RocketCat sez

Alright, space cadets! This is the way it is. If your ship is bigger than a space taxi you gotta have more than one crewperson. There are lots of critical jobs (or "hats") on a spacecraft, the more hats a given crewperson wears the lower will be their job performance. They hafta sleep sometime.

What kinda jobs are we lookin' at here? Well:

     They are the absolute ruler of the spacecraft, their word is law.
     But don't get the wrong idea, captains often have a boss as well. If the skipper of a Cosmi-Hauler Incorporated cargo ship fails to deliver the cargo on time the corporation will fire the captain's sorry behind.
     The captain's job is things outside of the ship, mostly where the ship is going and whatsit gonna do when it gets there. Such as "fly to Deimos and load a cargo of water-ice" or "fly to Mars and drop bombs on those accurséd Arean Independence Revolutionaries."
First Officer
     The captain's right-hand person. The first officer's job is things inside the ship, mostly crackin' the whip to make sure the crew does their jobs.
     But the first officer also has to draft the "watchbill", make sure the blasted ship is adequately stocked with life support and other supplies so you don't all suffocate or starve to death, keep an eyeball on those lazy engineers to make sure they are keeping up with maintenance and repairs, ensure that the vacuum moonshine 'still on Z deck (that you officially don't know about) is making just enough space booze to stave off boredom but not enough to endanger the ship, and otherwise keep up the beatings until the morale improves.
     The captain tells the astrogator where the ship has to go, the astrogator's job is to figure out how. Once en route, the astrogator keeps a sharp eye to make sure the blasted ship stays on course, giving the pilot mid-course corrections if need be.
     When the destination is ordered, the astrogator will draw a pork-chop plot for the cap'n. From that the cap'n can chose the trip with the best possible combination of launch date, arrival date, and delta V cost. Or discover there ain't no acceptable trip so it's time for a captain-astrogator conference.
     Once the trip is chosen, the astrogator breaks it down into "maneuvers" and feeds them to the pilot. During the trip the astrogator watches the ship's position and vector like a hawk, since starving to death after you've eaten all your crewmates is such a nasty way to die. If the ship drifts out of the groove, the astrogator will calculate a special maneuver called a "mid-course correction" to get the blasted ship back on track, and feeds it to the pilot.
     The astrogator will be occasionally feeding to the pilot a maneuver to be done. Maneuvers have three parts: [1] direction to point the ship's nose, [2] how much delta V to burn, and [3] exact time to do it.
     The pilot uses attitude controls and the attitude display to point the ship's nose (and make darn sure it stays pointed the right way), plus thrust controls, chronometer, and delta V display to start the burn at the right time and keep it burning long enough for the required delta V.
     If the thrust controls are too darn complicated then the pilot job will be split into two jobs: helmsman handles the attitude controls and lee helmsman handles the thrust controls.
     In between maneuvers the pilots play a lot of solitaire and surf Facebook.
     The engineer's main job is to look after the engine, duh. The lee helmsman is almost always an engineer, unless the first officer is really stupid. Engineers inspect all the ship systems, do maintenance, repairs, and otherwise keep the blasted ship from falling to pieces.
     If the ship is a warship, the chief engineer is also the chief damage control officer. Different skill set is required. Fixing a clogged toilet is quite different from fixing a laser cannon crater in the hull.
Ya gotta have a doc, expecially if it is 2.7 years before you can get the sick person to a hospital. The doc might be only a hospital corpsmen, but that is light years better than nothing.
     Sparks in the radio shack if you want to talk to anybody, radarman if you want to spot anything coming, life-support techs so you can breath, cargo-masters to arrange trading and to pack the cargo so the blasted ship doesn't fall off her tail, cooks and pursers.
     If this is a warship you'll have gunners, electronic warfare officers, espatiers, and other types of astromilitary.

Crew Candidates

If your spacecraft have particularly weak propulsion systems, the ugly spectre of Every gram counts appears when you select your crew. Particularly with the crewperson's waistline. Put simply: the fatter you are, the more grams you mass, therefore the more propellant will have to be expended to propel your obese derrière through space.

The astromilitary will probably have a maximum weight limit on rocketmen. An enlisted person who puts on a kilo or two will have the sergeant wondering out loud how they can stand to carry around all that penalty-weight. If the enlisted person continues to gain, they will suddenly find themselves put on a diet and assigned all sorts of weight-losing exercise.

One hopes that there will not be a chronic problem with anorexia nervosa in the astromilitary.

So rocketeers would tend to be short and wiry. In Sir Arthur C. Clarke's classic THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SKY, space station construction crews got a pay bonus if they kept their weight below 68 kilograms (150 pounds).

Potential crew members will also have to be able to withstand the rigors of space travel. Things like:

  • Enduring multiple gs of acceleration with no injury
  • No claustrophobia from the cramped living conditions. And no agoraphobia if you have to do a space walk
  • The ability to endure long periods of boredom without psychologically cracking
  • Being in good health so as to minimize the risk of medical emergencies when the ship is months away from the nearest hospital
  • The ability to handle handle unexpected drops in atmospheric oxygen level
  • Resistance to drop sickness
  • Resistance to psychological problems
  • A low cumulative lifetime radiation dose

Note that the restrictions on body mass and claustrophobia would also be a good argument for rocketeers being:

  1. Oriental
  2. Female OR
  3. Both

As it turns out, on the average, females mass less, eat less, and are more immune to boredom that males. As are people of the oriental persuasion, especially Japanese.

This turned up in a 1995 novel and anime television series called Rocket Girls. Maybe not so surprisingly, Japanese media in general is noted for its high standards of scientific accuracy. In this case the anime series had JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace eXploration Agency) and real-life Japanese astronaut Naoko Yamazaki as technical advisors.

The fictitious Solomon Space Association is developing the low-mass suits since their anemic one-lung LS-5 rocket can barely lift itself off the launch pad, let alone any payload. In a further desperate attempt to save on mass, they are reduce to using 16 year old girls as astronauts (which is a predictable development for a Japanese anime). They only weigh 38 kilograms, instead of the sixty-odd kilograms of the adult male astronauts. They take up less room in the control cabin as well.


But why would anyone think a woman would be the first to space, anyway? Medical studies, for one thing. Some studies in the 1950s and ’60s suggested female bodies had stronger hearts and could better withstand vibrations and radiation exposure. Moreover, psychological studies suggested that women coped better than men in isolation and when deprived of sensory inputs.

Some of these investigations were limited in their design and sample sizes. But there was another, more compelling reason that women might outshine men as potential astronauts: basic economics. Thanks to their size, women are, on average, cheaper to launch and fly than men...

...Last year I took part in a NASA-funded research project called HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation). It required that I and five other crewmembers live as astronauts on the surface of Mars...

...Week in and week out, the three female crew members expended less than half the calories of the three male crew members. Less than half! We were all exercising roughly the same amount—at least 45 minutes a day for five consecutive days a week—but our metabolic furnaces were calibrated in radically different ways.

During one week, the most metabolically active male burned an average of 3,450 calories per day, while the least metabolically active female expended 1,475 calories per day. It was rare for a woman on crew to burn 2,000 calories in a day and common for male crew members to exceed 3,000.

The data certainly fit with my other observations. At mealtime, the women took smaller portions than the men, who often went back for seconds. One crew member complained how hard it was to maintain his weight, despite all the calories he was taking in.

The calorie requirements of an astronaut matter significantly when planning a mission. The more food a person needs to maintain her weight on a long space journey, the more food should launch with her. The more food launched, the heavier the payload. The heavier the payload, the more fuel required to blast it into orbit and beyond. The more fuel required, the heavier the rocket becomes, which it in turn requires more fuel to launch.

Every pound counts on the way to space. NASA was keenly aware of this, and that’s why in the early 1960s it nearly considered a female astronaut corps...

...In the early 2000s, Alan Drysdale, a systems analyst in advanced life support and a contractor with NASA, was thinking about the problem of astronaut bodies. He turned to a NASA document on physiological metrics called STD-3000, Man-Systems Integration Standards (now revised to STD-3001), which details needs and effluents for a range of body types. The STD-3000 gave the stats for women whose size was in the fifth percentile to men sized in the 95th percentile, a range from about 4-foot-11 and 90 pounds to 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. He crunched the numbers.

Drysdale found that a fifth-percentile woman would use less than half the resources of a 95th-percentile man...

...Drysdale, who no longer works with NASA, is emphatic that the space agency wastes money and doesn’t consider cost-saving approaches like a Mars crew of smaller astronauts. He says his calculations suggest all things being equal, such a crew would launch for half the payload cost. “Small women haven’t been demonstrated to be appreciably dumber than big women or big men, so there’s no reason to choose larger people for a flight crew when it’s brain power you want,” says Drysdale. “The logical thing to do is to fly small women.”

From AN ALL-FEMALE MISSION TO MARS by Kate Greene (2016)

Then the ship's braking program hit us and I stopped shaking. Eight gees, I would say, or maybe ten. When a female pilot handles a ship there is nothing comfortable about it; you're going to have bruises every place you're strapped. Yes, yes, I know they make better pilots than men do; their reactions are faster and they can tolerate more gee. They can get in faster, get out faster, and thereby improve everybody's chances, yours as well as theirs. But that still doesn't make it fun to be slammed against your spine at ten times your proper weight.

But I must admit that Captain Deladrier knows her trade. There was no fiddling around once the Rodger Young stopped braking.

From STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein (1959)

Foot Skills

One of the stranger specialized skills a spacecraft crew member might have is using ones foot like a hand. Could come in handy in free fall.


Putney went back to the lock, opened the inner chamber, closed the door behind him, and cautiously opened the outer door. A breath of their own air swept out, to be replaced in a moment by a dry, but invigoratingly cool breeze of this other atmosphere. As he glanced out he saw that the two men in the plane had already opened their door, and were coming out. They were walking along unconcernedly head down along the wing of the ship, which was equipped with a rail of some sort, evidently for this purpose. Their feet were bare, and equipped with a broad calloused palm, a strong, long and supple great toe, and the four lesser toes were all well developed and highly flexible.

To Putney's amazement one of the men let go with one foot, reached into his pocket with a contortionist motion that seemed easy and perfectly simple, and took out a heavy clip. In the meantime his hands had been busy unwinding a thin, strong line from his waist. The clip was fixed to one end of the line with the aid of one hand and one foot, while the other foot was engaged in holding him up, and the other hand adjusted the leather belt to which the other end of the line was fastened. Then with a single motion the man restored his foot to the rail, leapt, and landed lightly and safely on the threshold of the Prometheus' lock. He straightened up, and smiled engagingly...

..."Come," Putney beckoned Thaen on, and through the locked door to the interior of the ship. As the inner door opened Thaen entered the power room and stopped in amazement. He was staring with both mobile eyes at the ten-foot Flame, a perfect sphere on which sparkled little winking lights. He listened to the soft sigh of the swirling, iridescent iron atoms. MacLaurin was looking at him interestedly.

"A queer body. His toes are long."

"Uses them for fingers. I envy him. He can untie knots with them or run four-dimensional controls all at the same time."

From THE SPACE BEYOND by John W. Campbell jr. (1976)

     Ships fly themselves in hyperdrive. All a pilot need do is watch for green radial lines in the mass sensor. But he has to do that frequently, because the mass sensor is a psionic device; it must be watched by a mind, not another machine.
     As the narrow green line that marked Sol grew longer, I became abnormally conscious of the debris around Sol system. I spent the last twelve hours of the flight at the controls, chain-smoking with my feet. I should add that I do that normally, when I want both hands free; but now I did it to annoy Ausfaller. I'd seen the way his eyes bugged the first time he saw me take a drag from a cigarette between my toes. Flatlanders are less than limber...
     ...Ausfaller grinned. He took the top and bottom buttons between his fingers and tugged hard. They came off. The material between them ripped open as if a thread had been strung between them.
     Holding the buttons as if to keep an invisible thread taut, he moved them on either side of a crudely done plastic touch-sculpture. The sculpture fell apart.
     "Sinclair molecule chain. It will cut through any normal matter, if you pull hard enough. You must be very careful, it will cut your fingers so easily that you will hardly notice they are gone. Notice that the buttons are large, to give an easy grip." He laid the buttons carefully on a table and set a heavy weight between them...
     ...I couldn't see Carlos. Forward and Angel had tied us to opposite sides of the central pillar, beneath the Grabber...
     ...I began trying to kick off my shoes. They were soft ship-slippers, ankle-high, and they resisted.
     I locked the left foot free just as one of the tugs flared with ruby light...
     ...I peeled the other slipper off with my toes...
     ...I reached up with my toes, groping for the first and fourth buttons on my falling jumper.
     The weaponry in my wonderful suit hadn't helped me against Julian's strength and speed. But flatlanders are less than limber, and so are Jinxians. Forward had tied my hands and left it at that.
     I wrapped two sets of toes around the buttons and tugged.
     My legs were bent pretzel-fashion. I had no leverage. But the first button tore loose, and then the thread. Another invisible weapon to battle Forward's portable bottomless hole.
     The thread pulled the fourth button loose. I brought my feet down to where they belonged, keeping the thread taut, and pushed backward. I felt the Sinclair molecule chain sinking into the pillar.
     The Grabber was still swinging.
     When the thread was through the pillar I could bring it up in back of me and try to cut my bonds. More likely I'd cut my wrists and bleed to death; but I had to try. I wondered if I could do anything before Forward launched the black hole.
     A cold breeze caressed my feet.
     I looked down. Thick fog boiled out around the pillar.
     Some very cold gas must be spraying through the hair-fine crack.
     I kept pushing. More fog formed. The cold was numbing. I felt the jerk as the magic thread cut through. Now the wrists—
     Liquid helium?
     Forward had moored us to the main superconducting power cable.
     That was probably a mistake. I pulled my feet forward, carefully, steadily, feeling the thread bite through on the return cut.
     The Grabber had stopped swinging. Now it moved on its arm like a blind, questing worm, as Forward made fine adjustments. Angel was beginning to show the strain of holding himself upside down.
     My feet jerked slightly. I was through. My feet were terribly cold, almost without sensation. I let the buttons go, left them floating up toward the dome, and kicked back hard with my heels.
     Something shifted. I kicked again.
     Thunder and lightning flared around my feet.
     I jerked my knees up to my chin. The lightning crackled and flashed white light into the billowing fog. Angel and Forward turned in astonishment. I laughed at them, letting them see it. Yes, gentlemen, I did it on purpose...

From THE BORDERLAND OF SOL by Larry Niven (1975)

The Mouse walked beside Hell3, his boot heel clicking, his bare foot silent (as in another city on another world, Leo had walked). This was his latest travel acquisition. Those who worked under free-fall in the ships that went between planets developed the agility of at least one set of toes, sometimes both, till it rivaled world-lubbers' hands, and ever after kept that foot free. The commercial interstellar freighters had artificial gravity, which discouraged such development.

From NOVA by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

Crew Size

On the topic of crew size, Matt Picio said that a modern wet-navy warship averages 15-20 crew members per kiloton of displacement.

However, a more accurate measurement takes into account "core crew", the minimum number of watch-standers to steer and fight the vessel. Core crew is about 80, and represents the minimum number of crew for a long-duration warship. Additional crew is fairly linear, at 1 crew per 100 tons of vessel. Automation will eventually halve these figures.

Ken Burnside says that for routine operations of a warship, you need a minimum of 10 people. Combat is, of course, far from routine. There are many complicated factors involved. For a back of the envelope calculation, figure roughly 10 to 16 crewmen per kiloton, though the lower end figure presupposes that most of the tonnage consists of armor and other things that do not require babysitting. If it sucks current, has moving parts, or works with a pressure or temperature differential, it needs babysitting.

For estimating the crew size of a long-duration military vessel, Sean Schauer has created a nice Excel spreadsheet (instructions are on last page). You'll have to decide how many shifts or "watches" there will be in a 24 hour period, generally from three to six. The spreadsheet was designed for a real-life wet navy vessel, so you may have to adapt it a bit. If you use this spreadsheet please give Mr. Knight credit for it.

Civilian ships average 10 to 25 crew members, depending on size (container ships and supertankers). Liners have about 0.8 to 1.2 crew for every passenger.

Adjust these figures to match your vision of spacecraft crews.


In Children of a Dead Earth, most capital ships run between 40 to 80 crew, and are based heavily on modern nuclear submarine crews.

These numbers are based on a tally of all the jobs needed, which scales based not by mass of the ship, but on the number of subsystems, type of subsystems, and several other factors. Thus, an enormous 10+ kiloton methane tanker can run on a tiny crew, while a small, 1 kiloton fast attack craft may require a much larger crew.

With such small crews, they would have to be highly trained to take over multiple jobs in case of injury or death of other crew members. Similar to modern nuclear submarines, crew members live 18 hour days, 6 hours on watch, and 12 hours off watch. Meals between each watch, with the enlisted men and women hot bunking to save on the precious space.

Figure on crew members being from 68 to 113 kilograms each (150-250 pounds).

Keeping in mind that everybody knows the Polaris only needed Tom Corbett, Roger Manning, and Astro for crew. Tom was the captain/pilot, Roger was the astrogator/communications/radar man, and Astro was the propulsion system engineer. And on the StarDuster, you only had Scott McCloud (the Space Angel) as captain/pilot, the lovely Crystal as communications/radar/nav, and Taurus as the engineer/gunner.

And don't forget the crew in FORBIDDEN PLANET. As in many wet naval vessels, a lot of the enlisted men are going to be boys around 18 years old.

Once you have established the size of the crew, you can start allocating space for their quarters and supplies for food & life support.


The maiden flight of a new spaceship is always an occasion and the Ares was the first of her line, the first, indeed, of all spaceships ever to be built primarily for passengers and not for freight.

When she was fully commissioned, she would carry a crew of thirty and a hundred and fifty passengers in somewhat spartan comfort. On her first voyage, however, the proportions were almost reversed and at the moment her crew of six was waiting for the single passenger to come aboard.

“This,” said Captain Norden, working round the cabin from left to right, “is my engineer, Lieutenant Hilton. This is Dr. Mackay, our navigator — only a Ph.D., not a real doctor, like Dr. Scott here. Lieutenant Bradley is Electronics Officer, and Jimmy Spencer, who met you at the airlock, is our supernumerary and hopes to be Captain when he grows up.”

Gibson looked round the little group with some surprise. There were so few of them — five men and a boy!

His face must have revealed his thoughts, for Captain Norden laughed and continued.

“Not many of us, are there? But you must remember that this ship is almost automatic — and besides, nothing ever happens in space. When we start the regular passenger run, there’ll be a crew of thirty. On this trip, we’re making up the weight in cargo, so we’re really travelling as a fast freighter.”

Gibson looked carefully at the men who would be his only companions for the next three months. His first reaction (he always distrusted first reactions, but was at pains to note them) was one of astonishment that they seemed so ordinary — when one made allowance for such superficial matters as their odd attitudes and temporary baldness. There was no way of guessing that they belonged to a profession more romantic than any that the world had known since the last cowboys traded in their broncos for helicopters.

Captain Norden, thought Gibson a little ruefully, was not fitting at all well into the expected pattern. The skipper of a space-liner, according to the best — or at least the most popular — literary tradition, should be a grizzled, keen-eyed veteran who had spent half his life in the ether and could navigate across the Solar System by the seat of his pants, thanks to his uncanny knowledge of the spaceways. He must also be a martinet; when he gave orders, his officers must jump to attention (not an easy thing under zero gravity), salute smartly, and depart at the double.

Instead, the captain of the Ares was certainly less than forty, and might have been taken for a successful business executive. As for being a martinet — so far Gibson had detected no signs of discipline whatsoever. This impression, he realised later, was not strictly accurate. The only discipline aboard the Ares was entirely self-imposed; that was the only form possible among the type of men who composed her crew.

“We keep normal Earth-time — Greenwich Meridian aboard the ship and everything shuts down at ‘night.’ There are no watches, as there used to be in the old days; the instruments can take over when we’re sleeping, so we aren’t on continuous duty. That’s one reason why we can manage with such a small crew.

“I’ll get Jimmy to take you to your room. He’s our odd-job man for this trip, working his passage and learning something about spaceflight. Most of us start that way, signing up for the lunar run during college vacations. Jimmy’s quite a bright lad — he’s already got his Bachelor’s degree.”

By now Gibson was beginning to take it quite for granted that the cabin-boy would be a college graduate.

And its crew no longer consisted of Norden, Hilton, Mackay, Bradley, and Scott — but of John, Fred, Angus, Owen, and Bob.

He had grown to know them all, though Hilton and Bradley had a curious reserve that he had been unable to penetrate. Each man was a definite and sharply contrasted character; almost the only thing they had in common was intelligence. Gibson doubted if any of them had an I.Q. of less than 120, and he sometimes wriggled with embarrassment as he remembered the crews he had imagined for some of his fictional spaceships. He recalled Master Pilot Graham, from “Five Moons Too Many” — still one of his favourite characters. Graham had been tough (had he not once survived half a minute in vacuum before being able to get to his spacesuit?) and he regularly disposed of a bottle of whisky a day. He was a distinct contrast to Dr. Angus Mackay, Ph.D. (Astron.), F.R.A.S., who was now sitting quietly in a corner reading a much annotated copy of “The Canterbury Tales” and taking an occasional squirt from a bulbful of milk.

The mistake that Gibson had made, along with so many other writers back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, was the assumption that there would be no fundamental difference between ships of space and ships of the sea — or between the men who manned them. There were parallels, it was true, but they were far outnumbered by the contrasts. The reason was purely technical, and should have been foreseen, but the popular writers of the mid-century had taken the lazy course and had tried to use the traditions of Herman Melville and Frank Dana in a medium for which they were grotesquely unfitted.

A ship of space was much more like a stratosphere liner than anything that had ever moved on the face of the ocean, and the technical training of its crew was at much higher level even than that required in aviation. A man like Norden had spent five years at college, three years in space, and another two back at college on advanced astronautical theory before qualifying for his present position.

From THE SANDS OF MARS by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1951)

Standing Watch

Traditional US Navy watches
2000 - 0000First watch
0000 (midnight) - 0400Mid watch
0400 - 0800Morning watch
0800 - 1200 (noon)Forenoon watch
1200 - 1600Afternoon watch
1600 - 1800First Dog watch
1800 - 2000Last Dog watch

The problem with having one crew member for each ship function is when do they sleep? Obviously you need at least two crewmembers for each post that has to be constantly manned, or hope that the mission doesn't last longer than a day. Caffeine only goes so far.

So what you do is divide a day into a number of "watches", and for each post that must be constantly manned there will be a number of crew members sufficient to fill all the watches. "Standing a watch" means being on duty at a specific station during a particular portion of the day. Crewmembers who are currently on watch are called "watchstanders." Under normal conditions, a crew member standing watch is relieved of all other duties. Please note that "General Quarters" is NOT a normal condition.

At the end of their watch, a crew member will wait until they are "relieved" by the crew member in the next watch. The first crew member will tell the second that "all is well". What that actually means is "everything is OK, if anything goes wrong it's your problem now."

The crew will be divided into "duty sections" and each duty section is assigned to one or more watches. A ship will have three, four, or six duty sections, with each duty section assigned to a number of watches to ensure full coverage. That is, if a ship has six watches in a day, and there are three duty sections, each duty section will be assigned to 6 / 3 = 2 watches. There are more details here.

Generally a 24 hour "day" will be divided into six 4-hour watches. However, depending on the ship, the number of watches in a day can be anything from three to six. Sometimes the watch that occurs during dinner time is split into two "dog watches." This allows the people assigned to that watch to eat their evening meal. Dog watches also ensure that there is an odd number of watches in a day, which ensures that a duty section is not stuck with the same watches every day.

On the Starship Enterprise, there are six watches: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon and Zeta. They have no dog watches because dinner is available from a replicator at any hour. And since there is no day and night in space, there is no way that a duty section can even tell if it is standing the same watch every day.

Some posts do not need to be manned round the clock, so there will be fewer crew assigned than the number of watches in a day.

The watch system works nicely with the "hot bunk" system. This is where several crew members in different duty sections share one bunk in a desperate attempt by spacecraft designers to reduce crew quarter mass. (Barry Messina explained to me that watch standing and hot bunking are totally independent of each other)

The first officer on a small ship is responsible for creating the "watchbill" for all crew members. This is a document specifying the watch rotation for the crew, it tells the crew who has to be where and when. On a larger ship, the department heads will be responsible for creating the watchbill for their department. There will be a different watchbill depending upon whether the ship is in space or on a planet.

As usual, when you ask me a question, the correct answer is: it depends.

US Navy practice is to design a Watch, Quarter and Station Bill during the ship design process. Imagine a poster board three feet long and two feet high. Each person has an individual horizontal line. The columns, from left to right, begin with the billet sequence number (something the personnel accounting folks use to keep track of requirements before any actual names are assigned), then the name of the person, then the general quarters station. The next set of columns will be assignments for other 'stations', like various steaming conditions (Condition 2, 3, 4, 5) then various other events (underway replenishment, flight quarters, cleaning stations) and places (berthing assignment, import duty section, underway duty section) and on and on. The WQ&S bill as originally planned covers where every body is supposed to be for every type of watch station and evolution the ship is intended to accomplish. It is normally based on the notion that everyone has a place to be for general quarters, the ship will operate with 3 equal sections for normal at-sea ops, and 4 or 5 (depending) sections when in port. The WQS Bill also has listings for abandon ship stations: which lifeboat are you supposed to be in? This should be updated every single time the ship gets underway.

Of course, once the ship gets turned over to the Commanding Officer, changes start. If the ship does not have enough qualified bodies to man 3 underway sections, then you'll slide to 2 sections (known as port and starboard watches). Some parts of the ship could be standing port and starboard watches while other parts of the ship, with more qualified bodies, might be in a 4-section rotation. Depending on how the Commanding Officer (CO), Executive Officer(XO) and department heads decide to run things, the entire WQS Bill might be centrally managed by the Senior Watch Officer (typically the most senior department head). An alternative is to have the departments each run their own watch bills, with the Senior Watch Officer (and the department heads) providing a watch bill for the CO that lists the key bridge, CIC, and engineering watches. Over time, the WQS bill becomes fractured, with some parts being updated by some groups, and the rest being ignored. A newly reported person will be assigned an empty bunk, but the WQS Bill may or may not be updated.

Note: in the day of data bases and computerization and networked admin aboard ship, it may be possible now to actually maintain the entire WQS Bill up to date all the time. That would be great, and I'd love to see it. It's a great management tool when it is up to date, and a monster to have to update across all departments and all possible watches, quarters, and stations. Just keeping track of who is assigned where in a five-section inport rotation can keep 5 chiefs busy. A number of these watch teams have to accomplish team training, particularly for damage control and fire-fighting. As an example, if one of those teams has 14 bodies, and the number of bodies assigned to the team that went to the team training as part of the team drops below 10, then the team gets decertified and all 14 have to go through another team training session. Many of these team training sessions are held off the ship, so the training management folks on the ship have to get a quota, make sure all 14 bodies are available and actually show up for the team training, blah blah blah.

Now we get to the question of how to organize the watch sections. One of the key considerations for this is the issue of when the galley is operating, which is the subject of negotiation between the XO and Supply Officer. The watch schedule has to provide enough time for the on-coming watch section to eat and get up on watch and for the off-going section to get out of their watch spaces and over to the mess decks to eat. Therefore, even if each department is running their own watch bills, and various timing schemes for watches are in effect, some mechanism needs to exist to ensure everyone has a chance to get something to eat. No matter what, for some part of the 24-hour day the galley (or galleys, on larger ships) and the places where people eat have to be shut down for cleaning. These spaces are also used to host training sessions and various meetings.

In my experience, one frequent method to deal with the watches in Combat Information Center (CIC: part of the Operations Department) is to have all the Operations Specialists in a port and starboard rotation. That means half of the folks are on watch, and the rest of the group is off watch. One reason this can work is that normally there are more bodies available than actual watch positions: more bodies than seats. Since the Operations Specialists have lots of other admin and training and cleaning things to do in CIC, the folks 'on watch' actually are being rotated around by the Chief: some folks are in chairs, with headphones on, staring at scopes, talking on inter phones or radios, and so forth. Other folks may be preparing charts, reviewing message traffic, preparing for exercises, cleaning, training, or any number of other odds and ends. While the OS types used to try and convince people that they really had it rough being on watch 12 hours at a time, in fact that's not remotely what they were doing. Most of the sit-down, be-on-watch activities have human performance limits: the individual performance starts to degrade after 45 minutes. The wise Chief will therefore rotate people around between the various positions and the other admin duties. Because there are an excess of bodies, sending some of the 'on-watch' folks down to eat does not impair the watch team performance. After eating, those folk return to CIC and slide into chairs so others can go eat. If a special evolution, such as flight quarters or underway replenishment, is called away then the extra bodies from the watch section fill in. This can be a problem when we recognize that there are job training requirements for the individual positions on the special evolutions, and merely sending the two bodies closest to the hatch when the evolution is announced is actually the wrong way to do it. However, it's also my experience that the Ops guys get away with this crap all the time unless somebody senior is paying attention. The real reason the Ops types like port and starboard is the 12 hours off watch when they can sleep, play cards, and otherwise not be under the eye of some supervisor. The Ops and CIC leadership tends to be in CIC, and guys hanging out in berthing have a pretty good chance of remaining unmolested.

The situation is usually different in engineering, where having enough qualified folks to get into a 3-section rotation is not guaranteed. Or, some individual watch stations may be in a 3-man rotation, while others are in port and starboard.

I'm used to seeing the surface ships use a dog watch, which is doing the short watches around the time of the evening meal. My most recent time underway was in July this year, and the crew was running dog watches. The bridge and engineering people in a 3-section watch will use this short rotation, while the CIC people running port and starboard will ignore the whole thing. The start and stop times of the short watches will vary, mostly driven by how the supply department leadership makes their arguments to the XO and command master chief. Remember that the supply department has to provide 4 meals per day, not 3.

The bottom line is that there's no one way to run watches, and even within one hull, different parts of the organization may be on different watch and/or shift schedules. Another factor can be how close you are to a major inspection, and the amount of time required (as recommended by the department heads, and approved by the XO and CO) to run drills. Some training evolutions can be hazardous to the fancy electronics, so the smart combat systems officers will try to manage the schedule so that all the expensive electronics can be shut down while the engineers are messing with the electrical distribution system. If the ship conducts and all-hands evolution like general quarters, you have to have a plan for how goes on watch once the General Quarters (GQ) is over, and depending on how long you spent at GQ, it may have an impact on when the supply department can have lunch ready, and you still have to get guys fed before they go on watch, and still stay open till the folks that have been on watch get off watch and come in to eat. It's complicated.

The watch stations to be manned vary by unit employment (operating independently or as part of a group), threat level, weather, manpower and the qualification levels of all the various bodies, and on and on. Engineers might be in port and starboard, while all the department heads are totally off the watch bill. I've also seen times when there are only two qualified Tactical Action Officers (the XO and the Combat Systems Officer) because the CO disqualified the Ops officer and told the Chief Engineer to stand Engineering Officer of the Watch watches because the CO didn't trust the rest of the engineering department junior officers. This was NOT a happy ship.

It is a mistake to confuse the watch rotation with hot bunking. Hot bunking means you have more bodies than bunks. Period. This will have to get managed, normally within each department, but it may not have watch rotation as a solution: the folks without bunks tend to be junior and unqualified and not particularly useful.

My personal preference for CIC is a 3-section rotation of 6-hour watches. This is intended to thin out the excess bodies in CIC: if you are on watch, then that's what you are doing. When you get off watch, you grab something to eat and report back to your space for training, cleaning, maintenance, and are the 'ready duty' pool to fill in for underway replenishment and/or flight quarters duties. If the section leader says you are done, then you can take off. At most, you work 4 1/2 hours, then eat and you are off for 6 hours. This may not be such a good idea for bridge watches: you don't get to sit down, and the watches can be massively boring as you stare out the windows watching the waves go up and down. It just depends on where the ship is and what it's doing. It's up to the senior petty officers and chiefs to monitor how people are doing, and have the discretion to allow somebody to slide out and catch some extra rack time. The further along in a deployment you get, the more bodies get qualified, and the flexibility to manage people increases.

Barry Messina

It's not as bad as I expected. Piniaz is the sort of watch officer who stays out of the way. He makes his presence felt only when he joins Chief Nicastro by making sure Westhause's preprogrammed jumps are putting the ship into the right places in the search pattern. The astrogator can't be on the job all the time, though he does sleep less than anyone else.

Yanevich's shipboard title is a misnomer this patrol (First Watch Officer). The Commander himself has taken the first watch. Yanevich really has the second. Piniaz has the third. In Line ships the Astrogation Officer normally stands the third watch. In Climbers that usually falls to the Ship's Services Officer. The Commander is kept free.

The Old Man thinks our Ensign too green. In the quiet passages, though, he brings Bradley in for a watch. He hands it to me at times, too. Sometimes Diekereide takes a turn "just in case." The Commander has even dragged Varese in on rare occasion. One of an officer's unwritten duties is to learn everything possible. It may save your ship someday.

Watch schedules don't mean much aboard a Climber, except to officers, who assume four-hour chunks of responsibility. The men come and go. In Ops Chiefs Nicastro and Canzoneri just make sure that the critical stations are manned. In Weapons Chiefs Bath and Holtsnider do the same.

In Engineering, where they stand six on and six off and most of the stations must be continuously manned, life is more structured.

From PASSAGE AT ARMS by Glen Cook (1985)

     A chime sounds, a bell-like tone. (First officer) Korie's gaze strays automatically to the clock —abruptly he checks himself. (It isn't my relief that's coming.) The thought echoes rudely in his mind.
     The bridge of the starcruiser is a bowl-shaped room. The wide door at the rear of it slides open to admit four low-voiced crewmen. They cut off their talk, move quickly into the room, and separate.
     Two rows of gray-blue consoles circle the bridge, the outer row surrounding the room on a wide raised ledge, the other just inside and below. Despite the spaciousness of the room's original measurements, the additional consoles and equipment that have since been added force a cramped feeling within.
     Brushing past their shipmates, two of the men move around to the front of the ledge, called the horseshoe. They tap two others and step into their places at the controls. The other relief crewmen step down into the circle of consoles in the center, a lowered area called the pit. They too tap two men. Dropping easily into the quickly vacated couches, the new men settle into the routine with a familiarity bred of experience.
     The men going off watch exit just as quickly, and once more the bridge is still. The crew are sullen figures in the darkened room, sometimes silhouetted against the glare of a screen.
     One man —a small man on the left side of the horseshoe —is not still at his post. He glances around the bridge nervously, looks to the Command and Control Seat just above the rear of the pit.
     Working up his courage, the man steps forward. "Sir?"
     Korie peers into the darkness. "Yes?"
     "Uh, sir. . . my relief —he hasn't shown up yet."
     "Who's your relief, Harris?"
     "Wolfe, sir."
     "Wolfe?" Korie frowns. He rubs absentmindedly at his nose.
     Harris nods. "Yes, sir."
     Korie sighs to himself, a sound of quiet exasperation, directed as much at Harris as at the absent Wolfe. "Well.. . stay at your post until he gets here."
     "Yes, sir." Resignedly, Harris turns back to his waiting board.
     At the same time, the door at the rear of the bridge slides open with a whoosh. Red-faced and panting heavily, a short, straw-colored crewman rushes in, still buttoning the flap of his tunic.
     Korie swivels to face him. "Wolfe?" he demands. He touches the chair arm, throwing a splash of light at the man.
     Wolfe hesitates, caught in the sudden glare. "Yes, sir. .. ? Uh, I'm sorry I'm late coming on watch, sir."
     "You're sorry. . . ?"
     "Yes, sir."
     "Oh." The first officer pauses. "Well, then I guess that makes everything all right."
     Wolfe smiles nervously, but the sweat is beaded on his fore head. He starts to move to his post.
     "Did you hear that, Harris?" Korie calls abruptly. "Wolfe said he was sorry...."
     Again Wolfe hesitates. He looks nervously from one to the other.
     "Harris?" Korie calls again. "Did you hear that?"
     "Uh, yes, sir." The answer is mumbled; the man is hidden in shadow.
     "And that makes everything all right, doesn't it, Harris?" Korie's eyes remain fixed on Wolfe.
     "Uh, yes, sir," Harris answers. "I guess it does —if you say so —"
     The first officer smiles thinly. "I guess it does then." His voice goes suddenly hard. "In fact, Mr. Harris, Mr. Wolfe is so sorry that he says he's going to take over your next five watches for you. In addition to his own. Isn't that good of him?"
     "Shut up, Wolfe!"
     "Uh, sir —" insists Harris. "You don't have to do that—"
     "You're right, Harris. I don't have to —Wolfe does."
     "Sir!" Wolfe protests again.
     "I don't want to hear it."
     "But, sir, I —"
     "Wolfe. . .!" says Korie warningly. "You are now ten minutes late in getting to your post. Are you trying for twenty?" He cuts off the spotlight, darkening the bridge back to Condition Red, and swivels forward.
     Wolfe stares at the first officer's back for a moment, then mutters a nearly inaudible, "Yes, sir. . .!" He steps across the horse shoe and ritually taps Harris's shoulder.

From YESTERDAY'S CHILDREN by David Gerrold (1972)
Discovery's Schedule
0100Bowman goes to sleep
Poole inspects ship
0400Poole reports to Mission Control
0600Bowman awakes, breakfast
0700Bowman relieves Poole
Bowman checks instruments
Start Poole's 6 hr off-duty
1000Bowman study period
1200Bowman's lunch, Poole's dinner
1300Bowman inspects ship
Poole goes to sleep
1600Bowman reports to Mission Control
1800Poole awakes, breakfast
1900Poole relieves Bowman
Poole checks instruments
Start Bowman's 6 hr off-duty
2000Bowman dinner, Poole lunch
2200Poole study period

The day-by-day running of the ship had been planned with great care, and — theoretically at least — Bowman and Poole knew what they would be doing at every moment of the twenty-four hours. They operated on a twelve-hours-on, twelve-hours-off basis, taking charge alternately, and never being both asleep at the same time. The officer on duty remained on the Control Deck, while his deputy saw to the general housekeeping, inspected the ship, coped with the odd jobs that constantly arose, or relaxed in his cubicle.

Bowman’s day began at 0600, ship’s time — the Universal Ephemeris Time of the astronomers.

His first official act of the day would be to advance the Master Hibernation Timer twelve hours. If this operation was missed twice in a row, Hal would assume that both he and Poole had been incapacitated, and would take the necessary emergency action.

Bowman would attend to his toilet, and do his isometric exercises, before settling down to breakfast and the morning’s radio-fax edition of the World Times.

At 0700 he would officially relieve Poole on the Control Deck, bringing him a squeeze-tube of coffee from the kitchen. If — as was usually the case — there was nothing to report and no action to be taken, he would settle down to check all the instrument readings, and would run through a series of tests designed to spot possible malfunctions. By 1000 this would be finished, and he would start on a study period.

So for two hours, from 1000 to 1200, Bowman would engage in a dialogue with an electronic tutor, checking his general knowledge or absorbing material specific to this mission. He would prowl endlessly over ship’s plans, circuit diagrams, and voyage profiles, or would try to assimilate all that was known about Jupiter, Saturn, and their far-ranging families of moons.

At midday, he would retire to the galley and leave the ship to Hal while he prepared his lunch. Even here, he was still fully in touch with events, for the tiny lounge-cum-dining room contained a duplicate of the Situation Display Panel, and Hal could call him at a moment’s notice. Poole would join him for this meal, before retiring for his six-hour sleep period, and usually they would watch one of the regular TV programs beamed to them from Earth.

After lunch, from 1300 to 1600 Bowman would make a slow and careful tour of the ship — or such part of it as was accessible. Discovery measured almost four hundred feet from end to end, but the little universe occupied by her crew lay entirely inside the forty-foot sphere of the pressure hull.

By 1600, he would have finished his inspection, and would make a detailed verbal report to Mission Control, talking until the acknowledgment started to come in. Then he would switch off his own transmitter, listen to what Earth had to say, and send back his reply to any queries. At 1800 hours, Poole would awaken, and he would hand over command.

He would then have six off-duty hours, to use as he pleased. Sometimes he would continue his studies, or listen to music, or look at movies. Much of the time he would wander at will through the ship’s inexhaustible electronic library.

The last hours of Bowman’s day were devoted to general cleaning up and odd jobs, followed by dinner at 2000 — again with Poole. Then there would be an hour during which he would make or receive any personal call from Earth.

Just before he signed off Bowman would make his final report, and check that Hal had transmitted all the instrumentation tapes for the day’s run. Then, if he felt like it, he would spend a couple of hours either reading or looking at a movie; and at midnight he would go to sleep — usually without any help from electronarcosis. Poole’s program was a mirror image of his own, and the two schedules dovetailed together without friction.

From 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

Nor did she greatly enjoy standing four-eight-four-eight watches, but she didn’t see much choice in that matter, either. There just weren’t enough command and ops personnel available to keep the ship running on alert status any other way. Four hours of general supervision where needed in the ship, eight hours on bridge duty, then four hours of dealing with whatever low-priority matters and office work had cropped up during the day. Then—in theory—eight hours to eat at least one decent meal, wash, and grab some kind of sleep before starting it all over again. Not that she had gotten eight hours of downtime since they had started the approach to Earth.

Something always came up. Last night, for example, she had spent half the time she was supposed to be sleeping sweating out the closest approach of CORE 219.

From THE SHATTERED SPHERE by Roger MacBride Allen (1994)

I settled down to check the logs and make a list of tasks. My brain slid back into a familiar script, running through the overnight logs and checking the maintenance schedule for the next twenty-four stans (hours). It was one of my “fast-flip” days—the name I’d given to the six-on-six-off-six-on portions of the watch cycle. At the end of a fast-flip, I would get either a break of either twelve or twenty-four stans. I’d just slept through most of a twelve, and I had eighteen to go before the twenty-four. I made a note on my tablet to change the number two water intake filter on this watch and clean the number three scrubber’s field plates during the evening’s leg.

Watch standing is like riding a merry-go-round. The repetition of the activities day after day and the way the other crew members fall into their own patterns provides a structure that becomes one long blur. You regularly see the people who are in your watch section, but the full complement of the crew is only really apparent to the mess deck worker. It’s here that we all gather for meals on a cycle that isn’t always set by the rotation of watches but on a convention that goes much deeper.

From FULL SHARE by Nathan Lowell (2011)

DAMN, but it stuck in Don Lawson’s craw—largely because Chuck Zakarian was right. After all, Zakarian was slated for the big Mars surface mission to be launched from Earth next year. He never said it to Don’s face, but Don knew that Zakarian and the rest of NASA viewed him and Sasim as Mikeys—the derisive term for those, like Apollo 11’s command-module pilot Mike Collins, who got to go almost all the way to the target.

Yes, goddamned Zakarian would be remembered along with Armstrong, whom every educated person in the world could still name even today, seventy years after his historic small step. But who the hell remembered Collins, the guy who’d stayed in orbit around the Moon while Neil and Buzz had made history on the lunar surface?

Don realized the point couldn’t have been driven home more directly than by the view he was now looking at. He was floating in the control room of the Asaph Hall, the ship that had brought him and Sasim Remtulla to Martian space from Earth. If he looked left, Don saw Mars, giant, red, beckoning. And if he looked right, he saw—

They called it the Spud. The Spud, for Christ’s sake!

Looking right, he saw Deimos, the outer of Mars’ two tiny moons, a misshapen hunk of dark, dark rock. How Don wanted to go to Mars, to stand on its sandy surface, to see up close its great valleys and volcanoes! But no. As Don’s Cockney granddad used to say whenever they passed a fancy house or an expensive car, “Not for the likes of us.”

Mars was for Chuck Zakarian and company. The A-team.

Don and Sasim were the B-team, the also-rans. Oh, sure, they had now arrived at the vicinity of Mars long before anyone else. And Don supposed there would be some cachet in being the first person since Apollo 17 left the Moon in 1972 to set foot on another world—even if that world was just a 15-kilometer-long hunk of rock.

From MIKEYS by Robert Sawyer (2004)

You Gotta Have Crew

Science fiction authors would do well to follow Burnside's Zeroth Law of space combat: Science fiction fans relate more to human beings than to silicon chips. Aerospace combat fans want to read about hot-shot Top Gun fighter pilots, not The Adventures of Droney, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle.

The trouble is that scientific realism is on the side of Droney.

Since science fiction authors are trying to make a living, they favor the Zeroth Law. Given the sorry state of the audience it is possible for writers to simply ignore the problem, most of the audience won't even notice. But if the writers want some kind of fig-leaf, there are a few tricks that can be used.

Yes, there are exceptions to Burnside's Zeroth Law in science fiction, but they are few, far in between, and the result of exceptionally skilled authors. These are the "exceptions that Test the rule" (the original aphorism is from the Latin, and the word "probat" in this context should be translated as "test", not "prove"). Examples include "Longshot" by Vernor Vinge, "Sun Up" by A. A. Jackson and Howard Waldrop and the Bolo stories by Keith Laumer et al.

Automated Space Exploration, Not

In the real world of space exploration, there is an furious on-going debate about unmanned exploration vs. manned exploration. Space probes vs. space men.

The manned camp points out that robot probes are so pared to the bone that often they have the wrong set of sensors to spot the important stuff. Humans are far more versatile, and can spot things that are unexpected. Plus men in space are really really kewel.

The unmanned camp points out that you get several orders of magnitude of bang-for-your-buck when you use robot probes. The mass cost for the life support system to keep the astronauts alive and healthy is hideously expensive. You can send thousands of space probes for the cost of a single manned mission.

But I point out the pragmatic fact No Buck Rogers = No Bucks. If NASA eliminates all its astronauts, it will quickly find its budget cut to the bone, or even find itself closed down. The great unwashed masses are not going to have their tax money going to fund silly satellites sending back boring scientific data. They want to see spacemen!

Stephen Hawking put it this way: "Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don't catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don't spread the human race into space, which I'm arguing should be our long-term strategy. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before."

Which is plenty of ammo for a science fiction author to use to silence their critics. Stephen Hawking sez so!

Automated Crew, Not

Rick Robinson notes that nobody navigates a boat by shooting the sun with a sextant anymore, instead you turn on your GPS unit. Most of the labor will be automated and computerized.

Rick has a brilliant solution with is Mission Control Model (see below). And in the case of space combat, there are drawback to using robots and teleoperated drones.

Automated Pilots, Not

A one man fighter spacecraft would be a more effective weapon if you removed the fighter pilot, their life support, and their acceleration limits, and then replaced them with a computer. You would basically be converting the fighter spacecraft into a roving missile bus, and removing the logical justification for the existence of fighter spacecraft altogether. But fighter spacecraft have to exist, according to the Zeroth Law (well, actually not. Fighters don't have to exist if there are humans on the carrier/missile boat and/or the target ship).

In a discussion I witnessed, Henry Cobb described a combat spacecraft with a Magic Fusion Torch (i.e., an exceedingly powerful unobtanium propulsion system). Eric Henry asked why not replace the human pilot with a computer. Henry Cobb correctly noted: "By the Zeroth Law, the Magical Fusion Torch only works when there is somebody on board to maintain the enchantment."

Eric Henry then wisely observed: "Ah. The Schrödinger Drive."

The above exchange may seem humorous, but I have seen the same concept actually used in science fiction.

In Larry Niven's The Borderland of Sol, he postulates a technobabble gizmo called a "mass sensor" which is a "psionic" device. It warns of gravity fields which will destroy starships using Niven's FTL drive. The psionic device can only be watched by a living being, a computer cannot use it for some silly hand-waving reason or other. Niven invented it because he wanted to write about human starship pilots, not write about starships that flew themselves under computer control. Burnside's Zeroth Law strikes again.

In the 1984 Atari 800 computer game Quest of the Space Beagle, the FTL drive requires a human pilot. As the ship enters FTL, the jump must be balanced or the ship goes off course. The only way to to detect an imbalance is by noticing alterations in the flow of time. And computers cannot notice such alterations since their only sense of time is measured by ticks of their system clock. (In my long and misspent youth, I did the illustrations for that game's manual.)

In the DUNE novels, Guild Steersmen are humans mutated by massive consumption of the spice melange. Starships move FTL by folding space but the limited computers allowed are not powerful enough to calculate a safe path (Butlerian Jihad, y'know). The Guild Steersmen have an ability to see into the future and thus plot a safe journey.

In Grimspace by Ann Aguirre, FTL starships can only travel long distances in hyperspace (called "Grimspace") by using "beacons." These are navigational beacons placed all over the entire known Grimspace by some long dead forerunners. Lamentably these beacons cannot be used by machines, they can only be detected by human beings who were born with the Jumper gene. These "Jumpers" are in short supply, especially since they generally have to retire after a ten-year career or go permanently insane. Which means the supply of operational FTL starships is in exactly the same short supply.

In the depressing universe of the Warhammer 40,0000 game, FTL starships attempt to fly through that chaotic dimension called Warpspace. Early starships didn't last long since another name for Warpspace is Hell, hideous demons and all. Devils apart, it is almost impossible to navigate in Warpspace due to the raging tides and currents of raw psychic energy. To tame this, the Emperor of Man created the Astronomican. This is a beacon powered by 10,000 specially-selected psykers and directed by the Emperor of Man. On board a starship, special psionic mutants called Navigators can perceive the beacon and use it like a cosmic GPS to guide starships through the fury of Warpspace.

Some science fiction novels take this to the next level, where human beings are actually irreplaceable components of the starship's FTL propulsion.

Of course I personally would be thrilled to have some sort of hand-waved FTL drive that has the side effect of forcing the use of slide rules. I keep trying to come up with one, but so far none my inventions has been free of unwanted side effects. It's hard to think of something that will kill a computer but not the crew.

Late breaking news: Karl Gallagher figured out a plausible reason for forcing slide rule use, which can be found in his Torchship series.

The mass pointer is a big transparent sphere with a number of blue lines radiating from the center. The direction of the line is the direction of a star; its length shows the star’s mass. We wouldn’t need pilots if the mass pointer could be hooked into an autopilot, but it can’t. Dependable as it is, accurate as it is, the mass pointer is a psionic device. It needs a mind to work it. I’d been using mass pointers for so long that those lines were like real stars.

From AT THE CORE by Larry Niven (1966)

Unfortunately, as a Hyperspace-driven vessel accelerates into the fourth-dimension, temporal perturbations occur that "wobble" the vessel off-course. These perturbations must be compensated for if the ship is to arrive at its chosen destination. A computer (such as Space Beagle's Beagle) is unable to adjust the temporal imbalance because time is an aspect of organic awareness and must therefore be adjusted by an organic awareness; in other words, you!

From the manual for QUEST OF THE SPACE BEAGLE by Scott Lamb (1984)

Area of Responsibilities

Like any other living system, a spaceship crew can be analyzed with Living Systems Theory, to discover sources of interesting plot complications.

In other SF, one will find Captains, Pilots, Owners-Aboard, Astrogators, Doctors/Medics, Engineers (propulsion engineers are sometimes called "Jetmen"), sensor officers/radarmen, Cargo-masters (also in charge with negotiating trades), communications-techs, turret-gunners, life-support techs, marines (space-ines?, Espatiers?), cooks (could be a rotating job), and pursers. Maybe a science officer if you have one of those unvirile exploration ships.

Of course if this is a tramp freighter, one person might have to do several jobs at once (wear several "hats"). Often the Captain, the Pilot, and the Astrogator are the same person. Or if things are really tight on the tramp, some of the jobs might be omitted (e.g., don't carry a doctor and hope nobody gets sick/injured and similar insanely dangerous decisions).

For purposes of comparison, here is a list of the crew complement of a World War II LST ship. Interesting jobs you will note are Shipfitter, Motor Machinist and Fireman. The LST has seven officers and 104 enlisted men.

Christopher Weuve has a good description of life on a US Naval vessel here.


(ed note: Ismael Wang is a new crewmember on the commercial cargo-hauling starship Lois. Specialist Three Sandra Belterson is explaining the crew situation. Crewmembers are called "spacers" or "ratings", as opposed to "officers")

      (Sandra said) “So there’s no problem then. Stay and enjoy your life aboard. But let me ask you something. Have you ever wondered why there aren’t any old spacers?”
     (Ismael said) “What do you mean? We have some old spacers aboard the Lois.”
     “Really? Who? And if you look in my direction, buddy, you’re going to be plucking that plate out of your rectal region.”
     “Well, Francis is fifty,” I said while I tried to think of anybody older.
     “How long do you think he’ll live, Ish?
     “One thirty, one forty, maybe,”
     “So fifty makes him old? He’s still in the first half of his life.”
     She had me on that one and she knew it. “Okay, I guess you’re right. But what’s your point?”
     “You consider him an old spacer because you don’t have anybody to compare him to. The only people older are the captain and (First Officer) Mr. Maxwell. Francis is actually still a pretty young man.”
     I thought back to mom’s colleagues at the university and realized she was right. Many of them had been over a hundred and still teaching full-time.
     “There are older people working in the Deep Dark but you don’t find them on ships like the Lois. They run their own mom-and-pop ships. You won’t run across them in a spacer bar and you won’t find them at the Union Hall.”
     “Why is that?”
     “Think about it. If you worked for yourself and have your family around you, why would you go to a spacer bar and get into that whole scene? Why would you look for a new berth?”
     “Oh, indeed. Ish, most people work commercial like this for maybe ten, twenty stanyers (standard years), then they get out. Crew is, ultimately, a dead end job. It’s fun for a while as you found out in Dunsany Roads, but it gets old fast. Eventually you get tired of chasing and want to start building. Brill’s coming up on her ten stanyer mark. I’ve only been doing this for five and I’m already thinking about getting out and settling down myself. I’m not officer material. I just don’t have any interest in that.”
     “Yeah, what about officers? There are a lot of older people doing that.”
     “Officers are different. It’s the difference between labor and management. We’re labor. They’re management. They make a lot more money and have a lot more opportunities. They work very hard for both, but if you’re an officer, you can always get your master’s ticket and get your own ship and run it the way you want to.”

From FULL SHARE by Nathan Lowell (2011)

(ed note: Same as above. This is the crew on a commercial cargo-hauling starship. Crewmembers are called "spacers" or "ratings", as opposed to "officers")

      “Now what’s with the table?”
     “Well, that just struck me odd, Captain. I’ve never been on a ship where officers dined with ratings.”
     “They had two tables on the Hector?
     She shrugged and nodded. “Yes, Skipper, they did.”
     “Small ships have different rules, Ms. Thomas. Organizationally, these ships are a mess. We’re desperately top heavy. They’re just big enough to need a specific officer corps and not big enough to warrant sufficient ratings. That’s why Mr. Wyatt is acting like a commissary man and I’ve (the captain) been cooking meals.”
     “I can see that, Captain.”
     “We, as officers, need to acknowledge the value and contribution of the ratings. None of us gets home alive if we don’t all pull together. That larger table is part of it. It represents something significant–as your reaction to it underscores.”
     She looked down at her hands but nodded. “I can see that, too, Captain.”


For starters, it is a myth that Captains are allowed to perform marriages. Sorry kids, you'll have to find somebody else to marry you.

If the spacecraft has a large enough crew, there will be a First Officer.

Generally the Captain's job has to do with things external to the spacecraft (where the ship is going, what it does when it gets there, etc.) while the First Officer's job has to do with things internal to the ship (ensuring that the crew can and will do their jobs, keeping the ship supplied and in good repair, etc.) The first officer on a small ship is responsible for creating the "watchbill" for all crew members. On a larger ship, the department heads will be responsible for creating the watchbill for their department.

The captain barely paused before giving her answer. Floyd had often admired Tanya Orlova's decisiveness, and had once told her so. In a rare flash of humour, she had replied: 'Woody, a commander can be wrong, but never uncertain.'

From 2010: ODYSSEY TWO by Arthur C. Clarke (1982)


Pilots and helmsmen direct the spacecraft. Pilots might be rated according to the deltaV levels, ship classes, and trajectories that they are qualified to handle. Master Pilots are rated for any and all. The captain give the astrogator the destination. The astrogator plots the course, tells the pilot where to go, and notifies the pilot of navigational hazards.

Pilots direct the spacecraft by controlling the ship's attitude and thrust. If the thrust control is sufficiently complicated, the pilot gives thrust commands to the on-duty engineer, and the engineer controls the thrust. "Sufficiently complicated" usually means there is a fission or fusion reactor involved in the thrust.

On US Naval vessels, the Helmsman controls the ship's attitude and the Lee Helmsman controls the ship's thrust. The bridge officer who currently has the Conn (the Conning Officer) is the only person the Helmsman and Lee Helmesman listen to for orders about the direction of the ship.


The bulk of the engineer's time is taken up by maintenance. Every single piece of equipment and installation has its own maintenance schedule, and it must be inspected, cleaned, serviced, or replaced as per schedule. Sometimes non-engineer crewmembers are assigned some maintenance tasks. A basic preventative maintenance task is simple cleaning. Not only does dirt cause malfunctions, but it also lowers morale.

"Captain Suvuk," Scotty said, sounding very distressed, "wi' all due respects, that's extraordinarily dangerous for two ships of the same model, let alone ones with different engine specs-- "

"-- which we now have," Suvuk said. "Granted, Mr. Scott, but we cannot leave Bloodwing behind, either. Do you wish to speak to your Captain?"

"Not now," Scotty said, "but I will later... Implementing, sir. Scott out."

Suvuk looked at [Captain Kirk] with calm approval. "Sir, have you ever noticed that while we run our ships, our engineers own them?..."

From MY ENEMY, MY ALLY by Diane Duane (1990)

Damage Control

The other critical task of the engineers is damage control, although all crew members have some basic DC training. The focus is on fire-suppression, controlling decompression, and keeping the ship operational. The idea is to stabilize the damage as quick as possible until time allows more permanent repairs.

Belowdecks during a damage control operation the chain of command may shift. The Damage Control Officer (DCO, often but not always the chief engineer) has the authority to yank personnel from whatever department is needed in order to keep the ship operational. The DC officer creates damage control parties, each of which is responsible for a particular section of the spacecraft. The parties get their orders from Damage Control Central (DDC) which is a watch center generally in the hardest-to-damage section of the ship. The parties give progress reports to the DCO so the ship's status can be tracked. The parties utilize the damage control lockers in their assigned section. The crewperson in charge of each party generally is well trained in shipbuilding, firefighting, and team management.

Other Official

Doctors/Medics see to the health of the crew, and treat wounds/diseases. They are never risked on any hazardous non-medical task or possibly dangerous environment. A first-in scout mission on a newly discovered planet could be in deep doo-doo if the doctor takes a stroll and is suddenly eaten by the Giant Trap-Door Spideroid (link trigger warning: spiders).

Sensor officers are the spacecraft's eyes. Cargo-masters deal in cargo and trading. Quartermasters are in charge of ship's stores, and are generally stuck with all the odd jobs that don't fit in any other jurisdiction (e.g., laundry). If the crew is not living off of pre-packaged food ration packs, there may be a cook. Life support techs maintain the breathing mix and temperature of the habitat module, and tend to any CELSS algae reactors or hydroponic farms.

Communication techs are the ship's ears and mouth. They direct incoming messages to the proper departments and send outgoing messages in the proper format to the proper channels. Communication noise must be monitored and auxiliary channels used if required. All messages must be logged. Distress signals are sent to the watch officer, but never responded to without authorization. Responding binds the ship to render assistance, a decision reserved for the captain. John Reiher points out that given the reality of the spartan limitation on a ship's delta-V, there is probably little they could do to render assistance besides helpful advice over the radio. If they tried to match postion and vector they'd use up all their delta-V, so now there are two ships in distress. The best they can do is notify the Orbit Guard.

The communication tech must also maintain the ship's transponder, which broadcasts the ship's ID. The tech may also be responsible for encrypted communications, using the proper keys to encrypt and decrypt, and destroying the code book if the ship is captured by a hostile power.

If the ship is privately owned, the owner might be along for the trip as the "owner-aboard". If the owner is not aboard, they will sometimes appoint a "ship's husband". This is a crewmember who represents the owner, and who manages its expenses and receipts.

The concept of a spacecraft version of a passenger liner or an ocean cruise ship is a little science-fictional for the near future. But if your science fiction universe has such, you will definitly need Stewards to take care of the paying passengers. After all, said passengers are the revenue stream for such spacecraft.


Topper pushed his plug hat down a little. It helped him keep a pokerface. He studied the cards before him. Luch waited for Tulip’s steward to do the math. Elf was not as patient. Furry Freddy from the Inside Strait already had folded and left in disgust to go walkies.

“Fold or meet the wager good sirrah,” Elf  snapped.

“I thought elves were good at waiting,” Topper muttered.

“For something worthwhile, perhaps!” Elf spat. Topper tsked and finally with much flourishing removed his top hat and added it to the pile of clothing. Elf sighed and began removing her left ear. After a moment Luch removed his mask. Rubbing his scalp vigorously, he added his leather mask to the pile.

“Both ears sweetheart,” Luch said.

     The Deck Department and the Steward Departments are two vital sections of a merchant ship. Both do not concern themselves with minor matters such as fuel and courses but dealing with the commodities that actually generate money.

     Not generating money can kill a ship faster than not generating power in some situations. Of course one department has to deal volatiles and other dangers. The other is the Deck Department.

     Stewards must deal with passengers, anyone of which could be a pirate saboteur, indie hijacker, nut case or just plain obnoxious. A good steward is better than an anti-hijacking program. Having a program deny you access is just not the same as a steward toting a shotgun denying you access. (If you doubt this then you never aimed a shotgun at a person or had one aimed at you. I turned around and had one pointed in a guy's general direction by accident in my reckless youth when he surprised me. The irate neighbor got very polite and reasonable with no transition.)

     Most of the time the passengers are just passengers and the worst problem that comes up is jump sickness (and guess what, if you have an understaffed free trader, Mr. Steward becomes Dr. Steward.) Besides cooking the meals for passengers and crews stewards can provide a variety of services: hairstyling, tailor, makeovers, personal trainer, sparring partner among many others.  Scouts with their jack of all trade skills make excellent stewards. 

     Long ago the question was raised, "Shall we provide such services seamlessly, blending into the background? Shall we be ghosts in the sleep cycle and keep the down low?" The stewards on the big liners indeed do just that. They are another all purpose fixture. The big companies insist on standardization, making passengers feel they provide a second home or at least familiar surroundings. Some lines even coax or demand their stewards undergo plastic surgery to better fit a template the line deems the most commonly accepted.

     Free trader stewards call b******t on all that for one reason: tips! They believe the way to tip success is personality! Make them remember you! They invent an in your face persona and run with it, often winning cosplay awards inadvertently. So Topper goes for a steampunk vibe. Elf is an elf (what'd you expect? A hedge troll?). Luch is a luchador. Furry Freddy ... let's not talk about Furry Freddy. Suffice to say, he has his fans. That's enough.

     Passengers on free traders: tramp freighters have no call to demand the comforts and privileges of the big liners (even the low berths have pillows and silk sheets). But they can have a fine show. So the families fortunate to travel together might want to buy passage on the ship with the lovely Elf (who babysits as events allow). The more refined passengers might find Topper to their liking. Luch appeals to those with a sense of humor and eager to have a trained martial artist look out for them (note he also makes the best creme brulee around). Furry Freddy ... has his own clientele.

     Stewards often assume their roles completely. They are on call 24/7 during passages after all. It's easier mentally not to shift gears. It's also a lot of fun. Crews overlook this eccentricity, at least if the Steward is a good one. Ask Sandoval what Luch's real name is or hair color and you'd probably get a blank stare. It's not discussed to the point of being a superstition. If Luch lost his leather mask no one on the crew would look at him. As long as they keep the persona sacred good fortune will be theirs.

     Okay, I'm writing the stories, but they at least figure they'll avoid outright disaster.

     The antithesis of this is the poser. A poser or a faux steward does not develop a persona. They have a whole wardrobe of different clothes and accessories which they will pick and choose from to maximize their appeal for the cultures they are dealing with. The persona school regard them as con artists, and tip whores. To them they are not putting on an act, they are living the life. Being entertaining tip magnets is just a benefit. Besides, how can you play so many roles adequately, maintain them and practice your many other skills?

     Besides entertaining the passengers a good steward will combat boredom and space fatigue in their crews before it even comes up. It's hard to be bored when the crazy Elf woman goes running around the ship shooting arrows at those tetra-crabs you picked up and calls them baby goblins, or Topper figures out a way to shovel coal into the ship's power plant, or Luch wears the Camazotz mask to to the formal dinner, or furry Freddy ... never mind. You get the idea.

     One of the most unforgivable insults is to poach another steward's persona. They have an unofficial record of stewards and their costumes. New stewards are advised to research it before choosing their own style. Poaching will quickly result in other stewards imposing all manner of sanctions on the poacher. They vary with circumstances but siffice to say, you better not try to borrow a cup of sugar from any of them. Violence is not unheard of if the poacher runs into the wrong person. Some stewards have a strong reaction to even similar roles. When Elf heard about Fae she demanded sanctions. The other stewards were undecided so a duel was called. In a masterful show of immersion they had a magical duel with Elf declared the winner when Fae's entire crew came down with food poisoning to various degrees. Most people considered it a coincidence but no one else (not even Luch) has screwed with Elf since. 

     Of course if your steward is playing a wizard or magical type and has psionics, well that's the hat trick. 

From ROLE CALL by Rob Garitta (2017)


There are also "unofficial" jobs onboard. These are colorful characters often found among the enlisted men. Preacher, Loan Shark, Moonshiner, Peddler (the man who always has something to sell, and who can get you anything you want), Bookmaker (place your bets, gentlemen...), Thief, Coward, and Gritch. The latter is the man everyone loves to hate, and the most important character in any small, closed social system.

For standard stereotypical crew characters, refer to the definitive TV Tropes site under the headings Ragtage Bunch of Mistfits, The Squad, and Command Roster.


On whussy exploration ships, in addition to a large number of specialist scientists drawn from various fields, it might be advisable to add a researcher who's job title is "Synthesist". This is a person who can correlate apparently unrelated facts from different areas of science. For example: a Synthesist might notice that a new statistical technique developed by life insurance adjustors to deal with populations of people could be used by astronomers doing surveys of populations of stars. Ordinarily the astronomers would never learn about this technique since they have no area of overlap with life insurance science, but the Synthesist could make that correlation.

There were Synthesists in John Brunner's STAND ON ZANZIBAR, Synthesists in James Hogan's Inherit The Stars, "Nexialists" in A. E. van Vogt's VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE, and members of the Mnemonic Service in Isaac Asimov's "Sucker Bait."


"Mnemonic Service," said Sheffield, patiently. "Emm-enneee- emm-oh-enn-eye-see Service. You don't pronounce the first emm. It's from a Greek word meaning memory."

The captain's eyes narrowed. "He remembers things?"

"Correct, captain. Look, in a way this is my fault. I should have briefed you on this. I would have, too, if the boy hadn't gotten so sick right after the take-off. It drove most other matters out of my mind. Besides, it didn't occur to me that he might be interested in the workings of the ship itself. Space knows why not. He should be interested in everything."

"He should, eh?" The captain looked at the timepiece on the wall. "Brief me now, eh? But no fancy words. Not many of any other kind, either. Time limited."

"It won't take long, I assure you. Now you're a space-going man, captain. How many inhabited worlds would you say there were in the Confederation?"

"Eighty thousand," said the captain, promptly.

"Eighty-three thousand two hundred," said Sheffield. "What do you suppose it takes to run a political organization that size?"

Again the captain did not hesitate. "Computers," he said.

"All right. There's Earth, where half the population works for the government and does nothing but compute and there are computing subcenters on every other world. And even so data gets lost. Every world knows something no other world knows-almost every man. Look at our little group. Vernadsky doesn't know any biology and I don't know enough chemistry to stay alive. There's not one of us can pilot the simplest spacecruiser, except for Fawkes. So we work together, each one supplying the knowledge the others lack.

"Only there's a catch. Not one of us knows exactly which of our own data is meaningful to the other under a given set of circumstances. We can't sit and spout everything we know. So we guess, and sometimes we don't guess right. Two facts, A and B, can go together beautifully sometimes. So Person A, who knows Fact A, says to Person B, who knows Fact B, 'Why didn't you tell me this ten years ago?' and Person B answers, 'I didn't think it was important,' or 'I thought everyone knew that.'"

The captain said, "That's what computers are for."

Sheffield said, "Computers are limited, captain. They have to be asked questions. What's more the questions have to be the kind that can be put into a limited number of symbols. What's more computers are very literal minded. They answer exactly what you ask and not what you have in mind. Sometimes it never occurs to anyone to ask just the right question or feed the computer just the right symbols, and when that happens the computer doesn't volunteer information.

"What we need . . . what all mankind needs . . . is a computer that is nonmechanical; a computer with imagination. There's one like that, captain." The psychologist tapped his temple. "In everyone, captain."

"Maybe," grunted the captain, "but I'll stick to the usual, eh? Kind you punch a button."

"Are you sure? Machines don't have hunches. Did you ever have a hunch?"

"Is this on the point?" The captain looked at the timepiece again.

Sheffield said, "Somewhere inside the human brain is a record of every datum that has impinged upon it. Very little of it is consciously remembered, but all of it is there, and a small association can bring an individual datum back without a person's knowing where it comes from. So you get a 'hunch' or a 'feeling.' Some people are better at it than others. And some can be trained. Some are almost perfect, like Mark Annuncio and a hundred like him. Some day, I hope, there'll be a billion like him, and we'll really have a Mnemonic Service.

"All their lives," Sheffield went on, "they do nothing but read, look, and listen. And train to do that better and more efficiently. It doesn't matter what data they collect. It doesn't have to have obvious sense or obvious significance. It doesn't matter if any man in the Service wants to spend a week going over the records of the space-polo teams of the Canopus Sector for the last century. Any datum may be useful some day. That's the fundamental axiom.

"Every once in a while, one of the Service may correlate across a gap no machine could possibly manage. The machine would fail because no one machine is likely to possess those two pieces of thoroughly unconnected information; or else, if the machine does have it, no man would be insane enough to ask the right question. One good correlation out of the Service can pay for all the money appropriated for it in ten years or more."

From "SUCKER BAIT" by Isaac Asimov (1954)

There was one talent Donald Hogan did possess which the majority of people didn't: the gift of making right guesses. Some mechanism at the back of his mind seemed ceaselessly to be shifting around factors from the surrounding world, hunting for patterns in them, and when such a pattern arose a silent bell would ring inside his skull.

Factors: Washington, the absence of the Dean, the offer of a salary competitive with what he could hope to earn in industry, but for studying, not for working ... There were people, extremely top people, whom specialists tended to refer to disparagingly as dilettanti but who dignified themselves with the title "synthesist", and who spent their entire working lives doing nothing but making cross-references from one enclosed corner of research to another. It seemed like too much to hope for, coming on top of his expectation, moments back, that his grant was to be discontinued. He had to put his hands together to stop them trembling.

"You're talking about synthesis, aren't you?"

"Yes, I'm from the Dilettante Dept—or more officially, from the Office of Research Co-ordination. But I doubt if you have in mind exactly what I'm going to propose. I've seen the graphs of your scholastic career, and I get the impression that you could make yourself into a synthesist if you wanted to badly enough, with or without a doctorate." Dr. Foden leaned back in her chair.

"So the fact that you're still here—griping, but putting up with things—makes me suspect you don't want to badly enough. It'll take a good fat bribe to make you opt for it I think nonetheless you may be honest enough to stay bribed. Tell me, given the chance, what would you do to round out your education?"

Donald stammered over his answer, turning crimson at his own inability to utter crisp, decisive plans. "Well—uh—I guess ... History, particularly recent history; nobody's taught me about anything nearer to home than World War II without loading it full of biased dreck. All the fields which touch on my own, like crystallography and ecology. Not omitting human ecology. And to document that I'd like to delve into the written record of our species, which is now about eight thousand years deep. I ought to learn at least one non-Indo-European language. Then—"

"Stop. You've defined an area of knowledge greater than an individual can cover in a lifetime."

"Not true!" Donald was gathering confidence by the moment. "Of course you can't if you've been taught the way I have, on the basis of memorising facts, but what one ought to learn is how to extract patterns! You don't bother to memorise the literature—you learn to read and keep a shelf of books. You don't memorise log and sine tables; you buy a slide-rule or learn to punch a public computer!" A helpless gesture. "You don't have to know everything. You simply need to know where to find it when necessary.''

Dr. Foden was nodding. "You seem to have the right basic attitude," she acknowledged. "However, I must put on my Mephistopheles hat at this point and explain the conditions that attach to the offer I'm making. First, you'd be required to read and write fluent Yatakangi."

Donald blanched slightly. A friend of his had once started on that language and switched to Mandarin Chinese as an easier alternative. However ...

He shrugged. "I'd be willing to shoot for that," he said.

"And the rest of it I can't tell you until you've been to Washington with me."

Where a man called Colonel—Donald was not told if he had a name of his own—said, "Raise your right hand and repeat after me: 'I Donald Orville Hogan ... do solemnly declare and attest...'"

Donald sighed. Back then, it had seemed like the fulfilment of his wildest dreams. Five mornings a week doing nothing but read, under no compulsion to produce any kind of results—merely requested to mention by mail any association or connection he spotted which he had reason to believe might prove helpful to somebody: advise an astronomer that a market research organisation had a new statistical sampling technique, for instance, or suggest that an entomologist be informed about a new air-pollution problem. It sounded like paradise, especially since his employers not only did not care what he did with the rest of his time but suggested he make his experience as varied as possible to keep himself alert.

From STAND ON ZANZIBAR by John Brunner (1968)

"Folks, we have got something! That's the sixth-order pattern, and thought is in that level! Those were thoughts - Shiro's thoughts."


"How did you work it out?" asked Crane. "You said, yourself, that it might well take lifetimes of research."

"It would, ordinarily. Partly a hunch, partly dumb luck, but mostly a combination of two brains that upon Norlamin would ordinarily never touch the same subject anywhere. Rovol, who knows everything there is to be known about rays, and Drasnik, probably the greatest authority upon the mind that ever lived, both gave me a good share of their knowledge; and the combination turned out to be hot stuff, particularly in connection with this fifth-order keyboard.


"Oh, wonderful-wonderful!" exclaimed Rovol in ecstasy, his transcendental imperturbability broken at last. "Think of it! Our knowledge extended one whole order farther in each direction, both into the small and into the large. Magnificent! And by one brain, and that of a youth. Extraordinary! And we may now traverse universal space in ordinary time, because that brain has harnessed the practically infinite power of cosmic radiation, a power which exhausted the store of uranium carried by Skylark Three in forty hours. Phenomenal! Stupendous!"

"But do not forget that the brain of that youth is a composite of many," said Fodan thoughtfully, "and that in it, among others, were yours and Drasnik's. Seaton himself ascribes to that peculiar combination his successful solution of the problem of the sixth order. You know, of course, that I am in no sense belittling the native power of that brain. I am merely suggesting that perhaps other noteworthy discoveries may be made by superimposing brains in other, but equally widely divergent, fields of thought."

From THE SKYLARK OF VALERON by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1949)

The door he reached at length was broad, of massive bronze, decorated with an intricate bas-relief circuit diagram. Stereoprojection spelled SERENDIPITY, INC. a few centimeters in front.

Well, Falkayn thought, in a free-market economy, if you see a widespread need and can fill it, you get rich fast. Actually, when Old Nick organized his trade pioneer teams, like mine, he set them to doing in a physical way what Serendipity was already doing in its computers.

A certain irony here. Adzel, Chee Lan, and I are supposed to follow up whatever interesting reports our robot probes bring back from hitherto unvisited planets. If we see potentially valuable resources or markets, we report back to van Rijn, very much on the q.t., so he can exploit them before the rest of the League learns they exist. And yet I, the professional serendipitist, have come to Serendipity, Inc., like any hopeful Earth-lubber businessman.

Thea Beldaniel folded her hands in her lap, sat back, and said, "Perhaps, coming from the frontier as you do, Freeman, you don't quite understand the principle on which Serendipity, Inc., works. Let me put it in oversimplified language.

"The problem of information retrieval was solved long ago, through electronic data storage, scanning, coding, and replication. But the problem of information usage continues acute. The perceptual universe of man and other space-traveling species is expanding still more rapidly than the universe of their exploration. Suppose you were a scientist or an artist, with what you believed was a new idea. To what extent has the thought of countless billions of other sophonts, on thousands of known worlds, duplicated your own? What might you learn from them? What might you contribute that is genuinely new? Well, you could ransack libraries and data centers, and get more information on any subject than is generally realized. Too much more! Not only could you not read it all in your lifetime, you could not pick out what was relevant. Still worse is the dilemma of a company planning a mercantile venture. What developments elsewhere in space will collide, compete, conceivably nullify their efforts? Or what positive opportunities are being overlooked, simply because no one can comprehend the total picture?"

"Obvious, of course," she said imperturbably. "And in principle, the answer is likewise obvious. Computers should not merely scan, but sift data. They should identify possible correlations, and test them, with electronic speed and parallel-channel capacity. You might say they should make suggestions. In practice, this was difficult. Technologically, it required a major advance in cybernetics. Besides . . . the members of the League guarded their hard-won knowledge jealously. Why tell anything you knew to your rival? Or to public data centers, and thus indirectly to your rival? Or to a third party who was not your competitor but might well make a deal with your rival—or might decide to diversify his interests and himself become your rival?

"Whether or not you could use a datum, it had cost you something to acquire. You would soon go bankrupt if you made a free gift of every item. And while secrets were traded, negotiations about this were slow and awkward.

"Serendipity, Inc., solved the problem with improved systems—not only better robotics, but a better idea for exchanging knowledge."

Falkayn got a word in fast while she caught up on her breathing. "That makes it to everybody's advantage to consult you on a regular basis. And the more your machines are told during consultations, the better the advice they can give. Uh-huh. That's how you grow."

"It is one mechanism of growth for us," Thea Beldaniel said. "Actually, however, information theft is very minor. Why should Freeman van Rijn not sell us the fact that, say, one of his trading ships happened upon a planet where there is a civilization that creates marvelous sculptures? He is not in the art business to any significant extent. In exchange, he pays a much reduced fee to learn that a crew of hydrogen-breathing explorers have come upon an oxygen-atmosphere planet that produces a new type of wine."

Falkayn leaned back and struggled to relax. Behind that panel, these walls, electrons and quanta hurtled through vacuum; charges and the absence of charges moved through crystal lattices; distorted molecules interacted with magnetic, electric, gravitational, nuclear fields; the machine thought.

The machine dreamed.

He wondered if its functioning was continuous, building immense webs of correlation and inference whether or not a client sat here. Quite probably; and in this manner, it came closer than any other entity to comprehending our corner of the universe. And yet the facts must be too many, the possible interconnections between them uncountable. The fruitful few were buried in that sheer mass. Every major discovery has involved a recognition of such rare meaningful associations. (Between the water level in a bath and the weight of gold; between the pessimism of a small-town parson and the mechanism of organic evolution; between the Worm Ouroboros, that biteth its own tail, and the benzene molecule—) Living creatures like Falkayn, coming from the living cosmos to the cave where this engine dwelt, must be what triggered its real action, made it perceive the significance of what had hitherto looked like another isolated fact.

From SATAN'S WORLD by Poul Anderson (1968)

Working Animals

A working animal is a creature (usually domesticated, but tamed will do) that is kept by people and trained to perform tasks.

Vermin Control

Dogs might have been the first friends of Man, but surely cats were the second. Though generally cats consider human beings to be convenient slaves with opposable thumbs.

Primitive man was a hunter, dogs fit in like a hand in glove. But the problems started with the invention of agriculture. You have to store the grain somewhere, and that somewhere would instantly become the rat's all-you-can-eat grain buffet. Farmers grew livid.

Lucky for the farmers, all the feral cats in the neighborhood would consider the barn to be an all-you-can-eat rat buffet. This was the origin of the farm cat. Good kitty!

Even in the real world many sea-going vessels have a ship's cat to control the rodent infestation. Blasted rats can do major damage to ropes, woodwork, electrical wiring, food supplies, not to mention huge cargo holds full of grain.

In the cargo hold of an interstellar trading starship one will sometimes find a ship's cat (to catch those pesky alien rats). In Andre Norton's Solar Queen novels, she mentions that the ship's cat is trained to present the carcasses of the vermin they kill to the captain. This allows the captain to be aware of what sort of alien rats and cockroaches infested the ship at last planet-fall.

Space engineers may be faced with the daunting task of designing a microgravity cat litterbox that a cat will actually use. Since there do exist some modern-day cats that have been successfully toilet-trained, it is not impossible to imagine a cat trained to use one of those free-fall suction toilets such as are used on the Space Shuttle.

Just don't let a pregnant space cat evolve for three million years or you'll end up with The Cat from Red Dwarf.


Idly, he tugged loose his hair-ribbon and his implanted static charge fanned his hair into a leonine mane, a style popular with his age group in recent years. On Derek it looked better than on most. His strong face,with its broad brow and wide cheekbones, was equally leonine. He tossed the white ribbon away, and it was attacked before it could settle to the deck. A furious furball shot through the air, squalling hatred of anything small, white and moving. The shipcat was nearly spherical, with a flat, wide tail that paddled the air for added velocity. It caught the ribbon with its forepaws and tore at it with needlelike fangs. The cat twisted in air and cushioned its impact against a wall with its hind paws.

“Good move, Carruthers,” Derek said. The shipcat ignored him and batted the wadded ribbon across the chamber, giving it a tiny head start before setting out in pursuit. In the early days of Lunar settlement, white lab rats had escaped and infested first Luna, then all other settlements and ships. They were a mutated stock, unnaturally intelligent, and all attempts to eradicate them had failed. Cats, mankind’s oldest ally in the war with rodents, became the third spacegoing species to spread from Earth. Much research had been devoted to developing a suitable cat box.

From BETWEEN THE STARS by John Maddox Roberts and Yoji Kondo (1988)

But a shadow gliding in the panel to his left brought him out of his absorption. Sinbad, the Queen's cat, leaped gracefully to the top of a case and sat there, regarding the apprentice. Of all the native Terran animals the one which had most easily followed man into space was the feline.

Cats took to acceleration, to free fall, to all the other discomforts of star flight, with such ease that there were some odd legends growing up about their tribe. One was that Domestica Felinus was not really native to Terra, but had descended from the survivors of an early and forgotten invasion and in the star ships he was only returning to his former golden age.

(ed note: I looked up at RocketCat and raised my eyebrow. He just game me a disturbing enigmatic smile.)

But Sinbad and those of his species served a definite purpose on board ship and earned their pay. Pests, not only the rats and mice of Terra, but other and odder creatures from alien worlds, came aboard with cargo, sometimes not to be ordinarily detected for weeks, even months after they had set up housekeeping in the hidden corners of the ship. These were Sinbad's concern. When and where he caught them the crew might never learn, but he presented the bodies of the slain to Van Rycke. And, from all accounts, on past voyages some of the bodies had been very weird indeed!

From SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

      Garver and the skipper momentarily forgot what they were doing and watched Cosmo in his act. It was a welcome break in the monotony. The cat kept it up until he tired, then curled up in a ball about a stanchion to give itself a bath.
     “Cats are fine people,” Vanderhoff remarked, closing the log and lighting a cigarette.
     Garver gave up too and snapped off the viewer. He took the cigarette the skipper offered him. “You know, skipper, that display of Cosmo’s helps prove my theory about cats being an extraterrestrial race.”
     “You don’t think they’re native to Terra?” Vanderhoff asked in bewilderment.
     “Right. Look, they’re too well-adapted to spaceships, free-fall, and changing accelerations. They never get their directions mixed up; they always know which way is ‘down,’ ” Garver explained with a smile. “I think Cosmo’s ancestors either conquered space, or were symbiotes of a race who did.”
     “Tigers and leopards as well?” Vanderhoff asked. “ Same family.”
     “Yeah, but they’re merely mutations of the original strain, Felis domestica," the jetman went on, tongue in cheek.
     “I don’t agree with you,” the skipper said, watching Cosmo give himself a cleaning job. “I will admit they’re perfectly adapted for space travel. Cosmo keeps himself clean and does a good job keeping the ship the same way. Why, I remember once when we lifted from Terra with a load of wheat for Luna. Had rats. Space knows how they got aboard, but Cosmo —”

From ...AND A STAR TO STEER HER BY by Lee Correy aka G. Harry Stine (1953)

Living as we do mostly in space, Free Traders might be expected to have little contact or interest in animals. Long ago all ships carried felines for the protection of the cargo, since they hunted to rout out any pests stowing away. For centuries they were inseparable crew members. But their numbers grew less and less; they did not have as large or as many litters any more. We had forgotten where that animal had originated, so fresh stock could not be obtained to renew the breed. There were still a few at headquarters, highly prized, protected, tended, in hope that the breed might be reinstated. And we had all tried from time to time to replace them with various hunters from many worlds. One or two breeds had promise, but the majority could not adapt to ship life.

Perhaps this desire for companion animals gives us a strong pull toward alien beasts.

From MOON OF THREE RINGS by Andre Norton (1966)

(ed note: the protagonist is suffering from a pathological fear of heights due to a little incident)

He shook his head, then listened. It was real all right. Now he had it identified — a cat, a kitten by the sound of it.

He sat up. Even if he had not had the spaceman’s traditional fondness for cats, he would have investigated. However, he liked cats for themselves, quite aside from their neat shipboard habits, their ready adaptability to changing accelerations, and their usefulness in keeping the ship free of those other creatures that go wherever man goes. So he got up at once and looked for this one…

…In some impossible way the cat was just outside his window, thirty-five stories above the street…

…After a time the sill seemed to steady a bit. He opened his eyes, gasped, and shut them again. Finally he opened them again, being very careful not to look out at the stars, not to look down at the street. He had half expected to find the cat on a balcony outside his room — it seemed the only reasonable explanation. But there was no balcony, no place at all where a cat could reasonably be.

However, the mewing was louder than ever. It seemed to come from directly under him. Slowly he forced his head out, still clinging to the sill, and made himself look down. Under him, about four feet lower than the edge of the window, a narrow ledge ran around the side of the building. Seated on it was a woe-begone ratty-looking kitten. It stared up at him and meowed again.

From ORDEAL IN SPACE by Robert Heinlein (1948)

In the case of Fred the Cat: vermin are a really bad thing to have on a space colony, such as the one Wednesday grows up on in "Iron Sunrise". They chew wiring, potentially causing hideous equipment failures. So it's a good idea to have a self-sustaining vermin control program. It's a waste of human resources to spend working lives on rodent control, especially when cats are available off-the-shelf — but you don't want unmodified cats on a space station, either: you want cats with boosted linguistic abilities and opposable thumbs, so that they can read the warning signs, flush the toilets, and drag their prey to the correct recycling point rather than leaving them to rot in situ. Unfortunately, a sub-culture of semi-intelligent feral cats is also something you don't want on board a space colony ...

Animal Sentinel

This is more than just guard dogs. In his short story "Feathered Friend", Arthur C. Clarke remembers the history of mining, and suggests that a pet canary might be a cheap back-up for an atmosphere monitor. If the bird keels over, grab an oxygen mask and check the life support, pronto! This is an example of an animal sentinel, commonly called "a canary in a coal mine".


     Certainly when I woke up that "morning" it felt like 6:00 A.M. on Earth. I had a nagging headache, and vague memories of fitful, disturbed dreams. It took me ages to undo my bunk straps, and I was still only half awake when I joined the remainder of the duty crew in the mess. Breakfast was unusually quiet, and there was one seat vacant.
     "Where's Sven?" I asked, not very much caring.
     "He's looking for Claribel," someone answered. "Says he can't find her anywhere. She usually wakes him up."
     Before I could retort that she usually woke me up, too, Sven came in through the doorway, and we could see at once that something was wrong. He slowly opened his hand, and there lay a tiny bundle of yellow feathers, with two clenched claws sticking pathetically up into the air.

     "Give her a shot of oxygen," suggested somebody, pointing to the green-banded emergency cylinder in its recess beside the door. Everyone agreed that this was an excellent idea, and Claribel was tucked snugly into a face mask that was large enough to serve as a complete oxygen tent for her.
     To our delighted surprise, she revived at once. Beaming broadly, Sven removed the mask, and she hopped onto his finger. She gave her series of "Come to the cookhouse, boys" trills — then promptly keeled over again.
     "I don't get it," lamented Sven. "What's wrong with her? She's never done this before."
     For the last few minutes, something had been tugging at my memory. My mind seemed to be very sluggish that morning, as if I was still unable to cast off the burden of sleep. I felt that I could do with some of that oxygen — but before I could reach the mask, understanding exploded in my brain. I whirled on the duty engineer and said urgently:
     "Jim! There's something wrong with the air! That's why Claribel's passed out. I've just remembered that miners used to carry canaries down to warn them of gas."
     "Nonsense!" said Jim. "The alarms would have gone off. We've got duplicate circuits, operating independently."
     "Er — the second alarm circuit isn't connected up yet," his assistant reminded him. That shook Jim; he left without a word, while we stood arguing and passing the oxygen bottle around like a pipe of peace.

     He came back ten minutes later with a sheepish expression. It was one of those accidents that couldn't possibly happen; we'd had one of our rare eclipses by Earth's shadow that night; part of the air purifier had frozen up, and the single alarm in the circuit had failed to go off. Half a million dollars' worth of chemical and electronic engineering had let us down completely. Without Claribel, we should soon have been slightly dead.
     So now, if you visit any space station, don't be surprised if you hear an inexplicable snatch of bird song. There's no need to be alarmed: on the contrary, in fact, it will mean that you're being doubly safeguarded, at practically no extra expense.

From "FEATHERED FRIEND" by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1957)

Cleaning System

And in the "practical but disgusting" catagory, you have genetically engineered roaches.


One of the shipboard roaches woke Lindsay by nibbling his eyelashes. With a start of disgust, Lindsay punched it and it scuttled away.

... He shook another roach out of his red-and-silver jumpsuit, where it feasted on flakes of dead skin.

He got into his clothes and looked about the gym room. Two of the Senators were still asleep, their velcro-soled shoes stuck to the walls, their tattooed bodies curled fetally. A roach was sipping sweat from the female senator's neck.

If it weren't for the roaches, the (spacecraft) Red Consensus would eventually smother in a moldy detritus of cast-off skin and built-up layers of sweated and exhaled effluvia. Lysine, alanine, methionine, carbamino compounds, lactic acid, sex pheromones: a constant stream of organic vapors poured invisibly, day and night, from the human body. Roaches were a vital part of the spacecraft ecosystem, cleaning up crumbs of food, licking up grease.

Roaches had haunted spacecraft almost from the beginning, too tough and adaptable to kill. At least now they were well-trained. They were even housebroken, obedient to the chemical lures and controls of the Second Representative. Lindsay still hated them, though, and couldn't watch their grisly swarming and free-fall leaps and clattering flights without a deep conviction that he ought to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.

(ed note: Alistair Young calls those "cleaning roaches")

From SCHISMATRIX PLUS by Bruce Sterling (1996)

Living Tool

Interstellar colonists on planets with little or no infrastruture will favor animals over machines. Tractors require steel mills, petroleum refineries, factories, repairpeople, and spare parts. Horses just require grass and a breeding pair.

Genetically Engineered

In science fiction, things can get a little more interesting. Genetic engineering can enhance the working animal's useful abilities. In Andre Norton's The Beast Master one of the working animals in a galactic commando sabotage group are mutated sand cats. The original species are cute little furry things the size of house cats, the mutants are deadly combat creatures the size of a puma. Mistress Norton's stories also often have such working animals gifted with telepathic communication with their "owners" (in addition to the protagonist).

But things really get tense when the working animals are mutated to increase their intelligence. Yes this makes them more useful, but make one slip and suddenly you have a Rise of the Planet of the Apes situation on your hands. The furry tool turns into a terrible master.

In an Uplift situation, the entire point was to engineer an animal species into a fellow intelligent race. Things are marginally less tense due to the fact that no attempt is being made to keep the animals enslaved. Just indentured.

Florence Ambrose is a Bowman's Wolf, a wolf uplifted by Dr. Bowman in the webcomic Freefall.
From FREEFALL by Mark Stanley

(ed note: Villain Kyger on the planet Kowar has a cover of owning a fancy pet store, catering to the upper crust. Including many important planetary leaders. Kyger sells the VIPs exotic animals from Terra. Little do the purchasers know that the "pets" are secretly genetically engineered to spy and assassinate. Sargon and Sheba are a mated pair of foxes, Simba and Sahiba are a mated pair of cats, Shang is a kinkajou.

But the illegal labs that created the animals did their job a little too well. The animals are more intelligent than they realized. And the animals dislike being enslaved.

Protagonist Troy Horan was hired as a cage-cleaner for Kyger, but unexpectedly finds he can telepathically communicate with the animals. He and the animals form an alliance to escape. The only one who part-way understands how special the animals are is Rerne the Ranger.)

     “You are not of those we know.” That was the black cat. Troy discovered that he could now distinguish one’s thought touch from another’s. The animals had come to be definite and separate personalities to him and closer in companionship because of that very fact. Sometimes he was so certain of a comrade at hand that it was a shock to realize that the mind he could touch was outwardly clothed in fur and was borne by four feet, not two.
     “Few men know our speech — and those must use the caller (device used by Kyger to enslave and communicate with the animals). Yet from the first you could contact us without that. You are a different kind of man.” That was the gray-blue cat.
     “I do not know. You mean that you cannot ‘talk’ to everyone?”
     “True. To the big man we talked — because that was set upon us — just as we had to obey the caller when he used it. But it was not set upon us to talk to you — yet you heard. And you are not one-who-is-to-be-obeyed.”

     Set upon them — did they mean that they had been conditioned to obey orders and “talk” with certain humans?
     “No,” Troy agreed. “I do not know why I hear your ‘talk,’ but I do.”
     “Now that the big man is gone, we are hunted.”
     “That is so.”
     “It is as was told us. We should be hunted if we tried to be free.”
     “We are free,” the black cat interrupted. “We might leave you, man, and you could not find us here unless we willed it so.”
     “That is true.”

     Again the pause, those unblinking stares. The black cat moved. It came to him, its tail erect. Then it sat upon its hind legs. Horan put out his hand diffidently, felt the quick rasp of a rough tongue for an instant on his thumb.
     “There will be a way out.”
     The cat’s head turned toward the fungus town. It stared as intently in that direction as it had toward Troy a moment earlier. And the man was not surprised when out of that unwholesome maze trotted the fox pair, followed by the kinkajou. They came to stand before Troy, the black cat a little to one side, and the man caught little flickers of their unheard speech.
     “Not one-to-be-obeyed — hunts in our paths — will let us walk free — ”
     It was the black cat who continued as spokesman. “We shall hunt your way for you now, man. But we are free to go.”
     “You are free to go. I share my path; I do not order you to walk upon it also.” He searched for phrases to express his acceptance of the bargain they offered and his willingness to be bound by their conditions. (in the wilderness, Troy knows that he needs the help of the animals more than they need his)

(ed note: Troy improvises a trap, which snares forest ranger Rerne.)

     His gaze swept from Troy to a point nearer ground level. Troy follow the path of his eyes. Shang, Simba, Sargon, and Sheba had materialized in their usual noiseless fashion, were seated at their ease inspecting Rerne with that measuring stare Troy could still find disconcerting when it was turned in his direction. Sahiba came limping from the place where he had left her for safety.
     “So — ” Rerne returned the steady-eyed regard of the animals, his expression eager. “These are the present most-wanted criminals of Korwar.”
     “Most wanted, maybe,” — Troy’s voice was soft, cold, one he had never used before to any man outside the Dipple — “but not criminals, Rerne.”
     “You know how they served Kyger?” Rerne asked almost casually.
     “I know.”
     “But you could not have been a part of that — or could you?” That last portion of the question might be one Rerne was asking himself — had been asking himself — for some time. He was studying Troy with a stare almost as unblinking as that Simba could turn upon one.
     “No, I was not a part of Kyger’s schemes, whatever those were. And I did not kill him — if you have any doubts about that. But neither are we criminals.”
     Troy took a step backward to join the half circle of animals. They stood together now, presenting a united front to the ranger. Rerne nodded.
     “I see, it is indeed ‘we’.”…

     …Troy sat back on his heels. Had Rerne been able to tune in on that conversation between Troy and the animals? But he was certain that the animals would have known of such eavesdropping and would have warned him.
     “You communicate with the animals somehow,” Rerne continued. “And now you suspect that I can also.”
     Troy nodded.
     “Mental contact.” That was a stated fact, not a question. “No, I have been guessing only.”…

     …“A truce, until we are out of here,” Rerne suggested. “I am willing to swear knife oath if you wish.”
     Troy shook his head. “Your word, no oaths — if I accept.” He paid that much tribute openly to the ranger. “Truce and a head start for me, with them.”
     “The chase will be up again,” Rerne warned. “You have no chance with the Clans out to quarter the field. Better surrender and let the law decide.”
     “The law?” Troy laughed harshly. “Which law, Hunter Clan right, patrollers’ code, or Zul’s extermination policy? I know we are fair game. No, give me your promise that we can have a start of at least half a day.” (the forest rangers are the law outside of the cities, the police patrollers are the law inside the cities, Zul is part of the local organized crime syndicate who think "dead men tell no tales". Troy is from the slums of the Dipple, who are oppressed by all three)
     “That is freely yours, for what you can make of it, which I am afraid will be very little.”
     “We shall take our chances.”

     “Always we. Why, Horan?” Rerne rubbed his wrists.
     “Men have used animals as tools,” Troy said slowly, trying to fit into words something he did not wholly understand himself. “Now some men, somewhere, have made better tools, tools so good they can turn and cut the maker. But that is not the fault of the tools — that they are no longer tools but — ”
     “Perhaps companions?” Rerne ended for him, his fingers still stroking his ridged flesh, but his eyes very intent on Troy.
     “How did you know?” the younger man was startled into demanding.
     “Let us say that I am also a workman who can admire fine tools, even when they have ceased, as you point out, to be any longer tools.”
     Troy grasped at that hint of sympathy. “You understand — ”
     “Only too well. Most of our breed want tools, not companions. And the age-old fear of man, that he will lose his supremacy, will bring all the hawks and hunters of the galaxy down on your trail, Horan. Do not expect any aid from your own species when it is threatened by powers it cannot and does not want to understand. But you will have your truce — and your head start — and what you do with them is up to you. Now, let us see what we can do about getting a clear road out of here before what prowls over there takes a fancy to come out.” Rerne waved a hand toward the jungle.

From CATSEYE by Andre Norton (1961)

(ed note: Shann is up in the hills over the Survey base on a soon-to-be colonized planet. He is trying to find the two mutated wolverines that were maliciously set free by that rat bastard Thorvald, in an attemp to get Shann fired. Instead, Shann is safe as a Throg invasion force suddenly attacks the Survey base and blows it to Em-See-Squared.)

None of the men below who had been alive only minutes earlier had been close friends of his.  Shann had never known anyone but acquaintances in his short, roving life. Most people had ignored him completely except to give orders, and one or two had been actively malicious—like Garth Thorvald. Shann grimaced at a certain recent memory, and then that grimace faded into wonder. If young Thorvald hadn't purposefully tried to get Shann into trouble by opening the wolverines' cage, Shann wouldn't be here now—alive and safe for a time—he'd have been down there with the others.

The wolverines! For the first time since Shann had heard the crackle of the Throg attack he remembered the reason he had been heading into the hills. Of all the men on the Survey team, Shann Lantee had been the least important. The dirty, tedious clean-up jobs, the dull routines which required no technical training but which had to be performed to keep the camp functioning comfortably, those had been his portion. And he had accepted that status willingly, just to have a chance to be included among Survey personnel. Not that he had the slightest hope of climbing up to even an S-E-Three rating in the service.

Part of those menial activities had been to clean the animal cages. And there Shann Lantee had found something new, something so absorbing that most of the tiring dull labor had ceased to exist except as tasks to finish before he could return to the fascination of the animal runs.

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.

Shann had begun contact by cleaning their cages; he ended captivated by these miniature bears with long bushy tails. And to his unbounded delight the attraction was mutual. Alone to Taggi and Togi he was a person, an important person. Those teeth, which could tear flesh into ragged strips, nipped gently at his fingers. They closed without any pressure on arm, even on nose and chin in what was the ultimate caress of their kind. Since they were escape artists of no mean ability, twice he had had to track and lead them back to camp from forays of their own devising.

From STORM OVER WARLOCK by Andre Norton (1960)

There were four superchimps ("simps") aboard Endeavour, though strictly speaking the name was inaccurate, because the ship’s non-human crew was not based on chimpanzee stock. In zero gravity, a prehensile tail is an enormous advantage, and all attempts to supply these to humans had turned into embarrassing failures. After equally unsatisfactory results with the great apes, the Superchimpanzee Corporation had turned to the monkey kingdom.

Blackie, Blondie, Goldie and Brownie had family trees whose branches included the most intelligent of the Old and New World monkeys, plus synthetic genes that had never existed in nature. Their rearing and education had probably cost as much as that of the average spaceman, and they were worth it. Each weighed less than thirty kilos and consumed only half the food and oxygen of a human being, but each could replace 2.75 men for house-keeping, elementary cooking, tool-carrying and dozens of other routine jobs.

That 2.75 was the Corporation’s claim, based on innumerable time-and-motion studies. The figure, though surprising and frequently challenged, appeared to be accurate, for simps were quite happy to work fifteen hours a day and did not get bored by the most menial and repetitious tasks. So they freed human beings for human work; and on a spaceship, that was a matter of vital importance.

Unlike the monkeys who were their nearest relatives Endeavour’s simps were docile, obedient and uninquisitive. Being cloned, they were also sexless, which eliminated awkward behavioural problems. Carefully house-trained vegetarians, they were very clean and didn’t smell; they would have made perfect pets, except that nobody could possibly have afforded them.

Despite these advantages, having simps on board involved certain problems. They had to have their own quarters — inevitably labelled ‘The Monkey House’. Their little mess-room was always spotless, and was well-equipped with TV, games equipment and programmed teaching machines. To avoid accidents, they were absolutely forbidden — to enter the ship’s technical areas; the entrances to all these were colour-coded in red, and the simps were conditioned so that it was psychologically impossible for them to pass the visual barriers.

There was also a communications problem. Though they had an equivalent IQ of sixty, and could understand several hundred words of English, they were unable to talk. It had proved impossible to give useful vocal chords either to apes or monkeys, and they therefore had to express themselves in sign language.

The basic signs were obvious and easily learned, so that everyone on board ship could understand routine messages. But the only man who could speak fluent Simpish was their handler — Chief Steward McAndrews.

It was a standing joke that Sergeant Ravi McAndrews looked rather like a simp — which was hardly an insult, for with their short, tinted pelts and graceful movements they were very handsome animals. They were also affectionate, and everyone on board had his favourite; Commander Norton’s was the aptly-named Goldie.

But the warm relationship which one could so easily establish with simps created another problem, often used as a powerful argument against their employment in space. Since they could only be trained for routine, low-grade tasks, they were worse than useless in an emergency; they could then be a danger to themselves and to their human companions. In particular, teaching them to use spacesuits had proved impossible, the concepts involved being quite beyond their understanding.

No one liked to talk about it, but everybody knew what had to be done if a hull was breached or the order came to abandon ship. It had happened only once; then the simp handler had carried out his instructions more than adequately. He was found with his charges, killed by the same poison. Thereafter the — job of euthing was transferred to the chief medical officer, who it was felt would have less emotional involvement.

From RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA by Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1973)
Lumenna-Súnáris System
Talentar High Orbit
Liméri Station
Agricultural Torus B

Bícek-Qor-Eleven’s nose quivered. The dried liquid that had left these marks on the floor of the conduit smelled… sweet, and sharp. Not food. Trouble. His trouble. Sniffing, he set off down the line, following it back to its —

The trail ended. Eleven stopped, raised his head, sniffed again. Above. He scampered up the wall, and took a firm grip on a cableway with his tail, metallic skin-threads glistening. His front paws patted the insulation of the pipes, seeking moisture. There. He parted the insulation, pulling it aside, and touched his nose to the pipe surface. Leak.

Eleven pulled the tiny, half-inch canister of repair-spray from his jacket, applied it to the pipe, and listened to it hiss for a moment. He gripped the insulation with his teeth, pulling it back into place, then uncoiled his tail and dropped back to the floor of the conduit.

* * *

Lumenna-Súnáris System
Talentar High Orbit
Liméri Station
Central Operations

“Estrey? Take a look at this. That intermittent coolant leak we couldn’t find in the ag section; it looks like BQ11 just fixed it for us.”

“Well, I’ll be — see he gets some extra cheese at shift-end. Smart rat, that smart-rat.”

From QUIVER by Alistair Young (2015)

Stuff that went on the cutting-room floor included the entire sub-plot about the Final Structures left behind on Earth by the Eschaton (gates or wormholes leading ... somewhere else), the exploration team waiting for one to open so that they could go through them, and of course Fred.

Fred, Wednesday's talking cat sidekick and comic relief.

Non-human sidekicks have a long history in SF, for obvious reasons; there's a whole sub-genre of companion-animal fantasy (most recently skewered mercilessly by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette in A Companion to Wolves). In the Eschaton universe there's a somewhat more clear-headed rationale for the existence of smarter-than-normal animals; they're tools, engineered for a purpose.

In the case of Fred the Cat: vermin are a really bad thing to have on a space colony, such as the one Wednesday grows up on in "Iron Sunrise". They chew wiring, potentially causing hideous equipment failures. So it's a good idea to have a self-sustaining vermin control program. It's a waste of human resources to spend working lives on rodent control, especially when cats are available off-the-shelf — but you don't want unmodified cats on a space station, either: you want cats with boosted linguistic abilities and opposable thumbs, so that they can read the warning signs, flush the toilets, and drag their prey to the correct recycling point rather than leaving them to rot in situ. Unfortunately, a sub-culture of semi-intelligent feral cats is also something you don't want on board a space colony ...



     She was on her feet before she quite realised what was happening. There was a wooden baseball club thing she made in a crafts class, learning to use a lathe on real synthetic wood — she took it, silently but sure in the darkness of her own room. Who's there? Her chest felt tight and her guts bubbled loose. Someone was in the kitchen...She yanked the door open with one hand and palmed the light switch, bringing the club up —
     — And a very large tabby cat looked guiltily at her from the food preparation surface. The cat had a long, well-groomed coat, large paws, and a slightly bulbous forehead; he wore a waistcoat, pockets bulging with small power-tools. In one remarkably humanoid hand, he held a can opener. In the other hand, he clutched a brightly coloured tin with a cartoon picture of a grinning fish on the label.
     "Who the f**k are you and what are you doing here?" she demanded, glaring.
     "Through hole in roof. I'm a cat, me." He clutched the tin protectively. "Food? Eat!"
     The ceiling air duct gaped open: the contents of a drawer lay scattered on the floor below. Wednesday took it all in with a glance. The cat burglars had been getting dangerously smart, stealing survival tools and blinding surveillance cameras — but they were still cats. The beast was probably frightened half out of his mind: she outmassed him ten to one. "You won't get far with that tin," she warned.
     The cat put it down between his hind legs and clutched the can opener in both hands. "Food! Mine! Escape-fear-pounce-jump!" When he became agitated his stream of consciousness sprayed everywhere: his ears folded flat and his tail began to puff up. Then he glanced up at the hole in the ceiling. Morris and Indica couldn't afford a good neighbourhood; the cubic they lived in was under point eight gees and it was nearly two metres straight up to the roof.
     His expression was so worried that Wednesday couldn't hold it in any longer: she laughed aloud. When she stopped the cat was glaring at her aggrievedly. "What you've got there is a tin of spaghetti shapes. Want to tell me what you're doing here?"
     "Food — " He glanced away and licked at the back of one furry hand. "Not me. Was some other cat." Lick lick lick. "Didn't do it. Not see me. Jump-escape."
     While the cat was in denial, a thought occurred to Wednesday. "Someone sent you, didn't they? Who was it? Tell me and I'll get you some real food. Good food, not like that."
     "Me hungry." The cat glanced down at the tin between its feet. She could almost see the gear wheels whirring busily between its ears. "Food?"
     "First tell me who sent you," she repeated.
     "Boy," said the cat reluctantly. He held up the tin opener. "Feed me!"
     "What did the boy tell you to do?" demanded Wednesday.
     The cat reached into its harness, produced a small black bead: an eyebug of some description. "Put in shower," he said. His voice was throaty but not deep, like a human child with laryngitis. "Go back, jump-escape, boy feed me. I'm a good cat!" He paused, then picked up the tin. "Food now?"
     "Not that tin." She put down the baseball bat, opened a cupboard door... "Here." Wednesday found what she was looking for.
     "Meat?" the cat asked suspiciously.
     "Give me the can opener," she said. For a wonder, the cat passed it to her. You could never tell with a cat: they were just smart enough to think everyone else was dumber than them. Wordlessly she wrapped the can opener around the lid and gave it a brief squeeze. The lid lifted free and she passed the container to the cat, who emitted a deep grumbling noise and took it in both hands. "Fork's in the draw below you," she said before he could dig his face in. "This boy. Was he fat?"
     "Eating. Go 'way." The cat chewed as he talked, dripping fragments of fake fish flakes all over the worktop. Wednesday's stomach grumbled. The cat burped and stopped eating for a moment. "Fat boy," he said. "Me smart cat." With a can of ersatz tuna in his hands and an electric screwdriver in his belt he was a lord of infinite space. "Rrrrr. Pig boy. Eat pig?" One ear twitched.
     "I don't think so," Wednesday said drily. She picked up the bug and scrutinized it. "Hmm. Remember to put the duct cover back before you leave," she said and, closing and locking the kitchen door, went back to bed.


(ed note: Honor Harrington and her treecat Nimitz are at an official dinner with the Protetor of Grayson. Understand that treecats are as intelligent as humans, if not more so. A team of assassins dresses as security guards enters to try and kill the Protector. They dismiss the treecat as just a harmless pet. Nimitz's empathic abilities warn him and he teaches the kill-team the error of their ways.)

“On the contrary,” Mayhew said as the dining room door opened and two uniformed Security men stepped into the anteroom-like entry alcove. He glanced up casually as the newcomers walked towards Captain Fox and a second pair followed them into the dining room. “I expect they’ll be highly beneficial, though it may take some of us a while to-”

Fox frowned as the new arrivals approached him, then relaxed as one of them extended a dispatch case. He reached out to take it … and Nimitz suddenly catapulted from his stool with a snarl like tearing canvas.

Honor’s head whipped around as the treecat landed on the back of the Security man closest to her. The guard howled as the treecat’s true-feet sank centimeter-long claws bone-deep into his shoulders, and his howl became a shriek of raw, terrified agony as Nimitz’s uppermost limbs reached around his head and scimitar-clawed fingers buried themselves to the knuckles in his eyes.

Blood and fluids erupted down the shrieking guard’s cheeks, and his hands rose frantically to clutch at his assailant. But his sounds died in a horrible, whistling gurgle as the clawed hand-paws of the treecat’s middle limbs ripped his throat open to the spine.

The dead man crumpled like a felled tree, but the ‘cat was already somersaulting away from him. His rippling snarl rose even higher as he slammed into a second newcomer, all six sets of claws ripping and tearing, and Fox and his men stared at him in horror. They’d been surprised by the length of his sixty-centimeter body when he uncoiled from Honor’s shoulder, but he was narrow and supple as a ferret, and they hadn’t realized he massed over nine kilos of bone and hard muscle. It wasn’t really their fault—Honor had grown so accustomed to his weight over the years that it scarcely even inconvenienced her, and they hadn’t made sufficient allowance for how easily her own Sphinx-bred muscles let her carry him.

Yet whatever their reasoning, they’d dismissed him as a simple pet, without guessing how powerful and well-armed he actually was. Nor had they even suspected his intelligence, and the totally unexpected carnage stunned them. But they were trained bodyguards, responsible for their head of state’s safety, and their hands jerked to their weapons as the beast ran amok.

Captain Fox grabbed the Protector without ceremony, yanking him out of his chair by brute force and throwing him behind him as he went for his own sidearm. Lord Mayhew recoiled as the dead man’s blood splashed the tablecloth and spouted over him, but he, too, reacted with admirable speed. He grabbed both his sisters-in-law, shoved them under the table, and fell across them to protect them with his own body.

Honor saw it all only peripherally. She’d always known Nimitz could feel her emotions, but she’d never knowingly felt his.

This time she did—and as she also felt the emotions of the fresh “Security detachment” through him, she exploded out of her chair. The heel of her hand slammed into the face of the newcomer closest to the Protector, and cartilage crunched horribly as she drove his nose up into his brain—just as his companion dropped the dispatch case, raised his other hand, and fired at pointblank range into Captain Fox’s chest.

The handgun made a whining noise and a sound like an axe sinking into a log, and the Security captain flew backward, his pistol less than half-drawn. His corpse knocked Mayhew to the carpet, and a corner of Honor’s mind cringed as she recognized the sound of an off-world sonic disrupter.

From THE HONOR OF THE QUEEN by David Weber (1993)


Police have had K-9 units for a long time, because they work incredibly well. Their duties include searching for drugs and explosives, searching for lost people, looking for crime scene evidence, and protecting their handlers. Specialized types include sentry and attack dog, search and rescue dog, detection dog or explosive-sniffing dog, arson dogs, and cadaver dogs.

Dog also have an continuing role in the military. Land-mine and booby-trap detection, tracking enemy troops, scouts, sentries, very useful creatures. In the US upon retirement military dogs can be adopted by their former handlers or a new family, providing the lucky owner with a highly skilled pet.

During World War 1 dogs not only acted as standard rescuers and sentries, they also did more uncommon jobs like laying battlefield telephone lines and alerting soldiers if they smelled deadly mustard gas.

World War 1 also used tens of thousands of homing pigeons to relay messages, because they were agile and could fly high enough above the trenches to (mostly) avoid being shot by the enemy. A pigeon named Cher Ami delivered his message despite suffering three gunshot wounds, which saved Battalion 194 (being shelled by friendly fire from allied artillery). The heroic one-legged bird lived for another year before succumbing to his wounds, you can see his taxideried body at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Conditions for soldiers were so horrfic during WWI that many regiments adopted animals as mascots, as sources of consolation, familiarity, and morale. Not just dogs: cats, foxes, raccoon, bear cubs, baby alligators, and even lion cubs. When you are stuck in the middle of a nightmare composed of trench warfare, barbed wire, machine guns, and mustard gas you take your mascot in whatever form it comes in.

In the second World War there were a couple of misguided attempts to use animals to carry bombs to the enemy, neither the anti-tank dogs nor the incindiary bats worked particularly well.

Currently the US (wet) Navy has a program using dolphins and sea lions, locating underwater mines and enemy swimmers. This one is apparently more successful since it is on-going and still classified.

In the classic "The Game of Rat and Dragon" by Cordwainer Smith, cats and humans team up to defend starships from a malevolent life form called "Dragons."


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)

     ‘Hosteen Storm. Rank: Beast Master. Race: Amerindian. Native planet: Terra of Sol —‘...
     ...Of course Storm was a special case — as if they weren’t all special cases. There had been only a handful of his kind. Less than fifty, the Commander understood, had qualified for the duty this young man had performed. And of that fifty very few had survived. That combination of unusual traits of mind that produced a true Beast Master was rare, and they had been expendable men in the last frenzied months before the spectacular collapse of the Xik invaders...
     ...‘Saaaa —‘ That hiss, which was also a summons, was answered eagerly.
     A flapping of wings and talons, which could tear flesh into bloody ribbons, closed on his padded left shoulder as the African Black Eagle that was scouting ‘eyes’ for Sabotage Group Number Four came to rest, sleek head lowered to draw its beak in swift, slight caress along Storm’s brown cheek.
     Paws caught at his breeches as a snorting pair of small warm bodies swarmed up him, treating his body like a tree. Those claws, which uncovered and disrupted enemy installations, caught in the tough fabric of his uniform as he clasped the meerkats in his arms.
     Baku, Ho, and Hing — and last of all — Surra. The eagle was majesty and winged might, great-hearted and regal as her falcon tendencies dictated. The meerkats were merry clowns, good-humoured thieves who loved company. But Surra — Surra was an empress who drew homage as her due.
     Generations before, her breed had been small, yellow-furred sprites in the sandy wastes of the big deserts. Shy cats, with hairy paws, which kept them from sinking into the soft sand of their hunting grounds, with pricked fox ears and fox-sharp faces, possessing the abnormal hearing that was their greatest gift, almost unknown to mankind, they had lived their hidden lives.
     But when the Beast Service had been created — first to provide exploration teams for newly discovered worlds, where the instincts of once wild creatures were a greater aid to mankind than any machine of his own devising — Surra’s ancestors had been studied, crossbred with other types, developed into something far different from their desert roving kin. Surra’s colour was still sand-yellow, her muzzle and ears foxlike, her paws fur sand-shoes. But she was four times the size of her remote forefathers, as large as a puma, and her intelligence was higher even than those who had bred her guessed. Now Storm laid his hand on her head, a caress she graciously permitted.
     To the spectator the ex-Commando might be standing impassively, the meerkats clinging to him, his hand resting lightly on Surra’s round skull, the eagle quiet on his shoulder. But an awareness, which was unuttered, unheard speech, linked him with animals and bird. The breadth of that communication could not be assessed outside a ‘team’, but it forged them into a harmonious whole, which was a weapon if need be, a companionship always...
     ...‘Yes. I don’t think any yoris can beat Surra. Saaaa —‘ He hissed the rallying call and Ho and Hing tumbled into the firelight, climbing over his legs to rear against his chest and pat him lovingly.
     ‘What are they good for?’ Ransford asked. ‘They wear pretty big claws, but they’re small to be fighters —‘
     Storm fondled the grey heads with their bandit masks of black about the alert eyes. ‘These were our saboteurs,’ he replied. “They dig with those claws and uncover things other people would like to keep buried. Brought a lot of interesting trophies back to base, too. They’re born thieves, drag all sorts of loot to their dens. You can imagine what they did to delicate enemy installations in the field —
     Ransford whistled. ‘So that’s what happened when the power for those posts on Saltair failed and our boys were able to cut their way in!’...

From THE BEAST MASTER by Andre Norton (1959)

(ed note: The protagonists are from the Scout service, preparing a new planet for colonists. But an invasion force from the insectoid Throg Empire blasts the scout base and are pursuing the protagonists. The Throgs are using one of their dreaded Throg Hounds as trackers.)

     Behind them, far away but too clear, sounded that eerie howling, topping the sigh of the night wind.
     "I saw—" Thorvald gasped, pausing as if to catch full lungfuls of air to back his words, "they have a 'hound'! That's what you hear."...
     ..."What hound?" the younger man demanded more sharply when there came no immediate answer.
     "The Throgs' tracker. But why did they import one?" Thorvald's puzzlement was plain in his tone. He added a moment later, with some of his usual firmness, "We may be in for bad trouble now. Use of a hound means an attempt to take prisoners—"...
     ...They haven't too many of those hounds, and they don't risk them on petty jobs...
     "Suppose that thing—" Shann pointed upstream with his chin—"follows us? What is it anyway?" "Hound" suggested Terran dog, but he couldn't stretch his imagination to believe in a working co-operation between Throg and any mammal.
     "A rather spectacular combination of toad and lizard, with a few other grisly touches, is about as close as you can get to a general description. And that won't be too accurate, because like the Throgs its remote ancestors must have been of the insect family. If the thing follows us, and I think we can be sure that it will, we'll have to take steps. There is always this advantage—those hounds cannot be controlled from a flyer, and the beetle-heads never take kindly to foot slogging.

From STORM OVER WARLOCK by Andre Norton (1960)

     In the water of the lagoon beyond the reeds something was moving. Nile couldn’t make out details, but it was a very large creature, dirty white in color. As she stared, it sank slowly below the surface and was gone...
     ...In their first campaign the Parahuans had brought a formidable creature along with them which took part effectively in the fighting. It was animalic in behavior, though there was some evidence that it was a gigantic adaptation of the Parahuan life form. Reportedly it had sharp senses, was equally agile on land and in water, and difficult to stop with ordinary weapons.
     What she’d seen out in the lagoon just now was one of those creatures—a Parahuan tarm...
     ...The tarm had been like the tip of a fog bank swirling into sight around a floatwood bole above her. It was rushing by overhead as she dropped, so close that it seemed almost impossible she’d remained unnoticed—close enough, she thought, for one of its pale tentacles to have reached down and plucked her from the air. But it had moved on...

From THE DEMON BREED by James Schmitz (1968)


In a rocketpunk future where there exists civilian and corporate owned spacecraft, a ship owner won't hire a new crew-member if they are unqualified for the job. Crew-members will be "certified" for various positions: pilot, engineer, medic, etc. A spacer will have their certifications in something like a resume. The owner will want to see the resume of all potential hires to filter out unqualified applicants.

Some certifications will have to be kept current with periodic re-testing. This is much like how modern-day people have to periodically renew their drivers license. This is to prove: [a] the spacer still remembers how to do that job and [b] the spacer is up to speed on any new equipment or other innovations that have appeared since their last renewal.


(ed note: Moses is at the spaceport starship crew hiring hall, looking to hire a pilot)

      And it was to the ground floor of Government House that Moses Callahan came, to the offices of the Bureau of Shipping and Mariner’s Hall: two small, aged rooms, all the space deemed necessary to attend to the shore-side end of the thread that linked the worlds. The holograms in Mariner’s Hall parted as he walked through them, looking for the roster of available pilots. Deck crew, engineers, stewards…the listings were thin, shot through with large gaps where blocks of names had been stricken oil. The arrival of the major lines was having its effect. The pool of available independent spacers was draining rapidly as trained men and women anticipated the coming dearth of independent berths and lifted out in the first available spaces. The independents were fleeing Hybreasil. Sometime in the next year or so they would begin to cluster again, on some less prominent world farther out, and the cycle of development and supplantation would recommence, closer to the expanding frontier.

     The pilot’s block was empty—almost.

     There was one name, far down the translucent blue block, on a line with Moses’ knee. He knelt and stared unhappily at the line of pale script. Deacon James Hallorhan—the name meant nothing to Moses, conjured up no face out of the circle of spacers Callahan had met in his twenty-nine years of faring. But he was there on the board, with a valid certification code and a current registration number—and according to the date displayed he had been sitting inport for the last three months, in subsidized Mission lodgings. Moses didn’t have to look up at the master board to check his numbers—there had been one independent and three corporate ships through Hybreasil in those three months, and none of them had seen fit to sign this pilot. That just didn’t happen; everybody needed pilots. They jumped from independent to independent the way fleas jumped from dog to dog, and the bigger corporate-line ships would always sign on a licensed pilot, if only for deep manpower reserve. The turnover was such that a good pilot could write his own ticket and a merely competent one was still assured of a berth on some ship or other. Only the dregs, the incompetents, the druggies, the heavy drinkers, or the bizarros sat grounded for any length of time, particularly on a corporation-served world. Moses wondered what was wrong with this Deacon James Hallorhan—and then he wondered why he bothered to wonder. He was in no position to be fussy.

     He stood and brushed through the holograms to the waiting clerk.
     "I'm Moses Callahan, captain, of the Wild Goose, registered on Og Eirrin. I’d like to meet with Ship’s Pilot Deacon Hallorhan, if he's available, with a view toward his signing articles.”
     “Certainly, Captain,” the clerk said. “I'll have him paged, if you’d care to wait here.”
     “No, that’s all right,” Moses said. “Have him meet me in the lounge, please.”
     “Of course, sir. Anything to get him off our hands.”
     “Oh, wonderful.”

     “Captain Callahan?”
     He was a young man, tall and slightly stooped, with a shock of unruly black hair escaping from under the brim of his crumpled Fleet Issue yard cap. His tunic hung loosely on wide, bony shoulders, its empty folds suggesting that there might once have been more to Deacon Hallorhan than now met the eye.
     He looked as though he hadn’t slept a day in his life.
     “Deacon Hallorhan?” Callahan asked.
     “Deke,” he said, shrugging. “Or Deacon. Whatever. You’re Captain Callahan?”
     “The same. Take a seat.” Callahan signaled for the waiter. “What’ll you have?”
     “Richfield, as long as you’re buying.”
     "You’ve got expensive tastes for someone who’s been grounded for three months.”
     “There isn’t much to spend back pay on in a House flat.”
     “Besides, try drinking the local stuff and you won’t have any taste at all. I think they put the cans inside the beer down here.”
     Moses chuckled. “You’re the second person who’s told me that today.”
     “So consider yourself warned.”
     “Thanks.” Moses’ grin faded. “To business, then. I’m after needing a pilot, Deacon, and Mariner’s Hall shows you as the only one available.”
     “Uh-huh. For the last three months. And that worries you.”
     “Just so.”
     Hallorhan reached into his tunic. “I guess you’ll want to see my book.” He pulled out a slim bound folio, his spacer’s ticket—identification, passport, and job history all in one. No honest spacer ever willingly parted with it, or hesitated to show it to a prospective employer.

     It told Moses nothing he wanted to hear.

     Deacon James Hallorhan, thirty-four, one meter ninety-one centimeters tall, weight ninety-eight kilograms (that had certainly changed), hair black, eyes blue. Served with the Confederate Fleet Arm, Mishima Flotilla, honorably discharged with a small pension, medical reasons, mustered out with the adjusted rank of lieutenant—
     Moses frowned at the book. If it was an honorable discharge, why the pension? Why not a medical discharge? Why the adjusted rank upon mustering out? Moses had never heard of a rank adjusted in the individual’s favor…
     —attended the Merchant Academy of Nova Genoa on veteran’s benefits; picked up his pilot’s ticket there. Nova Genoa had a fine academy. A ticket from NGMA was a plus for any spacer. But—
     “You picked up your ticket after your discharge, Deacon?”
     “That’s right.”
     “What was your occupation with Fleet?”
     “Marine Infantry. The Two-twenty-third.”
     “From Marine Infantry to pilot?”
     “It’s easier on the feet. And I figured the hours would be better.”

     Moses touched the page tab and the infinitely divisible hologram block flickered to display Hallorhan’s employment history: The Amerigo from Nova Genoa to Hansen System, eighteen months aboard. The Datter Mi from Wolkenheim to the Arcadian Worlds, nine months aboard. The Industrious from Peng’s Paradise to the West Star system and Hybreasil.
     And not one ship's master had a negative word to say about Deacon Hallorhan. All his releases were on good terms, his profit shares and salary well within the expected range for a competent pilot. And the reference comments were the same for each ship. “Services Most Acceptable.” “Entirely Competent.” “Performance Entirely Adequate,” Yet for all that acceptability, competence, and adequacy, each ship had let him leave—and that just didn’t ring true.
     Shipmasters simply didn't let go of capable pilots without a fight; they were too valuable. Captains might handle a ship’s profits and losses, and handle the actual FTL transitions themselves; engineers might keep a ship running; stewards might keep a ship’s passengers fat and happy. But pilots got the ships on and off the ground in one piece. If a pilot could find the ground right side up, captains would raise their salaries, fatten their shares, even alter their routes if the pilot was good enough. Yet Industrious, Datter Mi, and Amerigo hadn’t done that. “You’re a perfectly good pilot,” they had said to Deacon Hallorhan, “good-bye.”
     It was wrong. Moses found himself suddenly, intensely suspicious of the bland, approving tone of those brief recommendations. A spacer’s ticket was a permanent record. Faced with that permanence, a great many masters had let go marginal crew in the past with an attitude of saying nothing at all if they couldn’t say anything nice. Moses had fattened more than one ticket in just that manner himself in his day.

     “I'm afraid I’m going to commit a breach of spacer’s etiquette,” Moses said. “Why did you leave Industrious?”
     Hallorhan smiled, without much enthusiasm. “I walked out, Captain, I wasn’t thrown out. Do the details matter?”
     “Maybe they do.”
     Hallorhan nodded, once. “You’re right. That is a breach of etiquette, Captain.”
     “I know it,” Callahan said, “and I wouldn’t ask, usually. But you've got an uncommon book here, Deacon. You go from playing soldier to piloting starships. You’ve got discharge terms I’ve never heard of. And you’ve got three captains here that each say you’re a perfectly good pilot, and each one of them let you go. Now, what kind of captain lets a perfectly good pilot go?”
     “Those three did. Maybe you should ask them that.”
     “And wouldn't it be nice if I could?” Moses said. “But I can’t. So I’m asking you.”
     Hallorhan stood. “I think this was a mistake. Thanks for the beer.”

     “Hold it there,” Callahan said. “I am getting very tired of everybody I meet on this slag heap carrying on as if they haven’t a care in the world when they’re in as deep a hole as I am. Now if I don’t take you on, Deacon, chances are very, very good that there won’t be another independent through here for another six months. This planet’s going corporate-line, and the smart folk are getting out of the way. On top of that, Mission House isn't going to be too happy if you keep hanging around here. They don’t like people setting up housekeeping in House lodgings for life, and if you try to hang on here much longer, they’re just liable to line you up a charity berth on the next scow as comes inport, and see that you get on it. They can do that, you know.”
     “Yeah,” Hallorhan said glumly. “I know they can.”
     “Now, I need a pilot, and you’re the only pilot available, but I’ll be damned if I’ll put you under articles before I’m certain you’re no hazard to my ship. So if you don’t want to answer my question, you go ahead and walk. But if you want a berth on my ship, you will by God talk to me.”
     Moses watched as Hallorhan stared past him, coming to a decision.
     “They’d gone as far as they were going,” he said. “They were going to start back toward Mishima Sector, complete their circuits. I’ve been there, Captain. All I want from Mishima Sector is away.”
     “Old war stories, Lieutenant?”
     “Something like that,” Hallorhan said.
     “Well, that’s nothing I have to know about. So you’ll only work the outbound leg? You’ll out a hell of a piece off your share that way.”
     “The money doesn’t matter. The going does.”

     “All right.” Callahan put out his hand. “You’re under articles, if you want to be.”
     “I want. What are you flying?”
     “The Wild Goose, Dock Nine. She’s a, Wander Bird short-vector tramp, you can’t miss her.”
     “A Wander Bird? That's a pretty well-established class.”
     “Which is your polite way of saying she’s a prehistoric tub.”
     “Hell, no. I’ve seen—and flown—older, Captain.”
     “But not much,” Callahan said.
     “Well, no…”
     “I thought not. She’s an antique, all right. But she’s my antique.”

From THE SHATTERED STARS by Richard S. McEnroe (1984)

      I’d spun out my cash as far as I could by helping in a bar on the port—discovering that what went over with the Bears (humans of sector Ursa Major) failed miserably here—when Lugath turned up.
     Lugath was so unlike the Centaur (humans of sector Centaurus) officers I’d met until then that, had he not been commanding a ship under Centaur registry, I’d hardly have credited his claim to citizenship in this sector. For one thing, he showed harrassment, which Centaurs regarded as undignified. For another, he addressed me as a fellow man. And he came rapidly to the point.
     “They tell me you can handle four-space drivers (starship engines).”
     I produced my certificates. Of course, the fact that they were heavily overstamped with Bear merit endorsements had weighed against me in Centaur space. Still, they were what I had—and they were good.
     I half expected Lugath to curl his lip and walk away on seeing so many Bear stamps. Instead, he merely commented, “You’ve served mostly in Bear space, I see.”
     I shrugged and nodded—as Thoder would have said, to no point.

     She drew back. Peter said sharply, “Are you afraid that we did? Are you a criminal?”
     “No. But as my body has told you, even if my papers do not, I’m a Martian, and we have our own ways of arranging matters.”
     It was a trouble-saver that the screened interrogators had not taken or destroyed my papers. I could have got others easily, but they would have lacked the many merit stamps the Bears had added lately.

From BORN UNDER MARS by John Brunner (1966)

      When the hiring light on the big board lit up, Torwald sauntered toward the office. The man behind the desk was typical of those who worked for the port authorities or spacing companies but never got into space themselves: neat uniform, bored face. Torwald unclipped the gold spacer’s bracelet from his wrist and handed it to the officer, who fed it into his computer console. The bracelet carried his naval and merchant service records—at least the official parts of both. His eyebrows rose fractionally as he read the printout. “There are two Class Ones of the Satsuma Line out there,” he said, “and the Four Planet Line Starvoyager. With your qualifications, I could line you up with a berth in any of them.”
     “Not interested. What about the tramps?”
     “Oh, sorry,” the young officer said affably. “You have a psych problem?”
     “Yeah, I hate stuffed uniforms.”
     “Well, let’s see. There’s the Space Angel. She’s looking for a quartermaster. Captain interviewed all day yesterday and rejected everybody we sent over. Granted, they had ail been rejected by the lines, but that’s getting awfully picky. None of them had your skills, though. I’d say she’s your best bet.”
     “Sounds good. Captain interviewing yet?”
     “In about an hour. I’ll page you when I get the word.”

     When Torwald and Kelly were far forward on the ship, Torwald took a ladder leading to the upper deck. The ladder ended a few paces from the bridge. Torwald knocked at the hatch again.
     “Stand inside,” They entered.
     “So, this is the new boy?” The woman looked Kelly up and down, without expression. “What’s your name?”
     “Kelly, ah, Ma’am.”
     “The proper form of address is Captain or Skipper. There’s also Gertie, but I’ll kick your behind the length of this ship if you ever use it while aboard. On this ship, Skipper is customary. Kelly what? Do you have another name?”
     “No, Ma—Skipper. It was the only name I had when the orphanage picked me up in the refugee camp, so…”
     “Kelly it is, then,” she said, punching some keys on her console. With a click, a thin, flexible gold band extruded from a slot. She took the band and clipped it around Kelly’s right wrist.
     “You are now a spacer aboard the tramp Space Angel. Your rank is Probationary Spaceman, Second Class. Once per ship-month you and the rest of the crew will turn in your bracelets to me to have your record updated.

From SPACE ANGEL by John Maddox Roberts (1979)

      THE LANKY, VERY young man in the ill-fitting Trader’s tunic tried to stretch the cramp out of his long legs. You’d think, Dane Thorson considered the point with a certain amount of irritation, the man who designed these under-surface transcontinental cars would take into mind that there would be tall passengers — not just midgets — using them. Not for the first time he wished that he could have used air transport. But he had only to finger the money belt, too flat about his middle, to remember who and what he was — a recruit new to the Service, without a ship or backer.
     There was his muster pay from Training Pool, and a thin pad of crumpled credit slips which remained from the sale of all those belongings which could not follow him into space. And he had his minimum kit — that was the total sum of his possessions — except for that slender wafer of metal, notched and incised with a code beyond his reading, which would be his passport to what he determined was going to be a brighter future.

     They had come by air — the best was none too good for Artur and his crowd. Why hadn’t they been to the cargo department assignment Psycho before this? Why had they waited the extra hour — or had they spent their last truly free time sightseeing? Surely — Dane knew a little lift of heart at the thought — it couldn’t be that they were dubious about the machine’s answer too?
     But that hope was quenched as he joined them in time to hear Artur expound his favourite theme.
     “The machine impartial! That’s just the comet dust they feed you back at the Pool. Sure, we know the story they set up — that a man has to be fitted by temperament and background to his job, that each ship has to carry a well integrated crew — but that’s all moon gas! When Inter-Solar wants a man, they get him — and no Psycho fits him into their ships if they don’t want him! That’s for the guys who don’t know how to fire the right jets — or haven’t brains enough to look around for good berths. I’m not worrying about being stuck on some starving Free Trader on the fringe — “
     Ricki and Hanlaf were swallowing every word of that. Dane didn’t want to. His belief in the incorruptibility of the Psycho was the one thing he had clung to during the past few weeks when Artur and those like him had strutted about the Pool confident about their speedy transition to the higher levels of Trade.
     He had preferred to believe that the official statements were correct, that a machine, a collection of impulses and relays which could be in no way influenced, decided the fate of all who applied for assignment to off-world ships. He wanted to believe that when he fed his ID plate into the Psycho at the star port here it would make no difference that he was an orphan without kin in the service, that the flatness of his money belt could not turn or twist a decision which would be based only on his knowledge, his past record at the Pool, his temperament and potentialities.
     But doubt had been planted and it was that lack of faith which worked on him now, slowing his pace as they approached the assignment room. On the other hand Dane had no intention of allowing Artur or either of his satellites to guess he was bothered.
     So a stubborn pride pushed him forward to be the first of the four to fit his ID into the waiting slot. His fingers twitched to snatch it back again before it disappeared, but he controlled that impulse and stood aside for Artur.

     The Psycho was nothing but a box, a square of solid metal — or so it looked to the waiting apprentices. And that wait might have been easier, Dane speculated, had they been able to watch the complicated processes inside the bulk, could have seen how those lines and notches incised on their plates were assessed, matched, paired, until a ship now in port and seeking apprentices was found for them.
     Long voyages for small crews sealed into star spacers, with little chance for recreation or amusement, had created many horrible personnel problems in the past. Some tragic cases were now required reading in the “History of Trade” courses at the Pool. Then came the Psycho and through its impersonal selection the right men were sent to the right ships, fitted into the type of work, the type of crew where they could function best with the least friction. No one at the Pool had told them how the Psycho worked — or how it could actually read an ID strip. But when the machine decided, its decision was final and the verdict was recorded — there was no appeal.
     That was what they had been taught, what Dane had always accepted as fact, and how could it be wrong?

     His thoughts were interrupted by a gong note from the machine, one ID strip had been returned, with a new line on its surface. Artur pounced. A moment later his triumph was open.
     “Inter-Solar’s Star Runner. Knew you wouldn’t let the old man down, boy!” He patted the flat top of the Psycho patronizingly. “Didn’t I tell you how it would work for me?”
     Ricki nodded his head eagerly and Hanlaf went so far as to slap Artur on the back. Sands was the magician who had successfully pulled off a trick.
     The next two sounds of the gong came almost together, as the strips clicked in the holder on top of one another. Ricki and Hanlaf scooped them up. There was disappointment on Ricki’s face.
     “Martian-Terran Incorporated — the Venturer,” he read aloud. And Dane noted that the hand with which he tucked his ID into his belt was shaking. Not for Ricki the far stars and big adventures, but a small berth in a crowded planetary service where there was little chance for fame or fortune.
     Hanlaf started to walk away and Ricki was already at the door, as if his assignment had removed him forever from the ranks of those who mattered — when the gong sounded for the fourth time. With a speed the average observer would not have credited to him, Dane moved. His hands flashed under Artur’s fingers and caught the ID before the smaller youth could grab it.

     There was no bright line of a Company insignia on it — Dane’s first glance told him that. Was — was he going to be confined to the system — follow in Ricki’s uninspired wake?
     But, no, there was a star on it right enough — the star which granted him the Galaxy — and by that emblem the name of a ship — not a Company but a ship — the Solar Queen. It took a long instant for that to make sense, though he had never considered himself a slow thinker.
     A ship’s name only — a Free Trader! One of the roving, exploring spacers which plied lanes too dangerous, too new, too lacking in quick profits to attract the Companies. Part of the Trade Service right enough, and the uninitiated thought of them as romantic. But Dane knew a pinched sinking in his middle. Free Trade was almost a dead end for the ambitious. Even the instructors at the Pool had skimmed over that angle in the lectures, as carefully as the students were briefed. Free Trade was too often a gamble with death, with plague, with hostile alien races. You could lose not only your profit and your ship, but your life. And the Free Traders rated close to the bottom of the scale in the Service. Why, even Ricki’s appointment would be hailed by any apprentice as better than this.

     He should have been prepared for Artur’s hand over his shoulder to snatch the ID, for the other’s quick appraisement of his shame.
     “Free Trader!”
     It seemed to Dane that Sands’ voice rang out as loudly as the telacast.
     Ricki paused in his retreat and stared. Hanlaf allowed himself a snicker and Artur laughed.
     “So that’s how your pattern reads, big boy? You’re to be a viking of space — a Columbus of the star lanes — a far rover! How’s your blaster aim, man? And hadn’t you better go back for a refresher in X-Tee contacts? Free Traders don’t see much of civilization, you know. Come on, boys,” he turned to the other two, “we’ve got to treat the Viking to a super-spread meal, he’ll be on con-rations for the rest of his life no doubt.” His grip tightened on Dane’s arm. And, though his captive might easily have twisted free, the prisoner knew that he could better save face and dignity by going along with the plan and bottling down all signs of anger.
     Sure — maybe the Free Traders did not rate so high in the Service, maybe few of them swanked around the big ports as did the Company men. But there had been plenty of fortunes made in the outer reaches and no one could deny that a Free Trader got around. Artur’s attitude set Dane’s inborn stubbornness to finding the good in the future. His spirit had hit bottom during the second when he had read his assignment, now it was rising again.

     Dane found his tongue. “Apprentice-Cargo-Master Thorson come aboard, sir,” again he tendered the ID.
     Captain Jellico caught it up impatiently. “First voyage?”
     Once more Dane was forced to answer in the affirmative. It would have been, he thought bleakly, so much better had he been able to say “tenth”.
     At that moment the blue thing sirened an ear piercing shriek and the Captain swung back in his chair to strike the floor of the cage a resounding slap which bounced its occupant into silence, if not better manners. Then he dropped the ID into the ship’s recorder and punched the button. Dane dared to relax, it was official now, he was signed on as a crew member, he would not be booted off the Queen.

From SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

(ed note: This is for interstellar mercenaries, but they use similar IDs)

      The man before him moved suddenly and Kana hurried to close the gap between them. They were at the enlistment barrier. Kana pulled at the lock on his armlet to have it ready to hand to the Swordtan on duty there. That strip of flexible metal, fed into the record block, would automatically flash on the assignment rolls all the necessary information concerning one Kana Karr, Australian-Malay-Hawaiian, age eighteen and four months, training: basic with X-Tee specialization, previous service: none. And once that went into Hiring there was no turning back. The Swordtan took the band, allowed it to rest on the block for an instant, and handed it back with the lackluster boredom of one condemned to a routine job.
     Within there were plenty of empty seats—Mechs to the left, Archs to the right. Kana slipped into the nearest seat and dared to stare about him. Facing the tiers of seats was the assignment board, already blinking orange signals and, although he knew his number could not possibly come up yet, he felt he must watch that steady stream of calls. Most seemed to be for the Mechs—­sometimes four and five arose together and went through the door at the far end.
     Kana’s attention went back to the board just in time. Three more veterans had arisen on his own side of the hall, and, trailing their numbers, came the familiar combination he had answered to for the past ten years, almost more his name than the one his mixed island ancestry had given him.
     Once through the other door he slackened pace, keeping modestly behind the rankers who had answered the same call. Third Class was Third Class and ranked nobody or nothing—except a cadet still in training. He was the lowest of the low and dared not presume to tread upon the heels of the man who had just stepped onto that lift.
     The other was an Afro-Arab by his features—with maybe a dash of European blood bequeathed by one of the handful of refugees fleeing south during the atomic wars. He was very tall, and the beardless, dark skin of his face was seamed with an old scar. But the loot of many campaigns blazed from his helmet and belts and—Kana squinted against the light to be sure—there were at least half a dozen major notches on his rank sword, although he could not be very far into his thirties.
     They lined up in an upper hallway, the Archs who had responded to that last call. And the veterans presented a brilliant array. Both Arch and Mech who served in the field off Terra were accustomed to carry their personal savings on their bodies. A successful mission meant another jewel added to the belt, or inset in the helmet. A lean season and that could be sold for credits to tide its owner over. It was a simple form of security which served on any planet in the Galaxy.

     It was two minutes after twelve before Kana came inside the assignment officer’s cubby. He was a badge Swordtan, with a plasta-flesh hand which explained his present inactive status. Kana snapped to attention.
     “Kana Karr, Swordsman, Third Class, first enlistment, sir,” he identified himself.
     “No experience”—the plasta-flesh fingers beat an impatient tattoo on the desk top—“but you have X-Tee training. How far did you go?”
     “Fourth level, Alien contact, sir.” Kana was a fraction proud of that. He had been the only one in his training group to reach that level.
     “Fourth level,” the Swordtan repeated. From the tone he was not impressed at all. “Well, that’s something. We’re hiring for Yorke Horde. Police action on the planet Fronn. Usual rates. You embark for Secundus Base tonight, transship from there to Fronn. Voyage about a month. Term of enlistment—duration of action. You may refuse—this is a first choice.” He repeated the last official formula with the weary voice of one who has said it many times before.
     He was allowed two refusals, Kana knew, but to exercise that privilege without good reason gave one a black mark. And police action—while it covered a multitude of different forms of service—was usually an excellent way to get experience.
     “I accept assignment, sir!” He pulled off his armlet for the second time and watched the Swordtan insert it in the block before him, pressing the keys which would enter on that band the terms of his first tour of duty. When he checked out at the end of the enlistment, a star would signify satisfactory service.

From STAR GUARD by Andre Norton (1955).
Collected in Star Soldiers (2001), currently a free eBook in the Baen free library.

The Mission Control Model

In a post to his always insightful blog Rocketpunk Manifesto, Rick Robinson points out how cruel reality has stolen the romance from space crews in general and astrogation in particular. In the classic Tom Corbett Space Cadet books, spacecraft had a pilot, an engineer, and an astrogator for crew. In Robert Heinlein's immortal novel Starman Jones, in the days before a ship reached the FTL jump point, the astrogators worked 24 hours a day, leafing through books of ten place logarithms until the pages fell out and working slide rules until they got hot enough to catch on fire. The only computers they had were hulking brutes that only accepted numeric input in binary via flipping toggle switches on the panel. Certainly nothing resembling a GUI interface with a mouse and keyboard.

But this seems so quaint now. On the high seas, it is considered passé to shoot the sun with a sextant and sweat over a chart with a pair of dividers. Instead you turn on your GPS unit and use your favorite navigation software on your laptop. Unless you are writing a hard-core rocketpunk SF novel, it will be odd to find a slide rule on a starship.

The same goes for most other jobs: much labor will be replaced by automation and computerization.

Rick's solution is brilliant. He notes that current NASA space probes are not navigated by on-board computers. They are navigated by Mission Control. The idea is that the ship is not run by crew members doing things manually. The ship is run by system managers who oversee and command the computers who directly run the ship. This is not quite as nostalgic as the "war movie bomber crew" model of spacecraft crews, but it is far better than a ship with a single button on the control panel labeled "Do Mission".

(note: if you want the precise details of every single control panel in Mission Control, you can find the details here)


(ed note: Asgard and Starman Jones are references to the novel Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein)

Are there other ways out? One way out might be to observe that our current unmanned space probes are not in fact navigated by computers. They are navigated by people, at JPL, who use computers to do a job that would be impossibly complicated without them. Unless you assume semimagical computers (and so far as I can tell, the AI people aren't even much pursuing HAL style quasi-human intelligence any more), Mission Control is going to be around for a long time to come.

So if you're building a large passenger-carrying spaceship anyway, it could make perfectly good sense to put Mission Control, or at least part of it, on board the ship, making it that much less dependent on control facilities at its ports of call — especially since these may not always be up to the very highest standards. This is Romance, after all.

What the control room crew does on watch, however, is probably not just a jazzed up version of the Enterprise bridge crew or the Asgard's worry gang. (Off watch is another matter, humans being humans.) Computers will indeed do nearly all the piloting and navigating in the usual sense — handflying a spaceship is a ding waiting to happen, as the Mir-Progress collision already demonstrated. So what are the people doing?

Oddly enough we are very hazy on that, or at least I am. I imagine much of their duties will involve monitoring and controlling the computers that actually fly the ship — maintaining software and the like, but especially performing tasks such as simming possible future maneuvers. More direct intervention will be called for only in circumstances that fall outside the flight plan, including all precomputed variations. Which is a technical way of saying "story conditions" — because if your story involves the control crew in their professional capacity, it is a pretty good bet that the ship's regular flight plan is about to get nullified.

As for the part that intuition might play in all this, in skills like navigation, intuition is what you fall back on when the problem you need to solve is not in the manual. (Or, as in Starman Jones, when the manual has been disappeared.) It may be worth noting here that computer programming itself is a notoriously intuitive art, filled with what programmers themselves call deep magic — which is why there are still so many rich geeks in Silicon Valley. No one has yet managed to automate software design, and few are holding their breath for it.


Raymond McVay of Blue Max Studios took this idea and ran with it. In a series of blog posts he actually did some research on NASA's mission control with an eye to adapting it to spacecraft crews.

Mission Commander (MCOM)This is the overall director of the entire operation, the big boss. If there are several spacecraft in a task force, there will only be one MCOM as task force commander, aboard the flagship. In other words, not all spacecraft will have an MCOM on board.
Flight Commander (Flight)This is the director of the spacecraft in particular. They supervise all aspects of the ship's preparedness and abilty to perform the mission given by MCOM. This would be the ship's "captain".
Integrated Communications Officer (INCO)This is the supervisor of all exterior and interior communications. They are the bridge between all the spacecraft's computer networks, the ship's personnel, MCOM and Flight. This is partially the equivalent of a Naval vessel's executive officer. INCO is also in charge of administrative details and discipline among the other departments.
Flight Engineer (Chief)The supervisor in charge of all engineering systems. If this is a huge spacecraft or space station, this job might be split into several Flight Engineer positions: power, propulsion, maintenance, etc.
Guidance Procedures Officer (GPO or Guidance)They monitor the navigation of the spacecraft, ensuring that the guidance control software is operating properly, and keeping an eye out for hostile electronic warfare.
Guidance, Navigation and Control Systems Engineer (SYS or System)They are responsible for the guidance, navigation, and control system hardware. This includes flight computers, radar, lidar, flir sensors, attitude jets, and all the connections. They direct repair robots perform spot inspections.
Spacecraft Communications (SCOM)The communicator between the spacecraft and other ships or stations.
ENGINEERING (subordinate to COMMAND)
Propulsion Engineer (Prop)Officer in charge of the entire conventional propulsion system, from propellant to exhaust nozzle. They also keep track of remaining delta V capacity.
Drive Engineer (Drive)Responsible for hand-waving FTL star drive, heat radiators and maintenance on weapons systems.
Electrical Engineer (EE)Responsible for power plant, power plant fuel supply, and electrical systems. They are also responsible for monitoring radiation if the power plant or propulsion system emits any.
LIFE SUPPORT (subordinate to COMMAND)
Environmental Consumables Manager (ECM)This officer ensures that there is enough food, water, heat, and breathing mix to keep the crew alive. Everything from food storage to air vents to water faucets to air scrubbers.
Closed-Ecology Life-Support Systems (CELSS or "Cells")Responsible for the hydroponics and algae tanks, if the ship is equipped with such.
Flight Surgeon (Doc)Medical officer. They deal with disease, injury, ship cleanliness, and radiation.
PAYLOAD (subordinate to COMMAND)
Payload Officer (PLO/Payload)They are actually the weapon officer in charge of firing weapons at hostiles.
Payload Deployment and Retrieval Officer (PDRO or "Padro")In charge of loading and unloading cargo. Robots do all the work. Also in charge of ensuring that the cargo is stored in a balanced manner so the spacecraft does not fall off it's tail.
Maintenance, Mechanical Arms, and Crew Systems Officer (MMACS)Officer oversees the maintenance of all the spacecraft's robots, robotic arms, and associated systems.

Naturally on smaller spacecraft some officers will be responsible for several positions (they will wear more than one "hat"), and some positions will have no human officers.

On larger spacecraft, Raymond thinks that they will have two full mission control teams on board for redundancy. This means six staffers per department instead of three, no officer will wear more than one hat, and all positions will be filled. Raymond figures that if the ship is in a non-combat situation, you'll only need one crew member per department on duty at any given time. This means the normal crew per watch is five. All staffers will be qualified to stand watch for their entire department under normal operations. With low ranking crew members, their main job will be deciding whether to wake up their superior to deal with any sudden situations.

With a full set of 16 filled staff positions, this will boil down to a watch bill with 6 four-hour shifts. Each member of the Command Department functions as Flight Director for their Watch, though only the two Flight Commanders are referred to as "Flight". The INCO is the de facto Executive/1st Officer of a spacecraft, and the Chief is the de facto 2nd Officer. The Watch bill is staggared as well, with Flight 1 directing the first Watch and Flight 2 directing the 4th.

Outside of their four-hour watch, each crew has four to eight hours of specialty work. This boils down to supervising teams of robots and performing spot inspections.

The most important part of a crew member's job — indeed, the entire reason for having an organic crew at all — is to spot potential problems before they happen. Space is an uncaring mistress, many problems are lethal and impossible to fix by the time they actually occur. The two Flights have the task of not only handling the details of their respective commands but also being on the planning staff of the MCOM, along with the Flight Commanders of any auxiliary craft and the commanders of the Espatier attachments.

The watchbill is different under non-normal high-priority combat conditions. Combat ships should be designed with two separate Flight Control Rooms (FCR) spaced widely apart so that a lucky hostile laser strike does not wipe them both out with one bolt (in Star Trek the second room is called the Auxiliary Control Center). During combat both FCRs will be fulled crewed. The FCR crewed by Flight 1 (and MCOM 1 if present) will be the primary control room, Flight 2 and the deputy MCOM will be in the secondary control room. The secondary control will be on standby, ready to immediately assume control if the primary control room is quote "lost" unquote. "Lost" means anything from "the communication lines were cut" to "the room and everbody in it was just vaporized by a casaba howitzer."

During non-combat periods the two control rooms will conduct regular wargames against each other to keep the teams honed and in fighting trim. And of course the MCOMs and Flights will spring drills and suprise inspections on the rest of the crew to keep them on their toes.

Robert Davidoff said:

Something that occurs to me: this is all well and good for a combat ship operating as part of a fleet, but what about cruising stations and a proper watch bill? Flight here appears to have no backup, which means that there will be time when Flight is asleep. In Mission Control, this is not allowed: there are usually at least 3 Flight Directors who trade shifts, and in fact full teams of controllers to do the same at all critical stations. Perhaps with your settings level of computers, not every station is required full-time, with its specific monitoring subsumed into the section lead's duties tempororily or something, but the top of the structure needs a full watch bill, I think.

Three is best, enough for a standard watch bill, and suggests the CO, the XO, and a third officer, possibly selected from the wardroom at the CO's discretion subject to some standards — Flight needs some proficiency on every major area to know accurately what his/her controllers are recommending, and so that if he/she has to over-rule a controller's recommendations, it's an informed decision. Third Flight would be a good learning spot for potential XOs and COs — responsibility, but the decision in the most serious cases would be to wake the CO and XO for a consult.

Robert Davidoff

Control on a Budget

As previously mentioned, things are different on a small spacecraft with limited crew. Please note that Raymond has added an external constraint. On the one hand he wants something logical and plausible. On the other hand he is using this to design a role playing game, where the average number of players is about five but occasionally an even lower number (down to one). This somewhat arbitrary limit is also useful for SF authors in order to keep the number of characters down to a manageable level. Of course in reality each additional crew member does add a sizeable mass-penalty with the body mass and the mass of the consumables they will require. So reality also has motivation to make the number of crew members as small as possible, in order to maximize the amount of mass devoted to payload. Emphasis on the "pay", as in "units of stuff that our clients will pay us money for delivering with our spacecraft."

Raymond examined the crew positions on NASA's Space Shuttle to get an idea of what was required. This is what he came up with:

Flight Commander (FCOM)The Skipper, and maybe emergency pilot. Not to be confused with "Flight" on a spacecraft carrying smaller spacecraft.
Guidance Procedures Officer (Guidance)Primary pilot. Monitors flight computers, does incidental manual maneuvering, and lands the spacecraft during ionization blackout. Also electronic warfare, if this is a military spacecraft.
Flight Engineer (Booster/Chief/Drive)In charge of maintenance, electrical systems, propulsion, and power reactors. Supervises large teams of maintenance drones and robots.
Payload Officer (PLO)In charge of cargo (including proper weight distribution) and weapon systems.
Life-Support Officer (LSO)In charge of consumables, breathing mix, CELSS, toilets, et al. Also the Medic.

The small spacecraft watchbill will have 3 eight-hour Watches staffed by Guidance, PLO and Chief in rotation. Neither the FCOM nor the LSO stand watches; the FCOM is too busy being in charge and the LSO is not qualified.

Robot Crews

So the Mission Control Model demonstrates that a ship mostly crewed with robots and teleoperated drones does make more sense than an all human crew. But having said that, things get a bit more problematic if the spacecraft is a combat spacecraft. That is, a craft that will often suffer random damage from hostile weapons fire. You are going to need very sophisticated robotics or the crew will need to do lots of hands on teleoperating. It is easy for a robot to unplug a malfunctioning module and inserting a new one. It is hard for the robot's AI to figure out how to splice a new cable on the burnt ragged end of the old one and re-routing it around the random jagged hole that just got shot out of the hull.


In principle Defiant was a better ship than she'd been when she left New Chicago. The engineers had automated all routine spacekeeping tasks, and no United Republic spacer needed to do a job that a robot could perform. Like all of New Chicago's ships, and like few of the Imperial Navy's, Defiant was as automated as a merchantman.

Colvin wondered. Merchantmen do not fight battles. A merchant captain need not worry about random holes punched through his hull. He can ignore the risk that any given piece of equipment will be smashed at any instant. He will never have only minutes to keep his ship fighting or see her destroyed in an instant of blinding heat.

No robot could cope with the complexity of decisions damage control could generate, and if there were such a robot it might easily be the first item destroyed in battle. Colvin had been a merchant captain and had seen no reason to object to the Republic's naval policies, but now that he had experience in warship command, he understood why the Imperials automated as little as possible and kept the crew in working routine tasks: washing down corridors and changing air filters, scrubbing pots and inspecting the hull. Imperial crews might grumble about the work, but they were never idle. After six months, Defiant was a better ship, but...

From REFLEX by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (the deleted first chapter of The Mote in God's Eye)

Now that I thought about it, the only two types of space craft in any future Orbital Defense Force that could require an onboard crew would be the command craft and the tender/repair craft.

The needs of a human mind to command the front have already been addressed, however ingenuity of the technicians and engineers would have to be noted. A computer, AI or not, would only know how to repair and with what depending upon what is part of its programming and in some cases where byte budgeting is an issue, the computer will only be able to repair simple, routine tasks that would have been regulated to interns and green enlisted personnel once upon a time. Human crew members, meanwhile, are tasked with the repair of complex, difficult repair tasks that would otherwise be impossible for the computer to think "outside the box" due to software and hardware limitations.

Resupplying a combat craft within a Task Constellation would predominately be within the realm of the computer and its more sophisticated AI kin and overseen by humans if only because the humans can use their brains to solve or counter any problems that could arise such as blockage in the refuel and re-remass lines. An engineer designing the ship class could create a fully automated system to correct blockages, however a problem could be better corrected with onboard crew with (arguably) the same amount of mass and without that many joints and other machinery that must be maintained as well.

One would argue that the boarding craft is also another spacecraft that could potentially require an on board crew, but from what I've been reading, that would only be possible for patrol and law enforcement craft. If a missile or any other drone is unable to get close enough to the hull of an enemy combat spacecraft with adequate defenses, how would a boarding craft?

That Special Breed

In many science fiction novels spacecraft crew are a breed apart.

In the early days of space travel, you will have crew with odd reflexes. They will spill their full glasses of beverages by their habit of just letting go, as if they expected the glass to float in space station free fall instead of plummeting to the ground under Terran gravity.

After a few decades of space travel, you will start to see crew retiring from active duty. You'll be able to tell by how they suffer from Old Astronaut Syndrome.

After a few generations you will see crew that has started to be genetically different from your run-of-the-mill terrans, with changes adapting them better to the space environment. Especially if they have a tendency to marry each other instead of marrying a ground-gripping Terran. And have crew children.

And once relativistic starships become common, you will have crew returning to Terra after a hundred year interstellar trip (coordinate time) but the crew is only ten years older (proper time). Terrans will be bemused at these old fogey starship crew with fashions, slang, and popular culture references a century out of date. Starship crew will experience serious cultural shock, and be all maudlin about all their stay-at-home friends who died so long ago that all the letters have worn off their tombstones. The crew will be tempted to join relatvistic world ships which carry an entire society inside. At least that way cultural shock is avoided, the society travels with the crew and thus changes at the same rate.

Science fiction can get even more extreme.

As previously mentioned in many science fiction stories FTL starships require human pilots and navigators with special human abilities, since these abilities mysteriously cannot be duplicated by computers. Thus giving the science fiction authors a handy way of avoiding Burnside's Zeroth Law of space combat.

In The Starmen of Llyrdis there exists FTL starships. Unfortunately unless you have the starman gene in your chromosomes FTL flight will kill you in seconds.

Some science fiction stories postulate that special human being are the faster-than-light drive. No humans, no starship.

  • In Robert Sheckley's short story Specialist (1953) starships are composite creatures. Many planets are home to "wall" aliens who form the hull, some planets have "atomic engine" aliens who are the normal space propulsion system, some have "eye" aliens who are sensors, some have "network" aliens who plug into the minds of all the components for coordination, and some have food producer aliens. As it turns out, Terra is planet home to "pushers", who are the FTL drives of starships.
  • In the wargame StarForce Alpha Centauri starships are "shifted" instantly across the light-years by teams of women with psionic powers. Such women cannot be created by genetic engineering nor can their abilities be duplicated by machines. This means the only valuable thing on a colony planet is its population size.
  • In the role playing game SPI's Universe, if a starship is at a jump point and it has a functional jump pod, a psionically gifted person with the Psi Naviation skill can instantly "jump" the starship to another star system. The supply of psionic people is again the bottleneck.

Please note the implications of this. If a specific crewperson is also part of the FTL drive, the captain is never going to let that person risk their well-being. Especially if the captain does not have a spare FTL crewperson. They will never have to perform heavy manual labor or do risky EVA repairs. If another crewperson deliberately harms FTL-person the penalty may be death, certainly if it results in the starship being stranded in deep space for all eternity. They probably won't be allowed to go to Star-town for a beer, not if an unexpected bar brawl can give FTL-person a concussion or worse. And there is exactly zero chance that the captain of a Survey ship will even let FTL-person step outside the airlock to walk on an unexplored planet. Remember that the ship's medic is never risked, that goes double for your walking-talking FTL drive. If your doctor is killed on an unexplored planet, the expedition will have to be careful about medical emergencies. If your FTL-person is killed, the survey expedition has just turned into an impromptu interstellar colony because the ship ain't going anywhere.

There will be other implications because conventional mechanical FTL drives do not form labor unions. If FTL-persons are part of a guild, that guild (or whoever controls it) will wield great power. A strike of FTL Union local 23 can bring the economy of a planet to its knees. And if the guild has a monopoly on FTL-persons you will have a full fledged Thalassocracy on your hands. In StarForce Alpha Centauri all the ships on both side of the conflict used FTL-women from the guild, which means all the anti-ship weapons were non-lethal. And the Spacing guild in the DUNE novels was one of the major political powers.

The crews of the starships are funny that way
When they're not on a deck they do not like things quiet
They'll turn first a glass then a whole tavern over
Get thrown in the lockup, confined to the field,
And then, in a rush of filled forms and paid prices,
They exit, all quickly, with nothing to say
Sestina: Midnight stations, Gurps Traveller Starports

In most Space Opera settings space travel is commonplace and routine, but in some settings there are people who spend almost their entire lives in space. These people were born and raised on a starship or space station and can't imagine living on a planet or natural satellite. Often they act as traders, with an extended family owning and operating a ship. Recently, with knowledge of the ill effects of extended periods in space, Spacers are increasingly portrayed as a genetically engineered subspecies that does not experience muscular and skeletal degeneration from zero-gravity, is immune to radiation, has prehensile toes, and so on. In softer settings, however, they may still be portrayed as normal humans who happen to live in space, perhaps thanks to Artificial Gravity. Even if they may be Transhuman, their main reason for living in space is usually cultural: they consider it their own place. Even if they visit planets occasionally, they do not feel particularly attached to them, and may even consider them unpleasant.

If a Fantasy Counterpart Culture, they may be comparable to Romani or other nomadic Earth-cultures. They often makes excellent engineers and pilots. They usually won't have any government beyond clan elders.

Compare Generation Ship, where multiple generations are born and live out their entire lives on board a slow-moving ship headed for a distant planet.

Space Nomads are a common subtrope.

(ed note: see TV Trope page for list of examples)


The man frowned, looking as though he did not believe her, not that it mattered whether he did or not. He and his companion were Habitat-dwellers, or Habbers as they were derisively called. Their ancestors had abandoned Earth centuries ago for the Associated Habitats, the homes they had made for themselves in space, and there were many who believed that, despite their appearance, the Habbers were no longer truly human, that their genetic engineering had far surpassed what Earth allowed among its people. Habbers might have their uses; some of them worked with the scientists and specialists of the Venus Project, and having them ferry settlers from the camps to Venus was certainly a convenience. Changing the orbits of a few asteroids so that they would come nearer to Earth and could be more easily mined had been another service of the Habbers to the home world.

Alonza could grant all of that, but loathed the air of superiority that Habbers exuded, as if the resources they provided and the necessary tasks they voluntarily undertook for Earth’s benefit were little more than crumbs thrown to beggars. She thought then of how the home world must seem to Habbers, with its flooded coastlines, melting ice caps, and an atmosphere that was still too thick with carbon dioxide six centuries after the Resource Wars. They probably thought of themselves as fortunate for having abandoned what they must see as a played-out world populated by deluded die-hards. Even these two Habber pilots had that look of superiority in their eyes, the calm steady gaze of people who seemed to lack any turbulent and upsetting emotions.

From FOLLOW THE SKY by Pamela Sargent (2004)

(ed note: Protagonist Michael Trehearne knew since he was a child that he didn't fit in. He had no idea that his ancestry was not strictly terrestrial. He attempts to trace his family tree and winds up in Brittany. At the festival of Midsummer, he encounters some people who seem to share his ancestry.

As it turns out, they ain't from Terra. Aldebaran, actually.

They are Vardda, a race of star travelers. As a matter of fact, Michael has some Vardda blood in his family tree. The result of a one-night stand near Brittany about a century ago. The thing about Vardda, they alone can survive the stress of FTL starship travel. All other people die hideously in a few minutes.

Has the Vardda strain bred true in Michael Trehearne or not? There is only one way to find out.)

     Trehearne’s throat was strangely tight. He stammered in his speech, finding it difficult to breathe. “Star-flight? An alien race coming and going on Earth—and all this in secret, no one knows of it?”
     Edri laughed. “Oh, billions of people know about it, from Cygnus to Hercules. We Vardda trade openly between the star-worlds of the galaxy for we’ve an unbreakable monopoly on interstellar flight.”
     “You mean you’ve conquered all those stars and worlds?”
     Edri snorted. “That’s your Earth war-obsession talking. War is not only backward, it’s damned unprofitable. We Vardda aren’t conquerors, we’re merchant-adventurers.”
     He added patiently, “It’s this way—there are hundreds of inhabited star-worlds. They’re most of them civilized and proudly independent. We Vardda rule our own world but no other.
     “But we have something the other star-worlds don’t have. We’ve got a monopoly on interstellar travel for certain reasons. We Vardda and we alone can travel and trade between the galaxy’s worlds—the richest monopoly of all time!”

(ed note: And obviously the planet-bound people do not like the Vardda very much. Even the Earth people of Brittany think the Vardda are devil's-spawn, and they don't even know about the Vardda monopoly.)

     “But if you come and go like that, why not openly to Earth?”
     Edri shrugged. “You can’t trade profitably with worlds still in their war-ridden phase. Such worlds we prefer to visit secretly. Your Earth is one of them.”
     Shairn broke in. “It’s true, Michael! We keep Vardda agents here secretly to gather from Earth whatever of value its civilization produces. We’ve done that for several centuries.”

(ed note: The Vardda cannot let Earth know about them. The choice is to either kill Michael, or take him with them on the starship. Michael is glad to go. Because nobody has explained to him that if does not carry the Vardda gene FTL flight will swiftly kill him.)

     Edri asked them earnestly, “What do you think? Is he Vardda or isn’t he?”
     A man shook his head. “You’ll soon find out.”
     A woman, looking soberly at Trehearne, said, “It's cruel to find out that way. But there’s nothing else you can do with him.”
     Muttering an all-but-silent thunder the ship rushed upward into the sky. For the first time in history Earthborn ears listened to the banshee scream of atmosphere past a cleaving hull.
     The weight on Trehearne’s chest seemed as heavy as all Earth but he supported it and breathed and did not black out. His gaze did not waver from Kernel’s.
     The wailing shriek rose to a crescendo and died away.
     Earth was gone. They had stepped away from it. Even its sky was behind them. He was horribly afraid.

     He waited for the pressure to ease. It did not. There was a change now in the pitch of the motor-vibration. It seemed to climb higher and higher in a sort of demoniac frenzy.
     Shairn was bending forward, watching him. Her face was tense, without color. All the Vardda were peering at him now in a sort of climax of halffearful expectation. What was it that they were afraid was going to happen to him?
     The pressure grew and grew.
     He labored to breathe. Something happened to his vision. The faces around him began to waver and grow vague, to recede slowly into a reddish twilight.
     And still the pressure grew.
     Fear became near-panic. Something was happening to him—something unearthly and strange. He was a flier, a test-pilot. He had known pressure before. He had taken all the gravs a power-diving plane could bear and he had never come close to blacking out. But this was different.
     Speed, he thought. Light-years of speed—a long way between stars!

     He felt it in the fibers, the very atoms of his being. The incredible accelerations of interstellar speed were tearing at the separate cells of his flesh, riving them apart, rending the tissues of physical existence.
     He knew that the Vardda still watched him half-fearfully. This is what they were afraid of. They're used to it but I’m not. I’m going to die.
     He thought he heard a voice saying, “Fight, Michael! Fight!”
     “Shairn,” he muttered. The word never got beyond his throat. Because a girl in a white dress had beckoned to him he was going to die in an alien ship between the stars.
     Kerrel settled back. He began to smile. With almost the last of his sight, Trehearne saw that smile. Kerrel knew that he was going to die. And he was glad.
     Kerrel—Shairn—the Vardda—death. Kerrel had known it all along. They all had. That was why the others had looked at him with that half-guilty troubled pity. They had known that he would die.

     Fierce resentment blazed up in him like a sudden fire.
     Shairn with her lying tears. She must have known it would come to this when she had drawn him to the tower. Yet she had done it, coolly gambling with his life.
     Rage shook him. Some buried part of his mind broke free and fury spurred it on. Why must he die? Why should he not live? The Vardda lived and their blood ran in him.
     Anger—anger such as he had never known. He would not die under Kerrel's smiling eyes. He was filled suddenly with a raging determination to survive. He began to fight the pressure.

     He had nothing to fight with but willpower. It seemed a frail thing to pit against the unthinkable powers of velocities such as the men of Earth had never dreamed possible. Reason told him that but he was beyond reason. He fought and it was a strange inner struggle without sound or motion—a blind battle to regain control of his own flesh.
     He fought against the unseen force that sought to destroy the very cohesion of his body cells. Anger flogged him on and the instinctive will to live. He set his muscles and forced himself to breathe and his flagging heart stumbled, steadied and began to beat more evenly.
     He did not understand then what happened. He only knew that strength came to him from somewhere, a strength he had never known he possessed. It was physical strength—not the sort that can move great weights but a more subtle kind, a tensile force that strung his body taut against the terrible vibrations of speed and fought them back.
     He did not understand, not then. But he caught at that unguessed core of strength within him and drew upon it and it was simple, so simple, just a matter of tensing the muscles in a certain way. Suddenly the ghastly sense of his atoms falling apart was gone and the battle he had thought impossible was won. It was easy and he was strong—strong as any Vardda!

     It was then that he came near blacking out from sheer reaction. And he knew the victory had not been easy but very hard. The opening of that buried well of strength had left him paradoxically as weak as a newborn lamb.
     Some deep ancestral wisdom told him that he had been newly born in a way that was still beyond his knowledge. He was a different man now. He would never be the same again.
     He knew now that this was the important thing his body had been designed for—this proud ability to race between the stars.
     Shairn’s voice rang out. “He lives! He lives! I told you he was true Vardda!”

     Shairn said, “It’s quite simple, Michael. Controlled hereditary mutation, altering slightly the form and structure of the body cells so that they have enormous resistance to pressure and vibration. The other races of the galaxy are tied by their human weakness to their own solar systems—only the Vardda have the freedom of the stars!”
     “Then,” said Trehearne, “if the mutation had not bred true in me I would have died.”

     Trehearne took one and lit it. He sat for some time in silence, remembering. He remembered most clearly Kernel’s angry threat. He asked, “What did Kernel mean by Vardda law ? What will they do with me when we reach Llyrdis ?”
     Edri looked worried. “I wish to Heaven I knew.”
     “What can they do? I’m a Vardda. I’ve proved it.”
     “Ye-es,” Edri agreed dubiously. “Actually, you’re all Vardda, a complete atavism. But legally—”

     He began again. “You see, the law Kerrel referred to is a prohibition against admitting non-Vardda strains of any kind. Cross-breeding is forbidden under penalty of death, is the one unbreakable law. Keeping the Vardda blood pure isn’t just pride, it’s an economic necessity.”
     “Then that was true about the mutation?”
     Edri nodded. “It's the foundation upon which the Vardda monopoly is built. No one else can fly at interstellar speeds and live, so we are the only species of Galactic Man, holding the stars in our two hands.”
     “A star-flight monopoly of the galaxy, built on a simple mutation in body-cells!”

     “Yes,” said Edri. “Simple—but fundamental. Tissues having a certain cellular structure possess a tensile strength in their cell-walls that can withstand incredible acceleration-pressure without collapse. You’re lucky that the mutation was a recessive that finally bred true in you.”
     He paused, then added somberly, “So, Trehearne, though actually Vardda, you’re legally not one. It will be up to the Council. I have no influence there but Shairn has some.”

     Trehearne stood for hours in the observation dome. He haunted the bridge, watching the intricate controls, the staggering complexities of astrogation. In the generator rooms he learned by heart the pulse of the ship, listening to the silence of free flight after acceleration was complete. He learned much and yet it was nothing and he was mad for learning, mad to hold under his own hands one of these proud giants of the stars.
     And the Vardda saw and understood his hunger and warmed to him. They accepted him, these gusty eager folk whose pride was as great as their cosmic horizons. He learned the Vardda tongue from Edri and his head spun to the tales he heard then from these mariners of the galaxy, of peril in far-off clusters of suns, of lonely dead stars booming forever dark through darkness with their frozen worlds, of tricky routes through nebulae, of all the thrill and danger that was life to them.

     “But damn it, I’m one of you !” Trehearne said. “They can’t deny that after the ordeal I passed. And why should one more Vardda make a difference?”
     Edri shook his head. “To recognize an Earthborn man as a Vardda? No—it might inspire vain hopes in all the peoples of the Galaxy who are bitterly envious of our monopoly.”
     That was something Trehearne hadn’t thought of. He thought of it, now. “I suppose the non-Vardda do envy your power of interstellar flight.”
     “Would you like to be prisoned in your own solar system and have strangers carrying on all your commerce with other stars?” Edri countered.
     He added, “And there’s more to it than the economic problem. You’re mad over this star-voyaging, Trehearne. I’ve watched you. Well, do you think other men can’t feel the same way? Do you think the young men of all those star-worlds like to see the Vardda starships come and go and know that they can never take that road?”

From THE STARMEN by Leigh Brackett (1952)

(ed note: The protagonists are going to visit a space colony around Saturn populated by a space nation called the Istini.)

"And the Isinti?"

"They haven't isolated themselves. They've been isolated by an almost superstitious fear of the unknown. They're the first people to live entirely in a gravity-free environment. And you know what's been said about that."

Moore had heard the conjecture. The human body had been designed by eons of evolution to function within a gravitational field. Regardless of what had become of the Isinti, it was generally accepted that no Isinti would ever again function within, or even survive within, a gravitational field. The Isinti, unlike the rest of humanity living in space, had utterly and irrevocably cut their bonds with man's biological heritage. For the remaining span of their existence, they would survive only by their skills in providing an artificial environment in the hard vacuum of space.

(ed note: Upon arrival at the colony, the protagonists find themselves in a room. A large video display lights up and they hear the voice of their Istini host.)

     The screen before them danced with white snow on a dark-blue background. Suddenly, the screen came to life. A white line drawing of a naked male figure on a dark background appeared.
     "The form of the human body evolved to function in the Earth environment. The Isinti live within the psyche of Homo sapiens, but our bodies live in new environments. Consciousness must expand to fill previously unconscious roles.
     "Many changes are necessary for a human body to function in a zero-gravity field and utilize inherent advantages fully, most involving body chemistry, internal structure, and functioning of the organs, especially the cardiovascular system. Certain structural modifications were deemed advantageous. First, a smaller overall size."
     The line drawing shrank to half its former size, but the head remained the same, giving the line drawing a childlike appearance with the facial features occupying the lower third of the skull.
     "Next, the elimination of body rigidity and excess muscular development."
     The body thinned down considerably, the arms long and curved with an apparently flexible bone structure, but with proportionately oversized hands and long, slender fingers.
     "The legs, designed primarily for support and locomotion upon a two-dimensional plane within a gravity field, can be entirely reconfigured."
     The drawing changed again. Now, the legs extended perpendicular from the torso, parallel to outstretched arms, the entire pelvis changed. The feet became another pair of hands complete with five long and slender fingers.
     "These changes are on a genetic level. We give live birth to children like ourselves. You have requested to speak with me in person. You are curious and fascinated, but shocked and uncomfortable as well. We seem to have destroyed our natural beauty and denied our human heritage. A deep level of your mind protests the sacrilege that which we have committed upon ourselves, a biological prejudice that cannot be countered by intellectual rationalization. You do not wish to meet me in person. I would not appear to be human to you."

From BATTLEFIELDS OF SILENCE by William Tedford (2007)

If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he's a spaceman.

It is a logical necessity. His profession makes him feel like boss of all creation; when he sets foot dirtside he is slumming among the peasants. As for his sartorial inelegance, a man who is in uniform nine tenths of the time and is more used to deep space than to civilization can hardly be expected to know how to dress properly. He is a sucker for the alleged tailors who swarm around every spaceport peddling "ground outfits."

But I kept my opinion to myself and bought him a drink with my last half-Imperial, considering it an investment, spacemen being the way they are about money. "Hot jets!" I said as we touched glasses. He gave me a quick glance.

That was my initial mistake in dealing with Dak Broadbent. Instead of answering, "Clear space!" or, "Safe grounding!" as he should have, he looked me over and said softly, "A nice sentiment, but to the wrong man. I've never been out."

But my vocal cords lived their own life, wild and free. "Don't give me that, shipmate," I replied. "If you're a ground hog, I'm Mayor of Tycho City. I'll wager you've done more drinking on Mars," I added, noticing the cautious way he lifted his glass, a dead giveaway of low-gravity habits, "than you've ever done on Earth."

"I'll show you," I said. "I'll walk to the door like a ground hog and come back the way you walk. Watch." I did so, making the trip back in a slightly exaggerated version of his walk to allow for his untrained eye — feet sliding softly along the floor as if it were deck plates, weight carried forward and balanced from the hips, hands a trifle forward and clear of the body, ready to grasp.

There are a dozen other details which can't be set down in words; the point is you have to be a spaceman when you do it, with a spaceman's alert body and unconscious balance — you have to live it. A city man blunders along on smooth floors all his life, steady floors with Earth-normal gravity, and will trip over a cigarette paper, like as not. Not so a spaceman.

From DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein (1956)

Example Crews

Eldraeverse Command Roster


(With many thanks to Atomic Rocket and Raymond McVay of Blue Max Studios, whose Mission Control Model I drew upon heavily for inspiration while working out this alternate-style command structure.)

Command Roster: The command roster of an Imperial starship, civilian or military, looks something like this – with variations, as specialized ships require:

(Above this entire structure, potentially, a Mission Commander (Admiral, Commodore, etc.), in charge of a task force of multiple ships.)

Flight Commander: The overall director of the operation, the big boss. In charge of everything.

  1. Flight Executive (Exec)
    In charge of supervising all exterior and interior communications (the bridge between the ship’s Shipboard Information System, the ship’s crew, other ships, and the other departments; the equivalent of a Naval vessel’s executive officer, without their administrative role, which is the responsibility of the Flight Administrator. Since there is only one Flight Commander per ship, the officers in the role of Exec serve as officer of the deck when the FC is not present; other posts tend to have a first, second, and third occupying them.

    1. Spacecraft Communications (Comms)
      Communicator between the spacecraft and other ships or stations; also in charge of tangle communications and cryptography.
    2. Docks and Locks (Locks)
      On ships large enough to have other vessels docking to them and thus requiring the eponymous department, in charge of docking cradles, airlocks, shuttle bays, and the associated requirements in terms of atmosphere management and body shops. If the ship has no dedicated Small Craft Operations officer, also looks after what small craft there are, if any – i.e., carried cutters.
    3. Small Craft Operations (Air)
      On carriers (or megafreighters using the LASH model), in charge of carried interceptors, lighters, and other small craft and their operations.
  2. Flight Director (Flight)
    In overall charge of navigating the ship and engaging in flight operations as the FC and/or exec direct.

    1. Pilot/Sailing Master (Helm)
      Actively pilots the spacecraft, performing maneuvers and managing the attitude control systems.
    2. Astrogation and Guidance (Guidance)
      Navigates the spacecraft, operates the flight computers – and monitors their continued correct operation – and inertial/star tracking platforms, maintains position records, plots courses and orbits, and so forth.
    3. Relativistics (Time)
      Manages the ship’s timebase and maintains the systems that properly compensate for relativistic variation, including maintaining lock on the empire time/wall-clock time differential and other reference frame corrections.
    4. Sensor Operations (Sensory)
      In charge of all non-navigational sensors (and non-navigational uses of the navigational sensors), and maintaining the current picture of near space; this requires considerable creative interpolation to overcome light-lag, which is Sensory’s job.
    5. Tactical/Payload Operations (Guns – even on non-military vessels)
      On military vessels, in charge of weapons and firing them at the enemy; and defenses and using them against incoming fire. On all vessels, in charge of operating any and all modules plugged into the ship and any “active cargo” being carried.
    6. Data Operations (Data)
      In charge of setting up whatever programs or other complex computations the rest of the bridge officers need, ad hoc, critical path management, resource allocation, the ship’s library, etc.
  3. Flight Engineer (Chief)
    In overall charge of all engineering systems.

    1. Propulsion Engineer (Drive)
      In charge of the entire spacecraft propulsion system, from propellant to nacelle, including navigation hardware. Also responsible for tracking remaining Δv capacity.
    2. Power Engineer (Power)
      Responsible for power plant, power plant fuel supply, electrical systems, other power systems, and also monitoring internally-generated radiation if relevant.
    3. Thermal Engineer (Heat)
      In charge of all thermal control systems, including but not limited to heat sinks, radiators, heat pumps, and other thermal transfer systems.
    4. Data Systems Engineer (Comps)
      In charge of the ship’s primary data systems, including the Shipboard Information Service.
    5. Mechanical Arms and Non-Sophont Crew Engineer (Mechs)
      Responsible for the maintenance of all the ship’s robotic arms, robots, cyberswarms, and associated systems.
    6. Sensory and Guidance Systems Engineer (Systems)
      Responsible for all the sensory and guidance systems hardware; flight computers, laser grid, telescopes, radar, star-tracking platform, etc., etc.
    7. Environmental Engineer (Life)
      In overall charge of all life-support systems.

      1. Closed-Ecology Life Support Systems Manager
        Responsible for the environmental systems; heat, air, water, recycling, and the ongoing provision of same.
      2. Galley Manager
        Responsible for the carniculture vats, hydroponic systems, and other on-board food production equipment, as well as the galleys and other means of cooking it, and the slop chest.
    8. Auxiliary Systems Engineer (Aux)
      Responsible for maintenance and upkeep of all other ship’s systems, and general maintenance and stores, including the ship’s locker.
  4. Flight Administrator (Admin)
    In charge of all administrative details, ship’s paperwork, and discipline among the other departments.

    1. Cargomaster (Cargo)
      In charge of loading and unloading cargo; also in charge of ensuring that the cargo is stored in a proper balanced manner, center-of-mass-and-moment-of-inertia-wise.
    2. Purser
      In charge of self-mobile cargo; i.e., passengers and all their foibles.
    3. Flight Surgeon (Doc)
      Medical officer. In charge of dealing with disease, injury, ship’s cleanliness, and environmental radiation.

The usual bridge crew/command conference, in which the posts are filled for each watch, consists of the Captain/Flight Commander, the Flight Executive and his immediate subordinates, the Flight Director and his immediate subordinates, the Flight Engineer, and the Flight Administrator.

Lesser positions may be merged, either with each other or their superior position, on smaller ships. Minimum crew size for anything above a small craft is four; one Captain/Flight Commander, three Flight Directors (one per watch, assuming necessary sleep patterns; only one digisapient FD would be permissible, for example) – if maintenance and operational requirements can be met.

War Movie Bomber Crew

In spacecraft as shown on movies and TV, they often use the "war movie bomber crew" model, also known as "tramp freighter crew" or Ragtag Bunch of Misfits. That is, a crew like a World War II bomber aircraft as depicted in old war movies. This generally takes the form of a crew of half a dozen misfits each with some specialized talent needed for a successful finish to the mission. Rick Robinson calls it the Rocketpunk challenge of specialization. Mr. Robinson points out that on wet navy ships during the Age of Sail the crewmembers were interchangeable. Every able-bodied man could do any of the jobs (except for navigator). But in later vessels in general and in science fiction in specific all crew members are assumed to be specialists.

This is used in media science fiction so often because seeing the equivalent of dysfunctional families fighting each other is very entertaining. Especially if they are simultaneously dodging German soldiers. According to TV Tropes: "Your basic Ragtag Bunch Of Misfits consists of a Hero, a Sidekick, a Big Guy, a Smart Guy, an Old Guy, a Young Guy, and a Funny Guy — But you can call them The Magnificent Seven Samurai."

For more standard stereotypical crew characters, refer to the definitive TV Tropes site under the headings The Squad, and Command Roster.

Andre Norton

In Andre Norton's THE SARGASSO OF SPACE, a small Free Trader class starship has twelve crew members.

  • Control Deck
    • Captain-Pilot
    • Astrogator (badge: Chart) second in command
    • Apprentice astrogator
    • Com-Tech (badge: Lightning bolt) communications officer
  • Engine Deck
    • Chief Engineer (badge: Cog wheel)
    • two Engineers
    • Apprentice Engineer
  • Cargo Deck
    • Cargo Master
    • Cargo apprentice
    • Medic
    • Cook-Stewart
    • And of course the ship's cat

The two he left behind were both apprentices. One bore on his tunic the chart insignia of an astrogator-to-be and the other an engineer's cogwheel. It was the latter who caught and held Dane's gaze.

Dane's head snapped up. Was this to be more of Artur's pleasantries? But now he was looking at the open face of the astrogator-apprentice from the neighbouring table. He lost part of his bristling antagonism.

"Just been assigned to her." He passed his ID across to the other.

"Dane Thorson," the other read aloud. "I am Rip Shannon — Ripley Shannon if you wish to be formal. And," he beckoned to the Video hero, "this is Ali Kamil. We are both of the Queen. You are a cargo-apprentice," he ended with a statement rather than a question.

Compared to the big super ships of the Companies the Solar Queen was a negligible midget. She carried a crew of twelve, and each man was necessarily responsible for more than one set of duties — there were no air tight compartments of specialization aboard a Free Trader spacer.

They were space borne before Dane met the other members of the crew. In addition to Captain Jellico, the control station was manned by Steen Wilcox, a lean Scot in his early thirties who had served a hitch in the Galactic Survey before going into Trade, and now held a full rating as Astrogator. Then there was the Martian Com-Tech — Tang Ya — and Rip, the apprentice.

The engine-room section was an equal number, consisting of the Chief, Johan Stotz, a silent young man who appeared to have little interest save his engines (Dane gathered from Rip's scraps of information that Stotz was in his way a mechanical genius who could have had much better berths than the ageing Queen, but chose to stay with the challenge she offered), and his apprentice — the immaculate, almost foppish Kamil. But, Dane soon knew, the Queen carried no dead weight and Kamil must — in spite of his airs and graces — be able to meet the exacting standards such a Chief as Stotz could set. The engine room staff was rounded out by a giant-dwarf combination startling to see.

Karl Kosti was a lumbering bear of a man, almost bovine, but as alert to his duties with the jets as a piece of perfectly working machinery. While around him buzzed his opposite number, a fly about a bull, the small Jasper Weeks, his thin face pallid with that bleach produced on Venus, a pallor not even the rays of space could colour to a natural brown.

Dane's own fellows housed on the cargo level were a varied lot. There was Van Rycke himself, a superior so competent when it came to the matters of his own section that he might have been a computer. He kept Dane in a permanent state of awe. There appeared to be nothing concerning the fine points of Free Trade Van Rycke had ever missed hearing or learning, and, having once added any fact to his prodigious store of memories, it was embedded forever, but he had his soft spot, his enduring pride that as a Van Rycke he was one of a line stretching far back into the dim past when ships only plied the waters of a single planet, coming of a family which had been in Trade from the days of sails to the days of stars.

Two others who were partly of the cargo world shared this section. The Medic, Craig Tau, and the Cook-Steward Frank Mura. Tau Dane met in the course of working hours now and then, but Mura kept so closely to his own quarters and labours that they seldom saw much of him.

From SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

Normally a spacer of the Free Trader class would carry — Charis reckoned what she did know about such ships — normally a captain, cargomaster, assistant pilot-navigator, (com-tech,) engineer and his assistant, a jet man, a medico, a cook — perhaps an assistant cargomaster. But that was a fully staffed ship, not a fringe tramp. She thought there had been four men on board beside Jagan...

They were too far from the spy post for their features to be distinguished, but while they wore uniforms of a similar cut to those at the post, Charis had never seen these before. The black and silver of Patrol, the green-brown of Survey, the gray and red of the Medical service, the blue of Administration, the plain green of the Rangers, the maroon of Education — she could identify those at a glance. But these were a light yellow.

From ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE by Andre Norton (1964)

Space Angel


The rest of the crew was gathered around a big rectangular table, drinking coffee and tea. Torwald found a vacant seat and sat down. After hesitating self-consciously, Kelly did the same. Torwald opened the conversation: "Torwald Raffen, quartermaster. This is Kelly, new ship's boy. Call me Tor."

"Ham Sylvester," offered a great black gorilla of a man at one end of the table. The other end, the captain's seat, was unoccupied. "I'm mate and ship's husband." This last was an ancient rank still sometimes used on old ships. Sylvester's smile looked like a piano keyboard. He gestured toward a stunning woman on his left. "This is Michelle LeBlanc, med officer and cook." She smiled radiantly. Kelly could see that Torwald was hooked already.

"Achmed Mohammed, chief engineer and pilot of our atmospheric craft." This was from the little man with the big mustache who had been at the top of the gangway when they boarded. He gestured toward a rather chubby red-headed boy a year or two older than Kelly, who sat next to him. "This is Lafayette Rabinowitz, my assistant."

"Finn Cavanaugh, navigator and distiller," said a tall, black-haired and dark-eyed man who sat next to Lafayette.

"Bertrand Sims," an elderly white-haired man next to Finn announced. "I am supercargo, accountant, and philosopher. The exotic beauty seated across from me is Nancy Wu, officer of Communications and Hydroponics and sometime specialist in alien botany." Petite, raven-haired, and almond-eyed, Nancy seemed far too young to be a ship's officer.

"Does everybody double up on duties here?" asked Torwald.

"Usually," Ham replied. "We're a multitalented bunch. Michelle's a zoologist, Finn's a chemist, I'm a heavy-weapons specialist, Bert knows history, Nancy plays the violin, and Achmed's a holographer. What do you do besides what you signed on for (quartermaster), Torwald?"

"Should I tell you? I'll get roped into a lot of stuff that's outside my duties."

"That's for sure," Ham said blandly. "But you might as well own up to it now. We'll find out eventually."

"Well, just about everything. I was on solo, two and three-man scoutships for most of the War. That took training in just about every ship's position. I'm good at reconnaissance and charting, I know a little geology, and I can handle mining and quarrying. I can pilot atmospheric craft and small watercraft. I can handle light weapons and explosives."

From SPACE ANGEL by John Maddox Roberts (1979)


In the game GURPS: Traveller Starships are the following rules for the size of spacecraft crews.

For spacecraft under 140,000 cubic meters.

Basic Bridge jobs: Captain, Pilot, Navigator, Sensor Operator/Officer, Communication Operator/Officer. In many cases one person will fill several of the jobs.

Command Bridge jobs: all the Basic Bridge jobs, plus one to three extra sensor operators, one to three extra communication officers, a computer officer, and a science fictional defensive force field officer.

Sickbay: two medics for the first sickbay, at least one for each additional sickbay, one sickbay per 120 passenger staterooms.

Engineering: about one Engineer for each 500 cubic meters of propulsion system.

Weapons: one gunner per weapon turret.

Cargo: one cargo master (may be another job taken by the Captain).

Passenger Staterooms: One master steward. One additional steward per 50 middle class passengers and one per 20 high class passengers.

For spacecraft over 140,000 cubic meters. These numbers are averages, military vessels will have larger crews to allow for multiple shifts.

Command Section: Commanding officer, Executive officer, two Navigation officers, Communication officer, as support personnel a number of rating crewmen equal to 50% of the number of officers. On ships over 3,000,000 cubic meters the number of personnel in command section should be about five per 1,400,000 cubic meters.

Engineering Section: about one Engineer for each 500 cubic meters of propulsion system.

Gunnery Section: One chief gunnery officer. One petty officer for each kind of weapon the ship is armed with. For "spinal" weapons (where the ship's spine is composed of one huge weapon) one crew man per 14,000 cubic meters. Each weapon "bay" requires two crew men, each battery of turrets requires one crew man. The total crew complement in gunnery section will be about 10% officers, 30% petty officers, and 60% crew men.

Medical Section: One chief medical officer. One full time medic or assistant per 50 people on board.

Service Section: For shops, storage, security, food service, etc. If there are no troops, 3 service crew per 140,000 cubic meters or 100 other crew, whichever is larger. If the ship carries troops, 2 service crew per 140,000 cubic meters or 100 other crew, whichever is larger. A luxury liner will have even more service crew.

Troop Section: Military vessels over 140,000 cubic meters will have "marines" (space-ines?). The number will range from 3 per 140,000 cubic meters to 3 per 14,00 cubic meters.

Specialist Section: Cargo specialists, science crew, intelligence officers, liaison officers, electronic warfare officers, etc. As needed.

Stranger In A Strange Land

Robert Heinlein's Stranger In A Strange Land suggested these crew skills as a minimal list for an interplanetary exploration spacecraft:

  • astrogator
  • medical doctor
  • cook
  • machinist
  • ship's commander
  • semantician
  • chemical engineer
  • electronics engineer
  • physicist
  • geologist
  • biochemist
  • atomics engineer
  • photographer
  • hydroponicist
  • rocket engineer

In the novel the ship could only carry a maximum of eight crewmembers, so each person filled a minimum of three of these jobs, and most of them did four or more.

2010: Odyssey Two

In Sir Arthur C. Clarke's 2010, they had these crew positions:

Engineering-PropulsionCaptain Tatiana Orlova
Navigation-AstronomyDr Vasili Orlov
Engineering-StructuresDr Maxim Brailovsky
Engineering-CommunicationsDr Alexander Kovalev
Engineering-Control SystemsDr Nikolai Ternovsky
Medical-Life-SupportSurgeon-Commander Katerina Rudenko
Medical-NutritionDr Irma Yakunina

Aeronutronic EMPIRE

Young People's Science Encyclopedia

The Young People's Science Encyclopedia, vol 17 Sp-Su, suggest these crew positions:

Crew composition for interplanetary flights
ProfessionSpecializationPrimary Professional ResponsibilityOrganizational Responsibility
Pilot & EngineerMechanical & NuclearOverall vehicle systems, propulsionCommand of spacecraft
Pilot & EngineerElectronicsGuidance, control, navigation on board electronic computer systemFirst deputy commander
Pilot & EngineerElectrical & nuclearAll electrical systems, cable systems, converters, generators, auxiliary power supplySecond deputy commander
Pilot & EngineerNuclearPropulsion specialistSpecialist
Pilot & EngineerMechanicalAll mechanical subsystemsSpecialist
Pilot & EngineerElectronicsInstrumentation communications, robot systemsSpecialist
Pilot & PhysicianMedicine, Dentistry, Psychiatry, Radiology, Biology, Medical technologyBiotechnical life support systems, food and sanitary control, health and morale of crewMedical officer
Crew composition for Terra-Luna flight
ProfessionSpecializationPrimary Professional ResponsibilityOrganizational Responsibility
Pilot & EngineerMechanical & NuclearVehicle systems, all mechanical and electric subsystems and propulsionCommand of spacecraft
Pilot & EngineerElectronics & ElectricalGuidance, control, navigation, all instrumentation and communicationFirst deputy commander
Pilot & PhysicianMedicine, Radiology, Biology, Medical technologyBiotechnical subsystems of life support systems, food and sanitary control, health and comfort of crewMedical officer

Northshield's Triumverate

In the old days, before the war, the starships had carried three kinds of men serving three different functions. Planetary engineers worked on the barely habitable and the actually uninhabitable planets, changing their ecologies so that human beings could eventually live there. Planetary engineers; releasing water from the rocks of oceanless worlds, creating arable land on desert worlds, bringing the right balance of oxygen and nitrogen to the atmospheres of deadly worlds, bending the natural ecological development of a planet so that it grew into a place where men could live.

The colonists followed the planetary engineers. Escaping from overcrowded, congested, regimented inner worlds these men organized governments and social institutions which could grow and absorb their populations. These worlds were located and given a preliminary survey by the third group, the explorers, the loners who took the scientists’ analyses of the light from the stars and the computers’ analyses of the probability of planets around any given star and went out to see for themselves.

Northshield could understand the attraction of planetary engineering, the challenge of remaking a useless world. But planetary engineers spent their whole lifetimes on just one world, barely beginning the long process of making one planet habitable. The colonists were even worse off, from Northshield’s point of view. Even before the war, being a colonist meant one world, one sunset, one distribution of continents and oceans and plants and animals. Since the beginning of the war, the colonists had become sitting ducks for Confederation raids. Living year after year dreading the day when the enemy starship would come and destroy everything they had built out of so much time and hard work.

No, Northshield knew he could never love one world enough to risk everything on it. He loved space. The thrum of the generators during a hyperspace run. The excitement of blinking back into regspace with a whole new planetary system out there to be experienced. Different worlds, different sunsets, different skies. To be the first to see a new planet, to map it from high orbit, to test its atmosphere and sample its soil and roughly classify any life forms it might have. To gather the data for the planetary engineers or the colonists who would follow. Northshield could not understand how anyone could choose to moulder on one planet with all this to be done.

But of course, he had not been able to become an explorer. The war drained men away from what they might have liked to accomplish and forced them to do what had to be done. Northshield had become a Captain, the leader of a military Triumvirate. In some ways it was the closest thing available to what he really wanted. Besides, explorers weren’t going out any more, and planetary engineers were dying in the engine rooms of United Stellar warships.

And the colonists were coming back to the inner worlds. Leaving their hardwon homes and coming back to a way of life they despised, coming back simply because it was life, and the outer worlds held only death from the Confederation

Only one thing really differentiated the ships; the quality of the men inside them. The men who fought in this interstellar warfare did so out of pride and confidence in themselves and in their ships. If the battles were short, violently swerving periods when whirring computers directed laser beams and nuclear-armed missiles to the enemy’s weakest points, then the days and weeks in hyperdrive before and after engagements were lonely periods of work, preparing for battle, repairing after battle. Men could do nothing during those raging minutes, but men did maintain the ship and its military capabilities. All things being equal, as they usually were, the best maintenanced ship had the best chance for survival.

The captain of an interstellar warship did not fight. The computers did that. He did not decide the course or the targets or the weapons. The computers did all those things. The captain was a chief maintenance engineer in charge of the human components on board his ship. During a battle he remained in the Communications Center, desperately trying to keep track of the damage situation so that he could send crews wherever they might be needed. The First Exec was stationed with the hyperdrive unit and did what he could to handle any immediate damage there, while the Second Exec was with the computers, trying to maintain the purity of the programming inserted by United Stellar in the face of heat, radiation and excessive gravity strains caused by battle maneuvers. This arrangement also distributed the members of the Triumvirate throughout the ship and made the survival of at least one of them more likely.

From NORTHSHIELD'S TRIUMVIRATE by Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr. (1975)

Job Names

There are some standard nick-names for various jobs (some of these are strictly military).

Black GangEngine room crew (reference to shoveling coal)
Boats, Bos'nBoatswain
X BubbasGeneric term for group of officers. May apply to segment of the warfare community, or officers assigned to a specific location or command. (e.g., Orbital Warfare Bubbas, J9 Bubbas, etc.)
ChiefChief Engineer
Chief Snake and his boy
(aka Ratfink and Dob-in)
Coxwain (in charge of ship's discipline and also steering the ship) and assistant
CookyChief Mess Officer
Deck ApesBoatswains mates, Flight deck crew, Aviation Boatswains Mates
FueliesAviation Boatswain's Mate - Fueling
Guns, Gunner, GunnyGunnery officer, Gunner's Mates
Jack in the DustBaker
Knuckle draggerCrewmember with more brawn than brain
Mess CranksNon-rated men assigned to assist in the galley
NukesNuclear power techs
OrdiesOrdnance techs
SnipesEngineering officer
Sparks, SparkyRadio officer or Electronics tech
SpooksIntelligence, Electronic Warfare and Cryptography officers
TwidgetsElectronic Warfare officers
WingnutCrewmember of limited intelligence who is safer away from
anything more hazardous than a pencil
X WeenieGeneric Term. The "Intel Weenie" is the Intelligence Specialist
ZerosOfficers (used by enlisted men only)


In the game SPI's Universe, there are some colorful names for various professions.

AstroguardMember of a planet's or star system's local military spacecraft force.
Star SailorMember of the federal spacecraft navy.
FreefallerSoldier in the zero-gravity branch of the federal armed forces.
RangerSoldier in the standard ground branch of the federal armed forces.
SpacetrooperSoldier in the assault force branch of the federal armed forces.
ScoutMember of the exploration branch of the federal armed forces.

Future job terms

Tyge Sjostrand suggest the term Espatiers for space marines, since after all the term "marine" implies the ocean (French marine, from Latin marinus, derived from mare "sea"). The best guess I have at how it is pronounced is "Ess pa tee yea". Rick Robinson really likes Mr. Sjostrand suggestion:

"Espatier" is a twofer. Its formation exactly parallels "Marine" (also French-derived, as are nearly all basic military terms), and it also parallels the English word "spacer," but with a nice shade of meaning - a spacer is anyone who lives/works in space; an espatier is a space soldier.

Tyge Sjostrand

Frederik Vezina disagrees about the pronunciation.

While the suggested "Ess pa tee yea" isn't especially unlikely, the French would be much closer to "Ess pa cee yay", as the t in the French "spatial" is pronounced like an s or a soft c.

The English adaptation would almost certainly end in "yea", because that's what usually happens to French words, but the c sound would likely remain, IMO.

Frederik Vezina

And in the anime Macross, the (Japanese) writers noted that the military on the ground is called the "Army" and the military on the ocean is called the "Navy", so logically the military in space would be called the "Spacy" (alternatively it could be a contraction of "Space Navy"). Since the release of Macross, the term has been used in other works: Martian Successor Nadesico, Voices of a Distant Star, and Mobile Suit Gundam.

Alas, "Spacy" is a little too similar to "Spacey", which in the slang of the United States means "vague and dreamy, as if under the influence of drugs".

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