A spaceport is a way to increase the volume of interplanetary or interstellar transport. They can be locate inside space stations but the focus here is on planetary ground stations.

Note that if the booster vehicles are pathetic and weak (like current NASA chemical rockets), the spaceports will have to be located at specific lattitudes.

Often you will find both, with a planetary "LowPort" associated with an orbital space station "HighPort". The HighPort is for passengers/cargo (P&C) for which the planet is just a way-station, not the destination. No sense shipping P&C down then up an expensive gravity well for no reason. One cargo ship drop off P&C at the HighPort, P&C intended for the planet travels to the LowPort in shuttles, P&C in transit wait at the HighPort for their connecting flight to show up.

If the station services starships instead of interplanetary ships, it is often called a "starport".

Like any other living system, the internal operations of a spaceport can be analyzed with Living Systems Theory, to discover sources of interesting plot complications.

Their primary function is to do whatever is necessary to make it easier for spacecraft to bring cargo and/or passengers. They may be located at an economically worthless site which happens to be at a strategic location (cross-roads or junction). Or the site itself could be of economic interest. Please note that increasing the volume of transport does not necessarily mean all transport. A spaceport created by a large corporation might facilitate transport spacecraft belonging to that corporation, but charge large fees and otherwise put roadblocks in the way of ships belonging to rival corporations or to independent ships.

Note that the concept of a "junction" really only works with some kind of handwaving faster-than-light starship. Junctions make no sense in a star system where the various planets orbit at different rates. The arrangement of planets is constantly changing.

As with spacecraft and space stations, in a science fiction story a spaceport can become a character all by themselves. The obvious example is the great hive of scum and villainy which is Mos Eisley spaceport.

A good sourcebook for science fictional spaceports is the worldbook GURPS Traveller: Starports

Spaceports are also likely to have extensive medical facilities with special equipment for treating burn victims (survivors of crashed chemically fueled rockets) or radiation exposure victims (survivors of crashed nuclear fueled rockets), or both. If the spaceport services starships from alien ecosystems, there will be quarantine facilities as well.

If the spaceport is located inside a sovereign nation, the grounds of the port might be legally still territorially part of the nation. But parts of the port could be designated as customs areas and surrounded by a customs border.

In addition, the grounds of the port might be considered "extraterritorial": legally it is not territorially part of the nation. Much like the grounds of a foreign embassy. This is usually seen when the planetary government is part of a larger interstellar Federation or Union. The planetary government might still be self-governing, but the spaceport grounds are legally the territory of the all-powerful Federation. So respect their borders or the planetary government might suddenly find it is no longer self-governing.

If a cargo spacecraft is carrying items that are contraband inside the customs area (not just contraband outside the custom area), the ship will have to use its internal embargo locker. The contraband is placed inside the locker and it is sealed by the spaceport custom authorities (not the planetary custom authorities) for the duration of the ship's stay at the port.


      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)

Sometimes, in a effort to encourage economic development, a spaceport can be a free trade zone.

Of course if the planet has an oppressive government and is full of people eager to flee, the spaceport is likely to be surrounded by the futuristic equivalent of the Berlin Wall, complete with barbed-wire, machine gun nests, spotlights, and ferocious guard dogs. The guns will be pointed outward away from the port, instead of pointed inward towards the port.

Spaceports located near an impending war zone could start to resemble Casablanca. Spaceports that are Pirate Haven might resemble the fictitious depictions of the pirate stronghold of Tortuga or Port Royal. The difference is that Tortuga was pro-pirate while Port Royal was officially anti-pirate but unofficially it would look the other way and ask no embarrassing questions in exchange for a cut of the ill-gotten gains.

Also keep in mind that if a planet is invaded, the spaceports are prime targets. If the port can be captured (without being damaged), it will can be used to land large numbers of invading ground troops. It also might be the only way to get the invading troops off the planet. So the invaders will be very careful not to damage the spaceport, otherwise they might be stranded.

The planet knows this as well. If it is worried about invasion the spaceports will also be built up like a minor or major planetary fortresses. Actually, if the spaceport has spacecraft laser launchers or cargo mass drivers, it already is a planetary fortress. A launch laser or mass driver powerful enough to boost huge masses into orbit can smash a combat starship like a sledge-hammer hitting a cockaroach.

If there is a planetary disaster, spaceports will suddenly be thrust into the role of operational center. After all, it will be the source of all off-planet support.

If the planetary spaceport is located on a habitable planet, the port does not have to worry about the Three Generation Rule like space stations do. If the technological civilization falls, people can still breath. Otherwise the planetary spaceport is in the same boat as a space habitat.

Some spaceports are oriented more towards handling cargo, others more for passenger service. In older science fiction Terra's largest starport is always located in New York City, even though it makes more sense to locate a port on the equator for delta V reasons.

When a ship is landed, and still manned, the central control is generally shifted from the control or flight deck to another part of the ship, called a quarterdeck. In a merchant spacecraft, this will probably be somewhere in the cargo hold. The watch officer and their staff will be found in the quarterdeck.

In "wet navy" ships, the quarterdeck is merely the area just inboard of the crew hatch, where visitors are received aboard.

The Shattered Stars

They had taken Moses Callahan's ship and turned it into paper.

A man lived on his ship. He breathed her air, ate and drank from her stores. Her bulkheads solid around him kept the uncaring vacuum outside where it belonged and her driving engines bent the very curvature of space to take him wherever he wanted to go.

But then he had to land. . . .

Suddenly all that breathing and eating became a life-support replenishment invoice. Those protecting bulkheads hid structural support members that had to be inspected and recertified by a licensed and commensurately expensive naval surveyor. Engines became fuel costs and a ten-thousand-hour service charge. Then there were berth fees, entry fees, value-added tax on cargo transactions, customs "courtesy" fees, outright bribes to the longshoremen's union—and Moses Callahan wound up sitting in the deepest corner of the Hybreasil inport bar complex, wondering whether to have another beer or have his good uniform cleaned and pressed before heading outport to try to unearth a cargo Celtic Crescent or Western Galactic might have overlooked.

From The Shattered Stars by Richard McEnroe, 1983

Today’s question for Dr. Science is, “What are starports for? Lots of starships call at my hab, and we don’t have one.”

Starports and starships have surprisingly little to do with one another.

If there were only starships and drifts, and perhaps the odd rock, we’d have no need of starports. The starships could simply pull up alongside their destinations and shift their cargo about with longshorebots and lighter OTVs and a few stout lads working out of docks and locks. Running a few insulated lines would take care of fueling, and in this scenario, no doubt the passengers — spacers all — would be happy enough to take a walk over. And outside local space, no-one cares where you heave to.

No, starports exist because the galaxy is full of planets, and because large numbers of people are perverse enough to want to live on them. (See my earlier column, Yes, They Store Their Air On The Outside (And Why We Can’t).)

They do have lots of facilities for starships associated with them — cageworks, chandlers, refueling depots, orbital warehouses, freight transshipment nodes, and suchlike — because it’s often convenient to keep them together in a central location, and because it helps pay the bills. But what starports are actually for is solving the interface problem.

One of the less believable realities of space travel is that — on most highly populated worlds, other than a few moons — the depth of the gravity well and the thickness of the atmosphere is such that it takes every bit as much delta-v to climb from the surface into orbit and as it does to make transit between a system’s worlds. The depth of the well and the passage through the atmosphere impose even more constraints on the structural strength and hull forms of starships, in ways that handicap them for operation in the space environment; most starships that are in operation today could neither support their own weight at the bottom of a planetary well, nor withstand the rigors of atmosphere entry. The need to transport freight and passengers between these two disparate environments is the essence of the aforementioned interface problem.

And so starports straddle this line, possessing both a dirtside half (the Down, or downport) and an orbital half (the Orbital, or highport), each composed of a variety of specialized facilities in close formation. The Orbital houses many starship service facilities, but the majority of its business is transferring freight and passengers to and from its counterpart. Except for relatively new colonies and those worlds with the wealth and traffic volume to support a space elevator (or more than one; Seranth has six elevators supporting its ring-city), this falls into a familiar pattern.

Freight is simple enough. Some worlds opt for pure mass-driver launch facilities, and some prefer laser-launchers, but wherever it can, the Imperial Starport Authority prefers to opt for the maximal efficiency of a hybrid system. Should you visit the freight terminal of any major downport, you’ll find it rather unimpressive in itself, despite the sheer size of the building, because it is merely the front end of an enormous mass driver — miles in length! — or array of mass drivers, ending at the peak of a mountain high enough to get the muzzle of the drivers above the thickest part of the planetary atmosphere — and if no mountain is conveniently located for the starport architects, an artificial one will be constructed for the purpose. Around the muzzle of the mass driver, a complex of gigawatt-range phased-array pulse lasers provides additional power and control.

Every few seconds, a freight container is taken from the outgoing queue, and locked into place within a reusable aeroshell, which provides both the streamlining necessary to penetrate the atmosphere, and ablative remass for the latter part of its flight. This aeroshell is then loaded into the mass driver and accelerated up to orbital velocities, with the mountaintop array selectively lasing the ablative remass (pulsed plasma propulsion) to provide guidance and additional delta-v as needed. (The degree to which it is needed varies by cargo: heavy hardbulk can withstand high accelerations, and as such most of the acceleration can be provided by the efficient mass driver, whereas more delicate cargoes require gentler acceleration for longer, and thus proportionately more of the total delta-v is provided by the lasers.) Upon its arrival in orbit, the aeroshell is caught by the muzzle of another, rather smaller, mass driver, this time operating in reverse, and converting the aeroshell’s residual kinetic energy back into electrical energy. Once it has been braked into the receiving station, the aeroshell is stripped off and sent for reconditioning and refueling, while the container is dispatched to the incoming queue, and thence to the appropriate orbital warehouse.

Ground-bound freight follows the reverse process, being accelerated by the small orbital mass driver onto a re-entry trajectory targeted upon the muzzle of its groundside partner; on its way down through the atmosphere (it is designed to be stable stern-down for reentry), the laser array and ablative remass are again called upon to provide guidance and, if necessary, additional deceleration. Plunging into the barrel of the mass driver, the reverse process is again used to brake it to a stop at the freight terminal, where the aeroshell is again stripped off and reconditioned, and the container routed onward to its final destination.

These systems are often operated in pairs, enabling the efficiency of using the captured gravitational potential energy of freight moving downwell — captured by the mass driver to the greatest extent that engineering and thermodynamics permits — to partially power the ascent of upwell freight. As you can imagine, a pair of these systems sending and receiving containers every few seconds, every hour of the day, every day of the week, can move an awful lot of freight!

Passengers, though, are more fragile than most freight. (And rather less comfortable stepping into the breech of Heaven’s Own Sluggun, whatever the numbers might say.) They prefer to travel on shuttles, vehicles specifically designed to cope with the interface problem — with all that atmosphere in the way, you can’t just hop in a commutersphere or ride a candle!

But atmospheres aren’t all bad news. Given the depth of a planet’s well, you might expect that the shuttles would have to be huge lumbering ships to carry all the remass they needed to climb up to orbit; but since they spend so much time in atmosphere, they can use the atmosphere itself as remass, and only carry the little they need for the very end of their journey. Most shuttles have trimodal nuclear engines. They start out as simple tilt-turbine ducted fans when they leave the ground, until they can achieve the speed and altitude necessary to start using their reactors to heat the air directly, becoming nuclear-thermal scramjets, and this mode carries them up through hypersonic speeds to the very edge of space. At this point, before the air becomes too thin for them to function, they switch over to using their internal supply of remass, becoming true nuclear-thermal rockets until they dock with the highport and deliver their passengers. Refueling there, they land again using the same engine modes in the reverse order, and the cycle repeats.

It’s ironic, then, that the features most commonly associated with starports in the public mind — the enormous graphite-and-cerametal pads with their massive hidden cradles, the blast-deflecting berms, the “hot” shafts with their billowing wash-down sprays, and so forth — are those dating back to an earlier age of space, when planets truly were the center of civilization and mighty ships rose heavenwards on pillars of atomic fire, now sadly reduced to a minority of any starport’s business, handling a few special loads, private yachts, and those small tramp traders which service early colonies and outposts that cannot yet afford full starports of their own. But even they share this one commonality: a need to get to and from the planetary surface.

In the end, they’re all about the planets.

Dr. Science

- from Children’s Science Corner magazine


“Expecting guests with nowhere for them to park? Embarrassing when you’re a host. Expensive when you’re a business. Excruciating when you’re a planet.

“Fortunately, as long as you’ve got a scrap of bare rock to set a shuttle down upon, we have the answer. Hire one of our Portal-class mobile highports today, offering luxurious docking, interface, transshipment, space-traffic control and chandlery services, and see your problem solved… instantly1!

“1. Transit time constraints notwithstanding. Extra fees may apply for emerging markets or regions currently engaged in conflict or piracy.”

– from an Ellore Modular Industries, ICC, interactive advertisement

The Portal-class mobile highport is exactly what its name implies: a complete orbital starport, custom-designed to operate efficiently in conjunction with only very limited downport facilities (or even nothing but airports available), designed to be movable between planets and systems as demand requires.

The Portal is built on a conventional frame: a cylindrical hull with rounded ends, sporting a pair of counter-rotating gravity wheels near its midsection. As can be expected from an Ellore product, it is largely modular: its permanent features are limited to the gravity wheels (containing parks, hydroponics, and living quarters), an axial utility core containing engineering and command elements, a large toroidal fuel tank assembly wrapped around the core, and small craft docking facilities at each end of the cylinder, one dedicated to interface vehicles and the other to orbital traffic. Working squadrons of Nelyn-class cutters, Lowari-class shuttles and Maw-class fuel skimmers accompany the highport.

The remainder of its volume is devoted to the modular segments, six of which connect in each section, terminating at the transpod shafts running along the outside of the fuel tank assembly. Various different combinations of modules, along with appropriate operating crew, can be installed as part of the lease to meet individual customer requirements: cageworks, cargo storage space, chandleries, internal berthing volume, large-vessel docking arms, passenger services – including concessions, hotels, lounges, and other amenities – and even defensive systems.

The Portal itself has no integral drive systems; it relies on an accompanying Hane-class superlifter (whose docking clamps surround the interface vehicle bay) for propulsion.

Ellore maintains a small fleet of Portals for lease, chiefly by worlds expecting a short-term increase in traffic (whether one-off, or regular, but insufficient to justify maintaining a largely idle permanent port) due to social events, harvest times or other seasonal traffic bursts, new discoveries susceptible to exploitation, disaster relief (for which the Imperial Emergency Management Authority and a number of eleemosynary organizations keep Portals on retainer), nth-wave colonization, and so forth. A few are also kept under contract to the Imperial Exploratory Service, which may be offered on long-term lease to particularly promising newly contacted worlds likely to generate substantial interstellar traffic over relatively short periods of time.


(ed note: This was written for the Traveller role playing game. So any unfamiliar terms are game terms, but should be easy to figure out from the context.)

      There is a sizable group of SF roleplayers who simplify their maps to the point of having two areas: starport and everywhere else. I'll admit that a lot of stuff starts and ends at starports. But this mentality also leads many people to think that systems put all their space traffic infra-structure in one location.

     Nonsense in most cases.

     I already made a case for outposts at nearby gas giants (for ships that want to gas and go but have other pressing needs.) Now I'm looking at the mainworld, the one that gets mentioned in the Atlas of the Imperium.

     High Guard (game rules) tells us that planetary navies may construct ships on their planet regardless of the existence of a shipyard using local resources which I could only take to mean that while a world might not have construction facilities for civilians it has other military facilities for building ships and projecting power. Note High Guard said 'ships' not craft (ship = FTL starship, craft = STL solar system boat) so the military could build starships for itself even if the economy doesn't exist for civilian construction. At the very least we have separate civilian and military facilities.

     A planet with Navy and Scout bases may have hundred or thousands of miles between them and the civilian port for security reasons. They don't have to be separated by a mere chainlink fence.

     But getting back to the civilian facilities, time in money in business. That doesn't end merely when you touch down. That crate of err … mining equipment (yeah mining equipment!) still needs to get from a port warehouse to your fortress … errr mining fortress, mining camp! In a widely settled planet several hub cities might have their own starports to service local business at savings in time and money.

     Megacorporations may also have their own ports (exclusively for their own ships thank you). When you blow a jump drive and the local port is only Type B and the Combine Shipping port is Type A that might be the time you're glad you got Forgery skill or Admin (We're here to hot ship a quark frakkalator to our Crystal Springs operation now! You were just stationed there and don't recognize us? See fellows I told you that misjump sent us back in time. Well at least we'll get there in record time, eh? Unhand me!! I am from the future!!) Your own port is also a great way to get a piece of almost everything being shipped locally.

     Some starports might also have higher law levels than zero and be subject to local laws. A military operated starport would probably be a bad place to lug a PGMP (military grade plasma weapon, civilian ownership is frowned upon) around. Likewise landing at a military port due to misfortune might result in your ship being impounded for security reasons and you being subjected to questioning or worse. Landing at a megacorporation's field might be the same or worse, just done more quietly. What's one less free trader?

     If a planet has orbital ports then the same considerations extend to them. It is possible different elements are specialized for greater efficiency or that the orbitals and the ground installations are under different management due to a power struggle or other politics. Land at one and the others won't accommodate you.

     So you might have a non-industrial planet, a tidally locked one. On the sunlit face gems are mined and brought to the local port for sale. Meanwhile there's a  trade in furs is going on at the arctic night side that's pretty brisk (see what I did there?) Another port is set up on the twilight terminator for tourism, government and military use. You can have three different ports with very different characters on the same planet (or spaceports YMMV). Military presence and customs is fairly loose at Nightport. Hunters need guns after all. Dayport has extensive repair facilities for mining equipment and might take a stab at repairing a ship's hull or structure thought the drives will likely require more sophisticated facilities. It also has the most stringent customs: jewels are easy to hide. Finally Grey Port has the most repair facilities and the largest commercial district.

     A port might be 'full' when your intrepid merchant gets there. this will require you to land at another port or spend time chilling in orbit. The other port is not where your contract specifies delivery so an overland and over night trip is needed or you pay late fees. Oh and that customs official, the one you dated, is stationed at the full up port. So good luck getting that laser pistol through customs. Not to mention your cargo.

     A size 8 plus world (surface gravity higher than 1 gee) might have only one port with launch assistance for ships making less than 2 gees acceleration. Or each port might have their own methods. Sure Port Delta has the lowest berthing fees and launch fees but your ship has to ride the rocket sled. Port Alpha has the space tugs that gently lift you to orbit. It's way easier on the high passengers.

     Some ports might have repulsor beams to lift ships or whole cargos into orbit. While repulsor beams in High Guard are fairly high tech level launch systems don't have to be. A repulsor defense system has to be able to hit a tiny missile at thousands of kilometers in the midst of a storm of ECM. A launch system has to lift a ship a few hundred kilometers and odds are the ship isn't dodging.

     A couple of starports is also a great way to introduce people to the many cultures of a single planet. A balkanized world might have several starports with different capabilities each in the hands of different powers. This can lead to any number of dilemmas. Say you have a cargo of 'pharmaceuticals' that is highly illegal in the nation that controls the starport with the landing pits that your tail lander needs to ground safely. Similarly some planets may have safety concerns and require ships with certain drives to land at remote starports well away from cities or suburbs. Heading to town could be a couple of hours by air/raft.

     The very diversity of starports in a subsector might be a spur for adventurer jobs. The TAS (Traveller's Aide Society) or a related organization might want to hire characters to rate them in a futuristic version of Yelp. Easy money till you try the little remote field with the incredible stores, entertainment and bistros…

     …that services the local pirate fleet.

From I MEANT THE OTHER STARPORT by Rob Garitta (2016)

Spaceport Management

Spaceport policies are set by the port owner, who could be a variety of people. The port might be a lonely trading post owned by a merchant or merchant corporation. It could be a transport nexus owned by a huge corporation. It could be owned by the government of the planet or nation the spaceport is located in. It could be owned by an interstellar federation that the spaceport planet and planetary government are a part of. There are lots of possibilites.

As previously mentioned, the point of a spaceport is to make it easier for spacecraft to travel to the site. But that does not mean all spacecraft.

If the port is owned by PlanetGobbler Incorporated, the port will be a free trade zone to PlanGobInc company ships and those ships will be given all due assistance. By the same token, any ships belonging to World Exploiters Ltd. or StarTruckCo will find their lives made into a living hell by the spaceport's excessive fees, obstructionism, unfree trade zone status, punitive tariffs, endless safety inspections, and general nastiness. This would also apply to a neutral ship which is carrying a rival corporation's products as cargo.

And may the Great Bird of the Galaxy have mercy on your soul if you are the owner of an independent ship, you might even be denied permission to land! Corporations hate independent free traders.

If the port is owned by the local government, and said government wants to put pressure on Planet Z, magically any ships from or heading to Planet Z will suddenly be plagued by zillions of unofficial obstructions. Being moved to the end of the line, cargo inspections that "accidentally" damage the cargo, crew harassment, that sort of thing.

Spaceports are funded by several revenue streams. Most ports operate at a deficit, rarely making a profit.

Most of the money is a subsidy from the port owner, be it government or corporation.

Spaceports charge berthing fees to spacecraft for the privilege of landing. They also charge rental fees for the landing pad on a daily or monthly basis. Sometimes if a spacecraft owner cannot afford the berthing fee, the spaceport's cargo broker will accept spacecraft's cargo in payment.

Spaceports obtain revenue from any spaceport-owned port services used by visiting spacecraft.

Finally spaceports also obtain revenue by renting spaceport land to "concessions" (private companies offering port services used by visiting spacecraft). The rent can be a flat monthly fee, or a flat fee plus a percentage of the concession's gross income.

If the concession discovers that business is not as good as expected, they will complain to the spaceport that the rent should be lowered. If ship traffic increases, with a corresponding increase in concession income, the greedy spaceport might want to either raise the rent or convert a flat rent into "rent plus percentage.

Naturally any spaceports will become very angry with concessions on "rent plus percentage" contract who cheat by deliberately under-report income. Such concessions might be kicked out on the spot. And spaceports have to worry about concessions who mistreat customers, this will also adversely affect the spaceport's reputation. Concessions can be evicted if it can be shown that they are in violation of their contract.

Spacecraft crashes

A spacecraft "augering in" is a disaster ranging from the merely disastrous to the utterly catastrophic.

There are many factors.

Did the ship just bend a landing leg, did it topple over, did it land on its belly but didn't snap its spine, did it hit hard enough to become debris strewn over a wide area, did it hit hard enough to make a smoking crater?

Is the propulsion system or power plant (in rough order of increasing calamity) flammable chemicals, flammable toxic chemicals, flammable toxic chemicals that can melt human flesh, metastable helium, solid core nuclear, liquid core nuclear, gas core nuclear closed-cycle, gas core nuclear open-cycle, nuclear salt water rocket, or pure antimatter?

Did it hit any already grounded spacecraft, perhaps causing a chain reaction? Did it hit the spaceport landing pad, or did it hit a city?

And if the spacecraft is constructed out of titanium or magnesium and it catches on fire, whatever you do don't try to put it out with water!

Some of these hazards can be dealt with. Spaceports will probably be located at a distance from any populated area, with the distance proportional to the energy contained in a given spacecraft (the bigger the boom the farther the distance). Propulsion systems that are too powerful probably will not be allowed to land at all. Instead they will be put into parking orbits and cargo/passengers brought to the spaceport in winged space shuttles and ferries. Landed spacecraft will be separated at distances to minimize chain reactions. Weather patterns will be plotted so that the footprint of any plume of toxic gas or radioactive fallout will only go through barren and uninhabited areas. Spacecraft berths will be surrounded by blast protection berms or bunds, which are blast walls that try to channel the force of the explosion upwards (where there is nothing) instead of allowing it to travel sideways (where it will hit other ships or buildings).

For safety reasons, the landing field might only share its location with the emergency spacecraft services and maybe limited refueling. The other functions would be located at a distance hopefully outside the blast radius.

If the distance between the spaceport and the nearest metropolitan area is large, there will probably be some kind of mass-transit service connecting the two. The Star-town would probably be in between the spaceport and the city (Star-town wants to be far away from the explosion, the city wants the nasty Star-Town red-light district far away from it, the balance point between these two forces is the in between point).


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

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

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

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

This is a problem.

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

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

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

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

Make sure you have the other kind of backup.

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

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

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

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

For three seconds at a time.

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

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

From TWO MINUTES by Alistair Young (2015)

Kin Demes was a quiet backwater world. Mostly ocean, settlement concentrated on a chain of fertile islands. The latest settlers had no hstory of warfare. Barring some police actions against raids by the Ingoko indigenes (in other words people settled there long enough to forget they settled) it was a peaceful planet. In recent years even the Ingoko united into a loose commonwealth with the settlers providing cheap labor and trade in pearl-gems and seafood. It recently upgraded its bare dirt landing field to a Class C starport after several decades of labor took a deep breath and entered the interstellar community.

The planet was invaded almost immediately.

It was not ready. It had defenses around the starport and capital. It had a defense boat in orbit. It had a small respectable militia designed to deter invasion. They were of no use. The invaders were tenacious, merciless, and hungry! Kin-Demes defeat was made more galling by the fact the invaders had never mastered fire.

A bare 1.2 parsecs from Kin-Deme is Yu, a harsh unforgiving world with high gravity, windy deserts and brackish seas. Most humans there belong to nomadic tribes that can only be described as savage. They raid each other nearly as much as the starport and trade various rare minerals for guns and more guns. They'd roll over Kin-Demes in a minute if they were organized and united. But they weren't. They couldn't and they didn't. Forget them.

In the brackish waters lives the bloat fish. Bloat fish lived there a long time evolving and thwarted by high gravity and a low oxygen count. Eventually their fins evolved into tentacle like feelers and they were able to scramble on land in search of food until they found it or got their fishy brains blown out by an irate native who woke up to find their pet's leash trailing from a daddy bloat fish's mouth.

Then a captain landed his free trader on Yu, was too cheap to buy fuel at the starport, took on water from the brackish sea, and lifted ship.

Starships have a great many fuel tanks. Some are to hold water for trim (even reactionless drive ships worry about their center of mass as they boost). Into these tanks went the bloat eggs and fry and they survived to go where no bloat fish had gone before: Kin-Demes.

Cheapskate repeated his offshore fueling on Kin-Demes. He later misjumped and wound up 4 parsecs from the nearest star. His crew spaced him and climbed into their low berths and left the distress beacon on. But before that, while refueling bloat fish eggs and fry were released when a trim tank was blown to right the ship in some waves.

The bloat fish had a ball. They thrived in the less salty and benign ocean. In the lighter gravity they made leaps and bounds (sometimes literally) in practicing walking on shore and they ate anything that swam or walked near the beach. The Ingoko told their new allies something was up with the fishing. Then it collapsed. Then a boat hauled up a school of bloat fish who were the size of tuna and not amused. They tore through the fishing nets and the crew.

By the time the celebrations about the new starport ended and hangover therapy began working the bloat fish were established and on the move. Rivers, streams, even lakes a short walk apart were getting infested. Crops were being devoured. There was always the fishing industry to fall back on ... no wait.

Kin-Demes had a few weeks between ships calling. When the next merchant ship came calling famine and riot had taken over. Soldiers were barely holding the capital and port people were screaming for passage offworld. They'd pay anything. Unfortunately the leaders of the military and government would do anything to get offworld and tried to take the ship. The captain lifted ship and got ready to leave, but he hadn't time to refuel.

He took on water in the ocean.

There's a reason starports charge you so much for fuel. Yes, a good deal of that is price gouging (100 cr. per ton hydrogen? It's the most common element in the Universe!). Part of it is the cost of honest labor to clean your ship's tanks out and ensure no clever little beasties make their way into an open ecosystem. Your ship is essentially a closed system until it does something like refueling, or letting off passengers and cargo. Customs deals with that but some people forget that so many little cryptids and refugees from a monstrous tome of beasts will find their way into landing gear, airlocks, and other nooks and crannies where they could survive or at least lay durable eggs or spores.

This does not begin to consider the smugglers, poachers, pirates and ne'er do wells who perform ocean refueling and never think about it again. Invasive species are a problem here on Earth — a single planet. Commerce between worlds really opens up a can of worms (note these worm eat metal and spit hydrochloric acid at you).

Most space opera assumes that earth-like worlds have similar biologies: in other words you or I can get something to eat that won't kill you. They don't address invasive species. The thing is invasive species thrive when the environmental factors limiting them are removed. Go read Chamax Plague/Horde if you doubt me. A planet hop can leave an animal's predators behind but it might still perish due to other environmental factors (of course baby Kal-El did okay.)

An invasion of this sort could spur a new business for characters: pest control! This falls squarely under business plans for non merchant ships. Take a lab ship (or hunting ship) fit it with bio labs and head into the danger zone. You can have field missions to get specimens, hunting trips to get bigger specimens, military missions for the reeeeeeeeally big specimens, all the while dealing with displaced,  desperate or chewed on survivors. Meanwhile the scientist types can whip up a toxin or virus or pest catching robot as the situation demands.

The crisis can take a darker turn when lab tests of an invader reveal it is genetically modified to survive on the afflicted world. Enter the mad scientist: a truly underused enemy of SF RPGS. Ecological sabotage can be a cheap alternative to war in virtually any setting and very hard to get caught at. In fact local scientists making that discovery before the characters might start pointing fingers. Maybe they introduced the bloat fish to drum up business?

And wait 'til the flying monkeys attack!

From INVASION by Rob Garitta (2016)

Spaceport Functions

This is more or less a subset of space station functions. Many are from Star Hero by James Cambias, others are from GURPS Traveller: Starports, the rest I made up myself or discovered in Wikipedia.

Note that some services are owned by the spaceport authority itself, but similar services can be offered by private companies who rent space on the spaceport grounds. The latter are called "concessions".

Forward base to support spacecraft. Sometimes called "staging base" if military. Generally located in a "remote" location, remote being defined as "a long distance from the home base of the supported spacecraft." (e.g., a military base can be "remote" even if it is near a huge metropolitan planet belonging to a hostile nation).
Brokerage Offices
Cargo brokers are in the business of connecting cargo buyers with cargo sellers. Ship brokers are in the business of connecting owners of cargo transport spacecraft and charterers who have cargo which needs transporting. The brokers collect a commission on the sale. Technically the smugglers and black marketeers in Star-town are brokers as well, just not with offices and charging high commissions in return for not asking any embarrassing questions.
Boom towns
A "gold" strike on a planet or the establishment of a military base in a remote location may create a "boom town". The sudden appearance of large numbers of miners or enlisted people is an economic opportunity to sell them whiskey, adult entertainment, and other hard to find luxuries at inflated prices. Not to mention supplies and tools. Remember, in the California Gold Rush of 1849, it was not the miners who grew rich, instead it was the merchants who sold supplies to the miners. Civilian entrepreneurs may find it expedient to stabilize part of the ground to make an impromptu landing field. For an amusing look at the development and economy of a boomtown watch the movie Paint Your Wagon. But remember that boom towns can become ghost towns quite rapidly.
Bonded Warehouses
A bonded warehouse is a building or other secured area in which dutiable goods may be stored, manipulated, or undergo manufacturing operations without payment of duty. Always located inside the customs border section of the spaceport.
A chandlery sells ship stores and provisions. Life-support recharges, power plant fuel, spare parts, hydroponic seeds, medical supplies, carniculture starters, ship's cats, items for the slop chest, and anything else a spacecraft needs for a mission.
Customs/Immigration Authorities
If the spaceport is in a sovereign nation, chances are it will have customs and immigration agents controlling the flow of goods and people into and out of the nation, specifically entering or leaving the customs border section of the spaceport. If the nation's custom laws are strict, the customs border will probably be surrounded by heavy fences and armed guards. Some goods are subject to duties, tariffs, and taxes, other goods are restricted or prohibited.
Emergency Spacecraft Services
Emergency crews and equipment to deal with spacecraft that crash, topple over, have reactor criticality accidents, radiation leaks, and other disasters.
This means that if the spaceport is located inside the bounds of a sovereign nation, legally the grounds of the spaceport are not part of the nation. Sort of like the grounds of a foreign embassy. The edge of the spaceport is the Extraterritorial Line or "x-t line". This generally only happens if the spaceport is controlled by a huge and powerful Federation or Union which the planet is a member of. I say only occurs if the planet is part of a "federation or union". If the planet is part of a coalition or confederation, it will not allow extraterritoriality. If the planet is part of a federation or union, it would do well to respect the extraterritoriality of the port or it might suddenly find itself to be a part of a suzerainty. If the planet is part of a suzerainty or empire, it is a slave not a sovereign nation, so it has no say in the matter. As a side note, if the planetary nation is oppressing its citizens, it will probably have a futuristic version of the Berlin Wall immediately outside the x-t line to prevent citizens from escaping into the freedom of the spaceport. Any planetary local crossing the x-t line and seeking asylum will present a delicate problem to the port authority.
Free Trade Zone
A free trade zone is a geographic area where goods may be landed, handled, manufactured or reconfigured, and reexported without the intervention of the customs authorities. The custom duties are only imposed once the goods cross the customs border. This means that the sovereign nation (if any) that the spaceport is located inside cannot interfere at all with any goods that are transshipped through the port (i.e., just passing through). Spaceports owned by large corporations might be free trade zones for corporate ships, but nasty unfree trade zones for the corporation's competitors or anybody else.
Hazardous Cargo Handling
Specialized equipment to safely handle hazardous cargo. Generally only seen on a military spaceport in order to handle weapons and ammunition (sometimes nuclear). But it can be found in a commercial spaceport that regularly handles toxic, unstable, pathological, explosive, or radioactive cargo. "Hot stuff". The equipment also includes specialized hazmat warehouses for safe storage.
Hiring Hall
Employment services where spacecraft captains can hire crew members. This can range from an internet bulletin board to a large complex including interview offices and inexpensive (or free) hostels for crew members down on their luck.
Can be general hospitals or hospitals specializing in treating victims of spacecraft disasters. This includes treating shock-trauma, burns, and radiation poisoning. In small outpost spaceports, this might consist of a first aid box. A large hospital will also have some kind of ambulance. Hospitals must be vigilant to detect signs of pandemic diseases in incoming passengers or crew, such patients must be immediately quarantined.
Short or long term living quarters for people, with quality varying from four-star hotels down to spartan capsule hostels. Generally includes restaurants of various quality.
Landing field
Large stabilized field strong enough for spacecraft to land and blast off from. The sine qua non of a spaceport. Landing pads are for tail-sitters, runways are for belly landers.
Longshoremen are people and/or robots for hire to load or unload spacecraft cargo.
Maintenance and Repair
Spacecraft service shops handling scheduled maintenance, and repair yards repairing damaged ships. May include mobile cranes to deal with spacecraft that have toppled over. The facilities may be of varying levels of ability, analogous to the difference between a mom & pop automobile gasoline station in a sleepy backwoods town and a huge full-service automobile service shop in the big city.
Stores that sell uniforms, specialized clothing and gear to spacecraft crews.
Pirate Haven
Space pirates need infrastructure (fences for pirated loot, fuel and reaction mass, ship repairs, R&R for the crew). A hidden planetary spaceport can act as a Pirate Haven and cater to these needs.
Planetary Defense
Armed military station defending its planet from outside attack, planetary fortress. If the planet is a conquered one, or the government is oppressing the inhabitants, the station will try to maintain government control and deal with revolts. Also note that if the spaceport is non-military but it is a laser-launch site it is functionally equivalent to a planetary fortress. It can hurl projectiles and use laser beams directly at any invading spacecraft.
Power Services
For a fee, landed spacecraft can plug into the spaceport's power grid in order to avoid using fuel for the ship's internal power supply.
Refueling and Re-propellanting
Fuel and propellant depot. Refining and storage facility
Scientific research. Generally to investigate something interesting about the planet the spaceport is on.
Sanitary Services
For a fee, they will empty the spacecraft's septic tank, and connect the ship's sewage system to the starport's. Not really needed if the spacecraft has a closed ecological life support system.
Security Force
The Port Cops. They handle most criminal activity, SWAT-like special forces will deal with emergencies like terrorists and hijacking. The special forces will be trained to try and limit casualties and collateral damage. The local military forces will be called in for anything more major. They will also deploy to cover a spacecraft landing with a distress call, just in case this turns out to be another attempt at the old "Trojan Spacecraft" routine. They also know all about the old "fake medical emergency" gag, port cops will be stationed in the port hospital. The port cops will have their work cut out for them if the nation the port is sited on has been corrupted by the local criminal underworld. The criminal element in Star-Town will be trying to infiltrate the port, and the local police will not be interested in arresting or prosecuting them.
Ship Docks
Short or long term storage of spacecraft. They will often have heavy equipment designed to drag spacecraft from one location to another. No sense for a ship in long term storage to block a landing pad.
Shipyards are industrial sites that construct new ships. They have blueprints in hand for standard spacecraft, or custom spacecraft can be created for an additional fee.
Space Traffic Controllers
Outer space equivalent of terrestrial air traffic controllers. Monitors and controls the flight plans of local spacecraft. Assigns landing pads and lift-off windows. As with terrestrial air traffic controllers, a pilot ignoring traffic control is a very serious offence.
Star-Town is a thick border around the spaceport composed of bars, tourist traps, casinos and bordellos preying upon naive tourists and spacecraft crew members with flight pay burning a hole in their pockets. Usually forms just outside the spaceport's Extraterritorial Line, if any, but is sometimes inside the line if the port authority wants a piece of the action.
Surface to Orbit services
Services for hire to boost payload into low orbit. There are a variety of options, including Laser Launchers, Bifrost Bridges, Lofstrom loop, and Space Elevators. Remember that laser launchers and mass drivers can make the spaceport into an impromptu planetary defense fortress.
Trading Post
A trading post or "factory" is where a merchant (or the merchant's factor) carries on the merchant's business on a foreign planet. The trading post exchanges imported trade items for valuable local goods. In some cases a trading post and a couple of warehouses can grow into an actual colony. The trading post merchant or factor is responsible for the local goods logistics (proper storage and shipping), assessing and packaging for spacecraft transport. The factor is the representative for the merchant in all matters, reporting everything to the merchant headquarters. The longer the communication time delay between trading post and headquarters, the more trustworthy the factor has to be. Factors may work with native contract suppliers, called a comprador.
Transport Nexus
A Transport Nexus is a crossroad spaceport for passengers, a port of entry, an orbital warehouses where valuable minerals from asteroid mines are stored and trade goods transshipped, or a "trade-town". Will include related services, such as bonded warehouses, trading posts, hotels and longshoremen.
Used Spacecraft Yard
Honest Duquesne's lightly used spacecraft! This little vehicle was used by a little old astronaut who only took it out on lunar hops. Twenty percent down and the rest in easy installments.
Unlike bonded warehouses, these are not located inside the customs border section of the spaceport. Always guarded on general principle because there is expensive stuff stored inside. It may include connections to the local power grid for cargo that requires refrigeration.

Naturally a given spaceport could have several functions. And I'm sure you can think of other functions I've missed. Just think about passenger airports and ocean cargo ports for some ideas.

Extraterritorial Line

(ed note: this is for the Traveller RPG, which has faster-than-light starships)

Across the Third Imperium, in every starport of Class C or better (and in half of all Class D 'ports) there exists a place called the Moot Room. This room is neither part of the native world, nor is it part of the Imperium; it is a useful legal fiction that creates a completely neutral zone.

Interestingly enough, it isn't named after the Imperial Moot, although that is the common assumption. Instead, it is named because while inside the room, all laws, regulations and treaties are considered null; hence, everything is up for debate (the proper definition of moot) and nothing, not even laws, have any meaning (the improper definition).

To have a Moot Room, a starport needs the following:
  1. A room or a building straddling the Extrality Line. It typically ranges in size from that of a small shed, only capable of holding a few people (Class D) to a large, comfortable, and fully-stocked conference room that would not be out of place within an embassy (Class A). 
  2. A minimum of two entrances, one on either side of the line. Particularly nice Rooms will have a third entrance that leads to a private airlock, berth or landing pad; if so, the docking facilities are also considered Moot. 
  3. NO communication devices within the room, and as much privacy-granting shielding as the tech level will support. The higher the class of starport, the better the privacy. 
  4. Highly disciplined Starport Authority security personnel,  trained in law and ethics. These are stationed outside both doors, unless the participants request their presence inside. While these SPA personnel are not proper lawyers, they do serve as paralegals, official witnesses, notaries, and the like. 
The purpose of the Moot Room is to give individuals a place to discuss anything without fear of legal repercussion. It is a room of absolute freedom of expression, where nothing is taboo and everything is permitted. Yes, even murder; but if you can murder someone in that room, they can murder you as well, so parties meeting in the Moot Room usually request a weapons scans by the SPA before entering.*

The original purpose of the Moot Room was to allow people who might be considered criminals on a world — pirates, refugees, political dissidents — to interact with agents from that world without putting themselves in jeopardy of arrest or extradition. Similarly, it allows agents of a world to interact with enemies of the state without making themselves liable for dereliction of duty.**

Since then, the Moot Room has been used for a variety of things, many of them shady. If a corporate spy wishes to sell trade secrets without being arrested by undercover agents, he uses that room; but so too does a corporate whistleblower who wishes to speak to the press without worrying about a lawsuit from his company for breach of contract. Nobles have made treaties, planned assassinations, and yes, even plotted treason in Moot Rooms; and if the SPA overhears them, they are legally required not to report it and not act upon it.

There are very, very few extenuating circumstances in which the SPA may legally intervene, and these ethical questions have been puzzled over for centuries like Rabbis dissecting the Talmud. Broadly speaking (because there are always exceptions), these circumstances are:
  1. If someone has been brought into the room against their will.
  2. If there is a clear and immediate threat to the starport and/or the planet (an invasion does not count, but the potential release of a bioweapon does).
  3. If a party who entered via one door exits another door without conscious consent. 
If these conditions are not met, then whatever happens behind those doors is covered under the political version of the Seal of Confession.***

This has led to some rather interesting uses of the room for matters of honor. Several impromptu duels have been held inside a Moot Room, and in at least one case, a bit of expeditious justice involving a slaver being tricked inside only to be beaten to death by a family member of the enslaved.

On the whole, it helps more than it hurts. It facilitates communication and trade, which is the backbone of the Imperium. In addition, the starport makes a tidy profit from running a Moot Room; rates start as low as 50 Cr/hour for a shed and up to 1000 Cr/hour for the truly fancy accommodations
Sidebar: Smuggling

Of course someone is going to try to use the Moot Room's "absolute freedom" to smuggle something in past customs. That's to be expected. And yes, while inside the room the SPA can't do anything about it.

However, once the intrepid smuggler exits the room, he crosses the XT line. That means he can be searched for contraband outside of the protection of the Moot Room, and be prosecuted for smuggling if such is found.

This also makes Moot Rooms handy ways for people to surrender illegal items (like Ancient artifacts or military-grade weapons) without fear of arrest. Simply rent the room, carry your item inside, and leave it behind for either the SPA or whomever you met with to deal with. You're allowed to have it inside the room, and if you don't have it when you leave... why then, you're free to go, citizen. 
Legal Footnotes

*  The SPA will happily scan anyone going into the room for weapons, or recording devices, or whatever else the parties demand. They are facilitators and gatekeepers for the Moot Room, and don't care what anyone takes in so long as both parties agree — but see Smuggling, above, for what people are allowed to take out.

** Some restrictive governments won't allow their citizens to use the Moot Room, of course, and so they place legal (or literal) barricades to entry, but as long as that occurs on the home planet's side of the XT line, the SPA doesn't care.

*** Which is the big reason why SPA scans for recording devices when asked; there are volumes of legal treatises involving "I recorded this guy without his consent, and he confessed to an Imperial Crime within the Moot Room, and then I made it public to ruin his image/ blackmail him/ get the authorities after him."  The short version is that most Moot Rooms have distinctive visual cues and the better ones are able to embed "This is the [System Name] Starport Moot Room" into the background hiss of the sound suppression system and likely microdotted into the walls, meaning that it's very easy to determine if the conversation is admissible in court. If it's not admissible, then the party responsible for releasing the recording can be prosecuted under Imperial Law for violating the privacy of the room.

How is that possible?  Again, anything inside the Moot Room is legal, but you need to leave sometime. And when you do, you enter either Imperial Space or the local system — both of which are beholden to Imperial Law. If you break the seal of the Moot Room without exceptionally good reason, you're in trouble.

If you are getting the impression that the Imperium really values privacy, you are correct. It's almost as if it's based upon secrets and lies...

From The Moot Room by Erin Palette (2015)

Landing Field

Obviously an area where spacecraft land and blast off from is the sine qua non of a spaceport. Otherwise it isn't a spaceport at all. It doesn't matter if it is a one-ship landing pad that is a bulldozed square of dirt or a titanic paved area the size of Rhode Island spotted with huge soot chrysanthemum shapes, you gotta have a place to land.

Now it is true that I've ranted about how real rockets are tail-sitters, which land on landing pads. But the two big exceptions are Orbit to Surface ferries which land like an aircraft (e.g., the old NASA Space Shuttle) and cargo spacecraft that do not want to raise or lower their cargo twenty stories. Aircraft-like ferries will need something like an airplane runway to land on. Some belly landing cargo spacecraft will need runways as well (the others have sideways rockets like the Eagle Transporters from Space: 1999).

The landing area must be of ground stabilized enough to remove the danger of shifting ground toppling spacecraft. Not to mention being durable enough to withstand the blowtorch from hell that is the ship's exhaust.

If the spacecraft are strictly orbit-to-orbit craft that never land on a planet the spaceport will only handle surface-to-orbit ferry ships. It might also have a more massive installation, such as a Space Elevator, a Lofstrom loop, a Laser Launcher, or a Bifrost Bridge.

Remember that installing laser launchers or mass drivers at a spaceport means the port is now an impromptu planetary fortress.

One of the major constraints on spaceport design is the danger level of the spacecraft propulsion systems. It isn't so bad if the spacecraft is actually parked in orbit with the cargo being ferried down in winged space shuttles. It becomes more of a concern if the spacecraft are chemically powered tail-landers. And things get very dangerous if the spacecraft are nuclear powered. If the spacecraft is antimatter powered it probably is not going to be allowed anywhere near a planet, much less land on it.

The danger level of the spacecraft using the port will also influence how far away from cities and major populated areas the spaceport is located. Nuclear powered spacecraft will mandate that the potential footprint of the fallout plume goes through only barren and uninhabited areas. An Orion-drive ship can lift-off with little or no fallout if the launch pad is armor plate with a coating of graphite dust. If the spaceport is on a planet with an atmosphere does not land under Orion-drive power. The nuclear pulse units in an atmosphere will generate horrible nuclear fireballs that the landing ship will fly into, instantly voiding its warranty.

The energy of the ship's exhaust is:

Fp = (F * Ve) / 2


  • Fp = thrust power (watts)
  • F = thrust (newtons)
  • Ve = exhaust velocity (m/s)

[1] Exhaust power. Say we have a gas core rocket with an exhaust velocity of 50,000 m/s and 1,000,000 newtons of thrust. We've got 25,000,000,000 watts on our hands (25 gigawatts). Say that the exhaust is concentrated mainly in a 10 meter diameter circle on the final descent. The area is about 80 square meters, for a heat flux of roughly 300 megawatts per square meter. Which will vaporize the surface layer of about anything. The question becomes: how deep?

[2] Heat radiation. We're talking about very high temperatures here, so maybe the surface might radiate heat away faster than the exhaust deposits it? If nothing else, it will give a rough upper limit to the temperatures involved. The 300 MW/m2 flux correspond roughly to black-body radiation at 8500 K. So the temperatures may well be of that order of magnitude.

[3] Heat Conduction. Let's say the surface gets really hot. How fast is the heat conducted below the surface? Many rocks seem to have conductivities on the order of 2 W/m-K or so. At that rate, the temperature gradient would have to be incredibly high to balance the influx; 150 MK/m. I suspect that indicates that the surface would probably ablate to vapour and escape, with only the thinnest layer liquid at any given time. Maybe a micrometre or so on average.

[4] Quantity vaporized. As a rough guideline, many rocks at normal temperatures have heat capacities of about 1 kJ/kg-K. Extrapolating wildly, I could assume that they don't vary by too much at higher temperatures. If their temperature is raised on the order of 7000 K, then they will carry off something like 7 MJ/kg. Now, we can probably assume a density of about 3000 kg/m3, so that's 21 GJ/m3. If the final part of the landing takes about 20 seconds, that's up to about 23 m3 of rock. Dividing by the assumed area, we get a very shallow crater about 30 cm deep (about a foot).

So, based on the above figures I'd guess that a plume of exhaust like that would erode the surface, breaking it down into vapour or even decomposing it, with the resulting gases dissipating rapidly. With heat conduction so low compared to the incoming energy, there simply won't be enough time for a pool of lava to form. Any liquid would be blasted outward by superhot gases, vaporizing and then recondensing along the way.

My guess is that you'd get a broad but shallow crater, surrounded for quite some distance by ash condensed from the escaping gases and of course any debris that might have been carried along for the ride.

Timothy Little

A far light in the sky, a faint rumble like distant thunder… soon drowned out as the klaxons screamed again over the hard-packed clay of Isahan Interplanetary.

Oddly Specific Impulse, nuclear heavy-lifter out of Vevery, grounding! All personnel, clear pad eight! I repeat: Oddly Specific Impulse, nuclear heavy-lifter out of Vevery, grounding! All personnel, clear pad eight!”

A series of thuds and locking clanks betokened the closing and sealing of the access ramps. For a minute more, the landing pad was silent, a dark-gray disk of layered graphite, sapphiroid and cerametal slabs nearly a mile wide within the ring of its earthen berm. From that far back only the most discerning eye could make out the lines between the slabs, so carefully were they cut and fitted together — even, or perhaps especially, those concealing the accesses and other pad facilities.

Much easier to make out were the rail-less “hot” shaft at the center of the pad, ringed with black and yellow caution markings, and the giant, blocky digit-eights and inward-pointing arrows at each cardinal point, inlaid in white metal. That did not require a discerning eye, merely an incautious one; the prompt radiation dose you’d receive from a vantage point atop the berm wouldn’t kill you, but the vomiting and blue-blotch syndrome was unlikely to be pleasant. Nor was the rest of what an octet of nuclear lightbulbs at full thrust would do to your senses.

The light dropped lower. With suddenness it flared bright, and thunder bloomed across the plains. It had come close enough to the ground that our hypothetical watcher — or the screens at port control — could make out the polished metal of Impulse’s forward hull, a curved silver bullet, but her aft hull remained hidden. In space, the superheated hydrogen gushing from her roaring drives would be invisible, but down in the atmosphere it ignited as soon as it mixed with the air; Impulse descended on a column of flame, which washed back up around her as she descended, wrapping her aft hull in a fiery cloak through which only the edges of her tailfins showed.

Lower and lower she dropped, almost imperceptibly slowing, as if she would dash herself to pieces on the ground. Her pilot was of no mind to waste reaction mass, and had saved all his deceleration for the last seconds of flight. Her flame touched the pad, gushed sideways, kinked as a last-minute side-slip properly aligned her drive plume with the “hot” shaft which swallowed it whole, leaving only a few curls of fire to wash out over the width of the pad. Above, aligned on the lee edge of the berm, the tall radiator fins which carried away drive heat from pad and shaft alike burst into carmine life.

Down further she sank, crossing these last few hundred feet as slowly as the thousands before them had been swift. The roar of the engines eased a little. Down, and down some more. Contact. Impulse thudded onto the pad, resting on the reinforced trailing edge of her tailfins, and her pilot expertly killed the drives, thunder disappearing into echoing silence. Without sound, it seemed, Impulse dropped her drive shroud into position, a cylinder of lead-composite to confine drive radiation to the shaft where it belonged, and from the edges of the pad the sprinklers rose and fired, drenching heated pad and searing hull alike with water that turned almost instantly to steam.

From far away the announcer spoke again.

Oddly Specific Impulse, nuclear heavy-lifter out of Vevery Station, has now grounded at pad eight. Service team stand by. Rad-check team, commence sweep. Disembarkation may commence in twenty minutes.”

From GROUNDING by by Alistair Young (2015)

A robot has built a prototype launch-and-landing pad in Hawaii, potentially helping pave the way for automated construction projects on the moon and Mars.

The robotic rover, named Helelani, assembled the pad on Hawaii's Big Island late last year, putting together 100 pavers made of locally available material in an effort to prove out technology that could do similar work in space.

"The construction project is really unique. Instead of concrete for the landing pad, we're using lunar and Mars material, which is exactly like the material we have here on the Big Island — basalt," Rob Kelso, executive director of the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration (PISCES) in Hawaii, told Hawaiian news outlet Big Island Now. PISCES partnered with NASA on the project, which is part of a larger program called Additive Construction with Mobile Emplacement, or ACME for short.

"And secondly, instead of a human workforce building construction for the landing pad, we're using robotics," Kelso added.

The overall goal of the ACME program is to enable the design and construction of infrastructure on the moon and Mars using local materials. Doing so would be much cheaper and more efficient than hauling everything from Earth, advocates say, since it currently costs about $10,000 to launch every kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of payload from our planet's surface to orbit.

One way robots could do this is by building dual-purpose vertical takeoff, vertical landing pads. Such VTVL pads will be important for future missions, advocates say; they will eliminate or mitigate the dust storms that would otherwise result (and possibly damage space equipment and/or neighboring structures) during launch and landing operations.

Furthermore, moon dust is incredibly fine, and it sticks to everything. So keeping it out of astronauts' way, and off their equipment, will be a priority for the planners of future lunar efforts.

Hence Helelani, and its Hawaiian VTVL pad. The rover first worked to clear and grade a 100-square-foot (9.3 square meters) area. Using its robotic arm, the rover then laid out 100 interlocking basalt pavers, which were joined like puzzle pieces to help reinforce the pad.

Helelani was controlled remotely from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Time delays were added to the communications to help simulate a lunar or Mars mission, project team members said. The next step will be to test the pad's durability by blasting it with a simulated rocket engine plume, they added.

Ship Docks

Ship docks are for short or long term storage of spacecraft.

If spacecraft have to land on specially constructed landing pads, a spaceport might only have a limited number of them. If the ship is going to be on the planet for a while, the spaceport will want the ship moved off the pad and dragged to a dock for more permanent storage. The docks may each be surrounded by a blast protection berm, so one spacecraft blowing up doesn't start a chain reaction with their neighbors.

If spacecraft can land on a reasonably flat piece of ground or concrete (instead of a specially constructed pad), the spaceport will have virtually unlimited amounts of landing pads. In that case, the spaceport doesn't mind if a ship stays on its landing site for months and months, as long as the captain pays the pad rent.

At a spaceport, moving a tail-landed ship to another site is tricky. The spacecraft's lateral jacks are extended so the tail of the ship is lifted off the landing apron. A crawler is then backed under the spacecraft, and the ship is lowered onto it. The "bottom handler" runs the crawler. The "top handler" rides in the control room of the spacecraft. Under each fin of the spacecraft is a hydraulic mercury capsule. The top handler keeps an unblinking eye on a bubble level gauge, and uses a joystick to control the mercury capsules. If the spacecraft starts to tip, the appropriate mercury capsules are pressurized to counteract the tip.

Belly landed ships are easy to move, just use a tractor to tow the ship on its wheeled landing gear.

The spacecraft area might be arranged into Parkbays. These have a launch/landing pad in the center, surrounded by a series of spacecraft berths. The berths are separated from each other by blast protection berms. When a spacecraft lands on the pad, it is then moved into one of the berths. If the spacecraft explodes, the berms will channel the blast upwards where it does no damage, instead of allowing it to damage the spacecraft in the neighboring berths or the rest of the spaceport.

Actually this is very similar to the way they construct firework factories: thick strong walls and thin flimsy roof. Roofs are relatively inexpensive to replace, so the strong walls will funnel the blast so it eliminates it. If instead you make a strong roof and flimsy walls, you'll end up with roof and the factory walls blown into dust.

Starship Hangars

(ed note: the ships here are equipped with magic diamagnetic fields that allow them to hover and move slowly into their berths)

The "hangar" on Kalgan is an institution peculiar unto itself, born of the need for the disposition of the vast number of ships brought in by the visitors from abroad, and the simultaneous and consequent vast need for living accommodations for the same. The original bright one who had thought of the obvious solution had quickly become a millionaire. His heirs — by birth or finance — were easily among the richest on Kalgan.

The "hangar" spreads fatly over square miles of territory, and "hangar" does not describe it at all sufficiently. It is essentially a hotel — for ships. The traveler pays in advance and his ship is awarded a berth from which it can take off into space at any desired moment. The visitor then lives in his ship as always. The ordinary hotel services such as the replacement of food and medical supplies at special rates, simple servicing of the ship itself, special intra-Kalgan transportation for a nominal sum are to be had, of course.

As a result, the visitor combines hangar space and hotel bill into one, at a saving. The owners sell temporary use of ground space at ample profits. The government collects huge taxes. Everyone has fun. Nobody loses. Simple!

The man who made his way down the shadow-borders of the wide corridors that connected the multitudinous wings of the "hangar" had in the past speculated on the novelty and usefulness of the system described above, but these were reflections for idle moments — distinctly unsuitable at present.

The ships hulked in their height and breadth down the long lines of carefully aligned cells, and the man discarded line after line. He was an expert at what he was doing now and if his preliminary study of the hangar registry had failed to give specific information beyond the doubtful indication of a specific wing — one containing hundreds of ships — his specialized knowledge could winnow those hundreds into one.

There was the ghost of a sigh in the silence, as the man stopped and faded down one of the lines; a crawling insect beneath the notice of the arrogant metal monsters that rested there.

Here and there the sparkling of light from a porthole would indicate the presence of an early returner from the organized pleasures to simpler — or more private — pleasures of his own.

From Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov, 1952

The Meteoris

A stunning scratch-built plastic model of an atomic rocket by master model-maker Michael 'Woozle' McGuire. This model was one of the winners in the "Space Racer" contest at Starship Modeler. It was inspired by Lester del Rey's short story "Habit".


However, there will spring up a "star-town", i.e., a thick border around the starport composed of ethnic restaurants, bars, tourist traps, restaurants, casinos and bordellos meant to painlessly separate starship crew members from their flight pay. Plus a few pawn shops where crew members can get extra cash by hocking their equipment, personal items, and/or alien curios they acquired during their travels. Not to mention smugglers and black marketeers, who are buying and selling contraband goods and illegal transport services. Smuggling also applies to fugitives attempting to escape off-world. Look, over in the corner, is that Obi-Wan Kenobi negotiating with Han Solo? Star-town will also have "flop-houses" which are cheaper than the capsule motels but much more disgusting. There are charity soup-kitchens as well.

The darker sections of star-town are dangerous, much like any benighted urban area. Tourists enter at their own peril. There are predators who will rob you at gun-point, pick-pockets, con artists and related criminals.

In his article Happy Landings! Starport Design in Traveller (White Dwarf #43) Thomas M. Price makes a strong case for locating Star-town inside the extrality fence, instead of outside as in the Traveller game. He notes that sale of fuel, repair fees, warehousing fees, and a percentage of cargo sales is not going to be bring in enough money to keep the starport solvent. Putting Star-town inside the extrality fence will not only give the starport license to get a cut of the money, but will also make Star-town much more lucrative.

Inside the fence the local planet's laws do not apply, so Star-town can offer all sorts of (money-making) vices that are immoral and illegal (and in high demand) on the planet. And all tax-free as well. Since the starport managers are not fools, there will be an inner fence separating Star-town from the starport proper. The managers want their cut of Star-town money, but they won't allow unruly inhabitants or the criminal element to interfere with the operation of the port.

I'm sure the planetary police department will have a checkpoint at Star-town's exit, to make sure people don't try to bring any illegal souvenirs home (e.g., a suitcase full of contraband drugs).

Michael Andre-Driussi points out that the location of Star-town will depend upon how often spacecraft crash and how radioactive their exhaust is. Maybe Star-town will be at some distance from the actual landing site. Or it might be milder: with Star-town encircling the landing site, but with the low-rent district downwind in the footprint of the fallout zone. He also points out that the same factors will determine how far the spaceport itself is from any cities or other populated areas. Lots of crashes or landing pads that glow in the dark mean a spaceport in the middle of the desert or other barren wasteland. In that case, Star-town will be located approximately halfway between the starport and the nearest city, with regular mass-transit service to the port.

Radioactive fallout is typically in a long skinny plume pointing in the wind direction. So, for instance, if the wind generally blows to the south-east, the prime Star-Town locations would be north-west of the launch site, the upscale locations would be north and west, the average locations would be north-east and south-west, the ghetto would be at east and south, and the real bad part of town would be south-east.


(ed note: "Cr" is the symbol for "credit", the unit of currency in the Traveller RPG.)


This is the area of a starport city located just outside the port's extraterritorial boundary fence. Like the waterfronts of old, startowns cater to the needs and desires of starship crew members, port workers, and petty criminals.

Startown is sleazy and rundown; it's considered to be the worst district of the spaceport city. Cheap taverns, brothels, hotels, and gambling halls abound, wedged in among warehouses, the local ship's crew hiring hall, cargo brokers' offices, ship suppliers, passenger agent's offices, and the central cargo exchange. The city police usually maintain a large station in startown. Military units (regular and mercenary) and navel units garrisoned nearby also have police and shore patrols constantly roaming the area. Nonetheless, law enforcement authorities are overworked an startown, and overlook all but the most serious of infractions. They are also underpaid and susceptible to bribes.


The central city is the retail and business district common to most starport cities. Located at some distance from the starport, it is reachable by public transportation such as a monorail system, air or ground taxis, or other such systems, depending on local tech level and geographical conditions. Here are located the best hotels, restaurants, and stores as well as bars and night clubs. Trade related businesses such as shipping lines and import/export firms maintain offices here too. Local laws are more rigidly enforced in the central city and a higher standard of conduct and and manners is expected here than in other areas.

Accordingly, starship crews do not regularly venture into the central business district. However, ship captains. senior merchants, naval and military officers, and ship owners may enter the central city on business or seeking better lodgings, food, and entertainment than can be found elsewhere in the city. Usually, food and accommodations that would fall in the "high living" category citizens who are acquainted with or who do business with starship captains, such as cargo brokers and exporters, frequently entertain their clients at the private gaming and dining clubs located here.

Ship's crewmembers, soldiers on liberty, and adventurers will generally seek the same things when looking for rest and recreation on virtually any world. These include a place to sleep. some good meals, relaxing refreshments. and companionship generally of the opposite sex. A good gambling game is often sought, also.


After a week of ship's food that ranges from fairly good to nearly inedible in quality, the average crewmember on liberty is hungry for a good meal. So is a mercenary who has been living on field rations, not to mention the adventurer fresh in from the bush.

As noted in book 3, ordinary meals can be purchased for Cr10, excellent meals for from Cr20 to 50.

Ordinary meals are easily found in the cafes of startown and in the cafeterias and snack shops in the central city.

For better food, characters must take the trouble to go to the central city. Here they will find the best restaurants, however, they might not get in. Most restaurants in this part of town follow a strict code of dress and decorum with most maitres'd frowning on starship jumpsuits or camouflage battle fatigues in their establishments. Even the garish clothes sold by startown tailors won't fool the keepers of the velvet rope. Characters with a social standing of 7 or less will generally not be admitted, and in any case, tables must be reserved in advance in the best places

Cities adjacent to star ports are where the best and most diverse restaurants on a planet will usually be found. This is because these restaurants have the easiest access to imported foodstuffs, and the constant traffic of off-worlders through the starport creates a demand for many varied and exotic styles of cooking.

Agricultural worlds will have the most abundant, least expensive, and highest quality food. Industrial worlds and poor worlds are likely to feature protein concentrates grown in yeast vats as the daily staple. Natural foods are likely to be imported, and will always be very expensive, with a natural food meal costing Cr50 or more. Natural foods here means any food; derived from plants or animals as opposed to synthetic foods grown in vats from yeast, petroleum or similar substances.


Alcoholic beverages are easily available and legal on most worlds except for worlds or regions ruled by theocratic dictatorships. Drunk and disorderly characters are subject to arrest according to the planet's law level. Local police on high law level worlds are more likely to make tavern checks as well.

The cost of alcoholic beverages varies widely depending on type and quality. For instance, a shot and a beer can be had in a startown bar for Cr0.75 to Cr1, A beer alone would run from Cr0.5 to Cr1.5 depending on quality and location of purchase. A good bottle of wine could range from Cr5 to Cr20 for local vintage; while the rare Terran wines cost ten times as much or more per bottle, if available. A rare Terran varietal or appellation d'origine contrôlée wine would cost thousands of credits per case. (A single bottle of vintage 1022 Hospice du Beune sold for Cr7000 in an old wine auction on Capital recently, and a bottle of Tokaj escenzia was sold on the black market for Cr12,000,000.)

Alcoholic beverages are cheapest on agricultural worlds where in many cases they are produced from surplus crops. They are most expensive on industrial worlds, especially sub-Terran and non-Terran worlds where they must be imported. Generally, governments find alcohol a lucrative revenue source and tax it heavily. Illegal distillation and sale of alcohol is a common occupation on many worlds, High quality beverages are likewise favorite commodities for smuggling. Import duties of 10 to 20 percent are not uncommon far alcohol unloaded at starports throughout the Imperium.


Star town is a rough neighborhood where many a liberty has been ruined by crimes committed against crewmembers and other adventurers. Mugging by thugs is a fairly common occurrence which often shows up on the random encounter table of book 3. Also, visiting spacehands are the favorite targets of many thieves.

Characters may have their belongings stolen from dirtside hotel rooms, from have their pockets picked, or be "rolled" while engaged with a professional companion.

Shanghaiing is the ultimate danger starship crewmembers and other adventurers face in and around the bars and joyhouses of startown. if 12 exactly is rolled on the 2D crime roll, a non-player will invite an adventurer to drink with him. The drink will be drugged, rendering the adventurer unconscious. The adventurer will awaken 24 hours later, trussed up aboard a starship (8+ for it to be a pirate vessel) bound for parts unknown,

If 9+ is rolled on the crime roll, the adventurer is robbed of all his cash plus other valuables on his person. The circumstances of the theft and the objects stolen should be determined by the referee according to circumstances, but they should be a logical part of the character's activities. For example, a character on a drinking spree could be robbed while unconscious in an alley near the tavern. If he or she is on a crowded street downtown, his or her pocket may be picked. If engaged with a professional companion, his or her wallet might be lifted while he the player is otherwise distracted.

The referee should roll for theft only once during the week the character's ship is in port unless the character is unusually stupid (intelligence 5 or less). Then roll twice to simulate lack of care and foresight.

From R & R by Terry McInnes in The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No. 7 (1981)

Teralu Startown: The single-system Teralu polity, in the Magen Exodus, once signed a contract with the Empire to maintain a starport on the populated world of their system, Teralu Actual, making the usual concessions with regard to starport extrality and to freedom of passage. Later, after the coup of 5942, the new Teralu government – now on unfriendly terms with its large neighbor – no longer wished for the arrangement to continue, but were unable to repudiate the contract (good for several millennia); the Empire, as ever, holds what it has.

Hard times, though, were thought to be incoming for Teralu Starport, and for the downport, that turned out to be the case: the new regime had much less use for interstellar commerce and those who engaged in it, and Teralu Down remains today a stripped shell of its former self.

The same, however, cannot be said of Teralu Orbital. Positioned as the Teralu system is along the Mercantile Corridor, and at an intersection of local stargate routes, the ciseflish entrepreneur Rilman min Kinethill rented – at a remarkably low rate – many of the now-unused vast transshipment warehouses of Teralu Orbital, filling them with used freight containers eminently suitable to be cut and refashioned into prefabs, and provided them with independent utilities at his own expense, before offering these volumes for rent at low rates.

Thus, Teralu Orbital now plays host to one of the most flourishing startowns in the inner Worlds, offering in addition to standard starport services everything in the lines of taverns, caravanserais, hotels, flophouses, gambling, trading both speculative and slash, hiring, brawling, negotiable affection, hedonics, junk dealing, street food, scratch medicine, and other such services that a jaded crewsoph’s heart might desire. This is no Nepscian red-market, though: personal security and contract enforcement are vigorously provided by min Kinethill’s chartered mercenary company, the Gray-in-Gray Cloaks. Min Kinethill himself retired from hands-on management some years ago, but maintains ownership of the operation and continues to keep an eye on local affairs from his personal aerostat on Cerise (Banners).

It’s well worth a visit, both to take in the thriving – and often sweltering – atmosphere, and to see the unique architecture created by the local residents. Don’t bother with the planet below, though: the locals are unfriendly, and the local color dull, at best.

– Leyness’s Worlds: Guide to the Ecumene


Torwald's timer woke him at 0700. For a few minutes he enjoyed the luxury of staring at the ceiling, then rolled out of bed. It was ship-out day. As he shaved, the mirror reflected the Spartan simplicity of his surroundings: bunk, table, chair, a small bathroom, all encompassed by walls painted a pleasing neutral color. The room was identical to millions of others in transients' hotels scattered throughout the ports of the inhabited worlds. A spacer seldom needs anything more luxurious.

His bag was already packed at the foot of the bed, and as Torwald hoisted it to his shoulder, he made the ritual last-minute check for overlooked items, then walked down the hallway to the drop and stepped inside. His stomach jumped as the circular platform swiftly descended ninety-five floors. At ground level, he entered a lobby decorated with murals of alien landscapes, an inevitable motif in hotels catering to spacers.

The ports were all alike, at least on the more developed worlds, and Earthport was no exception: a great, overcrowded anthill towering into the sky.

The rest of Earthport was just waking up, but the spaceport and environs worked round the clock. Torwald was looking for a place that served good meals. He always held back enough pay for one final feast before moving out. On most ships, especially the small ones, ship fare became monotonous very quickly.

Torwald dug in. All was delicious and all authentic, even though the lamb probably had been cloned in a laboratory and the grain for the pita bread was from an orbiting agristation. These days little land remained on Earth for farming or grazing.

At the gate of the spaceport the familiar chemical odor hit him. He inhaled deeply; it was reassuring, the smell of his trade. To the uninitiated it was an ungodly stench: solvent, vehicle fumes, fuel for the boosters and the short-haul chemical burners. After several minutes the loop shuttle—a robot tractor pulling a string of cars lined with benches—glided up to the gate and the few home-bound late-shift workers descended. Torwald climbed aboard. He was the only passenger.

The port area covered four square kilometers of perfectly level surface, much of it occupied by hangars, repair docks, and underground machine shops, which Torwald passed through in the shuttle on Ms way to the terminal. Far out on the launching fields he could make out the lordly shapes of three towering Transgalactics. They were ships of the big lines that had cornered 97 percent of all intersystem trade and transport. Beyond the Transgalactics stood the humbler, lower silhouettes of the tramps. Those were his ships. In the glamour buckets, all was regimented and impersonal; the only way to gain rank was to bootlick all the way up the ladder. It was a system Torwald couldn't stomach—a flaw of personality that had kept him a ranker or probationary officer all the time he was in the Navy.

The shuttle finally stopped at a gigantic dome, the largest spaceport building in all human space, though those of several of the colonies were catching up fast. Torwald entered the terminal and found himself in an immense circular cavern, acres in area. Around its periphery were ticket booths, waiting rooms, gift shops, snack bars, lading offices, Customs and Immigration, hiring offices, and hundreds of others.

When the hiring light on the big board lit up, Torwald sauntered toward the office. The man behind the desk was typical of those who worked for the port authorities or spacing companies but never got into space themselves: neat uniform, bored face. Torwald unclipped the gold spacer's bracelet from his wrist and handed it to the officer, who fed it into his computer console. The bracelet carried his naval and merchant service records—at least the official parts of both. His eyebrows rose fractionally as he read the printout. "There are two Class Ones of the Satsuma Line out there," he said, "and the Four Planet Line Starvoyager. With your qualifications, I could line you up with a berth in any of them."

"Not interested. What about the tramps?"

"Oh, sorry," the young officer said affably. "You have a psych problem?"

"Yeah, I hate stuffed uniforms."

The tramps, shuttles, and small-line ships were another matter. They were cramped, carrying crews of no more than a couple dozen at most. Scarred and battered, they were usually obsolete castoffs, sold at auction when one of the lines laid in a new fleet of up-to-date ships. To Torwald, they were more beautiful than the finest new craft. They were the ships he had chosen to spend his life in.

Last in the line stood the Space Angel. Her position told Torwald something about her recent prosperity. This far from the main buildings, the docking fees were cheaper. She was a real antique, her once glossy sides now dulled after years of collision with drifting space dust.

"Permission to come aboard," Torwald stated formally.

"Granted," the little man replied. Spacers were creatures of ritual.

Inside, she was so homey that Torwald felt like kicking off his boots. The deck, bulkheads, and overhead were covered with scars from the magnetic plates that spacers had worn on their bootsoles in the days before the invention of the gravity field. He knocked on the captain's hatch and heard a growled "Stand inside."

Within a block of the spaceport dozens of surplus stores catered to spacers. The end of the War had dumped millions of tons of surplus gear on the market, and the shops had sprung up overnight. Ideal places for a spacer to outfit himself cheaply.

From SPACE ANGEL by John Maddox Roberts (1979)

Star Street was not so much a place as a name. It was the name that starmen invariably gave to whatever street near a spaceport afforded fun and comfort. The Star Street of Vhol was not too much different from many others that Dilullo had walked.

It had lights and music and drink and food and women. It was a gusty, crowded place but it was not sinful, for most of these people ... did not know they were sinning at all. Dilullo did not have an easy time keeping his men with him as he looked for an inn.

A buxom woman with pale green skin and flashing eyes hailed him from the open front of her establishment, where girls of different hues and at least three different shapes preened themselves.

"The ninety-nine joys dwell here, oh Earthmen! Enter!"

Dilullo shook his head. "Not I, mother. I crave the hundredth joy."

"And what is the hundredth joy?"

Dilullo answered sourly. "The joy of sitting down quietly and reading a good book."

Rutledge broke up laughing, beside him, and the woman started to screech curses in galacto.

"Old!" she cried. "Old withered husk of an Earthman! Totter on your way, ancient one!"

Dilullo shrugged as her maledictions followed them down the noisy street. "I don't know but what she's right. I'm feeling fairly old, and not very bright."

He found an inn that looked clean enough and bargained for rooms. The big common room was shadowy and empty, the inn's patrons having apparently gone forth to sample the happiness Dilullo had rejected. He sat down with the others and called for a Vhollan brandy, and then turned to Rutledge.

From THE WEAPON FROM BEYOND by Edmond Hamilton (1965)

They went to the address the driver had given them, in Old Town under the original bubble. I gathered that it was the sort of jungle every port has had since the Phoenicians sailed through the shoulder of Africa, a place of released transportees, prostitutes, monkey-pushers (drug dealers), rangees, and other dregs – a neighborhood where policemen travel only in pairs.

From DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein, 1956

The sailor at the Norbert IV’s boarding hatch pointed to a row of low prefab buildings 300 meters in from where the vessel had landed. The freighter’s leave party—the whole crew except for a two-man anchor watch—had already stumped most of the distance over the blasted ground. The crewmen carried only AWOL bags, while the disembarking passengers had much more substantial luggage.

“There’s the terminal,” the sailor said. “The left one’s Marvelan entry requirements. If there’s nobody home, go to passenger operations beside it. Pilar’ll be there, no fear.”

Cantilucca’s starport was a square kilometer bulldozed from the forest and roughly leveled. The earth had been compressed and stabilized.

There hadn’t been a great deal of maintenance in the century or so since the port was cleared. Slabs of surface had tilted in a number of places, exposing untreated soil on which vegetation could sprout. The jets of starships landing and taking off limited the size of the shrubbery, at least in the portion nearer the terminal buildings.

“Is the city far?” Johann Vierziger asked. His voice was calm and melodious, but his eyes never rested more than a second in one place. Watching him was like following a tiny, ravenous insectivore as it snuffled through the leaf mold.

“Two kilometers is all,” Pilar said. “The usual separation in case of a landing accident".

The town had no streetlights, but the ground floors and occasionally one or two of the higher stories were dazzles of direct and reflected enticement. Instead of having common walls, the buildings were set separately, sometimes behind a walled courtyard. Barkers doubling as armed guards stood outside business entrances, shouting to the traffic through bullhorns.

Pilar slowed the van to a crawl. The theoretical right-of-way was fifteen meters wide, but hawkers and shills narrowed the street, grabbing at pedestrians. Coke saw a trio of crewmen from the Norbert IV. The sailors stayed together as they crossed from one set of premises to the next. Though the men wore pistols openly, they looked more apprehensive than dangerous.

Banners, lighted signs, and occasionally nude women ... were displayed in second- and third-floor windows. There was always a screen of heavy wire mesh to prevent objects from being thrown in—or perhaps out. Music pumped from street-level doorways, different in style at every one; always distorted, always shatteringly loud.

Every major starport had a district like Potosi. The difference here was that Potosi appeared to have nothing else.

From THE SHARP END by David Drake, 1993

He had taken one of the cubicle steel rooms in the great steel lodging-houses the Martian government offers for a very nominal rent to transients. The original purpose was to house those motley hordes of spaceman that swarm every port city of the civilized planets, offering them accommodations cheap and satisfactory enough so that they will not seek the black byways of the town and there fall in with the denizens of the Martian underworld whose lawlessness is a byword among space sailors.

The great steel building that housed Smith and countless others was not entirely free from the influences of Martian byways, and if the police had actually searched the place with any degree of thoroughness a large percentage of its dwellers might have been transferred to the Emperor’s prisons—Smith almost certainly among them, for his activities were rarely within the law and though he could not recall at the moment any particularly flagrant sins committed in Lalkdarol, a charge could certainly have been found against him by the most half-hearted searcher. However, the likelihood of a police raid was very remote, and Smith, as he went in under the steel portals of the great door, rubbed shoulders with smugglers and pirates and fugitives and sinners of all the sins that keep the spaceways thronged.

In his little cubicle he switched on the light and saw a dozen blurred replicas of himself, reflected dimly in the steel walls, spring into being with the sudden glow.

From THE SCARLET DREAM by C. L. Moore, 1934

The Starfall was a long way down scale from the pleasure houses of the upper town. Here strange vices were also merchandise, but not such exotics as Wass provided. This was strictly for crewmen of the star freighters who could be speedily and expertly separated from a voyage's pay in an evening. The tantalizing scents of Wass' terraces were reduced here to simply smells, the majority of which were not fragrant.

There had already been two fatal duels that evening. A tubeman from a rim ship had challenged a space miner to settle a difference with those vicious whips made from the tail casings of Flangoid flying lizards, an encounter which left both men in ribbons, one dead, one dying. And a scarred, ex-space marine had blaster-flamed one of the Star-and-Comet dealers into charred human ash.

The young man who had been ordered to help clear away the second loser retired to the stinking alley outside to lose the meal which was part of his meager day's pay. Now he crawled back inside, his face greenish, one hand pressed to his middle section.

He was thin, the fine bones of his face tight under the pallid skin, his ribs showing even through the sleazy fabric of the threadbare tunic with its house seal. When he leaned his head back against the grime encrusted wall, raising his face to the light, his hair had the glint of bright chestnut, a gold which was also red. And for his swamper's labor he was almost fastidiously clean.


He shivered as if an icy wind had found him and opened his eyes. They seemed disproportionately large in his skin and bone face and were of an odd shade, neither green nor blue, but somewhere between.

"Get going, you! Ain't paying out good credits for you to sit there like you was buying on your own!" The Salarkian who loomed above him spoke accentless, idiomatic Basic Space which came strangely from between his yellow lips. A furred hand thrust the handle of a mop-up stick at the young man, a taloned thumb jerked the direction in which to use that evil-smelling object. Vye Lansor levered himself up the wall, took the mop, setting his teeth grimly.

Someone had spilled a mug of Kardo and the deep purple liquid was already patterning the con-stone floor past any hope of cleaning. But he set to work slapping the fringe of the noisome mop back and forth to sop up what he could. The smell of the Kardo uniting with the general effluvia of the room and its inhabitants heightened his queasiness.

Working blindly in a half stupor, he was not aware of the man sitting alone in the booth until his mop spattered the ankle of one of the drinking girls. She struck him sharply across the face with a sputtering curse in the tongue of Altar-Ishtar.

The blow sent him back against the open lattice of the booth. As he tried to steady himself another hand reached up, fingers tightened about his wrist. He flinched, tried to jerk away from that hold, only to discover that he was the other's prisoner.

And looking down at his captor in apprehension, he was aware even then of the different quality of this man. The patron wore the tunic of a crewman, lighter patches where the ship's badges should have been to show that he was not engaged. But, though his tunic was shabby, dirty, his magnetic boots scuffed and badly worn, he was not like the others now enjoying the pleasures of the Starfall.

The other slapped his hand down on an air-car call button, stood waiting until one of the city flitters landed on beam before them.

From the seat of the air-car Vye noted they were heading into the respectability of the upper city, away from the stews ringing the launch port. He tried to guess their destination or purpose, not that either mattered much. Then the car descended on a landing stage.

From STAR HUNTER by Andre Norton, 1961

It was true. Even in the bars that catered to inner planet types, the mix was rarely better than one Earther or Martian in ten (Belters). Squinting out at the crowd, Miller saw that the short, stocky men and women were nearer a third.

"Ship come in?" he asked.


"EMCN?" he asked. The Earth-Mars Coalition Navy often passed through Ceres on its way to Saturn, Jupiter, and the stations of the Belt, but Miller hadn't been paying enough attention to the relative position of the planets to know where the orbits all stood.

The décor was pure Belt—old-style ships' folding tables and chairs set into the wall and ceiling as if the gravity might shut off at any moment. Snake plant and devil's ivy—staples of first-generation air recycling—decorated the wall and freestanding columns. The music was soft enough to talk over, loud enough to keep private conversations private.

Ships were small. Space was always at a premium, and even on a monster like the Donnager. the corridors and compartments were cramped and uncomfortable. On the Rocinante, the only rooms where Holden could spread out his arms without touching two walls were the galley and the cargo bay. No one who flew for a living was claustrophobic, but even the most hardened Belt prospector could recognize the rising tension of being ship-bound. It was the ancient stress response of the trapped animal, the subconscious knowledge that there was literally nowhere to go that you couldn't see from where you were already standing. Getting off the ship at port was a sudden and sometimes giddying release of tension.

It often took the form of a drinking game.

Like all professional sailors, Holden had sometimes ended long flights by drinking himself into a stupor.

From LEVIATHAN WAKES by "James S.A. Corey" (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) 2011
First novel of The Expanse

Used Spacecraft Yard

The sales office of the lot was a bubble dome nearly a mile away; they moved toward it with the easy, fast lope of old Moon hands. The office airlock was marked by a huge sign:

  • (AEC License No. 739024)

Shortly a bald-headed, portly man, dressed in a cigar and a wrinkled moonsuit, came out of the inner office and rested his hands on the rail. He looked them over shrewdly but his voice was jovial. "You wanted to see me?"

"You're the owner?" asked Castor.

"Dealer Dan Ekizian, the man himself. What's on your mind, boys? Time is money."

"Your secretary told you," Castor said ungraciously. "Spaceships."

Dealer Dan took his cigar out of his mouth and examined it. "Really? What would you boys want with a spaceship?"

Pollux muttered something; Castor said, "Do you usually do business out here?" He glanced at the girl.

Ekizian followed his glance. "My mistake. Come inside." He opened the gate for them, led them into his office, and seated them. He ceremoniously offered them cigars; the boys refused politely. "Now out with it, kids. Let's not joke."

Castor repeated, "Spaceships."

He pursed his lips. "A luxury liner, maybe? I haven't got one on the field at the moment but I can always broker a deal."

Pollux stood up. "He's making fun of us, Cas. Let's go see the Hungarian."

"Wait a moment, Pol. Mr. Ekizian, you've got a heap out there on the south side of the field, a class VII, model '93 Detroiter. What's your scrap metal price on her and what does she mass?"

The dealer looked surprised. "That sweet little job? Why, I couldn't afford to let that go as scrap. And anyhow, even at scrap that would come to a lot of money. If it is metal you boys want, I got it. Just tell me how much and what sort."

"We were talking about that Detroiter."

"Hmm . . . you're not looking for scrap; you want something to get around in. I've got just the job for you, a General Motors Jumpbug, practically new. It's been out on one grubstake job to a couple of thorium prospectors and I had to reclaim it. The hold ain't even radioactive."

"Not interested."

"Better look at it. Automatic landing and three hops takes you right around the equator. Just the thing for a couple of lively, active boys."

"About that Detroiter—what's your scrap price?"

Ekizian looked hurt. "That's a deepspace vessel, son—it's no use to you, as a ship. And I can't let it go for scrap; that's a clean job. It was a family yacht—never been pushed over six g, never had an emergency landing. It's got hundreds of millions of miles still in it. I couldn't let you scrap that ship, even if you were to pay me the factory price. It would be a shame. I love ships. Now take this Jumpbug . . ."

"You can't sell that Detroiter as anything but scrap," Castor answered. "It's been sitting there two years that I know of. If you had hoped to sell her as a ship you wouldn't have salvaged the computer. She's pitted, her tubes are no good, and an overhaul would cost more than she's worth. Now what's her scrap price?"

Dealer Dan rocked back and forth in his chair; he seemed to be suffering. "Scrap that ship? Just fuel her up and she's ready to go—Venus, Mars, even the Jovian satellites."

"What's your cash price?"



Ekizian hesitated, then mentioned a price. Castor stood up and said, "You were right, Pollux. Let's go see the Hungarian."

The dealer looked pained. "If I were to write it off for my own use, I couldn't cut that price—not in fairness to my partners."

"Come on, Pol."

"Look, boys, I can't let you go over to the Hungarian's. He'll cheat you."

Pollux looked savage. "Maybe he'll do it politely."

"Shut up, Pol!" Castor went on, "Sorry, Mr. Ekizian, my brother isn't housebroken. But we can't do business." He stood up.

"Wait a minute. That's a good valve you boys thought up. I use it; I feel I owe you something." He named another and lower sum.

"Sorry. We can't afford it." He started to follow Pollux out.

"Wait!" Ekizian mentioned a third price. "Cash," he added.

"Of course. And you pay the sales tax?"

"Well . . . for a cash deal, yes."


"Sit down, gentlemen. I'll call in my girl and we'll start the papers."

"No hurry," answered Castor. "We've still got to see what the Hungarian has on his lot—and the government salvage lot, too."

"Huh? That price doesn't stand unless you deal right now. Dealer Dan, they call me. I got no time to waste dickering twice."

"Nor have we. See you tomorrow. If it hasn't sold, we can take up where we left off."

"If you expect me to hold that price, I'll have to have a nominal option payment."

"Oh, no, I wouldn't expect you to pass up a sale for us. If you can sell it by tomorrow, we wouldn't think of standing in your way. Come on, Pol."

As well as Dealer Dan's lot, the government salvage yard and that of the Bankrupt Hungarian were, of course, close by the spaceport. The Hungarian's lot sported an ancient sun-tarnished sign—BARGAINS! BARGAINS!! BARGAINS!!! GOING OUT OF BUSINESS—but there were no bargains there, as Mr. Stone decided in ten minutes and Hazel in five. The government salvage yard held mostly robot freighters without living quarters—one-trip ships, the interplanetary equivalent of discarded packing cases—and obsolete military craft unsuited for most private uses. They ended up at Ekizian's lot.

From The Rolling Stones by Robert Heinlein, 1952


Unless spacecraft are incredibly modular, they will eventually wear out and have to be decommissioned.

If spaceships are incredibly modular they will exist forever like the Ship of Theseus.

This is my Grandfather's ax.
This is my Grandfather's ax.
My Father replaced the handle.
I replaced the ax-head.
This is my Grandfather's ax.

You don't want to just throw old ships away, they are constructed out of expensive titanium and stuff. And abandoning an old ship containing a nuclear reactor so it can decay and start venting hideously radioactive isotopes is a very very bad idea. The old ships should be taken to Ship-breaking Yards.

Orbit-to-orbit ships will be chopped up in orbital ship-breaking yards. Ships that can land will be broken at either orbital or planetary yards, depending upon which is cheaper.

And there will be a lively secondary business of entrepreneurs selling lunch and other items to the hard-working ship breakers. John Reiher wrote about this in his short story Ice Cream Man.

Speaking of cheap, the more bottom tier ground based breaker yards will tend to be in economically disadvantaged areas. These have a plentiful supply of desperate workers who are not picky about things like workplace safety, toxic chemical exposure, and massive environmental damage. Here on Terra, ocean ships are broken on the beaches of India, Pakistan, Indonesia, or Bangladesh.

The game company Blackbird Interactive is working on a game called Homeworld: Shipbreakers. You play a team of mercenaries fighting over control of dozens or hundreds of starship wrecks on the desert planet LM-27.


Then a teaser was released for the new Star Wars movie.

Great galloping galaxies! A star destroyer is about a kilometer long. They will be ship-breaking that monster for generations. Not only that, it is huge enough that an ecosystem could spring up inside. Several ecosystems as a matter of fact. Has anybody here ever played the role playing game Metamorphosis Alpha?

Benjamin Baugh: Oh yes! I can see a rag-tag town of shipbreakers growing up around it.

Ben McKee: Bound to be infested with droids, maybe some squatters, and possible a few Imperial troops left over, and man the salvage would be EPIC!

Winchell Chung: ScrapTown ... a greater hive of scum and villainy.

Benjamin Baugh: Scav droids that have rebuilt and self-modified with scavenged parts and tech. They have adopted a strange tribal structure deep inside the hulk, and keeping right with the scavs is essential for Scraptown's survival.

Pat Gamblin: That would be an absolutely awesome campaign setup. Conflict between scavenger gangs, fighting the ship's internal defenses.personnel/droids, trying to find the really valuable stuff. And then, near the end, the Alliance or whoever comes in and insists this ship isn't yours, they need to take it for themselves and you have to choose to fight or leave.

Winchell Chung: Yes, however the point is, exactly how many deck levels do you think there are on a one kilometer long Star Destroyer? I'm guessing it will be lots and lots. Once you have squatters living inside the Star Destroyer wreck, with no regard to zoning or anything else, section of the Star Destroyer are going to look like Kowloon on steroids with a Star Wars flare. A sci-fi slum in three dimension. Just think about the possibilities for running gun battles and chases. The floor is probably not going to be level either. Perfect for parkour running.

Pat Gamblin: Oh yeah, you're looking at a much bigger volume. Probably 80+ decks in the thicker parts of the ship, times a much bigger surface area per deck. You could even have internal survivor factions working against each other. Maybe engineering has split off from the bridge under the scavenger siege and is fighting for itself.

Ben McKee: Love the idea of interdepartmental rivalry having turned violent, and the marines can't manage w/o the engineers or the deck dept, and the command crew is now completely useless.

Winchell Chung: So basically the entire squatter economy is based on scavenging valuable stuff and selling it to the local equivalent of scrap metal dealers.

A squatter who found a particularly valuable vein or load of material in a remote part of the destroyer would take pains to keep its location secret. But even if you managed to prevent others from following you to your secret motherlode, if you suddenly become too prosperous the thugs will take an interest. They'll just show up and beat the secret location out of you.

Some material can be used in ScrapTown. I've seen photos of shipbreakers in Bangladesh burning rubber gaskets and tubes found in the ships for fuel.

The upper hull might have areas with enough dirt to allow crude agriculture.

In real-world ship breaking yards, they use lots of gas powered cutting torches to slice off part of the ship. This can cause disasters if they cut into a tank filled with gasoline fumes or something similar. I would imagine that in ScrapTown some sort of shortbeam laser cutter would be ubiquitous.

Low status squatters would try to make a living on whatever they could grab with their bare hands. Buying or stealing a shortbeam cutter would increase the value of what they could scavenge. 

And don't forget that scene from the first Star Wars movie in the Death Star's trash compactor. The monster who popped up its periscope eye to find its next victim. Similar creatures could be lurking in the Star Destroyer.

What would it be like to live inside that three-dimensional hell-hole? Well, have you ever heard about the Kowloon Walled City that used to be in Hong Kong? It would be like that, except all Star-Wars like.

Port Facilities

The spaceport will also offer the services of a "weightmaster". Each fin of the spacecraft rests on a scale (while the exhaust bell points at a splash baffle or thrust diverter). The weightmaster reads the scales, totals the weight, and advises the captain. If the mass is too much over or below the mass the calculations are based on, mass will have to be removed or added.

Shortly after blast-off from a spaceport, the spacecraft can call the tower to request range, bearing and separation rate, and flight plan deviations. This is not only to check if the spacecraft is on track, but also to used to double check the performance of the spacecraft's own instruments against the land based ones. This is usually the co-pilot's job.

Landing sites in the spaceport will probably be labeled with large numbers and letters, much like real-world airport landing strips are. Airports use a special font with no name called "runway designators". The font has no confusing curves so it has good visibility to help the pilot land his vessel, and so that groundskeepers with poor mathematical skills can lay out the designators and keep them in good repair.

William Hostman made this into a truetype font, you can download it here. He used 0-9 and the C, L & R letters from the picture, the rest he had to derive. He used a vertical 60% small caps ratio. If you have feedback about the letters he derived, you can contact him by email hostman.william at

Miscellaneous Images

From Space Angel (1962). The spaceport launch pads are deep tubes, presumably to keep the radioactive engine away from the ground crew.

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