Macroeconomics is a branch of economics dealing with the performance, structure, behavior, and decision-making of an economy as a whole. This includes regional, national, and global economies. Planetary or galactic. Some of it is about supplying services (like spacecraft rental or cargo shipping), some is about manufacturing, some is about resource development (mining), and some is about space commerce and trading.

For our purposes, it is the study of how a solar system or galactic empire's interstellar economony works together as a whole. As opposed to the economy of a solitary tramp freighter merchant with a scratch crew.

World-building SF authors will be interested in such macroeconomic questions as is there an economic MacGuffinite that can start the industrialization of space, and what kind of economic trade wars can spark full-scale shooting wars.

Suggested Reading

GURPS Traveller: Far Trader
Thrash, Christopher; Daniels, Steve; and MacLean, Jim . This is a supplement for a role-playing game but don't be fooled. This is almost a textbook-quality book. It has detailed analysis of the economics of interstellar trade, and a system of equations to model trade routes and economic demands. If you are working with interstellar trade at all, you need this book.
What Peak Oil Looks Like
Greer, John Michael. Very clearly explains how both the industrial revolution and globalization can be viewed as a kind of arbitrage.
The Theory of Interstellar Trade
Krugman, Paul. Amusing paper written by Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Mr. Krugman recently wrote a new forward for a re-issue of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. Thanks to Kip Larson for suggesting this link.
A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100
Rao, Venkatesh. Long but fascinating article about the rise and fall of the British East India company. Science fiction authors will be able to quickly transpose this into a background of a galactic empire.

Solar System Economy

In a near-future non-FTL-starship rocketpunk universe limited to the solar system, the interplanetary economy will have to be created mostly from scratch. Yes, the existing megacorporations of Terra will be the major players, but there is no existing infrastructure. Everything will have to be build from scratch, and it will be about as quiet and law-abiding as the mythical Wild West.


I suspect that long-time readers won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of the TV series “The Expanse

Warning: I’m most of the way through the fourth season, and what follows will include slight spoilers, although probably not enough to matter.

Earth appears to be suffering from mass technological unemployment. Half the population is unemployed and living on Basic, which apparently consists of in-kind provision of housing, food, and other necessities. (Kind of like a global version of replacing food stamps with food boxes.)

But are robots really the problem? For the first three seasons, Mars stands in stark contrast. It’s a mobilized, full-employment society where everyone is working either on supporting a military strong enough to stand up to Earth or on the long-term goal of terraforming the planet, making it suitable for humans.

Over the course of Season Three, however, the cold war was (mostly) resolved, while the protomolecule (don’t ask) seemed to have opened access to hundreds of habitable planets, making terraforming Mars seem pointless. And in Season Four, Martian society is in deep trouble. Unemployment is rife thanks to the winding down of both military spending and terraforming, with some ex-military Martians who can’t find jobs turning to crime.

So, my question: If Earth has mass unemployment because robots can do stuff, making human workers unnecessary, what were all those fully employed Martians doing?

In fact, the emergence of high unemployment on Mars after demobilization and the end of terraforming makes it seem as if the real problem wasn’t technology, it was secular stagnation — a situation in which private spending is consistently too weak to employ the economy’s resources, except during unsustainable asset or debt bubbles. Japan has been suffering from secular stagnation since the 1990s; a number of economists, myself included, believe that the whole advanced world now has much the same problem.

What’s the solution to secular stagnation? The answer, according to people like Larry Summers, is a big increase in public spending on infrastructure: roads, bridges, ports, and, if you happen to live on a planet without breathable air, terraforming.

The point is that when you’re in a secular stagnation economy, virtue is vice, prudence is folly, and good news can be bad. Even wasteful government spending can be a helpful stimulus. Before the outbreak of peace, Mars was a healthy society because it had a grand project; when that grand project became unnecessary, instead of freeing up resources to do other things, things got much worse.

So The Expanse is basically a show about the need for higher public investment. Well, and also monsters, alien technology, and space Mormons.


I originally posted this on the /r/spacex a few days ago and I would like to post here an updated version with feedbacks accounted for.

I did this map of SpaceX Starship delivery costs between the Earth, Moon, and Mars, to try to understand how the space economy could develop in the near future now that we are going to get a large reusable launch vehicle.

Since Starship's raptor engines runs on methane, it can't fully refuel on the Moon (only liquid oxygen, no methane, because there is no carbon on the Moon), so I also included a competitor Starship-like than runs on liquid hydrogen and oxygen and has its main base on an industrialized Moon capable of producing large quantities of propellant (Lunar Port concept), to understand how that would threaten the business of Starship deliveries.

A number of common popular concepts for developing the private space economy are discussed in the black boxes at the bottom:

  • GEO/LEO servicing
  • Moon reusable landers
  • LOX from Moon ISRU
  • Lunar Port (extracting water to produce propellant)
  • Fuel depot at Earth-Moon Lagrangian point L1
  • Moon to Mars deliveries
  • Asteroid mining
  • Mars propellant
  • Mars food

I took the Delta-Vs from this reddit post with some added margins of up to 20%.

I needed this data for a study I'm doing on the economic viability of a Lunar Port space mission for ESA in partnership with 3 European universities, but hopefully that can be of interest for some other people here too, as it was on /r/spacex !

Original thread

PDF version file

Google sheets:

sheet 1

sheet 2


While there maybe those who have a preference for development of cislunar space and/or the Moon according to some plan decreed by government diktat, my years in economics and finance and banking have shown me that the growth (and death) of industries and companies is a very messy affair once you get down into the trenches. The markets that the United States provided in the past embraced the chaos and let free men trade as they would, because it was out of the chaos that the best ideas emerged through competition with other ideas in open markets where people can make informed decisions. Bad ideas and bad practices can only occur in markets where the Sun does not shine adequately, and the participants in the market are deceived by shadows. Unfortunately, far too often, it is government itself that is casting those shadows.

As an advocate for free market cislunar and Lunar development, and President of The Moon Society, I am often asked “So what kind of business is there to do in space and on the Moon?” As if any one person would have all the answers, but research in the Lunar Library has shown that the question has certainly not gone unpondered. Too often, though, there is a fixation on one particular aspect, a particular product or service, which is thought to be the driver, the killer app that will unlock vast new wealth and make everything else happen by default. That, combined with the framework that NASA has provided for U.S. space activities over the decades, has unfortunately put blinders on what could be considered, and quite frankly has hampered our ability to move forward.

Embrace the chaos of free markets. The first thing to understand is that we are not going to go straight to the Moon and then begin backfilling cislunar space with commercial activity, although some folks advocate for such. What’s going to happen is that activity is going to expand outward, and once activity has reached the neighborhood of the Earth-Moon L-1 point, the Moon (and so much more) becomes a no-brainer. EML1 is the killer app of cislunar space, to the extent one might exist.

Earth to orbit

So how is this going to happen? Suborbital gets to market first. The obvious contenders are Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin (though does anyone really know what they’re doing?), and XCOR for crewed, and Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace for uncrewed flights, although it has been suggested that Armadillo’s products could support “spacediving” activities.. After the initial round of prepaid pioneers are flown off, look for microgravity science payloads to become an increasing segment of the straight up-and-down market, and look for suborbital to expand into the point-to-point market for persons and goods. (When it absolutely, definitely has to be there today.) Expect strong seed capital from NASA in the early stages of the microgravity science utilization, just as happened back in the 1990s with NASA’s Space Commercialization Centers, but really universities, foundations, and even companies should be stepping up with funding and payloads. And not just funding they’ve received from NASA, but with their own monies so that they really own the results.

We’re already seeing excitement in this area, as exemplified by the Next Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference at the end of February. Some payloads are even getting to orbit through the CubeSat program, and NanoRacks LLC is offering commercial access to ISS, even showing their upcoming launch manifest on their homepage. A lot of folks deride microgravity science as a pointless endeavor, pointing to the general lack of results that have ended up in the consumer sector. The issue, though, is not a lack of potential in the sector, but rather the constraints in which it has operated to date. Sounding rockets are limited in what they offer, and being automated one hopes the black box works the first time. The Shuttle was never able to provide a reliable and consistent, or even frequent, launch schedule, and the demand for space always overwhelmed the limited supply. Challenger was a serious blow to the kneecaps as well.

When the author inquired about paying for a Hitchhiker payload, the reply (in 2002) was that there were over 60 GASCans waiting to go, paying your own freight did not move the payload ahead in the queue before freeriders (and if NASA felt a subsequent payload was more scientifically meritorious it could be bumped ahead of paying customers), and not every Shuttle flew GASCans. Not a promising platform for building a vacuum sphere business (glass spheres ‘filled’ with the vacuum of space), and what other options were there? Astrotech [NASDAQ-CM: ASTC] subsidiary Astrogenetix has had better luck recently working on vaccines against some of the more virulent staph bugs based on results from flown hardware.

Another entrepreneurial idea the author had back in the day was to go around and quietly buy up the various flown boxes. These would be refurbished and then leased to scientists who wanted to do research without having to engineer their own. The presumption was the fact that these were flown instruments, previously cleared for flight on the Shuttle, and this would help facilitate the processing for any subsequent flight, as NASA was already familiar with the instrument. Well, we all know what happens when you presume. The ultimate priority, though, is to get scientists to orbital lab benches.

First, we need to get the crew to orbit problem solved. We’ve got good rockets, and we’re working on the crew vehicles. An optimistic timeline is within three years, but the equation involves a large NASA variable that could easily push that out to five or six or even more years. Until private industry gets to the point where it is going to space in spite of NASA, not because of it, the timeframe will tend to push outwards. The basic solution to accelerate private sector development is to enable more direct investment by individual, but not necessarily qualified, investors, so that more investment capital can be directed into the industry. There is legislation in the works to better enable equity investment, for example through crowd-sourcing, enabled by our much more capable computing abilities (itself enabled by Apollo).

It does rather seem a shame to have to ask the government for permission to invest in a collective manner in a company and industry in which I believe and actually know something about (notice how few of the companies named have stock tickers noted). I shouldn’t have to jump through a million hoops to invest in companies I see addressing particular needs for which I envision markets. Some examples of such companies include Orbital Outfitters, which develops spacesuits; Altius Space Machines, whose “Sticky Boom” technology for non-consensual docking maneuvers could also have applications for debris salvage operations; and Celestis, which takes cremains to orbit and has a 30-year legacy.

Space development is going to start out with lots of small companies exploiting particular niches. Other examples of niche exploitation include Wyle Labs, which focuses on human performance services for commercial human spaceflight customers, and NASTAR, which describes itself as “the premier air and space training, research, and education facility in the world”. Ball Aerospace [NYSE: BLL] serves a variety of niches, such as remote sensing, astronomy, optics, laser communications, data exploitation, low-observable antennas and precision cameras. Draper Labs has a specialty in advanced guidance, navigation, and control systems; high-performance space science instruments; and reliable and high-performance processing systems. Honeybee Robotics focuses on developing technology and products for next-generation advanced robotic and spacecraft systems that must operate in increasingly dynamic, unstructured and often hostile environments. Stone Aerospace’s Shackleton Energy Company envisions robotic access of the Lunar poles in the not too distant future. Paragon SDC identifies itself as “the premier provider of environmental controls for extreme and hazardous environments”, and has partnered with Google Lunar XPrize competitor Odyssey Moon to grow a plant on the Moon. Analytical Graphics provides software for orbital analysis. MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates provides robotic arm services for on-orbit facilities. Harris Corp. designs specialized antennas. Andrews Space offers a range of technical competencies from space system design and rapid prototyping to business analysis. There are many niches to be exploited in the still fledgling commercial space industry.

We must not shy away from fear of failure. While Beal Aerospace may have gone out of business, it did allow SpaceX to pick up nice engine test facilities outside of Waco, Texas. People will get bamboozled and they will lose money, but it happens in every industry in every country on the planet. It’s bad that it happens, as it represents malinvestment, but we can’t seem to make it go away.

Getting crewed vehicles online is critical to any further development. If it can’t be done, what follows is meaningless. Current optimistic projections run somewhere in the 2015 timeframe for test flights; maybe a bit before, maybe a bit later. Expect at least one critical flaw or disaster that will lead to new protocols of some sort or another. The best things that NASA can do in this regard is purchase rides for their astronauts, just as they do from Roscosmos, and promulgate universal, international interfaces (in metric) like docking ports and communications standards, as well as work with industry to ensure the highest quality space product in the market.

Current efforts in the US to provide crewed vehicle to orbit capability include Blue Origin’s vehicle efforts, Boeing’s [NYSE:BA] CST-100 capsule, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser lifting body, and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Development of all four have been supported by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program through funded Space Act Agreements. SpaceX’s Dragon started development through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, alongside Orbital Sciences Corporation’s [NYSE: ORB] Cygnus vehicle. In addition, NASA has its own Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) capsule program.

Offering good insight into what kinds of things private industry launch to orbit might enable are the Concept Exploration & Refinement (CE&R) studies that NASA conducted back in 2004 after the Vision for Space Exploration was released. These tapped into work done by NASA’s Decadal Planning Team around the turn of the millennium, which continues in the form of the Future In-Space Operations (FISO) Working Group.

Low Earth orbit (LEO)

Once in orbit, there are more possibilities enabled. While we’re limited at the moment to the ISS up in a 51.6° inclination orbit, there are other inclinations that may be of interest. Once Bigelow Aerospace is able to provide usable space on orbit with their BA330s, and transportation can be adequately provided (one of the reasons that crew vehicles should be compatible with Falcon, Delta, and Atlas rockets), there are a number of uses that can be imagined. It’s not clear whether Bigelow is going to adopt the current ISPR standards for equipment (which would re-open the black box leasing idea from earlier), or perhaps implement a new standard that would tie users to the BA330s.

Where would these inclinations be? Where are the launch sites? Equatorial would be one, easily accessible from Kourou, but the scenery from orbit is pretty boring overall. Kennedy’s inclination is an obvious choice for NASA activities. An inclination of about 40° overflies most US launch sites, from Spaceport America to MARS. And it’s entirely possible that more facilities will be added in the ISS inclination. Whatever facilities are put on orbit, they will likely be in the inclinations most readily accessible from terrestrial launch sites.

What to do? What not to do? My favorite option is microgravity sciences. “Space Industrialization Opportunities” by Jernigan and Pentecost is a great academic introduction to the topic. A more contemporary introduction is “A World Without Gravity” from ESA. Ceramic metals. Glass metals. Foamed metals. Bizarre alloys impossible in the gravity well. Optics. There is so much research to be done, much of it with real market potential. The faster that suborbital flights can provide capability to microgravity researchers, the better it can serve as a springboard to when we do get facilities in orbit. Once on orbit, things like free-flyer platforms should be considered to co-orbit with the facilities. The research to be done there will lay the groundwork for later production processes undertaken farther out in cislunar space. NASA is supporting these researchers, but more support must come from academia and industry.

Being much traveled, I understand the joy of visiting new places in person and exploring my world corporeally. It’s all about the senses, and having flown a Zero-G flight (back in 2004; even got a “barf quote” in the local paper), I am sensitive to the impact of the different gravity environments and their effects on the senses. I highly recommend it, especially Lunar gravity. It’s an absolute joy. Once facilities are on orbit, they will become a destination for travelers seeking new experiences, new vistas, and new destinations, plus their tickets help pay the rent. This is a proven fact by the number of non-governmental-employees who have already visited the ISS, and even Mir before that, through the work of companies like Space Adventures. Even the Shuttle had members of Congress as fellow travelers, and private citizens working for companies.

While some will purchase their ticket to orbit, others will have to work their way up there. There’s no shame in being the steward of a space hotel, even if it may be rather unpleasant at times. Don’t forget the movie industry, which may decide it wants to incorporate more microgravity effects in its storytelling. There will also be those who want to conduct their research away from prying eyes and corporate and governmental malefactors. Speaking of governments, if an open crew transport market becomes available, as well as usable space on orbit, expect a number of governments to consider pursuing their own national agendas from an orbital platform as a means of showing off to their neighbors their technological prowess. It may also arise that satellites and probes end up being launched to the vicinity of orbital facilities for a post-launch checkout before being sent on their way. In this way, many expensive failures can be avoided. What if, for example, Phobos-Grunt had been launched to the vicinity of an orbital facility, and for a few million dollars could have had an engineering team pay it a visit to figure out what’s going on?

So there are many possibilities awaiting us just in LEO. Having an open market means that no one can predict what will happen and what whacky ideas will turn out to be cornucopias of wealth. Looking out past LEO, there are a number of possibilities, with GEO being the obvious choice. But GEO is expensive in terms of fuel, even if we are smart enough to put gas stations in the local neighborhood in LEO. For many, including engineers who have taken Economics for Engineers 101, this quickly leads logic to heavy-lift launch vehicles as the solution for providing adequate volumes of propellant. A subtler read of the situation suggests that you can’t lead the market to where it’s going, and what is needed now is more frequent use of existing, mass-produced launch vehicles to help drive economies of scale into a virtuous cycle of growth. Having facilities on orbit will be beneficial in that regard, but cannot provide the sole solution. Over the near term, it makes sense to deliver propellant to orbit in more frequent but smaller amounts, as that helps to make the cost of rockets cheaper for everyone. It will get to the point where “heavy” lift (let’s say over 100 metric tons at a time for the sake of argument) will make sense because of the volume of traffic that is going to orbit, but that time is not now. The Russians already figured this one out years ago.

Additionally, by the time there is enough volume going to orbit to consider heavy lift that will also be the time where reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) become a compelling solution. Materials research on orbit is likely to have helped advance that field in some regard (such as, perhaps, lightweight foamed metal cores for aerospike engines). It will be a decision point, and the likelier path is RLV transport, as the economics will make as much if not more sense than HLV. Having RLV transport will also much more greatly enable further growth in LEO, and further support efforts to go trans-LEO. This could happen as early as 2020, but more likely 2030 or beyond.

A more strategic consideration is towards things like space as an export market. In principle, a product shipped from a US launch site to, for example, an Isle of Man flagged facility like those proposed by Excalibur Almaz, would be an export. Would it be possible to get EXIM Bank financing? Coupled with Zero-G Zero-Tax type initiatives that helped get Internet-based commerce kickstarted, these could significantly facilitate interest in and growth of cislunar commerce. Whatever solutions arise, it won’t be an easy process, as noted by Near Earth LLC in a presentation at the NewSpace 2011 conference last July.

Geosynchronous/Geostationary Orbit (GEO)

GEO is sometimes referred to as the Clarke Orbit, after Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who noted its utility by applying some simple mathematics. While Sir Clarke envisioned large stations crewed by workers busily replacing blown vacuum tubes, what we’ve ended up with is a hodgepodge of telecommunications and broadcast satellites of increasing size and sophistication. The use of GEO is tightly controlled by the International Telecommunication Union, but over time a large number of inoperative objects have accumulated. These do not go stumbling about like their name, “zombiesats”, might imply. Rather, through a peculiarity of gravity (the gravitational lumpiness of Earth) and orbital energies, and centrifugal force, the objects tend to cluster in areas where there is a bit less gravitational pull from Earth, the two most obvious being the gouge dug out by India as it sped north into the Himalayas, and an area in the Pacific off the coast of the Americas. The latter, about 105° W, is an area of particular crowding and concern.

There have been ongoing efforts to address the problem robotically, such as EPFL’s proposed CleanSpaceOne, MDA’s [TSX: MDA] Space Infrastructure Servicing vehicle, and SkyCorp’s satellite life extension spacecraft. Still, companies may prefer some on-site supervision when revenue-generating satellites are at risk.

Broadcasters are pushing for larger satellites and more power, so that your direct-to-home television signals won’t fade out in a heavy rainstorm. Other interests are looking into solar power satellites, which would find an ideal home in GEO, which would allow a fixed broadcast point and constant source for the beamed energy. Most of our energy supply is second- or third-hand solar power, so why not go directly to the source?

So the basic agenda for GEO is:

  1. Garbage cleanup
  2. Bigger broadcast and telecom platforms
  3. Space-based solar power satellites
From THE CISLUNAR ECONOSPHERE (PART 1) by Ken Murphy (2012)

Earth-Moon Lagrange 1 (EML1)

The next hurdle is a difficult one. Facilities could be established in GEO orbit that would be quite useful in dealing with things in that neighborhood, like harvesting the zombiesats. However, there is a better destination a bit farther out at the Earth-Moon L-1 point. As can be noted in the diagram above, the delta-V (change in velocity) cost is less than that of going just from LEO to GEO. The delta-V cost of going from LEO to EML1, and then back down to GEO, is the same as a median delta-V from LEO straight to GEO. In the industry this little trick is known as a bi-elliptic transfer variant of a Hohmann trajectory. All values in the diagram come from Larson & Pranke’s Human Spaceflight: Mission Analysis & Design. Actual orbital trajectories have so many variables that these should be seen as illustrative, rather than exact, values.

Staging from EML1 offers a multitude of advantages that more than overcome the difficulties of getting set up there. One of the perhaps more controversial advantages is to provide a partial solution to the orbital debris problem. One of the benefits of EML1 is that it is largely indifferent, fuel-wise, to any of the inclinations in LEO. In the diagram above this can be envisioned by rotating the ellipses on an axis connecting the center of the Earth and Moon. So not only could any of the LEO facilities mentioned previously serve as a staging point to EML1, but EML1 can serve as a staging point to any of the LEO stations, or any other inclination of interest, such as those containing objects that are a traffic hazard in their orbital neighborhood.

There is a slight penalty for the Earth’s chubbiness around the middle, in terms of inclination (particularly polar orbits—curse you, J2!), but with aerobraking the job could be done for under 1 km/s of delta-V, a number that is eye-opening, but requires the use of a heatshield that has been carried out to EML1 (from somewhere). Using a direct transfer to the orbit, the cost is around 4 km/sec delta-V, but with much less of a heat-shield requirement. For debris retrieval purposes these would likely be altitudes of 800 to 1,000 kilometers, where a lot of the Earth-observation traffic is located. The strategy I would adopt would be to retrieve as many satellites (non-functioning and thus potential debris, obviously) near a particular inclination, perhaps with “sticky harpoons”, from newest to oldest (as the older ones have demonstrated stability over time), and then take them back to EML1 for forensic analysis and repurposing of the parts.

The hurdle is the trip up the gravity well. A delta-V of 4 km/sec to EML1 from LEO is not insignificant, so the trip has to be worth it through the creation of value. For LEO debris retrieval, one possible solution would be to launch a fuel payload from Earth directly to the target inclination to be retrieved by the vessel from EML1 as it collects objects of interest in LEO.

What else does staging from EML1 enable?

A) The delta-V from EML1 to GEO and back is less than the delta-V just from LEO to GEO. If you’re going to be making trips to GEO, EML1 is the long-term transport solution. What would Sirius XM Radio‘s [NASDAQ: SIRI] financial condition be if, instead of having to build out a new satellite well ahead of schedule, and at significant cost in the capital markets, they could have spent much less to send out a technician to fix the problem? If you’re retrieving salvage from GEO, you can do forensic analysis on that debris to better understand space weathering effects. You can then repurpose that debris for something else (except for the antennas and other strategic components, which DARPA is interested in), like the creation of a…

B) Solar system-wide network of data-gathering probes that provide ongoing data over decades, rather than expensive one-off missions as we do now that provide a spurt of data that is then pored over for years until the next data set arrives. EML1 can serve as an on-ramp to the Inter-Planetary Superhighways (IPS), whereby “Hubble-ized” (i.e. upgradeable) probes, likely using instruments sent from Earth and bolted on a salvaged bus and power supply from GEO, are sent out to particular stations of interest around the solar system. These would provide relays to communicate around the Sun, as in the case of probes sent to the Venus equilaterals (Sun-Venus L-4 and L-5), or keep an eye on the asteroid belt at the Sun-Mars L-2 or Sun-Jove L-1. Out-of-plane objects coming in from the Oort Cloud could be watched from a variety of locations. The point is not the utility of observations of any one kind or specific locations, but rather that with a change in our thinking we can change the way we study our Solar system. We can collect ongoing data, giving us better situational awareness, and we can service and upgrade our instruments a la Hubble by bringing them back to EML1 on the IPS. We don’t have to keep throwing very capital-intensive (human and fiscal) tools into the void for intermittent datasets.

C) Remember the materials science research being conducted at facilities down in LEO? By the time you’re putting facilities at EML1, there should have been some promising results, some of which may be ready to move into the production phase. Freeflyer platforms can be launched from EML1 into a trajectory constrained by the sphere of influence of the Moon whereby, after a certain period of time, it will return to the vicinity of an EML1 facility where it can be retrieved for processing. The completed production run can be harvested, and the next round of production set up before it’s sent back out on its course. The finished product would then be shipped back down to LEO, to whichever particular facility had arranged for its production.

D) Eye in the Sky: in addition to trying to keep track of orbital assets and debris from Earth’s surface, facilities at EML1 will offer the opportunity to see the “big picture” all the way out to GEO from a vantage point roughly 85 percent of the way to the Moon. In this way it could end up as a node in an orbital traffic control network.

E) Clutter-free work environment: EML1 doesn’t require much station keeping—on the order of hundreds of meters per second per year or less—but it is required. Undirected objects won’t hang around very long, getting perturbed into one of the two gravity wells on either side.

F) “Specializationator”: having service facilities at EML1 provides the opportunity to modularize the traffic in cislunar space. It doesn’t make much sense to carry Lunar landing legs from the Earth to LEO, LEO to the Moon, and then from low Lunar orbit (LLO) to the surface, the only time they’re really actually needed. Instead, consider bolting them on at EML1. Complicated waldos and cargo racks for retrieving satellites and other debris aren’t really needed anywhere other than for work in GEO and perhaps LEO. Don’t carry them around when they aren’t needed. Instead, get your supplies when they’re needed for where they’re needed… at EML1.

G) Asteroid Watch: a less popular suggestion is to have equipment at EML1 facilities dedicated to identifying and characterizing the Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs). This would help lay the groundwork for later missions to asteroids staged from EML1.

H) EML1 also provides an ideal staging place for missions to the Moon. It offers 708/12½ (that’s 708 hours per Lunar “day”, 12½ “days” per year) access to the entirety of the Moon’s surface. Poles, equator, mid-latitude, front side, back side, it’s all about 2.5 km/sec delta-V each way, down and up. Rather than be tied to a single location on the Moon, facilities at EML1 could provide support logistics to a base at the south pole, while also providing a staging ground for sorties to areas of interest, like the skylights in Marius Hills.

Remember, all LEO inclinations of interest can get to EML1 for about the same delta-V, a little under 4 km/sec change in velocity. This helps in things like standardizing the propulsion systems and fuel depot loads for trans-LEO trips. This means that the guy who is selling orbital depots to NASA for use at their Kennedy inclination facility can also sell them to the folks with facilities at 41° inclinations, and even to the EML1 folks, as it’s the same change in velocity to park back down in LEO propulsively.

There will come a day where the people who are itching to go beyond LEO will do so. Part of it will be the record-setting aspects of things, as with the Space Adventures folks, whose trip around the Moon, while expensive, might allow them to become the farthest travelers beyond Earth, ever—until the next folks to do so. Others will want to get in early on setting up facilities out at EML1 and on the Moon. While their companies may crater, they’ll nevertheless be the ones with the experience, and those who come after will have to learn from them.

Once at EML1, things like zombiesats in GEO and debris in LEO can start being addressed, and this will drive demand for propellant. In the early years this will, by necessity, be shipped from Earth, but pressure arises early to source at least the oxygen component (about seven-eighths of the mass needed) from somewhere else. The logical source of this propellant will be the Moon; it’s a one-day-away (from EML1) source of enormous amounts of oxygen that can be extracted by a variety of methods. At first, the main demand will come from EML1 in support of the crews dropping down to GEO, HEO, MEO, and LEO for some satellite husbandry, but eventually it will become possible to ship it all the way down to LEO for use in the fuel depots there. This would allow for much more significant shipments to orbit of hydrogen from Earth. Some of which will be shipped on to EML1.

A word on orbital fuel depots. The space community seems to like to bifurcate, and in the case of fuel depots that seems to be along the lines of LOX/LH for everything vs. storable propellants like RP-1 or UDMH, each of which have their pluses and minuses. My view is that the orbital depot solution will evolve along the lines of using long-term storables for tugboat duties, such as fetching freeflyer platforms or satellites post-launch. The kind of stuff that is done on an ongoing basis and will need ready access to propellant.

When the LOX/LH is needed, it’s likely to show up at about the same time it’s needed, or shortly before if it’s shipped as water and needs to be cracked (which not every facility may be able to provide due to power needs). It will be more of a just-in-time process to reflect the inherent volatility, especially of hydrogen, which just loves to get through tiny gaps. A variety of methods have been proposed to allow for longer-term storage of cryogenic propellants. It’s not a question of either/or, it’s a question of how the people doing the work of meeting market demand actually solve the problem.

The complement of EML1 on the near side of the Moon is EML2 on the far side of the Moon. It is sometimes offered as an alternative to EML1, but in the near-term doesn’t offer any particular advantages to make it a priority over EML1 as a development destination.

The Moon as anchor tenant: grayfields for development

Oxygen, which comprises some 40–45 percent of the Moon’s composition, although locked up in rocks, was quickly identified as a key commercial product for cislunar and trans-lunar space activities. Production of oxygen from Lunar sources leads to the production of slag as a byproduct. This slag is not useless, and can serve at least two functions. One is radiation cladding for vehicles operating in cislunar space. The slag can be shaped into pieces that can be bolted on facilities at EML1 and vehicles operating from there to other destinations. These would clearly be of interest to folks who are staging missions from EML1 out to nearby asteroids. The other use is as heat shields. These could be used by vehicles traveling from EML1 to LEO and want to use aerobraking to save fuel, or could be shipped down to LEO to be used as a bolt-on heat shield for vehicles returning from LEO to Earth (which would save weight on the launch phase of the taxi).

Mining oxygen on the Moon can support economic activity in cislunar space, like salvaging the zombiesats in GEO, and allow for greater shipments of hydrogen from Earth. Other materials wrested from the soil, like rare earth elements and metals, could support microgravity production facilities in cislunar space whose products, like foamed metals and unique alloys, would likely find a market on Earth.

One of the key difficulties that people have about resource utilization on the Moon is that it is going to have to be a process of aggregation of the materials desired. Mother Nature and water haven’t acted on the Moon to help pool resources together. Impact violence and destruction has thoroughly distributed the constituents, and no matter what you’re trying to collect, you’re going to have to process large volumes of material to get any amount of usable stuff that you’re interested in. The challenge then becomes how to make lemonade from that lemon.

One example is the Solar-Wind Implanted Elements (SWIEs). The Lunar Sourcebook by Heiken et al. notes that if one cubic meter of regolith is heated up to approximately 800°C, it will generate approximately ten atmospheres of pressure of volatile gases. These can be drawn off and treated separately, perhaps by creative use of cold traps at the polar regions to progressively liquefy and draw off successive elements from the product. This sets the stage for helium-3 (He-3) processing of the helium portion of the gases generated. This won’t be generating large amounts of He-3, but if the opportunity is there as part of this process it should be taken advantage of. One consideration is that samples from each batch of regolith processed needs to be forwarded to scientists for processing in their “ice core” studies.

The regolith of the Moon contains the history of the Sun’s output over billions of years (the SWIEs), as well as its journey around the galactic core (GCRs, Galactic Cosmic Rays), embedded in its grains. Scientific processing can piece together that history, in the same way the glacier core samples have given us background on the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere over time. Additionally, the face of the Moon bears the scars, the astroblemes, of aeons of impacts, and can serve as a chronometer of impact objects in the Earth’s neighborhood for as long as we’ve had the Moon. So there are valid scientific reasons, with direct impact on terrestrial life, for having equipment on the Moon. Having ready access to the Moon means that the scientists are going to want to set up shop and do research in situ. These are all datasets that can contribute significantly to the understanding we are developing of Earth. Other areas of scientific interest are explored in the report by the Space Studies Board of the National Academies, “The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon”.

A longtime favorite in the scientific community is to have radio astronomy facilities on the far side of the Moon. The Moon would provide a shield against the radio pollution coming from Earth, creating the ultimate quiet zone for research. This quietude is spoiled by specular reflection of terrestrial signals off the small bodies in the solar system, but at a level of a whisper compared with the shouting from Earth. Some are concerned that facilities at EML2 (basically right above where the telescopes would be, though the halo orbit could be quite large), could more materially affect the noise environment. An alternative might be to position pole-sitting solar sails above the Lunar poles to provide communication links into the perpetually-shadowed “everdark” craters. And if that’s not enough, NASA has identified a large number of things to do on the Moon to keep their scientists busy.

The products that come from the Moon will start out as very low-value-added goods, with little processing required before getting shipped up to the processing and production freeflyer facilities in cislunar space. Oxygen is one, radiation cladding another, and as we add equipment to the stockpile on the Moon we can start creeping up the value chain. One example is low-quality solar cells, produced from the abundant silicates in the soil. Extruded metal structural elements could be developed for use on the Moon, as well as in cislunar space and even beyond for things like solar power satellites in GEO,or the construction of Mars-bound craft at EML1.

Later, as increasingly sophisticated capabilities accrue on the Lunar surface, production methods will become more sophisticated, such as breaking down the processing remnants from regolith, likely through some combination of pyrolitic and electrophoretic methods, and storing the results. Having stockpiles of vacuum-processed ultra-pure source elements (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, titanium, etc.), and 3D printing technology may bring us one step closer to the concept of “replicators”.

The environment of the Moon also creates its own unique laboratory that will be exploited in unusual ways. It has been suggested that cutting-edge nanotechnology research be moved to the Moon, providing a natural quarantine for the inevitable “oops” moment. The same holds true for the nastiest of biological research endeavors. Google Lunar X PRIZE competitor Moon Express has announced that they will include a telescope on their rover, the first of likely many telescopic facilities that will be set up on the Moon. Another competitor, Astrobotic Technology, is actively seeking payloads, and has published a price list.

The Moon can also serve as a celestial timekeeper. Many cultures around the world use the Lunar calendar, so it is not inconceivable that at some point someone builds a Solar Cathedral that marks the beginning of each Lunar month.

As more and more activities are undertaken on the Moon, the number of caretakers of the equipment is going to grow. The earliest persons spending time on the Moon are likely to be the engineers who repair the robots and scientists doing field work for calibration and verification purposes. As the numbers increase, more support personnel are going to be needed. Someone’s going to build a still, and expect plants to be very popular pets. Regolith will be added to the growing medium early on, and those plants that provide foodstuffs in addition to oxygen will be particularly favored.

Eventually some of those foodstuffs are going to be exported to cislunar space: to facilities at EML1 for starters, but expect demand eventually for Lunar foodstuffs from Earth. There is likely also to be demand on Earth for raw Lunar regolith, in bulk, for use in gardens, greenhouses, and other applications.

Any process that uses vacuum—and there are many—can find a home on the Moon. Nearly 39,000,000 square kilometers are available, of a quality far superior to that which can be generally provided on Earth. To preserve that vacuum at that level of quality, industry is going to have to figure out some best practices very quickly. It was estimated that each of the Apollo landings effectively doubled the ambient Lunar atmosphere. That speaks more to the almost complete absence of atmosphere rather than to the pollution-generating aspects of the Lunar Excursion Modules, but the point is important nonetheless. It might be wise then to consider putting outgassing operations in deep craters so that they can help serve as a sort of catchment for those gases. This would be particularly effective in the everdark craters of the poles.

In his 1965 book The Case for Going to the Moon, Neil Ruzic polled scientists and researchers in academia and industry. When queried about what kinds of processes might be done better or easier on the Moon, results included, for those in the vacuum industry: vacuum cast alloys, vacuum welds, electron optical systems, optical components, pharmaceuticals and biologicals, industrial chemicals, and energy conversion materials and devices. He also notes the advantages that levitation melting can provide, sidestepping the issue of crucible contamination of the product.

One example of a product that would benefit from vacuum is the production of anhydrous glass. Its mechanical properties have long been suspected of being exceptional. However, its optical properties generally haven’t been considered. It may well be that an early niche on the Moon is the production of superior optical components for export to whomever wants the particular properties offered by Moonglass.

The author also points out that most if not all of the products produced on the Moon will not be for export to Earth. They will be destined primarily for use on the Moon: spare parts to fix the myriad robots, useful objects for the habitats like furniture, and new tools specific to the Lunar environment. Nevertheless, the creation of a transport network from Earth to LEO, LEO to EML1, and EML1 to a variety of destinations including the Moon, will mean that there will be the opportunity for exports, and someone is going to take advantage. Bags of raw regolith for “Moon Gardens” back on Earth. The cislunar entrepreneur producing vacuum globes may decide to add a line of regolith globes to their offerings, a unique variant of the “snow globe” so popular Earthside. Lunar handicrafts, like jewelry made of thin-sections mounted on polarized LEDs, might fetch a stiff premium, and there will always be markets for vicestuffs like moonshine and “lunajuana”.

As the infrastructure develops, increasingly sophisticated and higher value-added products can be developed. New design aesthetics can be explored. Eventually there will be tourists: those who do not have a specific task on the Moon. Except for a few scattered exceptions, the facilities will be unlikely to accommodate the additional life-support strain that tourists would entail. Nevertheless, their tickets help pay the rent, so ways to accommodate them will be found. Once the tourists start showing up, you’ll start seeing things like “rego-boarding” the craters, which should be encouraged as the extreme sports crowd will help drive advances in Moonsuit technology. They’ll have other needs and desires to be met as well, which is the foundation of business opportunity. Many of these have been explored over the years in the pages of the Moon Miners’ Manifesto.


The above should not be viewed as a roadmap, but rather an exploration of the myriad ways that exist to create value in cislunar space. What finally does happen will be driven more by necessity than desire. Business grows by responding to needs.

What should be clear is that economic development is not easy. It depends on complex webs of inter-relationships nurturing one another to grow the whole. It also requires an openness to pursuing things in a new way, even if they are perceived as disruptive to existing markets. Potent forces are always marshaled to resist changes to the status quo, but if humanity desires long-term prosperity it must continually re-evaluate what it is doing, and must secure access to increasing amounts of resources, both energy and material. Those resources exist in abundance off-world. We can pursue them, or continue trying to reallocate the effectively fixed amount of obtainable resources available on Earth, pursuing increasingly marginal supplies.

We’re seeing an increasing shift from viewing space as the domain of scientists and engineers alone, to a view of space as a place to conduct growing levels of economic activities to pursue future prosperity. Also slowly coming into view is the realization is that this is one industry with exceedingly high barriers to entry in which we have a clear commercial competitive advantage. The priority should be on growing that industry as a specialization in which the United States excels. The Moon Society will further explore this field with their track at this year’s International Space Development Conference in Washington, D.C., which is entitled “The CisLunar EconoSphere”. Speakers interested in participating are encouraged to contact the National Space Society.

It starts with assured access to orbit by several suppliers, and suborbital researchers using parabolic flights to warm up for eventual facilities on orbit. Cubesats and Nanosats can then provide design experience for future experimenters. Bigelow Aerospace modules can be leased to research consortiums for private research. Fuel depots can gas up vehicles for the next step out. This technology is not beyond our grasp, but the government cannot provide it unto the American citizenry. The American citizenry must make it happen, through their industry, initiative, and through investing in the technology and infrastructure to make it happen. We can let it wither on the vine, as we have with so many other industries, or we can make it happen and the entire world will benefit, as they have to date. The choice is entirely ours.


Apollo Era Lunar Plant Biology

Cordiner, Ralph J. “Competitive Private Enterprise in Space”. From Peacetime Uses of Outer Space, 1961.

Heiken, Grant et al (eds.) Lunar Sourcebook: a user’s guide to the Moon. Cambridge University Press. 1991.

International Space University 1988 SSP, “International Lunar Initiative Organization”. 1992.

International Space University 1989 SSP, “Artemis: a program to identify and map Lunar resources”. 1989.

International Space University 2001 SSP, “C.A.S.H. 2021: Commercial Access and Space Habitation”. 2001.

Jernigan, C.M. & E. Pentecost, “Space Industrialization Opportunities”. NASA Marshall. 1985.

Joosten, Kent & Lisa Guerra. “Early Lunar Resource Utilization: A Key To Human Exploration”. AIAA 93-4784. 1993.

Kokh, Peter (ed.) Moon Miners’ Manifesto.

Larson, Wiley & Linda Pranke. Human Spaceflight: Mission Analysis & Design. McGraw-Hill. 1999.

Lewis, John S. et al (eds.) Resources of Near-Earth Space. University of Arizona Press. 1993.

Mendell, Wendell (ed.). Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century. Lunar and Planetary Institute. 1985.

Mendell, Wendell (ed.). The Second Conference on Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century. NASA Conference Publication 3166, Volume 1 & 2. 1992.

Murphy, Ken. “Cislunar Infrastructure Architectures” ISU. 2001.

Murphy, Ken. “25 Good Reasons to Go to the Moon”. 2006.

Murphy, Ken. “EML1: the next logical destination”. The Space Review. 2011

NASA SP-428: Space Resources and Space Settlements. NASA Ames. 1979

NASA VSE Concept Exploration and Refinement. 2004

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, Space Studies Board, Committee on the Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon. “The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon”. 2007.

Prado, Mark, “PERMANENT: Projects to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term”. Fong Tong Enterprise Co., 1998.

Sanders, Jerry et al. “Lunar In-Situ Resource Utilization: Development and Implementation”. 2007.

Seibert, Günther et al. “ESA SP1251 A World Without Gravity: Research in Space for Health and Industrial Processes”. 2001.

Stine, G. Harry. The Space Enterprise. Penguin, 1982.

Synthesis Group on America’s Space Exploration Initiative, America at the Threshold.

Time-Life Books, Voyage through the Universe: Spacefarers. Time-Life Books Inc., 1989.

From THE CISLUNAR ECONOSPHERE (PART 2) by Ken Murphy (2012)

      This is what you’ve been waiting for, the roadmap for industrialization. There’s a lot going on in this figure, so let’s unpack it!

     On the left, I’ve ranked successive orders of magnitude of industrial “closure”, or local production capacity. Starting with oxygen, then water and fuel, plastics and some food, then masonry, structural metals, then alloys, electronics, advanced chemistry and computer processors.

     On the bottom, we have population. Today, we are in the bottom left, with only robots. With local production of oxygen and fuel, humans can explore and even operate outposts like the Antarctic stations. But at some point vast quantities of cargo and humans will have to be shipped to traverse this dangerous area of potential collapse.

     This area is dangerous because the population is too large to be evacuated and too small to be self-sufficient. The city traverses the graph toward the top right, such as the trajectory marked in red. Ultimately, the city has a large population and a diverse, self-sufficient industrial base.

     The major primary industries deal with mining of any desired element. Because each mine will have to operate in the hostile Mars environment, emplacement of primary industry incurs a much steeper labor penalty than increasing complexification of secondary manufacturing, which can be conducted entirely inside large, pressurized, climate controlled habs.

     For this reason, from the exploration phase until the cusp, marked with a purple dot, each order of magnitude of mass self-sufficiency requires more than that of people.

     Beyond this point, marking the completion of a local basic material supply chain, relatively small additions of population have an outsized effect on industrial closure. I estimated the critical stage on this graph is from about 1000 people to 100,000.

     The fundamental limit here is Earth-Mars cargo capacity, as illustrated by the grey lines.

     Cargo capacity is determined by how fast we can build gigantic rockets here on Earth.

     Today, SpaceX can build about 20 cores a year, but Boeing can build 560 737s a year, a machine of comparable complexity. So I think this is a tractable problem, within the capabilities of our current civilization.

     In summary, autarky is possible, but requires a really bold vision for scale, lots of giant rockets, lots of people, lots of ongoing, though non-infinite, investment of money and effort on Earth.

From HOW TO INDUSTRIALIZE MARS by Casey Handmer (2018)

Crewed starflight is going to be expensive, really expensive. All the various proposed methods from slow world ships to faster fusion vessels require huge resources to build and fuel. Even at Apollo levels of funding in the 1960’s, an economy growing at a fast clip of 3% per year is estimated to need about half a millennium of sustained growth to afford the first flights to the stars. It is unlikely that planet Earth can sustain such a sizable economy that is millions of times larger than today’s. The energy use alone would be impossible to manage. The implication is that such a large economy will likely be solar system wide, exploiting the material and energy resources of the system with extensive industrialization.

Economies grow by both productivity improvements and population increases. We are fairly confident that Earth is likely nearing its carrying capacity and certainly cannot increase its population even 10-fold. This implies that such a solar system wide economy will need huge human populations living in space. The vision has been illustrated by countless SciFi stories and perhaps popularized by Gerry O’Neill who suggested that space colonies were the natural home of a space faring species. John Lewis showed that the solar system has immense resources to exploit that could sustain human populations in the trillions.

But now we run into a problem. Even with the most optimistic estimates of reduced launch costs, and assuming people want to go and live off planet probably permanently, the difficulties and resources needed to develop this economy will make the US colonization by Europeans seem like a walk in the park by comparison. No doubt it can be done, but our industrial civilization is little more than a quarter of a millennium old. Can we sustain the sort of growth we have had on Earth for another 500 years, especially when it means leaving behind our home world to achieve it? Does this mean that our hopes of vastly larger economies, richer lives for our descendents and an interstellar future for humans is just a pipe dream, or at best a slow grind that might get us there if we are lucky?

Well, there may be another path to that future. Philip Metzger and colleagues have suggested that such a large economy can be developed. More extraordinary, that such an economy can be built quickly and without huge Earth spending, starting and quickly ending with very modest space launched resources. Their suggestion is that the technologies of AI and 3D printing will drive a robotic economy that will bootstrap itself quickly to industrialize the solar system. Quickly means that in a few decades, the total mass of space industrial assets will be in the millions of tonnes and expanding at rates far in excess of our Earth-based economies.

The authors ask, can we solve the launch cost problem by using mostly self-replicating machines instead? This should remind you of the von Neumann replicating probe concept. Their idea is to launch seed factories of almost self-replicating robots to the Moon. The initial payload is a mere 8 tonnes. The robots will not need to be fully autonomous at this stage as they can be teleoperated from Earth due to the short 2.5 second communication delay. They are not fully self-replicating at this stage as need for microelectronics is best met with shipments from Earth. Almost complete self-replication has already been demonstrated with fabs, and 3D printing promises to extend the power of this approach.

The authors assume that initial replication will neither be fully complete, nor high fidelity. They foresee the need for Earth to ship the microelectronics to the Moon as the task of building fabs is too difficult. In addition, the materials for new robots will be much cruder than the technology earth can currently deliver, so that the next few generations of robots and machinery will be of poorer technology than the initial generation. However the quality of replication will improve with each generation and by generation 4, a mere 8 years after starting, the robot technology will be at the initial level of quality, and the industrial base on the Moon should be large enough to support microelectronics fabs. From then on, replication closure is complete and Earth need ship no further resources to the Moon.

GenHuman/Robotic InteractionArtificial IntelligenceScale of IndustryMaterials ManufacturedSource of Electronics
1.0Teleoperated and/or locally operated by a human outpostInsect-likeImported, small-scale, limited diversityGases, water, crude alloys, ceramics, solar cellsImport fully integrated machines
2.0TeleoperatedLizard-likeCrude fabrication, inefficient, but greater throughput than 1.0(Same)Import electronics boxes
2.5TeleoperatedLizard-likeDiversifying processes, especially volatiles and metalsPlastics, rubbers, some chemicalsFabricate crude components plus import electronics boxes
3.0Teleoperated with experiments in autonomyLizard-likeLarger, more complex processing plantsDiversify chemicals, simple fabrics, eventually polymersLocally build PC cards, chassis and simple components, but import the chips
4.0Closely supervised autonomyMouse-likeLarge plants for chemicals, fabrics, metalsSandwiched and other advanced material processesBuilding larger assets such as lithography machines
5.0Loosely supervised autonomyMouse-likeLabs and factories for electronics and robotics. Shipyards to support main belt.Large scale productionMake chips locally. Make bots in situ for export to asteroid belt.
6.0Nearly full autonomyMonkey-likeLarge-scale, self-supporting industry, exporting industry to asteroid main beltMakes all necessary materials, increasing sophisticationMakes everything locally, increasing sophistication
X.0Autonomous robotics pervasive throughout Solar System enabling human presenceHuman-likeRobust exports/imports through zones of solar systemMaterial factories specialized by zone of the Solar SystemElectronics factories in various locations

Table 1. The development path for robotic space industrialization. The type of robots and the products created are shown. Each generation takes about 2 years to complete. Within a decade, chip fabrication is initiated. By generation 6, full autonomy is achieved.

AssetQty. per setMass minus Electronics (kg)Mass of Electronics (kg)Power (kW)Feedstock Input (kg'hr)Product Output (kg/hr)
Power Distrib & Backup12000-----------------
Excavators (swarming)570190.3020----
Chem Plant 1 - Gases1733305.5841.8
Chem Plant 2 - Solids1733305.58101.0
Metals Refinery110191910.00203.15
Solar Cell Manufacturer1169190.500.3----
3D Printer 1 - Small Parts4169195.000.50.5
3D Printer 2 - Large Parts4300195.000.50.5
Robonaut assemblers3135150.40--------
Total per Set~7.7 MT
launched to Moon
64.36 kW20 kg
4 kg

Table 2. The products and resources needed to bootstrap the industrialization of the Moon with robots. Note the low mass needed to start, a capability already achievable with existing technology. For context, the Apollo Lunar Module had a gross mass of over 15 tonnes on landing.

The authors test their basic model with a number of assumptions. However the conclusions seem robust. Assets double every year, more than an order of magnitude faster than Earth economic growth.

Once robots become sophisticated enough, with sufficient AI and full self-replication, they can leave the Moon and start industrializing the asteroid belt. This could happen a decade after initiation of the project.

With the huge resources that we know to exist, robot industrialization would rapidly, within decades not centuries, create more manufactures by many orders of magnitude than Earth has. Putting this growth in context, after just 50 years of such growth, the assets in space would require 1% of the mass of the asteroid belt, with complete use within the following decade. Most importantly, those manufactures, outside of Earth’s gravity well, require no further costly launches to transmute into useful products in space. O’Neill colonies popped out like automobiles? Trivial. The authors suggest that one piece could be the manufacture of solar power satellites able to supply Earth with cheap, non-polluting power, in quantities suitable for environmental remediation and achieving a high standard of living for Earth’s population.

With such growth, seed factories travel to the stars and continue their operation there, just as von Neumann would predict with his self-replicating probes. Following behind will be humans in starships, with habitats already prepared by their robot emissaries. All this within a century, possibly within the lifetime of a Centauri Dreams reader today.

Is it viable? The authors believe the technology is available today. The use of telerobotics staves off autonomous robots for a decade. In the 4 years since the article was written, AI research has shown remarkable capabilities that might well increase the viability of this aspect of the project. It will certainly need to be ready once the robots leave the Moon to start extracting resources in the asteroid belt and beyond.

The vision of machines doing the work is probably comfortable. It is the fast exponential growth that is perhaps new. From a small factory launched from Earth, we end up with robots exploiting resources that dwarf the current human economy within a lifetime of the reader.

The logic of the model implies something the authors do not explore. Large human populations in space to use the industrial output of the robots in situ will need to be launched from Earth initially. This will remain expensive unless we are envisaging the birthing of humans in space, much as conceived for some approaches to colonizing the stars. Alternatively an emigrant population will need to be highly reproductive to fill the cities the robots have built. How long will that take? Probably far longer, centuries, rather than the decades of robotic expansion.

Another issue is that the authors envisage the robots migrating to the stars and continuing their industrialization there. Will humans have the technology to follow, and if so, will they continue to fall behind the rate at which robots expand? Will the local star systems be full of machines, industriously creating manufactures with only themselves to use them? And what of the development of AI towards AGI, or Artificial General Intelligence? Will that mean that our robots become the inevitable dominant form of agency in the galaxy?

The paper is Metzger, Muscatello, Mueller & Mantovani, “Affordable, Rapid Bootstrapping of the Space Industry and Solar System Civilization,” Journal of Aerospace Engineering Volume 26 Issue 1 (January 2013). Abstract / Preprint.

Business Opportunities

RocketCat sez

I'm not sure if it is the third or fourth oldest profession, but salesman/con-artist/uses-car-dealer/grifter is one of the oldest.

It warms the liquid-hydrogen cooled cockles of my so-called heart to see you innocent naive simpletons who believe that humans will somehow become all noble and altruistic in the glorious space frontier. But that's not the way to bet. As long as there are space folk with money out there, others will be endlessly trying to figure out how to transfer those credit coins from the folk's pockets into theirs.

Since credit transferal by blatantly illegal means is covered elsewhere, here we will talk about the more legal means. The start is to discover a "hole in the market", that is, some desirable product or service that space citizens are willing to buy with their hard-earned credits.

If you can find one that is actually new, so much the better. Just be sure to cash in quick because scummy low-life copy-cats will rapidly try to make cheap knock-offs of your product. Or you might be returning the favor to some other company's lucrative monopoly (in which case you are obviously not a scummy low-life copy-cat, nay you are a virtuous monopoly-buster).

I compiled the list below simply by looking for clever solutions to major problems faced by space dwellers, then asking the question "how can I make a buck off of this?"

And never forget the attractiveness of a one-stop solution.

Example: A rock-rat asteroid miner delta-Vees into Billstown to shop. Packages of disposable space suit diapers might be over in the clothing section. Anti-fogging space helmet moist towelette packets are way over there in utility goods. Suit maintenance tools are in the hardware department. Emergency puncture repair patches are in the repair section.

Both you and I know that the rock-rat ain't a gonna waste their time bouncing around the entire freaking store looking for all this crap. They will probably only put one or two of the items in their shopping drone, which means Bill is not extracting the maximum amount of moola from the rock-rat's wallet.

But what if the rock-rat walked into Billstown, and saw a stack of "Space-suit kits" by the entrance? A nice shrink-wrapped canister containing a pack of diapers, a couple of boxes of anti-fogging towelettes, a modest suit maintenance tool set, and a stack of puncture repair patches. All in one box at a low-low price. No walking all over the entire store required.

Bill has lowered the purchasing friction to a point where nine times out of ten the rock rat will buy the kit, thus buying all of those space suit products instead of just one or two. Bill is no longer leaving money on the table.

You may have encountered something like this at your local hardware store, say a kit of various cleaning products (a selection of soaps, detergents, sponges and brushes, all wrapped up in a cleaning bucket). The urge to purchase one is almost irresistible. A simple one-stop-shopping item, a "kit" with all you need in a single package; just grab it, walk to the checkout line and you are done. I actually saw somebody look at one of those kits and say "I want to buy this, but I don't know why!"

That's the magic of a one-stop solution. "It's a Kit!"

In his novel Going Postal, Writer Terry Pratchett put it this way: “(The Postmaster) made a mental note: envelopes with a stamp already on, and a sheet of folded paper inside them: Instant Letter Kit, Just Add Ink! That was an important rule of any game: always make it easy for people to give you money.”

An example of a kit is "Beams-Я-Us" below. If they just sold laser time that's will get them a bit of money. But if they also rented beam-rider spacecraft (just like a U-Haul truck) and had beam-riding cargo transports riding their own beams like a railroad train riding on its owner's railroad track, well, "It's a Kit!". Beams-Я-Us has become one-stop shopping for all your interplanetary shipping needs. They might even branch out and offer spacecraft purchase financing, and cargo transport insurance. Why go to five different companies when you can get it all done at Beams-Я-Us?

As I've mentioned so many times you must be sick of it, in the California Gold Rush of 1849, it was not the miners who grew rich, instead it was the merchants who sold supplies to the miners. Once people are traveling in space, there will arise numerous business opportunities to sell things to traveling people.


(ed note: The good ship Rolling Stone is about to depart from Mars to travel to the asteroid belt, carrying owner Roger Stone and his family. His teenage sons are absolutely full of get-rich quick schemes. They want to get asteroid miner equipment and make their fortune as rock-rats. Roger pops their bubble by pointing out that the median income of an asteroid miner is about six hundred a year. Yes, one or two strike it rich but about half make less than 600/year. They are dejected until they notice their savy grandmother standing behind them.)

      The twins turned to leave, found (Grandmother) Hazel grinning at them. Castor scowled at her. "What are you smirking at, Hazel?"
     "You two."
     "Well … why shouldn't we have a whirl at meteor mining?"
     "No reason. Go ahead; you can afford the luxury. But see here, boys, do you really want to know what to ship to make some money?"
     "What's your offer?"
     "Percentage cut? Or flat fee? But we don't pay if we don't take your advice."
     "Oh, rats! I'll give it to you free. If you get advice free, you won't take it and I'll be able to say, 'I told you so!'"
     "You would, too."

     "Of course I would. There's no warmer pleasure than being able to tell a smart aleck, 'I told you so, but you wouldn't listen.' Okay, here it is, in the form of a question, just like an oracle: Who made money in all the other big mining rushes of history?"
     "Why, the chaps who struck it rich, I suppose."
     "That's a laugh. There are so few cases of prospectors who actually hung on to what they had found and died rich that they stand out like supernovae. Let's take a famous rush, the California Gold Rush back in 1861—no, 1861 was something else; I forget. 1849, that was it—the 'Forty-niners. Read about 'em in history?"
     "There was a citizen named Sutter; they found gold on his place. Did it make him rich? It ruined him. But who did get rich?"
     "Tell us, Hazel. Don't bother to dramatize it."

     "Why not? I may put it in the show—serial numbers rubbed off, of course. I'll tell you: everybody who had something the miners had to buy. Grocers, mostly. Boy, did they get rich! Hardware dealers. Men with stamping mills (to process the ore). Everybody but the poor miner. Even laundries in Honolulu."
     "Honolulu? But that's way out in the Pacific, off China somewhere."
     "It was in Hawaii the last time I looked. But they used to ship dirty laundry from California clear to Honolulu to have it washed—both ways by sailing ship. That's about like having your dirty shirts shipped from Marsport to Luna. Boys, if you want to make money, set up a laundry in the Hallelujah (the asteroid cluster that is their destination, where a uranium strike has just been discovered). But it doesn't have to be a laundry—just anything, so long as the miners want it and you've got it. If your father wasn't a Puritan at heart, I'd set up a well-run, perfectly honest gambling hall! That's like having a rich uncle."

     The twins considered their grandmother's advice and went into the grocery business, with a few general store sidelines. They decided to stock only luxury foods, things that the miners would not be likely to have and which would bring highest prices per pound (this is all being shipped by spaceship so every gram counts). They stocked antibiotics and surgical drugs and vitamins as well, and some light-weight song-and-story projectors and a considerable quantity of spools to go with them. Pollux found a supply of pretty-girl pictures, printed on thin stock in Japan and intended for calendars on Mars, and decided to take a flyer on them, since they didn't weigh much. He pointed out to Castor that they could not lose entirely, since they could look at them themselves.
     (Their mother) Dr. Stone found them, ran through them, and required him to send some of them back. The rest passed her censorship; they took them along.

From THE ROLLING STONES by Robert Heinlein (1952)

Please note that none of these are MacGuffinite, they are not economic motivation for the colonization and industrialization of space. But once there are people in space, they become potential customers.

Science fiction authors should note that the presence of these various spacegoing corporations can lead to a very colorful background for their novels. Indeed, the history of how a given corporation got started could be an interesting series of stories. Things are raw and cut-throat on the space frontier, especially when the people starting the company are novices learning the ropes the hard way. Hilarity ensues.

Satellite Servicing

This is more a near-future business. Which means it could be a MacGuffinite precursor.

In the present time the biggest space industry is satellites. These are mostly of the communication variety (telecommunication, radio, television, phone, internet access), but navigation, weather, and crop monitoring are also viable industries. Not to mention all the military spy satellites.

These suckers are hideously expensive to design, build, and launch into orbit. Obviously the longer their effective lifespan, the more the owner can amortised the cost.

What limits the satellite's lifespan? Is it meteorite strikes? No. Is it deterioraization due to space radiation? No. Is it electronic malfunctions? No. Well, what is it? The blasted fuel tanks for the attitude control jets being used up! And the little darlings generally run dry years before anything else on the satellite zaps out.

Gee, it is a shame there exists no company running satellite orbit-side servicing like an outer space Triple-A, filling empty attitude-jet fuel-tanks and repairing malfunctions. They could charge huge fees without being more expensive than launching an entire new replacement satellite.

Sounds like a business opportunity to me.

This was the inspiration for the 1988 MOVERS Orbital Transfer Vehicle study. More recently (2017) the Space Infrastructure Services LLC (SIS) company proposed a similar service, using teloperated drones. Now please understand that their drones can only refuel SIS designed satellites, but they probably consider that to be an advantage.

Laser Launch Services

Remember that once you get to orbit you are halfway to anywhere. So a company offering an affordable way to get your payload and crew into orbit will find their services in high demand. The point is that a laser launch service is likely to be much cheaper than any chemical rocket will ever be. Freeman Dyson is of the opinion that a large country such as the United States should invest in such a service and offer it at a nominal fee, in order to promote interplanetary Prairie Schooners. See below.

For a grittier more ruthless-corporation view of the laser-launching business, do check out Jerry Pournelle's Laurie Jo Hansen stories, available in the collection Exile And Glory.

IKEA Space Habitat Modules
People living in space need a habitat module to live in (or they will rapidly stop living). So there is a build-in market. Flimsy cheap modules will do for orbital or asteroid locations. But sturdier modules will be needed if it has to be able to stand under its own weight on a planetary surface, or accelerated by a rocket engine if used as an impromptu spacecraft. The inexpensive modules might be mostly made of water. They will probably be sized to fit standard cargo containers. See the section. In the real world Bigelow Aerospace is actively developing this, using NASA TransHab technology.
Wagon Train in Space

Jerry Pournelle foresees that with the availability of a laser launch service coupled with affordable habitat modules could lead to wagon train in space. Details here.

The Motel Aldrin

Entrepreneurs could sell habitat module services between Terra and Mars by making a space-going motel into an Aldrin Cycler. Space explorers on a budget would only need enough delta V to get themselves and their payload up to Mars transfer velocity, they could then rent a room and life-support services at Motel 6 km/s. This concept is quite similar to the Wagon Train in Space.

Convoy Services

Spacecraft going to a given destination, e.g., Mars, will tend to clump into convoys in order to take advantage of Hohmann transfer windows. Clever operators will have special ships in the group: not to travel to Mars but to do business with the other ships in the group (with an eye to making lots of money).

Things like being an interplanetary 7-Eleven all night convenience store, selling those vital little necessities (that you forgot to pack) at inflated prices.

A fancy restaurant spaceship for when you are truly fed up with eating those nasty freeze-dried rations.

A space-going showboat for outer space riverboat gambling.

An (expensive) health clinic, when you are not sure if that is merely a tummy-ache or actually full-blown appendicitis.

A flying bar with a wide variety of vacuum-distilled liquors (anybody for a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster?).

Not to mention a orbital brothel.

Fans of TOS Battlestar Galactica will be reminded of the Rising Star, luxury liner and casino in space.

And the owners of an wagon train in space might want to add a couple of these company-owned modules, to sell stuff to the wagon train riders.


Orbital laser services might be just as lucrative as laser launching services. Owners of cheap laser thermal rockets could rent laser time from Beams-Я-Us. Not to mention spacecoach owners. You could probably even rent the cheap laser thermal rockets for use with the laser time.

For that matter, Beams-Я-Us would probably have their own cargo laser rockets for transport services, making them the interplanetary equivalent of the railroad (The Laser Horse). Even if there is no initial need for such services, a government might create it for political reasons. Even if it is eventually taken over by the military.

A laser railroad could easily become Wagon Train in Space.

Go here for technical details on laser thrust services.

Orbital Propellant Depots

The multi-billion dollar Terran petroleum industry is a model for offering the services of orbital propellant depots. Since propellant is the sine qua non of rockets, owning a network of such depots and the supplying them by in situ resource utilization will be a license to print money.

There is also money to be made on the side by being the interplantary equivalent of a 7-Eleven convenience store attached to a gasoline station. With the same inflated prices.

Rob Davidoff and I worked up a science fiction background where the Martian moon Deimos becomes the water supplier for the entire solar system. We call it Cape Dread.

Momentum-energy Banks

These are giant spinning bola-like tether propulsion installations. A pod with engines not much stronger than attitude jets can attach itself to one and be precisely catapulted at a destination with many gravities of acceleration. At the destination the pod is caught by a similar installation. All for a fee, of course.

These would work well with interplanetary Prairie Schooners.

Inert Cargo Vessels
Inert cargo vessel shipping services will probably be a cheaper solution to sending your ore to market than renting a cargo spacecraft.
A "gold" strike in an asteroid belt or the establishment of a military base in a remote location may create a "boomtown", as entrepreneurs appear to sell the asteroid miners or enlisted people whiskey, prostitutes, and gambling. But remember that boomtowns can become ghost towns quite rapidly, if mineral strike dries up or the military base is closed.
Camp Followers
Military units operating in a remote location will often attract "camp followers." These are civilian hangers-on who officially or unofficially see to needs of the troops. Official camp followers could be civilian contractors supplying official items like fuel, signal flares, and fragmentation grenades. Unofficial camp followers supply services like cooking, laundering, liquor, nursing, sexual services, and sutlery. For a price. Unofficial camp followers are notorious for after-battle scavenging and looting.
Sears, Robot & Co.
In the 1900's the Sears, Roebuck & Co. made good money doing mail-order catalog sales to rural inhabitants. The same model might be applied to asteroid dwellers. See below
Asteroid Mining Services
Asteroid miners have lots of needs that entrepreneurs can fulfil. From renting mobile refineries to purchasing ore. Although in reality the economies of scale seem to preclude individual mom-and-pop asteroid metal miners, volatile mining might be their only option.
New and Used Spacecraft Yards
Don't forget Dealer Dan, The Spaceship Man with his wide selection of new and slightly used rockets. "Now this little beauty was owned by a little old lady who only took it out on alternate synodic periods..."

According to the AIAA Space Logistics Technical Committee, space logistics is

... the theory and practice of driving space system design for operability, and of managing the flow of material, services, and information needed throughout a space system lifecycle.

However, this definition in its larger sense includes terrestrial logistics in support of space travel, including any additional "design and development, acquisition, storage, movement, distribution, maintenance, evacuation, and disposition of space materiel", movement of people in space (both routine and for medical and other emergencies), and contracting and supplying any required support services for maintaining space travel.


Wernher von Braun spoke of the necessity (and the underdevelopment) of space logistics as early as 1960:

"We have a logistics problem coming up in space ... that will challenge the thinking of the most visionary logistics engineers. As you know, we are currently investigating three regions of space: near-Earth, the lunar region, and the planets. While it is safe to say that all of us have undoubtedly been aware of many or most of the logistics requirements and problems in the discussion, at least in a general way, I think it is also safe to state that many of us have not realized the enormous scope of the tasks performed in the logistics area. I hope the discussions bring about a better understanding of the fact that logistics support is a major portion of most large development projects. Logistics support, in fact, is a major cause of the success or failure of many undertakings."


James D. Baker and Frank Eichstadt of SPACEHAB wrote, in 2005:

The United States space exploration goals expressed in January 2004 call for the retirement of the Space Shuttle program following completion of International Space Station (ISS) construction. Since the Shuttle is instrumental in transporting large quantities of cargo to and from the ISS, this functional capability must be preserved to ensure ongoing station operations in a post-Shuttle era. Fulfilling ongoing cargo transport requirements to the ISS is a prime opportunity for NASA to reduce costs and preserve and repurpose the unique and limited Shuttle resource by acquiring cargo transportation services commercially. Further, implementing such a service prior to retirement of the Shuttle reduces risk to the vehicle and her crews by eliminating their use for routine cargo transport missions while accelerating the readiness for alternative ISS-support transportation.
In January 2004, President Bush directed NASA to begin an initiative that focuses on exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond. This initiative calls for the completion of International Space Station (ISS) assembly by the end of the decade coincident with retirement of the Space Shuttle. Retirement of the Shuttle while ISS operations are still being conducted results in reduced capability to supply ISS logistics requirements. An examination of existing and planned logistics carriers shows that there are deficiencies in both capacity and capability to support ISS needs. SPACEHAB's history of space station logistics delivery and existing ground infrastructure coupled with NASA's mandate and documented intent to acquire commercial space systems and services when possible has led SPACEHAB to develop a versatile and affordable cargo transport service for ISS .

Current activities

According to Manufacturing Business Technology,

NASA has awarded $3.8 million to two MIT engineering professors to pursue an interdisciplinary study for adapting supply chain logistics to support interplanetary material transport and transfer. Professors David Simchi-Levi and Olivier de Weck of the MIT Engineering Systems Division will spearhead the project in partnership with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Payload Systems, and United Space Alliance.
Sustainable space exploration is impossible without appropriate supply chain management and unlike Apollo, future exploration will have to rely on a complex supply network on the ground and in space. The primary goal of this project is to develop a comprehensive supply chain management framework and planning tool for space logistics. The eventual integrated space logistics framework will encompass terrestrial movement of material and information, transfer to launch sites, integration of payload onto launch vehicles and launch to Low Earth Orbit, in-space and planetary transfer, and planetary surface logistics. The MIT-led interplanetary supply chain management model will take a four-phase development approach:
1. Review of supply chain management lessons learned from Earth-based commercial and military projects, including naval submarine and arctic logistics
2. Space logistics network analyses based on modeling Earth-Moon-Mars orbits and expected landing-exploration sites
3. Demand/supply modeling that embraces uncertainty in demand, cargo mix, costs, and supply chain disruptions
4. Development of an interplanetary supply chain architecture.

Examples of supply classes

(ed note: All of these are business opportunities)

Among the supply classes identified by the MIT Space Logistics Center:

  • Propellants and Fuels
  • Crew Provisions and Operations
  • Maintenance and Upkeep
  • Stowage and Restraint
  • Waste and Disposal
  • Habitation and Infrastructure
  • Transportation and Carriers
  • Miscellaneous

In the category of space transportation for ISS Support, one might list:

State of the ISS logistics capability in 2005

A snapshot of the logistics of a single space facility, the International Space Station, was provided in 2005 via a comprehensive study done by James Baker and Frank Eichstadt. This article section makes extensive reference to that study.

ISS cargo requirements

As of 2004, the United States Space Shuttle, the Russian Progress, and to a very limited extent, the Russian Soyuz vehicles were the only space transport systems capable of transporting ISS cargo.

However, in 2004, it was already anticipated that the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Japanese H-IIA Transfer Vehicle (HTV) would be introduced into service before the end of ISS Assembly. As of 2004, the US Shuttle transported the majority of the pressurized and unpressurized cargo and provides virtually all of the recoverable down mass capability (the capability of non-destructive reentry of cargo).

Cargo vehicle capabilities

Baker and Eichstadt also wrote, in 2005:

An understanding of the future ISS cargo requirements is necessary to size a commercial cargo vehicle designed to replace the Shuttle's capabilities and capacities and augment currently planned alternative vehicles. Accurate estimates of ISS cargo transfer requirements are difficult to establish due to ongoing changes in logistics requirements, crew tending levels, vehicle availabilities, and the evolving role the ISS will play in NASA's space exploration and research goals.
An increased unpressurized cargo delivery requirement is shown during the years 2007–2010. This increased rate is a result of a current plan to preposition unpressurized spares on the ISS prior to Shuttle retirement. Provision of a commercial cargo carrier capable of transporting unpressurized spares to supplement the Shuttle eliminates the prepositioning requirement and aligns the estimated averages during 2007–2010 to approximately 24,000 kg for pressurized cargo and 6800 kg for unpressurized cargo. Considering the delivery capability of the remaining systems after the Shuttle is retired yields.
Retirement of the Shuttle and reliance on the Progress, ATV, and HTV for ISS logistics will result in no significant recoverable down-mass capability. Further, no evidence suggests that any of these cargo transport systems can increase production and launch rates to cover the cargo delivery deficiency.

Commercial opportunity

Baker and Eichstadt also wrote, in 2005:

In addition to ISS support deficiencies, alternative opportunities for a commercial cargo transport system exist. The retirement of the Shuttle will also result in an inability to conduct Low Earth Orbit (LEO) research independent of the ISS. A commercial payload service could serve as a free-flying research platform to fulfill this need. As logistics support requirements for NASA's space exploration initiative emerge, existing commercial system can be employed.
Finally, nascent interest in the development of non-government commercial space stations must take resupply issues into consideration. Such considerations will undoubtedly be subjected to a make/buy analysis. Existing systems which have amortized their development costs across multiple government and non-government programs should favor a “buy” decision by commercial space station operators. As these markets arise, commercial companies will be in a position to provide logistics services at a fraction of the cost of government-developed systems. The resulting economies of scale will benefit both markets. This conclusion was reached by a Price-Waterhouse study chartered by NASA in 1991. The study concluded that the value of SPACEHAB's flight-asset-based commercial module service with an estimated net-present-value of $160 million would have cost the US government over $1 billion to develop and operate using standard cost plus contracting. SPACEHAB's commercial operations and developments (such as the Integrated Cargo Carrier) since 1991 represent further cost savings over government-owned and operated systems.
Commercial companies are more likely to efficiently invest private capital in service enhancements, assured continued availability, and enhanced service capability. This tendency, commonplace in non-aerospace applications, has been demonstrated by SPACEHAB in the commercial space systems market via continued module enhancements and introduction of new logistics carriers.
Shortfalls in ISS cargo transport capacity, emerging opportunities, and experience gained from SPACEHAB's existing ground and flight operations have encouraged development of Commercial Payload Service (CPS). As a commercially developed system, SPACEHAB recognizes that to optimize its capability and affordability requires that certain approaches in system development and operations be taken.
The first approach levies moderate requirements on the system. Introducing fundamental capabilities on the front end and scarring for enhanced capabilities later reduces cost to launch and shortens development time.
The second one is the utilization of existing technology and capabilities, where appropriate. A typical feature of NASA programs is the continual reach for newly developed technologies. While attractive from a technical advancement perspective, this quest is expensive and often fails to create operational capabilities. A commercially developed cargo module will maximize the use of existing technologies (off the shelf where possible) and seek technical advances only where system requirements or market conditions drive the need for such advances. Additionally, costs associated with the development of spacecraft are not limited to those associated with the vehicle systems. Significant costs associated with the infrastructure must also be considered. SPACEHAB's existing logistics and vehicle processing facilities co-located with the Eastern launch range and at the Sea Launch facilities enable avoidance of significant system development costs.
Finally, SPACEHAB has realized cost and schedule reductions by employing commercial processes instead of Government processes. As a result, SPACEHAB's mission integration template for a Shuttle-based carrier is 14 months, compared to 22 months for a similar Shuttle-based Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM).

Rack transfer capability

Baker and Eichstadt also wrote, in 2005:

The ISS utilizes the International Standard Payload Rack (ISPR) as the primary payload and experiment accommodations structure in all US operated modules. Transferring ISPRs onto and off the ISS requires passage through the hatch only found at the Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) berthing locations. The diameter of the CBM combined with ISPR proportions typically drives cargo vehicle diameters to sizes only accommodated by 5 m payload fairings launched on Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV).

Recoverable reentry–pressurized payloads

Baker and Eichstadt also wrote, in 2005:

The Russian Progress vehicle has long served as a cargo vehicle which, upon departing a space station, destructively reenters the atmosphere destroying all “cargo” on board. This approach works very effectively for removing unwanted mass from a space station. However, NASA has indicated that the return of payloads from the ISS is highly desirable [5]. Therefore, a commercial system must examine the implications of including a pressurized payload return capability either in the initial design or as an enhanced feature of the service to be introduced in the future. Providing such capability requires the incorporation of thermal protection subsystem, deorbit targeting subsystems, landing recovery subsystems, ground recovery infrastructure, and FAA licensure. The recovery of unpressurized payloads presents unique challenges associated with the exposed nature of unpressurized carriers. To implement a recoverable reentry system for unpressurized payloads requires the development of an encapsulation system. Encapsulation activities must either occur autonomously prior to reentry or as a part of the operations associated with loading the unpressurized cargo carrier with return cargo. In either case, additional cost associated with spacecraft systems or increased operational requirements will be higher than simply loading and departing a pressurized carrier for a destructive reentry.

Mixed manifest capability

Baker and Eichstadt also wrote, in 2005:

Typically, the avoidance of point solutions provides flexibility for a given system to provide variable capabilities. Designing a cargo carrier that mixes pressurized and unpressurized systems can lead to increased cost if all associated cargo accommodations must be flown on every flight. To avoid unnecessary costs associated with designing and flying structure that accommodates fixed relative capacities of all types of payloads, a modular approach is taken for CPS. Anticipated cargo transport requirements for ISS after the Shuttle is retired indicate that dedicated pressurized and unpressurized missions can support the ISS up-mass requirements. Utilizing common base features (i.e. service module, docking system, etc.) and modularizing the pressurized and unpressurized carrier elements of the spacecraft assures flexibility while avoiding point solutions.

Propellant transfer

Baker and Eichstadt also wrote, in 2005:

The Russian Segment of the ISS (RSOS) has the capability via the probe and cone docking mechanisms to support propellant transfer. Incorporation of propellant transfer capability introduces international issues requiring the coordination of multiple corporate and governmental organizations. Since ISS propellant requirements are adequately provided for by the Russian Progress and ESA ATV, costs associated with incorporating these features can be avoided. However, the CPS’ modular nature coupled with the inherent capability of selected subsystems enables economical alternatives to propellant transfer should ISS needs require.
Indirect costs considered in developing the CPS architecture include licensing requirements associated with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) commercial launch and entry licensing requirements. ITAR licensing drives careful selection of the vehicle subsystem suppliers. Any utilization or manufacturing of spacecraft subsystems by non-US entities can only be implemented once the appropriate Department of State and/or Commerce approvals are in place. FAA licensing requirements necessitate careful selection of the launch and landing sites. Vehicles developed by a US organized corporation, even if launched in another country, require review of the vehicle system, operations, and safety program by the FAA to ensure that risks to people and property are within acceptable limits


While significant focus of space logistics is on upmass, or payload mass carried up to orbit from Earth, space station operations also have significant downmass requirements. Returning cargo from low-Earth orbit to Earth is known as transporting downmass, the total logistics payload mass that is returned from space to the surface of the Earth for subsequent use or analysis. Downmass logistics are important aspects of research and manufacturing work that occurs in orbital space facilities.

For the International Space Station, there have been periods of time when downmass capability was severely restricted. For example, for approximately ten months from the time of the retirement of the Space Shuttle following the STS-135 mission in July 2011—and the resultant loss of the Space Shuttle's ability to return payload mass—an increasing concern became returning downmass cargo from low-Earth orbit to Earth for subsequent use or analysis. During this period of time, of the four space vehicles capable of reaching and delivering cargo to the International Space Station, only the Russian Soyuz vehicle could return even a very small cargo payload to Earth. The Soyuz cargo downmass capability was limited as the entire space capsule was filled to capacity with the three ISS crew members who return on each Soyuz return. None of the remaining cargo resupply vehicles — the Russian Space Agency Progress, the European Space Agency (ESA) ATV, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) HTV — can return any downmass cargo for terrestrial use or examination.

After 2012, with the successful berthing of the commercially contracted SpaceX Dragon during the Dragon C2+ mission in May 2012, and the initiation of operational cargo flights in October 2012, downmass capability from the ISS is now 3,000 kilograms (6,600 lb) per Dragon flight, a service that is uniquely provided by the Dragon cargo capsule.

Nine additional Dragon cargo resupply flights are scheduled to depart the ISS with downmass in the next several years.

From the Wikipedia entry for SPACE LOGISTICS

      “So, Starling,” Gampy finally said to me, “What did you figure out this week?”
     “Railroads,” I said. “Highways. Trucks. Costs of shipping.”
     “Mm,” he said around a mouthful of something designed to approximate dinosaur, it still tasted like chicken. He chewed for a bit, swallowed, and finally asked, “And…? ”

     “Well, um. If you own the tracks, you have a monopoly, you set your own prices. But if you don’t own the tracks—the roads—then everybody gets to compete, and the market determines the cost of shipping. In the ecliptic, there are no tracks, only orbits. And everybody’s got their own. So it’s like roads. It’s all about intersections. Convenient intersections.”

     Gampy looked to Ganny. “See? Told you she’d get it.”
     Ganny swallowed politely before answering. “Was there ever any doubt?”
     Gampy looked back to me. “Go on.”

     “I know we like to say that everybody comes to Rick’s, because sooner or later everybody has to come to a whirligig to slingshot into a new trajectory, but that isn’t true anymore. Not since whatsisname invented the traction drive. Used to be, they’d come for a slingshot, but now they only come if they want to fill their freezers. And that’s only locals now, and only when they need to resupply, and only if they don’t have a farm of their own. In ten years, fifteen, everybody will have tractions. Even cargo pods. So whirligigs are like internal combustion engines. Very useful, but only until people invented something more efficient.”

     “Good,” said Gampy. “You might have been a little too optimistic about how quickly everyone will switch to tractors, but I might be wrong too. The human factor is always a monkey wrench.”

     “What’s a monkey wrench…?”
     “It’s where you raise Jewish monkeys.”
     “Never mind, I’ll look it up later.”

     “I’m sure you will.” Gampy stuffed another baby potato into his mouth and grinned. That was his answer to almost every question: “Look it up, I’m not going to do all the work here, you’re the one who wants to know.” Gampy said the only thing worse than not knowing how to swim in the data-sea was knowing how and never getting your feet wet for anything more than looking at people trading body fluids.

     “So, kiddo,” Gampy poked again. “Is a spaceship cost-effective?”

     “Yes and no. I mean, a traction drive isn’t that hard to fabricate. We could even print a couple dozen ourselves. There’s enough open-source matrices on the web, we’d only have to choose one, maybe adapt it for our needs, so it’s mostly a problem of raw materials and energy. And we wouldn’t have any problem fabbing new solar panels, three or four racks and probably a dozen new capacitor farms, so it’s only a problem of raw materials and we can cannibalize most of that from the junkyard. I’m guessing we could do it in 24 months or less. Worst-case scenario is 48 months. If we double up on the fabbers, I bet we could cut the production time to 16 months.”

     Ganny looked annoyed. Gampy covered his smile with his napkin. “What’s the no part, punkin?”

     “The life support system. We don’t have a hull. Unless you’re planning to cannibalize modules from the whirligig. But you’d never do that because the gig has to maintain a viability score of 350 or more for a crew of 20 and you won’t risk the numbers. I don’t know how big a crew you’re planning for the spaceship, but even a yacht needs a lot of hull space to be self-sufficient.”

     “Why do we need to build a self-sufficient ship?” Gampy asked.
     I gave him the look. The one that says “Why are you even bothering to ask?” It almost worked. He still gave me the “Come on, answer the question” gesture with his hand.
     I took a deep breath, my way of showing him how annoyed I was that I even had to explain. “Because,” I said. And folded my arms.
     Gampy laughed. Ganny smiled and said to him, “She’s got you there.”

     Of course, that wasn’t the end of the conversation. Conversations never really ended on the whirligig, they just spun around for a while, evolving, changing, recycling. Some of the conversations eventually flung off into space, forgotten. Others got winched in for closer examination and winched out again when they were no longer relevant. I expected this to be one of those kind of discussions, I should have known better. Gampy never wasted air. Gampy was famous for that.

     Actually, Gampy was famous for a lot of things. He and Ganny were sort of like legends. As near as I could tell, everybody in the belt knew them, or at least knew of them.

     The way most people know the story, Gampy built the first whirligig. He didn’t, not any more than Henry Ford built the first car, but Gampy built the first one that worked well enough to be profitable. You can look it up. Gampy started the first pipeline. And like the railroads, the pipeline made it possible for people to expand outward to Mars, the belt, and the Jovian moons. And the Saturnalias as well (their name for it, not mine). Which was Gampy’s original idea. Don’t go out mining for gold, just sell shovels to those who do. You’ll make a lot more money.

     The pipeline isn’t really a pipeline with tubes, although I’m sure a lot of dirtsiders think it is. Once, when Ganny was angry about something, she said, “Never underestimate the stupidity of dirtsiders in large groups, except when they’re alone and have to do their own thinking.” And even though I know that there some smart dirtsiders, Ganny says not to depend on it. Anyway, the way the pipeline works, cargo pods come up one of the beanstalks, Ecuador or Brazil or Kenya or mid-Pacific, and also from Mars and Luna too. The pods go all the way out to the ballast rock at the far end of the cable, unless they’re carrying cargo or passengers that can’t stand the gees, and then they go only as far as they can. At just the right moment, the pod lets go of the cable and like a stone released from the end of a sling, it goes hurtling off in whatever direction it was pointing when it let go. Most of the pods go to Luna and Mars. A lot go to the Jovian moons. And a lot go out to the Saturnalias, now that they’re getting serious about colonizing. A few more go out into deep space, those are usually long-distance robot probes. The rest come out to the belt where we catch them with the whirligig.

     The whirligig is a beanstalk without a planet attached. You get a length of cable and two rocks, a kilometer is a good length, but you can do it with less—or more if you want. It works on any scale. Gampy says you really want a minimum of three cables for redundant strength, but he eventually used six, which gave him room for expansion. You start with a cable and a construction harness. Then you catch two rocks—that’s the hard part because it involves wrassling a flying mountain, and that’s a lot of delta-vee, but if you can catch the rocks, or better yet, break one big rock into two pieces, you’re in business. You catch each rock in a big net. You loop one end of your cable around one rock, you loop the other end around the other rock. If you’re smart, like Gampy, you use multiple cables, because no matter how well you plan, you never know what surprises will happen once stress is applied.

     Once you’ve got your rocks securely netted and harnessed and attached to the ends of the cables, you give each rock a push, but in opposite directions, a small push at first, just enough to start them orbiting slowly around each other like a bolo. That’s the hard part because big rocks usually have their own opinions about where they want to go. That’s what I mean about out-stubborning a mountain. Which is why as soon as you’ve got them going, you want to get out of the way, because you’ve probably miscalculated and you’re going to have to apply a lot of corrections. That’s why you start out slowly at first.

     This is the part they don’t always tell you about in the engineering books. In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is. The physical universe is going to get sloppy and you have to adjust for it. Constantly. Then you start adding more push, more acceleration, until you get your bolo whirling at the rotation you need to catch and sling cargo pods. Keep making corrections until you don’t have to anymore. Wait a few days until they stabilize, then wait a few days more to see if you’ve miscalculated again.

     With all that centrifugal force on the rocks, you want to be certain that they’ve finished settling. Sometimes pieces decide to fly off, which is why you want to get above or below the local ecliptic, so you’re not accidentally in the way. You want to make sure that the whole thing isn’t going to suddenly fly apart before you make a commitment. Sometimes the stress and strain of applied “space-gravity” destabilizes the inner structure of the rocks, causing them to crack or crumble or simply rearrange themselves in their harnesses, changing their center of gravity and the center of gravity on your bolo. When you’re finally satisfied that the bolo is spinning safely, then you proceed. Then the construction harness crawls back and forth along the cable until it finds the exact center of gravity on the line. That’s where you build your hub, usually a wheel so you can spin it for gee.

     Okay, so now you’ve got pumps on both ends of your pipeline. We’re at the top end—one of the top ends. The bottom end is the great big whirligig called the big blue marble. A top end is any whirligig near your intended destination, or at least on the way there. You can sling a lot of stuff back and forth between the two. The tricky part is catching the pods. There are a lot of different ways to do it. The easiest is to hang a big hook at the end of the catching line. The pod then puts out a big loop of cable, as much as a kilometer in diameter, if necessary. If you’re really cautious, you also put a hook on the pod and the gig puts out a lasso as well. The velocity differences at match-up are fairly low, usually less than a few kph. But despite all the course corrections all the way in, you only get one chance at threading the needle. And with cargo pods carrying as much as a half-billion plastic dollars’ worth of cargo at a time, you just don’t take chances. And if the pod is carrying passengers, you really do not want to let them go sailing off into space, especially if the chance of recovery is somewhere south of impossible. Gampy says that having to listen to desperate calls for help fading off into deep space can ruin your whole day.

     Gampy’s whirligig outsizes everything else in this part of the belt, ten degrees east and seven degrees west, so we catch all the fastest and heaviest traffic in this slice of the arc. Seventeen degrees. And that’s a lot of arc. That’s because Gampy had the far vision. That’s what Ganny calls it. Far vision is being able to see past tomorrow. A long way past. The way Ganny tells it, Luna got too crowded for Gampy’s taste, so he hiked all the way out to the belt with a big roll of cable on his back, picked out the two biggest rocks he could find, hitched ’em together, and started ’em spinning. Then he ordered more cable. By the time the big space exploration companies got out here, Gampy had a giant spinning spiderweb with eight ballast rocks and sixteen stabilizing engines. Cargo slingshots through here for delivery to the local group or slingshots back and forth between Earth and Jupiter, Earth and Saturn, and occasionally even Earth and Mars, depending on everybody’s orbital positions. Work it out for yourself. When Mars and Earth are on opposite sides of the sun, it’s faster to fling it to us and we fling it on. It’s called a double-play. Tinkers to Evers to Chance. I had to look that one up. The allegory isn’t exact, but Gampy’s a history nut, always peppering his conversations with little nuggets for me to find and research. He does it on purpose. It’s the game we’ve played for as long as I can remember. But no matter how sharp I get, he’s still the bear, I’m still the cub.

     When a pod gets out here, it doesn’t have to slow down. It only has to arrive at the right speed and the right time so that it momentarily matches trajectory with one of the spinning arms as it comes around. There are a lot of different spinning arms, different lengths, different positions, so there’s a little wiggle room on the final approach, but not much. And IRMA (their master computer) takes over control of the pod on its way in and manages the entire docking maneuver. (If the pod doesn’t let IRMA take control, we don’t catch it. No matter what’s on board.)

     After a pod latches on, after the hooks and loops catch, there’s a few moments of load-balancing, because even with all the ballast rocks in place, the whirligig’s center of gravity has shifted and we either have to pump some water around or winch some other pods in or out, or both. IRMA manages that.

     Some pods we winch down to the hub—and that requires more load-balancing. Others, we just wait for the next convenient launch window and send them whirling off to their next destination. Gampy says it’s a lot cheaper for the big money to pay us to catch and sling cargo pods than build their own whirligigs. Gampy says that’s how he became one of the first trillionaires in the ecliptic. On paper, anyway.

     At any given moment, Gampy had maybe 950 billion dollars’ worth of cargo in transit outward and maybe another 125 billion in value headed back, depending on market value. But depending on where the pods were launched from, depending on whether or not they had to slingshot around something, the outbound journey could take as long as three years. Complicating the matter, pods could only be launched when there was an open catching window for them at whatever point in the future they were scheduled to arrive, so the computations could get tricky.

     But belters can’t wait three years for supplies, not even three weeks if it’s air and water they need. So Gampy always bought a lot of stuff on margin against a slice of long-term earnings. What that meant was that technically Gampy owned the cargo until the recipient paid for it. Somewhere, in some dirtside bank, somebody would subtract a few zeroes from one account and add them to another. Out in the belt, nobody starves, nobody suffocates. That’s not just the Starsider ethic, that was Gampy’s rule. “Out here, the equations are as warm as we can make them. Anybody doesn’t like that way of business can go somewhere else.” Except for the longest time there was nowhere else.

     Gampy never turned anyone away. If he had it to give, he gave. Only once did he have a problem with one family of belters. They didn’t pay their bills. Even with all the computerized projections and advisories they had available to them, they always knew better, until eventually they mismanaged themselves into a very ambitious bankruptcy, but they kept on anyway. Because Gampy kept resupplying them for a lot longer than he should have. Until finally, it became obvious they were never going to work their way out of their very deep hole. They wouldn’t take any of the little jobs Gampy offered them because they still believed in the big score, the solid-gold asteroid. Those little jobs would have kept them going and Gampy could have recouped some of their debts. But no. They were too proud to take little jobs. So finally, one night, Gampy loaded them up with just enough fuel and almost enough food to get to Mars, and as soon as they were all asleep in their ship, he slung them off to Mars. They made it, but they were really hungry when they arrived. The way Ganny tells it, a lot of other belters started paying their bills on time Real Quickly after that.

     Every so often, some dirtsider complains about the amount of product that comes out to the whirligigs, enough to supply a small town for a couple of years, enough to build two or three long-riders. “I thought they’re supposed to be self-sufficient. Why are we still supporting them? That money should be spent on the poor—not on spoiled starsiders.”

     But they don’t understand. The whirligig has to be a warehouse. Maybe it’s the way they live, everything is too easy. If you can waddle down to the corner store and pick whatever you want off the shelf, you don’t worry too much about how it got there or where it came from in the first place or what it took to get it there because the next day the shelf is full again. Dirtsiders don’t have to think about where their next breath of air or drink of water is coming from, so they don’t stop to think that the rest of us do. Everyone who lives starside.

     But the ones who do understand, the ones on the bottom end of the pipeline, they’re even worse. Because every so often, one of those cute little business-school graduates figures that he can boost his bottom line by raising prices on the belters. Charge a dollar more per cubic liter of oxygen, two bucks processing fee for clean water, decontamination surtax for every item loaded into a cargo pod, no problem. It adds up. What are the belters going to do? Take their business elsewhere? Where? Negotiate a new deal? With whom?

     The last time Gampy got one of those “New Fee Schedule” messages he replied with a new fee schedule of his own. “Service fee for new software processing to prevent returning capsules from accidentally falling into the Pacific Ocean or onto a continental landmass.” The service fee was considerable. Enough to offset all the surcharges and processing fees and surtaxes. That was a fun negotiation. It lasted for eleven and a half months. Until a few of the capsules started falling into the Pacific. Including one very expensive capsule with a lot of stuff they really didn’t want to lose. Oops. My bad. I told you we needed to update the software. Then they paid attention. Gampy appointed himself the ad hoc negotiator for all the belters and refused to back down until three planetary authorities agreed to regulate cargo launch costs more honestly. Gampy even wrote in a clause guaranteeing a cost of living margin for all the cargo handlers on the ground as well as the ones in space, so that guaranteed popular support from the important people on both ends of the line. A lot of dirtsiders weren’t very happy about it. They said words like arrogant and blackmail and terrorism and wanted to stop sending us supplies at all. Obviously, they didn’t think that one all the way through.

     It wasn’t a great relationship, but it worked. Gampy said it was about power. If you have it, sometimes you have to use it—to remind people that you have it. Otherwise they’ll think you don’t have it. But the whirligigs were important, just too important to the economies of four worlds and a handful of lesser settlements. Nobody could afford to get into a prolonged fight. The alternative was to accelerate things the old-fashioned way, by boosting a lot of fuel into orbit and using half of it to accelerate and the other half to decelerate. And twice as much more if you expected to bring anything or anyone back, because you pay a fuel penalty to boost the mass of your fuel, too. So before the traction drive was invented, the whirligigs were the cheapest way to sling things around the system.

     It took a while to get the big traction drives out of the labs, but even before the first tractor ships started shooting around the system, everybody knew that the role of the whirligigs would be changed ("traction drives" are described as being "non-Newtonian". Which means they are some kind of handwaving reactionless thruster. It would naturally make all other rocket propulsion obsolete, if it was actually possible to exist). Probably diminished. To run a pipeline, you need a sling at both ends, but a tractor can go directly from point to point and usually a lot faster. Cargo doesn’t care how long a trip takes, passengers do.

     So there wasn’t any question why Gampy wanted a spaceship. It was the only way to stay competitive. Or we accept a reduced role in the economy of the belt (in other words: Technological Disruption. This is what causes ghost towns).

From GANNY KNITS A SPACESHIP by David Gerrold (2009)

      The phrase sticks in my mind. I surely read it in an SF novel, or more than one, and perhaps in a variation like daily moonship. Since it is an evocative phrase, at any rate to me, let us evoke something from it.

     The weekly moonship. Just the name tells us a good deal about Luna's place in human affairs: we go there every week, at least most weeks. It might be more; perhaps connecting flights depart from Cape Canaveral on Mondays, Baikonur on Tuesdays, and so on. But let us modestly stick to a single weekly moonship.

     Not only do we know that we go to the Moon weekly, we can venture a broad guess as to how many people make the trip. Our moonship surely carries more than a couple of passengers, fewer than a thousand; a broad range might be 10-200. We will say fifty: our moonship has the seating of a 1950s airliner or transcontinental train coach.
     Since the Luna round trip takes a week, weekly service probably means two passenger ships taking turns, with a third — perhaps an older model, less economical to fly — in reserve. For landing on the lunar surface, a shorter mission, one lander will do, with one in reserve. One or two ships suffice for other distant orbits, so altogether we have a generous half dozen passenger ships working the Moon and other locales in the outer reaches of Earth's orbital space.
     And we will suppose that these ships mostly fill their seats, unlike the rather similar spaceliner in 2001 that carried Heywood Floyd to the Moon in solitary VIP splendor. So about 2500 passengers travel to Luna each year, at least to lunar orbit; most continue on down to the surface. At this stage nearly all are making the round trip; if most are serving six-month rotations we have about a thousand regular residents of Luna Base and its outliers.
     Passengers making shorter stays nudge up the lunar population — as does anyone staying on past six months. Add a few hundred people in lunar orbit, or other distant orbits, for a total of roughly 2000 people in the outer orbital zone.
     Beyond that zone we might suppose that about fifty people are on or orbiting Mars, with a similar number aboard exploratory missions elsewhere — perhaps a half dozen active deep space ships that carry human crews, plus some robotic freighters that can take slower orbits.
     If the deep space missions use electric propulsion they depart from high orbits or at least refuel and take crew aboard there; if they use chemfuel or (properly shielded!) atomic rockets they blast straight out of low orbit for maximum Oberth effect. In that case the human presence in outer orbital space may still be confined largely to the Moon itself, and lunar orbit.
     But we are not mainly concerned here with deep space. Anyway,  you cannot yet buy a ticket aboard the biennial Mars ship the way you can with the weekly moonship.

     Looking inward, towards Earth, we can expect to find more people.

     Geosynch is economically important but surprisingly difficult to reach — nearly twice as hard as jumping over the Moon, as Apollo 8 did. Geosynchronous orbits are awkwardly placed: High enough that it takes a big burn to get there, close enough, thus with high orbital speed, that it takes sizable burns to match orbit, then head back down. So geosynch traffic is purely utilitarian, and the human presence perhaps less than in lunar orbit. A single passenger ship can serve this route, with one in reserve.
     Low Earth orbit is a different matter. It is the closest place in space, the easiest and cheapest to reach, and for many purposes and most passengers that is enough. Tourists can float and gawk as well here as anywhere. Virtual tourism is also served; Xollywood can and will use low Earth orbit as stand-in for the universe.
     So ... taking a not too deep breath, let us say that there are 10,000 people in low Earth orbit at a given time, ten times the lunar population. For those who are staying weeks or months in space, this corresponds to a tenfold increase in traffic volume, about 25,000 people going up every year for fairly long stays.
     But low Earth orbit allows quicker trips than the week-long journey to the Moon. So let us say that about ten percent of the people in low orbit are visiting for short stays of less than a week, adding about 50,000 annual trips, for a total of 75,000.
     And let us round things out by adding 25,000 tourists who simply go up and down, never exiting the shuttle, but going back with memories.

     Thus, 100,000 (!) passengers to space every year, a few hundred daily. If our passenger shuttles also carry fifty people, there are five or six daily flights to orbit worldwide. Allow, 'conservatively,' a one week turnaround, and there are about forty shuttles in the service rotation. Perhaps fifty in the active fleet, allowing for maintenance cycles, some in reserve, and so on.
     In human terms this is some serious traveling. We can suppose that the baseline human lift cost to low orbit is perhaps $50,000 (in present day USD), but that is an average. Business travelers will pay another $20K for a reserved ticket and 'complementary' cocktail; most pay cheerfully because they aren't paying; their company picks up the tab.
     Tourists fly standby and bring their own libations. They also benefit from the economics of unsold seats on the bus. The seats go into orbit whether or not any passengers are floating above them. The direct cost of lifting each passenger is really only a ton or two of propellant, at Earth industrial price, plus an airline meal.
     Which means that some seats will be sold pretty cheap, and even us peasants can pass on that new car, and instead spend a day looking the universe in the eye.

     The payload we care most about is us, but we must say a little about cargo traffic as well, especially since much of it also involves us intimately: food and shelter.
     At this level of development, growing food in space is still in trial stage; daily sustenance comes up from Earth. My baseline 'cheap' orbit lift cost is $100,000/ton, $45 per old fashioned pound. That is roughly ten times the grocery store price of everyday goods, but not much more than the price of luxury items.
     People in space will eat well, because the lobster doesn't cost much more than the rice you serve it with. In general, everyday economics has the boom-town combination of sky high all-around prices with peculiar twists.

     You also need a place to stay. The most massive and crucial structural works in space are not ships but dormitory habitat modules: where you live, if you are living in space or on the Moon.
     My baseline guesstimate for these is about 20 cubic meters and 10 tons per person. If you stripped all the laboratory equipment and such out of the International Space Station, beefed up life support, and fitted its pressure modules out like a Pullman train, it would have roomettes for some 45 people, which sounds about right.
     (For really long term occupancy, including children and pregnant women, you need another 5-10 tons of radiation shielding. On the Moon you can just pile up regolith, AKA lunar dirt, over the hab structures. But at this stage we only need a few fully shielded habs.)
     Booking a hab roomette as a hotel room might come to about $10,000 per night minimum — more inflated than the price of food, because the thing is so heavy. There may be bad hotels in space, but at this level of development there are not yet any cheap ones.
     For 10,000 people in low orbit, thus about 100,000 tons of habitat, plus we might suppose another 100,000 tons of other facilities such as those Xollywood sound(less) stages. Annual orbit lift needed to support, maintain, upgrade, and expand it all might come to 30 percent of the total, 60,000 tons.

     Suppose we have two main classes of cargo lifters. Most carry up about 25 tons, and are cargo counterparts of the passenger shuttles. About a fifth are heavy lifters, 100 tons to orbit, carrying about half the total load. Average payload is 40 tons, so 1500 flights per year, about five daily including one heavy lifter.
     The fleet of cargo shuttles comes to about forty vehicles, so altogether our orbital shuttle fleet approaches a hundred (two-stage) vehicles.
     The thousand people on the Moon, and the other thousand or so elsewhere in orbital space, also need room and board — coming to some 40,000 tons of imported structures, and about 12,000 tons per year in up-bound cargo traffic from Earth, half of it going to the Moon.
     To carry this cargo up we will need a few more shuttles, and to take it on outward we need a small fleet of cargo ships. Let each carry 60 tons of cargo — comparable, for these longer trips, to the 50 seats aboard the passenger ships — and we have a couple of cargo moonships per week as well as the passenger ship. Altogether the cargo fleet working beyond low Earth orbit will number about a dozen ships — add the passenger fleet for a total of around 20.

     So we come full circle to the weekly (passenger) moonship. A ticket will not come cheap, because lunar propellant is probably not yet competitive for use on low Earth orbit.
     Propellant sent up from Earth to an orbital depot is a relatively simple bulk payload suited to maximum streamlining of operations, and the price might get pushed down to $50,000 per ton. A ton of lunar propellant delivered to low Earth orbit needs at least another ton or so to get it there, even with solar electric kites for the second leg of the trip, so the price point to match for lunar production is around $25,000 per ton at the source.
     Moreover, rocket propellant uses a larger proportion of hydrogen than ice contains, thus perhaps two tons of ice per ton of propellant extracted. Altogether, to make lunar propellant competitive in low Earth orbit you may need to bring production cost down to $250 per ton of lunar regolith that must be crunched to obtain the ice — a pretty demanding order for mining on the Moon.
     Lunar propellant is much more competitive in lunar space, versus propellant lifted all that way from Earth, but low Earth orbit will favor Earth-sourced propellant for a long time, even permanently if launch costs come down enough.
     Our weekly moonship needs about four tons of propellant per passenger, costing $200,000 on orbit (and not counting, for Earth passengers, their ticket to orbit). All in all, upwards of a quarter million on average to fly to the Moon. Robert Heinlein, writing in 1949, pegged the full Earth-to-Moon lift at $30 per pound — equivalent, at current prices, to $299.75 (almost exactly 10x inflation), or $660,649 per ton. So we are beating Heinlein's price hands down.
     That said, even filling that last empty seat will set you back a minimum of $30,000 in propellant to lift you and your baggage. But hey, a best-case total of maybe $50K or so to fly to the Moon? Not shabby.

     Stepping back, the vision I have sketched here looks very much on the same scale as what Kubrick and Clarke gave us in 2001: A Space Odyssey. One estimate for the mass of Space Station V in the film comes to 68,000 tons, about a third of my estimate for total low-orbit presence.
     The operating technology I've presumed — chemfuel rockets for all routine operations — is speculation-free, aside from the bit of magitech faerie dust needed to make space operations routine. We probably could have done it by 2001, had space development continued at the white hot pace of 1968.
     The whole shebang — shuttles, orbital stations and habs, moonships and Luna base, all of it — has a combined mass somewhat less than 300,000 tons. By my million-dollars-per-ton guesstimate, which applies to commercial airliners — and expendable rocket stages — today, it would cost us not quite a third of a trillion dollars to build it all, and $100 billion or so to operate it each year.
     In an earlier development stage, when spacecraft are still largely handbuilt prototypes, the same money will only buy about a tenth as much — still a respectable start: a thousand people in space, a hundred on the Moon, the cost falling and development expanding as experience is gained and economies of scale kick in.

     But enough of the big picture, except for the biggest picture of all, the one outside the viewport. Ladies and gentlemen, moonship Henry Mancini is now ready for boarding at Airlock Ten-Alpha. Please glance at the ticket scanner as you pass by, and have a wonderful trip! Damy i gospoda, kosmicheskiy korabl' na Lunu Genri Manchini gotov ... (Ladies and gentlemen, the spacecraft to the moon Genri Manchini is ready)

From THE WEEKLY MOONSHIP by Rick Robinson (2015)

Satellites are extremely expensive to build and operate – a fact that makes their short life even more troublesome for their owners and operators. One of the largest contributors to a satellite’s eventual demise is running out of fuel and not having the fuel necessary for station-keeping, maneuvering and other requisite operations.

However, there could be a solution on the horizon that could extend satellite life through strategic refueling.

In June of this year, SSL MDA Holdings – a global communications and information company – announced the formation of Space Infrastructure Services LLC (SIS), a new company that will offer commercial satellite servicing capabilities, including refueling. In addition to announcing the formation of the company and the introduction of these services, they also announced the company’s first customer – SES.

Carlo Tommasini, the Vice President of Fleet Engineering at SES recently gave an interview about why SES decided to move in the direction of in-orbit refueling, and why this could have a major impact on the future of the satellite industry. Here is what Carlo had to say:

Q: Refueling a satellite on-orbit with minimal disruption on the operations of the spacecraft sounds like a scene from a science fiction movie. How does it work?

Mr. Tommasini: MDA’s refueling approach is conceptually similar to a travelling space gas station that is capable of refueling satellites through robotic arms. MDA relocates the space gas station (robotic servicer) to the orbital location of the SES satellite where it docks to the aft end of the SES satellite for approximately nine days.

While the SES satellite continues providing customer services, automatic and tele-operated robotic servicing tools are used to survey the SES satellite, manipulate thermal blankets, valves and pump fuel. After the fuel transfer is completed, the worksite is closed and the robotic servicer undocks from the SES satellite and moves away. Thereafter, the SES satellite operates standalone and can continue to serve our customers beyond its usual 15 year-lifespan.

Q: What are the concrete benefits that this technology will deliver to SES?

Mr. Tommasini: Many satellites are healthy and in good operating condition in-orbit, and are able to operate beyond their 15 years design life. For these satellites, the limiting lifetime factor is the remaining fuel on board to maintain attitude control and orbital position station-keeping.

For satellites low on propellant, satellite in-orbit refueling provides life extension – maintaining revenue streams for the company and providing time to determine the optimal fleet management strategy.

Q: SES is the first commercial satellite operator to sign up for these in-orbit refueling services. With no previous users or case studies, how can the company be confident in this new technology?

Mr. Tommasini: MDA is a leader in space robotics and automated systems capable of enabling on-orbit servicing missions. SSL is a leading supplier of commercial GEO satellites and is also designing the satellite servicing spacecraft vehicle for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program.

We have spent months working closely with MDA and SSL to jointly develop the refueling services concept to meet SES’s needs. As SSL embarks on building the servicer, SES will be closely involved in reviewing the design and performance. This service – when ready – will bring powerful options to our fleet management capabilities. Together with the MDA and SSL, we are proud to be pioneering this technology.

Q: When can we expect to see the first SES satellite benefitting from MDA’s satellite in-orbit refueling service? Which satellite will be the first to get services?

Mr. Tommasini: SSL’s satellite servicing spacecraft is planned for launch in 2021, so we are hoping that would be the year where we would see our first SES satellite benefitting from this on-orbit refueling service.

It’s a little too soon to [identify the first satellite to be serviced] at this stage. There are a couple of factors that we need to consider — the strategic importance of the orbital location, long-term fleet plans, projected market dynamics at that point in time, and – most importantly – customer requirements. It is of utmost importance for us to make sure that our customers have business continuity at all times.


(ed note: Cassell, captain of a consolidator spacecraft, is giving a prospective new employee a test of their piloting skills.)

Suzi’s voice came from a console speaker on the bridge of the consolidator Turner Maddox, owned by Fast Forwarding Unincorporated, drifting 250 million miles from Earth in an outer region of the Asteroid Belt.

“Spider aligned at twelve hundred meters. Delta vee is fifteen meters per second, reducing.” Her voice maintained a note of professional detachment, but everyone had stopped what they were doing to follow the sequence unfolding on the image and status screens.

“No messing with this kid, man,” Fuigerado, the duty radar tech, muttered next to Cassell. “He’s going in fast.”

Cassell grunted, too preoccupied with gauging the lineup and closing rate to form an intelligible reply. The view from the spider’s nose camera showed the crate stern on, rotating slowly between the three foreshortened, forward-pointing docking appendages that gave the bulb—ended, remote-operated freight-retrieval module its name. (the spider is a "catcher" for cargo crates flung at it by remote mass drivers) Through the bridge observation port on Cassell’s other side, all that was discernible directly of the maneuver being executed over ten miles away were two smudges of light moving against the starfield, and the flashing blue and red of the spider’s visual beacon.

As navigational dynamics chief, Cassell had the decision on switching control to the regular pilot standing by if the run-in looked to go outside the envelope. Too slow meant an extended chase downrange to attach to the crate, followed by a long, circuitous recovery back. Faster was better, but impact from an overzealous failure to connect could kick a crate off on a rogue trajectory that would require even more time and energy to recover from. Time was money everywhere, while outside gravity wells, the cost of everything was measured not by the distance moved, but by the energy needed to move it there. A lot of hopeful recruits did just fine on the simulator only to flunk through nerves when it came to the real thing.

“Ten meters per second,” Suzi’s voice sang out.

The kid was bringing the crate’s speed down smoothly. The homing marker was dead center in the graticule, lock-on confirming to green even as Cassell watched. He decided to give it longer.

The Lunar surface was being transformed inside domed-over craters; greenhousing by humidifying its atmosphere was thawing out the freeze-dried planet Mars; artificial space structures traced orbits from inside that of Venus to as far out as the asteroids. It all added up to an enormous demand for materials, which meant boom-time prices.

With Terran federal authorities controlling all Lunar extraction and regulating the authorized industries operating from the Belt, big profits were to be had from bootlegging (transporting illegal goods) primary asteroid materials direct into the Inner System. A lot of independent operators (illegal or pirate miners) got themselves organized to go after a share. Many of these were small-scale affairs—a breakaway cult, minicorp, even a family group—who had pooled their assets to set up a minimum habitat and mining-extraction facility, typically equipped with a low-performance mass launcher. Powered by solar units operating at extreme range (barely 10% of the solar power available at Terra), such a launcher would be capable of sending payloads to nearby orbits in the Belt, but not of imparting the velocities needed to reach the Earth-Luna vicinity.

This was where ventures like Fast Forwarding Uninc. came into the picture. Equipped with high-capacity fusion-driven launchers, they consolidated incoming consignments from several small independents into a single payload and sent it inward on a fast-transit trajectory to a rendezvous agreed upon with the customer.

Consolidators moved around a lot and carried defenses. The federal agencies put a lot of effort into protecting their monopolies. As is generally the case when fabulous profits stand to be made, the game could get very nasty and rough. Risk is always proportional to the possible gain.

“Delta vee, two point five, reducing. Twenty-six seconds to contact.”

Smooth, smooth—everything under control. It had been all along. Cassell could sense the sureness of touch on the controls as he watched the screen. He even got the feeling that the new arrival might have rushed the early approach on purpose, just to make them all a little nervous. His face softened with the hint of a grin.

As a final flourish, the vessels rotated into alignment and closed in a single, neatly integrated motion. The three latching indicators came on virtually simultaneously.

“Docking completed.”

“Right on!” Fuigerado complimented.

Without wasting a moment, the spider fired its retros to begin slowing the crate down to matching velocity, and steered it into an arc that brought it around sternwise behind the launcher, hanging half a mile off the Maddox’s starboard bow. It slid the crate into the next empty slot in the frame holding the load to be consolidated, hung on while the locks engaged, and then detached. (When enough crates are consolidated in the frame to constitute a full load, the mass driver launches it to Earth-Luna)

(ed note: So Fast Forwarding Uninc. moves their high-powered mass driver and spider "catcher" to new covert point X. Their bootleg miner clients use low-powered mass drivers to launch crates of illegal ore to point X. Fast Forwarding uses the spider to catch the incoming crates and uses their high-powered mass driver to launch the crates to buyers at Earth-Luna. Then sends a bill to the bootleg miner clients.

Fast Forwarding relocates their mass driver often to avoid being raided by the Feds. And the mass driver has defensive arms in case they didn't relocate soon enough.)

From MADAM BUTTERFLY by James Hogan (1997)

(ed note: This is for the Traveller role playing game. In the game, starships usually refuel at a spaceport but can refuel by skimming gas giants in the wilderness. Some star-captains avoid spaceports in favor of gas giants because it saves money. Unfortunately there are no space stations around such gas giants for your journey weary crew's benefit. The government of the solar system may notice a business opportunity.)

Okay ships use wilderness refueling to save credits. However, their crews do have money to spend. While their captain won't want to head for the mainworld, which has no market for his cargo, the crew still wants some leave. Even a few hours. Smart captains will give a little. Forward thinking world governments will see a way to make some bucks off passing ships.

Presenting Last Chance Outposts. Also known as side ports, gas 'n goes and a variety of less wholesome names.

Many worlds with a C starport or worse establish a space station near the inner gas giant. Sometimes it's an orbiting base. Other worlds use one or more large insystem craft, the better to meet captains eager to make their schedule. The mobile outposts carry a variety of merchandise, spares, filters, vacc suits, ship's locker items and personal weapons.

A number of outposts have very basic repair services have basic repair stations and a large EVA crew to perform them for ships that have been damaged during refueling. Without exception such repairs always take at least a few hours allowing the ship's crew to partake of the other outpost services.

An outpost will have a restaurant of some type. They vary in quality though most at least serve fresh food. After all the crew can get microwaved packaged crap onboard for nothing. Other shops will sell local goods such as luxury items or handcrafts all at steep mark up.

There is usually a compartment or several reserved for various illicit activities. These red lit corridors have almost anything you could imagine for sale or rent though what's illicit varies wildly from world to world. You might wind up in a coffee bar or out of uniform. Note this section is not openly advertised and requires some Streetwise or Steward skill to learn about and enter (as well as credits).

Finally each outpost has a cargo hold filled with a variety of items for speculation. A lot of haggling happens here. A great many items are organic in nature. Dumping food cargos due to spoilage, mold or fungal infection is common. So common that no one really looks into it. Some dumped cargoes find their way to an outpost where they can be bartered for other organics leaving no paper trail for the revenue services to follow and tax.

Other cargos can find their way to the cargo hole depending on how believable a story the captain can come up with. You might get away with saying you dumped some pcs with viruses downloaded from the factory that weren't worth debugging for example or saying you got swindled on some goods and threw them out the airlock ("What the hell are 'Bollex' wrist chronometers?!")

Some outposts are owned outright by the mainworld governments. The mobile outposts are often franchise owners moving from system to system or in many cases squatters on the gas giants of worlds that haven't the means of chasing them off or assuring they get a cut of the profits.

Another lucrative role for these entrepreneurs is as camp followers, tagging along behind a large mercenary group or an invasion force catering to the military's whims. War can be a cash cow no matter who wins.

From Gas (Giant) and Go! by Rob Garitta (2015)

Laser Launching

Laser Launching is a remarkable inexpensive way to get payload into LEO (aka "Halfway to Anywhere"). Unfortunately it requires lots of money for creating the initial facillity.

Genius Freeman Dyson believes it would be a good investment for a country such as the United States to build a laser-launch site and charge a modest fee to anybody who wanted to boost a payload into orbit. Such as Maw & Paw asteroid mining businesses. This is similar to the political motivation behind the US transcontinental railroad mentioned here.

An affordable space-going version of a Prairie Schooner could be purchased by private individuals, boosted into orbit for a modest fee by laser launch, then another modest fee to an ion-drive tug to join the wagon train to Luna, Mars, or the Asteroid belt. LEO is halfway to anywhere, remember? This would also allow grizzled old asteroid miners to go prospecting in the belt.

For a possible space-going Prairie Schooner, take a look at the Spacecoach concept.

Wagon Train in Space

Jerry Pournelle foresees that with the availability of a laser launch service coupled with affordable habitat modules could lead to wagon train in space. Which should bring a big grin to the face of any science fiction author trying to find a plausible reason to write novels about asteroid miners and homesteaders living in the solar system.

Maw and Paw pioneers/rock-rats/space-entrepreneurs just need the price of a hab module (i.e., Prairie Schooner) and laser boost fees for the overhead of space access. This gets them into LEO. Yes, in theory they can boost their hab module using something like an SpaceX style reusable chemical rocket instead of laser launching, but that is liable to be much more expensive. This entire concept hinges on some method to drive surface-to-orbit cargo cost down to the point where almost anybody can afford them.

In a future where the industrialization of space has advanced even further, hab modules and all the other equipment needed for space homesteading will be manufactured in space (i.e., outside of Terra's gravity well and its expensive 7.6 km/sec delta-V cost). So all Maw and Paw will need are tickets for themselves and any children on a Pan Am Space Clipper passenger shuttle flight into orbit (plus a full bank account). Or steerage-class tickets to ride in the payload bay of a cargo rocket (or laser launch capsule) lying on lumpy shipping crates while wearing space suits. Once in orbit they will purchase a hab module all needed equipment from orbital factories, avoiding the monstrous shipping charge of boosting all that mass from Terra's surface. From a science fiction author's standpoint, this just replaces a huge investment in laser launching with an even huger investment in orbital manufacturing. With a bonus of political tension as the laser launch companies angrily watch their business fall in lockstep with the rise in orbital manufacturing. That will supply the author with some dramatic plots.

Once in orbit with their hab, all Maw and Paw need (besides supplies for their business model) is transport for their hab module, to get it to the asteroid belt or whatever the plan is. Possible business models include asteroid mining, peddler, tinker, cobbler, boomtown store, and camp following. Maw and Paw con artists can try their hand at selling interplanetary snake oil. Or maybe just founding a space settlement. It's American Pioneer days all over again.

So Maw and Paw get to go homesteading among the asteroids, and the science fiction author gets a reasonably bullet-proof justification for a rocketpunk background for their novels. Sounds like a win-win to me.

There are several options to transport Maw and Paw in their hab module to their desired destination.

Inert Cargo Vessels
Inert cargo vessel shipping services will be happy to accelerate Maw and Paw in their prairie schooner into trans-Belt trajectory and catch it upon arrival. For a fee, and the acceleration might be a bit rougher than is the case with a passenger liner.
Momentum-energy Banks

For an interplanetary Prairie Schooners owned by a Maw-and-Paw company, momentum-energy banks dovetail nicely with laser launch services. It doesn't matter that your tin-can habitat module has the same delta V as a can of underarm deodorant spray. The laser will boost it into orbit and the bola will sling it to the destination. The limits are [a] you can only travel between momentum-energy banks installations and [b] do you have enough money to pay for the bola services? [c] is the acceleration low enough so it won't instantly kill Maw and Paw? Momentum banks for raw cargo will probably accelerate it at levels far above lethal, ones rated for 100% fully healthy Mom and Pop will have to keep under 30 gs for no more than 10 minutes.

The Wagon Train Company

They will have orbital tugs for hire, with regularly scheduled service to haul hab modules to various interplanetary destinations. The tugs could probably haul long strings of hab modules at a time like an outer-space train, especially if the tugs had a water-skiing thruster arrangement. Wagon train indeed!

The tug would probably also haul a company emergency module. If one of the hab modules springs a leak or otherwise has an emergency, the company module could rescue them. In exchange for a stiff fee, of course. In the wild west, wagon trains were mostly for mutual assistance, so the inhabitants of the various hab modules would probably want to try and help each other. Only if nobody offers any help would the unlucky Maw and Paw have to mortgage their souls to the company emergency module.


Orbital laser services could rent Maw and Paw a cheap laser thermal rocket engine (with a stiff deposit fee, refundable upon return of the engine). Bolt it to the hab module, set up payment transfers to Beams-Я-Us service department, and you are good to go.

Beams-Я-Us probably also has a Laser Horse or two: the laser equivalent of a choo-choo train. This would operate in the same manner as the Wagon Train Company, substituting a Beams-Я-Us laser thermal orbital tug.

The Motel Aldrin

In theory Maw and Paw could use an Aldrin Cycler to transport their prairie schooner. In practice it is more expensive. Remember that Cyclers are just clever ways to avoid the necessity of spending the delta-V expense on your life-support system, instead using the system on the cycler. You still have to spend the delta-V to get Maw and Paw and their payload up to Asteroid Belt Transfer Velocity. But wait, you have to spend it on the life-support system in the hab module, so you ain't saving any money. This only makes sense if you are planning on just transporting your bodies to the belt and purchasing your hab module, supplies, and equipment in the belt. Maw and Paw better check prices on hab modules in cis-Lunar space and compare them to asteroid belt prices before they try this stunt.

Personal Spaceship

If Maw and Paw have lots of money, they might purchase a real spacecraft instead of just a habitat module plus renting transport. A Spacecoach with a Water Wall would do nicely. This would be required if the business model necessitates mobility, e.g, chasing boomtowns or following camps.

But even though they now have no need of transportation services, it might make sense for them to travel along with a Convoy Services flotilla or shadowing a Wagon Train. Just in case Maw or Paw suddenly needs the services of the company emergency module...

Chances are good that most of the transport options noted above may have Convoy Services tagging along, like vultures. Just in case Maw and Paw might suddenly desperately need something, and is willing to shell out for inflated prices. A Wagon Train Company may very well covertly include some of their own convoy services modules in the train, outside of the standard emergency services module. Maw and Paw don't need to know that the Wagon Train tug, emergency module, and all the Convoy Services flotilla all belong to the same company.

After they arrive and start working their homestead it won't be long before Maw and Paw are visited by the peddlers, tinkers, cobblers, and the arrival of the latest catalog from Sears Robot & co. And the snake-oil salesmen of course.

So all the science fiction author has to do is postulate a drastically cheap method of boosting payload from Terra's surface, and in exchange receive justification for an industrialized and colonized solar system background. Plus the option of using the huge library of cowboy-and-westerns literature about pioneers for plot inspirations.


That's the (laser launch) concept, and I think I was the first to use it in a science fiction story. Imagine my surprise, then, when at an AAAS meeting I heard Freeman Dyson of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies give a lecture on laser-launched systems as "highways to space."

Dyson is, of course, one of the geniuses of this culture. His Dyson spheres have been used by countless science fiction writers (Larry Niven cheerfully admits that he stole the Ringworld from Dyson). One should never be surprised by Freeman Dyson—perhaps I should rephrase that. One is always surprised by Freeman Dyson. It's just that you shouldn't be surprised to find you've been surprised, so to speak.

Dyson wants the U.S. to build a laser-launching system. It is, he says, far better than the shuttle, because it will give access to space—not merely for government and big corporations, but for a lot of people.

Dyson envisions a time when you can buy, for about the cost of a present-day house and car, a space capsule. The people collectively own the laser-launch system, and you pay a small fee to use it. Your capsule goes into orbit. Once you're in orbit you're halfway to anyplace in the solar system. Specifically, you're halfway to the L-5 points, if you want to go help build O'Neill colonies. You're halfway to the asteroid Belt if you'd like to try your hand at prospecting. You're halfway to Mars orbit if that's your desire.

America, Dyson points out, wasn't settled by big government projects. The Great Plains and California were settled by thousands of free people moving across the plains in their own wagons. There is absolutely no reason why space cannot be settled the same way. All that's required is access.

Dangerous? Of course. Many families will be killed. A lot of pioneers didn't survive the Oregon Trail, either. The Mormons' stirring song "Come Come Ye Saints" is explicit about it: the greatest rewards go to those who dare and whose way is hard.

That kind of Highway to Space would generate more true freedom than nearly anything else we could do; and if the historians who think one of the best features of America was our open frontiers, and that we've lost most of our freedom through loss of frontier—if they're right, we can in a stroke bring back a lot of what's right with the country.

Why don't we get at it?

Dyson envisions a time when individual families can buy a space capsule and, once Out There, do as they like: settle on the Moon, stay in orbit, go find an asteroid; whatever. It will be a while before we can build cheap, self-contained space capsules operable by the likes of you and me; but it may not be anywhere as long as you think.

The problem is the engines, of course; there's nothing else in the space home economy that couldn't, at teast in theory, be built for about the cost of a family home, car, and recreational vehicle. But then most land-based prefabricated homes don't have their own motive power either; they have to hire a truck for towing.

It could make quite a picture: a train of space capsules departing Earth orbit for Ceres and points outward, towed by a ship something like the one I described in "Tinker." Not quite Ward Bond in Wagon Train, but it still could make a good TV series. The capsules don't have to be totally self-sufficient, of course. It's easy enough to imagine way stations along the route, the space equivalent of filling stations in various orbits.

Dyson is fond of saying that the U.S. wasn't settled by a big government settlement program, but by individuals and families who often had little more than courage and determination when they started. Perhaps that dream of the ultimate in freedom is too visionary; but if so, it isn't because the technology won't exist.

However we build our Moonbase, it's a very short step from there to asteroid mines. Obviously the Moon is in Earth orbit: with the shallow Lunar gravity well it's no trick at all to get away from the Moon, and Earth's orbit is halfway to anywhere in the solar system. We don't know what minerals will be available on the Moon. Probably it will take a while before it gets too expensive to dig them up, but as soon as it does, the Lunatics themselves will want to go mine the asteroids.

There's probably more water ice in the Belt than there is on Luna, so for starters there will be water prospectors moving about among the asteroids. The same technology that sends water to Luna will send metals to Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, NERVA or the ion drive I described earlier will do the job. In fact, it's as simple to get refined metals from the Asteroid Belt to near-Earth orbit as it is to bring them down from the Lunar surface. It takes longer, but who cares? If I can promise GM steel at less than they're now paying, they'll be glad to sign a "futures" contract, payment on delivery.

It's going to be colorful out in the Belt, with huge mirrors boiling out chunks from mile-round rocks, big refinery ships moving from rock to rock; mining towns, boomtowns, and probably traveling entertainment vessels. Perhaps a few scenes from the wild west, or the Star Wars bar scene? "Claim jumpers! Grab your rifle—"

Thus from the first Moonbase we'll move rapidly, first to establish other Moon colonies (the Moon's a big place) and out to the Asteroid Belt. After that we'll have fundamental decisions to make. We can either build O'Neill colonies or stay with planets and Moons. I suspect we'll do both. While one group starts constructing flying city-states at the Earth-Moon Trojan points, another will decide to make do with Mars.

From A STEP FARTHER OUT by Jerry Pournelle (1979)

      More than 90 percent of the asteroids fall into the classifications "carbonaceous chondritic" or "stony-iron" ;these classes correspond to groups of meteorites found on the surface of Earth.   Carbonaceous material is not unlike oil shale, being rich in hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen.   It is generally soft and friable, and can be melted at a low temperature.   Probably for that reason, not many carbonaceous meteoroids survive their fiery passage through our atmosphere.   In the more benign environment of the asteroid belt, much more of the carbonaceous material has survived; there is fairly good evidence that most asteroids are carbonaceous, including the two largest of those minor planets, Ceres and Pallas, with diameters respectively of almost a third and about a seventh that of the Moon.

     The energy interval between the asteroids and L5 is almost exactly the same as that from the earth to L5.   For a practical rocketeer, that energy interval is expressed by velocity changes that must be made in order to change the orbital radius and to tilt the plane of the orbit from that which matches an asteroid to that of Earth and Moon.   Asteroids in the "main belt," out beyond Mars, move relatively slowly in their orbits.   Earth, nearer to the Sun and therefore more strongly attracted to it, must travel faster in order not to be pulled deeper into the Sun's range of gravitational influence.   The difference is typically six kilometers per second, and must be made up in the course of any voyage to or from an asteroid.   Further velocity changes must be made to match the eccentricity (lack of circularity) of an asteroidal orbit.   Most asteroids circulate in planes inclined to that of Earth (ours is called the "plane of the ecliptic").   For each two degrees in angle by which the planes differ, an additional velocity change of about one kilometer per second must be made.   If one searches through the list of asteroids for those with favorable orbits, and calculates the total velocity interval which separates each from L5, the answer in nearly all cases turns out to be near ten kilometers per second.   The velocity interval between Earth's surface and L5 is only slightly higher.

     Although these velocity intervals to L5 from Earth and from the asteroids are so nearly alike, there will be at least two incentives for obtaining carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen from the greater distance rather than the lesser.   In deep space, high thrusts will not be required, nor will spacecraft hulls to protect payloads during their brief passage through Earth's atmosphere.   In the long run, the economies made possible by those additional freedoms will almost surely tip the transport cost scale in favor of the asteroidal resources.   That shift, when it occurs, will avert what would otherwise become an increasing burden on the biosphere of Earth from rocket flights through the atmosphere.   Eventually, it seems likely that transport up to low orbit, and from there to L5, will be needed only for people and for particular products, especially those which are light in weight, but which can only be made by specialists from among Earth's large population.

     The time delay before the asteroidal materials can be exploited may be estimated by the duration of the Apollo Project.   In that case about eight years was required to progress from the early, primitive earth-orbital flights to the successful round trips to the Moon, a thousand times farther away.   In order to go to the asteroids, it will be economically advisable first of all to have a well established facility at L5.   The early space manufacturing communities can supply as by-products of the industries reaction mass for impulse engines.   Those communities can also serve as shipyards, for the vessels of deep space.   By contrast, an asteroidal journey starting from Earth would require several times as much energy as from L5, and would involve the added expense of vehicles for precision lift-off from the planetary surface under conditions of strong gravity.   If the construction of an asteroid voyaging ship is begun several years after the first L5 community is established, the first human venture to the asteroids might begin within eight years from the dedication of Island One.   It would be preceded by relatively inexpensive unmanned probes, also launched from L5, so that the first travelers would go to an asteroid which is already known to contain the elements wanted.   The situation is quite unlike that of speculative oil-well drilling into the surface of Earth ; we can know more about the composition of an asteroid a hundred million miles away than we can know, without drilling, about Earth a thousand meters beneath our feet.   In space there need be no wildcat oil operations or dry holes.

     For economy, our transport system should be the analog of Earth's cheapest: a tugboat and a string of barges.   In space, where there is no drag, we could practice a further economy: the tugboat would be needed only at the start and end of each trip, and during the long months of the orbit from the asteroidal source to the region of L5 the payload, in the form of tanks of ammonia and of hydrocarbons, could travel unmanned.

     Like Earthbound tugboats, ours would be mainly engine and not very beautiful.   One conservative design could be based on a longer version of the mass-driver used on the Moon; it could be many kilometers long, if braced by yardarms and wires like the mast of a racing sailboat.   The structure could be lighter if the payload were distributed at intervals along the whole length of the engine, because the thrust of the engine would be distributed equally along its length.   The tugboat might be powered by lightweight photovoltaic solar cells, assisted by large, lightweight mirrors to concentrate the weak sunlight of a distant orbit.   The active electrical components of the mass-driver might be contained in a long, thin aluminum tube, pressurized with oxygen to the equivalent of a mountain altitude on Earth; that would permit maintenance and repair of all components likely to give trouble, without the inconvenience and lost efficiency that accompanies the use of space suits.

     There would probably be living quarters for six or eight people, sufficient for three watches as on a boat at sea.   There would be a small chemical-processing plant, sufficient to form reaction mass from asteroidal debris.   Altogether, the tugboat might have a mass of a few thousand tons, comparable to that of a large Coast Guard icebreaker on the oceans of Earth.   The payload, in the form of tanks of chemicals, could be as much as the cargo of an oil tanker.   After months of steady pushing the payload would have acquired the velocity changes necessary to put it on orbit to L5.   The tug would then cast off, and return home to the asteroidal outpost-community.   The returning crew would take time off while the tugboat was piloted on its next trip by a rested crew.   Meanwhile the linked payload would swing silently inward toward the sun on an eight-month flight that would bring it to the vicinity of L5, and rendezvous with another tugboat for the final velocity change.

     Tugboats on the oceans of Earth, even exposed as they are to storm and damage, often last fifty years.   It has been one of the phenomena of the early years of experience in space that satellites usually last much longer than their "design" lifetimes.   For the mass-driver-powered tugboats of the asteroidal belt, which would operate without high temperatures or pressures and would never be exposed to wind or storm, the lifetime would probably be much longer.   Probably they would be retired by obsolescence rather than by wear.   Transport costs for material from the asteroid belt, based on present-day figures for interest rate, amortization, and costs of aerospace equipment, lie in the range of less than a dollar to several dollars per kilogram.   That's far higher than the cost of supertanker transport on Earth, but much lower than the costs for any presently conceivable transport system operating from Earth's surface to L5.

     As has happened so often when we 've studied in depth possibilities that seemed promising as aids to space manufacturing, the asteroids may be even better sources of materials than I've suggested so far.   Though most of the minor planets are in the main belt, Dr. Brian O'Leary pointed out that a special class, named after the asteroids Apollo and Amor, have orbits much closer to the Earth's.   In a 1977 NASA-Ames study O'Leary gathered leading experts on asteroidal measurement and orbit theory.   They worked out detailed scenarios for recovery of specific, known asteroids of the Apollo-Amor class, using mass driver reaction engines.   Their technique made use of "gravity assists," and in action that would be spectacular indeed : after rendezvous with an asteroid, the tugboat crew would so direct their engine that the asteroid would swing by a planet like Venus or Earth.   At the swingby, the asteroid's velocity would be changed as much by the planet's gravity as it would by months or years of mass driver operation.

     With the help of the gravity-assist technique, already well-proven in spaceprobe missions to the outer planets, it seems that some of the asteroids may be much more accessible than those of the main belt, and from an economic viewpoint may even give the Moon a run for its money.   There's plenty of material available; even the smallest asteroid we can see in our telescopes has a mass of more than a million tons.

     At a certain point in the growth of the L5 communities, trade between the islands of space will begin to dominate over the "colonial " economy of interchange with Earth.   We have seen that transition take place in the colonies of the Americas, Africa, and Australia.   It seems likely that for any new community whose major purpose is the habitation and maintenance of its population, rather than of supply to L5 or to the Earth, economics will favor its construction without any prior shipment of materials at all: that is, in the asteroid belt itself.

     The construction equipment for building a new habitat could be sent to the asteroids from L5, or manufactured in the asteroidal region.   With that equipment new habitats could be built from material readily at hand, and as soon as each new habitat is ready its population could travel from Earth or L5 to occupy it.   The saving in transport cost by that development would be significant; the weight of the settlers who would move into a new habitat would be only about one five-thousandth of the weight of the habitat itself.   Again, there's plenty of material; to build a colony the size of Island Two, for a population of more than a hundred thousand, an asteroidal chunk a few city blocks across would be sufficient-a mere speck, at the margin of visibility from Earth.

     Once in operation, a space community would be quite capable of moving itself, in a leisurely fashion, to another point in the solar system.   To do so in a manner economical of reaction mass might require a technology presently being studied, but not yet realized at the level of engineering practice: that is the acceleration of tiny pellets or grains of solid material by electrostatic forces.   The ionrocket engine, a device already built and tested in the anticipation of scientific probes to the asteroids, works by the same principle; the difference lies only in the size of the pellet being accelerated.   The ion engine would accelerate something more nearly like a grain of dust.

     Until the intensive theoretical study of mass-drivers in the late 1970s, they would not have been thought of as serious competitors to ion thrusters for high-performance missions.   Now, though, it appears that a mass-driver might perform quite well even in the demanding assignment of moving a completed habitat through some great distance within the solar system.

     During the development of chemical rocket engines, exhaust velocities have increased steadily.   The higher the velocity of the exhaust, the less fuel need be carried for a given task.   In the case of an ion or pellet engine, though, high velocity is not always desirable.   The velocity of an ion, in the case of engine with parameters that permit easy operation, is so high that the performance is limited by the electric power available.   If one halves the exhaust velocity of an ion engine, the reaction mass required to carry out the mission in the same length of time doubles, but the electric power required decreases to half of its previous value.   For any given task there is an optimum exhaust velocity, just high enough so that the expenditure of reaction mass is not intolerable, but low enough to minimize the amount of electric power needed for the engine.

     In the case of a moving island in space, the optimum exhaust velocity is five to ten times that of a chemical rocket, if the task is to move the newborn community from the asteroid belt to the vicinity of L5.   For such a velocity the amount of reaction mass used in the trip would be only a quarter of the habitat mass.   It would be obtained in the course of the voyage by processing a cargo of asteroidal rubble, possibly by a simple grinding and seiving operation.   The lifetime of a community would be indefinitely long, given continuous habitation and maintenance; on a time scale of at least thousands of years, it would not seem unreasonable to devote thirty years to a relocation.   Based on present-day costs for turbogenerators, the necessary power -supply installation for that task would be capitalized at $ 25,000 to $ 60,000 per inhabitant, certainly not an exorbitant figure.   In the last chapter of this volume I will describe just how far a community could go, if possessed by wanderlust.   For the moment, though, it is enough to point out that the choice of location might be made by a vote of the inhabitants, and that the choice might not always be that of returning toward L5.   Any orbit within the entire volume of the solar system, out to a distance farther than that of Pluto, could be reached within less than seventy-five years by a space community ; within that huge volume it would always be possible to obtain a full earth-normal amount of solar intensity, by the addition of lightweight concentrating mirrors to the light-reflection system that an ordinary habitat would carry.   A community or a group of communities desiring a peaceful and quiet life might well choose not to return toward Earth, but to "go the other way" to a private orbit from which the interaction with the population near the Earth would be, at most, by electronic communication.

     We should realize that the humanization of space is quite contrary in spirit to any of the classical Utopian concepts.   At the heart of each Utopian scheme, including the modern communes, there have nearly always been two very different, even conflicting ideas: escape from outside interference, and tight discipline within the community; freedom and constraint.

     Escape from outside interference will be an option open to a community in space, unless military intervention occurs to prevent it: there will always be the possibility of "pulling up stakes" and moving the habitat to a new orbit far from the source of the interference.   In history we have many examples of groups, not least among them our Pilgrim ancestors, who have been permitted to escape from coercive situations.   Usually those who remain behind justify that permission by something equivalent to "We're better off without those troublemakers.   The space communities would be in contrast to the classical Utopias in part because they could escape so much more successfully.   Here on Earth the possibilities for escape are limited, because a community that desires isolation is still forced by climate and the scale of distance to become part of a distribution system thousands of miles in extent.   Indeed, one of the unpleasant characteristics of modern industrial life is that regional differences tend to be ironed flat by the economic pressures toward uniformity.   The differences between small villages in separate countries are now far less than they were a generation ago, and something has been lost in that transition.

     The communal enclaves of nineteenth-century America, the Shakers, the Mennonites, the Pennsylvania Dutch, the Oneida Community, and others, nearly all consisted of groups each of which was united by an unvarying, agreed-on plan for how people should run their lives.   Those who have lived in and then left the modern communes tell us that however the codes of behavior of these organizations may differ from the norm of the world outside them, internally they have rules strictly maintained.   This should be no surprise; a commune is the limiting form of a small, isolated village, and as anyone who has lived in such a place can testify, social pressure there is almost always far stronger than in the anonymity of a large city.

     In contrast, and very much by intent, I have said nothing about the government of space communities.   There is a good reason for that: I have no desire to influence or direct in any way, even if I could, the social organization and the details of life in the communities.   I have no prescription for social organization or governance, and would find it abhorrent to presume to define one.   In my opinion there can be no "revealed truth " about social organization; there can only be, in any healthy situation, the options of diversity and of experimentation.   Among the space communities almost surely there will be some in which restrictive governments will attempt to enforce isolation, just as such governments do on Earth.   Others, hopefully the majority, will permit travel and communication.   Within the brief time of twenty years, during which transatlantic air travel has gone from the unusual to the commonplace, we have seen how powerful a lever it has been for the transmission of experience from one country to another, especially among the fraternity of young people.   Logically, if the cost of transportation between the communities becomes as low as it is now projected to be, travel between most of the communities of space will be far more frequent than it is now between nations on Earth, and people will be able to form their own opinions, on the basis of direct observation, as to what constitute successful or unsuccessful experiments in government.   With energy free to all, materials available in great abundance, and mobility throughout the solar system available to an individual community, it should be more difficult in space than it is on earth for an unsuccessful government to argue that its failure is due to unavoidable circumstances of location or resources.

There is another profound difference between the historical Utopian attempts and the humanization of space.   The communities of the past were formed on the basis of new social constructs, but took their technology from the world around them.   Some even made a conscious selection of more primitive or more restricted technological equipment than available in the world outside.   In extreme form this tendency shows in the prohibition, among several of the existing Utopian sects, of any equipment for day-to-day living more advanced than that which was available in the nineteenth century. The reason for this restriction, usually clearly stated and understood, is the need to prevent "contamination" of the Utopian social ethic by contact with the outside world.   There is recognition by the leaders of the enclave that its social organization is unstable, and can only be maintained by isolation.   Usually, the "danger" to the maintenance of that unstable situation is that young people from within the enclave will learn of the additional choices available in the world outside, and will insist on leaving to enjoy them. I share with many an admiration for the Utopian groups that have managed to retain their identity and values through several generations of rapid change.   Those of us who might have been tempted, during the decade of the 1950s, to feel concern and even sorrow because of the narrowed horizons permitted to the children of such groups surely felt quite differently during the 1960s, seeing an epidemic of drugs and a lack of purpose spread throughout a generation in the world outside.   It may even be that among the existing Utopian groups there are some free of antitechnological taboos, which will find it easier to retain identity by resettlement in space than to remain on Earth.   The humanization of space is though no Utopian scheme: the contrast is between rigid social ideas and restricted technology, on the part of the Utopias and communes, and the opening of new social possibilities to be determined by the inhabitants, with the help of a basically new technical methodology, on the part of the space communities.
One can speculate, with some supporting evidence, that as a result of the individual choices which led to the historical colonization movements on Earth, there are now subtle but real differences in attitude toward change and further migration on the part of the people in the old and the new countries.   Here in the United States, and in Canada, Alaska, Australia, and other former colonies, there may be a greater restlessness, a greater desire for travel and change, than exists in those populations descended from the people who stayed at home rather than emigrate.   Of the thousands of letters I have received about the space community concept, a disproportionate number come from the lands that were once colonies.   Already, from the many letters that express a personal desire on the part of the writers not just to support but to take part in the outward venture, it is clear that the early settlers in space will be exciting people: restless, inquiring, independent; quite possibly more hard-driving and possessed by more "creative discontent" than their kin in the Old World. In space, where free solar energy and optimum farming conditions will be available to every community, no matter how small, it will be possible for special-interest groups to "do their own thing" and build small worlds of their own, independent of the rest of the human population.   We can imagine a community of as few as some hundreds of people, sharing a passion for a novel system of government, or for music or for one of the visual areas, or for a less esoteric interest: nudism, water sports, or skiing.   Of the serious experiments in society-building, some will surely be failures.   Others, though, may succeed, and those independent social laboratories may teach us more about how people can best live together than we can ever learn on Earth, where high technology must go hand-in-hand with the rigidity of large-scale human groupings. Just as happened during the settlement of the American West and of Alaska, when the population at L5 increases in number some of the pioneers may be the sort of people who will say: "It's getting too crowded around here; let's move on." Those people may be among the most interesting and productive individuals.   They may want a more complete independence, and so may decide to go homesteading just as did our great-grandparents in the mid-nineteenth-century American plains states.

     Here, now, is one way in which a pioneer family might go about a homesteading venture.   Though the details will surely be different from those I describe, each possibility that I will give is based on a number that can be calculated, or on analogy to similar situations here on Earth.   I am giving it in the form of excerpts from a diary, written perhaps in the early years of the next century.   That too is by analogy; one of the relics of my family, preserved through five generations, is a book by an old lady who must have been, in her time, a holy terror.   In her eighties she wrote an account in verse of a time when she had traveled with her seven sons across the plains of America in a covered wagon.   In their travels the little band encountered dangers that space settlers will not face; hostile Indians, snows, exposure, and short rations.

July 15, 20-: Dear Stephen:

     Your Mom and I are going to write down a record of our trip, to go with the pictures we're taking.   Then when you're old enough to read and be interested in it you'll be able to see how you came to be a youngster living in the asteroid belt.

     It's been five years, now, since I joined the Experimental Spacecraft Association.   We have an active chapter of it here on Bernal Gamma, and several of the guys in it work with me in the construction business.

     If we were back on the Earth, now, and got any wild ideas about setting out on our own to travel in space, we 'd be out of our minds.   A spaceship that could lift its own weight, and go through the split-second timing that you need for a Lift-off from Earth, would be a lot more complicated and expensive than any home craftsman could build.

     Out here, though, we're in much better shape to go voyaging on our own.   Our spacecraft never has to take big forces, and our engine can be small; we don't mind taking quite a while to get somewhere.

     With what we 'd saved, and the sale of our house on Gamma, we were able to start with about $ 100,000.   For the past three years I've been working on the spacecraft, and we'll hang on to it when we arrive in the asteroids, so it'll still be around when you're old enough to remember things.   The Lucky Lady is a sphere about three stories high, made of aluminum because that's easy to weld.   I've been building it in the marina, near the docking ports of Gamma, and we've checked the welds with x-ray equipment that we've borrowed from the plant.   Alongside the Lady, at the marina, there are four more of the same kind; Chuck and Bill and the others will be going with us, in a "wagon train" of five craft, so that if any of us runs into trouble either before or after we arrive, there'll be help near at hand.   Between us five we've bought a complete spare engine and a lot of spare parts and one-of-a-kind tools.   When we get to the asteroid belt we can team up for big jobs when we have to.

     Our plans came out of Spacecraft and Pilot, and were checked over by astronautical engineers before they were published, so they 're sound.   The Lady has a triple pressure hull, each layer a millimeter thick.   and any one of the layers would be enough to hold a lot more pressure than we'll need.   Altogether the bare hull weighs about 3 tons, and there's a lot of my time that's gone into it.   The marina doesn't rotate, so all the construction was done in zero-gravity.   That way, I could handle the big sections of aluminum by myself.

     Around the hull there's a layer of sand about a foot thick, to protect us from some of the cosmic rays and from solar flares.   Outside the sand is a fourth shell, of very thin aluminum just to hold the sand in place.   For extra help in case of flares we've also got a "storm shelter" outside the sphere in the form of a small aluminum bubble connected to the big one.   There, the shield is a lot thicker, and if a flare starts we can be in the storm shelter in less than a minute and can stay there for several days if we have to.   Babies are extra sensitive to cosmic rays, so the "storm shelter" is your nursery too.

     We bought our rocket motors new.   They're from the same company that makes them for the small Coast Guard rescue boats.   Each one gives a thrust about as much as my own weight, and a bigger chunk of our "grubstake " money went into those than anything else.   I understand they cost about the same as a small jet engine on Earth.   Our life-support air-recycling system was bought used, rebuilt and recertified by the Federation Astronautical Agency.   It too came off one of the Coast Guard boats, and we got it cheap, but I know that the government paid a lot more.   They've gone over to newer models now.

     Back on Earth, before your Mom and I moved out here, I used to belong to an Aero Club and flew little airplanes for fun.   Things happened fast, there, and navigation in bad weather kept me on my toes; I'd have to keep track of the Omni-Range signals, and the direction finder sometimes, and stay legal as far as the control altitudes and the rest of the regulations went, and all the time fly the airplane by reference to the compass and the gyroes.   Going from here out to the asteroids I won't have to worry about all that; there's no weather in space, so we 'll be able to see where we are and where we're going all the time.   We'll have two systems for navigation.   One of them is as old as sailing ships on Earth's oceans: it's a sextant, to measure the angles between the visible planets and the Sun.   That would be enough to do the job, but we've also got something else.   Nowadays there are big transmitters set up in the orbits of Earth and Mars, and they send out pulses so we can calculate our position just by a simple radio receiver.   On Earth 's oceans they used the same method for navigation, and called it Loran.   With the handbook of transmitter positions and times that we've got, we can figure our position to within less than a mile, even though we may be twenty million miles out.

     We went a bit overboard on radios, and bought three, all alike.   They 're about the size of the ones used in small airplanes.   We'll use them for voice communications between the five families traveling together, and for dot-dash Morse code to check in with the Coast Guard.   We're going to be on a flight plan and will have to check in once every three days.   To do that, I'll be aiming the big aluminum-foil dish antenna that I've built, using a little telescope to point it exactly back to the location of the receiver at L5.

     Aug. 1st, 20-: The Coast Guard and the FAA people have been aboard, and we 've got our clearance.   They checked our Space-worthiness Certificate (Category R, Experimental Homebuilt) and our radio licenses, and my pilot's license (Private Category, Deep Space Only, Flight Within Planetary Atmospheres Prohibited).   We 've got food on board for two years, if we have to stretch it, lots of seeds, fish, chickens, pigs and turkeys.   To get things started when we arrive, we've sunk about half our grubstake in prefabricated spheres and cylinders, aluminized plastic for mirrors, chemicals for crop-growing, and a lot of equipment.   Aug. 8th, 20-: The Lucky Lady, loaded, shielded, and ready to go, weighed in at close to 500 tons, so we didn't take off from Gamma with any big burst of acceleration: we weren't up even to walking speed a minute after we started thrusting, but our speed slowly built up, and now after a week we've gone farther than the distance from the Moon to Earth.   It'll be another eight months to go, about as long as your great-great-great-Grandad took to get from Illinois to California.

     October 10, 20-: We've had a bit more excitement than we bargained for these past weeks.   First of all, Bill's engine developed a problem; he wasn't getting the thrust that he should and the fuel was going too fast.   Those engines are pretty complicated and we weren't able to solve the problem on our own quickly, so did an engine-change to the spare.   That wasn't too difficult: we just maneuvered the five spacecraft close together, docked them, closed up the hatch behind the engine, and did the engine-change in our shirtsleeves.   From now on we'll have plenty to keep us busy, because we have all the manuals on the engine and we're going to take our time and see if we can figure it out well enough to fix the one that we pulled from Bill's ship.   While the engine-change was going on we were "dead in the water" with no thrust for nearly four days.   but here in space that doesn't mean an emergency.   We still had our speed, and all that the lost time means is that we'll make a very small change in the thrust direction and take a little longer arriving.

     Only two days after we got finished with the repairs, we got hit with our first big solar flare.   Those things build up in minutes, so there wasn't time to get any warning.   When the alarm bells sounded we all scooted for the storm shelters, and stayed holed up for three days; by then the flare had died down so much that our ordinary shielding was enough.

     Nov. 23, 20-: We brought you out of the nursery so you could be with us for our Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, canned cranberries, and lots of extras we've been saving.   So far we've got a lot to be thankful for: there were some colds early in the trip, but after that everyone's been healthy, and nobody's got any tooth problems yet.   If we can last to the Belt, where there are dentists, we'll have escaped the biggest problem that hits groups like ours.

     All of us have been using our time to get a head start on construction.   We began with our assembly bay, and that's something the five families will share, 'til we can build more.   It's a cylinder as big around as the Lucky Lady, and as long as a city block.   It's made of aluminum sheets, and we made it without ever going out in "hard suits." We're in free flight now, the engines have been shut down, so we handled the construction bay by just clamping on to it with our grippers, very slowly walking the whole ship over to the place we wanted to work oh, and then handling the welding equipment through sleeves that we've built in to each ship.   I guess the setup is a bit like a chemist's dry box.   The ends of the bay are hemispheres of aluminum, and when the last weld was done and checked the bay was a gas-tight chamber.   We let the liquid oxygen tank get a bit of sunlight, so it would slowly boil off, and after a few days the oxygen pressure in the bay was breathable.   We have all five ships locked on the bay now, so any of us can go in there to work, and that's where all the glasswork is being done.   The welding, of course, is better done in vacuum.

     Our first "dockyard" job has been the crop-modules.   Each one's a cylinder of a size that just barely fits in the assembly bay, when all the pieces are welded together.   When we're done we weld in a lightweight floor, and under that we set up the chicken coops and the pig pens.   The roof is trickier, because we have to let in the sunlight.   In the L5 communities they do that with thick metal webbing and then plates of glass to form the windows, but here we do things in an easier way: we have prefab aluminum sheeting that has a lot of small holes in it, and we seal over each hole a disc of glass with a plastic compound.   When we finish a crop-module we pump the oxygen from the bay into a cold-storage liquid oxygen tank, and open the end-bolts and take off one of the hemisphere-ends, and float out the finished section.

     Dec. 25, 20-: You were out of the nursery again today, and all twenty-three of us got together for a real big Christmas dinner.   We had ham and a lot of frozen food, but next year, if we're lucky, we'll have fresh sweet potatoes and corn and fresh pumpkin pie as well.   I've been whittling some new toys for you, and you seemed to go for them.   I know you won't thank me for reminding you when you're a bit older, but Mom is proud that you say "Mom," and "Dad," and "ship" and "dog." I don't think Chuck's family would think of going anywhere without Snoopy, and if that other dog Maggie comes through like she looks, we're going to get one of the litter for you.

     May 10, 20-: Looks as if we won't have time for any more writing for a while.   We've been prospecting for the past month, and now it looks as if we've found us a good one.   You couldn't even see it through a telescope from the Earth, but we figure it's got a mass of around three million tons-a lot more than we'll need even in your grandchildren's time.   The little spectroscopes that we brought along tell us that it's got plenty of carbon (we picked the asteroid because it looked good and black) and there's nitrogen and hydrogen and plenty of metals too.   So we've got some clearing and stump-pulling to do, and by the time you're big enough to handle a welding machine you'll be my helper.   We've got a whole world to build here, Stephen, so grow up fast and get in on the construction!

     The spirit of adventure, and the drive to be free and run one's own life, even at the expense of hardship, danger, and deprivation, are as old as humanity, and must have been at the heart of the Westward movement as they will be for the migrations that will start at L5.   If we traced the development of an embryonic settlement, of the kind that might begin with a trek of the sort just described, we might find that the pioneers would construct their habitats by the labor-saving method of evaporation from an aluminum ingot suspended by magnetic forces in zero-gravity, and heated by concentrated sunlight.   Within two or three years a sphere with a land area of more than a hundred acres for habitation, and an additional several acres for crops, could be made in this way, most of it quite possibly by a housewife monitoring a control computer from her kitchen.   A computer to do that job wouldn't be much more complicated than a pocket calculator, and a few decades from now a much more powerful computer installation, of the sort that's now found only in offices and laboratories, will be of desk-top size and won't cost more than an automobile.   Almost certainly each of the pioneer families will be equipped with one of them.

     Examining growth rates, we find that the tiny asteroidal chunk described in the homesteader's diary would suffice for a population of at least 10,000 people, so there would be no need for the pioneer group to seek new materials for at least several hundred years, even if its population grew at the present world-average rate.

     In our modern world, with its concern for vanishing resources and for preservation, our immediate reaction on hearing of an available resource is to consider its protection.   When I described the resources of the asteroidal belt to a group at the National Geographic Society, there was an immediate reaction: "Please don't take Geographos!" There need be no fear of that; Geographos is a small asteroid now thought to be of the stony-iron type, and should be safe from mining activity.

     In the case of a growing technological civilization, with each new material resource we must associate a time scale.   For example, if the total reserves of material to be found in a new "mine" will last only ten years, but if the new technology required to exploit that resource will take twenty-five years to develop, the expected returns are hardly sufficient to justify the effort.   Earlier I pointed out that the material reserves in the asteroid belt are sufficient to permit the construction of new land area totaling 3,000 times that of the earth.   In making that statement my purpose was not to encourage a corresponding growth of the total human population, but rather to suggest that materials limits alone should not be used as the justification for the imposition of limits on indivi dual human freedoms.   The freedom to have as many children as a family wants is by no means as important as the freedoms of speech, communications, travel, choice of employment, and the right to an education, but it is very difficult to abrogate one freedom without compromising others.   As Heilbroner has pointed out, in a society held by law to a steady-state condition, freedom of thought and of inquiry would be dangerous, and would probably be suppressed.

     In the same spirit, not of encouraging thoughtless growth but of opening possibilities which will encourage the extension rather than the curtailment of freedom, we can look beyond the materials limits of the asteroid belt and inquire as to the total resources of the solar system.   I've argued that a growth rate about a tenth as large as our present explosive increase would be sufficient to make the difference between stasis and change; it's just enough to be noticeable over the lifetime of a single human being.   In the space communities, that growth could be matched by a corresponding increase in the total land area, rather than by additional crowding, as on Earth.   For that moderate rate of growth, the resources of the asteroids would be sufficient for at least four thousand years, at a population density the same as that of Earth (averaged over all the land area of our planet, including the desert, polar and wasteland areas now uninhabitable).

     If we look beyond the resources of the asteroids, there are three further aggregations of materials within the solar system, each of which has a large total quantity: the moons of the outer planets, the cometary debris, and the outer planets themselves.   As far as we know, all of these aggregations are without intelligent life, and all but the outer planets are invisible to us without telescopic aid.

     The moons of the outer planets have a total quantity of material roughly 10,000 times that of the asteroids; the outer planets themselves, a thousand times more.   The existence of those resources, beyond those of the asteroid belt, means therefore that even without the cometary material there would be enough for expansion at a moderate rate for more than twelve thousand years.   Each of the new classes of material resource would permit, by its exploitation, several thousand more years of expansion, and the technology required for the opening of each resource would hardly require more than some tens of years to develop.   Although I don't advocate it, I must conclude therefore that there is room for growth at a moderate rate for many thousands of years, should that be desired in every era by the human population then alive.

     Although twelve thousand years is short on the time scale of evolution, it is a very long time on the scale of social institutions.   If we consider a voyage in time as far into the past as we can now contemplate toward the future, we would be close to the time of the last Ice Age, long before the earliest beginnings of recorded history.

     If long-term growth may indeed take place, it is tempting to consider the corresponding increase in what we might call "capability," a measure of the power of humanity over the physical environment.   We can only guess, but if we take the capability to be something akin to a gross national product, we may guess that it could be proportional to the growth factor itself (that is, to the crude ratio of populations), and to the productivity (the output per individual human being of some measurable product, either material or informational).   If the latter is taken to be as little as 1.5 percent per year, and the former is 0.2 percent per year, the increase in total capability over so long a time as 12,000 years would be a truly astronomical factor of ten to the eighty-eighth power.   The implications of that increase in capability, admittedly speculative in the extreme, are fascinating to contemplate.   Almost certainly they would include an enormous degree of control over the environment by each individual human being.   Ten to the eighty-eighth power, for example, is more than the number of the individual atoms in all the stars, planets, and dust clouds of our galaxy.

     Evidently, then, it is possible in principle for a civilization to advance from prehistory to a state of enormous capability on a time scale which is very short in galactic terms: less than one part in 200,000 of the age of the Sun.   Why, then, has no previous "explosion" of a civilization into a situation of great physical power not left its mark on the galaxy? Why are there no beacons burning to light our way? Perhaps the birth of a civilization capable of migration into space is extraordinarily unlikely, or perhaps social instability and stagnation are overwhelmingly powerful civilization-killing forces, or perhaps-as I have suggested earlier-moderation and empathy come with technical maturity, and there do exist long-lived galactic civilizations all of which prefer for our own good to let us develop on our own.


(“Terminal” by Lavie Tidhar is an emotionally wrenching science fiction story about people, who, either having nothing to lose or having a deep desire to go into space, travel to Mars via cheap, one-person, one-way vehicles dubbed jalopies. During the trip, those in the swarm communicate with each other, their words relayed to those left behind.)

      From above the ecliptic the swarm can be seen as a cloud of minute bullet-shaped insects, their hulls, packed with photovoltaic cells, capturing the sunlight; tiny, tiny flames burning in the vastness of the dark.
     They crawl with unbearable slowness across this small section of near space, beetles climbing a sheer obsidian rock face. Only the sun remains constant. The sun, always, dominates their sky.
     Inside each jalopy are instrument panels and their like; a sleeping compartment where you must float your way into the secured sleeping bag; a toilet to strap yourself to; a kitchen to prepare your meal supply; and windows to look out of. With every passing day the distance from Earth increases and the time-lag grows a tiny bit longer and the streaming of communication becomes more echoey, the most acute reminder of that finite parting as the blue-green egg that is Earth revolves and grows smaller in your window, and you stand there, sometimes for hours at a time, fingers splayed against the plastic, staring at what has gone and will never come again, for your destination is terminal.

     There is such freedom in the letting go.
     There is the music. Mei listens to the music, endlessly. Alone she floats in her cheap jalopy, and the music soars all about her, an archive of all the music of Earth stored in five hundred terabytes or so, so that Mei can listen to anything ever written and performed, should she so choose, and so she does, in a glorious random selection as the jalopy moves in the endless swarm from Earth to Terminal. Chopin’s Études bring a sharp memory of rain and the smell of wet grass, of damp books and days spent in bed, staring out of windows, the feel of soft sheets and warm pyjamas, a steaming mug of tea. Mei listens to Vanuatu string band songs in pidgin English, evocative of palm trees and sand beaches and graceful men swaying in the wind; she listens to Congolese kwasa kwasa and dances, floating, shaking and rolling in weightlessness, the music like an infectious laugh and hot tropical rain. The Beatles sing “Here Comes the Sun,” Mozart’s Requiem trails off unfinished, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” haunts the cramped confines of the jalopy: the human race speaks to Mei through notes like precise mathematical notations, and, alone, she floats in space, remembering in the way music always makes you remember.

     She is not unhappy.
     At first, there was something seemingly inhuman about using the toilets. It is like a hungry machine, breathing and spitting, and Mei must ride it, strapping herself into leg restraints, attaching the urine funnel, which gurgles and hisses as Mei evacuates waste. Now the toilet is like an old friend, its conversation a constant murmur, and she climbs in and out without conscious notice.
     At first, Mei slept and woke up to a regiment of day and night, but a month out of Earth orbit, the old order began to slowly crumble, and now she sleeps and wakes when she wants, making day and night appear as if by magic, by a wave of her hand. Still, she maintains a routine, of washing and the brushing of teeth, of wearing clothing, a pretence at humanity which is sometimes hard to maintain being alone. A person is defined by other people.
     Three months out of Earth and it’s hard to picture where you’d left, where you’re going. And always that word, like a whisper out of nowhere, Terminal, Terminal…
     Mei floats and turns slowly in space, listening to the Beach Boys.

     But really, it is the sick, the slowly dying, those who have nothing to lose, those untied by earthly bonds, those whose spirits are as light as air: the loners and the crazy and worst of all the artists, so many artists, each convinced in his or her own way of the uniqueness of the opportunity, exchanging life for immortality, floating, transmuting space into art in the way of the dead, for they are legally dead, now, each in his or her own jalopy, this cheap mass-manufactured container made for this one singular trip, from this planet to the next, from the living world to the dead one.
     “Sign here, initial here, and here, and here—” and what does it feel like for those everyday astronauts, those would-be Martians, departing their homes for one last time, a last glance back, some leaving gladly, some tearfully, some with indifference: these Terminals, these walking dead, having signed over their assets, completed their wills, attended, in some instances, their very own wakes: leaving with nothing, boarding taxis or flights in daytime or night, to the launch site for rudimentary training with instruments they will never use, from Earth to orbit in a space plane, a reusable launch vehicle, and thence to Gateway, in low Earth orbit, that ramshackle construction floating like a spider web in the skies of Earth, made up of modules, some new, some decades old, joined together in an ungainly fashion, a makeshift thing.
     …Here we are all astronauts. The permanent staff is multinational, harassed; monkey-like, we climb heel and toe heel and toe, handholds along the walls no up no down but three-dimensional space as a many-splendoured thing. Here the astronauts are trained hastily in maintaining their craft and themselves, and the jalopies extend out of Gateway, beyond orbit, thousands of cheap little tin cans aimed like skipping stones at the big red rock yonder.
     Here, too, you can still change your mind. Here comes a man now, a big man, an American man, with very white face and hands, a man used to being in control, a man used to being deferred to—an artist, in fact; a writer. He had made his money imagining the way the future was, but the future had passed him by and he found himself spending his time on message boards and the like, bemoaning youth and their folly. Now he has a new lease on life, or thought he had, with this plan of going into space, to Terminal Beach: six months floating in a tin can high above no world, to write his masterpiece, the thing he is to be remembered by, his novel, damn it, in which he’s to lay down his entire philosophical framework of a libertarian bent: only he has, at the last moment, perhaps on smelling the interior of his assigned jalopy, changed his mind. Now he comes inexpertly floating like a beach ball down the shaft, bouncing here and there from the walls and bellowing for the agent, those sleazy jalopymen, for the final signature on the contract is digital, and sent once the jalopy is slingshot to Mars. It takes three orderlies to hold him, and a nurse injects him with something to calm him down. Later, he would go back down the gravity well, poorer yet wiser, but he will never write that novel: space eludes him.
     Meanwhile, the nurse helps carry the now-unconscious American down to the hospital suite, a house-sized unit overlooking the curve of the Earth. Her name is Eliza and she watches day chase night across the globe and looks for her home, for the islands of the Philippines to come into view, their lights scattered like shards of shining glass, but it is the wrong time to see them. She monitors the IV distractedly, feeling tiredness wash over her like the first exploratory wave of a grey and endless sea. For Eliza, space means always being in sight of this great living world, this Earth, its oceans and its green landmasses and its bright night lights, a world that dominates her view, always, that glares like an eye through pale white clouds. To be this close to it and yet to see it separate, not of it but apart, is an amazing thing; while beyond, where the Terminals go, or farther yet, where the stars coalesce as thick as clouds, who knows what lies? And she fingers the gold cross on the chain around her neck, as she always does when she thinks of things alien beyond knowing, and she shudders, just a little bit; but everywhere else, so far, the universe is silent, and we alone shout.

     “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?”
     “Who is this?”
     “This is jalopy A-5011 sending out a call to the faithful to prayer –”
     “This is Bremen in B-9012, is there anyone there? Hello? I am very weak. Is there a doctor, can you help me, I do not think I’ll make it to the rock, hello, hello—”
     “This is jalopy B-2031 to jalopy C-3398, bishop to king 7, I said bishop to king 7, take that Shen you twisted old fruit!”
     “Hello? Has anyone heard from Shiri Applebaum in C-5591, has anyone heard from Shiri Applebaum in C-5591, she has not been in touch in two days and I am getting worried, this is Robin in C-5523, we were at Gateway together before the launch, hello, hello—”

     Mei turns down the volume of the music and listens to the endless chatter of the swarm rise alongside it, day or night, neither of which matter or exist here, unbound by planetary rotation and that old artificial divide of darkness and the light. Many like Mei have abandoned the twenty-four hour cycle to sleep and rise ceaselessly and almost incessantly with some desperate need to experience all of this, this one-time-only journey, this slow beetle’s crawl across trans-solar space. Mei swoops and turns with the music and the chatter, and she idly wonders of the fate to have befallen Shiri Applebaum in C-5591: is she merely keeping quiet or is she dead or in a coma, never to wake up again, only her corpse and her cheap little jalopy hitting the surface of Mars in ninety more days? Across the swarm’s radio network, the muezzin in A-5011 sends out the call to prayer, the singsong words so beautiful that Mei stops, suspended in mid air, and breathes deeply, her chest rising and falling steadily, space all around her. She has degenerative bone disease, there isn’t a question of starting a new life at Terminal, only this achingly beautiful song that rises all about her, and the stars, and silent space.
     Two days later Bremen’s calls abruptly cease. B-9012 still hurtles on with the rest towards Mars. Haziq tries to picture Bremen: what was he like? What did he love? He thinks he remembers him, vaguely, a once-fat man now wasted with folded awkward skin, large glasses, a Scandinavian man maybe, Haziq thought, but all he knows or will ever know of Bremen is the man’s voice on the radio, bouncing from jalopy to jalopy and on to Earth where jalopy-chasers scan the bands and listen in a sort of awed or voyeuristic pleasure.

     “This is Haziq, C-6173…” He coughs and clears his throat. He drinks his miso soup awkwardly, suckling from its pouch. He sits formally, strapped by Velcro, the tray of food before him, and out of his window he stares not back to Earth or forward to Mars but directly onto the swarm, trying to picture each man and woman inside, trying to imagine what brought them here. Does one need a reason? Haziq wonders. Or is it merely that gradual feeling of discomfort in one’s own life, one’s own skin, a slowly dawning realisation that you have passed like a grey ghost through your own life, leaving no impression, that soon you might fade away entirely, to dust and ash and nothingness, a mild regret in your children’s minds that they never really knew you at all.
     “This is Haziq, C-6173, is there anyone hearing me, my name is Haziq and I am going to Terminal”—and a sudden excitement takes him. “My name is Haziq and I am going to Terminal!” he shouts, and all around him the endless chatter rises, of humans in space, so needy for talk like sustenance, “We’re all going to Terminal!” and Haziq, shy again, says, “Please, is there anyone there, won’t someone talk to me. What is it like, on Terminal?”
     But that is a question that brings down the silence; it is there in the echoes of words ords rds and in the pauses, in punctuation missing or overstated, in the endless chess moves, worried queries, unwanted confessionals, declarations of love, in this desperate sudden need that binds them together, the swarm, and makes all that has been before become obsolete, lose definition and meaning. For the past is a world one cannot return to, and the future is a world none has seen.

     Mei floats half-asleep half-awake, but the voice awakens her. Why this voice, she never knows, cannot articulate. “Hello. Hello. Hello…” And she swims through the air to the kitchenette and heats up tea and drinks it from the suction cup. There are no fizzy drinks on board the jalopies, the lack of gravity would not separate liquid and gas in the human stomach, and the astronaut would wet-burp vomit. Mei drinks slowly, carefully; all her movements are careful. “Hello?” she says, “Hello, this is Mei in A-3357, this is Mei in A-3357, can you hear me, Haziq, can you hear me?”
     A pause, a micro-silence, the air filled with the hundreds of other conversations through which a voice, his voice, says, “This is Haziq! Hello, A-3357, hello!”
     “Hello,” Mei says, surprised and strangely happy, and she realises it is the first time she has spoken in three months. “Let me tell you, Haziq,” she says, and her voice is like music between worlds, “let me tell you about Terminal.”

     It was raining in the city. She had come out of the hospital and looked up at the sky and saw nothing there, no stars no sun, just clouds and smoke and fog. It rained, the rain collected in rainbow puddles in the street, the chemicals inside it painted the world and made it brighter. There was a jalopy vendor on the corner of the street, above his head a promotional video in 3D, and she was drawn to it. The vendor played loud K-pop and the film looped in on itself, but Mei didn’t mind the vendor’s shouts, the smell of acid rain or frying pork sticks and garlic or the music’s beat which rolled on like thunder. Mei stood and rested against the stand and watched the video play. The vendor gave her glasses, embossed with the jalopy sub-agent’s logo. She watched the swarm like a majestic silver web spread out across space, hurtling (or so it seemed) from Earth to Mars. The red planet was so beautiful and round, its dry seas and massive mountain peaks, its volcanoes and canals. She watched the polar ice caps. Watched Olympus Mons breaking out of the atmosphere. Imagined a mountain so high, it reached up into space. Imagined women like her climbing it, smaller than ants but with that same ferocious dedication. Somewhere on that world was Terminal.

     “Picture yourself standing on the red sands for the very first time,” she tells Haziq, her voice the same singsong of the muezzin at prayer, “that very first step, the mark of your boot in the fine sand. It won’t stay there forever, you know. This is not the moon, the winds will come and sweep it away, reminding you of the temporality of all living things.” And she pictures Armstrong on the moon, that first impossible step, the mark of the boots in the lunar dust. “But you are on a different world now,” she says, to Haziq or to herself, or to the others listening, and the jalopy-chasers back on Earth. “With different moons hanging like fruit in the sky. And you take that first step in your suit, the gravity hits you suddenly, you are barely able to drag yourself out of the jalopy, everything is labour and pain. Who knew gravity could hurt so much,” she says, as though in wonder. She closes her eyes and floats slowly upwards, picturing it. She can see it so clearly, Terminal Beach where the jalopies wash ashore, endlessly, like seashells, as far as the eye can see the sand is covered in the units out of which a temporary city rises, a tent city, all those bright objects on the sand. “And as you emerge into the sunlight they stand there, welcoming you, can you see them? In suits and helmets, they extend open arms, those Martians, Come, they say, over the radio comms, come, and you follow, painfully and awkwardly, leaving tracks in the sand, into the temporary domes and the linked-together jalopies and the underground caves which they are digging, always, extending this makeshift city downwards, and you pass through the airlock and take off your helmet and breathe the air, and you are no longer alone, you are amongst people, real people, not just voices carried on the solar winds.”
     She falls silent then. Breathes the limited air of the cabin. “They would be planting seeds,” she says, softly, “underground, and in greenhouses, all the plants of Earth, a paradise of watermelons and orchids, of frangipani and durian, jasmine and rambutan…” She breathes deeply, evenly. The pain is just a part of her, now. She no longer takes the pills they gave her. She wants to be herself; pain and all.

     In jalopies scattered across this narrow silver band, astronauts like canned sardines marinate in their own stale sweat and listen to her voice. Her words, converted into a signal inaudible by human ears, travel across local space for whole minutes until they hit the Earth’s atmosphere at last, already old and outdated, a record of a past event; here they bounce off the Earth to the ionosphere and back again, jaggedy waves like a terminal patient’s heart monitor circumnavigating this rotating globe until they are deciphered by machines and converted once more into sound:
     Mei’s voice speaking into rooms, across hospital beds, in dark bars filled with the fug of electronic cigarettes’ smoke-like vapoured steam, in lonely bedrooms where her voice keeps company to cats, in cabs driving through rain and from tinny speakers on white sand beaches where coconut crabs emerge into sunset, their blue metallic shells glinting like jalopies. Mei’s voice soothes unease and fills the jalopy-chasers’ minds with bright images, a panoramic view of a red world seen from space, suspended against the blackness of space; the profusion of bright galaxies and stars behind it is like a movie screen.

     “Take a step, and then another and another. The sunlight caresses your skin, but its rays have travelled longer to reach you, and when you raise your head the sun shines down from a clay-red sun, and you know you will never again see the sky blue. Think of that light. It has travelled longer and faster than you ever will, its speed in vacuum a constant 299,792,458 meters per second. Think of that number, that strange little fundamental constant, seemingly arbitrary: around that number faith can be woven and broken like silk, for is it a randomly created universe we live in or an ordained one? Why the speed of light, why the gravitational constant, why Planck’s? And as you stand there, healthy or ill, on the sands of Terminal Beach and raise your face to the sun, are you happy or sad?”

     Mei’s voice makes them wonder, some simply and with devotion, some uneasily. But wonder they do, and some will go outside one day and encounter the ubiquitous stand of a jalopyman and be seduced by its simple promise, abandon everything to gain a nebulous idea, that boot mark in the fine-grained red sand, so easily wiped away by the winds.
     And Mei tells Haziq about Olympus Mons and its shadow falling on the land and its peak in space, she tells him of the falling snow, made of frozen carbon dioxide, of men and women becoming children again, building snowmen in the airless atmosphere, and she tells him of the Valles Marineris, where they go suited up, hand in gloved hand, through the canyons whose walls rise above them, east of Tharsis.

     Perhaps it is then that Haziq falls in love, a little bit, through walls and vacuum, the way a boy does, not with a real person but with an ideal, an image. Not the way he had fallen in love with his wife, not even the way he loves his children, who talk to him across the planetary gap, their words and moving images beamed to him from Earth, but they seldom do, any more, it is as if they had resigned themselves to his departure, as if by crossing the atmosphere into space he had already died and they were done with mourning.
     It is her voice he fastens onto; almost greedily; with need. And as for Mei, it is as if she had absorbed the silence of three months and more than a hundred million kilometres, consumed it somehow, was sustained by it, her own silence with only the music for company, and now she must speak, speak only for the sake of it, like eating or breathing or making love, the first two of which she will soon do no more and the last of which is already gone, a thing of the past. And so she tells the swarm about Terminal.

     But what is Terminal? Eliza wonders, floating in the corridors of Gateway, watching the RLVs rise into low Earth orbit, the continents shifting past, the clouds swirling, endlessly, this whole strange giant spaceship planet as it travels at 1200 kilometres an hour around the sun, while at the same time Earth, Mars, Venus, Sun and all travel at nearly 800,000 kilometres per hour around the centre of the galaxy, while at the same time this speed machine, Earth and sun and the galaxy itself move at 1000 kilometres per second towards the Great Attractor, that most mysterious of gravitational enigmas, this anomaly of mass that pulls to it the Milky Way as if it were a pebble: all this and we think we’re still, and it makes Eliza dizzy just to think about it.

     But she thinks of such things more and more. Space changes you, somehow. It tears you out of certainties, it makes you see your world at a distance, no longer of it but apart. It makes her sad, the old certainties washed away, and more and more she finds herself thinking of Mars; of Terminal.
     To never see your home again; your family, your mother, your uncles, brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and second cousins and third cousins twice removed, and all the rest of them: never to walk under open skies and never to sail on a sea, never to hear the sound of frogs mating by a river or hear the whooshing sound of fruit bats in the trees. All those things and all the others you will never do, and people carry bucket lists around with them before they become Terminal, but at long last everything they ever knew and owned is gone and then there is only the jalopy confines, only that and the stars in the window and the voice of the swarm. And Eliza thinks that maybe she wouldn’t mind leaving it all behind, just for a chance at…what? Something so untenable, as will-o’-the-wisp as ideology or faith and yet as hard and precisely defined as prime numbers or fundamental constants. Perhaps it is the way Irish immigrants felt on going to America, with nothing but a vague hope that the future would be different from the past. Eliza had been to nursing school, had loved, had seen the world rotate below her; had been to space, had worked on amputations, births, tumour removals, fevers turned fatal, transfusions and malarias, has held a patient’s hand as she died or dried a boy’s tears or made a cup of tea for the bereaved, monitored IVs, changed sheets and bedpans, took blood and gave injections, and now she floats in freefall high above the world, watching the Terminals come and go, come and go, endlessly, and the string of silver jalopies extends in a great horde from Earth’s orbit to the Martian surface, and she imagines jalopies fall down like silver drops of rain, gently they glide down through the thin Martian atmosphere to land on the alien sands.

     She pictures Terminal and listens to Mei’s voice, one amongst so many but somehow it is the voice others return to, it is as though Mei speaks for all of them, telling them of the city being built out of cheap used bruised jalopies, the way Gateway had been put together, a lot of mismatched units joined up, and she tells them, you could fall in love again, with yourself, with another, with a world.
     She waits; she likes his voice. She floats in the cabin, her mind like a calm sea. She listens to the sounds of the jalopy, the instruments and the toilet and the creaks and rustle of all the invisible things. She is taking the pills again, she must, for the pain is too great now, and the morphine, so innocent a substance to come like blood out of the vibrant red poppies, is helping. She knows she is addicted. She knows it won’t last. It makes her laugh. Everything delights her. The music is all around her now, Lao singing accompanied by a khene changing into South African kwaito becoming reggae from PNG.

     One month to planetfall. And Mei falls silent. Haziq tries to raise her on the radio but there is no reply. “Hello, hello, this is Haziq, C-6173, this is Haziq, C-6173, has anyone heard from Mei in A-3357, has anyone heard from Mei?”
     “This is Henrik in D-7479, I am in a great deal of pain, could somebody help me? Please, could somebody help me?”
     “This is Cobb in E-1255, I have figured it all out, there is no Mars, they lied to us, we’ll die in these tin cans, how much air, how much air is left?”
     “This is jalopy B-2031 to jalopy C-3398, queen to pawn 4, I said queen to pawn 4, and check and mate, take that, Shen, you twisted old bat!”
     “This is David in B-1201, jalopy B-1200, can you hear me, jalopy B-1200, can you hear me, I love you, Joy. Will you marry me? Will you—”
     “Yes! Yes!”
     “We might not make it. But I feel like I know you, like I’ve always known you, in my mind you are as beautiful as your words.”
     “I will see you, I will know you, there on the red sands, there on Terminal Beach, oh, David—”
     “My darling—”
     “This is jalopy C-6669, will you two get a room?” and laughter on the radio waves, and shouts of cheers, congrats, mazel tov and the like. But Mei cannot be raised, her jalopy’s silent.

     Not jalopies but empty containers with nothing but air floating along with the swarm, destined for Terminal, supplements for the plants, and water and other supplies, and some say these settlers, if that’s what they be, are dying faster than we can replace them, but so what. They had paid for their trip. Mars is a madhouse, its inmates wander their rubbish heap town, and Mei, floating with a happy distracted mind, no longer hears even the music. And she thinks of all the things she didn’t say. Of stepping out onto Terminal Beach, of coming through the airlock, yes, but then, almost immediately, coming out again, suited uncomfortably, how hard it was, to strip the jalopies of everything inside and, worse, to go on corpse duty.
     She does not want to tell all this to Haziq, does not want to picture him landing, and going with the others, this gruesome initiation ceremony for the newly arrived: to check on the jalopies no longer responding, the ones that didn’t open, the ones from which no one has emerged. And she hopes, without reason, that it is Haziq who finds her, no longer floating but pressed down by gravity, her fragile bones fractured and crushed; that he would know her, somehow. That he would raise her in his arms, gently, and carry her out, and lay her down on the Martian sand.
     Then they would strip the jalopy and push it and join it to the others, this spider bite of a city sprawling out of those first crude jalopies to crash-land, and Haziq might sleep, fitfully, in the dormitory with all the others, and then, perhaps, Mei could be buried. Or left to the Martian winds.

     She imagines the wind howling through the canyons of the Valles Marineris. Imagines the snow falling, kissing her face. Imagines the howling winds stripping her of skin and polishing her bones, imagines herself scattered at last, every tiny bit of her blown apart and spread across the planet.
     And she imagines jalopies like meteorites coming down. Imagines the music the planet makes, if only you could hear it. And she closes her eyes and she smiles.
     “I hope it’s you…”
     “Sign here, initial here, and here, and here.”
     The jalopyman is young and friendly, and she knows his face if not his name. He says, perhaps in surprise or in genuine interest, for they never, usually, ask, “Are you sure you want to do it?”
     And Eliza signs, and she nods, quickly, like a bird. And she pushes the pen back at him, as if to stop from changing her mind.
     “I hope it’s you…”
     “Mei? Is that you? Is that you?”
     But there is no one there, nothing but a scratchy echo on the radio; like the sound of desert winds.

From TERMINAL by Lavie Tidhar (2016)

Orbital Tug


The reason an orbital tug is attractive is that rockets can launch much heavier payloads to a low orbit than they can to a high orbit. If the rocket does not have to launch hardware for moving the payload to a higher orbit then mass is saved, allowing the customer to use a cheaper launch vehicle or to launch a heavier payload for the same price.

An orbital transport provider would use a spacecraft, commonly called a tug or taxi, to deliver a payload to a different orbit. Ideally this vehicle would be reusable. This has been an area of active research since the 60's if not earlier, but I would argue that the ESPA ring and particularly the LCROSS mission represent a major step forward. The next step in this vein is probably the SSPS / Sherpa proposal from Spaceflight Inc for smaller payloads. Larger payloads could be handled by a Boeing ACES, Lockheed Martin Jupiter, ISRO PAM-G, RKK Energia Parom or Ad Astra concept vehicle. Of those, only Boeing and ISRO are known to be testing hardware. As far as I know, Boeing is the only contender investing heavily in microgravity cryogenic fluid management; this is a serious roadblock to in-flight refueling, which is a fundamental requirement for reusable tugs.

Ion-powered vehicles are popular concepts since they are so fuel-efficient. One drawback is that an ion-powered spiral from LEO to GEO exposes the payload to the Van Allen radiation belts. A possible solution is for the tug to provide radiation shielding for its payload during transit.

The Jupiter proposal is an example of a reusable tug with no depot. Tug fuel is included on the same launch vehicle as the payload. This is an efficient approach that minimizes risk in the near term. On the other hand, using a depot would allow the tug operator to purchase fuel at the lowest available launch cost and free up all available capacity on the customer's launch vehicle for their payload.

Satellite maintenance is in some ways an extension of an orbital tug. Either fuel or replacement parts are taken from LEO to the satellite's orbit. The craft is fueled, repaired or maintained in position while still operating. The largest market for this service is probably geosynchronous communication satellites, where receiving extra RCS fuel could extend their service lifetime by a decade or more. NASA has done in-space research on this subject under the Robotic Refueling Mission on ISS. Vivisat and MDA have both done work on commercial refueling services, with MDA's entry including a manipulator arm that could be used for ORU-style maintenance as well as refueling.

Adding the ability to swap out solar panels and transponders, a satellite bus could double its profitable lifespan. To take advantage of this the satellite needs to be designed for on-orbit maintenance from the beginning, similar to the way the ISS uses orbital replacement units.

An extension of this would be for a tug to retrieve a satellite and deliver it to a manned repair facility. Satellites with power or communication failures could be rescued or recovered this way, examined by human technicians, then possibly repaired and returned to their service orbit depending on the damage. Right now satellite operators are required to provide their own end-of-mission contingency; in most cases that means reserving a significant chunk of RCS fuel to either deorbit or move to GEO parking orbit. Having a service tug available might allow operators to eliminate that reserve, extending the useful life of satellites (potentially by several years) at the cost of a single tug mission.

In the longer term, most satellites at end of life are still structurally sound. If we start designing satellites with fully-replaceable parts then there is no reason why a GEO sat couldn't be retrieved, refueled, given new power hardware and upgraded navigation and outfitted with a new set of transponders before being placed back in GEO, all automated or remote-controlled. The basic structural bus might last many decades. Even for satellites currently in graveyard orbit, if a suitable crewed facility was available then the owners of those craft would gain considerable value from that mass by refitting or selling the bus to be refitted by someone else.

Interplanetary Peddlers

RocketCat sez

Savvy science fiction authors like Ken MacLeod know that "History is the trade secret of science fiction." Even tired hackneyed old tropes will have new life if you put them in SPAAAAACE! Just look at Mal and Zoë riding their horses out of the starship in the classic show Firefly. Sword on a Starship or what? But in this case starship horses make sense, because if you have the same historical constraints your solutions are gonna be the same.

So the idea of rocket-propelled space peddler seems like a really stupid idea, but is it really?

And it does not have to be comedic, a re-hash of Harcourt Fenton Mudd or Cyrano Jones. Or have you forgotten about the musical Oklahoma, where Ali Hakim the peddler sells Will the deadly "little wonder?"


Oh, I'm sure you've seen this trope with media associated with the North American frontier. The peddler / Yankee trader / tinker traveling from pioneer homestead to homestead, selling the little necessities and luxuries.

But as I've mentioned many times before, futurologists and science fiction writers can save themselves tons of work by remembering that everything old is new again. The North American frontier is dead and gone, but roughly the same situation could arise in the future. I'm thinking about mom-and-pop asteroid mining operation and pioneers colonizing interstellar planets.

All three groups advance into wilderness areas with no infrastructure nor shopping malls. All of them need tools and items for survival, and certain luxuries that make life bearable. Any entrepreneur worthy of the title can see this is a business opportunity.

Now, there are differences. Peddlers in North America could travel by foot, carrying their wares on their backs. They could also obtain their wares at a modest cost. This made the trade attractive to beginner businesspeople with strong legs but little starting capital. However, a interplanetary peddler selling things to asteroid miners are going to need a space suit and a space taxi at a minimum (though the latter could indeed be jury rigged out of stuff from the spaceship junkyard). If the peddler is traveling from star colony to star colony they have to have some kind of starship. This raises the bar for entry into the business, but the bar has already been raised for the pioneer star colonists. If they can afford the interstellar transport fee, so can the peddler.

The pioneer people were also eager for any hot-and-juicy gossip the peddler could bring from the last villiage they were at. Interstellar colonists might already know all the news by virtue of their jury-rigged internet.

And of course some peddlers were con artists. That ain't gonna change in the future, not without drastic changes in human personality.

Frontier peddlers in history would often find their stock boxes growing heavier as they sold stuff. This is because many of the pioneers had no money, so they had to pay with crops, food, honey, or other barter. The peddler would lug all this barter back to more civilized regions and sell it. Asteroid peddlers would probably have to be paid in asteroid ore.

Readers who are rich with years will remember the wearisome number of jokes on the topic of the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter. The "traveling salesman" was a peddler.


Closely related is the profession of Tinker. North American pioneers had very little money, so they could not afford to replace a broken household utensil. The tinker would use low-tech methods with inexpensive or free local materials to make the repair. To fix a hole in a pan, the tinker would make a "tinker's dam" out of clay, mud, or dough. The tinker would then pour some molten solder into the dam, which would solidify and mend the hole. The tinker's dam would be removed and thrown away, since it is literally "not worth a tinker's dam."

So in the future, Asteroid Dan: the Tinker Man would travel to Maw and Paw Kessler asteroid mine to glue together their broken antiquated laser drill. And have to be OK with being paid in fresh asteroid ore instead of cash.


Now, if times get tough (or if you are trying to take advantage of alien technology), a tinker could graduate into becoming a Cobbler.

Maw and Paw Kessler have a problem repairing their broken laser drill due to a lack of money, NOT a lack of technology. The tech is available, assuming you have coin.

If the technology become unavailable, that's when the tinkers will have to become cobblers. A tinker tries to repair broken parts. A cobbler tries to replace a broken part with some locally available equivalent.

For instance: a tinker welds together a cracked gear. A cobbler deals with a sudden absence of automobile gasoline by altering the car to run on methane (compress methane boiled off by stable-dung, and plumb a gas-supply into the induction manifold using scrap tubing and insulated tape).

Why would the technology become unavailable? Many reasons. A sudden zombie apocalypse. The galactic empire descends into the Long Night. Or if you are a combat archeologist trying to fix some million-year old alien paleotechnology, where the alien repair parts also became unavailable a million years ago.



There are many items that Terradyne either will not import for its employees in the colonies, or doesn’t have the time to bother with. This has left a void which is filled by Yankee traders, named for the peddlers who traveled door-to-door in the 18th and 19th centuries in North America.

These traders move from settlement to settlement, usually in ramshackle space ships, selling their wares and picking up items to sell in the next colony. In smaller camps they are heartily welcomed as a fresh source of news and gossip from the outside. Their stock in trade varies widely, from beef jerky and dried fruit to “spicy” VRs and print publications.

There are occasional rumors that some of the Yankee traders are actually RMA spies. If so, colonists in general tend to feel that the visits are worth being spied on.

(ed note: The RMA is the undercover intelligence agency of the successor to the United Nations. Who are always looking for ways to rein in the out-of-control Terradyne megacorporation)

From GURPS Space: Terradyne by Russell Brown and Mark Waltz (1991)

      I went back to the problem of setting our sixteen thousand tons of ship onto the rock.
     It wasn't much of a rock. Jefferson is an irregular-shaped asteroid about twice as far out as Earth. It measures maybe seventy kilometers by fifty kilometers, and from far enough away it looks like an old mud brick somebody used for a shotgun target. It has a screwy rotation pattern that's hard to match with, and since I couldn't use the main engines, setting down was a tricky job.
     There are two inertial platforms in Slingshot, and they were giving me different readings. We were closing faster than I liked.
     The attitude jets popped. "Hear this," I said. "I think we're coming in too fast. Brace yourselves." The jets popped again, short bursts that stirred up dust storms on the rocky surface below. "But I don't think—" the ship jolted into place with a loud clang. We hit hard enough to shake things, but none of the red lights came on "—we'll break anything. Welcome to Jefferson. We're down."
     Janet came over and cut off the intercom switch, and we hugged each other for a second. "Made it again," she said, and I grinned.
     There was a winking orange light, showing an outside call on our hailing frequency. Janet handed me the mike with a wicked grin. "Lock up your wives and hide your daughters, the tinker's come to town," I told it.
     "Slingshot, this is Freedom Station. Welcome back, Cap'n Rollo."
     "Jed?" I asked.
     "Who the hell'd you think it was?"
     "Anybody. Thought maybe you'd fried yourself in the solar furnace. How are things?" Jed's an old friend. Like a lot of asteroid Port Captains, he's a publican. The owner of the bar nearest the landing area generally gets the job, since there's not enough traffic to make Port Captains a fulltime deal. Jed used to be a miner in Pallas, and we'd worked together before I got out of the mining business.
     Slingshot is built up out of a number of compartments. We add to the ship as we have to—and when we can afford it. I left Jan to finish shutting down.

     The entryway is a big compartment. It's filled with nearly everything you can think of: dresses, art objects, gadgets and gizmos, spare parts for air bottles, sewing machines, and anything else Janet or I think we can sell in the way-stops we make with Slingshot. Janet calls it the "boutique," and she's been pretty clever about what she buys. It makes a profit, but like everything we do, just barely.

     "People waitin' for you in the Doghouse, Captain Rollo," Jed said. "Big meeting."
     "I'll just get my hat."

     There aren't any dogs at the Doghouse. Jed had one when he first came to Jefferson, which is why the name, but dogs don't do very well in low gravs. Like everything else in the Belt, the furniture in Jed's bar is iron and glass except for what's aluminum and titanium. The place is a big cave hollowed out of the rock. There's no outside view, and the only things to look at are the TV and the customers.
     There was a big crowd, as there always is in the Port Captain's place when a ship comes in. More business is done in bars than offices out here, which was why Janet and the kids hadn't come dirtside with me. The crowd can get rough sometimes.
     The Doghouse has a big bar running all the way across on the side opposite the entryway from the main corridor. The bar's got a suction surface to hold down anything set on it, but no stools. The rest of the big room has tables and chairs, and the tables have little clips to hold drinks and papers in place. There are also little booths around the outside perimeter for privacy. It's a typical layout. You can hold auctions in the big central area and make private deals in the booths.
     Drinks are served with covers and straws because when you put anything down fast it sloshes out the top. You can spend years learning to drink beer in low gee if you don't want to sip it through a straw or squirt it out of a bulb.
     The place was packed. Most of the customers were miners and shopkeepers, but a couple of tables were taken by company reps. I pointed out Johnny Peregrine to Dalquist. "He'll know how to find Barbara."
     Dalquist smiled that tight little accountant's smile of his and went over to Peregrine's table.
     There were a lot of others. The most important was Habib al Shamlan, the Iris Company factor. He was sitting with two hard cases, probably company cops.
     The Jefferson Corporation people didn't have a table. They were at the bar, and the space between them and the other Company reps was clear, a little island of neutral area in the crowded room.
     I'd drawn Jefferson's head honcho. Rhoda Hendrix was Chairman of the Board of the Jefferson Corporation, which made her the closest thing they had to a government. There was a big ugly guy with her. Joe Hornbinder had been around since Blackjack Dan's time. He still dug away at the rocks, hoping to get rich. Most people called him Horny for more than one reason.
     It looked like this might be a good day. Everyone stared at us when we came in, but they didn't pay much attention to Dalquist. He was obviously a feather merchant, somebody they might have some fun with later on, and I'd have to watch out for him then, but right now we had important business.
     Dalquist talked to Johnny Peregrine for a minute and they seemed to agree on something because Johnny nodded and sent one of his troops out. Dalquist went over into a corner and ordered a drink.

     There's a protocol to doing business out here. I had a table all to myself, off to one side of the clear area in the middle, and Jed's boy brought me a big mug of beer with a hinged cap. When I'd had a good slug I took messages out of my pouch and scaled them out to people. Somebody bought me another drink, and there was a general gossip about what was happening around the Belt.
     Al Shamlan was impatient. After a half hour, which is really rushing things for an Arab, he called across, his voice very casual, "And what have you brought us, Captain Kephart?"
     I took copies of my manifest out of my pouch and passed them around. Everyone began reading, but Johnny Peregrine gave a big grin at the first item.
     "Beef!" Peregrine looked happy. He had five hundred workers to feed.
     "Nine tons," I agreed.
     "Ten francs," Johnny said. "I'll take the whole lot."
     "Fifteen," al Shamlan said.
     I took a big glug of beer and relaxed. Jan and I'd taken a chance and won. Suppose somebody had flung a shipment of beef into transfer orbit a couple of years ago? A hundred tons could be arriving any minute, and mine wouldn't be worth anything.
     Janet and I can keep track of scheduled ships, and we know pretty well where most of the tramps like us are going, but there's no way to be sure about goods in the pipeline. You can go broke in this racket.
     There was more bidding, with some of the storekeepers getting in the act. I stood to make a good profit, but only the big corporations were bidding on the whole lot. The Jefferson Corporation people hadn't said a word. I'd heard things weren't going too well for them, but this made it certain. If miners have any money, they'll buy beef. Beef tastes like cow. The stuff you can make from algae is nutritious, but at best it's not appetizing, and Jefferson doesn't even have the plant to make textured vegetable proteins—not that TVP is any substitute for the real thing.
     Eventually the price got up to where only Iris and Westinghouse were interested in the whole lot, and I broke the cargo up, seven tons to the big boys and the rest in small lots. I didn't forget to save out a couple hundred kilos for Jed, and I donated half a ton for the Jefferson city hall people to throw a feed with. The rest went for about thirty francs a kilo.
     That would just about pay for the deuterium I burned up coming to Jefferson. There was some other stuff, lightweight items they don't make outside the big rocks like Pallas, and that was all pure profit. I felt pretty good when the auction ended. It was only the preliminaries, of course, and the main event was what would let me make a couple of payments to Barclay's on Slinger's mortgage, but it's a good feeling to know you can't lose money no matter what happens.
     There was another round of drinks. Rockrats came over to my table to ask about friends I might have run into. Some of the storekeepers were making new deals, trading around things they'd bought from me.

From TINKER by Jerry Pournelle (1975)

      For almost three days the Rolling Stone coasted slowly through Rock City. To the naked eye looking out a port or even to a person standing outside on the hull Rock City looked like any other stretch of space—empty, with a backdrop of stars. A sharp-eyed person who knew the constellations well would have noticed far too many planets distorting the classic configurations, planets which did not limit their wanderings to the Zodiac. Still sharper attention would have spotted motion on the part of these "planets," causing them to open out and draw aft from the direction the Stone was heading.
     Hazel, the Captain, and the twins suited up, went outside, and waited. They could make out a small figure on the ship across from them; the ship itself looked larger now, larger than the Stone. City Hall was an obsolete space-to-space vessel, globular, and perhaps thirty years old. Roger Stone surmised correctly that she had made a one-way freighter trip after she was retired from a regular run.
     In close company with City Hall was a stubby cylinder; it was either smaller than the spherical ship or farther away. Near it was an irregular mass impossible to make out; the sunlight on it was bright enough but the unfilled black shadows gave no clear clues. All around them were other ships or shapes close enough to be distinguished from the stars; Pollux estimated that there must be two dozen within as many miles. While he watched a scooter left a ship a mile or more away and headed toward City Hall.
     Whitsitt had gone inside but he had recycled the lock and left it open for them. They went on in, to be met there by the Honorable Jonathan Fries, Mayor of Rock City (aka "One-Price", proprietor of the City Hall store). He was a small, bald, pot-bellied man with a sharp, merry look in his eye and a stylus tucked back of his ear. He shook hands with Roger Stone enthusiastically. "Welcome, welcome! We're honored to have you with us, Mister Mayor. I ought to have a key to the city, or some such, for you. Dancing girls and brass bands."
     Roger shook his head. "I'm an ex-mayor and a private traveler. Never mind the brass bands."

     They completed the rest of the introductions; Mrs. Fries took Hazel in tow; the twins trailed along with the two men, into the forward half of the globe. It was a storeroom and a shop; racks had been fitted to the struts and thrust members; goods and provisions of every sort were lashed or netted to them. Don Whitsitt clung with his knees to a saddle in the middle of the room with a desk folded into his lap. In his reach were ledgers on lazy tongs and a rack of clips holding several hundred small account books. A miner floated in front of him. Several more were burrowing through the racks of merchandise.
     Seeing the display of everything a meteor miner could conceivably need, Pollux was glad that they had concentrated on luxury goods—then remembered with regret that they had precious little left to sell; the flat cats, before they were placed in freeze, had eaten so much that the family had been delving into their trade goods, from caviar to Chicago sausage. He whispered to Castor, "I had no idea the competition would be so stiff."
     But they were not forced to fall back on Hazel's uninspired cooking. Fries had the Stone warped into contact with City Hall and a passenger tube sealed from the Stone's lock to an unused hatch of the bigger ship; when Dr. Stone was away they ate in his restaurant. Mrs. Fries was an excellent cook and she raised a great variety in her hydroponics garden.
     While they were rigging the scooter the twins had time to mull over the matter of the flat cats. It had dawned on them that here in Rock City was a potential, unexploited market for flat cats (fuzzy Martian pets that were the inspiration for Tribbles). The question was: how best to milk it for all the traffic would bear?
     Pol suggested that they peddle them in the scooter; he pointed out that a man's sales resistance was lowest, practically zero, when he actually had a flat cat in his hands. His brother shook his head. "No good, Junior."
     "Why not?"
     "One, the Captain (their father) won't let us monopolize the scooter; you know he regards it as ship's equipment, built by the crew, namely us. Two, we would burn up our profits in scooter fuel. Three, it's too slow; before we could move a third of them, some idiot would have fed our first sale too much, it has kittens—and there you are, with the market flooded with flat cats (like tribbles if you feed them too much the blasted things are born pregnant). The idea is to sell them as nearly as possible all at one time."
     "We could stick up a sign in the store—One-Price would let us—and sell them right out of the Stone."
     "Better but not good enough. Most of these rats shop only every three or four months. No, sir, we've got to build that better mouse trap and make the world beat a path to our door."
     "I've never been able to figure out why anybody would want to trap a mouse. Decompress a compartment and you kill all of them, every time."
     "Just a figure of speech, no doubt. Junior, what can we do to make Rock City flat-cat conscious?"

     They found a way. The Belt, for all its lonely reaches—or because of them—was as neighborly as a village. They gossiped among themselves, by suit radio. Out in the shining blackness it was good to know that, if something went wrong, there was a man listening not five hundred miles away who would come and investigate if you broke off and did not answer.
     They gossiped from node to node by their more powerful ship's radios. A rumor of death, of a big strike, or of accident would bounce around the entire belt, relayed from rockman to rockman, at just short of the speed of light. Heartbreak node was sixty-six light-minutes away, following orbit; big news often reached it in less than two hours, including numerous manual relays.
     Rock City even had its own broadcast. Twice a day One-Price picked up the news from Earthside, then rebroadcast it with his own salty comments. The twins decided to follow it with one of their own, on the same wave length—a music & chatter show, with commercials. Oh, decidedly with commercials. They had hundreds of spools in stock which they could use, then sell, along with the portable projectors they had bought on Mars.
     They started in; the show never was very good, but, on the other hand, it had no competition and it was free. Immediately following Fries' sign-off Castor would say, "Don't go away, neighbors! Here we are again with two hours of fun and music—and a few tips on bargains. But first, our theme—the war-r-rm and friendly purr of a Martian flat cat." Pollux would hold Fuzzy Britches up to the microphone and stroke it; the good-natured little creature would always respond with a loud buzz. "Wouldn't that be nice to come home to? And now for some music: Harry Weinstein's Sunbeam Six in 'High Gravity.' Let me remind you that this tape, like all other music on this program, may be purchased at an amazing saving in Flat Cat Alley, right off the City Hall—as well as Ajax three-way projectors in the Giant, Jr., model, for sound, sight, and stereo. The Sunbeam Six—hit it, Harry!"
     Sometimes they would do interviews:
Castor: "A few words with one of our leading citizens, Rocks-in-his-head Rudolf. Mr. Rudolf, all Rock City is waiting to hear from you. Tell me, do you like it out here?"
Pollux: "Naw!"
Castor: "But you're making lots of money, Mr. Rudolf?"
Pollux: "Naw!"
Castor: "At least you bring in enough high grade to eat well?"
Pollux: "Naw!"
Castor: "No? Tell me, why did you come out here in the first place?"
Pollux: "Bub, was you ever married?"
     Sound effect of blow with blunt instrument, groan, and the unmistakable cycling of an air lock—Castor: "Sorry, folks. My assistant has just spaced Mr. Rudolf. To the purchaser of the flat cat we had been saving for Mr. Rudolf we will give away—absolutely free!—a beautiful pin-up picture printed in gorgeous living colors on fireproof paper. I hate to tell you what these pictures ordinarily sell for on Ceres; it hurts me to say how little we are letting them go for now, until our limited stock is exhausted. To the very first customer who comes in that door wanting to purchase a flat cat we will—Lock that door! Lock that door! All right, all right—all three of you will receive pin-up pictures; we don't want anyone fighting here. But you'll have to wait until we finish this broadcast. Sorry, neighbors—a slight interruption but we settled it without bloodshed. But I find myself in a dilemma. I made you a promise and I did not know what would happen, but the truth is, too many customers were already here, pounding on the door of Flat Cat Alley. But to make good our promise I am enlarging it: not to the first customer, not to the second, nor to the third—but to the next twenty persons purchasing flat cats will go, absolutely free, one of these gorgeous pictures. Bring no money—we accept high grade or core material at the standard rates ."

(ed note: high grade is high-grade asteroid ore. Core material, well, this novel was written back in those days of yore when some astronomers still thought that the asteroid belt was from a planet that exploded. So "core material" is fragments of the exploded planet's core, which asteroid miners search for as a valuable MacGuffinite.)

     Sometimes they varied it by having (their sister) Meade sing. She was not of concert standards, but she had a warm, intimate contralto. After hearing her, a man possessing not even a flat cat felt lonely indeed. She pulled even better than the slick professional recordings; the twins found it necessary to cut her in for a percentage.

     But in the main they depended on the flat cats themselves. The boomers from Mars, almost to a man, bought flat cats as soon as they heard that they were available, and each became an unpaid traveling salesman for the enterprise.
     Hardrock men from Luna, or directly from Earth, who had never seen a flat cat, now had opportunities to see them, pet them, listen to their hypnotic purr—and were lost. The little things not only stirred to aching suppressed loneliness, but, having stimulated it, gave it an outlet.
     Castor would hold Fuzzy Britches to the mike and coo, "Here is a little darling—Molly Malone. Sing for the boys, honey pet." While he stroked Fuzzy Britches Pollux would step up the power. "No, we can't let Molly go—she's a member of the family. But here is Bright Eyes. We'd like to keep Bright Eyes, too, but we mustn't be selfish. Say hello to the folks, Bright Eyes." Again he would stroke Fuzzy Britches. "Mr. P., now hand me Velvet."

     The stock of flat cats in deep freeze steadily melted. Their stock of high grade grew.

     They had reached the last few at the back of the hold and were thinking about going out of business when a tired-looking, grey-haired man showed up after their broadcast. There were several other customers; he hung back and let the twins sell flat cats to the others. He had with him a girl child, little older than Lowell (age 4). Castor had not seen him before but he guessed that he might be Mr. Erska; bachelors far outnumbered families in the node and families with children were very rare. The Erskas picked up a precarious living down orbit and north; they were seldom seen at City Hall. Mr. Erska spoke Basic with some difficulty; Mrs. Erska spoke it not at all. The family used some one of the little lingos—Icelandic, it might have been.
     When the other customers had left the Stone Castor put on his professional grin and introduced himself. Yes, it was Mr. Erska. "And what can I do for you today, sir? A flat cat?"
     "I'm afraid not."
     "How about a projector? With a dozen tapes thrown in? Just the thing for a family evening."
     Mr. Erska seemed nervous. "Uh, very nice, I'm sure. No." He tugged at the little girl's hand. "We better go now, babykin."
     "Don't rush off. My baby brother is around somewhere—or was. He'd like to meet your kid. Maybe he's wandered over into the store. I'll look for him."
     "We better go."
     "What's the rush? He can't be far."
     Mr. Erska swallowed in embarrassment. "My little girl. She heard your program and she wanted to see a flat cat. Now she's seen one, so we go."
     "Oh." Castor brought himself face to face with the child. "Would you like to hold one, honey?" She did not answer, but nodded solemnly. "Mr. P., bring up the Duchess."

     "Right, Mr. C." Pollux went aft and fetched the Duchess—the first flat cat that came to hand, of course. He came back, warming it against his belly to revive it quickly.
     Castor took it and massaged it until it flattened out and opened its eyes. "Here, honeybunch. Don't be afraid."
     Still silent, the child took it, cuddled it. The small furry bundle sighed and began to purr. Castor turned to her father. "Don't you want to get it for her?"
     The man turned red. "No, no!"
     "Why not? They're no trouble. She'll love it. So will you."
     "No!" He reached out and tried to take the flat cat from his daughter, speaking to her in another language.
     She clung to it, replying in what was clearly the negative.

     Castor looked at them thoughtfully. "You would like to buy it for her, wouldn't you?"
     The man looked away. "I can't buy it."
     "But you want to." Castor glanced at Pollux. "Do you know what you are, Mr. Erska. You are the five hundredth customer of Flat Cat Alley."
     "Didn't you hear our grand offer? You must have missed some of our programs. The five hundredth flat cat is absolutely free."
     The little girl looked puzzled but clung to the flat cat. Her father looked doubtful. "You're fooling?"
     Castor laughed. "Ask Mr. P."
     Pollux nodded solemnly. "The bare truth, Mr. Erska. It's a celebration of a successful season. One flat cat, absolutely free with the compliments of the management. And with it goes either one pin-up, or two candy bars—your choice."

     Mr. Erska seemed only half convinced, but they left with the child clinging to "Duchess" and the candy bars. When the door was closed behind them Castor said fretfully, "You didn't need to chuck in the candy bars. They were the last; I didn't mean us to sell them."
     "Well, we didn't sell them; we gave 'em away."
     Castor grinned and shrugged. "Okay, I hope they don't make her sick. What was her name?"
     "I didn't get it."
     "No matter. Or Mrs. Fries will know." He turned around, saw (their grandmother) Hazel behind them in the hatch. "What are you grinning about?"
     "Nothing, nothing. I just enjoy seeing a couple of cold-cash businessmen at work."
     "Money isn't everything!"
     "Besides," added Pollux, "it's good advertising."
     "Advertising? With your stock practically gone?" She snickered. "There wasn't any 'grand offer'—and I'll give you six to one it wasn't your five hundredth sale."
     Castor looked embarrassed. "Aw, she wanted it! What would you have done?"
     Hazel moved up to them, put an arm around the neck of each. "My boys! I'm beginning to think you may grow up yet. In thirty, forty, fifty more years you may be ready to join the human race."
     "Aw, lay off it!"

From THE ROLLING STONES by Robert Heinlein (1952)

When you think of a peddler or a traveling salesman in the frontier days, what do you picture in your mind?

Again I have to blame Hollywood for the image that comes into my head. A wagon with pots and pans rattling as he comes around the corner into the yard. Hanging from the wagon is an assortment of shiny new tin hollowware; more tin-ware hangs from the wagon walls, which also contains dusters, brooms, and other household items. The wagon has racks, drawers, and cabinets filled with all sort of trinkets and small household items.

And this was probably the way it was, but not until later. The first peddlers didn’t have the luxery of a road to travel on, so they traveled from farm to farm with their trunks strapped on their backs or, as roads improved, on the back of a pack-horse or in a cart or wagon.

Trunk peddlers sold smaller items like combs, pins, cheap jewelry, knives and woodenware, knitted goods, and books.

Most were willing to barter their wares in exchange for farm products from their cash-strapped and isolated rural customers (many early Indian fur traders were in this sense little more than peddlers), then carry those goods for resale at a cash profit in country stores and town markets.

In early 1884 several traveling salesmen walked across the Ozarks Mountains bringing goods, referred to as “notions,” to sell on their trip. They bought the goods with money they earned selling fish they caught in the White River in Arkansas.

Notions are things like needles and thread, knives and buttons. Such small, useful items were scarce on the frontier. They were also easy for a peddler to carry.

The men made good money selling notions. In just a half a day in Willow Springs, the men sold $4.65 worth of goods, which was a lot of money in those days. They had problems selling their wares in some towns, however. Local merchants sometimes didn’t like strange travelers taking business away from their stores. In Thayer, the sheriff even took the full pack of goods one of the peddlers was carrying because he didn’t have a merchant’s license.

From PEDDLERS IN THE WILD WEST by jchulsey (2015)

The sea and the deep broad bays and rivers sweeping far into the continent ottered the early American colonists their easiest and cheapest highroad for commerce and communications. There were literally tens of thousands of miles of shore line which could be reached handily by boat, yet because of some perverse streak in man’s nature it wasn’t long before a number of restless people packed their scanty possessions and struck out for the heavily wooded, hilly interior.

As these deflectors from the tidewater areas moved inward, cleared their land and established outposts of colonial civilization, they presented a challenging opportunity to other men whose minds were occupied with trade and commerce. Each farm, each gristmill, each nucleus of some future village had its constant need for a supply of worldly goods and its surplus of produce to offer to the seaboard. It was a market that couldn’t be ignored—and it wasn’t for very long. Thus it came about that a band of stout-legged men hoisted trunkloads of merchandise on their backs and trudged off into the pathless forests to trade with the people who had moved inland.

These were the peddlers. For the next two centuries they were to follow doggedly in the shadows of farwandering Americans as they raited down the Ohio and the Mississippi, trekked along the Wilderness Road and the Santa Fe Trail, and ultimately moved in on the Spaniards on the far side of the Rockies in California.

Considering the number of easier and more sedate ways there were to earn a living, one wonders why men chose to become peddlers. In almost every respect it was a dog’s life, knocking around the raw back country of America. When the peddlers went out on the road, they were quite literally on the road—afoot, sloshing through mud ankle-deep in winter, or scuffing up a cloud of dust in summer. They were snapped at by vicious dogs, shot at by Indians, nipped by frost, and pounced upon by hijackers. Many were stung by rattle-snakes, and all of them were feasted upon by fleas, gnats, mosquitoes, bedbugs, leeches, and other flying and crawling species of tormentors.

But despite all of these occupational hazards, there were many overriding reasons why so many men chose such a precarious profession. Adventure was one of them, and from all accounts they encountered enough of that. A chance to get about and travel was another; early Americans had a consuming curiosity about the make-up of their country, and for a man with a restless foot, peddling gave it plenty ol exercise.

But the main reason for “going peddling” was opportunity. Peddling required no experience and very little capital. A peddler could quickly enough learn his trade as he made his rounds, and for as little as twenty or thirty dollars in cash he could buy enough stock to set himself up in business. The market for the peddlers’ goods was rapidly expanding; many peddlers accumulated enough money alter several years to retire from traveling and settle down at home as merchants and traders.

Thousands of others spotted remote villages which they figured would some day become bustling centers of trade and transportation. To these places with a future the peddlers returned and sank their roots. Some opened stores and became prosperous merchants. Others became jobbers and wholesalers. In hundreds of American cities and towns—Albany, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Fargo, Albuquerque, Sacramento—firms begun long ago by peddlers are still in business.

The first of the Yankee peddlers carried a general line of housewares and notions. Pots and pans, axes, handmade nails, thread, buttons, scissors, and combs were fastest-selling items. Biggest profits were earned on such frivolities as bits of lace and ribbon and fancy cloth, mirrors, toilet waters, spices, tea, coffee, and nostrums.

There were limits, naturally, as to how much of a load of these things a man could carry or how much he could manage to stow upon his horse. Such weight and space limitations led some of the peddlers to become specialists in certain lines. Instead of loading up with a hodgepodge of general merchandise, the specialists handled spices only, or tinware, or herbs and medicines. In later years there were clock peddlers, furniture peddlers, sewing machine peddlers. There were even peddlers of wagons and carriages—men who hitched together a string of three or four vehicles and drove around until they found buyers for the new rigs.

There was no end to the peddlers’ ingenuity in finding customers. They tracked down the remotest farmhouse and loneliest cabin, and turned up at every fair or carnival. In the Deep South they paddled up and down the rivers and bayous in canoes and drew their customers from plantation mansions and shanties by blowing on a bugle or a conch shell. But mostly the peddlers walked, pacing oil the long lonely miles with their heavy loads on their backs and the dream of riches and the future easing their way.

The peddler’s trunk was a long, rather narrow box usually made of tin. A strong peddler starting out on a selling expedition carried two such trunks, one on each shoulder. The stowing of merchandise in these trunks was a major undertaking requiring great skill. Dishes and pans of varying size were nested. Into pots went buttons, pins, nails, and ribbons. Gingham and bright calicoes were wrapped around long-handled forks.

So packed, each trunk weighed up to fifty or sixty pounds. And. paradoxically, the more a peddler sold the heavier became his trunks, for, often as not, the buyers had only grain, honey, furs, and homemade woodenware to exehange for the peddler’s wares. These products, which often weighed more than those the peddler had sold, had to be carried back to his home base and sold to the merchants and wholesalers. How successfully the peddlers traded all these country wares determined their ultimate profits.

There were compensations, however. Wherever the peddler called he was a welcome visitor. Housewives stopped their work, men came in from the fields, children gathered around, and the trunks were opened. There was no great hurry. Everybody wanted to see all the fascinating goods and hear even scrap of the latest news. And the peddler was in no hurry either, for he welcomed a chance to rest his road-weary legs, besides, if it was morning when the peddler arrived, he could usually drag out negotiations long enough to be asked to stay for the noonday meal, and if he arrived in the afternoon, there was a good chance of an imitation to stay over for supper and the night.

As roads improved some peddlers rode on horsehack, carrying their wares strapped to their horses. Others used wagons which were capable of carrying fair-sized loads. These improvements in transportation increased the importance of the peddler in our early commerce; he was able to go farther, carry more stock and take a greater volume of goods in trade or barter.

But the peddlers still had their troubles, as is attested to by the following letter written by a peddler of bonnets (paper hats called Navarinos) to his supplier in western Massachusetts:

Tioga June 22nd 1830 NYK

Mr. Thomas Hurlbut Sir.

From Bainbridge I armed here today at 12 o’clock by driving 12 miles yesterday in the rain. In consequence of the heavy rains that have fallen in this country the past ten days the roads are tremendous bad they are so rutted that I have been obliged to fasten a roap to the top of my box and hold on. I have just met with a Dry Goods pedler who trades through all pans of Pennsylvania, he says the roads are much worse than they are here however I am not discouraged yet. My horses stand it well except they are galled a little by driveing yesterday and today in the rain & for Bonets I have founed no chance for any sales of consequence yet.

The Small Pox is spreading over this country, don’t send out another Pedler with so high a box. In haste yours

Rodney Hill

I am in good health.

By early March the farm families in New England were on the lookout for the man with the packs on his back. Long before his arrival they had carefully listed the wares they must have—a dozen buttons, a paper of pins (very expensive in those days), a new jackknife, two pewter mugs, six needles—and as an appendage to that list, of essentials there was a much longer list of the things they would like to have.

The meeting between the farm family and the peddler was a lively swapping session, with the peddler in much the stronger position to get the better of every transaction. First of all, the peddler was working in what was pretty much of a seller’s market. His offering included items which the family could not do without. Then, too, he was selling to people who understandably were eager to add the slightest luxuries to their meager possessions. People possessing so little as did the early colonists found it difficult to resist a jew’sharp for the children, a stick of candy, a bit of gay ribbon or of lace, or a pretty piece of chinaware to set on the bare mantel over the kitchen fireplace. Sales resistance was low—even among the most frugal people—and the country people were uninformed about goods and prices.

If a peddler held out for a 600 per cent markup for pepper, he would blandly explain that the price was high due to an obscure war at sea which had shut off imports from the Spice Islands. So, too. would he justify his exorbitant prices for other articles by fixing the blame somehow on the English king or the avarice of the merchants in Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. His customers were in no position to dispute the pedler’s laments about the skyrocketing prices in the market places, and they paid through the nose for the goods they bought.

But when it came their turn to offer goods to the peddler in payment, the farm families invariably found that the market for such things as they had for sale was poor indeed. Honey was a drug on the market, according to the peddler; the merchants in town were not much interested that year in coonskins and beaver pelts or beautifully hand-carved chairs. If the peddler was to be believed, he could resell such items at verv depressed prices, hardly more than it would cost him to transport the stuff back to town.

Very often a peddler who marked up an item by 1,000 per cent knew that this was unrealistic. He started high so that he could magnanimously come down to, say, about 500 per cent profit—a process of repricing which was an exhilarating experience both for the peddler and his customer. One of the most enduring myths in our colonial folklore is that the peddlers were guilty of foisting wooden nutmegs and sanded sugar upon unsuspecting housewives. There has never been any evidence uncovered to back up these tales of deliberate dishonesty, but there is evidence aplenty that the peddlers were masters of the art of deception and overpricing.

Unquestionably, a minority of the peddlers were first-class bums and crooks. Their drunken brawls, bloody fights and shady deals were well publicized, and drew sharp blasts from newspaper editors. Many inns and taverns posted notices bluntly announcing that peddlers were unwelcome.

The spellbinders who peddled a nauseous brew of raw alcohol, roots, herbs, and branch water as a cure-all for every ailment from ague to housemaid’s knee did their profession a disservice. And there are, in fact, no really new stories about the traveling man and the farmer’s daughter, for the same ribald stories told today were in currency soon after the first peddlers passed along the country lanes in staid old New England. In the South the peddlers were referred to as “those damn Yankees from Connecticut,” and throughout the land they were scorned by pious folks as ungodly ne’er-do-wells only a cut or two better than g*psies.

But for all the unsavory publicity generated by the few bad eggs among them, the peddlers served a useful purpose. Importers and small manufacturers depended upon them as an outlet for a large portion of their goods. Several million people relied on these wandering merchants to bring them the goods they needed, and to carry away the things they had produced. This army of walkers was a primitive and inefficient way of carrying on trade, but when the peddler’s trunks were opened up, and he began his persuasive sales pitch, one historian remarked that “wants dawned on the minds of the household that they had never known before.”

The peddler’s salesmanship and physical endurance kept alive the first stirrings of our industrial economy. He has gone now, but for two hundred years he was an important man among men engaged in important affairs.

From PACK-ROAD TO YESTERDAY by Penrose Scull (1956)

Another vanished knight of the road is the old-fashioned peddler whose home and shop was his wagon. He both bought and sold as he went, often selling his stock, wagon and all. Starting anew, with a few wares on his back, he invariable returned with a new horse and wagon and a tidy profit besides.

"Peddler" and "drummer" are typically American words. The ancient Scotch "peder" or foot-salesman became the "pedlar" of the New World. Although in England "peddlers" traveled only by foot and "hawkers" went only by wagon, anone who sold wares from door to door in America became commonly known of peddlers.

The drummer, or man who went about "drumming up trade," actually stemmed from the earliest time when drums were used to attract public attention, just as when church was called a drum, and public announcements were made after a drum call. The first American peddlers often carried a drum known as a "chapman's" drum."

The Yankee peddler was known to the townspeople of his time as a "chapman," a word which comes from the Anglo-Saxon "ceap" for trade, plus "man" hence a "cheap-man." The chapman who later won fame as a Yankee peddler often carried a drum and an America flag and boasted loudly that he sold only American goods. Actually, it was illegal for him to do otherwise, but he was a good salesman.

The Yankee peddler was the original American who could "sell anyone anything." One of his claims to fame is the origination of the name "Nutmeg State" for Connecticut, this derived from the belief that the Connecticut peddler sold wooden nutmeg as real ones. Few people, however, know that nutmegs were famous in Connecticut on their own merits. The nutmeg was the most popular flavoring of the old days; it was even favored as a gift.

Nutmegs were gilded and ribboned and given as presents, not only because of their worth, but because they were supposed to have great medicinal value. Some of the silver trinkets of colonial days which many people believed were snuff boxes were actually nutmeg-holders. The inside of the cover was often pierced to form a grater and served also as an opening to let the aroma escape. The bon vivants and fashionable dames of the period carried nutmegs with them as a sign of luxury. Because nutmegs were valuable and because they were easy to carry, it was always a convenient money-maker for the traveling peddler, who was often call a "nutmeg man."

From AMERICAN YESTERDAY by Eric Sloane (1956)

Farmers did business in small rural towns. Before the Sears catalog, farmers typically bought supplies (often at high prices and on credit) from local general stores with narrow selections of goods. Prices were negotiated, and depended on the storekeeper's estimate of a customer's creditworthiness. Sears took advantage of this by publishing catalogs offering customers a wider selection of products at clearly stated prices. The business grew quickly. The first Sears catalog was published in 1888.

...By 1894, the Sears catalog had grown to 322 pages, featuring sewing machines, bicycles, sporting goods, automobiles and a host of other new items. By 1896, dolls, stoves and groceries had been added to the catalog.

... Rosenwald brought to the mail order firm a rational management philosophy and diversified product lines: dry goods, consumer durables, drugs, hardware, furniture, and nearly anything else a farm household could desire.

...In 1906, Sears opened its catalog plant and the Sears Merchandise Building Tower in Chicago. Also, by that time, the Sears catalog had become known in the industry as "the Consumers' Bible". In 1933, Sears issued the first of its famous Christmas catalogs known as the "Sears Wishbook", a catalog featuring toys and gifts, separate from the annual Christmas Catalog. The catalog also entered the language, particularly of rural dwellers, as a euphemism for toilet paper. From 1908 to 1940, the catalog even included ready-to-assemble kit houses.

Novelists and story writers often portrayed the importance of the catalog in the emotional lives of rural folk. For children and their parents, the catalog was a "wish book" that was eagerly flipped through. It was not a question of purchasing but of dreaming; they made up stories about the lives of the models on the pages. The catalog was a means of entertainment, though much of its magic wore off with the passing of childhood.

(ed note: now, in your mind, replace "rural" with "asteroid belt")

From the Wikipedia entry for Sears

Looking today at another article talking about the difficulties of infrastructure for space colonization with comparisons to the colonization of the West, I think there is one element in the latter that has been overlooked so far.

The Sears catalog. Kit homes included, and lengthy lead times on delivery also included.

Yes, I am picturing the future equivalent of Sears, Roebuck, & Co. having a big warehouse near Luna with giant mass driver attached, ready to lob e-catalog products at customers all over the System on demand.

For science! profit!

Also, IKEA inflatable habitats. Hopefully those two screws and the brackety-widgety-thing you had left over didn't do anything too important...

(ed note: and if your primary habitat O2 tank springs a leak, Sears Robot & Co will be happy to send a high-priority high-delta V shipment to save your life. After you use interplanetary internet public key encryption protocols to cybernetically sign in your own blood a mortgage on your soul.)


Tinker or tinkerer is an archaic term for an itinerant tinsmith who mends household utensils.


The word is attested from the 13th century as "tyckner" or "tinkler" a term used in medieval Scotland and England for a metal worker. Some travelling groups and Romani people adopted this lifestyle and the name was particularly associated with indigenous Scottish Highland Travellers and Irish Travellers. However, this usage is disputed and considered offensive by some (as is the term "gypsy"). Tinkering is therefore the process of adapting, meddling or adjusting something in the course of making repairs or improvements, a process also known as bricolage.

The term "tinker", in British English, may refer to a mischievous child. Some modern-day nomads with a Scottish, Irish or English influence call themselves "techno-tinkers" or "technog*psies" and are found to possess a revival of sorts of the romantic view of the tinker's lifestyle. The family name "Tinker" is of Anglo-Saxon origin and does not have a Scottish, Irish, or Romany connection.

Tinker's dam

A tinker's dam is a temporary patch to repair a hole in a metal vessel such as a pot or a pan. It was used by tinkers and was usually made of mud or clay, or sometimes other materials at hand, such as wet paper. The material was built up around the outside of the hole, so as to plug it. Molten solder was then poured on the inside of the hole. The solder cooled and solidified against the dam and bonded with the metal wall. The dam was then brushed away. The remaining solder was then rasped and smoothed down by the tinker.

In the Practical Dictionary of Mechanics of 1877, Edward Knight gives this definition: "Tinker's-dam: a wall of dough raised around a place which a plumber desires to flood with a coat of solder. The material can be but once used; being consequently thrown away as worthless".

Tinker's curse

The common use of "tinker's dam" may have influenced the English phrase tinker's curse, which expresses contempt. The phrases tinker's damn and tinker's curse may also be applied to something considered insignificant. A common expression may be the examples: "I don't give a tinker's curse what the Vicar thinks", sometimes shortened to, "I don't give a tinker's about the Vicar." In this context, the speaker is expressing contempt for the clergyman and his opinion. A tinker's curse or cuss was considered of little significance because tinkers (who worked with their hands near hot metal) were reputed to swear (curse) habitually.

From the Wikipedia entry for TINKER

(ed note: Note that the term "Gypsy" is considered offensive by some)

Technogypsie (also Techno-G*psie or Techno G*psy) is a term for a modern-day nomadic person who balances the arts and sciences in their lifestyle. According to Technog*psie artist Leaf McGowan, one of the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of, the term was created by anthropologist Thomas Baurley in the early 1980s during his ethnographic studies of modern-day nomadic peoples, especially those traveling with a "technology" job and "artistic" skill. Many of his case studies were attendees of the International Rainbow Gatherings, Burning Man festivals or sub-cultural events.

This was a term also used by Leaf McGowan to describe his lifestyle beginning in 1986 to which he claimed he coined the term then, even though the use by Baurley seems to date earlier and other uses of the term are widespread by many other authors. The original author is not certain, as it is an easy term to concoct by adding together the descriptor of "techno" from "technology" to noun or slang "G*psy" or "G*psie". According to the web site, a "Technog*psie" or "Techno G*psy" is a "wanderer and/or traveler who is inclined towards a nomadic, unconventional way of life yet embraces equally the technological as well as artisan fields and lifestyles merged together with skillsets of a Jack (or Jane) of all trades." A "Techno Tinker, Techno G*psy, or Techno Nomad".

Many individuals around the world use this title or definition to describe their wanderlust traveling lifestyle, arts, sciences, and trades. Of the many individuals who use these titles, they often have a balance between an artistic lifestyle with one that is technology driven – such as a web designer or programmer who telecommutes and travels also doing art, music, crafts, or pursuing passions that the romantic g*psies of old were known to do such as making baskets, reading tarot cards or palms, playing music, or crafting didgeridoos. Other "Techno-G*psies" are sound engineers traveling to various music events like Burning Man and creating a nightclub out of tents and art in the middle of nowhere, living bohemian in a gifting economy. Another Technog*psie might travel the world researching folklore, writing books and articles, using hospitality networks such as CouchSurfing and Airbnb, while concurrently managing websites. Many of these modern-day nomads take inspiration from the g*psies, tinkers, travelers, vagrants, and nomads of the past.

Another self-claimed "Technog*psy" who is a chemist and material scientist who defines the lifestyle as "people who basically keep the science and technology going", "often employed by large industries although sometimes working as faculty or as a small one-man business, these highly skilled scientists and engineers move about the country from technical problem to problem as the work and money moves." A network of self-identified Technog*psies, operating a website called, are a band of traveling engineers in Europe who are creating a community of support for contractors living this lifestyle. Others claiming the title of "Techno g*psy" is as a "digital nomad" or musical artisan or a network catalyzer. Techno-G*psies are a unique class, caste, and sub-cultural movement of a type of individual who blends together artistic aspirations with a knack for technologies, and are very nomadic persons possessing often very intense wanderlust addictions. The “Techno-G*psie” is more of a recent phenomenon of individuals with wanderlust, who may have simply become inspired by the lure of adventure by these fore-parents of g*psies, pirates, and tinkers; or are actually possessing the continued bloodlines of such from ancestral roots that travel with their art, writings, dance, crafts, or creativity, yet has also discovered a resonance with the equilibrium of technology, science, research, and innovation as a balanced aspiration, goal, and/or skill that drives and propels their life or meaning.

According to the authors of "Technog*psies", "There is a charm to these wanderlust ways – the freedom of the road, the woods, or the sea … beautiful scenery, new faces, friends, experiences, adventures, and things to see … the ultimate feeling of being free, yet always on the brink of survival. To live the life of a techno-g*psy, one needs to be in touch with their senses, especially that of direction; able to throw caution to the wind, yet learn when to and when not to trust others; to be able to multitask and able to possess several skill-sets that can provide sustenance and survival as well as motion. In the air of being “techno” to be in arms grasp and understanding of the world(s) we live within, and the mechanisms that make them tick. Being able to comprehend the sciences and/or the hidden knowledge, but also being in touch with the beauty and vision of what is called the “arts”. It's a balance of living between the “arts” and “sciences”. "

From the Wikipedia entry for TECHNOGYPSIE

Motorcycles were a type of two-wheeled Earth vehicle.

Motorcycles were built on Earth in the 20th and 21st centuries. They were considered a symbol of self-reliance and masculinity for many of their owners. As gasoline-powered devices became out of favor due to their harmful effects on the atmosphere, production decreased and the last gasoline powered motorcycle was built in 2035. By 2258, they were a rare collector's item.

Michael Garibaldi collected all the spare parts to build a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle but could only find instructions in Japanese, a language of which he had no knowledge. Lennier offered to help him construct the motorcycle, as he was an expert in many languages and interested in the history of the vehicle. Through his excitement and Garibaldi being distracted, Lennier reconstructed the entire motorcycle and even fitted the machine with a non-polluting Minbari power source. Garibaldi wanted to be involved in the process and, at first, was angry, but then accepted it. The two of them went for a ride through the Zócalo.


From The Babylon Project entry MOTORCYCLE

(ed note: the description is about the movie Masters of the Universe)

Nearby, He-Man is walking with Julie to go find the Cosmic Key which she confirmed having had possession of. They run into Man-At-Arms and Teela.

As they stand there and talk, an old, pink car comes swerving haphazardly around the corner with Gwildor behind the wheel. As it would happen, he took a broken down combustion engine and made it run on “neutrinos” now, “no hydro-carbons needed.” They all pile in and he activates the thing, which goes speeding off at break-neck speed.

Snake-Oil and Scams

Now writers, if your science fiction universe contains casual FTL travel and sleepy backwater colonies, this will approximate the early days of the United States frontier. While there are venues for legitimate trade, a planet full of hicks and rubes is a tempting target for that species of trader called the Con Artist. Everything old is new again, or Plus Ça Change Plus C'Est La Même Chose.

While most of the scams are optimised for urban dwelling victims, many work well in a frontier setting.

Wild west TV shows and movies often feature the classic Medicine Show scam where mountebanks and quacks distract the crowd with entertainers while peddling their worthless miracle elixir cure-alls and snake oils. Change the labels to "alien serums" or "nanotech breakthroughs" and you are good to go.

The old "salting a mine" trick should work perfectly well on gullible asteroid miners.

Colonists facing crop failure in the face of adverse weather are ripe for the ancient Rain making scam.


(ed note: English translation: What goes around comes around)

Sure, we'd heard of that skyhoot Noah Arkwright wanted to do. Space pilots flit the jaw, even this far out the spokes. We wanted no more snatch at his notion than any other men whose brains weren't precessing. Figured the Yonder could wait another couple hundred years; got more terry incog already than we can eat, hey? But when he bunged down his canster here, he never jingled a word about it. He had a business proposition to make, he said, and would those of us who had a dinar or two to orbit be interested?

Sounded right sane, he did; though with that voice I compute he could've gotten jewelry prices for what he'd call dioxide of ekacarbon (sand). See you, nigh any planet small enough for a man to dig on has got to have its Victory Heads—Golcondas, Mesabis, Rands, if you want to go back to Old Earth—anyhow, its really rich mineral deposits. The snub always was, a planet's one gorgo of a big place. Even with sonics and spectros, you'll sniff around a new one till entropy overhauls you before you have a white dwarf chance of making the real find. But he said he had a new hypewangle that'd spot from satellite altitude. He needed capital to proceed, and they were too stuffnoggin on Earth to close him a circuit, so why not us?

Oh, we didn't arc over. Not that we saw anything kinked in his not telling us how the dreelsprail worked; out here, secrets are property. But we made him demonstrate, over on Despair. Next planet spaceward, hardly visited at all before, being as useless a little glob as ever was spunged off God's thumbnail. Dis if his meters didn't swing a cory over what developed into the biggest rhenium strike since Ignatz.

Well, you know how it is with minerals. The rich deposits have an edge over extraction methods, like from sea water, but not so much of an edge that you can count your profits from one in exponentials. Still, if we had a way to find any number of 'em, quick and cheap, in nearby systems— We stood in line to capitalize his company. And me, I was so tough and smart I rammed my way to the head of the line!

I do think, though, his way of talking did it. He could pull Jupiter from Sol with, oh, just one of his rambles through xenology or analytics or Shakespeare or history or hypertheory or anything. Happen I've still got a tape, like I notice you making now. You cogno (understand) yours stays private, for your personal journal, right? I wouldn't admit the truth about this to another human. Not to anybeing, if I wasn't an angstrom drunk. But listen, here's Noah Arkwright.

"—isn't merely that society in the large goes through its repetitions. In fact, I rather doubt the cliché that we are living in some kind of neo-Elizabethan age. There are certain analogies, no more. Now a life has cycles. Within a given context, the kinds of event that can happen to you are of a finite number. The permutations change, the elements remain the same.

"Consider today's most romantic figure, the merchant adventurer. Everyone, especially himself, thinks he leads a gorgeously variegated existence. And yet, how different can one episode be from the next? He deals with a curious planetary environment, natives whose inwardness he must try to understand, crafty rivals, women tempting or belligerent, a few classes of dangers, the eternal problems of making his enterprise pay off—what more, ever? What I would like to do is less spectacular on the surface. But it would mean a breaking of the circle: an altogether new order of experience. Were you not so obsessed with your vision of yourself as a bold pioneer, you would see what I mean."

Yah. Now I do.

We didn't see we'd been blued till we put the articles of partnership through a semantic computer. He must have used symbolic logic to write them, under all the rainbow language. The one isolated fusing thing he was legally committed to do was conduct explorations on our behalf. He could go anywhere, do anything, for any reason he liked. So of course he used our money to outfit his damned expedition! He'd found that rhenium beforehand. He didn't want to wait five years for the returns to quantum in; might not've been enough anyway. So he dozzled up that potburning machine of his and— On Earth they call that swindle the G*psy Blessing (confidence game in which the swindler promises his victims good fortune in exhange for money).

Oh, in time we got some sort of profit out of Despair, though not half what we should've dragged on so big an investment. And he tried to repay us in selfcharge if not in cash. But—the output of the whole works is—here I am, with a whole star cluster named after me, and there's not a fellow human being in the universe that I can tell why!

From PLUS ÇA CHANGE PLUS C'EST LA MÊME CHOSE by Poul Anderson (1975)

Interstellar Economy

Trade improves pretty much all economies, so a planetary colony will find their economy enhanced by interplanetary and/or interstellar trade spacecraft.

My question is what happens to such a colony who relies upon off-world trading if the trade is cut off? Is this a minor inconvenience or does it cause a major recession that crashes the entire planetary economy?

That question is above my pay grade, but I suspect that either outcome is plausible enough for an author to utilize it in their novel.

Such interruptions can happen due to trade embargoes, blocades by hostile starfleets, a planetary quarantine imposed to stop the interstellar spread of a planetary pandemic, or by the decline and fall of the galactic empire.

As a side note: if a trade cut-off is an economic disaster, a planetary government will be tempted to cover up any news of a planetary pandemic.


The reason trade exists is that different groups are efficient at doing different things. For example, let us say there are two countries, A and B. A takes 15 man-hours to make a widget, but only 5 to make a thingummy. B takes 5 to make a widget and 15 to make a thingummy. Suppose each country produces as many thingummies as widgets, and each has 100 man-hours to allocate. Each will then produce 5 thingummies and 5 widgets ((5*15) + (5*5) = 75 + 25 = 100 man-hours). If A and B now open trade, each may concentrate on producing the item which it produces more efficiently; A will produce thingummies and B widgets. Since a thingummy costs A 5 man-hours, it can produce 20; similarly, B produces 20 widgets. They trade 10 thingummies for 10 widgets, since each wants as many thingummies as widgets. The final result is that each country has 10 thingummies and 10 widgets and each is twice as well off as before. (Indeed, trade is even in the best interest of both when one party has an efficiency advantage in both products, because trade will allow him to shift production into areas where his efficiency is greater.)

One problem not taken into account in the above analysis is the cost of transportation (and other barrier costs, such as import and export duties) which raise the cost of doing business with another group.

From THE 11 BILLION DOLLAR BOTTLE OF WINE by Greg Costikyan (1982)

The law of comparative advantage describes how, under free trade, an agent will produce more of and consume less of a good for which they have a comparative advantage.

In an economic model, agents have a comparative advantage over others in producing a particular good if they can produce that good at a lower relative opportunity cost or autarky price, i.e. at a lower relative marginal cost prior to trade. Comparative advantage describes the economic reality of the work gains from trade for individuals, firms, or nations, which arise from differences in their factor endowments or technological progress. (One should not compare the monetary costs of production or even the resource costs (labor needed per unit of output) of production. Instead, one must compare the opportunity costs of producing goods across countries).

David Ricardo developed the classical theory of comparative advantage in 1817 to explain why countries engage in international trade even when one country's workers are more efficient at producing every single good than workers in other countries. He demonstrated that if two countries capable of producing two commodities engage in the free market, then each country will increase its overall consumption by exporting the good for which it has a comparative advantage while importing the other good, provided that there exist differences in labor productivity between both countries. Widely regarded as one of the most powerful yet counter-intuitive insights in economics, Ricardo's theory implies that comparative advantage rather than absolute advantage is responsible for much of international trade.

Classical theory and David Ricardo's formulation

Adam Smith first alluded to the concept of absolute advantage as the basis for international trade in 1776, in The Wealth of Nations:

If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it off them with some part of the produce of our own industry employed in a way in which we have some advantage. The general industry of the country, being always in proportion to the capital which employs it, will not thereby be diminished [...] but only left to find out the way in which it can be employed with the greatest advantage.

Writing several decades after Smith in 1808, Robert Torrens articulated a preliminary definition of comparative advantage as the loss from the closing of trade:

[I]f I wish to know the extent of the advantage, which arises to England, from her giving France a hundred pounds of broadcloth, in exchange for a hundred pounds of lace, I take the quantity of lace which she has acquired by this transaction, and compare it with the quantity which she might, at the same expense of labour and capital, have acquired by manufacturing it at home. The lace that remains, beyond what the labour and capital employed on the cloth, might have fabricated at home, is the amount of the advantage which England derives from the exchange.

In 1817, David Ricardo published what has since become known as the theory of comparative advantage in his book On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.

Ricardo's example

In a famous example, Ricardo considers a world economy consisting of two countries, Portugal and England, each producing two goods of identical quality. In Portugal, the a priori more efficient country, it is possible to produce wine and cloth with less labor than it would take to produce the same quantities in England. However, the relative costs or ranking of cost of producing those two goods differ between the countries.

Hours of work necessary to produce one unit

In this illustration, England could commit 100 hours of labor to produce one unit of cloth, or produce 5/6 units of wine. Meanwhile, in comparison, Portugal could commit 90 hours of labor to produce one unit of cloth, or produce 9/8 units of wine. So, Portugal possesses an absolute advantage in producing cloth due to fewer labor hours, but England has a comparative advantage in producing cloth due to lower opportunity cost.

In other words, if it is cheaper for a country to produce one good relative to a second, then they will have a comparative advantage and an incentive to produce more of that good which is relatively cheaper for them to produce than the other--assuming they have an advantageous opportunity to trade in the marketplace for the other more difficult to produce good. Similarly most anyone should take the opportunity to offer in the marketplace a good which they have a relative advantage in producing.

In the absence of trade, England requires 220 hours of work to both produce and consume one unit each of cloth and wine while Portugal requires 170 hours of work to produce and consume the same quantities. England is more efficient at producing cloth than wine, and Portugal is more efficient at producing wine than cloth. So, if each country specializes in the good for which it has a comparative advantage, then the global production of both goods increases, for England can spend 220 labor hours to produce 2.2 units of cloth while Portugal can spend 170 hours to produce 2.125 units of wine. Moreover, if both countries specialize in the above manner and England trades a unit of its cloth for 5/6 to 9/8 units of Portugal's wine, then both countries can consume at least a unit each of cloth and wine, with 0 to 0.2 units of cloth and 0 to 0.125 units of wine remaining in each respective country to be consumed or exported. Consequently, both England and Portugal can consume more wine and cloth under free trade than in autarky.

From the Wikipedia entry for COMPARATIVE ADVANTAGE

When an option is chosen from alternatives, the opportunity cost is the "cost" incurred by not enjoying the benefit associated with the best alternative choice. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as "the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen." In simple terms, opportunity cost is the benefit not received as a result of not selecting the next best option. Opportunity cost is a key concept in economics, and has been described as expressing "the basic relationship between scarcity and choice". The notion of opportunity cost plays a crucial part in attempts to ensure that scarce resources are used efficiently. Opportunity costs are not restricted to monetary or financial costs: the real cost of output forgone, lost time, pleasure or any other benefit that provides utility should also be considered an opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of a product or service is the revenue that could be earned by its alternative use. In other words, opportunity cost is the cost of the next best alternative of a product or service. The meaning of the concept of opportunity cost can be explained with the help of following examples:

  1. The opportunity cost of the funds tied up in one's own business is the interest (or profits corrected for differences in risk) that could be earned on those funds in other ventures.
  2. The opportunity cost of the time one puts into his own business is the salary he could earn in other occupations (with a correction for the relative psychic income in the two occupations).
  3. The opportunity cost of using a machine to produce one product is the earnings that would be possible from other products.
  4. The opportunity cost of using a machine that is useless for any other purpose is nil since its use requires no sacrifice of other opportunities.

Thus opportunity cost requires sacrifices. If there is no sacrifice involved in a decision, there will be no opportunity cost. In this regard the opportunity costs not involving cash flows are not recorded in the books of accounts, but they are important considerations in business decisions.

From the Wikipedia entry for OPPORTUNITY COST

Autarky is the characteristic of self-sufficiency; the term usually applies to political states, societies or to their economic systems. Autarky exists whenever an entity survives or continues its activities without external assistance or international trade. If a self-sufficient economy also refuses to conduct any trade with the outside world then economists may term it a "closed economy". (Economic theorists also use the term "closed economy" technically as an abstraction to allow consideration of a single economy without taking foreign trade into account – i.e. as the antonym of "open economy".) Autarky in the political sense is not necessarily an exclusively economic phenomenon; for example, a military autarky would be a state that could defend itself without help from another country, or could manufacture all of its weapons without any imports from the outside world.

Autarky as an ideal or method has been embraced by a wide range of political ideologies and movements, especially left-wing creeds like African socialism, mutualism, war communism, council communism, Swadeshi, syndicalism (especially anarcho-syndicalism) and leftist populism, generally in an effort to build alternative economic structures or to control resources against structures a particular movement views as hostile. Conservative, centrist and nationalist movements (such as in the American system, Juche, mercantilism, the Meiji Restoration, social corporatism, and traditionalist conservatism) have also adopted autarky in temporary, limited ways - usually in an attempt to preserve part of an existing social order or to develop a particular industry. Some fascist and far-right movements occasionally espoused autarky as a goal in propaganda but in practice crushed existing movements towards self-sufficiency and established extensive capital connections to serve as a basis for war and genocide while allying with traditional business elites.

Autarky may be a policy of a state or other entity when it seeks to be self-sufficient as a whole, but also can be limited to a narrow field such as possession of a key raw material. For example, many countries have a policy of autarky with respect to foodstuffs and water for national-security reasons. By contrast, autarky can result from economic isolation or from external circumstances in which a state or other entity reverts to localized production when it lacks currency or excess production to trade with the outside world.

From the Wikipedia entry for AUTARKY

(ed note: the Colonial Union, a group composed of Terra and all her colonies, has managed to cheese off the Conclave, a consortium of alien civilizations around it. Some of the Conclave aliens attack with warships, other attack by other means…)

The Kristina Marie had just docked at Khartoum Station when its engine compartment shattered, vaporizing the back quarter of the trading ship and driving the front three-quarters of the ship directly into Khartoum Station. The station's hull buckled and snapped; air and personnel burst from the fracture lines. Across the impact zone airtight bulkheads sprang into place, only to be torn from their moorings and sockets by the encroaching inertial mass of the Kristina Marie, itself bleeding atmosphere and crew from the collision. When the ship came to rest, the explosion and collision had crippled Khartoum Station, and killed 566 people on the station and all but six members of the Kristina Marie’s crew, two of whom died shortly thereafter of their injuries.

The explosion of the Kristina Marie did more than destroy the ship and much of Khartoum Station; it coincided with the harvest of Khartoum’s hogfruit, a native delicacy that was one of Khartoum’s major exports. Hogfruit spoiled quickly after ripening (it got its name from the fact Khartoum’s settlers fed the overripe fruit to their pigs, who were the only ones who would eat them at that point), so Khartoum had invested heavily to be able to harvest and ship for export its hogfruit crop within days of ripening, via Khartoum Station. The Kristina Marie was only one of a hundred Colonial Union trade ships above Khartoum, awaiting its share of the fruit.

With Khartoum Station down, the streamlined distribution system for the hogfruit ground into disarray. Ships dispatched shuttles to Khartoum itself to try to pack in as many crates of the fruit as possible, but this led to confusion on the ground in terms of which hogfruit producers had priority in shipping their product, and which trade ships had priority in receiving them. Fruit had to be unpacked from storage containers and repacked into shuttles; there were not nearly enough cargo men for the job. The vast majority of hogfruit rotted in its containers, delivering a major shock to the Khartotun economy, which would be compounded in the long term by the need to rebuild Khartoum Station—the economic lifeline for other exports as well—and bolster the defenses of Khartoum from further attack.

Before the Kristina Marie docked at Khartoum Station, it transmitted its identification, cargo manifest and recent itinerary as part of the standard security “handshake.” The records showed that two stops previous, the Kristina Marie had traded at Quii, the homeworld of the Qui, one of the Colonial Union’s few allies. It had docked next to a ship of Ylan registry, the Ylan being members of the Conclave. Forensic analysis of the explosion left no doubt that it was intentionally triggered and not an accidental breach of the engine core. From Phoenix came the order that no trade ship that had visited a nonhuman world in the last year was to approach a space station without a thorough scan and inspection. Hundreds of trade ships floated in space, their cargo unpacked and crews quarantined in the original Venetian sense of the word, awaiting the eradication of a different sort of plague.

The Kristina Marie had been sabotaged and sent on its way, to the place where its destruction could have the most impact, not just in deaths but in paralyzing the economy of the Colonial Union. It worked brilliantly.

From THE LAST COLONY by John Scalzi (2007)

     As a functioning unit in the Confederation scheme, (the planet) Beltane had been in existence about a century at the outbreak of the Four Sectors War. That war lasted ten planet years.
     Lugard said it was the beginning of the end for our kind and their rulership of the space lanes. There can rise empires of stars, and confederations, and other governments. But there comes a time when such grow too large or too old, or are rent from within. Then they collapse as will a balloon leaf when you prick it with a thorn, and all that remains is a withered wisp of stuff. Yet those on Beltane welcomed the news of the end of the war with a hope of new beginning, of return to that golden age of “before the war” on which the newest generation had been raised with legendary tales. Perhaps the older settlers felt the chill of truth, but they turned from it as a man will seek shelter from the full blast of a winter gale. Not to look beyond the next corner will sometimes keep heart in a man...
     ...There was no definite victory, only a weary drawing apart of the opponents from exhaustion. Then began the interminable “peace talks,” which led to a few clean-cut solutions.
     Our main concern was that Beltane now seemed forgotten by the powers that had established it. Had we not long before turned to living off the land, and the land been able to furnish us with food and clothing, we might have been in desperate straits. Even the biannual government ships, to which our commerce and communication had sunk in the last years of the war, had now twice failed to arrive, so that when a ship finally planeted, it was a cause for rejoicing—until the authorities discovered it was in no way an answer to our needs but rather was a fifth-rate tramp hastily commandeered to bring back a handful of those men who had been drafted off-world during the conflict. Those veterans were indeed the halt and the blind—casualties of the military machine...
     ...“This is a wreck—”
     “It is about the best you can find nowadays,” I replied promptly. “Machines don’t repair themselves. The techneer-robos are all on duty at the labs. We have had no off-world supplies since Commander Tasmond lifted with the last of the garrison. Most of these hoppers are just pasted together, with hope the main ingredient of that paste.”
     Again I met his searching stare. “That bad, is it?” he asked quietly.
     “Well, it depends upon what you term bad. The Committee has about decided it is a good thing on the whole. They like it that off-world authority has stopped giving orders. The Free Trade party is looking forward to independence and is trying to beam in a trader. (ed note: the colony broadcasts an advertisement of the trade goods they have to offer, hoping to attract a free trader) Meanwhile, repairs go first for lab needs; the rest of it slides. But no one, at least no one with a voice in Committee affairs, wants off-world control back.”...
     ...“And they had better give up their dreams of trade, too. The breakup is here and now, boy. Each world will have to make the most of its own resources and be glad if someone else doesn’t try to take them over—”

From DARK PIPER by Andre Norton (1968)

Felchow und Sohn, seeing an excuse for an action which would raise it to incredible power, reduced Paley to Stone Age savagery.

An industrialized world (as Paley was) is an interlocking whole. Off-planet trade may amount to no more than five percent of its GDP; but when that trade is suddenly cut off, the remainder of the economy resembles a car lacking two pistons. It may make whirring sounds for a time, but it isn't going anywhere.

Huge as Felchow was, a single banking house could not have cut Paley off from the rest of the galaxy. When Felchow, however, offered other commercial banks membership in a cartel and a share of the lucrative escrow business, the others joined gladly and without exception. No one would underwrite cargoes to or from Paley; and Paley, already wracked by a war and its aftermath, shuddered down into the slag heap of history.

From "THE BONDING AUTHORITY" by David Drake (1979)

(ed note: Master Trader Hobar Mallow of the Foundation is talking trade with Commdor Asper, leader of the planetary empire of Korell.)

     He laid a friendly hand upon the trader's bulking shoulder, "But man, you have told me only half. You have told me what the catch is not. Now tell me what it is."
     "The only catch, Commdor, is that you're going to be burdened with an immense quantity of riches."
     "Indeed?" he snuffled. "But what could I want with riches? The true wealth is the love of one's people. I have that."
     "You can have both, for it is possible to gather gold with one hand and love with the other."
     "Now that, my young man, would be an interesting phenomenon, if it were possible. How would you go about it?"
     "Oh, in a number of ways. The difficulty is choosing among them. Let's see. Well, luxury items, for instance. This object here, now—"
     Mallow drew gently out of an inner pocket a flat, linked chain of polished metal. "This, for instance."
     "What is it?"
     "That's got to be demonstrated. Can you get a woman? Any young female will do. And a mirror, full length."
     "Hm-m-m. Let's get indoors, then."
     A young girl was before them. She bent low to the Commdor, who said, "This is one of the Commdora's girls. Will she do?"
     The Commdor watched carefully while Mallow snapped the chain about the girl's waist, and stepped back.
     The Commdor snuffled, "Well. Is that all?"
     "Will you draw the curtain, Commdor. Young lady, there's a little knob just near the snap. Will you move it upward, please? Go ahead, it won't hurt you."
     The girl did so, drew a sharp breath, looked at her hands, and gasped, "Oh!"
     From her waist as a source she was drowned in a pale, streaming luminescence of shifting color that drew itself over her head in a flashing coronet of liquid fire. It was as if someone had torn the aurora borealis out of the sky and molded it into a cloak.
     The girl stepped to the mirror and stared, fascinated.
     "Here, take this." Mallow handed her a necklace of dull pebbles. "Put it around your neck."
     The girl did so, and each pebble, as it entered the luminescent field became an individual flame that leaped and sparkled in crimson and gold.
     "What do you think of it?" Mallow asked her. The girl didn't answer but there was adoration in her eyes. The Commdor gestured and reluctantly, she pushed the knob down, and the glory died. She left — with a memory.
     "It's yours, Commdor," said Mallow, "for the Commdora. Consider it a small gift from the Foundation."
     "Hm-m-m.' The Commdor turned the belt and necklace over in his hand as though calculating the weight. "How is it done?"
     Mallow shrugged, "That's a question for our technical experts. But it will work for you without — mark you, without — priestly help."
     "Well, it's only feminine frippery after all. What could you do with it? Where would the money come in?"
     "You have balls, receptions, banquets — that sort of thing?"
     "Oh, yes."
     "Do you realize what women will pay for that sort of jewelry? Ten thousand credits, at least."
     The Commdor seemed struck in a heap, "Ah!"
     "And since the power unit of this particular item will not last longer than six months, there will be the necessity of frequent replacements. Now we can sell as many of these as you want for the equivalent in wrought iron of one thousand credits. There's nine hundred percent profit for you."
     The Commdor plucked at his beard and seemed engaged in awesome mental calculations, "Galaxy, how they would fight for them. I'll keep the supply small and let them bid. Of course, it wouldn't do to let them know that I personally—"
     Mallow said, "We can explain the workings of dummy corporations, if you would like. —Then, working further at random, take our complete line of household gadgets. We have collapsible stoves that will roast the toughest meats to the desired tenderness in two minutes. We've got knives that won't require sharpening. We've got the equivalent of a complete laundry that can be packed in a small closet and will work entirely automatically. Ditto dish-washers. Ditto-ditto floor-scrubbers, furniture polishers, dust-precipitators, lighting fixtures — oh, anything you like. Think of your increased popularity, if you make them available to the public. Think of your increased quantity of, uh, worldly goods, if they're available as a government monopoly at nine hundred percent profit. It will be worth many times the money to them, and they needn't know what you pay for it. And, mind you, none of it will require priestly supervision. Everybody will be happy."
     "Except you, it seems. What do you get out of it?"
     "Just what every trader gets by Foundation law. My men and I will collect half of whatever profits we take in. Just you buy all I want to sell you, and we'll both make out quite well. Quite well."
     The Commdor was enjoying his thoughts, "What did you say you wanted to be paid with? Iron?"
     "That, and coal, and bauxite. Also tobacco, pepper, magnesium, hardwood. Nothing you haven't got enough of."
     "It sounds well."
     "I think so. Oh, and still another item at random, Commdor. I could retool your factories."
     "Eh? How's that?"
     "Well, take your steel foundries. I have handy little gadgets that could do tricks with steel that would cut production costs to one percent of previous marks. You could cut prices by half, and still split extremely fat profits with the manufacturers. I tell you, I could show you exactly what I mean, if you allowed me a demonstration. Do you have a steel foundry in this city? It wouldn't take long."

(ed note: Eventually the planet Korell declares war on the Foundation. Since Korell has some huge warships supplied by the shrinking Galactic Empire, the Foundation just steadily retreats. Hobar Mallow is now president of the Foundation. He is talking with Jael, his chief of staff. Jael is fretting about Sutt, who is using the war in a bid to defeat Mallow in the next election. But Mallow does not seem to be concerned. It seems that since the war started, all trade between the Foundation and Korell has been cut off...)

     (Jael) "And your speech last night just about handed the election to Sutt with a smile and a pat. Was there any necessity for being so frank?"
     (Mallow) "Isn't there such a thing as stealing Sutt's thunder?"
     "No," said Jael, violently, "not the way you did it. You claim to have foreseen everything, and don't explain why you traded with Korell to their exclusive benefit for three years. Your only plan of battle is to retire without a battle. You abandon all trade with the sectors of space near Korell. You openly proclaim a stalemate. You promise no offensive, even in the future. Galaxy, Mallow, what am I supposed to do with such a mess?"

(ed note: Mallow explains everything to Sutt)

     (Mallow) "When I first landed on Korell," he began, I bribed the Commdor with the trinkets and gadgets that form the trader's usual stock. At the start, that was meant only to get us entrance into a steel foundry. I had no plan further than that, but in that I succeeded. I got what I wanted. But it was only after my visit to the Empire that I first realized exactly what a weapon I could build that trade into.
     "This is a Seldon crisis we're facing, Sutt, and Seldon crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology. So the solutions to the various crises must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time.
     "In this case, —trade!"
     Sutt raised his eyebrows skeptically and took advantage of the pause, "I hope I am not of subnormal intelligence, but the fact is that your vague lecture isn't very illuminating."
     "It will become so," said Mallow. "Consider that until now the power of trade has been underestimated. It has been thought that it took a priesthood under our control to make it a powerful weapon. That is not so, and this is my contribution to the Galactic situation. Trade without priests! Trade alone! It is strong enough. Let us become very simple and specific. Korell is now at war with us. Consequently our trade with her has stopped. But, —notice that I am making this as simple as a problem in addition, —in the past three years she has based her economy more and more upon the nuclear techniques which we have introduced and which only we can continue to supply. Now what do you suppose will happen once the tiny nuclear generators begin failing, and one gadget after another goes out of commission?
     "The small household appliances go first. After a half a year of this stalemate that you abhor, a woman's nuclear knife won't work any more. Her stove begins failing. Her washer doesn't do a good job. The temperature-humidity control in her house dies on a hot summer day. What happens?"
     He paused for an answer, and Sutt said calmly, "Nothing. People endure a good deal in war."
     "Very true. They do. They'll send their sons out in unlimited numbers to die horribly on broken spaceships. They'll bear up under enemy bombardment, if it means they have to live on stale bread and foul water in caves half a mile deep. But it's very hard to bear up under little things when the patriotic uplift of imminent danger is not present. It's going to, be a stalemate. There will be no casualties, no bombardments, no battles.
     "There will just be a knife that won't cut, and a stove that won't cook, and a house that freezes in the winter. It will be annoying, and people will grumble."
     Sutt said slowly, wonderingly, "Is that what you're setting your hopes on, man? What do you expect? A housewives' rebellion? A Jacquerie? A sudden uprising of butchers and grocers with their cleavers and bread-knives shouting 'Give us back our Automatic Super-Kleeno Nuclear Washing Machines.'"
     "No, sir," said Mallow, impatiently, "I do not. I expect, however, a general background of grumbling and dissatisfaction which will be seized on by more important figures later on."
     "And what more important figures are these?"
     "The manufacturers, the factory owners, the industrialists of Korell. When two years of the stalemate have gone, the machines in the factories will, one by one, begin to fail. Those industries which we have changed from first to last with our new nuclear gadgets will find themselves very suddenly ruined. The heavy industries will find themselves, en masse and at a stroke, the owners of nothing but scrap machinery that won't work."
     "The factories ran well enough before you came there, Mallow."
     "Yes, Sutt, so they did — at about one-twentieth the profits, even if you leave out of consideration the cost of reconversion to the original pre-nuclear state. With the industrialist and financier and the average man all against him, how long will the Commdor hold out?"
     "As long as he pleases, as soon as it occurs to him to get new nuclear generators from the Empire."
     And Mallow laughed joyously, "You've missed, Sutt, missed as badly as the Commdor himself. You've missed everything, and understood nothing. Look, man, the Empire can replace nothing. The Empire has always been a realm of colossal resources. They've calculated everything in planets, in stellar systems, in whole sectors of the Galaxy. Their generators are gigantic because they thought in gigantic fashion.
     "But we, —we, our little Foundation, our single world almost without metallic resources, —have had to work with brute economy. Our generators have had to be the size of our thumb, because it was all the metal we could afford. We had to develop new techniques and new methods, —techniques and methods the Empire can't follow because they have degenerated past the stage where they can make any really vital scientific advance.
     "With all their nuclear shields, large enough to protect a ship, a city, an entire world; they could never build one to protect a single man. To supply light and heat to a city, they have motors six stories high, —I saw them — where ours could fit into this room. And when I told one of their nuclear specialists that a lead container the size of a walnut contained a nuclear generator, he almost choked with indignation on the spot.
     "Why, they don't even understand their own colossi any longer. The machines work from generation to generation automatically, and the caretakers are a hereditary caste who would be helpless if a single D-tube in all that vast structure burnt out.
     "The whole war is a battle between those two systems, between the Empire and the Foundation; between the big and the little. To seize control of a world, they bribe with immense ships that can make war, but lack all economic significance. We, on the other hand, bribe with little things, useless in war, but vital to prosperity and profits.
     "A king, or a Commdor, will take the ships and even make war. Arbitrary rulers throughout history have bartered their subjects' welfare for what they consider honor, and glory, and conquest. But it's still the little things in life that count — and Asper Argo won't stand up against the economic depression that will sweep all Korell in two or three years."

KORELL—...And so after three years of a war which was certainly the most unfought war on record, the Republic of Korell surrendered unconditionally, and Hober Mallow took his place next to Hari Seldon and Salvor Hardin in the hearts of the people of the Foundation.


From FOUNDATION by Issac Asimov (1951)

The Styor had built their star empire long ago. Now it was beginning to crack a little at the seams. However, they still had galactic armadas able to reduce an enemy planet to a cinder, and they dominated two-thirds of the inhabited and inhabitable worlds.

So far their might could not be challenged by the League. Thus there was an uneasy truce, the Policy, and trade. Traders went where the Patrol of the League could not diplomatically venture. In the beginning of Terran galactic expansion some Styor lords had attempted to profit by that fact. Traders had died in slave pens, been killed in other various unpleasant ways. But the response of the Service had been swift and effective. Trade with the offending lord, planet or system had been cut off. And the Styor found themselves without luxuries and products which had become necessities. Exploiting the wealth of worlds, they needed trade to keep from stagnating, and to bolster up their economic structure—the Styor themselves now considering such an occupation below their own allowed employments of politics and war—and the Terrans were there to be used.

From THE SIOUX SPACEMAN by Andre Norton (1960)

      “Just for my own satisfaction, what kind of crisis?”
     Bulchand sketched it quickly. “There are two Earth type planets in this solar system. Avalon was the first to be colonized and developed rapidly. After a couple of centuries, Avalonians went over and settled on Catalina. They eventually set up a government of their own. Now Avalon has a surplus of industrial products. Her economic system is such that she produces more than she can sell back to her own people. There’s a glut.”
     Tog said demurely, “So, of course, they want to dump it in Catalina.”
     Bulchand nodded. “In fact, they’re willing to give it away. They’ve offered to build railroads, turn over ships and aircraft, donate whole factories to Catalina’s slowly developing economy.”

     Ronny said, “Well, how does that call for Section G agents?”
     “Catalina has evoked Articles Two of the UP (United Planets) Charter. No member planet of UP is to interfere with the internal political, socio-economic or religious affairs of another member planet. Avalon claims the Charter doesn’t apply since Catalina belongs to the same solar system and since she’s a former colony. We’re trying to smooth the whole thing over, before Avalon dreams up some excuse for military action.”

     Ronny stared at him. “I get the feeling every other sentence is being left out of your explanation. It just doesn’t make sense. In the first place, why is Avalon as anxious as all that to give away what sounds like a fantastic amount of goods?”
     “I told you, they have a glut. They’ve overproduced and, as a result, they’ve got a king-size depression on their hands, or will have unless they find markets.”
     “Well, why not trade with some of the planets that want her products?”
     Tog said as though reasoning with a youngster, “Planets outside her own solar system are too far away for it to be practical even if she had commodities they didn’t. She needs a nearby planet more backward than herself, a planet like Catalina.”

     “Well, that brings us to the more fantastic question. Why in the world doesn’t Catalina accept? It sounds to me like pure philantrophy on the part of Avalon.”
     Bulchand was wagging his pipe stem in a negative gesture. “Bronston, governments are never motivated by idealistic reasons. Individuals might be, and even small groups, but governments never. Governments, including that of Avalon, exist for the benefit of the class or classes that control them. The only things that motivate them are the interests of that class.”
     “Well, this sounds like an exception,” Ronny said argumentatively. “How can Catalina lose if the Avalonians grant them railroads, factories and all the rest of it?”
     Tog said, “Don’t you see, Ronny? It gives Avalon a foothold in the Catalina economy. When the locomotives wear out on the railroad, new engines, new parts, must be purchased. They won’t be available on Catalina because there will be no railroad industry because none will have ever grown up. Catalina manufacturers couldn’t compete with that initial free gift. They’ll be dependent on Avalon for future equipment. In the factories, when machines wear out, they will be replaceable only with the products of Avalon’s industry.”
     Bulchand said, “There’s an analogy in the early history of the United States. When its fledgling steel industry began, they set up a high tariff to protect it against British competition. The British were amazed and indignant, pointing out that they could sell American steel products at one third the local prices, if only allowed to do so. The United States said no thanks, it didn’t want to be tied, industrially, to Great Britain’s apron strings. And in a couple of decades American steel production passed England’s. In a couple of more decades American steel production was many times that of England’s and she was taking British markets away from her all over the globe.”

From PLANETARY AGENT X by Mack Reynolds (1961)

(ed note: The Ulugani are an obnoxious species who have built up their interstellar navy, and are ready to make their first interstellar conquest: the hapless planet Tukatan. Wing Alak is an agent of the Galactic League Patrol, who wants to prevent this. Unfortunately the Ulugani are quite well aware that the Galactic League is more of a free-trade organization of a million different species than it is an interstellar empire or something. And the Galactic League Patrol is not a space navy so much as it is a police force.

So the Ulugani tell Alak the functional equivalent of "We are going to conquer Tukatan, what are you going to do about it, punk?"

However, after that disappointing meeting, Wing Alak has a plan…)

      “Well—” Meinz rolled his cigar between bony fingers, scowling at it. “Well, all right, I see your point. But you still haven’t seen mine. Why should I help you take action against Ulugan?”
     He held up a hand. “No, wait, let me finish. As I understand it, Ulugan is a one-system empire lying nearly a thousand light-years outside our territorial bounds. It wants to incorporate one other system into itself. The natives of that system object, to be sure, and ask us for help—but the hard-boiled League Patrol is, I am certain, the last organization in the universe to get interested in noble crusades. The operation of crushing Ulugan would be enormously expensive. The logistic difficulties alone would make it a project of many years—even if it could succeed, which is by no means certain. The Ulugani could, and certainly would, retaliate with raids on our territory, perhaps they could penetrate to Sol itself. After all, interstellar space is so huge that any kind of blockade or defense line is utterly impossible. And you know what horror and destruction even a raid can bring, what with the power of modern weapons.
     “The League is not a nation, empire, or alliance. It was formed to arbitrate interstellar disputes and prevent future wars. Such other services as it performs are relatively minor; and its systems are, politically and commercially, so loosely knit that it could never evolve into a true federal government. In short, it is totally unable to put forth the united effort of a war. If Ulugan is as determined as Agent Alak says, it may be able to bring the League to terms even if it is one planet against a million. The League may not feel the game is worth the candle, you see. And the resentment at having been involved in a war of which ninety per cent of its citizens would never have heard before death rained on them from the sky—that resentment could destroy the League itself!”
     He put the cigar back to his mouth and blew a huge cloud of smoke. “In short, gentlemen,” he finished, “if you want my support for this project of yours, you’re going to have to give me a pretty good reason.”
     Kaltro cocked an eye at Wing Alak. The field agent nodded slightly and took out a cigarette for himself. He waited till he had it going before he spoke: “Let me recapitulate a little, director. Ulugan is a dense, metallic planet of a red dwarf sun. Terrestroid, which means a human can live there but not very comfortably—one-point-five Terran gravity, high air pressure, cold and stormy. The natives are a gifted species, but turbulent, not very polite or moral, all too ready to follow a leader blindly. Those are cultural rather than genetic traits, of course, but they’ve been pretty well drilled in by now. The history of Ulugan is one of mounting international wars, which pushed the technological development ahead fast but exhausted the natural resources of the planet. In short, a history not unlike ours prior to the Unification; but they never developed a true psychological technology, so their society still contains many archaisms.
     “I’ll see that you get our complete dossier on Ulugani sociodynamics, but briefly, the set-up is simple. There’s a hereditary emperor and a military aristocracy ruling a subservient class of peasants and workers. The aristocracy is hand in glove with the big commercial interests—it’s a sort of monopoly capitalism, partly controlled by the state and partly controlling the state. No, that’s a poor way to phrase it. Let’s say that the industrial trusts and the military caste together are the state. The supreme power is, for all practical purposes, lodged in the Arkazhik, a kind of combined premier and war minister. Right now he’s one Hurulta, an able, aggressive, ambitious being with some colorful dreams of glory.
     “Our intention,” said Kaltro, “is to stop Ulugan without starting a war.”
     “I can’t tell you that. We have to have our secrets.”

(ed note: Alak leads a task force that starts to establish a base on an uninhabited swamp of a planet which is right in the back yard of the solar system holding the Ulugani home world, only ten light-years away. Or at least Alak makes a show of establishing a base. The Ulugani are enraged, but Alak tells them that the Galactic League Patrol is just setting up the base as a precaution. After all the Ulugani had been making threats against the Galactic League. The angry Ulugani tells Alak that they have dispatched a huge military task force to destroy the base, and breaks the communication link. Alak smiles, the Ulugani have taken the bait…)

     Hurulta the Arkazhik (leader of the Ulugani military) leaned over his desk as if he meant to attack Sevulan. Then, slowly, his great fists unclenched and he sat back.
     “They were gone, you say?” he repeated.
     “Yes, lord,” said the general. “When our task force landed, the planet—the whole system—was abandoned. Obviously they took fright when they realized our determination.”
     “But where did they go?”
     Sevulan permitted himself a shrug. “A light-year is too big to imagine,” he said. “They could be anywhere, lord. My best guess is, though, that they are running home with their tails between their legs.”
     “Still—to abandon a base which must have cost an enormous effort and sum to start—”
     “Yes, lord, it was astonishingly far advanced. They must have employed some life-form adapted to Garvish II conditions as workers. They do have that advantage: among their citizens, they can always find a species which is at home on any possible world.” Sevulan smiled. “I suggest, lord, that we complete the base ourselves and use it, since they were obliging enough to do all the real labor.”
     Hurulta stroked his massive chin. “We have no choice,” he said thinly. “If we don’t hold that system, they may come back any time—and it is dangerously close to our home, and as you say their men can function better there than ours.” He muttered an oath. “It’s a nuisance. We need most of our forces to complete the conquest of Tukatan in a swift and orderly manner. But there’s no help for it.”
     “We were going to take Garvish eventually, lord,” said Sevulan respectfully.
     “Yes, yes, of course. Take this whole cluster—and after that, who knows how much more? Still—” Being a realist, Hurulta dismissed his own annoyance. “As you say, this will save us time and money in the long run.”
     Sevulan was interrupted by the buzzing of the official telescreen. Hurulta switched it on. “Yes?” he growled.
     “General Ulanho of Central Intelligence reporting, lord.”
     “I know who you are. What is it?”
     “Scout just came in, lord. The Patrol is on Shang V. Apparently they’re building another base.”
     “Shang V—” “Twelve-point-three light-years from here, lord.”
     “I know that! Stand by.” Hurulta switched off again. There was something of a giant dynamo about him as he swung on Sevulan.
     “What sort of planet is this Shang V?” he snarled.
     “Little known, lord,” faltered the officer. “A big world, as I recall. Twice our gravity, mostly hydrogen atmosphereatmosphere—storms of unparalleled violence, volcanic upheavals, a hell planet! I don’t see how they would dare—”
     “They must be relying on sheer audacity,” snapped Hurulta. “Well, they won’t get away with it! No ultimatum this time—no message of any kind. You will organize a task force to go there at once and blow them off it!”

     The Arkazhik was in an ugly mood, and his subordinates tried to make themselves invisible as he stamped past them. But then, the whole planet was foul-tempered and jumpy. The Garvish and Shang operations had been—still were—messy and costly enterprises which completely disrupted the schedule for Tukatan. That the Patrol fleet had been gone when the Ulugani arrived at Shang, saving them a battle, was small consolation, for it meant that the enemy was still at large, he could strike anywhere, any time, bringing death and ruin out of the big spaces. That meant an elaborate warning system around Tumu, tying up hundreds of thousands of trained spacemen; it meant the inconveniences of civilian defense, force-screens over all cities, transportation slowed, space-raid drills, spy scares, nervousness among the commoners that was not far from exploding into hysteria. It meant that the unrewarding Shang System must also be garrisoned, lest the Patrol sneak back there. It meant irritation, delay, expense, and a turbulent cabinet meeting in which Hurulta had needed all his personality to control the dissatisfied members.

(ed note: By various fents, the Legion bait the Ulugani into invading over twenty worthless worlds. These are held at a great cost in money, matériel, troop morale, troop casualties, and stalling of the war effort. Since the Legion had been exploring the star cluster for years, they knew exactly which miserable planets to induce the Ulugani to waste their time on. Some had killer swamps, some had unpredictable mega-earthquakes, some were inhabited by savage species who were natural guerrillas.

And eventually the Ulugani capture a Legion spy. Information obtained by interrogating the spy convince the Ulugani to capture the Legion world of Umung. This is an industrial world, and the Ulugani order them to start producing military equipment. Actually the spy is a Legion agent, and the invasion of Umung also turns out to be a trap for the Ulugani.

Later, on the Ulugani home world, the leader of the money barons wants to have a word with military leader Hurulta)

     The Elgash family had come up the hard way, from the peasant stock of a conquered land; it had been ennobled only fifty years ago. For that, and for its owning the Munitions Trust, Hurulta despised it. But he did not underestimate the being who sat across from his desk. The present Elgash was fat and wheezy and dandified, but there was a hard drive and a cold brain in him.
     “I speak for several others, your excellency,” he said. “I need not mention their names.”
     “The money barons,” replied Hurulta sullenly. “The industrialists and financiers. What of it?”
     “Shall I speak plainly?” asked Elgash.
     “Go ahead. We’re alone.”
     “The group I represent is not at all satisfied with the conduct of the war.”
     “Oh? And you have constituted yourselves the new General Staff?”
     “Spare the sarcasm, your excellency. It was understood that Tukatan would be subjugated within six months. Now, after almost a year, we are still fighting there.”
     “They could be bombarded from space,” said Hurulta, “but as you well know, that would destroy the whole value of the planet. We have to go slowly. Then the Patrol appeared to complicate matters.”
     “I realize all that.” The insolence was more marked than ever. “And rather than concentrate on Tukatan and the Patrol, and get them safely out of the way, your ministry has tried to take on the whole star cluster. You have blundered disastrously into planets we hardly knew a thing about.”
     “To keep the Patrol from using them against us.” Hurulta checked his temper. “All right, I admit we’ve had our troubles. But we’re making progress. The over-all timetable for the establishment of our hegemony has been accelerated enormously. In the long run, that will mean a saving.”
     “Will it now? Even your successes are dubious. Take that forsaken little pill of sand, Yarnaz IV. There’s been no trouble in occupying it. But the expense of maintaining bases under such alien conditions is fantastic. The commoners are being taxed to the limit, and your new tax on the leading groups of society is outrageous.”
     “It has to be done. Or would you rather have the Patrol come in and run things?”
     “Of course,” said Elgash coldly, “your most inexcusable blunder was the occupation of Umung.”
     “What?” For a moment Hurulta could find no words. Slowly, then, he gulped down his rage, and when he spoke it was with thin precision. “That was the one operation which went off like clockwork. At a negligible cost in men and money, we have already doubled our war production. Inside another year, we can expect to quadruple it.”
     “I thought you were a realist, your excellency,” said Elgash. “I thought you understood the economic foundation on which the empire rests. Or are you deliberately ruining my class?”
     “Are you mad? First you complain about taxes, then when I find a way to increase production, a way that costs us hardly one crown, you—”
     “Your excellency, we have only so many soldiers and there is a limit to the amount of war matériel they can use. When Umung is producing all of it, what will become of Ulugan’s factories?

(ed note: Meanwhile, Wing Alak is quite happy with how matters are turning out)

     “We have, of course, been propagandizing Ulugan,” said Wing Alak. “Radio, message-scattering robombs, and so on—the usual techniques. I think we’ve gotten it across to them that, while League membership means a loss of imperial glories, it means a definite gain in material comfort and security.”
     “For the commoners,” said Jorel Meinz. He was annoyed; three days aboard ship, with Alak engaged in directing some obscure maneuver and parrying every significant question when the two men did meet, had worn down his nerves. “But it’s the aristocrats and the industrialists who run things.”
     “To be sure. However, they aren’t stupid. They just need a hard lesson to convince them that imperialism doesn’t pay.”
     “They were all set to make it pay.”
     “Of course, till we interfered. But as long as there is a Patrol, conquest will mean a money loss. We’ll see to that! Once they’re convinced that it’s to their advantage too to come to terms with us, they’ll do it.
     “I see your general strategy, of course,” said Meinz. “You’ve led them into taking over one unprofitable planet after another. Except this Umung, now…I can’t see where that could fail to pay off.”
     “Oh, that was my proudest achievement,” said Alak smugly. “I planned that years in advance. I had a cowardly little part-time agent who got to know Umung quite well. As far as he could tell, I meant to use it for the Patrol’s benefit. Ulugan got hold of him, as I thought they would, and learned this. So naturally Ulugan had to grab it first.
     “But don’t you see, I’ve studied their economy for years. It’s an archaic form of capitalism, like Terra’s during the First Industrial Revolution. It depends on buying cheap and selling dear—and it must sell manufactured goods. In short, a colony which can manufacture better and cheaper than the mother country is, in the long run, impossible; it must be abandoned or ruined, or else the homeland’s economic system must be changed. After a while, Ulugan’s financiers realized that. And they’re a powerful element.”
     He lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. “If I might generalize a bit,” he said, “history shows pretty conclusively that an empire must form a natural socioeconomic unit if it is to be stable. Most empires of the past grew slowly, by accretion; or if they were conquered fast, they had to be reorganized swiftly. We forced the Ulugani into taking on more real estate than they could handle, most of it more than useless; and we kept them off balance so that they couldn’t get a chance to organize it properly. Result—an unstable situation which is now rapidly deteriorating.”
     “Do we want them within the League?” asked Meinz. “They look like a nest of troublemakers.”
     “They are. But in the long run, they can be integrated. Contact with other cultures will break down their paranoid attitude. Interstellar empires are economically unjustifiable anyway, more of a drain than a gain. If you’ve mastered faster-than-light travel, you are also able to produce just about everything you need at home, and trade for the rest. They’ll come to see that too, eventually.”

(ed note: Shortly afterwards, the Ulugani relieve the military commander of his duties, and contact the League to start negotiating peace terms.)

From ENOUGH ROPE by Poul Anderson (1953)

      So began the "expansionist" period of Rihannsu history, in which they tackled planetary colonization with the same ferocious desperation they had used to build a fleet out of nothing. They needed better ships to do this, of course. They wound up reconstructing numerous large people-carriers along the Ship model, though, of course, with warp drive these craft did not need generation capability. Twenty planets were settled in eighteen years, and population-increase technology was used of the sort that had made ch'Rihan and ch'Havran themselves so rapidly viable. Not all the settlements were successful, nor are they now: Hellguard was one glaring example.

     During this period the Rihannsu (Romulans) also developed the Warbird-class starship, acknowledged by everyone, including the Klingons and the Federation, to be one of the finest, solidest, most maneuverable warp-capable craft ever designed. If it had a flaw, it was that it was small; but its weaponry was redoubtable, and the plasma-based molecular implosion field that Warbirds carried had problems only with ships that could outrun the field. Another allied invention was the cloaking device, which tantalized everyone who saw it, particularly the Klingons.

     The Klingons didn't get it until much later than the Federation did. The Klingons got other things, mostly defense contracts.

     The relationship was a strange one from the first. The Rihannsu economy began to be in serious trouble, despite the beginning inflow of goods and capital from the tributary worlds, because of all the funds being diverted to military research. There was also a question as to whether the research was, in fact, doing any good: a Warbird out on a mission to test the security of the Neutral Zone ran into a starship called Enterprise and never came back again. At the same time, the Klingon Empire was beginning to encroach on the far side of the Neutral Zone, and the first two or three interstellar engagements left both sides looking at each other and wishing there were some way to forestall the all-out war that was certainly coming. Rather cleverly, the Klingons made overtures to the Rihannsu based on their own enmity with the Federation, and offered to sell them ships and "more advanced technology," some of it Federation. Everyone, they claimed, stood to benefit from this arrangement. The Neutral Zone border on their side would be "secure," and the Klingon economy (also in trouble) would benefit from the extra capital and goods.

     The deal turned out to be of dubious worth. For one thing, the Rihannsu buying ships from the Klingons was comparable to Rolls-Royce buying parts from Ford. The Klingon ships were built by the lowest bidder, and performed as such. Also, most of the Federation technology the Klingons had to offer was obsolete. But the treaty suited the aims of the expansionist lobbies in Praetorate and Senate, and so was ratified, much to the Rihannsu's eventual regret. In the meantime, the Rihannsu shipwrights (and some of the ship captains) muttered over the needlessly high cost of Klingon replacement parts, and did their best to tinker the ships into something better than nominal performance. Mostly it was a losing battle. Klingons build good weaponry, but their greatest interest in spacecraft tends to be in blowing them up.

From THE ROMULAN WAY by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood (1987)

Sub-Light Economics

This section is for economics constrained by lower-than-light physics, perhaps including relativistic speeds.


The 11 Billion Dollar Bottle of Wine

The Possibilities of Interstellar Trade

This article originally appeared in Ares nr. 12 (Jan 1982), a science fiction/gaming magazine published by SPI. I was a contributing editor at the time. Despite its age, it holds up quite well, I believe.

Given what scientists say about the probability of intelligent life in the galaxy, it seems almost inevitable that, sooner or later, we will come into contact with another technological species. We can expect that the same kind of interrelationships which existed between primitive peoples on our planet will occur between the two species.

There are basically two ways which individuals or groups can interact—peacefully and violently. Peaceful interaction implies voluntary exchange between two groups which benefit both—that is, trade. Violent interaction implies the attempt by one group to coerce the other—that is, war. Much attention has been paid to the second possibility in the gaming field, but only recently has much been paid to the first.

The reason trade exists is that different groups are efficient at doing different things. For example, let us say there are two countries, A and B. A takes 15 man-hours to make a widget, but only 5 to make a thingummy. B takes 5 to make a widget and 15 to make a thingummy. Suppose each country produces as many thingummies as widgets, and each has 100 man-hours to allocate. Each will then produce 5 thingummies and 5 widgets ((5*15) + (5*5) = 75 + 25 = 100 man-hours). If A and B now open trade, each may concentrate on producing the item which it produces more efficiently; A will produce thingummies and B widgets. Since a thingummy costs A 5 man-hours, it can produce 20; similarly, B produces 20 widgets. They trade 10 thingummies for 10 widgets, since each wants as many thingummies as widgets. The final result is that each country has 10 thingummies and 10 widgets and each is twice as well off as before. (Indeed, trade is even in the best interest of both when one party has an efficiency advantage in both products, because trade will allow him to shift production into areas where his efficiency is greater.)

One problem not taken into account in the above analysis is the cost of transportation (and other barrier costs, such as import and export duties) which raise the cost of doing business with another group. Let us say that it takes 5 man-hours to transfer a unit of widgets or thingummies from country A to country B or vice versa. Each country will then have to allocate 10 man-hours to each unit of a good transported to the other country, and 5 to each unit consumed at home. It is still more efficient for A to concentrate on making widgets and B on making thingummies. However, the best A can do is to make 14 widgets (70 man-hours) and transport 6 to B (30 man-hours) while B does the reverse. Each country is still better off engaging in trade than not, but not as well off as they would be if transportation were costless.

This is, of course, an extremely important result for interstellar trade because the costs of transporting anything over interstellar distances is bound to be high, even given some kind of faster-than-light (FTL) drive.

In essence, in order to make trade in a good worthwhile, the cost of creating a good in one location and transporting it to another must be less than the cost of creating it in that distant location. To determine what interstellar trade (if any) is feasible, there are then two questions we must answer, at least in principle: 1.) what are the costs of interstellar transportation, and 2.) what are the costs of production in a highly advanced civilization capable of interstellar trade? Neither question can be easily answered, but we can, at least, make some conjectures.


In the simple analysis above, we assumed that the cost of production or transportation could be measured in "man-hours." For any more sophisticated investigation, this is inappropriate. An hour of a PhD's time is worth considerably more than an hour of an unskilled laborer's time. Furthermore, such things as the relative efficiency of production machinery (and other capital goods) and the cost of resources cannot easily be measured in man-hours. That is the primary reason why money exists—because it is an easy tool to measure relative costs.

Extrapolating costs into the future is difficult or impossible because technology constantly advances—changing both costs and relative costs—population trends are not entirely predictable, and the cost of resources may change dramatically as terrestrial resources become scarcer and extraterrestrial resources begin to be exploited. However, the cost of transportation is dependent on three primary factors: the cost of building and operating transport vessels, time, and energy required for transportation.

The first factor is very difficult to figure, but the second two are easily calculable, at least for sublight travel. Given a particular transportation system, it is possible to calculate the amount of energy needed to move something from point x to point y in a given amount of time. This will be discussed in more detail later.

Ignoring the cost of maintaining and building a transportation system, the amount of energy needed to transport a unit of mass is roughly proportional to the cost of transporting it. Thus, the less energy transportation requires, the more likely trade can occur and the more commodities it is profitable to trade.

Time is also an important factor, because the longer it takes to transport a good, the further in advance an investor must put up his capital before he will see a return. At sublight speeds, interstellar transportation will necessarily require between 10 and 10,000 years for a round trip. In America, there are few companies who are willing to wait even 10 years for an investment to provide a return. Government tends to think in even shorter terms; the insistence of Congress on space programs which produce short-term return and its reluctance to engage in projects that may prove immensely profitable over a period of decades, but costly in the short-term, is an example of this thinking.

Quite apart from this psychological reluctance to think too far ahead is the very real economic cost of delayed return on investment. When determining whether an endeavor will be profitable, an investor must keep "opportunity costs" in mind. If an investor has a choice of two investments, both profitable, and chooses the one which is less profitable, he has, in real terms, lost money; he could have made more by taking the more profitable investment. If one can earn 17% of one's money in a money market fund, and investing in a small game company is likely to produce a profit of 10%, there is no reason to invest in the company.

If, say, an investor can earn 10% of his money per year by investing in his own planet, over a period of ten years he can increase his wealth by 160%. To be profitable, an interstellar trading voyage would have to generate more profit than this. So the high time required for interstellar voyages result in high opportunity costs. (In 100 years, at 10% an investor would have increased his wealth by more than 15,000 times.) High opportunity costs combined with high transportation costs make interstellar trade extremely (though not necessarily prohibitively) expensive.

Energy Costs of Sub-Light Travel

Many different interstellar propulsion systems have been proposed, and the energy required for each is different. Since we want to encourage interstellar trade, it behooves us to make relatively optimistic assumptions. In Ares nr. 1, John Boardman investigated the times and costs in energy entailed in using an anti-matter drive capable of 100 percent conversion of energy into gamma rays, accelerating off reaction from such conversion. It is possible to conceive of even less costly drives—such as a ramscoop which gathers its reaction mass en route—but Boardman's drive is at least theoretically feasible while the ramscoop concept has some real technical problems. The Boardman anti-matter drive can then be taken as the most optimistic drive for sublight transportation.

Boardman derived a formula to determine the mass ratio needed between the initial mass of a ship and the mass of the final payload (see table below) assuming the ship accelerated to a given speed, coasted at that speed, and decelerated to rest at its target. He also derived a figure (5704 megawatt-years) for the amount of energy required to produce a kilogram of anti-matter. Combining these two, we can determine the amount of energy needed to accelerate a ship to a given speed and then decelerate to rest. Evidently, the higher the "coasting" speed, the greater the initial investment and the faster the ship will get to its target.

Historically, the US economy has grown at an average annual rate of 3% (corrected for inflation) over the past 150 years. If we assume that net human growth will continue at the rate of 3% in the future, we can calculate the opportunity cost of tying capital up in an interstellar voyage by assuming an average 3% rate of return were the capital invested at home. Obviously, the longer the voyage, the higher the opportunity cost. Compound interest mounts up very rapidly.

The important point is that the opportunity cost goes down if the maximum velocity of the ship goes up (because the ship gets to its destination and back sooner, so the interest is compounded for fewer years). The initial investment goes up, however as the maximum velocity of the ship goes up (because more energy is required to accelerate it to a higher velocity). Evidently, there is, for a voyage of a given length, a maximum velocity at which the minimum net cost is achieved. Table 1 shows the minimum costs for voyages of several lengths between 5 and 100 light-years.

Table 1: Minimum Cost Journeys Using Anti-Matter Drive


  • Distance: distance in light-years from earth to star.
  • Velocity: maximum velocity of ship as percentage of speed of light.
  • Time: time for a round trip in years.
  • Invest (MY-yrs): initial investment in megawatt-years per kilogram.
  • Invest (1981$): initial investment in billions of 1981 US dollars per kilogram.
  • OM: opportunity multiple.
  • Cost (MY-yrs): total cost in megawatt-years per kilogram.
  • Cost (1981$): total cost in billions of 1981 US dollars per kilogram.

Assumptions: The figures in this table are drawn using the following assumptions: Boardman anti-matter drive; refueling at destination; vehicle mass neglected; 100% efficiency drive; acceleration = 9.8 m/sec2; rate of return on investments at home is 3% annually; $.05 in 1981 dollars per kilowatt-hour ($438,000 per megawatt-year).

The cost of the energy needed to move a kilogram of matter at the minimum cost velocity of 0.23 times light-speed to a point 5 light-years away and back is 6,820 megawatt-years, which at average American prices of 5 cents per kilowatt hour works out to about $3 billion in 1981 dollars. When including opportunity costs, the total cost rises to about 25,000 megawatt-years, or about $11 billion. Costs increase rather more than linearly; the total cost of a 100 light-year trip is about $64 trillion dollars (about 20 times the US Gross National Product in 1981).

Actually, $11 billion is not bad when one considers that the Apollo program cost around $10 billion. To look at the energy figures, the initial investment of 6,820 megawatt-years is about 3% of the installed electrical generating capacity of the US as of 1975 — it would take 6 fairly large nuclear plants operating full-blast for a year to produce the antimatter needed for the trip. That is a lot of energy, but it is by no means beyond our capabilities. (Of course, the technology does not exist at the moment, and is likely never to exist at least in the idealized form postulated by Boardman.) This limitation implies that sending miniaturized, robot probes to the nearer stars is well within the realm of feasibility and will, barring nuclear war or some other catastrophic end to human civilization, probably occur sooner or later.

However, the cost is per kilogram, which means that human beings are unlikely ever to go to the stars, given the mass entailed in the life support system necessary to keep a human alive for several decades.

Standards of Living

Eleven billion dollars is a lot of money — or is it? We have postulated that the economy will continue to grow, world-wide (or perhaps I should say solar-system-wide), at a rate of 3% per annum. Many countries have growth-rates higher than this (and quite a few less), so it seems a reasonable presumption — assuming 1.) technology continues to advance, 2.) we begin to exploit the vast resources available in the solar system off earth, and 3.) economic growth does not get choked off by the continued growth of parasitic government at the expense of the productive sector of the economy (the last is the most questionable assumption).

As an example, let us say that the average individual on the earth commands about $1,000 per year (the figure is probably somewhat, but not much, lower, averaged over the earth's population). Figure 1 shows how much money individuals will, on the average, be able to command in the future. Talking of "money" in this context may be confusing; we are talking, actually, about the resources, energy, and goods which an individual commands. The average individual will be able to command $1 billion in about 500 years — which means he will be able to afford the equivalent of a Cray computer and a fleet of space shuttles. He will not be able to hire huge numbers of domestic servants — because the average servant will, after all, make somewhere around $1 billion himself.

Real economic growth comes from technological advances that permit increased productivity. Mechanization, division of labor, computerization, robots, etc., mean that fewer and fewer man-hours are needed to produce a given good, and thus that individuals can be paid more (in terms of goods and services) than they could be paid under less productive arrangements. There may be a limit to this process, but we are nowhere near it; indeed, mechanization of services (as opposed to industries) has only begun to occur with the computer revolution. Economic growth means a greater ability to command goods and services; it does not mean a greater ability to command others.

Some things, however, are not susceptible to growth of this kind. There are only so many Rembrandts; the soil of Burgundy can only support so many grand cru vineyards. If a Rembrandt sells for $1 million today, when the average income is $1000, it will sell for $1 trillion when the average income is $1 billion. (All things being equal.)

Historically, per capita energy consumption has been very closely linked to economic growth. Both have increased in the US at an average rate of around 3%. Consequently, as standards of living increase, the amount of energy which an individual can command increases -- and his ability to contribute to what now seems an incredibly expensive sublight trading mission increases. If an average income of $1 billion does not make everyone able to own a Rembrandt, it does make it much more possible to engage in interstellar trade. If a Rembrandt sells for $1 trillion, spending $11 billion to import the equivalent of a Rembrandt from Alpha Centauri does not sound so bad.

How reasonable is it to expect that per capita incomes will increase a millionfold over the next 500 years or so? Assume that the population increases at a rate of 2% per annum (roughly the current global average). Total energy use will increase at a rate of 5% (3% per capita plus 2% increase in population). Current total world consumption of energy is around 8 x 109 MW-years per year. The sun puts out about 1.28 x 1020 MW; in 500 years at a growth rate of 5%, humanity would consume a little bit more than twice the energy produced by the sun (and the human population would be about 8 x 1013, eighty-thousand billion people). It seems unlikely that we could produce enough energy to provide the equivalent of a second sun for humanity. However, if we assume that the population would level off at 100 billion people, humanity would consume about 5 x 1017 MW, about 1/2% of the sun's output. Thus, if we solve the population problem sometime in the 22nd Century, all will be well and our children will be billionaires.

Assume that this picture is over-optimistic. Assume that the $11 billion/kg is off by a factor of ten, and that a better figure is $100 billion/kg. Even today, such a cost, though huge, could be paid. And barring the collapse of civilization, growth will continue. The relative cost of interstellar trade should decline. Doubtless, it will never be as common as trans-Atlantic traffic is today; nonetheless, it seems feasible.


We said that in order to determine the feasibility of trade in a given good we would have to know 1.) the cost of transportation and 2.) something about the cost of production of the good. The first question we have answered, and the second we can talk about. If the standard of living has increased a millionfold, what this really means is that the cost of goods has decreased a millionfold. If per capita income increases from $1,000 to $1 billion, an individual can command a million times as much energy or resources. Effectively, we are holding the dollar cost of goods constant while increasing the number of dollars available to individuals.

This being so, it is obvious that common resources and products are not going to be worth trading over interstellar distances. Spending 25,000 MY-years to import a kilogram of lead makes no sense. What might be worth importing?

First, perhaps there are extremely valuable resources which cannot easily be produced in our solar system: monopoles, or superheavy metals, perhaps (if such things exist at all). If, however, there are monopoles on Alpha Centauri because the Centaurians can manufacture them, it is likely that it will be more efficient to purchase the techniques from them rather than to import monopoles.

Which brings up the point that manufactured goods of any kind are probably not worth trading, because given the high costs of transportation, selling the manufacturing technology makes more sense than trading in the goods themselves. What does this leave?

This leaves goods the value of which is not transmittable, which cannot be described and reconstructed, but have somehow intrinsic value. A Rembrandt can certainly be described and the Centaurians could certainly print copies of Rembrandt paintings from information we send them, but those copies would not be the originals. Lithographs sell for prices about 5 orders of magnitude less than originals. Originals have intrinsic value; any copy, no matter how perfect, is but a copy.

So one possible category of trade objects is luxury items, not only objets d'art, but such things as exotic wines and liqueurs and the like. (I refuse to believe that any reproduction technology, no matter how sophisticated, can reproduce the bouquet of wine to the complete satisfaction of a wine snob. The future may see the trillion dollar wine.)

The last category of goods it might make sense to trade is genetic information, or something similar. Given sophisticated genetic manipulation techniques, getting the raw material — the genetic codes — of alien species might prove extremely beneficial, especially if the species is very alien in biology. By manipulating such beasties, we might be able to engineer new genetic products that could not be created with the genetic material available on earth. On the other hand, the genetic code is a code; and one day we may be able to read the precise order of amino acids on a strand of DNA, and thus be able to precisely describe a gene to an interested party. There is, naturally, a hell of a lot of information encoded in even the simplest bacterium, and transmitting this much information might be difficult. On the other hand, radio data transmission rates have increased by several orders of magnitude over the last few decades, and it may be that we will be able to transmit instructions for building genes in the future, thus obviating the need for trade in genes.

In summary then, though human civilization is likely to be engaged in interstellar trade, there probably will not be much worth trading, since any society capable of doing so on a major scale can probably produce almost anything it needs at home. Trade in esoteric and extremely rare resources like superheavy metals might be possible; genetic material is another possibility. The most likely trade good would seem to be the relatively frivolous trade in luxuries.

Trade via Radio

There are immense gains to be made from trade with other stars through exchange of information. A space-going civilization is almost certain to have developed technologies which we have not, and vice versa. Exchange of scientific information would also be worthwhile, and surely both our cultures would be enriched by exchange of the artistic masterpieces of our two heritages. Such trade would not require physical transportation of objects, however; a more likely possibility is telecommunication. Getting into radio contact with another civilization would be extremely profitable to both of us, and the cost to operate a large radio transmitter would be immensely less than the cost of operating an interstellar trading vessel.

This kind of trade, however, cannot be built on a direct, bargained exchange. If it takes, say, ten years to send a message and get a response, making a deal would be an effort requiring a lifetime. If making a profitable exchange necessarily requires first coming to an agreement on the terms of that exchange, information will be exchanged at a very slow rate. Instead, it seems likely that both of us will transmit whatever information we think the other might find useful or interesting, transmitting other information as requested. In essence, as Asimov suggests in one of his stories, we will both be talking at once. Whether this kind of exchange can even be termed "trade" in the classical sense is debatable, since there is no agreed exchange of items of value; but it is certainly a voluntary arrangement benefitting both parties. It is also evidently the most cost-effective and simplest way to deal with alien friends.

Trade Faster than the Speed of Light

In this article, I have talked about the possibilities of sublight trade at some length. Trade in FTL vessels may be a more interesting topic, despite the fact that FTL will probably never exist.

The problem is that any FTL drive will necessarily depend on physical principles of which we have not the slightest glimmer at the present time. Consequently, we can not make any assumptions and have no real way of speculating about the costs of such trade or the forms which it will entail. The basic principles, however, remain the same. The lower the cost of transportation of goods, the more trade will go on. One expects that any mechanism for traversing distances measured in light-years is going to be very expensive, even if it involves (or perhaps especially if it involves) somehow transcending Einsteinian mechanics. Consequently, interstellar trade is always likely to be limited. The fact that travel can occur at trans-light speeds means that opportunity costs are much reduced, of course; the cost of building and operating an FTL-drive ship, however, cannot even be guessed at.

Calculating the Cost of Interstellar Trade

The cost C of a round trip is equal to an opportunity multiple (OPm) times the investment required to make the trip. The opportunity multiple arises from the fact that investment could be made at home instead, and is equal to:

    OPm = (1 + I%)2T

where T is the time required for one leg of the journey (out or back) and I% is the rate of return possible if the money were invested at home instead of on the interstellar voyage.

Ignoring the cost of building and maintaining a ship (as well as the costs of overhead, employees, etc.), the investment required to send a sublight trading mission using the Boardman anti-matter drive is calculated from:

    I = 2 * Rm * P * 5704 MWy/kg

where I is the investment, Rm is the number of kilograms of anti-matter required per kilogram of payload, the factor "2" entering because anti-matter must be purchased at the destination before the return trip (doubling the cost), and 5704MWy/kg is the amount of energy (in megawatt-years, MWy) required to produce a kilogram of anti-matter. For a one-way trip, the value of Rm is:

    Rm = ( c + u - 1)        c - u

assuming the ship is capable of refueling at its destination, where c is lightspeed (3 x 105 km/sec) and u is the maximum velocity of the ship.

Cost C is then:

    C = (1 + 1%)2T * ( c + u - 1 ) * 2 * P * 5704MWy/kg                    c - u

T, however, is a function of u, the maximum velocity. If we plug an equation for T into the equation for C and assume values for u and I%, we can calculate the cost per kilogram of trade goods. T is calculated from:

    T = d + 2 * [ c2 + (1 - u2 )-1/2 * (u - c2 ) ]     u g u c2 u

where d is the distance to be travelled and g is the rate of acceleration.

One of the interesting things about the equation for C is that the opportunity multiple decreases as u increases (because the journey takes less time) while the investment increases as u increases (because more anti-matter is required). This implies that there is, for a given set of conditions, some maximum velocity u at which minimum cost is achieved.

Table 1 shows minimum costs for a number of journeys of different lengths.


For a ship moving at near light-speed, time dilation requires that in terms of your subjective, shipboard life span, the voyage won't be much more time-consuming than, say, one of Francis Drake's pirate raids.

This brings us to problem number three: Assuming there are adequate ships and places to go, and the crew's lifespans aren't a problem, why would fleets of expensive vessels be launched to go there? That's another way of asking the Big Question, and we'll spend the rest of this essay trying to answer it.

But before continuing, let's be sure we're all together. I suspect that the Big Question may have taken some of you by surprise. After all, there are abundant examples of terrestrial, trans-oceanic trade, which at first glance seem to provide models for interstellar commerce. For example, the Japanese import raw materials to their resource-poor islands, transform the materials into automobiles, send the finished goods across the Pacific, and sell them in the United States—and they make a lot of money doing so. Couldn't the same kind of thing work among the stars?

Not necessarily. The times and distances (and therefore the costs) involved are not analogous—not even close. The distance to the Sun's nearest stellar neighbor is approximately five billion times the distance from Japan to California. Therefore, the model of transoceanic trade is virtually useless.

It's often been assumed that there would be interstellar freighters and ore ships based on the trans-oceanic model, but is this assumption realistic? Consider the importation of raw materials to the Earth. Sure, resources might vanish from the Earth or become unimaginably expensive, although this is doubtful. Still, we won't be using starships to import raw materials. We can always mine the asteroids, or Jupiter's moons. They're millions of times closer, and therefore far cheaper. So unless there are minerals out there we've never dreamed of, and that we can't synthesize closer to home, we can forget about interstellar ore boats.

It's not raw materials that we'll lack in the solar system, it's cheap labor. But the cost of labor on Earth would have to be incredibly high to justify an interstellar flow of manufactured goods. It's conceivable, of course. We can easily imagine a future political setup (the post office scenario) in which all nations on Earth are so bogged down with artificially high labor costs and archaic work rules that the "cheapest" Earth-made automobiles would cost, relatively, what a Rolls Royce costs now. But ask yourself—would even that kind of economic insanity justify an interstellar transportation system, with a 10- or 15-year (Earth viewpoint) transit time?

Probably not. The unions would take care (if they were clever) that terrestrial prices never got so high that the interstellar freetraders would have a competitive advantage.

Even if Earth was devastated by war (a common science fiction scenario), we could rebuild our factories faster than we could import finished goods from the stars. Remember, after the destruction of World War II, Western Europe was back in business within a few short years.

So we need to assume a really amazing manufacturing advantage that would make goods from the stars so valuable as to be worth the cost—and years of transit time—of shipping them to Earth.

Is that realistic? Maybe. Some goods are unique—like the products of newly created technologies. Ah, but would new colonies develop such technologies? And even if they did, there's always the risk of industrial espionage; and anyway, by the time the products got to their distant market (Earth), would they still be state of the art? A dozen years of transport time can dull a product's competitive advantage.

Besides, absent a new terrestrial dark age (another common SF scenario), interstellar shipments are going to be pretty much a one-way street. Earth will have technologies the new worlds need, at least in the early stages of our interstellar expansion. They (the colonies) will need goods from Earth, but not vice versa. In marketing terms, they're going to be like the natives of Bangladesh—we know they're out there, and they want what we produce, but what's in it for us? The problem for an interstellar merchant is finding something Earth can buy from the new worlds.

Well, what can the new worlds export? It'll be a long time until the new worlds are out-inventing Earth. All their technology will be old stuff, made with machines they took with them. But even old technology can be unique if it involves secret processes. Sure, but does Coke's secret formula justify the cost of interstellar freight? What else have they got?

Artwork is unique. Persian rugs are regionally specific, labor-intensive products. Havana cigars and French wines require special climatic conditions. Extraterrestrial analogs of such items could be traded. But it would take a lot of future Picassos, cases of Coca-Cola, bottles of Chateau Betelgeuse, Oriental carpets, and interstellar stogies to support a galactic merchant fleet. Anything else?

There's the possibility of Dune-like spice, or Star Trek's dilithium crystals, or some other wonder goods—but we can't count on their existence. For the moment, let's ignore this problem, and arbitrarily assume that something, say automobiles, will be worth shipping from one planetary system to another. This (the Toyota scenario) is our biggest, wildest assumption so far, but let's play with it for a while, and see how it goes.

If you were a star-faring merchant considering the purchase of a shipload of cars from, say, Epsilon Eridani, which is almost 11 light-years away from Earth, how would you know what market conditions were like on Earth? It'll take you 11 years (actually 10.8 or so, but let's not be fussy) to send a message to Earth ("Cars for sale. Want some?") and 11 more years to get a reply ("Yes, we'll take a few."). By the time you got that reply, the information would be 11 years out of date. Perhaps Marco Polo could operate like that, but things were somewhat different then.

Ah . . . let's assume that you don't need to send an inquiry to Earth. Instead, imagine that Earth is always broadcasting its needs, so you touch down on a manufacturing planet circling Epsilon Eridani (which we'll call "EE") and you get the latest info (11 years old) from Earth—"Hot market here for cars from EE." Fine. Now what?

Now you start thinking like a merchant. What kind of mark-up could you expect that would justify buying a starship-load of cars and tying up your capital (or paying interest on a loan) for the dozen years you would need to get those cars to your destination? I said a dozen years, because your ship will certainly be slower than the communications system. Bear in mind that you'd be making an investment in goods that might very well be obsolete when they finally arrived. And if Earth is dominated by strong labor unions (as they would have to be to make scarce, extraterrestrial labor a bargain) they'll have a full range of protectionist legislation to keep out cheap imports. And what kind of import duties would you have to pay in order to clear your cargo through Earth customs?

The only way your venture could work is if you could know, a dozen years in advance of your arrival on Earth, what your sales price and other costs would be. Could you? Maybe.

It's possible for that broadcast of Earth's needs to be some kind of continuing offer, containing price and terms, and by acting on it you could be assured of selling your cargo at those prices—even though your cargo would be a dozen years old when your ship arrives on Earth. That would require an automobile dealer on Earth to commit himself, years in advance, to pay a healthy price for cargo he hoped would be arriving—some day. Maybe his broadcast offer would say, "Irving's Interstellar Imports needs 100 cars, as of the year 2200. Will pay 30 Heinleins each, plus all import taxes, if they get here by the year 2224 (that's 11 years for Irving's offer to get to EE, and 13 more for the goods to be produced and sent from EE to Earth). This offer guaranteed by irrevocable letter of credit from Bank of Terra."

The "offer" would have to be officially registered somewhere at EE, and if you accepted it, that too would be registered, so the next interstellar entrepreneur arriving at EE wouldn't duplicate the order. Irving only wants 100 cars, not 100 million. A message would then be sent to Earth saying that the goods were on the way.

Would that do it? Perhaps, if there were strict laws that made that kind of deal a binding contract, if the Bank of Terra were still in business when you arrived, if there were no currency depreciation, and perhaps a thousand other things. Maybe a local branch of the Bank of Terra on EE would use that broadcast offer as collateral, and make you a loan equal to the cost of your cargo and the cost of the loan, plus some profit. Nice deal. Then you pay for the cars, leave the profit on deposit (with interest compounding) and you head for Earth to deliver your cargo to Irving.

The bank should do quite well, too. The loan is secure (it's backed by the Bank of Terra on Earth, and your ship is insured by Interstellar Lloyds). Your profit deposit is going to sit on EE, waiting about 24 years until you return. With a loan portfolio and a deposit base like that, interstellar banking should be a super-profitable industry.

When you arrive on Earth with your cargo in good condition, the Bank of Terra (on Earth) broadcasts to its branch (on EE) that everything's fine, and you can withdraw your funds. (We've just described how a "letter of credit" works today in international trade.) And observe, future bankers, that it can take decades for funds to clear. That's one hell of a profitable float. Faster-than-light communications would probably be a banking disaster!

Now you dash back to EE, most likely with an outward bound cargo arranged in the same manner. Both the trip to Earth and the return to EE take a short time, subjectively (about 2 or 3 years altogether, depending on how much beyond 99% of light-speed you're traveling), and when you get back to good old EE, you're a rich man—depending on the tax laws that have been enacted on EE during the 24 or so years of your absence.

That sounds like it could be workable, but does this Toyota scenario make any sense? Would an automobile dealer on Earth (or any other interstellar destination) offer to pay for a shipload of cars (or whatever) which wouldn't arrive for two dozen years?

It's unlikely, but not impossible. A deposit of 20¢ now, compounding annually at only 7% per year, grows to $1 in 24 years. At an interest rate of 10% per year, you only need to deposit about 10¢. So our terrestrial auto dealer only has to put up a small deposit now with the Bank of Terra to have the payment guaranteed in 24 years. And, if the deposits come from his customers, the auto dealer isn't even investing his own funds. The only risks are structural ones—the bank may fail, the laws may change, the currency may depreciate, there may be war, plague, and so on. But these are risks that could be faced, and gladly—if the lure of huge profits were there.

It makes even more sense if the customer doesn't have to wait 24 years, which is possible. He makes his 10% deposit, then goes off on an interstellar trip, and returns to Earth a couple of subjective years later, while 24 Earth-years have passed, and . . . ta da! His car is waiting for him, all paid for. Of course it's an old-style car, but that's OK. He's technologically like Rip Van Winkle. Unlike Rip, he's still young, but he's hopelessly out of date, and not trained to use new vehicles. (We're assuming rapid technological progress, remember?) Interstellar travelers need old-style goods (and probably live in behind-the-times communities with their contemporaries) so the years of transit time your cargo requires turns out to be a desirable feature.

We're getting desperate now. We've got ships, we've got places to go. Time and distance are no problem. Compound interest makes long voyages worthwhile, and we've worked out a system of interstellar finance. We can even imagine some kind of commerce going on. But how can we get interstellar colonies organized and self-sufficient? Where will the funds come from? The Big Question looms as large as ever. Can it be done?

Maybe. Remember the tremendous profits to be made from the banking system, if only we could think of a way to get it started.

Surely, with wealth like that waiting to be made, someone will think of a way. How about this: Our venturers might not have to wait decades for a return on their investment. Remember time dilation—a round trip to EE takes about 24 years, Earth time, but only about 3 years, ship's time. Investors could get a much quicker payoff (subjectively) if they go along for the ride. Not that they'd have any desire to become settlers. All they want is to stay alive long enough to reap the rewards of their enterprise. A rich man could put part of his portfolio at interest on Earth, invest the rest in an exploration company, and then climb aboard ship. After 24 years have passed on Earth, he returns only 3 years older, finds a potful of money waiting for him in the bank (his left-behind deposit has multiplied five or ten times, depending on interest rates) and he also owns the beginning of a thriving business on EE. After another trip or two, he's incredibly rich, still relatively young, and now his investment on EE should be starting to pay off.

This is the scenario of star-traveling investors, who become centuries old by Earth's reckoning, with fortunes (and maybe families) established on several worlds. It's quite possible that something like this will happen. In fact, this scenario is so tempting that it may be the answer to the Big Question!

All right. Star-traveling investors and bankers will pay for the first ships.


In the May 1989 issue of Analog, in an article titled "The Economics of Interstellar Commerce," I explained that even if there were no technological barriers to star travel, a species nevertheless needs economic incentives to build ships and go voyaging to other stars. The investment required for star travel is huge; the payoff is centuries (or at best, decades) away. Why would any species bother with such a costly activity, except perhaps for the extravagance of a few exploratory ships?

The only motivation I could think of to justify the multi-generational expense of establishing extra-solar colonies would be the combined benefits to be derived from time dilation and compound interest.

Greatly simplified, my idea was this: What will ultimately lure investors' money into building starships won't be the stars, it'll be superfast compound interest (relativistically speaking). Your Earth-bound bank account, piling up interest over the decades, would make you rich when you returned, still young, after a long interstellar voyage. (This is relativity's famous "twin paradox," applied to you and your bank account.) I predicted that it would probably be star-traveling (and thus long-lived) bankers who found it profitable to invest in starting mankind's interstellar expansion. Only after the passage of centuries might other activities justify the continuing expense of maintaining fleets of starships.

And if I'm right about this, then we may seem to be alone for a very understandable reason—no other species has seeking motivation.

To prove my point about the primacy of economics, consider the sad status of SETI—the Search for Extra-Terres-trial Intelligence. SETI is cheap; all it really requires is off-the-shelf radio technology. Yet in the absence of a profit motive, we can't even keep SETI afloat. You can imagine, therefore, how impossible it would be to raise funds for a fleet of non-profit starships—even if they weren't all that difficult to build.

I don't want to minimize the technological end of things, but interstellar travel really boils down to this: Assuming a species' engineers can do the job, economics is the whole ball of wax.

Could economics be the key missing factor in the Drake equation, as well as an explanation for the Great Silence? Drake himself suspects something like this. Could this explanation apply to every intelligent species in the galaxy? I think so. Consider this:

What does it take to develop our particular brand of economic incentives? It requires that a species generate several intellectual concepts, and that they take each of these concepts seriously. At minimum, they need: (1) private property; (2) money; (3) interest; (4) commercial banking; (5) merchant banking; (6) joint-stock companies; (7) financial markets; (8) accounting systems; and (9) a free-market economic system.

Observe that none of these requirements is an engineering development. None is a tangible technological achievement. Each is invisible, intangible, and abstract. None is inevitable. Therefore, it seems probable that our from being universal; it could actually be unique to us, and incomprehensibly "alien" to other species in our galaxy.

We have no difficulty assuming that many intelligent aliens will develop technology, because technology depends on observing and rationally responding to the tangible, objective world. Any reasonably bright, land-dwelling, tool-wielding species can eventually do that (although in retrospect, it certainly took us long enough). But what is the likelihood of another species' hitting upon and adopting every single one of the abstract economic ideas listed above? Most of the human cultures in Earth's past (and even today) would fail such a test.

A hive-like species, or a species that lives in communes, or that is always dominated by tyrants, or which consists of solitary individuals, may be scientifically brilliant and extraordinarily curious, but they will probably never develop the essential concepts of banking and interest and commercial finance that make interstellar travel a profitable, affordable activity.

To such aliens, our "mysterious" banks, our profit-seeking corporations, our compound-interest calculations (so vital to time-dilated star travelers), and certainly our stock exchanges, might be viewed as exotic manifestations of a bewildering alien religion. Even after studying us, they may utterly fail to grasp our motivation (or would they call it obsession?) for transporting cargo between the stars.

Well, I was looking for a "good Great Silence." I think I've found it.

The economic explanation tells us why, with the whole shining Universe beckoning to them, no alien species has ever been sufficiently motivated to build and launch ships to the stars. They're isolated, not by necessity, but by their own lack of imagination. They're not even sending out messages; nor are they listening for ours.

The Great Silence, therefore, is the silence of poverty. The galaxy is stagnant, with each alien species tragically isolated from the others. Each is a potential supplier of products and information, each is a potential buyer as well, but there is no interstellar intercourse. Not yet.

That's because we haven't arrived on the interstellar scene. When we do, we can be the merchant princes of the galaxy. Who cares if the aliens never understand that our traders, engaged in a ten-year (subjective) voyage, are primarily motivated by a century of compound interest piling up at home? As long as we're willing to build and fly the ships—and reap the profits—let the aliens think we're crazy!

We can do for the stay-at-home aliens what was done for us by the great railroad and canal builders, the merchant sea captains, the leaders of caravans. This is not merely the business opportunity of a lifetime, it's the biggest opportunity of all time! The Great Silence is our clue that the galaxy needs us—it needs us very much.

There's a lesson in all of this for those who like to dream up exotic, Utopian visions of mankind's future.

There are those who long for the day when we shall "progress" beyond the need for private property. They imagine that when we achieve that glorious un-propertied state . . . what? What happens then? They never say precisely what's going to happen. It's supposed to be obvious, and perhaps it is to them, but it certainly isn't obvious to me. Presumably they imagine that when we finally achieve that "lofty" level of existence, we'll automatically start building starships—somehow.

But it doesn't stand up to rational scrutiny. Your savings account and mutual fund shares and insurance policies aren't keeping mankind from the stars. When the Utopian day of socio-economic "liberation" comes, we'll have a society modeled after such "noble" people as the North American Indians—people who, to their everlasting misfortune, had not developed our economic incentives, or even the concept of land ownership—people who therefore (causal linkage implied here) numbered among their greatest accomplishments such technological wonders as ... the loincloth. (I can hear the knees jerking out there, so let me hasten to add that I'm criticizing an economic system, not a race.)

Those "thinkers" who imagine that we shall become an "advanced" star traveling species when we have developed "beyond" such "primitive" concepts as ownership of private property are dreaming of a future that can never be. You can have a society without property, or you can have the stars. You cannot have both.

So there it is—the likeliest reason why we seem to be alone—we're the only capitalists in the cosmos. And if that's really true, then even though the Universe is seething with intelligent life and probably has been for hundreds of millions or possibly billions of years, we have absolutely nothing to fear. Ladies and Gentlemen of Earth, I bring you tidings of great joy: The stars belong to us!

From THE WEALTH OF GALAXIES by Warren Salomon (1989)

The book in the middle was meant to be a light-hearted space operatic caper. I'd established a much-slower-than-light universe in "Saturn's Children", and posthumans who could survive the harsh environments and protracted time scales implied by it. How about sending a protagonist on a tour of known space?

Well, at the first step, my suspension of disbelief broke. Because space travel is so hard in the Freyaverse that nobody in their right mind would do it, unless the stakes were unbelievably high—and they had a very low estimate of their own self-worth. In fact, come to think of it, space colonization was itself a ludicrous idea; how on earth could it pay for itself?

Nevertheless, I persisted. I realized that I needed an economic framework, otherwise the whole idea collapsed at the first hurdle, leaving me with only religious fanaticism as a plausible motive for space colonization. And while religious fanaticism features in "Neptune's Brood" (the Church of the Fragile are what you get after 5000 years of uncritical acceptance of the nonsensical "we can't keep all our eggs in one basket"/"what if life on Earth is wiped out?" arguments advanced by would-be space colonists today: our robot offspring are going to ensure that humanity spreads to the stars, kicking and screaming and dying in large numbers), religious fanatics aren't terribly engaging characters in a work of fiction.

And that's when the idea of different speeds of money hit me.

In the late-period Freyaverse, money comes in three kinds: fast, medium, and slow. We are all used to fast money; it's what we use today. It's a medium of exchange of value and it correlates with economic velocity: the hotter/faster an economy is moving, the more money circulates. You can't meaningfully transfer fast money between star systems (or even sub-systems in orbit around a common star, such as the separate moon systems of different distant gas giants) because the economies are not directly coupled: no physical goods are actually worth shipping across such distances. (I'm putting a lower threshold on the cost of a single starship mission in the Freyaverse of roughly one year of GDP for an entire solar system; in today's terms, if we had the tech to build one, that would be around $50Tn, or 5-6 times the annual GDP of the United States.)

In addition to fast money, there are long term instruments that act as reservoirs of value. Real estate is not terribly liquid—you can't take a thousandth of your house to the supermarket and use it to buy provisions—but it's still recognizably valuable. And it persists; real estate investments may hold value for decades or centuries. And because they're interchangeable with fast money, at what is effectively a wildly skewed exchange rate, these properties can act as buffers against fluctuations in the fast money economy.

The Freyaverse recognizes this by denominating investments of this type (not just houses but pyramids and space elevators and planetary terraforming projects) in a currency of their own: medium money.

But starships in the Freyaverse are slow—typically cruising at 1% of lightspeed. At this speed, Alpha Centauri is nearly 500 years away; stars with known planetary systems may take millennia to reach. Communication is a lot faster: colonized star systems use modulated laser transmissions to beam data back and forth, including the uploaded, serialized minds of people who want to travel. But what kind of currency (even for a species as long-lived as our posthuman mechanocyte-based successors) can possibly be used to intermediate exchanges of value across interstellar distances? Or to settle debts amounting to the cost of building a new colony, when that kind of sum is equal to entire years of economic productivity?

Slow money is a digital currency backed by debt—the debt incurred by constructing a new interstellar colony. To exchange slow money tokens requires something like (but not identical to) David Chaum's Digicash; all transactions need to by cryptographically signed by a trusted third party. With slow money, rather than relying on a "banker", each party can operate as a banker—but bank A can't sent cash to bank B without getting the transaction irrevocably notarized by bank C. By putting the third party in another star system, both participants in the exchange can verify that they're not being scammed, because to get your digicash packet countersigned by your banker you need to literally aim your laser communicator at their home star system. And wait. And wait a bit longer, because this whole process takes ages—slow money (thanks to requiring notarization/acknowledgement) travels no faster than a third the speed of light.

So, setup: I generated a character (subtype: girl with a mission; sub-subtype: as utterly unlike Freya as I could make her, which is why she's a middle-aged accountant), put her in jeopardy (trying to get from a highly dubious space colony to a water world, she signs on board a damaged vessel crewed by religious fanatics for a working passage), and sent her off to have adventures.

Then, midway through the first draft, this book fell on me.

The book in question was Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber, and it was to 2011 pretty much what Piketty on Capital is to 2014. Short version: Graeber is an anthropologist, not an economist. His thesis is that to the extent that economics is the study of how we allocate resources, this is essentially within the domain of anthropology: and some of the central narratives of economics are inconsistent with our understanding of how human societies operate. (If you read no other part of the book, look for his demolition of Adam Smith's account of the emergence of barter among primitive peoples. Barter, Graeber points out, isn't something that emerges, and that acts as a precursor to the development of money: rather, barter is what we get in atomized societies when fiscal systems collapse and nobody trusts their neighbours. True primitive tribal societies run on interpersonal debt and/or honour systems: everybody knows what their neighbours owe them, so there's no need to provide an immediate exchange for items of value received.)

But anyway: "Debt" gave me a critical tool to look at the economics of interstellar colonization in the Freyaverse. And a tool for thinking about why colonies might be founded. Colonization is expensive, so to create a colony mission incurs a huge amount of debt, denominated in slow money (because this is the only currency that can survive the gulfs of time and space involed). The easiest way to obtain the slow money with which to pay off your star system's debt of instantiation (and interest) is to grow rapidly and send out your own colonies, in turn, which allows you to issue cash instruments redeemable against their debt, much as banks today use lending as collateral for generating new money.

Voila! Just add banking fraud, murderous matriarchs, alien space bats, talking squids in space, a water-world and the worldbuilding thereof (see also part 2), and you have a parable for our times about the banking crisis and the spiralling growth of debt that is rapidly enslaving us to a floating pool of transnational financial instruments that nobody really understands or owns.

"Neptune's Brood" was simple, really: just a light-hearted space opera that accidentally turned into an exegesis on how to design an economic system to answer one of my earlier core criticisms of the proponents of space colonisation: who's going to pay for it?.

From CRIB SHEET: NEPTUNE'S BROOD by Charles Stross (2014)

In the field of stability, perhaps one of the most useful ideas is the concept of feedback. Feedback is a flow of information that has a reciprocating and moderating influence on organizational behavior. Information generated by the system and presented as output is fed back in as input via a "feedback loop." The system thereby keeps an eye on itself and becomes better able to establish and maintain a state of homeostatic equilibrium. Sudden stimuli applied randomly to the system and wildly oscillating inputs are quickly "damped" out.

Theoretically a well-designed extraterrestrial governmental organization possessing no time delays in feedback should be capable of instantaneous response to disruptive influences and should exhibit perfect dynamic stability. However, time delays are inherent in all real physical systems, and this problem will be further exacerbated in the case of interstellar systems because of the comparatively large lag times in transportation and communication between the stars. And whenever delays exist in any system, any variation by one of the quantities moderated by the feedback loop may be perpetuated indefinitely.

In other words, without multiple control loops certain disturbances introduced in one corner of a galactic empire could propagate throughout the system, reverberating in continuous oscillations instead of settling down. According to systems analysts, galactic governments should be designed to be "resilient" with "soft failure modes" (nonlethal), When unexpected events occur, a well-designed xenopolitical system will not collapse but rather will degrade gradually.

Tim Quilici of Rockwell International has devised a very simple "systems" model of an interstellar economics system to illustrate the basic concept of feedback (see below). Using a single loop mechanism, a socialistic alien government attempts to hold stable the price of some valuable trade commodity — say, "positronic brains" — by controlling supply.

The "brains" are manufactured on the Capitol World, a center of industrial development and political control, and are shipped to Outback 10 light-years away. Communication is via microwave, but interstellar freighters can only make 25%c.

Demand for "brains" (to control the agricultural and mining robots on Outback) has remained virtually constant for the last century at 100 units per year. Suddenly, in 2400 A.D., due to poor weather and a series of unusually violent seismic tremors, demand begins to fall. Over a decade it drops to 50 per year, at which point it levels off and holds steady.

What happens to the price of "brains" that Capitol World is trying to control?

The demand for positronic brains on planet Outback is normally 100 units at the going price of $3×106 each, delivered F.O.B. from Capitol World. The government at Capitol wishes to hold the price constant by controlling supply.

In the figure above, demand on Outback drops precipitously from 100 units/year to 50 units/year, due to bad weather. This causes the price to fall to $2×106. By halving the number of shipments of positronic brains to Outback, the Capitol World government can force a return to the old price level.

Above is a block diagram of the proposed systems model of Outback economics. P(t) is the price of positronic brains on Outback. Q(t) is the quantity supplied to Outback by the Capitol World government. C(t) is the consumer demand on Outback for positronic brains.

Since Outback is 10 light-years from Capitol World, messages travel at 100%c, and interstellar freighters travel at 25%c, the communication delay dc is 10 years and the transportation delay dt is 40 years.

The system thus may be de scribed mathematically as follows:

P(t) = e • Q(t - dt) + e • C(t)

Q(t) = P0 / e - P(t-d0) / e + Q(t - dc - dt)

where e is elasticity, equal to 20,000 $/positronic brain.

In 2400 AD, Outback’s demand drops from 100 to 50 units in a single decade. Demand remains at 50 units for the next century.

When demand for positronic brains on Outback falls, so does price. The Capitol World government finds out 10 years later, by microwave communication. Shipments are immediately cut in half, but since 40 years’ worth of cargo is already en route, the effects of the cutback are not felt on Outback until 2450 AD. By 2400 AD, 60 years after the change in demand, price has returned to normal.

As we see from (the above), the decrease in demand on Outback causes an immediate price reduction there. Suddenly there is a glut on the market. The price remains low as too many new "brains" continue to pour in from Capitol World — which has not yet had time to react to the changed circumstances. The situation, in this simple model, is not fully remedied for 60 years following the initial disturbance. This suggests some of the difficulties inherent in interstellar commerce and government. Systems theory should allow similar modeling of the dynamic behavior of vastly more complex galactic organizations, provided their modes of operation and multiple feedback loops can be precisely and quantitatively specified.

Dr. James G. Miller, pioneer in systems science and president of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, has developed what is probably the most comprehensive and far-reaching general systems theory devised to date. Miller claims that his theory, and the principles which emerge from it, are applicable to all living systems from cellular lifeforms to organic societies. Xenologists expect that this work may profitably be extended to considerations of xenopolitical systems as well, primarily because of its general and universalistic approach to systems analysis at all scales of organization.

In his fascinating 1100-page monograph entitled Living Systems, Miller considers living systems at seven different levels of complexity: Cells, organs, organisms, groups, organizations, societies, and supranational systems. Based on fundamental notions of evolutionary unity, he then derives nearly 200 cross-level hypotheses which he asserts may be general characteristics of any living system. The following are six of these hypotheses which xenologists believe may have relevance to the problem of stability in xenopolitical systems at all cultural scales:

Hypothesis 5.2-2: The greater a threat or stress upon a system, the more components of it are involved in adjusting to it. When no further components with new adjustment processes are available, the system function collapses.

Hypothesis 5.2-10: Under equal stress, functions developed later in the phylogenetic history of a given type of system break down before more primitive functions do.

Hypothesis 5.2-11: After stress, disturbances of subsystem steady states are ordinarily corrected and returned to normal ranges before systemwide steady-state disturbances are.

Hypothesis 5.2-12: More complex systems, which contain more different components, each of which can adjust against one or more specific environmental stresses and maintain in steady state one or more specific variables not maintained by any other component, if they adequately coordinate the processes in their components, survive longer on the average than less complex systems.

Hypothesis 5.2-13: Under threat or stress, a system that survives, in the common good of total system survival, temporarily subordinates conflicts among subsystems or components until the threat or stress is relieved, when internal conflicts recur.

Hypothesis 5.2-19: The greater the resources available to a system, the less likely is conflict among its subsystems or components.

From SYSTEM STABILITY by Robert A. Freitas Jr. ()

(ed note: one fine day astronomers studying a nova in Sagitarius {galactic core} they notice an alien solar-sail powered starship decelerating into our solar system. The aliens are nick-named "Monks" because they wear concealing robes. The aliens want to trade for Terran goods.

In exchange they offer "education pills". The pills contain memory RNA that will give you knowledge such as alien languages, how to build various high tech devices, acrobatic skills, etc.

Oh, and they also want the nations of Terra to build a huge launch laser in order to propel the Monk solar sail ship to its next destination.

Protagonist Edward Frazer owns a bar, and is startled when one night a Monk shows up to sample all the various liquors to evaluate them as trade goods. The Monk gives Frazer a couple of knowledge pills to injest. The next day, the Secret Service shows up in the form of Agent William Morris, who is very interested in the knowledge Frazer gained from those pills. )

(ed note: at the bar...)

      The Monk had had five tonight. That put him through the ryes and the bourbons and the Irish whiskeys, and several of the liqueurs. Now he was tasting the vodkas.
     At that point I worked up the courage to ask him what he was doing.
     He explained at length. The Monk starship was a commercial venture, a trading mission following a daisy chain of stars. He was a sampler for the group. He was mightily pleased with some of the wares he had sampled here. Probably he would order great quantities of them, to be freeze-dried for easy storage. Add alcohol and water to reconstitute.

     “Then you won’t be wanting to test all the vodkas,” I told him. “Vodka isn’t much more than water and alcohol.”
     He thanked me.
     “The same goes for most gins, except for flavorings.” I lined up four gins in front of him. One was Tanqueray. One was a Dutch gin you have to keep chilled like some liqueurs. The others were fairly ordinary products. I left him with these while I served customers.
     The Monk finished tasting the gins. “I am concerned for the volatile fractions,” he said. “Some of your liquors will lose taste from condensation.”

     I told him he was probably right. And I asked, “How do you pay for your cargos?”
     “With knowledge.”
     “That’s fair. What kind of knowledge?”
     The Monk reached under his robe and produced a flat sample case. He opened it. It was full of pills. There was a large glass bottle full of a couple of hundred identical pills; and these were small and pink and triangular. But most of the sample case was given over to big, round pills of all colors, individually wrapped and individually labeled in the wandering Monk script. No two labels were alike. Some of the notations looked hellishly complex.
     “These are knowledge,” said the Monk.
     “Ah,” I said, and wondered if I was being put on. An alien can have a sense of humor, can’t he? And there’s no way to tell if he’s lying.
     “A certain complex organic molecule has much to do with memory,” said the Monk. “Ribonucleic acid (RNA). It is present and active in the nervous systems of most organic beings. Wish you to learn my language?” He pulled a pill loose and stripped, it of its wrapping, which fluttered to the bar like a shred of cellophane. The Monk put the pill in my hand and said, “You must swallow it now, before the air ruins it, now that it is out of its wrapping.” The pill was marked like a target in red and green circles. It was big and bulky going down.

     “It’s also the reason I’m here,” said Morris. “We know too little about the Monks. We didn’t even know they existed until something over two years ago.”
     “Oh?” I’d only started reading about them a month ago.
     “It wouldn’t be that long, except that all the astronomers were looking in that direction already, studying a recent nova in Sagittarius. So they caught the Monk starship a little sooner, but it was already inside Pluto’s orbit.
     “They’ve been communicating with us for over a year. Two weeks ago they took up orbit around the Moon. There’s only one Monk starship, and only one ground-to-orbit craft, as far as we know. The ground-to-orbit craft has been sitting in the ocean off Manhattan Island, convenient to the United Nations Building, for those same two weeks. Its crew are supposed to be all the Monks there are in the world.

(ed note: Frazer tells Morris that he swallowed some Monk education pills)

     “You must be crazy,” Bill Morris said wonderingly.
     “It looks that way to me, too, now. But think about it; This was a Monk, an alien, an ambassador to the whole human race. He wouldn’t have fed me anything dangerous, not without carefully considering all the possible consequences.”

     I shook my head. Maybe the motion jarred something loose. “That bottle of little triangular pills. I know what they were. Memory erasers.”
     “Good God! You didn’t—”
     “No, no, Morris. They don’t erase your whole memory. They erase pill memories. The RNA in a Monk memory pill is tagged somehow, so that the eraser pill can pick it out and break it down.”
     Morris gaped. Presently he said, “That’s incredible. The education pills are wild enough, but that — You see what they must do, don’t you? They hang a radical on each and every RNA molecule in each and every education pill. The active principle in the eraser pill is an enzyme for just that radical.”
     He saw my expression and said, “Never mind, just take my word for it. They must have had the education pills for a hundred years before they worked out the eraser principle.

     “Probably. The pills must be very old.”
     He pounced. “How do you know that?”
     “The name for the pill has only one syllable, like fork. There are dozens of words for kinds of pill reflexes, for swallowing the wrong pill, for side effects depending on what species is taking the pill. There’s a special word for an animal, training pill, and another one for a slave training pill. Morris, I think my memory is beginning to settle down.”
     “Anyway, the Monks must have been peddling pills to aliens for thousands of years. I’d guess tens of thousands.”

     Morris came back grinning like an idiot. “You’ll never guess what the Monks want from us now.”
     He looked from me to Louise to me, grinning, letting the suspense grow intolerable. He said, “A giant laser cannon.
     Louise gasped “What?” and I asked, “You mean a launching laser?
     “Yes, a launching laser! They want us to build it on the Moon. They’d feed our engineers pills to give them the specs and to teach them how to build it. They’d pay off in more pills.”
     I needed to remember something about launching lasers. And how had I known what to call it?
     “They put the proposition to the United Nations,” Morris was saying. “In fact, they’ll be doing all of their business through the UN, to avoid charges of favoritism, they say, and to spread the knowledge as far as possible.”
     “But there are countries that don’t belong to the UN,” Louise objected.
     “The Monks know that. They asked if any of those nations had space travel. None of them do, of course. And the Monks lost interest in them.

     “Of course,” I said, remembering. “A species that can’t develop spaceflight is no better than animals.
     “According to a Monk.

     Louise said, “But what for? Why would the Monks want a laser cannon? And on our Moon!”
     “That’s a little complicated,” said Morris. “Do you both remember when the Monk ship first appeared, two years ago?”
     “No,” we answered more or less together.
     Morris was shaken., “You didn’t notice? It was in all the papers. Noted Astronomer Says Alien Spacecraft Approaching Earth. No?”
     “For Christ’s sake! I was jumping up and down. It was like when the radio astronomers discovered pulsars, remember? I was just getting out of high school.”

     “Excuse me,” Morris said overpolitely. “My mistake. I tend to think that everybody I meet is a science fiction fan. Pulsars are stars that give off rhythmic pulses of radio energy. The radio astronomers thought at first that they were getting signals from outer space.”
     Louise said, “You’re a science fiction fan?”
     “Absolutely. My first gun was a Gyrojet rocket pistol. I bought it because I read Buck Rogers.”
     I said, “Buck who?” But then I couldn’t keep a straight face. Morris raised his eyes to Heaven. No doubt it was there that he found the strength to go on.

     “The noted astronomer was Jerome Finney. Of course he, hadn’t said anything about Earth. Newspapers always get that kind of thing garbled. He’d said that an object of artificial, extraterrestrial origin had entered the solar system.
     “What had happened was that several months earlier, Jodrell Bank had found a new star in Sagittarius. That’s the direction of the galactic core. Yes, Frazer?”
     We were back to last names because I wasn’t a science fiction fan. I said, “That’s right. The Monks came from the galactic hub.” I remembered the blazing night sky of Center. My Monk customer couldn’t possibly have seen it in his lifetime. He must have been shown the vision through an education pill, for patriotic reasons, like kids are taught what the Star Spangled Banner looks like.
     “All right. The astronomers were studying a nearby nova, so they caught the intruder a little sooner. It showed a strange spectrum, radically different from a nova and much more constant. It got even stranger. The light was growing brighter at the same time the spectral lines were shifting toward the red. It was months before anyone identified the spectrum. Then one Jerome Finney finally caught wise. He showed that the spectrum was the light of our own sun, drastically blue-shifted. Some kind of mirror was coming at us, moving at a hell of a clip, but slowing as it came.”

     “Oh!” I got it then. “That would mean a lightsail!”
     “Why the big deal, Frazer? I thought you already knew.”
     “No. This is the first I’ve heard of it. I don’t read the Sunday supplements.”
     Morris was exasperated. “But you knew enough to call the laser cannon a launching laser!”
     “I just now realized why it’s called that.”
     Morris stared at me for several seconds. Then he said, “I forgot. You got it out of the Monk language course.”
     “I guess so.”

     He got back to business. “The newspapers gave poor Finney a terrible time. You didn’t see the political cartoons either? Too bad. But when the Monk ship got closer it started sending signals. It was an interstellar sailing ship, riding the sunlight on a reflecting sail, and it was coming here.”
     “Signals. With dots and dashes? You could do that just by tacking the sail.”
     “You must have read about it.”
     “Why? It’s so obvious.”

     Morris looked unaccountably ruffled. Whatever his reasons, he let it pass. “The sail is a few molecules thick and nearly five hundred miles across when it’s extended. On light pressure alone they can build up to interstellar velocities, but it takes them a long time. The acceleration isn’t high. It took them two years to slow down to solar system velocities. They must have done a lot of braking before our telescopes found them, but even so they were going far too fast when they passed Earth’s orbit. They had to go inside Mercury’s orbit and come up the other side of the sun’s gravity well, backing all the way, before they could get near Earth.
     I said, “Sure. Interstellar speeds have to be above half the speed of light, or you can’t trade competitively.
     “There are ways to get the extra edge. You don’t have to depend on sunlight, not if you’re launching from a civilized system. Every civilized system has a moon-based launching laser. By the time the sun is too far away to give the ship a decent push, the beam from the laser cannon is spreading just enough to give the sail a hefty acceleration without vaporizing anything.”
     “Naturally,” said Morris, but he seemed confused.
     “So that if you’re heading for a strange system, you’d naturally spend most of the trip decelerating. You can’t count on a strange system having a launching laser. If you know your destination is civilized, that’s a different matter.”
     Morris nodded.
     “The lovely thing about the laser cannon is that if anything goes wrong with it, there’s a civilized world right there to fix it. You go sailing out to the stars with trade goods, but you leave your launching motor safely at home. Why is everybody looking at me funny?”
     “Don’t take it wrong,” said Morris. “But how does a paunchy bartender come to know so much about flying an interstellar trading ship?”
     “What?” I didn’t understand him.
     “Why did the Monk ship have to dive so deep into the solar system?”
     “Oh, that. That’s the solar wind. You get the same problem around any yellow sun. With a lightsail you can get push from the solar wind as well as from light pressure. The trouble is, the solar wind is just stripped hydrogen atoms. Light bounces from a lightsail, but the solar wind just hits the sail and sticks.”
     Morris nodded thoughtfully. Louise was blinking as if she had double vision.
     “You can’t tack against it. Tilting the sail does from nothing. To use the solar wind for braking you have to bore straight in, straight toward the sun,” I explained.

     Morris nodded. I saw that his eyes were as glassy as Louise’s eyes.
     “Oh,” I said. “Damn, I must be stupid today. Morris, that was the third pill.”
     “Right,” said Morris, still nodding, still glassy-eyed. “That must have been the unusual, really unusual profession you wanted. Crewman on an interstellar liner.” And he should have sounded disgusted, but he sounded envious.
     “Captain,” I said. “Not crew.”

     “Pity. A crewman would know more about how to put a ship together. Frazer, how big a crew are you equipped to rule?”
     “Eight and five.”
     “Then why did you say eight and five?”
     The question caught me off balance. Hadn’t I…? Oh. “That’s the Monk numbering system. Base eight. Actually, base two, but they group the digits in threes to get base eight.”
     “Base two. Computer numbers.
     “Are they?”

     “Yes. Frazer, they must have been using computers for a long time. Aeons. You said earlier that a species that can’t develop space flight is no better than animals.
     “According to the Monks,” I reminded him.
     “Right. It seems a little extreme even to me, but let it pass. What about a race that develops spaceflight and then loses it?
     “It happens. There are lots of ways a space-going species can revert to animal. Atomic war. Or they just can’t live with the complexity. Or they breed themselves out of food, and the world famine wrecks everything. Or waste products from the new machinery ruins the ecology.”
     “‘Revert to animal.’ All right. What about nations? Suppose you have two nations next door, same species, but one has space flight—”
     “Right. Good point, too. Morris, there are just two countries on Earth that can deal with the Monks without dealing through the United Nations. Us, and Russia (this was written in 1971). If Rhodesia or Brazil or France tried it, they’d be publicly humiliated.”

     “What powers the ground-to-orbit ship?”
     “A slow H-bomb going off in a magnetic bottle.”
     “Yah. The attitude jets on the main starship use fusion power too. They all link to one magnetic bottle. I don’t know just how it works. You get fuel from water or ice.”
     “Fusion. But don’t you have to separate out the deuterium and tritium?”
     “What for? You melt the ice, run a current through the water, and you’ve got hydrogen.”
     “Wow,” Morris said softly. “Wow.” (this means the Monk's fusion power is freaking proton-proton fusion. Which is real hard to do)
     “The launching laser works the same way,” I remembered. What else did I need to remember about launching lasers? Something dreadfully important.
     ‘Wow. Fraser, if we could build the Monks their launching laser, we could use the same techniques to build other fusion plants. Couldn’t we?”
     “Sure.” I was in dread. My mouth was dry, my heart was pounding. I almost knew why. “‘What do you mean, if?”
     “And they’d pay us to do it! It’s a damn shame. We just don’t have the hardware.”

     “What do you mean? We’ve got to build the launching laser!”
     Morris gaped. “Frazer, what’s wrong with you?”
     The terror had a name now. “My God! What have you told the Monks? Morris, listen to me. You’ve got to see to it that the Security Council promises to build the Monks’ launching laser.”
     “Who do you think I am, the Secretary-General? We can’t build it anyway, not with just Saturn launching configurations.” Morris thought I’d gone mad at last. He wanted to back away through the wall of the booth.
     “They’ll do it when you tell them what’s at stake. And we can build a launching laser, if the whole world goes in on it. Morris, look at the good it can do! Free power from seawater! And lightsails work fine within a system.”
     “Sure, it’s a lovely picture. We could sail out to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We could smelt the asteroids for their metal ores, using laser power…” His eyes had momentarily taken on a vague, dreamy look. Now they snapped back to what Morris thought of as reality. “It’s the kind of thing I daydreamed about when I was a kid. Someday we’ll do it. Today—we just aren’t ready.”

     “There are two sides to a coin,” I said. “Now, I know how this is going to sound. Just remember there are reasons. Good reasons.”
     “Reasons? Reasons for what?”
     “When a trading ship travels,” I said, “It travels only from one civilized system to another. There are ways to tell whether a system has a civilization that can build a launching laser. Radio is one. The Earth puts out as much radio flux as a small star. When the Monks find that much radio energy coming from a nearby star, they send a trade ship. By the time the ship gets there, the planet that’s putting out all the energy is generally civilized. But not so civilized that it can’t use the knowledge a Monk trades for. Do you see that they need the launching laser? That ship out there came from a Monk colony. This far from the axis of the galaxy, the stars are too far apart. Ships launch by starlight and laser, but they brake by starlight alone, because they can’t count on the target star having a launching laser. If they had to launch by starlight too, they probably wouldn’t make it. A plant-and-animal cycle as small as the life support system on a Monk starship can last only so long.”
     “You said yourself that the Monks can’t always count on the target star staying civilized.”
     “No, of course not. Sometimes a civilization hits the level at which it can build a, launching laser, stays there just long enough to send out a mass of radio waves, then reverts to animal. That’s the point. If we tell them we can’t build the laser, we’ll be animals to the Monks.”
     “Suppose we just refuse? Not can’t but won’t.”
     “That would be stupid. There are too many advantages. Controlled fusion—”
     “Frazer, think about the cost.” Morris looked grim. He wanted the laser. He didn’t think he could get it. “Think about politicians thinking about the cost,” he said. “Think, about politicians thinking about explaining the cost to the taxpayers.”
     “Stupid,” I repeated, “and inhospitable. Hospitality counts high with the Monks. You see, we’re cooked either way. Either we’re dumb animals, or we’re guilty of a criminal breach of hospitality. And the Monk ship still needs more light for its lightsail than the sun can put out.
     “So the captain uses a gadget that makes the sun explode.”

     “The,” said Morris, and “Sun,” and “Explode?” He didn’t know what to do. Then suddenly he burst out in great loud cheery guffaws, so that the women cleaning the Long Spoon turned with answering smiles. He’d decided not to believe me.
     I reached across and gently pushed his drink into his lap.
     It was two-thirds empty, but it cut his laughter off in an instant. Before he could start swearing, I said, “I am not playing games. The Monks will make our sun explode if we don’t build them a launching laser. Now go call your boss and tell him so.”
     Morris sounded almost calm. “Why the drink in, my lap?”
     “Shock treatment. And I wanted your full attention. Are you going to call New York?”

     “Not yet.” Morris swallowed. He looked down once at the spreading stain on his pants, then somehow put it out of his mind. “Remember, I’d have to convince him. I don’t believe it myself. Nobody and nothing would blow up a sun for a breach of hospitality!
     “No, no, Morris, They have to blow up the sun to get to the next system. It’s a serious thing, refusing to build the launching laser! It could wreck the ship!”
     “Screw the ship! What about a whole planet?”
     “You’re just not looking at it right—”
     “Hold it. Your ship is a trading ship, isn’t it? What kind of idiots would the Monks be, to exterminate one market just to get on to the next?”
     “If we can’t build a launching laser, we aren’t a market.”
     “But we might be a market on the next circuit!”
     “What next circuit? You don’t seem to grasp the size of the Monks’ marketplace. The communications gap between Center and the nearest Monk colony is about—” I stopped to transpose “—sixty-four thousand years! By the time a ship finishes one circuit, most of the worlds she’s visited have already forgotten her. And then what? The colony world that built her may have failed, or refitted the spaceport to service a different style of ship, or reverted to animal; even Monks do that. She’d have to go on to the next system for refitting.
     When you trade among the stars, there is no repeat business.

     “Oh,” said Morris. “How does it work? How do you make a sun go nova?”
     “There’s a gadget the size of a locomotive fixed to the main supporting strut, I guess you’d call it. It points straight astern, and it can swing sixteen degrees or so in any direction. You turn it on when you make departure orbit. The math man works out the intensity. You beam the sun for the first year or so, and when it blows, you’re just far enough away to use the push without getting burned.”
     “But how does it work?”
     “You just turn it on. The power comes from the fusion tube that feeds the attitude jet system. —Oh, you want to know why does it make a sun explode. I don’t know that. Why should I?”
     “Big as a locomotive. And it makes suns explode.” Morris sounded slightly hysterical. Poor bastard, he was beginning to believe me. The shock had hardly touched me, because truly I had known it since last night.
     He said, “When we first saw the Monk lightsail, it was just to one side of a recent nova in Sagittarius. By any wild chance, was that star a market that didn’t work out?”
     “I haven’t the vaguest idea.”

     That convinced him. If I’d been making it up, I’d have said yes.

From THE FOURTH PROFESSION by Larry Niven (1971)

FTL Economics

This is for economics taking advantage of hand-waving faster-than-light starships.


(ed note: Tyl Koopman and Charles Desoix are waiting at the planetary starport, located on an island in the river. They are waiting for hovercraft to transport them across the river to Bamberg City. The starport is located away from the city in case a starship crashes and explodes.)

      "Now," he (Tyl Koopman) added, controlling his grimace, "how do we get to the mainland if we're not cargo?"
     "Ah, but we are," Desoix noted as he raised the briefcase that seemed to be all the luggage he carried. "Just not very valuable cargo, my friend. But I think it's about time to—"
     As he started toward the door, one of the hovercars they'd watched put out from the city drove through the mingled cluster of men from the starships and the surface freighter. Water from the channel surrounded the car in a fine mist that cleared its path better than the threat of its rubber skirts. While the driver in his open cab exchanged curses with men from the surface freighter, the rear of his vehicle opened to disgorge half a dozen civilians in bright garments.
     "Our transportation," Desoix said, nodding to the hovercar as he headed out of the shelter. "Now that it's dropped off the Bamberg factors to fight for their piece of the market. Everybody's got tobacco, and everybody wants a share of what may be the last cargoes onto the planet for a while."
     "Before the shooting starts," Tyl amplified as he strode along with the UDB officer. They hadn't sent a briefing cube to Miesel for him … but it didn't take that or a genius to figure out what was going to happen shortly after a world started hiring mercenary regiments.

     "That's the betting," Desoix agreed. He opened the back of the car with his universal credit key, a computer chip encased in noble metal and banded to his wrist.
     "Oh," said Tyl, staring at the keyed door.
     "Yeah, everything's up to date here in Bamberg," said the other officer, stepping out of the doorway and waving Tyl through. "Hey!" he called to the driver. "My friend here's on me!"
     "I can—" Tyl said.
     "—delay us another ten minutes," Desoix broke in, "trying to charge this one to the Hammer account or pass the driver scrip from Lord knows where."
     He keyed the door a second time and swung into the car, both men moving with the trained grace of soldiers who knew how to get on and off air-cushion vehicles smoothly—because getting hung up was a good way to catch a round.
     "Goes to the UDB account anyway," Desoix added. "Via, maybe we'll need a favor from you one of these days."
     "I'm just not set up for this place, coming off furlough," Tyl explained. "It's not like, you know, Colonel Hammer isn't on top of things."

     "One thing," Desoix said, looking out the window even though the initial spray cloaked the view. "Money's no problem here. Any banking booth can access Hammer's account and probably your account back home if it's got a respondent on one of the big worlds. Perfectly up to date. But, ah, don't talk to anybody here about religion, all right?"
     He met Tyl's calm eyes. "No matter how well you know them, you don't know them that well. Here. And don't go out except wearing your uniform. They don't bother soldiers, especially mercs; but somebody might make a mistake if you were in civilian clothes."
     "What's the problem?" Tyl asked calmly. From what he'd read, the battle lines on Bamberia were pretty clearly drawn. The planetary government was centered on Continent One—wealthy and very centralized, because the Pink River drained most of the arable land on the continent. All the uniquely flavorful Bamberg tobacco could be barged at minimal cost to Bamberg City and loaded in bulk onto starships.
     There hadn't been much official interest in Continent Two for over a century after the main settlement. There was good land on Two, but it was patchy and not nearly as easy to develop profitably as One proved.
     That didn't deter other groups who saw a chance that looked good by their standards. Small starships touched down in little market centers. Everything was on a lesser scale: prices, quantities, and profit margins …
     But in time, the estimated total grew large enough for the central government to get interested. Official trading ports were set up on the coast of Two. Local tobacco was to be sent from them to Bamberg City, to be assessed and transshipped.
     Some was; but the interloping traders continued to land in the back country, and central government officials gnashed their teeth over tax revenues that were all the larger for being illusory.
     The traders didn't care. They had done their business in holographic entertainment centers and solar-powered freezers, but there was just as much profit in powerguns and grenades.
     As for mercenaries like Alois Hammer—and Tyl Koopman … They couldn't be said not to care; because if there wasn't trouble, they didn't have work.
     Not that Tyl figured there was much risk of galactic peace being declared.

From COUNTING THE COST by David Drake (1987)

Economics of Starships

This section is basically a rough outline of Rick Robinson's Interstellar Trade: A Primer. You'd probably be better off reading the full article but some people want executive summaries. Rick starts with certain assumptions and follows them to various conclusions about the interstellar economy. You can alter some of the assumptions yourself to tweak the economy to suit your science fictional background.

Merchant Starship Costs

Assumption: starships in the interstellar empire are equivalent to present-day jet airliners. They go fast, can carry lots of people and cargo, and are the most advanced technology that can be massed produced.

The ticket prices will not be similar between airliners and starships because FTL interstellar travel will probably take more than a few hours for the trip. Therefore the starships will do fewer trips per year than airliners, so the starship passenger ticket price (and cargo waybill) will have to cover a larger share of the starship's yearly expense.

For comparison purposes we need an airliner's average cost of running, but the corporations are remarkably closed-lipped about that. Using a long series of estimations whose details can be found in Rick's article he concludes that the annual operating cost for an airliner is about $30 million (not counting fuel, landing fees, and taxes). An airliner's purchase price is $100 million so one year's uses costs about one-third of the purchase price.

A cargo jet can carry 50 tons so its purchase price is about $2 million per ton of cargo capacity.

Assumption: starships are strictly orbit-to-orbit, they use space ferrys to transfer passengers and cargo between the starship and the planet.

Assumption: starship purchase price will only be about $1 million per ton of cargo capacity instead of $2 million, because starships are orbit-to-orbit, need no landing gear, need no wings, can use lighter structure because they accelerate under 1 g, and we will assume they can carry twice as much cargo per deadweight (inert mass) as a cargo jet.

Assumption: cargo starship operating cost is similar to cargo jet. Therefore it costs $300,000 per ton of cargo capacity per year to run a cargo starship. This ignores taxes, station docking fees, and fuel. Assumption: starship fuel is cheaper than cargo jet JP-4 fuel. Big assumption since JP-4 is about $1.39 per gallon.

(ed note: starships are going to require lots of infrastructure.)

Assumption: the service life of a merchant starship is 30 years. So the starship initial purchase price is about 1/10th of the overall lifetime service cost ($1 million / (30 * $300,000)). Actually it will be closer to 1/5th due to the interest on the purchase loan. With creative maintenance, the service life might be longer than 30 years, see below.

Question: how many cargos can a merchant starship carry in 1 year? That is, assuming a full cargo turnover at each port of call, how many one-way runs can the ship make?

Assumption: a one-way trip takes three months. From departure planet orbit to FTL flight to arrival planet orbit. This is comparable to the Age of Sail.

Assumption: each trip requires one month for servicing, maintenance, selling the cargo, buying new cargo for the next run.

This makes each trip four months from departure to departure, or three cargos per year. This means the ship owner must earn $100,000 of profit per ton of cargo. That is, selling price at destination MINUS purchase price at origin must be $100,000 or more. Therefore if the cargo was available for free at the origin the minimum selling price at destination is $100,000 per ton, or $100 per kilogram. The implication is that only very high value cargo can be profitably shipped interstellar.

Assumption, average of 1/2 of retail price goes to shipping cost. Therefore the minimum price of interstellar imported goods are $200 per kilogram.

The implication is that the only things shipped interstellar would be luxury goods, items with a very high value per weight. Jewelry, spices, fine liquor, designer-label clothing. Maybe some high value per weight industrial goods, such as microchips. Not high mass items such as sports car, not with a $100,000 shipping charge added to the car's price. Bottom line is that you are not going to ship bulk goods like wheat, not at $100,000 per ton you ain't.

Assumption: the Gross Planetary Product (GPP) of a colony planet is $100,000 (about three times that of present day USA). If 2% of citizen income goes to imported luxuries and high-value capital goods, it comes out to $2000 per capita, with $1000 going to shipping cost.

Assumption: Colony planet population is 10 million. Therefore the total shipping cost of imported goods is $10 billion.

Calculating backwards, this implies that 100,000 tons of interstellar cargo arrives at the colony planet annually. The colony must export the same amount or it will run a trade deficit and import prices will rise. This is because if they don't export, the cargo starships cannot find cargoes to transport and sell at the next destination. Starships with empty cargo holds cost nearly as much to run as with full holds. They will have to make up the shortfall somehow, so they will raise the price of what they sell at this planet.

Take simplest model: two planets trading with each other. Each year, 100,000 tons moves in each direction, or 200,000 tons total.

Assumption: average cargo starship carries 1000 tons. This is less than seagoing cargo ships, but more than cargo airplane. This means there has to be 200 annual cargo loadings and unloadings to accommodate 200,000 tons.

Since each ship can make 3 one-way legs per year, then each ship will do three loadings. The implication is that the two planet's combined merchant fleet is between 65 to 70 ships.

Of course if each ship carries more than 1000 tons then fewer ships are needed. If the ships can carry 5000 tons then you would only need 13 or 14 ships. In practice this would not work very well, since the larger the cargo hold, the more difficult it is to find enough cargo on the planet to fill it.A trade network of a dozen colony worlds will support a few dozen to a few hundred cargo ships depending upon cargo hold size.

Passenger Traffic

Airliners carry about four to five passengers per ton of equivalent cargo capacity. However airliner trips are only a few hours. Interstellar passengers cannot live in their seats for three months.

Assumption: Each interstellar passenger berth equals one ton of equivalent cargo capacity. This includes the passenger, their baggage, the berth, apportioned galley/diner space, and food.

The direct result is that the cost of the passenger ticket is the same as the cost of one ton of cargo: $100,000. You are not going to get much tourist traffic, not at those prices. A few rich people and business travellers.

Problem: you must have large scale passenger traffic for the colony network to exist at all. In a word: Colonization.

$100,000 per colonist is prohibitive. Probably several times that for extra stuff like tractors and horses. Even worse, since the new colony will not have any exports, the cargo starship will have not cargo buy for the next trip. So the starship captain will have to charge round-trip prices for a one-way trip. It could total to around $1 million per colonist.

The problem is that our assumptions have made it so that only millionaires can afford the ticket, but millionaires do not want to go live on some jerkwater frontier world. Sending 10,000 colonists to a new world could cost $10 billion, which is a huge amount for private industry or governments to spend, regardless of the potential value of the planet.

Our price schedule has made interstellar colonization unlikely in the first place.

We will have to change some of the assumptions. Lucky for us, there is some room to bring the costs down. We can make the merchant starships cheaper, or make them faster. We shall do both.

Assumption: annual starship service cost is $100,000 per ton of cargo capacity, not $300,000. This is reasonable, since starships are not stressed as much as airliners (at least not orbit-to-orbit starships).

Assumption: starship purchase price is $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity instead of $1 million, since starships are build for long-haul reliability.

With the 30 year service life, the purchase price is now 1/6th of the total lifetime service cost instead of 1/10th. Within interest payments this may be closer to 1/3th.

Assumption: a one-way trip takes 35 days instead of three months. This means the cargo starship can deliver 10 cargoes per year instead of three. Assume 27 days is transit, 8 days is for servicing, maintenance, selling the cargo, and buying new cargo for the next run.

Crunching the numbers, the minimum profit per ton of cargo or passenger ticket is now $10,000 instead of $100,000.

The cost for colonists (provisions and no return cargo) is probably about $100,000 or less. That's more like it. In the reach of the middle class. This price schedule makes interstellar colonization viable.

Note that the same ten-fold cost reduction can be had by making the one-way trip 12 days but keeping the original $300,000 annual cost.

Our colonization-viable starships will also increase interstellar trade. Shipping cost of $10,000 per ton means the threshold cost of imported goods is about $10 per pound. Only $10,000 shipping cost for a sports car. But no bulk cargo, not when oil's shipping cost will be $1500 per barrel. As with all freight the rates will vary. Higher value merchandise will support higher shipping charges. A long-term fixed contract (allowing ship owner to have dependable regular cargoes) will get a lower rate. Standby cargo will get a better rate, if the ship is making a run anyway, it is better to have full cargo holds.

If imports are still only 2% of CPP, the volume of goods will increase ten-fold. The shipping capacity will only have to increase three-fold since starships now deliver three times as much cargo per year. Since shipping costs ten times lower (so a wider range of goods are worth importing) then the import-export sector can expand in total value of goods shipped as well.

Assumption: an inverse square-root rule applies here, so reducing the shipping costs by a factor of 10 will increase spending upon imported goods by a factor of 3.

This means 6% of CPP now goes to imports. High, but not out of reach for a mature trading zone. So a colony of 10 million will have an annual export and import of 3 million tons per year.

Each trade starship can pick up and deliver 10 cargoes per year, so they need a net cargo capacity of 300,000 tons. For a trade network of 12 colonies, the combined merchant marine needs a capacity of some 3.6 million tons. Most ships will still be small (but bigger than jumbo jets) to facilitate filling their cargo holds, but the heaviest-traffic routes will support some bigger ships.

Assumption: say the trade network's merchant fleet is:

Type of shipNumber
of ships
Cargo capacity
of one ship
Total cargo capacity
Large7520,000 tons1,500,000 tons
Medium3005000 tons1,500,000 tons
Small4001500 tons600,000 tons
TOTAL7753,600,000 tons

If there is no FTL radio, then some of the small freighters will sacrifice cargo capacity for speed (i.e., acceleration), in order to become something like an interstellar FedEx or pony express. The idea is to reduce the normal space transit time. Actually this might be a better job for an unmanned drone, they can take higher acceleration than human beings.

Passenger traffic is only a fraction of total cargo volume (unless there is a colonization effort underway). Freight makes a profit for somebody, passengers are pure expense to whoever pays their ticket. Perhaps passengers are 1% of total volume, makes 360,000 passengers per year. A few routes may support scheduled passenger service (probably in small ships). But most will ride in cargo bays (like railroad sleeping cards), in freighters, or in spare crew quarters.

Ship mass and size

Full load mass and physical size depends upon assumptions about fuel mass ration, fuel bulk, etc.


Deadweight (inert mass)117%
Cargo (payload)233%
Fuel (propellant)350%

Note that total mass is three times the cargo capacity. As you can see, deadweight is the ship proper, structure, engines, anything that is not cargo or propellant.

With this assumption, the big freighters will have a fully loaded mass of 60,000 tons. The largest ships might be twice as big: 120,000 tons.

Our building cost is $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity, the mass assumption makes a building cost equal to $1 million per ton of deadweight. Annual service cost is $100,000 per ton of cargo capacity, the mass assumption makes the annual service cost equal to $200,000 per ton of deadweight. The starship hulls are not cheaper, but they can carry more cargo in proportion to their structural mass.

Type of shipCargo capacityPurchase price
Large20,000 tons$20 billion
Medium5000 tons$2.5 billion
Small1500 tons$750 million

At $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity, largest giant freighter cost $20 billion to build, but it it has a cargo capacity of 200 Boeing 747 jets, and accounts for over one percent of whole fleet's cargo capacity all by itself. Small freighter costs $750 million, and has seven time the capacity of 747.

With a 30 year service life, the combined shipbuilding yards of the 12 planet trade network will turn out about 25 ships per year.

Hulls will last longer than 30 years but the equipment wears out and has to be replaced. Ships go back to the yards for an overhaul every decade or so, but eventually the cost of stripping everything and replacing it will exceed the value of the ship. Depending upon overhaul costs the shipyards may make more money on rebuilding than on constructing brand new ships. Some ships will stay in service for many decades. Others will be retained as the futuristic equivalent of naval hulks or the old passenger equipment that railroads use as work trains. Every big commercial space station will have a bunch of these old ships in the outskirts.

If modular design is taken to its limit, "ships" will have no permanent existence. Instead they will be assembled out of modules and pods specifically for each run, much like a railroad train. In that case, a ship's identity is attached to a service, not a physical structure. Example: the Santa Fe "Chief" was identified by a timetable and reputation, not a particular set of locomotive and cars.

Starship Performance

The analysis up until now focused on money and economics. Businessmen only care about how long it takes to deliver the cargo and how much transport costs, they could care less about the scientific details of the ship engines. But authors care.

As with everything else, it all depends upon the assumptions. Your assumptions will be different, so feel free to fiddle with these and see what the results are.

Assumption: the time spent in FTL transit is zero (jump drive). For the FTL segment of the transit you can use whatever you want, as long as the details do not affect the analysis. The main thing is that the required time spent in FTL transit will add to the total trip time, and thus the number of cargoes a starship can transport per year.

Assumption: starships use reaction drives for normal space travel.

We know that the mass ratio is 2.0. So the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation tells us that the starship's total delta V will be the propulsion system's exhaust velocity times 0.69 (i.e., ln(2.0) ). Since starships accelerate to half their delta V, coast, then decelerate to a halt, their maximum speed is half their delta V, or exhaust velocity times 0.35 (i.e., ln(2.0) / 2). In practice you would accelerate up to a bit less than half their delta V in order to allow a fuel reserve in case of emergency.

It will be even less if the FTL drive happens to use the same type of fuel that the reaction drive does. Basically part of the fuel mass will have to be considered as cargo, not propellant, which will alter the ship's mass ratio.

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
Nuclear powered Ion~100 km/s
Fusiona few thousand km/s
Beam core matter-antimatterabout 100,000 km/s
( 1/3 c )

We have assumed that the ship spends 27 days in route (with an instantaneous FTL jump), so the outbound and inbound legs are 13.5 days each (1.17 million seconds).

Assumption: the acceleration on each leg is constant. In reality at the same thrust setting the acceleration will increase as the ship's mass goes down due to propellant being expended. The thrust will probably be constantly throttled to maintain a constant acceleration. Makes it easier on the crew and easier on our analysis. The implication is that obviously the average speed will be half the maximum speed (which is half the delta V)

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
leg distance
Advanced Ion
or Early Fusion
400 km/s130 km/s75 million km
(1/2 AU)
0.01 g
Advanced Fusion10,000 km/s5000 km/s20 AU
0.44 g
c0.3 c350 AU
(x5 Pluto's orbit)
8 g !!!

These figures will be lower if time is consumed in FTL flight, maybe be only Terra-Luna distance

Propulsion system's thrust power is thrust times exhaust velocity, then divide by 2. To get the thrust, we know that thrust is ship mass times acceleration. The ship mass goes down as fuel is burnt. As a general rule for ship mass, figure that it only has 2/3rds of a propellant load. That is, multiply the total ship mass by 0.83. So our 120,000 metric ton ship would have a general rule mass of 120,000 * 0.83 = 100,000 metric tons (100,000,000 kilograms).

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
ThrustThrust power
Advanced Ion
or Early Fusion
400,000 m/s
(400 km/s)
0.108 m/s
(0.011 g)
1.08×107 N2.16×1012 W
(2 terawatts)
Advanced Fusion10,000,000 m/s
(10,000 km/s)
4.3 m/s
(0.44 g)
4.3×108 N2.15×1015 W
(2,000 terawatts)
3.0×108 m/s
76.5 m/s
7.65×109 N1.15×1018 W
(1 million terawatts)

Where does fuel come from and who does it get into the ship's fuel tanks? Easiest if it is obtained locally at the destination's solar system. The economics of interplanetary transport is same as interstellar (since we did a lot of work making interstellar a cheap as interplanetary).

if fuel from a gas giant at a distance comparable to Terra-Jupiter and round trip is to only take weeks, interplanetary tankers will need speeds of around 1000 km/s. So tankers will be almost as expensive as starships. If tankers use low speed (to make them cheaper), the round trip balloons to a year or more. To service the starship fleet's thirst for fuel, tankers will need to be huge or there will have to be a lot of them. Either way, fuel shipped from gas giants ain't gonna be cheap.

If we forgo interplanetary tankers and instead have starships make extra leg to the local gas giant to refuel, it will cost you more than you will save.

The alternative is shipping fuel up from destination planet. Yes, we know about how surface to orbit is "halfway to anywhere" in terms of delta V cost. But in order to colonize space at all, surface-to-orbit shipping cost will have to be cheap anyway. The industrialization of space will start with using space based resources, but eventually surface-to-orbit will have to be cheap or there is no rocketpunk future. Laser launch, Lofstrom loop, space elevator, something like that.

Assumption: surface-to-orbit shuttle economics are equivalent to current day airliner economics. Round trip to LEO and back is about two hours (not counting loading/unloading). With loading/unloading and maintenance, figure 4 flights a day. Implication is that a round trip passenger ticket is $250 and round trip freight service is $1000/ton (which is +10% added to interstellar transport costs)

Fuel is not round trip, it only goes from surface to orbit, but shuttles have to go orbit to surface in order to get the next load. You will have to streamline the process. High capacity pumps to minimize load/unload times, crew-less shuttle. You might be able to squeeze fuel lift cost to $500/ton. So if starships carry 1.5 tons of fuel per ton of cargo, surface-to-orbit fuel lift costs adds $750/ton to interstellar shipping cost.

So total surface-to-orbit overhead is $1000/ton + $750/ton = $1750/ton or 17.5%. This is an ouch but not a show-stopper.

Back to starships. How big are they?

Present-day maritime tonnage rule: 1 registered ton = ~3 cubic meters.

Assumption: 1 ton = 3 m3 applies to fuel and hull (e.g., crew quarters, engineering spaces, etc) as well as cargo. Therefore, if the absolutely hugest cargo starship in service has a cargo capacity of 40,000 tons (twice that of a large cargo starship), then:

Wet Mass
Payload mass to total mass ratio is 3. So wet mass is 3 * 40,000 = 120,000 tons
Starship Volume
1 ton of total ship mass = 3 m3 of volume. 120,000 * 3 = 360,000 cubic meters.

Volume of a sphere is 4/3πr3, so the radius of a sphere is 3√(v/(4/3π)) or

radius = CubeRoot( v / 4.189)

diameter = (CubeRoot( v / 4.189)) * 2

Assumption: a "cigar-shape" for a spacecraft is a six times as long as it is wide, with the proportions indicated in the diagram above. The center body is a cylinder 1 unit in diameter (0.5 units radius) and two units high. The two end caps are cones of 0.5 units radius and 2 units high.

If the monstrous cargo starship is spherical, it would have a diameter of 88 meters. If it is cigar shaped then length = 300 meters and diameter of 50 meters.

A 1500 ton cargo capacity tramp freighter would have a wet mass of 4500 tons and a volume of 13,500 m3. Spherical shape would have a diameter of 30 meters, cigar shaped length = 100 meters long and diameter of 17 meters.

Modular ships dimension would be similar but a bit larger due to being assembled out of component parts.


This is very difficult to estimate.

Since each crew has same berthing requirement as passengers, each crew represents one ton = $100,000/year in lost revenue capacity. Therefore crew will be kept as small as practical.

Operating crew: pilot-navigator and engineer for each watch. Plus life support specialist/medic, cargo-master, and captain. Total of nine. Small ships might squeeze this to four or five. Big ships might double up with assistants and trainees for 20 to 25.

Maintenance technicians will be needed. Ships are en route for a month or so at a time. Unlike aircraft, maintenance can't all be done during layovers. Time is money, you do not want to hold off departure because station tech has not finished some routine servicing. So techs will be carried to do maintenance during the flight. Assume (conservatively) 1 tech embarked per $100 million in construction cost (i.e., stuff to be maintained). So small ships will have a maintenance crew of seven or eight (total crew of ten or twelve). Largest ships in service might have total crews up to 250. Scut work (swabbing decks and peeling potatoes) will be done by junior crew. As has been the case since time began.

Hotel Staff: passenger-carrying ships will need crew for hotel-type services (stewards, chefs, etc.), but not if passengers are colonists (fend for yourselves, steerage scum!). Coach class could make do with one for every 10 passengers. First class would have one for every 2 or 3 passengers (and the ticket price would reflect this). If a typical ship has 1 percent of cargo given over to passengers, the required hotel staff could increase the crew by about a third. Naturally the hotel staff will be looked down upon by the operating and tech crew members. On a passenger ship the hotel staff will vastly outnumber the rest of the crew by some 30 to 1.

Orbital high ports

These are primarily starship ports and service bases, though they may have other functions.

With our current assumptions, at a given time 3/4ths of the ships are en route, the rest are in port. So at the stations of the dozen colony worlds there will be docked about 15 cargo ships. One or two would be large cargo ships. A cargo ship will arrive and depart about three times a day.

Orbit-to-surface traffic is heavy. If each shuttle can carry the load of a 747 jet, about 100 arrive and depart each day. If starship fuel is shuttled up from surface, some 150 daily tankers arrivals are needed as well (if 4 daily flights per shuttle, about 65 physical shuttles are needed).

This is for a typical station. The busiest station in the trade network might have twice the traffic volume.

At any one time we might expect to find 200 to 300 off-duty starship crew at a typical station (probably all in bars). Unlike airports, passenger traffic is small. 200 or so arrive and depart each day. Passenger shuttles will also carry station crew, ship's crew going sightseeing, so there will be a few daily passenger flights.

A station is a ship without a drive engine, so its capacities can be estimated the same way.

If 10% of the overall cost of the merchant fleet goes to support the stations (since the stations maintain the ships) then the stations taken together will have about a tenth of the fleet's deadweight mass, or 180,000 tons all told. A typical station would then have a mass of 15,000 tons, not counting cargo awaiting loading, fuel in storage tanks, etc. But stations are likely to grow by accretions over the years and become sprawling structures extending hundreds of meters in all directions.

Using same estimates for cargo ships, the maintenance crew of an average station would be about 150. However, stations provide the major ship maintenance, so they probably have about as many technicians altogether as the ships themselves do. They alone will multiply the station population by tenfold; support staff and miscellaneous services might double it again, so a typical station could have some 3000 workers. The largest stations might have two or three times as many.

Living quarters will be nearly as expensive ship quarters, but frequent shuttle fare also add up. The income from shuttle fare can be used to subsidize living quarters rent, so many people could live on board, even with families. Station could be a cosmopolitan orbiting town.

The entire space-faring population of the trade network, ship crews and stationers, come to well over 50,000, maybe as many as 100,000 (out of a total population on 12 colonies of some 120 million). The space economy as a whole however employs many times more. If the merchant marine industry accounts for 3% of the economy it will also employ 3% of the workforce, 2 million people. With a similar number employed in the import/export industries.


The expense of a trade-protection navy is an insurance premium charged against trade.

Assumption: the insurance premium to fund the navy is 10% of total value of trade.

Say the 12 colony network is a trade federation and the insurance premium for defense is 10% of total value of trade (this setup could just as well be one planet monopolizing trade, in which case the navy protects the franchise. We will call it a federation anyway). Half the value of trade goes to support the merchant fleet (the other half is initial purchase cost of shipped goods) therefore the cost of the war fleet will be about 1/5 of the merchant marine

Assumption: warships have the same relationship to cargo ships as cruisers do to ocean liners or jet bombers to airliners.

Instead of cargo, warships carry weapons, sensors, armor, more powerful engines, and greater fuel capacity. Ton for full-loaded ton they are more expensive than trade ships (maybe x2) but cost per deadweight ton is about the same since technology going into it is similar. (some present day warplanes have higher cost-to-mass ratio than jetliners. This is due partially to "gold-plating" of weapon systems and partial due to false economies such as small orders that reduce production efficiencies. We will assume that a navy funded by merchants will not allow such expensive stupidities)

Assumption: For first approximation, scale down merchant marine by factor of 5 to get war fleet.

  • 1 battlecruiser per 5 heavy freighters
  • 1 cruiser per 5 medium freighters
  • 1 corvette per 5 small freighters

This will give the following order of battle:

  • 15 battlecruisers
  • 60 cruisers
  • 80 corvettes

This may or may not be balanced, substitute as needed.

(ed note: for a discussion of what Rick Robinson means by those three ship classes see his analysis here)

Space navy combat starships will require auxiliary starships to support them: food supply ships, ammo and missile supply ships, repair ships, hospital ships, fuel ships, etc. So some of the cruisers and corvettes in the order of battle will have to be traded for auxiliaries of various kinds. Some civilian cargo ships can be requisitioned in wartime for auxiliary missions (such as tankers). Depending upon technology and threat level, it might be feasible to fit cargo ships with weapon pods instead of cargo and use them as armed merchant cruisers. And warships might be fitted with cargo pods to become very well-armed transports.

Assumption: a warship's deadweight mass is 1/3rd (0.33) of loaded mass (propellant always dominates a reaction-drive spaceship's mass). You could call the deadweight mass the Washington Treaty Mass.

Assumption: the following deadweight mass values in the following table.

Assumption: warships are always cigar shapes because Hollywood hates spheres

We have already assumed that purchase cost of a spacecraft is $1 million per ton of deadweight. We have also assumed that each ton of loaded mass equals 3 m3 of volume.

Result of assumptions:

Warship typeLoaded
Battlecruiser30,000 tons10,000 tons$10 billion90,000 m3200m × 30m
Cruiser7500 tons2500 tons$2.5 billion22,500 m3120m × 20m
Corvette2000 tons700 tons$700 million6000 m375m × 12.5m

Corvette are the length of a 747 or C-5 Galaxy but larger diameter. Very close to space shuttle in launch configuration. Since corvettes will have a surface landing module (for gunboat diplomacy) they may even look like space shuttle stack (with a big winged thing stuck on the side). Merchant express mail couriers might be a civilian version of courvette.

During peace time war fleet has lower operating tempo than merchant marine. May spend half their their time docked instead of the one-quarter that merchants do. This saves operating expenses. The savings allows greater procurement, so they are replaced and retired from active duty after 20 years instead of 30. Then they go into a mothballed reserve force for another 20 years, so reserve is the same size as active fleet. As with cargo ships, warships might undergo top-to-bottom overhauls and remain in service longer.

Crews are larger in proportion than for cargo ships. Operating crew will be augmented with offensive and defensive weapon controllers, scan/ECM, and communication/intelligence; larger ships will have in addition a command staff.

The maintenance technicians will be larger per unit cost because they have to repair battle damage, during or after the battle.

Of course there is no hotel staff.

Some warships will carry a landing force of marines or espatiers. Due to berthing cost and limited space (mass ratio of 2.0, remember?) there won't be many marines, but they will be highly trained (SEALS).

Warship typeCrew

Crew numbers will be higher if they have a landing strike team embarked

This is not a huge crew force. about 10,000 for the entire fleet, with probably a similar number on shore duty at any given time. Add in the marines and the total wearing uniforms is still no more than 25,000 to 30,000. Perhaps with a similar number of civilian employees.

Defense spending for running the fleet (by far the largest budget item) is a modest $72 billion, 0.6% of trade federation's combined GPP. In a prolonged major war this would expand greatly. But this is supported by trade. If the cost of trade protection (the insurance premium) approaches or even exceeds the value of trade itself, there will be a collapse of political support.

Operations in a trade war will be primarily in space. If large scale planetary landings are required, cargo ships can be pressed into service as troop transports. Light infantry is roughly equivalent to civil passengers: 1 ton equivalent cargo capacity per soldier. However heavier equipment, shuttles to carry troops/gear/provisions to surface, armed shuttles for close air support, will all be required. So for an invasion force, 3 ton equivalent cargo capacity per soldier, not counting the naval escort.

If 1/10th of the entire merchant marine is gathered as an invasion force it can transport and land 120,000 light troops, less if heavy equipment is required. But 120,000 troops is a pretty big force to invade a planet of 10 million people.

Middle-period Empire

Suppose instead of 12 worlds, the empire had a thousand worlds, each with a population of 100 million. Then all the above can be multiplied by a factor of over 800. Improved technology will increase size and number of ships. If typical ships is x3 in linear dimensions they will be x27 greater in mass, and fleet can have x30 as many of them.

Large cargo starships: if spherical 300m diameter, if cigar 1,000 km long. Cargo capacity 1 million tons. Full-load mass of 5 million tons each. Empire will have about 1000 ships of that size (and some larger). It will have 50,000 medium cargo ships with cargo capacity of 20,000 tons, and hundreds of thousands of smaller vessels.

Great hub-route stations will have population in the millions.

Navy battlecruisers will be 1 km long, full-load mass of 3 million tons. Build cost $1 trillion. Crew of 30,000. Empire will have 125 battlecruisers in the fleet. It will have thousands of cruisers with a full-load mass of 100,000 tons. Naval budget can be held down to $60 trillion.

Galactic Empire

100,000 worlds with average population of few billion each. The scale factor is another x3000. You can do the math yourself.

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