Atomic Rockets

Crew Quarters

Depending upon the mass limits and the whim of the spacecraft designer, the crew may not have rooms, just sleeping bunks stuck wherever there is some spare room, or to maintain ship balance. And their may not be enough bunks for the entire crew to sleep at once, forcing a "hot bunk" rotation system (i.e., pairs of crew members on different shifts will share a common bunk).

If the designer is feeling more merciful, they may upgrade the luxury to something resembling those "capsule motels" popular in Japan. The good news is that you have the privacy of a room. The bad news is that the "room" is only slightly larger than a coffin. If you are really lucky the coffin will include an emergency air supply.

Actually, "cabin" is somewhat of a misnomer for this crew quarter. Coffin or closet might be more appropriate, since this is approximately the size of the room. The cabin is intended to serve as a sleeping berth more than anything else, and though it is equipped with a complete computer terminal and minimal hygiene facilities, it is expected that the crew will spend most of their off-duty time in the small commons.

The cabin is intended for use both under acceleration and under micro-gravity. One side is a padded surface with built-in restraints, while the other walls have only a few cushions and pads to protect the occupant as he moves about.

Though the standard crew cabin does not have an independent life support system, it is reasonably airtight and can function as a short time emergency survival shelter (the exact length of time depending on the number of people jammed inside and the quality of the atmosphere.)

The Jovian Confederation ship books have spacecraft designs that are remarkably scientifically accurate and will repay careful study. The accuracy is due to precise oversight by Marc Vezina.

Most luxurious of all is a room actually big enough to turn around in. This is still going to be tiny. Bunks and tables will fold up against the wall, and one won't be able to fold down everything simultaneously. Do some research on accommodation found in wet Naval vessels. For enlisted men, the US Navy manages to cram twelve crewmen into 100 m3, or 8.3 m3 per man. On a sleeper railroad train, it is a more expansive 10 m3 per person, once you add in the diner, baggage and lounge cars (150 m3 per car, 4 passenger cars, 1 diner, 1 baggage, 1 lounge equals 1050 m3 for about 100 people).

Keeping a sense of rank having its privileges, it is very likely that the accommodations for the officers will be one step above that for the enlisted men. But you knew that already.

Again, keep in mind that his is just the personal living space for the crew, not the entire habitable volume of the spacecraft. In this NASA report (warning, 2 MB PDF file) it implies that for the entire habitable volume the bare minimum is about 17 m3 per crewperson.

Presently Thorby became sleepy. But, although he had mastered the gesture by which doors were opened, he still could not find any combination of swipes, scratches, punches, or other actions which would open the bed; he spent that night on the floorplates...

...She moved restlessly. "Thorby, would you mind if I sat in a chair? I don't bend as well as I used to."

Thorby blushed. "Ma'am . . . I have none. I am dis --"

"There's one right behind you. And another behind me." She stood up and touched the wall. A panel slid aside; an upholstered armchair unfolded from the space disclosed.

Seeing his face she said, "Didn't they show you?" and did the same on the other wall; another chair sprang out.

Thorby sat down cautiously, then let his weight relax into cushions as the chair felt him out and adjusted itself to him. A big grin spread over his face. "Gosh!"

"Do you know how to open your work table?"


"Good heavens, didn't they show you anything?"

"Well . . . there was a bed in here once. But I've lost it."

Doctor Mader muttered something, then said, "I might have known it. Thorby, I admire these Traders. I even like them. But they can be the most stiff-necked, self-centered, contrary, self-righteous, uncooperative -- but I should not criticize our hosts. Here." She reached out both hands, touched two spots on the wall and the disappearing bed swung down. With the chairs open, there remained hardly room for one person to stand. "I'd better close it. You saw what I did?"

"Let me try."

She showed Thorby other built-in facilities of what had seemed to be a bare cell: two chairs, a bed, clothes cupboards. Thorby learned that he owned, or at least had, two more work suits, two pairs of soft ship's shoes, and minor items, some of which were strange, bookshelf and spool racks (empty, except for the Laws of Sisu), a drinking fountain, a bed reading light, an intercom, a clock, a mirror, a room thermostat, and gadgets which were useless to him as his background included no need. "What's that?" he asked at last.

"That? Probably the microphone to the Chief Officer's cabin."

From CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein (1957)

Life Support Room

What's in the Life Support room? Controls for the atmosphere, temperature, drinking and washing water, recycling, environmental heat radiators, hydroponics (if any) and algae tanks (if any). There will also be controls to trigger countermeasures if the air pressure suddenly drops. And maybe a canary in a cage.

Life support will also be tasked with controlling obnoxious odors in the ship's atmosphere. They will have filters, perfumes, and negative ion emitters. The life support techs will also use equipment to track down the source of particularly bad smells, say Ordinary Spaceman Lister's unwashed sock bucket.

There's a fortune awaiting the man who invents a really good deodorizer for a spaceship. That's the one thing you can't fail to notice.

Oh, they try, I grant them that. The air goes through precipitators each time it is cycled; it is washed, it is perfumed, a precise fraction of ozone is added, and the new oxygen that is put in after the carbon dioxide is distilled out is as pure as a baby's mind; it has to be, for it is newly released as a by-product of the photosynthesis of living plants. That air is so pure that it really ought to be voted a medal by the Society for the Suppression of Evil Thoughts.

Besides that, a simply amazing amount of the crew's time is put into cleaning, polishing, washing, sterilizing - oh, they try!

But nevertheless, even a new, extra-fare luxury liner like the Tricorn simply reeks of human sweat and ancient sin, with undefinable overtones of organic decay and unfortunate accidents and matters best forgotten. Once I was with Daddy when a Martian tomb was being unsealed - and I found out why xenoarchaeologists always have gas masks handy. But a spaceship smells even worse than that tomb.

It does no good to complain to the purser. He'll listen with professional sympathy and send a crewman around to spray your stateroom with something which (I suspect) merely deadens your nose for a while. But his sympathy is not real, because the poor man simply cannot smell anything wrong himself. He has lived in ships for years; it is literally impossible for him to smell the unmistakable reek of a ship that has been lived in - and, besides, he knows that the air is pure; the ship's instruments show it. None of the professional spacers can smell it.

But the purser and all of them are quite used to having passengers complain about the "unbearable stench" - so they pretend sympathy and go through the motions of correcting the matter.

Not that I complained. I was looking forward to having this ship eating out of my hand, and you don't accomplish that sort of coup by becoming known first thing as a complainer. But other first-timers did, and I certainly understood why - in fact I began to have a glimmer of a doubt about my ambitions to become skipper of an explorer ship.

But - Well, in about two days it seemed to me that they had managed to clean up the ship quite a bit, and shortly thereafter I stopped thinking about it. I began to understand why the ship's crew can't smell the things the passengers complain about. Their nervous systems simply cancel out the old familiar stinks - like a cybernetic skywatch canceling out and ignoring any object whose predicted orbit has previously been programmed into the machine.

But the odor is still there. I suspect that it sinks right into polished metal and can never be removed, short of scrapping the ship and melting it down. Thank goodness the human nervous system is endlessly adaptable.

From Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein

Cargo Hold

What's in the cargo hold? A huge cargo bay door. Perhaps an extendable cargo crane or ramp to facilitate loading. Decks painted with guide-lines to regularize the placement of cargo canisters. Lighting fixtures inset and armored to protect them from clumsy cargo handling. Lots of tie-down attachment points to immobilize the cargo (if the cargo shifts during thrust the rocket will tumble). Hoists in the ceiling. There will be an office for the cargo master, said office might be the "quarterdeck" when the ship is planeted. If so, the office might have repeaters for the critical system monitors, for use by the watch officer.

Also keep in mind that some propulsion systems are radioactive. You might have to arrange things so that the unloaded cargo does not arrive too close to the engines. Possible solutions include a ramp, a small cable tramway like a ski lift, or an arm like on the SF spacecraft SPIP.

Remember that the ship has to be balanced around the axis of thrust or again the ship will tumble when thrust is applied. Cargo will have to be stowed in a balanced manner, and logged in a mass distribution schedule (sometimes called a "Center-of-mass and moment-of-inertia" chart). The same care has to be taken when removing part of the cargo as well.

There may also be a "ship's locker". This may be an actual locker or as large as a small cargo hold. It contains all the small stores and supplies the ship needs for day-to-day operations. Medical supplies, survival gear, small-arms locker, and the "slop chest". The slop chest contains convenience items and consumables for the crew. The ship's purser sells slop chest items to the crew at cost or charged to the crewmember's unpaid salary. Such items include spare uniforms, junk food, toiletries, games, educational textbooks, and novels.

As previously mentioned, present-day cargo ships are rated in "Net register tonnage", where each "ton" actually indicates 100 cubic feet of volume (2.83 cubic meters). The average cargo they carry has a density of 350 kg/m3. If the cargo has a wildly different density, some math will be needed, but for most cargo the net tonnage gives a good idea of the ship's cargo capacity. In practice, while filling the cargo hold it will either "mass-out" or "bulk-out", depending on which it runs out of first: lifting capacity or cargo space. In MANNA by Lee Correy (AKA G. Harry Stine) a surface-to-orbit shuttle bulked-out because it was carrying a cargo of fluffy non-dense cotton underwear. While the shuttle could have theoretically lifted more cargo mass, there wasn't any more room in the cargo hold.

In international shipping, a standard cargo container is 33 cubic meters and can have a maximum mass of 24 metric tons (2.2 tons of container and up to 21.8 tons of cargo). An extra large cargo container is 67.5 cubic meters with a max mass of 30.5 metric tons (3.8 ton container with up to 26.7 tons cargo). Thanks to Karl Hauber for pointing out an error in the the old figures posted here.

In many SF novels, in addition to the cargo bay there will also be a safe to lock up small but valuable cargo items. This is generally in the Captain's office. And for customs officials, there may be official "seals" put on the openings of individual cargo crates or even on the hatches to the entire cargo bay. Such seals cannot be removed without destroying them, ensuring that nobody has tampered with the cargo or concealed any contraband.


What's in the sickbay? What you'd expect: medical supplies, diagnostic equipment, maybe a sick bed or two, maybe a suspended animation cryo-freeze to put a seriously ill or injured crewperson on ice until the ship can make it to port. It might have the luxury of a surgical bed, or the doctor might have to make do with a table in the mess deck. (This is why there is a tradition on military ships for off-duty personnel removing their headgear while on the mess deck. It is a sign of respect for the crewmembers who have in the past, or may in the future, suffer and die there.) During combat, the mess deck become the emergency triage/operating room. On a military ship, the sick bay may have its own separate life support system.

Unlike the other officers' cabins, which were fitted with more sophisticated equipment occupying much less space, Mercer's did not give much room for him to move. From the entry lock, the floor grill stretched ten feet to the curved plastic canopy that ran from below his feet to what was nominally the ceiling and gave, in the ship's present mode, a one hundred and eighty degree view of the inside of the outer hull, complete with structural members and brightly colored cable runs. The floor grill, which was just under three feet wide, separated two vertical tiers of bunks, eight on one side and five on the other. This was because the lowest one of the five was Mercer's, and he, being the doctor, needed much more than the twelve inches which divided patients' bunks.

A passenger unfortunate enough to come down with an infectious disease could be isolated from the living quarters and other patients, because the bunks were each fitted with an individual air supply and a hinged flap which sealed in the patient. Mercer did not suffer from claustrophobia, but he thought that any patient needing to spend more than a few days in one of those bunks would have to be kept under heavy sedation if he wasn't to blow his organic computer.

From Lifeboat by James White (1972)

Contents of NASA's Shuttle first aid medical kit (see right):

  1. bag
  2. blood-pressure cuff
  3. sterile drape
  4. flashlight
  5. disposable oral thermometers
  6. tongue depressors
  7. insertable airway
  8. cotton balls
  9. tourniquet
  10. Foley catheter (you don't want to know)
  11. sterile gloves
  12. fluorescein strips
  13. otoscope and ophthalmoscope heads
  14. stethoscope
  15. lubricant jelly

Damage Control

Damage control facilities are generally only found on military vessels. One room will be Damage Control Central (DCC), often near or in the engineering section. This is where the Damage Control Officer coordinates the damage control parties. Generally you want the DCC to be in the section of the ship that is hardest to damage (actually, the second hardest spot to damage. The hardest spot should be occupied by the bridge/CIC).

There may be small damage control lockers sited at strategic locations throughout the ship. Locker contents may include hull patches, emergency power cables (i.e., glorified extension cords), short range radios, testing and sensing instruments, portable emergency power generators, fuses, fire extinguishers and tools. Lockers near the reactor or drive will also include geiger counters or other radiation detection and monitoring gear. The detectors will be mounted on long telescoping rods, so one can poke the detector around a corner or near a suspicious breach without exposing oneself. On wet-navy ships there is a special damage-control deck, which is the lowest deck with longitudinal breaks in the watertight bulkheads. This allows quick access to all parts of the ship. However, since our ships are tail-landers instead of belly-landers, in place of a damage-control deck might be one or more special ladderways running along the core of the spacecraft.

Christopher Weuve says that a merchant ship's primary piece of damage control equipment is a lifeboat.

A standard DCL is little more than a roomy closet. Each contains a full set of tools, power cutters and fire fighting equipment, plus a complete database of that particular area of the ship. A dedicated expert system is on hand to monitor the team's progress and inform them of the nature of the problem (if known) or the characteristics and schematics of the problem area.

The Jovian Confederation ship books have spacecraft designs that are remarkably scientifically accurate and will repay careful study. The accuracy is due to precise oversight by Marc Vezina.