling forward until an ideal position is reached or it can go no further.

“(This assumes that you are following the standard model, which people are constantly trying to improve on. One captain I served under rigged saddles for his AKVs and had us ride them to point-blank range of the target, then drop to its hull and take out the laser grid emitters directly. I would not recommend this tactic.)

“Then it’s guaranteed house-to-house fighting, at point-blank range, in a maze, filled with fragile and dangerous industrial machinery, surrounded by vacuum, with hostile parties in control of the light, air, and gravity.

“Third, you must do all of this very fast, for one reason or another. The above operations are not subtle, and your target will know you are trying to board them as soon as you start sharpshooting to disable. If you have terrorists or pirates, this is when they start shooting hostages. If your target is a military starship, though, as soon as they see a boarding attempt, the bridge, damage control central, and the maneuvering room all put one hand on the arming keys for their fusion scuttling charges, and as soon as any two of them conclude that they can’t repel boarders, they’ll scuttle. All you have to do is get sufficiently inside their response loop that you can punch them all out before that happens. (And once armed, it takes positive action to prevent the scuttling, so you can’t take the otherwise obvious short-cut.)

“All of which should explain why espatiers ship out with six times as many warm spares as their naval counterparts.”

– Maj. Esvan Solanel, the 22nd (“Alatian Highlanders”) Imperial Legion, Retd.

Galactic Survey

If your planet or interstellar empire is pushing colonization, you'll need to know where the good planets are. The office of Galactic Survey (whatever you call it) has that job.

The astronomical section will use telescopes or whatever to locate all the unexplored solar systems on the frontier. The scout section will send robot probes or manned expeditions to likely systems for a closer look at any planets that are possible colony sites. Sometimes a starship with a single person (called a "first-in scout") will to the initial once-over, and will tell Galactic Survey which planets are worthy of a full expedition.

The astronomical section can weed out some star systems unlikely to contain habitable planets. There are certain spectral classes of stars which are unlikely to to live long enough to nurture a habitable planet, others are unlikely to have any planets at all. The astro section can also spot the danger signs of indigenous intelligent alien species. That will be turned over to the first-contact and military branches of government.

The first-in scout can be a robot probe, but this poises a risk. In alien star systems, there is a huge chance of the probe encountering a situation totally outside the bounds of its knowledge set and initiative. In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series, there are quite a few colonies founded on really nasty planets because the scouting ram-robot space probes were programmed by people with insufficient imagination.

Scouting a new planet is a notoriously dangerous job. The scouts will have to discover the hard way what a new planet has to offer in the way of deadly plagues, hideous carnivorous animals, poisonous plants, geological death-traps, and killer weather. Not to mention alien inhabitants.

On the ground a scout will be constantly scanning with their tricorder. But their gun-hand will never be far from the butt of their slugthrower or laser pistol.


“All I’m asking,” the younger one said, “is whether you think it’s a good idea.”

“And all I’m saying is that I shouldn’t – can’t – tell you that.”

“Why not?”

“I’m a first-in scout.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Because I’m a first-in scout. Hear my meaning. I’m in a profession defined by hurling ourselves into the deep unknown with almost no idea of who or what we might find, then when we do find it, poking it repeatedly to see if it does something interesting. If I had a normal soph’s risk appetite, I’d have gone into Survey work, or the family trade, or become an accountant. I became a first-in scout because I’m chronically insensitive to caution. We all are.”

She took a deep breath.

“And that is why you should never ask me for advice on what’s appropriate for you.”

Scoutships will be equipped with huge remote sensing sensor suites to scan the entire planet in detail from orbit.

Scoutship will carry groundcars and flitters so scouts can explore lots of ground. They will also carry survival kits and medical gear in case of emergency.

Scoutships need extensive sickbays or auto docs, to try and sew the scout back together after some planetary hazard has mutilated them. It would make sense to initially send out robots so the various planetary death-traps are discovered by something expendable.

There will be decontamination chambers in the airlocks to prevent alien plagues from entering the ship. And quarantine rooms in case the plagues get in anyway.

The scoutship hulls should be armored like fortress walls in case something or somethings try to claw or shoot their way in.

And of course a self-destruct mechanism in case they run into something civilization-threatening that the scouts can't handle.

Scouting becomes really tricky if they stumble over intelligent aliens. If the aliens have starships, it is vitally important that they do not discover the location of any human planets. But chances are any aliens discovered will be either apes or angels. If it is the former the scout can play god over the primitive cave-man aliens. If it is the latter the scout will be placed in an alien petri dish and studied in an alien lab. It is highly unlikely that the alien's technological development will be equal with the humans, no matter what you saw in Star Trek.

In any event scouts will have some sort of training for "first-contact" situations.

The traditional way that scouts look for intelligent aliens is to check the radio waves for alien transmissions, and to check the neutrino detectors for evidence of alien fission or fusion power plants. This allows the scout to spot aliens at a range far enough to beat a hasty retreat. Usually.

And if the scouts detect gamma rays with a precise energy of 511 keV, it means they've discovered an alien civilization powered by antimatter, and should immediately run for their lives as stealthfully as possible.

Scouts may find Forerunners ruins or artifacts, remains of a long extinct alien interstellar empire. There also might be Forerunner xenopaleotechnology, high-tech artifacts of a higher tech level than yours. Such artifacts are both incredibly valuable and incredibly dangerous.

They are dangerous because messing around with alien technology you do not understand can kill you hideously. They are also dangerous because pirates and rogue interstellar Indiana Jones types love valuable things, so they are motivated to kill you on the general principle of Dead Men Tell No Tales.

There is the slight risk that the Forerunner race is not long dead but actually only mostly dead. If a Forerunner survivor becomes angry at you desecrating their tombs they will obliterate you with their higher-tech weapons. Even if they are long dead; their installations' automatic defenses, guard robots, and booby traps might still work.

Sometimes surveys will come in waves, with grand names like "The Third Uranographic Survey". Otherwise the surveying will be a constant low-level effort. In some science fiction novels (notably Andre Norton's "The Sargasso of Space") the Scout service will hold auctions for the right to establish colonies or to have monopolies of any trade goods on newly discovered planets. The former type is of interest to potential colonists, the latter is of interest to interstellar traders (both megacorporations and independent free traders).


Our part in the Grand Survey had taken us out beyond the great suns Alpha and Beta Crucis. From Earth we would have been in the constellation Lupus. But Earth was 278 light-years remote, Sol itself long dwindled to invisibility, and stars drew strange pictures across the dark.

After three years we were weary and had suffered losses. Oh, the wonder wasn't gone. How could it ever go—from world after world after world? But we had seen so many, and of those we had walked on, some were beautiful and some were terrible and most were both (even as Earth is) and none were alike and all were mysterious. They blurred together in our minds.

It was still a heart-speeding thing to find another sentient race, actually more than to find another planet colonizable by man. Now Ali Hamid had perished of a poisonous bite a year back, and Manuel Gonsalves had not yet recovered from the skull fracture inflicted by the club of an excited being at our last stop. This made Vaughn Webner our chief xenologist, from whom was to issue trouble.

Not that he, or any of us, wanted it. You learn to gang warily, in a universe not especially designed for you, or you die; there is no third choice. We approached this latest star because every G-type dwarf beckoned us. But we did not establish orbit around its most terrestroid attendant until neutrino analysis had verified that nobody in the system had developed atomic energy. And we exhausted every potentiality of our instruments before we sent down our first robot probe.

The sun was a G9, golden in hue, luminosity half of Sol's. The world which interested us was close enough in to get about the same irradiation as Earth. It was smaller, surface gravity 0.75, with a thinner and drier atmosphere. However, that air was perfectly breathable by humans, and bodies of water existed which could be called modest oceans. The globe was very lovely where it turned against star-crowded night, blue, tawny, rusty-brown, white-clouded. Two little moons skipped in escort.

Biological samples proved that its life was chemically similar to ours. None of the microorganisms we cultured posed any threat that normal precautions and medications could not handle. Pictures taken at low altitude and on the ground showed woods, lakes, wide plains rolling toward mountains. We were afire to set foot there.

But the natives—

You must remember how new the hyperdrive is, and how immense the cosmos. The organizers of the Grand Survey were too wise to believe that the few neighbor systems we'd learned something about gave knowledge adequate for devising doctrine. Our service had one law, which was its proud motto: "We come as friends." Otherwise each crew was free to work out its own procedures. After five years the survivors would meet and compare experiences.

For us aboard the Olga, Captain Gray had decided that, whenever possible, sophonts should not be disturbed by preliminary sightings of our machines. We would try to set the probes in uninhabited regions. When we ourselves landed, we would come openly. After all, the shape of a body counts for much less than the shape of the mind within. Thus went our belief.

Naturally, we took in every datum we could from orbit and upper-atmospheric overflights. While not extremely informative under such conditions, our pictures did reveal a few small towns on two continents—clusters of buildings, at least, lacking defensive walls or regular streets—hard by primitive mines. They seemed insignificant against immense and almost unpopulated landscapes. We guessed we could identify a variety of cultures, from Stone Age through Iron. Yet invariably, aside from those petty communities, settlements consisted of one or a few houses standing alone. We found none less than ten kilometers apart; most were more isolated.

"Carnivores, I expect," Webner said. "The primitive economies are hunting-fishing-gathering, the advanced economies pastoral. Large areas which look cultivated are probably just to provide fodder; they don't have the layout of proper farms." He tugged his chin. "I confess to being puzzled as to how the civilized—well, let's say the 'metallurgic' people, at this stage—how they manage it. You need trade, communication, quick exchange of ideas, for that level of technology. And if I read the pictures aright, roads are virtually nonexistent, a few dirt tracks between towns and mines, or to the occasional dock for barges or ships—Confound it, water transportation is insufficient."

"Pack animals, maybe?" I suggested.

"Too slow," he said. "You don't get progressive cultures when months must pass before the few individuals capable of originality can hear from each other. The chances are they never will."

For a moment the pedantry dropped from his manner. "Well," he said, "we'll see," which is the grandest sentence that any language can own.

We always made initial contact with three, the minimum who could do the job, lest we lose them. This time they were Webner, xenologist; Aram Turekian, pilot; and Yukiko Sachansky, gunner. It was Gray's idea to give women that last assignment. He felt they were better than men at watching and waiting, less likely to open fire in doubtful situations.

The site chosen was in the metallurgic domain, though not a town. Why complicate matters unnecessarily? It was on a rugged upland, thick forest for many kilometers around. Northward the mountainside rose steeply until, above timberline, its crags were crowned by a glacier. Southward it toppled to a great plateau, open country where herds grazed on a reddish analogue of grass or shrubs. Maybe they were domesticated, maybe not. In either case, probably the dwellers did a lot of hunting.

"Would that account for their being so scattered?" Yukiko wondered. "A big range needed to support each individual?"

"Then they must have a strong territoriality," Webner said. "Stand sharp by the guns."

From WINGS OF VICTORY by Poul Anderson (1972)

There are other catches, as well. The jump between "normal" space and C2 takes a big jolt of power. If anything went wrong with your power supply and you got stuck in C2, well, the edge of the universe is over that way, and no one knows exactly what happens once you get there. Certainly, ships have been lost that way. Less catastrophic, but still very dangerous, is inaccurate astrogation. An error of .09 seconds in coming out of C2 would put you roughly as far from your target as Saturn is from the Sun.

Navigation computers are good enough these days that pilots can feel safe with about a half-billion-kilometer miss-factor. The Joslyn Marie would shoot for about three times that, as we were headed into territory not as well charted as that on the regular space lines. Also, if we came out over the pole of the target star, as we hoped to do, we would have the best vantage point for us to look for planets.

Most star systems (including Earth's) have the plane of rotation of their planets in the same plane as the equator of the star in question. So, if you looked at, say, the Solar System from the plane of the Sun's equator, the planets, asteroids, and what have you would be moving in orbits that would be seen edge-on from where you stood. If you watched the Earth for a year-that is, one orbit-it would simply appear to move in a straight line from one side of the sun to the other, and then back again, moving once in front of the Sun's disk, and once behind it. From a point far enough away to observe the entire orbit, the change in size of the Earth's disk as it moves toward and away from you, inscribing a circle seen edge-on, would be difficult to measure accurately. Seen from the north or south polar regions, however, the orbits of the planets would be laid out before the observer face-on and so would be easy to observe. This in turn makes it easy to measure motions of planets and other bodies and put together reasonably accurate charts and ephemera of their orbits.

What all this boils down to is that it is best to come in over a star system and look down on it, rather than come in at the side and see it edge-on. Fine. It has been found that planets usually rotate in the plane of a star's equator. So how do we determine where the equator is? One star seen from another is a featureless dot of light.

The standard technique is to use the Doppler effect. Light of a given frequency has a higher apparent frequency when it is moving toward you, and a lower apparent frequency when it is moving away from you. The light doesn't change, the way you perceive it does. Obviously, one side of a rotating object will be moving toward you and the other side will be moving away. The difference is measurable over stellar distances. Very careful measurements can usually yield the plane of rotation, and thus the equator and poles, within about ten degrees or so.

Ten degrees is a lot. Stack on top of that the fact that the actual distance to a target star is rarely known to any degree of accuracy, and you'll see that there is a certain degree of luck in Survey work. Get bad data, use it to put your ship in the wrong plane, and you'll have to waste fuel getting the ship to where it was supposed to be. Waste too much fuel and you come back early, or not at all. It is possible to "mine" hydrogen fuel from an ice moon, but finding suitable ice is rare, and the process is a long and tedious one. You come out of C2 with precisely the heading and velocity you start out with. The stars orbit the center of the galaxy, just as planets move about a star. Thus, they move relative to each other. A typical velocity difference would be on the order of about 70 kilometers a second. A ship travelling from one star to the other would have to match that velocity shift.

The tug was boosting us up to our required velocity, so that we could match speeds with the star we were shooting for first. Once there, we would make any adjustments needed to our speed and heading, and begin the search for planets. We cast off from the tug and were on our way. Five minutes later the J.M.'s computers decided we're in the right place at the right time and booted us into C2, and we were off into untravelled regions.

For 4,000 hours or so, say six months, the J.M. did her job. We visited a half dozen star systems, each magnificently different from the others, each a sore temptation to stay and explore and wonder at for a lifetime, at least. The only thing that kept us from staying was the promise of fresh wonders in another part of the sky.

Not only a universe of wonders, but the woman I loved to share them with me. Those were the days of my greatest happiness. Each day I woke to challenging, satisfying work that was not only fun but useful, vital. Each day was spent with someone I not only loved, but liked. Each day was a new adventure. Each day, every day, was fun.

Imagine yourself standing on a tiny worldlet of tremendous mineral wealth left there by some quirk of the way worlds are born. Imagine staring up at the sky at a world ten times the size of Jupiter, knowing that the violent storms you see in its roiling sea of clouds are the birthpangs of a star, its thermonuclear furnaces just flickering into life. Joslyn and I stood in such a place, and knew others would follow, rushing to extract the treasure beneath our feet before the fireball came to full life and expanded out into space, leaving nothing but cinders where we stood. The end for that world will come in a human lifetime, or perhaps twice that.

Imagine two worlds the size of Earth's moon that revolve around each other, separated from each other by less than 3,000 kilometers. Tidal forces have spawned endless earthquakes and utterly shattered the surfaces of the twin worlds. We named them Romulus and Remus. One day they will smash into each other and leave only rocks careering through the void.

Imagine a world where the air is fresh and sweet, and life very like that on Earth fills the seas and skies and land. There I found—something. I say it is a piece of worked metal. Joslyn thinks it is a chance piece of nature's work, a glob of alloy spat out of a volcano and shaped by the caprice of water and weather. Humanity will settle there soon, and I hope some child born there will dig one place, dig another, and one day prove that ours are not the only minds to have touched that place.

Joslyn and I lived to wander the sky and do as we pleased. It was the happiest time of our life together.

And then they found us.

From THE TORCH OF HONOR by Roger MacBride Allen (1985)

Chris over at Tales to Astound has been recently exploring the literary inspirations for Traveller. I wish to add a small discovery to that effort.

I've known for some time that the fantasy & sci-fi great Poul Anderson is counted among the inspirational authors for Traveller. Just yesterday I ran across a story of his that provides an answer to my question. His short story "The Entity", with John Gergen, appearing in the June 1, 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction gives us a look at the life of the Scout Service.  Also, it's a good story of an encounter with alien technology.

“Civilization could not expand blindly into the stars. Someone had to go ahead of even the explorers and give a vague idea of what to expect. Only Earth’s finest, the most ultimately sane of all mankind, could endure being cooped in a metal bubble floating through darkness and void for years on end and even they sometimes broke.”

...But here's the paragraph that has me convinced (emphasis mine):

"He [the expedition's captain] felt a loneliness as he stood facing the men. They were more than his subordinates; they were his friends. Only those with the highest congeniality indexes could ever have survived a survey trip, so rank and formal discipline were unnecessary and unknown. The captain was only the coordinator of a band of specialists."

Scouts that are really scouting the uncharted regions have to endure long stretches of isolation with a small group. You'd better be able to 'play well with others' in such circumstances. The astronaut Mann in the film Interstellar is an example of the Scout type that 'sometimes broke.'

While the 'laconic scout' trope is popular, if we take this story as source material, the key personality trait for Scouts should be a willingness to collaborate - maybe Liaison skill should be retrofitted into the Scout's skill tables?


After more than a century of space travel, Man's understanding of his own solar system was nearly complete. So he moved on to industrial development.

The next hundred years saw the evolution of a civilization in space. For reasons of economy the Belters concentrated on the wealth of the asteroids. With fusion-driven ships they could have mined the planets; but their techniques were more universally applicable in free fall and among the falling mountains. Only Mercury was rich enough to attract the Belt miners.

For a time Earth was the center of the space industries. But the lifestyles of Belter and flatlander were so different that a split was inevitable. The flatland phobia — the inability to tolerate even an orbital flight — was common on Earth, and remained so. And there were Belters who would never go anywhere near a planet.

Between Earth and the Belt there was economic wrestling, but never war. The cultures needed each other. And they were held together by a common bond: the conquest of the stars. The ramrobots — the unmanned Bussard ramjet probes — were launched during the mid twenty-first century.

By 2100 AD, five nearby solar systems held budding colonies: the worlds were Jinx, Wunderland, We Made It, Plateau, and Down. None of these worlds was entirely Earthlike. Those who programmed the ramrobots had used insufficient imagination.

From TALES OF KNOWN SPACE by Larry Niven (1975)

A ramrobot had been the first to see Mount Lookitthat. Ramrobots had been first visitors to all the settled worlds. The interstellar ramscoop robots, with an unrestricted fuel supply culled from interstellar hydrogen, could travel between stars at speeds approaching that of light. Long ago the UN had sent ramrobots to nearby stars to search out habitable planets. It was a peculiarity of the first ramrobots that they were not choosy. The Procyon ramrobot, for instance, had landed on We Made It in spring. Had the landing occurred in summer or winter, when the planet's axis points through its sun, the ramrobot would have sensed the fifteen-hundred-mile-per-hour winds. The Sirius ramrobot had searched out the two narrow habitable bands on Jinx, but had not been programmed to report the planet's other peculiarities. And the Tau Ceti ramrobot, Interstellar Ramscoop Robot #4, had landed on Mount Lookitthat. Only the Plateau on Mount Lookitthat was habitable. The rest of the planet was an eternal searing black calm, useless for any purpose. The Plateau was smaller than any region a colony project would settle by choice. But Interstellar Ramscoop Robot #4 had found an habitable point, and that was all it knew.

The colony slowboats, which followed the ramrobots. had not been built to make round trips. Their passengers had to stay, always. And so Mount Lookitthat was settled, more than three hundred years ago.

From A GIFT FROM EARTH by Larry Niven (1968)

Survey teams had early discovered the advantage of using mutated and highly trained Terran animals as assistants in the exploration of strange worlds. From the biological laboratories and breeding farms on Terra came a trickle of specialized assistants to accompany man into space. Some were fighters, silent, more deadly than weapons a man wore at his belt or carried in his hands. Some were keener eyes, keener noses, keener scouts than the human kind could produce. Bred for intelligence, for size, for adaptability to alien conditions, the animal explorers from Terra were prized.

Wolverines, the ancient “devils” of the northlands on Terra, were being tried for the first time on Warlock. Their caution, a quality highly developed in their breed, made them testers for new territory. Able to tackle in battle an animal three times their size, they should be added protection for the man they accompanied into the wilderness. Their wide ranging, their ability to climb and swim, and above all, their curiosity were significant assets.

From STORM OVER WARLOCK by Andre Norton (1960)

In a galaxy whose system was based on perfect order, uniformity, harmony, and a firm belief in natural laws, the Warden Diamond was an insane asylum. It seemed to exist as a natural counterpoint to everyplace else, the opposite of everything the rest of the Confederacy was or even believed in.

Halden Warden, a scout for the Confederacy, had discovered the system, nearly two hundred years earlier, when the Diamond was far outside the administrative area of the Confederacy. Warden was something of a legend among scouts, a man who disliked most everything about civilization, not the least other people. Such extreme antisocial tendencies would have been dealt with in the normal course of events, but there was an entire discipline of psychology devoted to discovering and developing antisocial traits that could benefit society. The fact was, only people with personalities like Warden's could stand the solitude, the years without companionship, the physical and mental hardships of deep-space scouting. No sane person in Confederation society, up to Confederation standards, would ever take a job like that.

Warden was worse than most. He spent as little time as possible in "civilization," often just long enough to refuel and reprovision. He flew farther, longer, and more often than any other scout before or since, and his discoveries were astonishing in their number alone.

Unfortunately for his bosses back in the Confederacy, Warden felt that discovery was his only purpose. He left just about everything else, including preliminary surveys and reports, to those who would use his beamed coordinates to follow him. Not that he didn't make the surveys—he just communicated as little with the Confederacy as possible, often in infuriating ways.

Thus, when the signal "4AW" came in, there was enormous excitement and anticipation—four human-habitable planets in one system! Such a phenomenon was simply unheard of, beyond all statistical probabilities, particularly considering that only one in four thousand solar systems contained anything remotely of use. They waited anxiously for the laconic scout to tell them what he would name the new worlds and to give his preliminary survey descriptions of them, waited anxiously not only in anticipation of a great discovery, but also with trepidation at just what Crazy Warden would say and whether or not his message could be deciphered.

And then came the details, confirming their worst fears. He followed form, though, closest in to farthest out from the sun.

"Charon," came the first report. "Looks like Hell.

"Lilith," he continued. "Anything that pretty's got to have a snake in it.

"Cerberus," he named the third. "Looks like a real dog."

And finally, "Medusa: Anybody who lives here would have to have rocks in his head."

The coordinates followed, along with a code confirming that Warden had done remote, not direct, exploration—that is, he hadn't landed, something that was always his option—and a final code, "ZZ," which filled the Confederacy with apprehension. It meant that there was something very odd about the place, so approach with extreme caution.

Cursing Crazy Warden for giving them nothing at all to go on, they mounted the standard maximum-caution expedition—a full-scale scientific expedition, with two hundred of the best, most experienced Exploiter Team members aboard, backed up by four heavy cruisers armed to the teeth.

The big trouble with Warden's descriptions was that they were almost always right—only you never figured out quite what he meant until you got there.

From LILITH: A SNAKE IN THE GRASS by Jack L. Chalker (1981)

"And what pot of gold has fallen into our hands this time, Captain?" That was Steen Wilcox asking the question which was in all their minds.

"Survey auction!" the words burst out of Jellico as if he simply could not restrain them any longer.

Somebody whistled and someone else gasped. Dane blinked, he was too new to the game to understand at once. But when the full purport of the announcement burst upon him he knew a surge of red hot excitement. A survey auction — a Free Trader got a chance at one of those maybe once in a life-time. And that was how fortunes were made.

"Who's in town?" Engineer Stotz's eyes were narrowed, he was looking at the Captain almost accusingly.

Jellico shrugged. "All the usual. But it's been a long trip, and there are four Class D-s listed as up for bids — "

Dane calculated rapidly. The Companies would automatically scoop up the A and B listings — there would be tussles over the C-s. And four D-s — four newly discovered planets whose trading rights auctioned off under Federation law would come within range of the price Free Traders could raise. Would the Queen be able to enter the contest for one of them? A complete five- or ten-year monopoly on the rights of Trade with a just charted world could make them all wealthy — if luck rode their jets.

"How much in the strong box?" Tau asked Van Rycke.

"When we pick up the voucher for this last load and pay our Field fees there'll be — but what about supplies, Frank?"

The thin little steward was visibly doing sums in his head. "Say a thousand for restocking — that gives us a good margin — unless we're in for a rim haul — "

"All right, Van, cutting out that thousand — what can we raise?" It was Jellico's turn to ask.

There was no need for the Cargo-Master to consult his books, the figures were part of the amazing catalogue within his mind, "Twenty-five thousand — maybe six hundred more — "

There was a deflated silence. No survey auctioneer would accept that amount. It was Wilcox who broke the quiet.

"Why are they having an auction here, anyway? Naxos is no Federation district planet."

It was queer, come to think of it, Dane agreed. He had never before heard of a trading auction being held on any world which was not at least a sector capitol.

"The Survey ship Rimwald has been reported too long overdue," Jellico's voice came flatly. "All available ships have been ordered to conclude business and get into space to quarter for her. This ship here — the Giswald — came in to the nearest planet to hold auction. It's some kind of legal rocket wash — "

Van Rycke's broad finger tips drummed on the table top. "There are Company agents here. On the other hand there are only two other independent Traders in port. Unless another planets before sixteen hours today, we have four worlds to share between the three of us. The Companies don't want D-s — their agents have definite orders not to bid for them."

"Look here, sir," that was Rip, "In that twenty-five thousand — did you include the pay-roll?"

When Van Rycke shook his head Dane guessed what Rip was about to suggest. And for a moment he knew resentment. To be asked to throw one's voyage earnings into a wild gamble — and that was what would happen he was sure — was pretty tough. He wouldn't have the courage to vote against it either —

"With the pay-roll in?" Tau's soft, unaccented voice questioned.

"About thirty-eight thousand — "

"Pretty lean for a Survey auction," Wilcox was openly dubious.

"Miracles have happened," Tang Ya pointed out. "I say — try it. If we lose we're not any the worse — "

It was agreed by a hand vote, no one dissenting, that the crew of the Queen would add their pay to the reserve — sharing in proportion to the sum they had surrendered in any profits to come. Van Rycke by common consent was appointed the bidder. But none of them would have willingly stayed away from the scene of action and Captain Jellico agreed to hire a Field guard as they left the ship in a body to try their luck.

From SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

The rack of travel disks might have been taken out of a spacer — perhaps it had been.

He studied that rack, his lips shaping numbers as he counted the disks, each in its own slot. More than a hundred worlds — keys to more than a hundred worlds — all visited at some time or another by Renfry Fentress. And any one of those, fitted into the auto-pilot of a spacer could take a man to that world —

Blue tapes first — worlds explored by Fentress, now open for colonization — ten of those, a record of which to be proud. Yellow disks — worlds that would not support human life. Green — inhabited by native races, open for trade, closed to human settlement. Red — Diskan eyed the red. There were three of those at the bottom of the case.

Red meant unknown — worlds on which only one landing had been made, reported, but not yet checked out fully as useful or otherwise. Empty of intelligent life, yes, possible for human life as to climate and atmosphere, but planets that posed some kind of puzzle. What could such puzzles be, Diskan speculated, for a moment pulled from his own concerns to wonder. Any one of a hundred reasons could mark a world red — to await further exploration.

From THE X FACTOR by Andre Norton (1965)

(ed note: this is from a solo-play tabletop boardgame where the player explores several star systems. The game is a sequel to The Wreck of the BSM Pandora, where an accident temporarily renders the crew unconscious and releases all the alien critters.)


The Ares Corporation BSM Pandora is a standard long range cruiser, Titan class, specifically equipped to study new planetary systems and collect extraterrestrial lifeforms. Although the prototype BSM cruiser was originally designed in 2689 A.D., the first ship was not completed until 2753; the Pandora's hull was orginally laid down in 2773, but it was not launched until 2784 (the third BSM crusier to come off the line).

The Pandora uses the standard binary LRC design. The FTL module (70 × 28 × 26 meters) uses the module 31 FTL drive (Monopole Corp.). The STL module (46 × 27 × 26 meters) uses the model HB2 STL drive (FRG AG). The main computer is a Fuji 5500 (AMC Ltd.), with sub-system processors belonging to the Huron 7600 series (General Electric).

The Pandora's FTL drive gives the ship an almost limitless operational range; the standard tour of duty is ten years, thus limiting the ship to an effective operational range of 112 light years (34.35+ parsecs).

The standard BMS mission consists of two parts: first, a survey of planetary systems for potential human habitats (either G2 — G2.5 readily habitable or Geneva Treaty 2098, Section IIIA, Subsection 4 — Terraformible Class habitable), and second, the collection of extraterrestrial biological specimens for study aboard ship or later transfer to Biological Mission Control, Arestia City, Mars...

Transcript of Transmission from Eridani 6-K Mission:


Roger, Skraaling. Subject appears marsupial to me. Perhaps an early mammal...


Skraaling, stop looking and use your tranqs!


Skraaling... Gedipus here. Prowler at 5 o'clock. Come on, you jerks, keep awake. Where there's hervivores, there's carnivores...



OH, MY GOD....



After sub-Titan shuttle safely docks with Titan-class cruiser, the following operational checklist will be adhered to in the transfer of specimens into the Stage area.

  1. All crew members will evacuate Stage area.
  2. ALL airlocks to Stage area will be secured.
  3. Collecbot will be activated.
  4. Collecbot will open specimen Store Space.
  5. Collecpod will move energy cage to Store Space lock.
  6. Environment differential will be adjusted to minimum between cage and Store Space.
  7. Collecbot will transfer specimen from cage to Store Space.
  8. Collecbot will secure Store Space.
  9. Collecbot will administer anti-tranq to specimine.
  10. Specimen will be allowed to waken. (Note: NO CREW MEMBER WILL BE ALLOWED TO ENTER STAGE AREA!)
  11. Specimen will be allowed to test Store Space.
  12. If all specification prove safe (see Securing Specimens), crew members will be allowed to enter Stage area.
  13. If specification proves safe, collecbot will tranquilize specimen and transfer it to hibernation chamber (see Hibernation Transfer).

Atomic Rockets notices

This week's featured addition is Pulsed Solid Core Nuclear Thermal Rocket

This week's featured addition is Convair Electria spacecraft

This week's featured addition is the Lewis Research Center Mars Mission

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