Mess Deck

An army marches on its stomach, and a nothing can raise the morale of a tramp freighter spacecraft quite like the prospect of a tasty hot meal in the mess deck. The flip side is that disgusting food can really drag down morale. And for a ship full of highly skilled crew heading for a multi-year mission into the wilderness, gourmet food can offset many hardships endured.

Unfortunately if the ship is stuck with a closed ecological life support system, the crew will face a monotonous menu. At best it will be fresh vegetables with vat grown meat. At worst it will be algae and yeast. In between will be fresh insects. The cook better take along a hydroponic herb garden, to disguise the meals (there is a practical reason spices used to be worth their weight in gold).

As you probably know already, the chief mess officer traditionally has the nickname "Cookie".

And besides food, the mess deck must have coffee, and plenty of it. Or some other stimulant drink. And the coffee urns should have some coffee in them all day long. As a general rule the coffee served tastes awful, since the volume required and lack of motivation on the part of the mess crew lead them to skimp on keeping the coffee brewers properly cleaned. A first officer with an eye towards improving morale might want to encourage the gallery personnel in charge of coffee to GET YOUR FRAGGING BUNS IN GEAR AND KEEP THOSE BLASTED COFFEE URNS SPOTLESS!

The kitchen or galley will have to be specially designed, because it will have to be compact and be able to safely cook in free-fall. Hot grease globs or even entire pots of boiling water flying in zero g can cause severe burns to the kitchen crew.

NASA ships and space station do not have this problem. All their food comes pre-packaged, just heat and serve. Kind of like eating a steady diet of frozen TV dinners. To minimize the danger of burns the maximum temperature of the oven is a tepid 77° C (170° F) and the hot water injector won't go above 74° C. This also ensures that the food is equally tepid.


(ed note: a useful analogy for a spacecraft kitchen is the cooking area on a sailing ship. Because spacecraft crew are also terrified of setting their ship on fire)

Cooking facilities at sea were primitive at best. Often a ship had nothing more than a metal box full of sand, in which the cook could light a fire and heat preserved food. In rough weather, the fire needed to be put out, and men ate raw, salted beef.

A more sophisticated arrangement was to hang an iron stove from the beams above on chains. This allowed the cooking surface to remain level in rougher seas and provided greater protection from fire. But it also took up a lot of space, because the hot stove must not touch the walls, even when the boat was pitching wildly. Only large vessels could manage such luxuries.

The floor of the galley (ship’s kitchen) was often lined with sheets of tin, to prevent hot coals from setting the ship on fire. Also, the galley was usually located toward the rear of the ship, generally a more stable area. Still, the galley was not large, and equipment was usually only a few pots, wooden or iron ladles and spoons, and a few wooden trays. It’s no surprise that ship’s food was often simple and monotonous.

From PIRATE FOOD by TS Rhodes (2013)

In some ways the mess deck is the "heart" of the spacecraft, in the sense that it is the focus of interpersonal interaction. This is where the crew hangs out and relaxes, where gossip is exchanged, where people go get a cup of coffee and talk things over. It is probably the largest room in the habitat module. Sometimes there are separate mess decks for officers and enlisted men.

Given the cramped nature of a spacecraft hab module, it might have to do double duty. Often it will be used for an auditorium if the captain has to address the crew.

And sadly as emergency triage/operating room, especially on a military spacecraft. As mentioned in the Sickbay section, 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 crew members who have in the past, or may in the future, suffer and die there.


      There was no space to spare in space. Every cubic centimeter inside the hull must work. Yet persons intelligent and sensitive enough to adventure out here would have gone crazy in a “functional” environment. Thus far the bulkheads were bare metal and plastic. But the artistically talented had plans. Reymont noticed Emma Glassgold, molecular biologist, in a corridor, sketching out a mural that would show forest around a sunlit lake. And from the start, the residential and recreational decks were covered with a material green and springy as grass.

     The air gusting from the ventilators was more than purified by the plants of the hydroponic section and the colloids of the Darrell balancer. It went through changes of temperature, ionization, odor. At present it smelted like fresh clover — with an appetizing whiff added if you passed the galley, since gourmet food compensates for many deprivations.

From TAU ZERO by Poul Anderson (1970)

In the galley the girls set about making dainty sandwiches, but the going was very hard indeed. Margaret was particularly inept. Slices of bread went one way, bits of butter another, ham and sausage in several others. She seized two trays and tried to trap the escaping food between them — but in the attempt she released her hold and floated helplessly into the air.

'Oh, Dot, what'll we do anyway?' she wailed. 'Everything wants to fly all over the place!'

'I don't quite know — I wish we had a bird-cage, so we could reach in and grab anything before it could escape. We'd better tie everything down, I guess, and let everybody come in and cut off a chunk of anything they want. But what I'm wondering about is drinking. I'm simply dying of thirst and I'm afraid to open this bottle.' She had a bottle of ginger ale clutched in her left hand, an opener in her right; one leg was hooked around a vertical rail. 'I'm afraid it'll go into a million drops and Dick says if you breathe them in you're apt to choke to death.'

'Seaton was right — as usual.' Dorothy whirled around. DuQuesne was surveying the room, a glint of amusement in his one sound eye. 'I wouldn't recommend playing with charged drinks while weightless. Just a minute — I'll get the net.'

He got it; and while he was deftly clearing the air of floating items of food he went on. 'Charged stuff could be murderous unless you're wearing a mask. Plain liquids you can drink through a straw after you learn how. Your swallowing has got to be conscious, and all muscular with no gravity. But what I came here for was to tell you I'm ready to put on one G of acceleration so we'll have normal gravity. I'll put it on easy, but watch it'

'What a heavenly relief!' Margaret cried, when everything again stayed put. 'I never thought I'd ever be grateful for just being able to stand still in one place, did you?'

From THE SKYLARK OF SPACE by E. E. "Doc" Smith (1928)
Cooks in Spaaaaace!

(ed note: the topic is cooking in microgravity in a military spacecraft with a large crew)

Kirk Spencer:

First, I think it necessary to break "cooking" into three large groupings each with several components. The three large groupings are food preparation (cutting and measuring), food assembly (mixing and [sometimes] application of heat), food service (to the table, to the mouth, and after-meal cleanup).

In all these there are two broad difficulties — outgrowths of the same disadvantage. The first is holding the main product in place. The second is capturing and effectively disposing of 'flyaway' waste. As a specific example there's John's chopping station. If I'm chopping an onion, I start by lopping the end(s) and peeling it — and I've got to capture those fly-away papers. I then secure it to the cutting board with my hand as I halve, preslice, and chop it. Upon chopping, the onion dices need to stay in one place and not end up in the waste (or my eyes or throat or ear).

Food prep. chopping. This one's easy. Yes, the cover's a good idea, but I'm not fond of it — largely because an effective cutter gets in the way of holding the knife. Here's my proposal. First, a means of fixing the feet — of bracing for the upcoming knife operations. It can be velcro, stirrups, or hexagonal twist-n-lock pegs on the 'shoes'. Second, a strong vacuum. I use good pre-cook principles, peeling/cleaning "here" and chopping "there". Vacuum one pulls the waste to the "trash". Vacuum two pulls what I chop against a fine seive that holds what I've chopped. A bonus of this last is that it is something I'd actually like groundside — when chopping a large quantity of onions/celery/etc sometimes the previously chopped stuff can get in the way, necessitating pushing it aside.

Food prep, liquids. Also suprisingly easy. I picture most measurements being made and transferred with syringes — needles being optional depending on the connection to the bowl. What I mean by that is that there are a couple of options there: a membrane (single-use such as plastic wrap is today) or permanent. Both have advantages, and I expect to see both. For water-type liquids (vinegars, soy sauce, etc) a large and short needle would work fine. For thicker liquids (honey, molasses, etc) a spot where the syringe is pressed and twisted to lock that contains a one-way hatch is more likely. As an aside, I anticipate bottles containing these liquids to have a means of assisting transfer from bottle to measuring syringe, be that being collapsable or having an expandable balloon or whatever.

Cooking, mixing. Now we're into the fun zone. There are a lot of ways of combining the ingredients, and which you use frequently matters. Your device must reach all areas of the bowl. While slow mixing can probably be done without imparting enough force to throw part of all the item out of the bowl, vigorous mixing (whipping meringue for example, or even beating eggs) has the potential to be... messy. My favorite for hand mixing is odd. Basically, stick the substance into a strong ziplock bag and knead. For the heavy mixing, however, a specialized device is going to be required. Simply putting a lid on a stand mixer won't work as a lot of substances tend to climb the paddle or whip due to surface tension. For beating eggs and similar mixing of very liquid mixes something similar to a martini shaker can be used — two locking metal cups with a set of coarse blades and/or tines within, with the subsequent shaking running the fluid across them in rapid fashion. It's possible this would work for whipping as well, though I'm less sanguine. But for mixing heavy batters or breads, I suspect we'll see modified kitchen devices married to either or both of centrifuges and glove-boxes.

One interesting obstacle at this point is moving the material from one container to another. That is, from cutting board and mixing bowl to cooking pan. With a 0.1G field it's doable — don't rush, and have braces so you can scrape and direct the globules effectively. Still, there's the pleasure of catching the strays. And in zero G it gets more fun yet.

Cooking — applying heat is the easiest. There's really only one problem and it applies in all cases: As you apply heat, the material's going to eject water in the form of steam. While I agree that deep-frying (and boiling) will have difficulties, I'm not going to say they're impossible. Heck, I can think of a system for the deep frying that'd work at containing the hot oil — think airlock. For the drain portion, think salad spinner. I'll say again that it amounts to "not fun", but then after years of dealing with hot oil I think that anyway — deep frying is one of my least favorite ways to cook. That said, pan frying is potentially more difficult. Surface tension will help as will the start of the Maillard Reaction for proteins, but the fun comes in coping with spraying waters/oils, especially during the "flip". Baking... depends. Breads of various types are likely to be spheres. Cookies and tortillas and pitas and other things that must be flat to do well are something else again. Again, I can see pre-flattening plus some reliance on surface tension helping.

Know what? I'm going to stop there. I hate serving even though it's actually a critical part. But almost everything we know about plating goes out the window when your plate has to be a goldfish bowl instead — and nothing is likely to stay in place while moved from kitchen to table. Instead, I'm going to note the types of cooking I see dominating "cooking in space".

Skewers comes to mind as number one. Several cultures provide the concept. You've a dish — common or individual — with several ingredients. You spear your whatever, and put it into a heat source. Fondues and shabu-shabu are unlikely for the most part (though not impossible), so this is more like kebabs and campfire roasts.

Secondly, I see soups contained in collapsible bowls. They can be cooked in yet another such, then each is served not by ladeling but by 'lock and squeeze'. For classics such as wonton soup the nuggets can be added before the lock is attached to the bowl, though the difficulty of coping with large solid AND liquid would tend to make such dishes expensive or uncommon.

Third, I see a lot of baking. Coping with "rising" is going to be tricky but far from impossible — in fact, some of the doughs I make would work well on skewers as at 0.1G they'd set before dripping off onto the oven sides and base. Again, flats such as cookies that rely on gravity to spread them in the midst of the rise are unlikely. On the other hand, consider the chocolate chip nugget... Pate Choux will be a pain, but the principle works well for a host of things that could probably be made to work in low to zero gravity.

John Reiher:

Food prep, chopping: You don't use a knife to chop the food, you use a mandolin that incorporates an enclosed box. Everything sliced goes into the box. You can shred, julienne, waffle cut, and even chop using a mandolin. Of course not everyone is comfortable using a mandolin for chopping. So what you can do is slice the food into the thickness you want with the mandolin, and then break out your dicer. In fact your dicer is probably part of your mandolin box, so it just becomes a switch of plates and now you can safely chop that potato into uniform cubes. No need for anything fancy and no need for fancy knife work. Your food chopper does all the work for you.

Cooking: All those methods sound great, but I cringe at the thought of a large volume of hot oil in a tank. Instead, I'd rather have a centrifugal wok to cook with. The wok bowl would have a curved lip at edge of the bowl who's main purpose in life would be to keep the oil from coming out. But it's not like we're going to spin the bowl at 40 rpm. No, we're going to spin it at about two or three rpm.

The main assumption here is that the ship is under 0.1G acceleration. The rotation isn't to add 1G to the cooking process, but to cause the little bit of oil you add, as well as the food you want to cook, to the wok to stick to the sides of the wok as it spins.

The wok is heated through induction coils around its base. It's heated to around 260°C/500°F. This will cook the food very fast in basically 3 to 4 tablespoons of oil. The coils are only turned on when your cooking, so the wok will cool down fairly quickly.

Depending on the size of the wok, you'll cook three to four servings at a time, scooping it up with a set of metal tongs, with one tong a spatula like affair and the other tong a basket to hold the scooped up food with. The basket will probably be a loose wire mesh, so the oil will drain out easily. Pop it into the serving vessel and repeat.

Hygiene and cleaning: You want to keep cross contamination to a minimum. If you handle any type of raw meat, either wear gloves or sanitize your hands. This includes switching between different types of raw meat. Touch raw chicken, sanitize your hands before touching raw pork.

And like a good kosher household, you'll have your raw meat handling utensils and your vegetable handling materials. I would suggest coloring them red and green respectively and never mix them.

If at all possible, get food handling equipment that's easy to clean. If it has odd lips and crevices, getting that odd bit of food out of there will be nigh impossible unless you use lots of water and elbow grease.

So now we talk about cleaning. Every bit of equipment in your space kitchen has to be easy to disassemble, clean, and sanitized to within an inch of it's life. And everything is made out of metal. Not plastic. Scratch plastic and food or bacteria will get into those scratches and never leave.

This is the main problem with "food printers". You either use fairly toxic chemicals to clean every nozzle, pipe, line, auger, and container, or you use expensive "disposable" cassettes for the printer. And it all should be made of metal, except for the flexible lines, which might be cheaper to throw away after each use and replace with new, because they are a regulation female canine to clean properly.

This all boils down to one simple rule: If in doubt, wash it. If you're still unsure, sanitize it. And if you're really unsure, throw it away and get a new one.

From a thread in sfconsim-l

"Y'know," Panyovsky says. "Sometimes I think the real captain of this ship is Cookie. Other times, I know it." He cracks open the pack, begins pouring ketchup over the eggs.

"The whole galley is an anachronism," says Korie, "I'd give a nickel for an honest 'mat unit."

"Well, this is a second-generation cruiser," explains the other. "And they weren't building them that way then. They thought that with artificial gravity, they could get away from the free-fall packs and return to a more traditional kind of food preparation—allowing, of course, for all the modern technical advances that have since come to the art and science of cooking." He cocks an eye at Korie. "So you see, my friend, what we have is something that is neither this nor that—but a little bit of each. We have a cook—whose main duty is to flash plastipaks (i.e., microwave a frozen TV dinner). However," he adds thoughtfully, "I will admit his shish kebab isn't bad." He shovels a forkful of ketchup-covered eggs into his mouth,

"Besides," Panyovsky adds, "there are certain advantages to having a cook instead of a 'mat unit. For one thing you have more flexibility in your choice of meals. Look, no matter what kind of a galley you've got, the food is kept in stasis boxes and flashed by microwave. All you've got with a 'mat unit is portion control; big deal, nobody complains about getting more or less than anybody else—but on the other hand, there's no second helpings. At least not without heating up a whole new pack. Now, with a cook, you know there's always something cooking, and you have the back-stop of the plastipaks anyway."

From YESTERDAY'S CHILDREN by David Gerrold

Finally, he introduced me to my immediate boss, Specialist First Chef Ralf al-M'liki, a small, wiry guy with black hair and flashing eyes.

We were on the mess deck. After brief introductions he walked me over to three twenty-liter coffee urns that gleamed atop a counter prominently mounted near the center of the mess deck. I'd never seen anything like them and I must admit I felt intimidated. They gleamed in polished copper and stainless steel and had built-in plumbing to serve each one. The fact that my new boss spoke of them with a kind of solemn reverence didn't help matters.

"These urns provide the life's blood of the ship," he explained. "The whole crew worship at this shrine to caffeine." The chef took a heavy mug from the rack, filled it from the valve at the base of the middle urn, and handed it to me. "What do you think, young Ishmael?"

I peered into the cup. A rainbow sheen floated on the oily sludge in the pristine white china. A burned, musty smell wafted up. An irreverent thought about burnt offerings drifted through my head but I had the good sense not to say anything about that. I took a tentative sip. It was better than it looked, even black. "Not bad, Mr. al-M'liki, but I think it could be improved."

He smiled. His shocking white teeth flashing against his olive skin. "Just call me Cookie, that's what everyone else does." He pointed to the urn on the near end of the counter. "Alright Mr. Wang, let's see what you've got. Use that pot. Do whatever you must to make me coffee to die for," he said before retreating to the galley.

(Pip said) "Don't you think you're taking a hell of a risk being critical on your first day?"

I smiled. "I may be a greenie on the ship, but when it comes to coffee, I'm an expert. Even making it twenty liters at a time can't change that."

With a kind of focused detachment, I rolled up my sleeves and started in. First, I dragged over the stepstool, clambered up on the counter, and examined the container. Sure enough, a dark and peeling film coated the inside. A quick investigation showed the plumbing included both hot and cold feeds, and worse, lukewarm water filled the reservoir.

Nodding to myself, I clambered down, dragging the filter cone with me. I took it into the main galley and scrubbed it in the deep sink with a stiff brush and a mixture of hot water and white vinegar until it gleamed. I returned to the mess with a liter of vinegar and poured it into the urn. Cookie pretended not to watch, so I pretended not to notice, but I caught him glancing at me out of the corner of his eye.

Pip, however, rubbernecked with a red face and eyes bulging in alarm. "What are you doing? Good gods, man, do you know what it'll taste like if you use that?"

"I'm not making coffee with it." I clambered back up on the counter with my scrub brush. "I'm going to use it to scour the sludge out of this urn."

It took quite a while. I had to ask Cookie for a wrench and a bottlebrush and he showed me where to find them without comment. I took the level indicator tube off the front and scrubbed it as well. After more than a stan I finally got it sparkling inside and out to my satisfaction. I gave it a final rinse with scalding water and then shut off the hot water valve and cranked the cold tap all the way open.

Pip showed me where to find the supplies. The high quality paper filters fit the cone perfectly. The coffee, on the other hand, was another matter. When I popped the lid off the air-tight, I found some pathetic crud masquerading as coffee. I dumped it into the waste disposer, and dusted out the air-tight with a towel.

"This is too stale to brew properly. Where are the beans and grinder?"

Pip just blinked at me. "Beans? Grinder? We just put two scoops from the air-tight in the filter and let 'er rip."

"Who stocks the container?"


I sighed and searched for my new boss. He smiled an odd little grin at my request and showed me where to find the beans, in vacuum sealed buckets stenciled with Djartmo Arabasti, and a Schmidt Coffee Mill that looked large enough to grind a whole bucket at a time. I pulled up the calculator function on my tablet.

Pip, who had followed me, gaped openly. "What are you doing? This is crazy!"

"I can't make anything worth drinking with that stuff." I concentrated on my measurements and my math. "This is going to be rough until I figure out the right combinations, but it takes from seven to fourteen grams per cup and there are about seven cups per liter. Based on that sample Cookie gave me, I should make a strong batch. So, I need about a hundred grams of coffee per liter. That urn is twenty liters but I'm only going to make a half pot, so I need about a kilo," I concluded, looking up from my calculations. "We'll see how well that works and then I can adjust the grind or the amount next time around."

I weighed out the beans into the empty air-tight and used a small brush clipped to the hopper to clear out the discharge chute. The unmarked grind scale didn't provide much information, so I just set the dial in the middle hoping for a medium grind and trusted the Schmidt. I dumped a tub of beans into the hopper and I carefully collected the ground remains as it spilled from the chute. I rubbed them between my fingers and brought the grinds to my nose. It looked good, had a nice texture, and a pleasant scent. I sifted the calculated amount into the filter and went back out to the mess. I watched the fill indicator carefully until I had exactly ten liters in the reservoir, then I scooped a bit of the cold water in a mug and used it to wet the grounds before locking down the lid and punching the brew button. While it dripped, I went back to clean up the grinder and put away the beans.

By the time I finished in the galley, the coffee was almost done. I noted the color in the level indicator, knowing it would appear weaker than it actually was. When the ready light came on, I pulled a fresh mug from the rack and poured it about half full.

Looking in, I saw a beautiful, rich brown brew without any hint of rainbow or oil on the surface. A satisfying aroma steamed out of the mouth of the mug. I took the brew to Cookie and offered it to him without a word. He tilted the cup and examined the color. He pushed his nose below the brim and inhaled deeply as a smile began to form. He took a slurping sip and then a deeper swallow, his eyes closed in concentration. Pip fidgeted beside me, but I waited patiently for Cookie's assessment.

He spoke without opening his eyes. "So, young Ishmael, is this the best you can do?"

Pip inhaled sharply in alarm, but I thought I knew Cookie's game at this point. "I don't know. It might be. There are just too many variables for me to know for sure."

His eyes snapped open and he peered at me, hawkishly. "Such as?"

"Mainly, I need to determine the correct brewing time. If the pot brews too fast, the grind needs to be finer. That's going to depend somewhat on the grav settings. I'm assuming we'll keep this general level of gravity all the time, or at least while we're making coffee. Then, I need to know more about the beans themselves. How fresh are they? How are they stored? What are the characteristics of this particular bean? Last, I need to know the crew's preferences." I ended with a smile. "Judging from the sample you gave me, they like it strong, dark, bitter, and oily. I prefer to skip the bitter and oily part but we must always consider the tastes of the drinker when brewing a perfect cup of coffee."

"Pip," Cookie crowed. "You could learn from this one." He patted me on the shoulder.

Cookie had it down to a science. While Pip certainly had been through it before, I marveled at Cookie's expertise.

"We run a restaurant, gentlemen," he reminded us regularly. "The customers don't have any other choice, but we owe them our best just the same."


All spaceships are equipped with a galley of some kind. The Lennox is no different, though its galley is somewhat small and primitive given the size of the crew. The small room features a pantry, oven, dishwasher — all greatly automated — and full running water, both hot and cold. The water is dispensed through spigots that can fit standard drink bulbs. Though a set of tiny foldable tables is available in the center of the room, meals are generally eaten in the commons with the rest of the crew.

Each crew member is responsible for his own cooking and cleaning up, though it is not unusual for one person to be designated cook for a day, with a duty rotation schedule. Meals can be put together in minutes by selecting food packets and placing them in the oven. More elaborate fare can be prepared from onboard stores, but doing so in micro-gravity is generally more trouble than it is worth. The galley is equipped with additional air circulation fans to catch any airborne crumbs, and it is not unusual to find small items stuck in the filters.

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 (1963)

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.

The cargo master may or may not also be the same person as the "load-master". The latter's job is to ensure the mass of the cargo is evenly distributed around the axis of the spacecraft. Otherwise the unbalanced cargo will shift the spacecraft's center of gravity, the ship will tumble, and everybody will die.

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.

Now, I have ranted about how a spacecraft should be arranged more like a skyscraper rather than a passenger aircraft. The exception is if the main function of the spacecraft is carrying cargo. A skyscraper arrangement makes loading the cargo hold a nightmare. For a cargo spacecraft, it makes more sense to design it as a belly lander.

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.

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 cargo container terminology, the tare weight is the mass of the empty container. The gross weight is the mass of the loaded container. Subtract the tare weight from the gross weight and you will have the net weight: the mass of the goods being carried in the container.

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.

There also might be an embargo locker. If the ship is carrying anything that is considered contraband at a given spaceport, such items can be sealed into the embargo locker by the spaceport custom officials for the duration of the stay.

And never forget that cargo loading is the main way that vermin sneak into a ship.


      Two days out of Dunsany Roads the captain passed the word about customs inspection. Because Dunsany was a Confederation system and not corporately owned, we had to go through an inspection exercise with the local authorities before we could leave the ship. A section in the back of the Handbook explained customs declarations and the kind of goods we were prohibited from taking into Confederation ports.
     Pip and I sat on the mess deck after lunch and I asked, “What do you do if you have something that’s prohibited? It’s kinda late at this point to get rid of it.”
     “There’s an embargo locker down in main cargo. We put anything we don’t want to be considered in the inspection in there before we dock. The customs people put a tell-tale on the locker so that they know if it’s opened while we’re docked. Anything in there stays put and that’s all they care about. Cargo manifests are easy to check and track and they just lock the prohibited cargo canisters to the ship. We can’t leave without them.”
     “Will they search the ship?”
     Pip chuckled. “I doubt it. It would take forever. Commercial carriers generally operate on the honor system. They make it easy for us to comply with their rules and regs and so we do it. Occasionally you hear of some small indie captain trying to smuggle stuff into a Confederation port, but it’s really not worth it.”
     “Ishmael?” He looked at me, a frown wrinkling his brow. “We’ve just traveled through five other systems where anything you wanted to sell was legal. Why take the risk on smuggling when you can sell it legitimately in the next system over?”
     “Oh,” I said.

From HALF SHARE by Nathan Lowell (2010)

Ships Locker and Slop Chest

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". In between voyages, the purser replenishes the ship's locker at the spaceport chandlery. And as the ship gets older, stuff will accumulate.

These were common in the role playing game Traveller. Every adventurer's starship had a ship's locker stuffed full of useful equipment. Many Traveller magazines would have a monthly column called "ship's locker" with suggestions of cool stuff to stock.

Occasionally it will have three sections: General, Utility, and Repair.

  • General: common items like medical supplies, space suits, arms locker and ammo, and bulk items
  • Utility: cleaning supplies, office supplies, curios and sundries
  • Repair: mission-critical spare parts, and routine maintenance parts (lubricants, filters, minor parts)

Sometimes Traveller starships will have a locker full of random stuff that has no obvious use (at the moment) but is too valuable to throw away. This is sometimes called a "hope chest". There could be all sorts of old amusing items lurking in the hope chest, forgotten but waiting. Especially if the chest is part of a second-hand starship purchased "as is".

Be careful when you open the locker door, the blasted thing is tantamount to Fibber McGee's Closet.

The Ship's Locker is the storage area that just ... collects stuff. Stuff that a crew member thinks might be useful. Someday. Maybe. Stuff that nobody can think of a use for, but which can't be totally useless. Stuff that nobody quite remembers what they were thinking when they bought it. Stuff that used to be useful, but is broken now, and was just tossed in the Locker until someone remembers to clean the Locker out and toss out all that junk. Stuff.

Note: The really, definitely useful stuff that's kept properly stocked for repairs and maintenance is kept in other lockers — the engineering locker, the avionics locker, the EVA locker, the bridge locker, and so on. Those lockers might collect stuff, too, but not as much, and not nearly as eclectic a collection. The Ship's Locker is for all the rest of the stuff.

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. In between voyages, the purser replenishes the slop chest at the spaceport chandlery.

Here is an interesting list of slop chest items for US wet-navy ships in 1942, with prices.




The following provision of the Navigation Laws of the United States (46 U.S.C. 670-671) is quoted:

"Every vessel mentioned in section forty-five hundred and sixty-nine of the Revised Statutes shall also be provided with a slop chest, which shall contain a complement of clothing for the intended voyage for each seaman employed, including boots or shoes, hats or caps, under clothing and outer clothing, oiled clothing, and everything necessary for the wear of a seaman; also a full supply of tobacco and blankets.

Any of the contents of the slop chest shall be sold, from time to time, to any or every seaman applying therefor, for his own use, at a profit not exceeding 10 per centum of the reasonable wholesale value of the same at the port at which the voyage commenced.

And if any such vessel is not provided, before sailing, as herein required, the owner shall be liable to a penalty of not more than $500. The provisions of this section shall not apply to vessels plying between the United States and the Dominion of Canada, Newfoundland, the Bermuda Islands, the Bahama Islands, the West Indies, Mexico, and, Central America.

Pursuant thereto, General Agents of WSA shall provide a slop chest for the benefit of seamen aboard each vessel as soon as it enters service.

The Master shall submit to the General Agent a requisition for the items required for the intended voyage and the General Agent shall purchase sane for account of WSA and arrange for delivery of same aboard ship to the custody of the Master.

The General Agent shall supply the Master with the cost price of each item and the Master shall sell, from time to time as specified by him, any of the contents of the slop chest to any or every seaman applying therefor.

The Master shall charge for each item a price approximating, but not exceeding 110% of the reasonable wholesale value of the same at the port at which the voyage commenced.

All receipts of the Master shall be accounted for to the General Agent.

The General Agents shall account to WSA for the cost of the slop chest and receipts in accordance with the accounting regulations of WSA.

Neither the General Agents nor the Master shall place insurance on the contents of the slop chest purchased for account of WSA as the WSA assumes all risks, marine and war, thereon.

It shall be the responsibility of each General Agent and Master to exercise reasonable care and diligence in the compliance with the Owner’s obligations hereunder and in the protection and disposition of the contents of the slop chests.

(Sgd.) J. E. Cushing
Assistant Deputy Administrator for Ship Operations


"That's nice. What have you got there?"

It was a three-dimensional chess set. Max had played the game with his uncle, it being one that all astrogators played. Finding that some of the chartsmen and computermen played it, he had invested his tips in a set from the ship's slop chest. It was a cheap set, having no attention lights and no arrangements for remote-control moving, being merely stacked transparent trays and pieces molded instead of carved, but it sufficed.

From STARMAN JONES by Robert Heinlein (1953)

(ed note: The U.S.N.A.S frigate New Jersey is going into a suicide battle where it will almost certainly be destroyed. And the crew knows. )

At 0000 hours, the start of the midwatch, (Captain) Fitzthomas went to the quartermaster's office on the cargo deck. "The crew may help itself to the contents of the ship's store," he said.

"Aye sir," said the quartermaster. He lifted from his desk a parchment, the inventory of the store, and very ceremoniously rolled it up and placed it in a tube, which he then sealed and put away in a drawer. Then he opened a locker and removed a tin of chewing tobacco for himself.

On the cargo decks, everything was tightly secured. A short line of ratings waited outside the ship's store already, waiting their turn to help themselves to its contents. Fitzthomas recognized some at them as the ship's entrepreneurs, the ratings who ran card games or stills or always seemed to have what you wanted, for a price. They were cleaning out the store and betting they'd be wealthy men after the battle. Fitzthomas didn't know if it was true optimism or merely hedging their bets. He elected to believe the former.

From THE HUMANIST INHERITANCE by Matthew Lineberger (unpublished)

Hangar Bay

Hangar bays are areas where a spacecraft can store and launch auxiliary craft. Things like shuttlecraft, space taxis, space pods, and airless landers.

  • Two-Bit Hangar Bays when the auxiliary craft is just strapped to the hull, all exposed without so much as a docking port. The crew enters the auxiliary by suiting up and doing an EVA.

  • Budget Hangar Bays are little more than a airlock docking port on the ship's skin where the auxiliary craft clings to the hull to like a limpets, exposed to space.

  • Pigeonhole Hangar Bays are little niches or recesses just big enough to accomodate the auxiliary craft. They have no docking port, no roof, and one side of the craft is totally exposed to space.

  • Efficiency Hangar Bays is a Pigeonhole Hangar Bay with a docking port

  • Standard Hangar Bays house the auxiliary craft internally, but the hangar bay is not pressurized. Not exposed to space but there is no air either. The internal walls are lined with airlock docking ports. John Reiher is of the opinion that these bays are a waste of space (except to look cinematic for your movie/TV show/Video Game). His exact words were "lipstick on a pig".

  • Fancy Hangar Bays are internal spaces that are pressurized and have clamshell doors to keep the air in. The bay has to be depressurized before opening the doors, since the bay is like a titanic airlock.

  • Handwavium Hangar Bays are like fancy ones, except with magic force field doors that let auxiliary craft penetrate but keeps the air in. These do not have to be depressurized before an auxiliary craft arrives or leaves. On the minus side a malfunction or power outage to the force field will blow all the craft, equipment, and crew into the inky black of space. May be acceptable for civilian spacecraft, but not recommended for warships that are often damaged by hostile weapons fire.
         In theory this sort of air stopping force field is possible by using plasma window technology. In practice it will require 8 kilowatts per centimeter of window diameter, so I hope you have plenty of power to burn.

  • Fighter Bays are specially designed to launch and recover fighter spacecraft. Of course they can come in Two-Bit, Budget, Pigeonhole, Efficiency, Standard, Fancy, and Handwavium versions. Ships equipped with fighter bays are sometime called "carriers" or "motherships."

Do not confuse spacecraft hangar bays with the "hangars" located at a spaceport.


      “In fact," Langer went on, “I think we’ll pull up now. We're not far from the perimeter inside which the McCrary Fleet ran into trouble, and I don’t want to risk having my engines disabled by Angels, even friendly ones. We’re about as far away as Neptune is from the sun from a suitable star—you can’t see it because of the dust, but the tape shows it—and we’ll just orbit around that for a while."
     Jack started to ask a question, then thought better of it; but Langer had caught him at it.
     “I know, Jack: How are we going to negotiate with the Angels if We try to hide from them? But I’m not going to hide, myself; I just hope to hide the Ariadne. We’ll go on into the Coal Sack from here, but in a more suitable vessel.”
     Both cadets were properly baffled. Langer grinned.
     “It’s what’s in the long, fore-and-aft locker. I can’t really blame you for not having guessed, for to my knowledge such a thing has been used only once before in history. It's a photon-skiff—an interstellar sailing vessel.”
     “Sailing?” Sandbag said incredulously.
     “That’s right. It’s very light in weight—really just a keel with a couple of lugs on it to hook our spacesuits to. Then there’s a mile-long steel cable with a little atomic reactor at the far end, which is inertia-controlled to keep the cable rigidly at right angles to the keel at all times. On that cable we string up a mile-square sail of zirconium foil, which we rig with other small reaction motors by radio control. The radio impulses are pulse-modulated so that we don’t pick up any static from the Sack.”
     Slowly, Jack managed to grasp the concept. Langer had designed his bizarre vessel to use the dust squalls, radiation storms and other disturbances raging invisibly in the Coal Sack. His sail would also respond to light pressure; in fact, since it was zirconium, it would even stop slow neutrons. But he thought he saw a flaw.
     “That's going to be awfully slow, isn't it?” he said. “It seems to me it would take you half a century to go half a mile on a thing like that.”
     “It will be very slow at first,” Langer agreed. “We’ll have to start with just the Ariadne’s present orbital velocity, and when we push off we'll seem to you to be leaving at a velocity of only feet per second. But you’ll be astonished at how fast light-pressure alone would build up the acceleration in normal space. In the Coal Sack, there is of course a great deal more energy for the taking. And since the machine has no driving engines, presumably it won’t be as tempting to our fireplace-loving friends as the Ariadne would be.” (Angels are energy creatures who live in deep space. They love entering the fusion reactors of starships and sucking up the power. This of course disables the starship. The photon-skiff has no fusion reactor for the Angels to disable)
     “Sounds like a pretty wild way to travel,” Jack said. “Uh, sir… you say I’ll see you push off. I gather I'm not going along?”
     “I’m afraid not, Jack,” Langer said gently. ‘I'm sorry, but somebody has to stick with the ship. There are still important chores to be done here while we're gone. Jerry and I will sail the skiff in, and attempt to land on one of the barren nest-worlds the McCrary captain reported, to parlay with the Angels. We need you to stay here to bring the Ariadne in after us, because it won’t be many weeks before all the junk that’s flying around out there—I mean the solid stuff, not the charged particles—will have torn our sail to the point of uselessness.
     “I see,” Jack said; but he was bitterly disappointed.
     “Jack, try to bear in mind that I’m trusting you with my ship,” Langer added quietly. “There are very few people in the world who have been so privileged. And another thing: While you’re waiting, you'll need to try to raise a signal from the disabled McCrary vessel, or otherwise find out where she is. You're going to have to do it in some way that will prevent the Angels in turn from getting a fix on the Ariadne. I haven't the faintest notion how you could go about it, but some way has to be figured out. I promised McCrary.”
     “Yes, sir. I’ll come up with something.”
     “I’m sure of it. All right, Jerry, let's crack the suit lockers.”
     When the spacesuits came out, Jack was at first startled to find that their extra size was wholly accounted for by a huge hump on the back of each. He had expected them to be larger over-all, by reason of thicker shielding. When he examined the hump, however, while helping Sandbag into his suit, he realized where he had gone astray. It contained a small “fish-bowl” type fission reactor whose output indicator was calibrated in Gauss units. In operation, it would surround the suit with a hard-driven magnetic field.
     The chief radiation hazard Langer and Sandbag would encounter out here took the form of cosmic ray primaries: the stripped nuclei of iron and other heavy atoms, traveling at enormous velocities. Not only was material shielding useless against these—for they would go through sixteen feet of lead like so much tissue paper—but worse than useless, for the impact of the particle against the shield would produce a blast of secondary X-rays inside the suit.
     The necessity, obviously, was to prevent them from hitting the suit at all. This was the purpose of the magnetic field. It would not fend them all off by any means, but those that did get through would have lost much of their steam, and furthermore would be traveling in arcs rather than straight as a bullet. That they would damage any body cells they hit was a certainty, but the magnetic field would probably keep the number of such hits below the critical level.
     For a while. It was far better not to risk exposure at all, unless you had no choice. Ninety-nine per cent of the time you would not be conscious of the damage the impacts did, or the changes in your heredity that they sometimes made; but if one happened to hit a pain nerve, you felt it, all right—and even one such impact on the retina of the eye was a serious matter.
     And this was far from the only mortal risk Langer and Sandbag were going to be taking. The chances were very high that he would never see either of them again.
     The clumsiness of the redesigned suits, and the cramped quarters of the rebuilt control cabin, made it impossible to put them on except one man at a time in the well. Langer was already passing through the airlock while Jack was dogging down the last bolts on Sandbag’s suit. Briefly he wondered if the fission reactors might not in themselves prove attractive “fire-places” to the Angels, then dismissed the notion. They were relatively just match flames compared to a fusion pile (sic. "atomic pile" is an anachronistic term for "fission power reactor". The first fission reactor was a pile of graphite bricks. A fusion reactor is not going to be called a "pile.").
     Then Sandbag, too, was in the airlock, and Jack had the Ariadne to himself. It made him feel decidedly forlorn.
     The radio on the board came to life. "This way, Jerry,” Langer’s voice said. “Jack, one other thing: Don’t under any circumstances bring the ship in after us until you hear from us that it's safe to do so. Got that?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     He adjusted one of the outside television eyes until he could look along the hull of the Ariadne. Langer and Sandbag, sliding along the ship’s skin with the ice-skater’s shuffle made necessary by magnetic shoes, had already gotten the fore-and-aft locker open, and were lifting out the photon-skiff. From here it looked like nothing more than a thirty-foot-long steel I-beam.
     The locker closed. The sound was clearly audible inside the ship.
     “Jerry, go to the rear there and lock yourself onto the lug you'll find there, by the waist of your suit. I'll do the same up front… Are you secure?”
     “Never felt more insecure in my life,” Sandbag said. “But I'm locked on."
     “Okay. Set your suit jets for two seconds’ firing time at exactly … let me see … 1445. That’s fourteen-forty-five, about three minutes from now. Got it?”
     “Two seconds at fourteen-forty-five. Done.”
     “Shoes off.”
     They were now no longer magnetically locked to the Ariadne; but since they shared her velocity exactly, they stayed with her. Since her orbit was curved and they were now traveling in a straight line, they were actually drifting away from her; but the curvature was so vast it might take a week to put an inch of distance between their feet and the ship.
     “Jack, hold the fort, and good luck,” Langer's voice said briskly.
     “Yes, sir … thanks. And—good hunting. So long Sandbag."
     "Cheers,” Sandbag said. But he did not sound at all cheerful.
     The the suit jets fired and the two spacesuits rose slowly, carrying the I-beam with them. Two seconds of acceleration was enough to push them away with a good deal more speed than the “feet per second” Langer had mentioned; in fact, at the end of the thrust they looked to be receding at better than a mile a minute. They looked grotesquely like two fat metal witches riding a broomstick.
     Then the cable lifted from the center of the I-beam and unreeled swiftly, like an impossibly long snake. As it snapped to its full length, the great shining sail unfolded like a flower from around it.
     The skiff dwindled swiftly. It was no longer possible to distinguish any part of it but the sail, and that too was getting smaller and smaller. Jack switched to full magnification. With that, he could make out the two men for perhaps a minute more, but the skiff was plainly picking up speed—still negligibly from the point of view of interstellar flight, but fast enough to carry it out of sight range quickly, even through the light amplifier.
     The sail shifted position slightly to some unseeable order from Langer; he was apparently tacking. The skiff tilted and went even faster. It looked, as Jack had predicted, like a wild way to travel. And after only a little while, the Coal Sack had swallowed it up.

(ed note: after a couple of weeks, an Angel (Hesperus) appears and makes contact with Jack in the Ariadne. As it turns out, Langer has made a mistake and is heading the photon skiff to a forbidden area of the Coal Sack. If it reaches the area, the Angels will become quite angry. Jack enlists the help of Hesperus to intercept the photon skiff and defuse the situation)

     Despite the deceleration of the Ariadne, the skiff was now apparently drawing toward them rather than growing smaller, though the ranging instruments showed that its actual sliding course toward the great cluster of new-born suns had changed very little. One of the outermost of those suns was already near enough to show as a distinct disc in the visiscreen, instead of just a fuzzy point; and small wonder, for it was so young and tenuous that it was nearly half a light year in diameter—the visible disc could be no more than its core, where the torch which would some day become a major star had only just been lit. But though both the skiff and the Ariadne were obviously now well within the outer atmosphere of that dim, gigantic infant sun, the remains of the sail of the skiff were still set the same way Jack had seen them last—visibly failing to profit by the additional gusts of energy blowing every which way around and about a newborn star.
     Jack refused to think about What that might mean. He concentrated single-mindedly on the task of refining Hesperus’ drastic way of flying a spaceship to the delicate job of bringing the Ariadne exactly abreast of the skiff.
     He was helped a little in this by the fact that the skiff’s comet’s-tail of Angels seemed to have evaporated at the Ariadne’s scorching approach—nor, indeed, did the Ariadne have such a convoy any more, either. Instead, the whole vast choir of Angels had silently formed a globe of intense red points of light around the Earth vessels, and now enclosed them both in a universe of orbits. It was as if the Angels were waiting for something —to see what he would do, to help him, to hinder him, to destroy them all when the skiff crossed some invisible but sacred boundary line … there was no way of guessing. And right now, Jack suddenly realized, he did not know how he was going to make the skiff fast. It floated now beside the Ariadne at a distance of less than a thousand feet, but there seemed to be no way to secure it—and any moment now some random gust of electrons or swirl of gas and dust might strike the tattered sail hard enough to drive the skiff in to a collision or to send it scudding away.
     The two space-suited figures at either end of the keel were silent and motionless. He could no longer hope for any help from that quarter. It was up to him to help them, and fast.
     But the Ariadne didn't seem to mount any conventional grappling equipment; if she ever had, it had been torn out during Langer’s last remodeling job. Where the controls for such equipment would normally be was nothing but a two-pole switch marked LOCKER. The two poles were still labeled ARM and DISARM, but that was obviously only a leftover, meant to stand now for OPEN and SHUT. After all, you couldn’t arm a locker…
     …But of course you could, if it were on the outside of the ship to begin with, and specifically designed to cradle another ship, no matter how odd. He threw the switch to the ARM position. Sure enough, the outside locker opened; whether anything else had been accomplished remained to be proven.
     “Hesperus, shut down. For this maneuver I don’t want anything going but battery power.” The Nernst telltale light went out at once, without comment.
     At the same time, the skiff began to cant slowly away from him. It looked alarming, but actually it might even be helpful, if it just didn't happen too fast. With infinite gentleness, he eased the Ariadne under the heeling skiff and tried, like a man baffled by the last two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to fit the skiff’s keel into the locker.
     It did not quite go. As the I-beam touched the Ariadne, the twin lids of the coffin-like locker snapped up on either side of it, and at the same moment all that remained of the sail went whirling away into space in all directions, like so much confetti. The brief storm of foil filled the radar screens with ghosts and made the computer blink and chatter apoplectically.
     When the screens had cleared, even the skill’ s mile-long “mast” had been reeled in without a trace—and the skill was secured.
     But both Langer and Sandbag were still outside, locked to the I-beam. They did not move, let alone respond to his calls. They had not even anchored their shoes to the hull.
     Somebody was going to have to don the other spacesuit and go out into that maelstrom after them—whether they were dead or alive. Well, there was only one candidate for the job—and they had taken risks far worse. Now it was up to Jack, under the silent Watch of all the Angels in the heavens, and leaving an Angel in sole charge of the Ariadne until the task was done.
     Or until he failed.
     Clumsily, partly because of the hump, but mostly because of his total inexperience at maneuvering in a spacesuit, he edged himself out onto the hull of the Ariadne.
     Ten feet away from him stood another humpbacked spacesuit, gleaming bluely in the cluster light like a steel statue. No, not even like a statue, for it did not look human; it looked … empty. There was not even any white blur behind its faceplate.
     Awed and frightened, he forced himself to shuffle toward it. It awaited him stolidly, thick arms hanging at its sides.
     It was Langer. His face could not be seen because his head had fallen forward against the faceplate, but even in the darkness inside the helmet Jack could see that it was not Sandbag’s crew-cut poll he was staring at. He managed to get the suit unsnapped from the skiff, but then paused indecisively. The radiation counter in his own suit was yammering dementedly, making thinking very difficult. The level was far higher than he had expected, even for this Hades inside the atmosphere of a star…
     Induced radioactivity—that was it. The spacesuits and the skiff were hot. There was very little he could do about the suits at the moment, but at least he could get rid of the skiff; it had served its purpose. He found the outside switch for Langer's shoes and left him standing, anchored, while he made his way along the locker to Sandbag.
     The cadet’s face was ghastly. He was still conscious, but his eyes were rolling from side to side like those of a trapped animal. He seemed wholly unaware of Jack. Could he be trusted not to fumble with the controls of his suit? It had to be chanced. Jack unlocked him from the I-beam, turned on his shoes and shuffled away to hunt down the outside controls for the skiff locker.
     It took a back-wrenching heave to get the skiff in motion, even slowly; though it had no weight out here, it still had all its considerable mass. He felt a curious twinge of regret as the bare girder edged away from the Ariadne toward the newborn star. The odd vessel had served them gallantly; it could hardly be blamed for the failure of the mission on which it had been sent, yet it was doomed all the same.

From THE STAR DWELLERS by James Blish (1961)

      Like her dead namesake, Conqueror II was a giant cylinder of a ship, shaped more or less like the cans in which coffee is shipped.  When under thrust, everyone and everything aboard was pulled toward the aft bulkhead, making “down” the direction opposite that in which the ship was accelerating.  However, when the engines were shut off, as they had been ever since the fleet established itself athwart Spica’s lanes of commerce, the ship was spun about its central axis to provide artificial gravity.  In this configuration, “out” became “down,” and everyone lived on the curved outer decks and studiously ignored the various furnishings and pieces of equipment retracted into the aft walls of compartments.

     It was this need to generate “centrifugal force” — a mathematical fiction with no reality in the universe, but a concept that human beings stubbornly refuse to discard — that drove the design of virtually every system aboard the big blastship.  The ambidextrous arrangement of the living quarters was only the most visible accommodation to the ship’s need to fight and function whether thrusting or spinning.  Both modes required a high degree of dynamic balance in three orthogonal axes, a balance continuously adjusted by transferring fluids between tanks via a complex network of valves, pumps, and pipes.

     While spinning the ship to provide artificial gravity solved a variety of problems for the crew, it presented the original designers with any number of difficulties.  Many of the weapons and sensors objected to being spun like a can at the end of a rope.  For these, the ship had two large outrigger booms that extended the full length of the hull.  The booms were mounted on bearings, and remained steady in space even when the central cylinder of the ship was rotating.  Another problem had been where to locate the large open volume in which the blastship’s auxiliary craft were stored.  When the ship was spinning at nearly two revolutions per minute, the only safe place to take a smaller vessel aboard was along the spin axis, and because the engines monopolized all of the available real estate at the stern, Hobson’s choice dictated the location of the hangar bay.  It was forward, with the doors inset at the center of the concave bow.

     Like the ship herself, Conqueror II’s hangar bay had been constructed oversize.  It was a hollow cylindrical cavern stretching from the bow halfway back into the cylindrical hull.  In fact, the six big thrust girders that were the blastship’s backbone formed part of the hangar bay’s structure, making it one of the strongest compartments in the ship.  The main cylinder of the bay was intersected forward of its midpoint by three smaller circular openings.  These were Conqueror’ssally ports,” unobstructed shafts leading to space doors in the outer hull and used to disgorge auxiliary craft quickly during battle.

     Normally the bay was crowded with the various smaller ships necessary to keep a blastship operational in enemy space.  There were the armed scouts, vessels with six-man crews that swept space in front of the fleet, engaged enemy scouts, and harassed the enemy out of all proportion to their size.  There were inter-orbit ferries, the ugly collections of geometric shapes to whom fell the mundane tasks of transporting personnel and supplies between the larger ships.  There were small repair craft with grappling arms and oversize thrusters, as well as other specialized craft.

     Because the hangar bay was not airtight, operations inside the bay were overseen from one of the three observation galleries inset in the inner bay wall between the thrust girders.  Roofed over with armor glass, these gave a panoramic view of everything going on in this miniature spaceport at the heart of the blastship. (standard bay)

     Drake felt a spring in his step as he entered the Number 2 Gallery.  This close to the axis, spin-gravity was only one-quarter what it was at the outer hull — just enough to keep everyone attached to the deck.  He strode to the center of the gallery and tilted his head back to take in the panorama of the bay overhead.

     With many of her auxiliaries away on missions, Conqueror’s bay was as empty as Richard had ever seen it.  Forward, the big hangar doors were retracting slowly into their recesses, revealing the black of space beyond and a small scout boat waiting to enter.  The boat was stationary with respect to the open doors, having matched its roll rate to that of the big blastship.  The universe beyond cartwheeled.  Although the stars were invisible, the angle of the sunlight streaming through the open doors changed continuously, making a complete circuit twice each minute.

     As he watched, a long, multi-segmented arm came into view, reaching up toward the nose of the scout.  The grapple mechanism on the end of the arm attached itself to the ship’s bow, and several green lights blinked to life along the scout’s hull.  The lights signified that the small ship’s controls had been locked and its engines disabled.  Had they not, Conqueror’s traffic control officer would not have allowed it inside the bay, a paranoid attitude of which the commanding admiral heartily approved.

     The arm pulled the small ship slowly inside.  The hangar bay doors began to slide ponderously closed as the arm moved the scout ship to the docking port just forward of Gallery Two.  The scout had appeared tiny compared to the scale of the bay, but now that it was docked just beyond the gallery’s armor glass roof, it looked like the capable interplanetary craft that it was.

     There were the usual noises as the docking fixture latches engaged and the disembarkation tube filled with air. Drake watched as the airlock telltales blinked from red, to yellow, and then to green.  As the lock made the customary soft sighing sound, he signaled the Marine in charge of the band standing by opposite the airlock.


The landing boat overtook Discovery from below and behind, giving Drake a good look at his ship. The battle cruiser consisted of a torpedo-like central cylinder surrounded by a ring structure. The central cylinder housed the ship’s mass converter, photon drive, and jump engines — the latter needing only an up-to-date jump program to once more hurl the ship into the interstellar spacelanes. In addition, within the cylinder were fuel tanks filled with deuterium and tritium enriched cryogen; the heavy antimatter projectors that were Discovery’s main armament; and the ancillary equipment that provided power to the ship’s outer ring.

The surrounding ring was supported off the cylinder by twelve hollow spokes — six forward and six aft. It contained crew quarters, communications, sensors, secondary weapons pods, cargo spaces, and the hangar bay in which auxiliary craft were housed.

Drake listened to the communications between the landing boat and the cruiser all through the approach. As they drew close, he noticed the actinic light of the ship’s attitude jets firing around the periphery of the habitat ring. When in parking orbit, the cruiser was spun about its axis to provide half a standard gravity on the outermost crew deck. The purpose of the attitude jets was to halt the rotation in preparation for taking the landing boat aboard.

Drake was well pleased with what he heard on the intercom during the approach — mostly silence punctuated by a few terse exchanges of information. The complete absence of chatter was evidence of a taut ship and a good crew. He was suffused with a warm feeling of pride as he watched hangar doors (on ship's nose) open directly in front of the hovering boat just as the cruiser’s spin came to a halt.

     “Landing Boat Moliere. You may secure your reaction jets!” came the order from Discovery approach control.
     “Securing now,” the pilot said as he reached down to throw a large, red switch next to his right knee. The message ‘REAC JET SAFE’ flashed on a screen on the control panel.
     “Prepare to be winched aboard.”
     “Hook extended.”

A torpedo-like mechanism exited the open hatch and jetted across the dozen meters of open space to where the landing boat hovered. Attached to the torpedo was a single cable. The torpedo disappeared from view for several seconds, then the approach controller said, “All right, Moliere. Stand by to be reeled in!”

There was a barely perceptible jolt as the cable took up slack, then the landing boat slid smoothly forward. The curved hull of the cruiser and the open maw of the vehicle hatch swelled to fill the windscreen. The boat passed out of Val’s direct rays and into shadow. The dark was short lived, however. As soon as the bow passed into the hangar bay, the windscreen fluoresced with the blue-white glow of a dozen polyarc flood lamps.

There was a harder bumping sensation as the bow contacted the recoil snubber inside the bay. Then the boat was being pulled completely inside by giant manipulators and lifted to its docking area while a steady stream of orders issued from the bulkhead speaker.

“Close outer doors. Stand by to repressurize.”

From ANTARES DAWN by Michael McCollum (1986)

Ten minutes after departing City of Alexandria, Landing Boat Moliere drew abreast of His Majesty’s Blastship Royal Avenger.  The view through the starboard viewports was awesome.  At the blastship’s stern were the focusing rings and field generators of three large photon engines.  Even quiescent, the engines that drove the flagship gave the impression of unlimited power.  Just in front of the engine exhausts were the radiators and other piping associated with the ship’s four massive fusion generators.  In front of the generators were the blastship’s fuel tanks; heavily armored and insulated to keep the deuterium enriched hydrogen fuel as close to absolute zero as possible.

Drake let his gaze move forward along the blastship’s flank.  The cylindrical hull was pierced in places by large hangar doors through which armed auxiliaries could sortie into battle.  Forward of these were the snouts of a dozen antimatter projectors, Royal Avenger’s primary anti-ship weapons.  The business ends of other weapon systems also jutted from the heavily armored hull.  Interspersed with the weaponry were all manner of sensor gear.

As the landing boat slipped past the blastship’s flanks, they were rewarded with ever changing vistas since Avenger was rotating about its axis at the rate of several revolutions per minute.  So close was landing boat to blastship that it was easy to imagine oneself in a small aircraft flying over an endless plain.  The optical illusion came to an abrupt end when the landing boat passed abeam of the blastship’s prow.

Like most starships, little or no effort had gone into streamlining Avenger.  In fact, the prow was actually slightly concave, and its surface covered with arrays of electronic and electromagnetic sensors.  A hangar door outwardly identical to those that dotted the blastship’s flanks was set flush with the hull at the giant ship’s axis of rotation.

As quickly as the bow portal came into view, Moliere’s pilot fired the attitude control thrusters to halt the landing boat’s forward speed.  Once Moliere had halted in space, he began firing his side thrusters to align the landing boat with the central portal.  A popping noise echoed through the passenger cabin each time the thrusters fired.  When Moliere was lined up with Royal Avenger’s axis portal, the thrusters fired twice more to match the flagship’s rate of rotation.  The hangar door retracted, and Moliere’s pilot nudged his boat toward the lighted opening.  Within seconds, the boat passed into a spacious cavern lighted by million-candlepower polyarc lamps.  There followed a series of bumping and scraping noises, and a gentle tug of deceleration as the landing boat’s forward velocity was halted.  After that, there came a long span of silence interrupted by the sudden sound of air swirling outside the hull.

Moliere had arrived.

From ANTARES PASSAGE by Michael McCollum (1998)

      It was just possible to assemble everyone on hangar deck. The closed launching hatch doors—repaired, but obviously so—were the only open space large enough for the ship's company and the scientific personnel to gather, and it was crowded even there (remember, they are standing on the hangar doors, with outer space below that). The hangar compartment was stuffed with gear: extra landing craft, the longboat and the cutter, crated scientific equipment, ship's stores, and other crates whose purpose even Blaine didn't know. Dr. Horvath's people insisted on carrying nearly every scientific instrument used in their specialties on the chance that it might be useful; the Navy could hardly argue with them, since there were no precedents for an expedition of this kind.

     Now the huge space was packed to overflowing. Viceroy Merrill, Minister Armstrong, Admiral Cranston, Cardinal Randolph, and a host of lesser officials stood confusedly about while Rod hoped that his officers had been able to complete preparations for the ship's departure.

     The official party boarded an atmosphere flyer as warning horns sounded. MacArthur's crew scrambled to leave hangar deck, and Rod stepped into an airlock chamber. Pumps whined to empty the hangar space of air, then the great double doors opened. Meanwhile, MacArthur lost her spin as the central flywheels whirred. With only naval people aboard, an atmosphere craft might be launched through the doors under spin, dropping in the curved—relative to MacArthur—trajectory induced by the Coriolis effect, but with the Viceroy and the Cardinal lifting out that was out of the question. The landing craft lifted gently at 150 cm/sec until it was clear of the hangar doors.

     "Close and seal," Rod ordered crisply. "Stand by for acceleration." He turned and launched himself in null gravity toward his bridge. Behind him telescoping braces opened across the hangar deck space—guy wires and struts, braces of all kinds—until the hollow was partly filled. The design of a warship's hangar space is an intricate specialty, since spotting boats may have to be launched at a moment's notice, yet the vast empty space needs to be braced against possible disaster. Now with the extra boats of Horvath's scientists in addition to the full complement of MacArthur's own, the hangar deck was a maze of ships, braces, and crates.

From THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (1975)


A brig, holding cell, or military prison onboard a spacecraft is not something you will find until the state of the art spacecraft design has power to burn. But your futuristic warship will need it since prison breakout scenes are such a time honored trope. This was decades old before Han and Luke Skywalker tried to break Princess Leia out of the Death Star brig.

Brigs in Star Trek have force-field doors because those have tons of sci-fi goodness. But it is really stupid to have a prison-cell door that vanishes if the power cuts out.


All capital ships feature a brig, a small reinforced room where prisoners are kept. Smaller ships generally do not have that luxury and must lock undesirables in standard cabins with disabled terminals. The Ypres' brig is a relatively large complex located far from the bridge and the armory. It is divided into two sections, a guard station and the holding cells proper. The guard station is little more than a terminal controlling the cells and the conditions within. There are two cameras and several microphones for surveillance. The latter are extremely sensitive, and are capable of picking up even whispered words.

The brig features an independent life support system so that the prisoners can survive in case of hull breach of other system failure; prisoners cannot be trusted with space suits, but neither can they be left to die. Obviously, this feature allows the brig to be used as an emergency shelter as well. A simple recycling unit is found behind a sliding panel located in the far wall of the room for basic hygiene.


The Imperator-class ships have dedicated brigs to hold criminals or mutineers until they can be brought to trial. The typical brig is a room with two cells, placed side by side so that one guard can see both rooms from his workstation.

Despite outward appearances, the cells have no access panels or hatches otherthan the main door. They are equipped with a single piece of lightweight multifurniture that serves as a bed, table and chair, and which folds up and clips to the wall for storage. A small cabinet on the wall holds equipment for hygiene, though it is somewhat embarrassing as it must be used in full view of the guard and the occupant(s) of the other cell.

A security alarm is prominently placed on the wall of the security station outside the cells, as well as a locked hatch that leads to a small security locker. There are vidscreens on the wall in the security station arranged for the prisoners' entertainment, but the prisoners must watch them through the combination of bars and security netting that seals each cell.


Crew Quarters

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Minimum Living Volume

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