Commonly the protagonists of a science fiction novel will own one of two types of starship. If the protagonists are tramp interstellar traders, they will own a cargo ship. If the protagonists are pirates or privateers, they will own a corsair pirate ship.

First off, a science fiction writer will have to make some assumptions to flesh out the background parameters that determine starship price, size, etc.

Simplistically, becoming the proud owner of a spacecraft or starship will be a process much like what modern-day people go through to own a large sea going vessel. Tramp traders will mortgage their souls to the bank in order to purchase their ship. Pirates will probably avoid the middle-man and instead steal their ship. This also avoids the problem that the astromilitary frowns on civilian ownership of armed starships.

One possible major difference is if the starships are created by a Thalassocracy, who maintains power by keeping interstellar trade clutched in an iron grip. In that case, the interstellar propulsion unit or the entire starship is only available from the Imperial Monopoly. The details about the star-drive are top secret, the drives contain nuclear booby-traps to prevent anybody discovering the secret, and probably contain remote-control self-destruct devices in case the ship-owner does anything that makes the Thalassocracy angry.

Starships are constructed in the yards of shipbuilding megacorporations. There is a selection of standard models, or a custom-designed ship can be constructed at an astronomically higher cost. Used second-hand starships are available from the current owner, or at used spacecraft yards.

Megacorporations and used spacecraft yards can sell ships directly. Sale & Purchase ("S&P") ship brokers connect people in the market to buy a ship with people with ships to sell. Or with people who can build a bespoke ship.

People purchasing ships are generally too poor to pay cash, so they will have to make financing arrangements with a bank or something. The banks will keep an eye on the debtors, and will send Repo persons after debtors on the run.

Using a spacecraft in a transport or other business will be risky, and appropriate insurance will be required.

Spacecraft on their last legs will end up in used spacecraft yards. After their last legs are gone, ships will go to the shipbreakers.


(ed note: The Great Gathering is when the space nomad free traders in their clan ships meet. The important functions are [a] marrying clan members between ships since it is forbidden to marry within a given ship and [b] building or purchasing new clan ships to create new nomad groups)

      The great gathering was even more than Thorby had imagined. Mile after mile of ships, more than eight hundred bulky Free Traders arranged in concentric ranks around a circus four miles across … Sisu in the innermost circle — which seemed to please Thorby’s Mother — then more ships than Thorby knew existed: Kraken, Deimos, James B. Quinn, Firefly, Bon Marche, Dom Pedro, Cee Squared, Omega, El Nido — Thorby resolved to see how Mata was doing — Saint Christopher, Vega, Vega Prime, Galactic Banker, Romany Lass … Thorby made note to get a berthing chart … Saturn, Chiang, Country Store, Joseph Smith, Aloha
     There were too many. If he visited ten ships a day, he might see most of them. But there was too much to do and see; Thorby gave up the notion.
     Inside the circle was a great temporary stadium, larger than the New Amphitheater at Jubbulpore. Here elections would be held, funerals and weddings, athletic contests, entertainments, concerts — Thorby recalled that Spirit of Sisu would be performed there and trembled with stage fright.
     Between stadium and ships was a midway — booths, rides, games, exhibits educational and entertaining, one-man pitches, dance halls that never closed, displays of engineering gadgets, fortunetellers, gambling for prizes and cash, open-air bars, soft drink counters offering anything from berry juices of the Pleiades worlds to a brown brew certified to be the ancient, authentic Terran Coca-Cola as licensed for bottling on Hekate.
     When he saw this maelstrom Thorby felt that he had wandered into Joy Street — bigger, brighter, and seven times busier than Joy Street with the fleet in. This was the fraki’s chance to turn a fairly honest credit while making suckers of the shrewdest businessmen in the Galaxy; this was the day, with the lid off and the Trader without his guards up — they’d sell you your own hat if you laid it on the counter.

     A Great Gathering, although a time of fun and renewed friendships, has its serious purposes. In addition to funerals, memorial services for lost ships, weddings, and much transferring of young females, there is also business affecting the whole People and, most important, the paramount matter of buying ships.
     Hekate has the finest shipyards in the explored Galaxy. Men and women have children; ships spawn, too. Sisu was gravid with people, fat with profit in uranium and thorium; it was time that the Family split up. At least a third of the families had the same need to trade wealth for living room; fraki shipbrokers were rubbing their hands, mentally figuring commissions. Starships do not sell like cold drinks; shipbrokers and salesmen often live on dreams. But perhaps a hundred ships would be sold in a few weeks.
     Some would be new ships from the yards of Galactic Transport, Ltd., daughter corporation of civilization-wide Galactic Enterprises, or built by Space Engineers Corporation, or Hekate Ships, or Propulsion, Inc., or Hascomb & Sons — all giants in the trade. But there was cake for everyone. The broker who did not speak for a builder might have an exclusive on a second-hand ship, or a line to a rumor of a hint that the owners of a suitable ship might listen if the price was right — a man could make a fortune if he kept his eyes open and his ear to the ground. It was a time to by-pass mails and invest in expensive n-space messages; the feast would soon be over.

     A family in need of space had two choices: either buy another ship, split and become two families, or a ship could join with another in purchasing a third, to be staffed from each. Twinning gave much status. It was proof that the family, which managed it, were master traders, able to give their kids a start in the world without help. But in practice the choice usually dwindled to one: join with another ship and split the expense, and even then it was often necessary to pledge all three ships against a mortgage on the new one.
     It had been thirty years since Sisu had split up. She had had three decades of prosperity; she should have been able to twin. But ten years ago at the last Great Gathering Grandmother had caused Sisu to guarantee along with parent ships the mortgage against a ship newly born. The new ship gave a banquet honoring Sisu, then jumped off into dark and never came back. Space is vast. Remember her name at Gathering.
     The result was that Sisu paid off one-third of forty percent of the cost of the lost ship; the blow hurt. The parent ships would reimburse Sisu — debts are always paid — but they had left the last Gathering lean from having spawned; coughing up each its own liability had left them skin and bones. You don’t dun a sick man; you wait
     Grandmother had not been stupid. The parent ships, Caesar Augustus and Dupont, were related to Sisu; one takes care of one’s own. Besides, it was good business; a trader unwilling to lend credit will discover that he has none. As it was, Sisu could write a draft on any Free Trader anywhere and be certain that it would be honored.
     But it left Sisu with less cash than otherwise at a time when the Family should split.

From CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein (1957)

Economics of Starships

This section is basically a rough outline of Rick Robinson's Interstellar Trade: A Primer. You'd probably be better off reading the full article but some people want executive summaries. This section is duplicated in the Interstellar Trade page because it overlaps the two.

Rick starts with certain assumptions and follows them to various conclusions about the interstellar economy. You can alter some of the assumptions yourself to tweak the economy to suit your science fictional background.

Merchant Starship Costs

Assumption: starships in the interstellar empire are equivalent to present-day jet airliners. They go fast, can carry lots of people and cargo, and are the most advanced technology that can be massed produced.

The ticket prices will not be similar between airliners and starships because FTL interstellar travel will probably take more than a few hours for the trip. Therefore the starships will do fewer trips per year than airliners, so the starship passenger ticket price (and cargo waybill) will have to cover a larger share of the starship's yearly expense.

For comparison purposes we need an airliner's average cost of running, but the corporations are remarkably closed-lipped about that. Using a long series of estimations whose details can be found in Rick's article he concludes that the annual operating cost for an airliner is about $30 million (not counting fuel, landing fees, and taxes). An airliner's purchase price is $100 million so one year's uses costs about one-third of the purchase price.

A cargo jet can carry 50 tons so its purchase price is about $2 million per ton of cargo capacity.

Assumption: starships are strictly orbit-to-orbit, they use space ferrys to transfer passengers and cargo between the starship and the planet.

Assumption: starship purchase price will only be about $1 million per ton of cargo capacity instead of $2 million, because starships are orbit-to-orbit, need no landing gear, need no wings, can use lighter structure because they accelerate under 1 g, and we will assume they can carry twice as much cargo per deadweight (inert mass) as a cargo jet.

Assumption: cargo starship operating cost is similar to cargo jet. Therefore it costs $300,000 per ton of cargo capacity per year to run a cargo starship. This ignores taxes, station docking fees, and fuel. Assumption: starship fuel is cheaper than cargo jet JP-4 fuel. Big assumption since JP-4 is about $1.39 per gallon.

(ed note: starships are going to require lots of infrastructure.)

Assumption: the service life of a merchant starship is 30 years. So the starship initial purchase price is about 1/10th of the overall lifetime service cost ($1 million / (30 * $300,000)). Actually it will be closer to 1/5th due to the interest on the purchase loan. With creative maintenance, the service life might be longer than 30 years, see below.

Question: how many cargos can a merchant starship carry in 1 year? That is, assuming a full cargo turnover at each port of call, how many one-way runs can the ship make?

Assumption: a one-way trip takes three months. From departure planet orbit to FTL flight to arrival planet orbit. This is comparable to the Age of Sail.

Assumption: each trip requires one month for servicing, maintenance, selling the cargo, buying new cargo for the next run.

This makes each trip four months from departure to departure, or three cargos per year. This means the ship owner must earn $100,000 of profit per ton of cargo. That is, selling price at destination MINUS purchase price at origin must be $100,000 or more. Therefore if the cargo was available for free at the origin the minimum selling price at destination is $100,000 per ton, or $100 per kilogram. The implication is that only very high value cargo can be profitably shipped interstellar.

Assumption, average of 1/2 of retail price goes to shipping cost. Therefore the minimum price of interstellar imported goods are $200 per kilogram.

The implication is that the only things shipped interstellar would be luxury goods, items with a very high value per weight. Jewelry, spices, fine liquor, designer-label clothing. Maybe some high value per weight industrial goods, such as microchips. Not high mass items such as sports car, not with a $100,000 shipping charge added to the car's price. Bottom line is that you are not going to ship bulk goods like wheat, not at $100,000 per ton you ain't.

Assumption: the Gross Planetary Product (GPP) of a colony planet is $100,000 (about three times that of present day USA). If 2% of citizen income goes to imported luxuries and high-value capital goods, it comes out to $2000 per capita, with $1000 going to shipping cost.

Assumption: Colony planet population is 10 million. Therefore the total shipping cost of imported goods is $10 billion.

Calculating backwards, this implies that 100,000 tons of interstellar cargo arrives at the colony planet annually. The colony must export the same amount or it will run a trade deficit and import prices will rise. This is because if they don't export, the cargo starships cannot find cargoes to transport and sell at the next destination. Starships with empty cargo holds cost nearly as much to run as with full holds. They will have to make up the shortfall somehow, so they will raise the price of what they sell at this planet.

Take simplest model: two planets trading with each other. Each year, 100,000 tons moves in each direction, or 200,000 tons total.

Assumption: average cargo starship carries 1000 tons. This is less than seagoing cargo ships, but more than cargo airplane. This means there has to be 200 annual cargo loadings and unloadings to accommodate 200,000 tons.

Since each ship can make 3 one-way legs per year, then each ship will do three loadings. The implication is that the two planet's combined merchant fleet is between 65 to 70 ships.

Of course if each ship carries more than 1000 tons then fewer ships are needed. If the ships can carry 5000 tons then you would only need 13 or 14 ships. In practice this would not work very well, since the larger the cargo hold, the more difficult it is to find enough cargo on the planet to fill it.A trade network of a dozen colony worlds will support a few dozen to a few hundred cargo ships depending upon cargo hold size.

Passenger Traffic

Airliners carry about four to five passengers per ton of equivalent cargo capacity. However airliner trips are only a few hours. Interstellar passengers cannot live in their seats for three months.

Assumption: Each interstellar passenger berth equals one ton of equivalent cargo capacity. This includes the passenger, their baggage, the berth, apportioned galley/diner space, and food.

The direct result is that the cost of the passenger ticket is the same as the cost of one ton of cargo: $100,000. You are not going to get much tourist traffic, not at those prices. A few rich people and business travellers.

Problem: you must have large scale passenger traffic for the colony network to exist at all. In a word: Colonization.

$100,000 per colonist is prohibitive. Probably several times that for extra stuff like tractors and horses. Even worse, since the new colony will not have any exports, the cargo starship will have not cargo buy for the next trip. So the starship captain will have to charge round-trip prices for a one-way trip. It could total to around $1 million per colonist.

The problem is that our assumptions have made it so that only millionaires can afford the ticket, but millionaires do not want to go live on some jerkwater frontier world. Sending 10,000 colonists to a new world could cost $10 billion, which is a huge amount for private industry or governments to spend, regardless of the potential value of the planet.

Our price schedule has made interstellar colonization unlikely in the first place.

We will have to change some of the assumptions. Lucky for us, there is some room to bring the costs down. We can make the merchant starships cheaper, or make them faster. We shall do both.

Assumption: annual starship service cost is $100,000 per ton of cargo capacity, not $300,000. This is reasonable, since starships are not stressed as much as airliners (at least not orbit-to-orbit starships).

Assumption: starship purchase price is $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity instead of $1 million, since starships are build for long-haul reliability.

With the 30 year service life, the purchase price is now 1/6th of the total lifetime service cost instead of 1/10th. Within interest payments this may be closer to 1/3th.

Assumption: a one-way trip takes 35 days instead of three months. This means the cargo starship can deliver 10 cargoes per year instead of three. Assume 27 days is transit, 8 days is for servicing, maintenance, selling the cargo, and buying new cargo for the next run.

Crunching the numbers, the minimum profit per ton of cargo or passenger ticket is now $10,000 instead of $100,000.

The cost for colonists (provisions and no return cargo) is probably about $100,000 or less. That's more like it. In the reach of the middle class. This price schedule makes interstellar colonization viable.

Note that the same ten-fold cost reduction can be had by making the one-way trip 12 days but keeping the original $300,000 annual cost.

Our colonization-viable starships will also increase interstellar trade. Shipping cost of $10,000 per ton means the threshold cost of imported goods is about $10 per pound. Only $10,000 shipping cost for a sports car. But no bulk cargo, not when oil's shipping cost will be $1500 per barrel. As with all freight the rates will vary. Higher value merchandise will support higher shipping charges. A long-term fixed contract (allowing ship owner to have dependable regular cargoes) will get a lower rate. Standby cargo will get a better rate, if the ship is making a run anyway, it is better to have full cargo holds.

If imports are still only 2% of CPP, the volume of goods will increase ten-fold. The shipping capacity will only have to increase three-fold since starships now deliver three times as much cargo per year. Since shipping costs ten times lower (so a wider range of goods are worth importing) then the import-export sector can expand in total value of goods shipped as well.

Assumption: an inverse square-root rule applies here, so reducing the shipping costs by a factor of 10 will increase spending upon imported goods by a factor of 3.

This means 6% of CPP now goes to imports. High, but not out of reach for a mature trading zone. So a colony of 10 million will have an annual export and import of 3 million tons per year.

Each trade starship can pick up and deliver 10 cargoes per year, so they need a net cargo capacity of 300,000 tons. For a trade network of 12 colonies, the combined merchant marine needs a capacity of some 3.6 million tons. Most ships will still be small (but bigger than jumbo jets) to facilitate filling their cargo holds, but the heaviest-traffic routes will support some bigger ships.

Assumption: say the trade network's merchant fleet is:

Type of shipNumber
of ships
Cargo capacity
of one ship
Total cargo capacity
Large7520,000 tons1,500,000 tons
Medium3005000 tons1,500,000 tons
Small4001500 tons600,000 tons
TOTAL7753,600,000 tons

If there is no FTL radio, then some of the small freighters will sacrifice cargo capacity for speed (i.e., acceleration), in order to become something like an interstellar FedEx or pony express. The idea is to reduce the normal space transit time. Actually this might be a better job for an unmanned drone, they can take higher acceleration than human beings.

Passenger traffic is only a fraction of total cargo volume (unless there is a colonization effort underway). Freight makes a profit for somebody, passengers are pure expense to whoever pays their ticket. Perhaps passengers are 1% of total volume, makes 360,000 passengers per year. A few routes may support scheduled passenger service (probably in small ships). But most will ride in cargo bays (like railroad sleeping cards), in freighters, or in spare crew quarters.

Ship mass and size

Full load mass and physical size depends upon assumptions about fuel mass ration, fuel bulk, etc.


Deadweight (inert mass)117%
Cargo (payload)233%
Fuel (propellant)350%

Note that total mass is three times the cargo capacity. As you can see, deadweight is the ship proper, structure, engines, anything that is not cargo or propellant.

With this assumption, the big freighters will have a fully loaded mass of 60,000 tons. The largest ships might be twice as big: 120,000 tons.

Our building cost is $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity, the mass assumption makes a building cost equal to $1 million per ton of deadweight. Annual service cost is $100,000 per ton of cargo capacity, the mass assumption makes the annual service cost equal to $200,000 per ton of deadweight. The starship hulls are not cheaper, but they can carry more cargo in proportion to their structural mass.

Type of shipCargo capacityPurchase price
Large20,000 tons$20 billion
Medium5000 tons$2.5 billion
Small1500 tons$750 million

At $500,000 per ton of cargo capacity, largest giant freighter cost $20 billion to build, but it it has a cargo capacity of 200 Boeing 747 jets, and accounts for over one percent of whole fleet's cargo capacity all by itself. Small freighter costs $750 million, and has seven time the capacity of 747.

With a 30 year service life, the combined shipbuilding yards of the 12 planet trade network will turn out about 25 ships per year.

Hulls will last longer than 30 years but the equipment wears out and has to be replaced. Ships go back to the yards for an overhaul every decade or so, but eventually the cost of stripping everything and replacing it will exceed the value of the ship. Depending upon overhaul costs the shipyards may make more money on rebuilding than on constructing brand new ships. Some ships will stay in service for many decades. Others will be retained as the futuristic equivalent of naval hulks or the old passenger equipment that railroads use as work trains. Every big commercial space station will have a bunch of these old ships in the outskirts.

If modular design is taken to its limit, "ships" will have no permanent existence. Instead they will be assembled out of modules and pods specifically for each run, much like a railroad train. In that case, a ship's identity is attached to a service, not a physical structure. Example: the Santa Fe "Chief" was identified by a timetable and reputation, not a particular set of locomotive and cars.

Starship Performance

The analysis up until now focused on money and economics. Businessmen only care about how long it takes to deliver the cargo and how much transport costs, they could care less about the scientific details of the ship engines. But authors care.

As with everything else, it all depends upon the assumptions. Your assumptions will be different, so feel free to fiddle with these and see what the results are.

Assumption: the time spent in FTL transit is zero (jump drive). For the FTL segment of the transit you can use whatever you want, as long as the details do not affect the analysis. The main thing is that the required time spent in FTL transit will add to the total trip time, and thus the number of cargoes a starship can transport per year.

Assumption: starships use reaction drives for normal space travel.

We know that the mass ratio is 2.0. So the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation tells us that the starship's total delta V will be the propulsion system's exhaust velocity times 0.69 (i.e., ln(2.0) ). Since starships accelerate to half their delta V, coast, then decelerate to a halt, their maximum speed is half their delta V, or exhaust velocity times 0.35 (i.e., ln(2.0) / 2). In practice you would accelerate up to a bit less than half their delta V in order to allow a fuel reserve in case of emergency.

It will be even less if the FTL drive happens to use the same type of fuel that the reaction drive does. Basically part of the fuel mass will have to be considered as cargo, not propellant, which will alter the ship's mass ratio.

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
Nuclear powered Ion~100 km/s
Fusiona few thousand km/s
Beam core matter-antimatterabout 100,000 km/s
( 1/3 c )

We have assumed that the ship spends 27 days in route (with an instantaneous FTL jump), so the outbound and inbound legs are 13.5 days each (1.17 million seconds).

Assumption: the acceleration on each leg is constant. In reality at the same thrust setting the acceleration will increase as the ship's mass goes down due to propellant being expended. The thrust will probably be constantly throttled to maintain a constant acceleration. Makes it easier on the crew and easier on our analysis. The implication is that obviously the average speed will be half the maximum speed (which is half the delta V)

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
leg distance
Advanced Ion
or Early Fusion
400 km/s130 km/s75 million km
(1/2 AU)
0.01 g
Advanced Fusion10,000 km/s5000 km/s20 AU
0.44 g
c0.3 c350 AU
(x5 Pluto's orbit)
8 g !!!

These figures will be lower if time is consumed in FTL flight, maybe be only Terra-Luna distance

Propulsion system's thrust power is thrust times exhaust velocity, then divide by 2. To get the thrust, we know that thrust is ship mass times acceleration. The ship mass goes down as fuel is burnt. As a general rule for ship mass, figure that it only has 2/3rds of a propellant load. That is, multiply the total ship mass by 0.83. So our 120,000 metric ton ship would have a general rule mass of 120,000 * 0.83 = 100,000 metric tons (100,000,000 kilograms).

Reaction driveExhaust velocity
general rule
ThrustThrust power
Advanced Ion
or Early Fusion
400,000 m/s
(400 km/s)
0.108 m/s
(0.011 g)
1.08×107 N2.16×1012 W
(2 terawatts)
Advanced Fusion10,000,000 m/s
(10,000 km/s)
4.3 m/s
(0.44 g)
4.3×108 N2.15×1015 W
(2,000 terawatts)
3.0×108 m/s
76.5 m/s
7.65×109 N1.15×1018 W
(1 million terawatts)

Where does fuel come from and who does it get into the ship's fuel tanks? Easiest if it is obtained locally at the destination's solar system. The economics of interplanetary transport is same as interstellar (since we did a lot of work making interstellar a cheap as interplanetary).

if fuel from a gas giant at a distance comparable to Terra-Jupiter and round trip is to only take weeks, interplanetary tankers will need speeds of around 1000 km/s. So tankers will be almost as expensive as starships. If tankers use low speed (to make them cheaper), the round trip balloons to a year or more. To service the starship fleet's thirst for fuel, tankers will need to be huge or there will have to be a lot of them. Either way, fuel shipped from gas giants ain't gonna be cheap.

If we forgo interplanetary tankers and instead have starships make extra leg to the local gas giant to refuel, it will cost you more than you will save.

The alternative is shipping fuel up from destination planet. Yes, we know about how surface to orbit is "halfway to anywhere" in terms of delta V cost. But in order to colonize space at all, surface-to-orbit shipping cost will have to be cheap anyway. The industrialization of space will start with using space based resources, but eventually surface-to-orbit will have to be cheap or there is no rocketpunk future. Laser launch, Lofstrom loop, space elevator, something like that.

Assumption: surface-to-orbit shuttle economics are equivalent to current day airliner economics. Round trip to LEO and back is about two hours (not counting loading/unloading). With loading/unloading and maintenance, figure 4 flights a day. Implication is that a round trip passenger ticket is $250 and round trip freight service is $1000/ton (which is +10% added to interstellar transport costs)

Fuel is not round trip, it only goes from surface to orbit, but shuttles have to go orbit to surface in order to get the next load. You will have to streamline the process. High capacity pumps to minimize load/unload times, crew-less shuttle. You might be able to squeeze fuel lift cost to $500/ton. So if starships carry 1.5 tons of fuel per ton of cargo, surface-to-orbit fuel lift costs adds $750/ton to interstellar shipping cost.

So total surface-to-orbit overhead is $1000/ton + $750/ton = $1750/ton or 17.5%. This is an ouch but not a show-stopper.

Back to starships. How big are they?

Present-day maritime tonnage rule: 1 registered ton = ~3 cubic meters.

Assumption: 1 ton = 3 m3 applies to fuel and hull (e.g., crew quarters, engineering spaces, etc) as well as cargo. Therefore, if the absolutely hugest cargo starship in service has a cargo capacity of 40,000 tons (twice that of a large cargo starship), then:

Wet Mass
Payload mass to total mass ratio is 3. So wet mass is 3 * 40,000 = 120,000 tons
Starship Volume
1 ton of total ship mass = 3 m3 of volume. 120,000 * 3 = 360,000 cubic meters.

Volume of a sphere is 4/3πr3, so the radius of a sphere is 3√(v/(4/3π)) or

radius = CubeRoot( v / 4.189)

diameter = (CubeRoot( v / 4.189)) * 2

Assumption: a "cigar-shape" for a spacecraft is a six times as long as it is wide, with the proportions indicated in the diagram above. The center body is a cylinder 1 unit in diameter (0.5 units radius) and two units high. The two end caps are cones of 0.5 units radius and 2 units high.

If the monstrous cargo starship is spherical, it would have a diameter of 88 meters. If it is cigar shaped then length = 300 meters and diameter of 50 meters.

A 1500 ton cargo capacity tramp freighter would have a wet mass of 4500 tons and a volume of 13,500 m3. Spherical shape would have a diameter of 30 meters, cigar shaped length = 100 meters long and diameter of 17 meters.

Modular ships dimension would be similar but a bit larger due to being assembled out of component parts.


This is very difficult to estimate.

Since each crew has same berthing requirement as passengers, each crew represents one ton = $100,000/year in lost revenue capacity. Therefore crew will be kept as small as practical.

Operating crew: pilot-navigator and engineer for each watch. Plus life support specialist/medic, cargo-master, and captain. Total of nine. Small ships might squeeze this to four or five. Big ships might double up with assistants and trainees for 20 to 25.

Maintenance technicians will be needed. Ships are en route for a month or so at a time. Unlike aircraft, maintenance can't all be done during layovers. Time is money, you do not want to hold off departure because station tech has not finished some routine servicing. So techs will be carried to do maintenance during the flight. Assume (conservatively) 1 tech embarked per $100 million in construction cost (i.e., stuff to be maintained). So small ships will have a maintenance crew of seven or eight (total crew of ten or twelve). Largest ships in service might have total crews up to 250. Scut work (swabbing decks and peeling potatoes) will be done by junior crew. As has been the case since time began.

Hotel Staff: passenger-carrying ships will need crew for hotel-type services (stewards, chefs, etc.), but not if passengers are colonists (fend for yourselves, steerage scum!). Coach class could make do with one for every 10 passengers. First class would have one for every 2 or 3 passengers (and the ticket price would reflect this). If a typical ship has 1 percent of cargo given over to passengers, the required hotel staff could increase the crew by about a third. Naturally the hotel staff will be looked down upon by the operating and tech crew members. On a passenger ship the hotel staff will vastly outnumber the rest of the crew by some 30 to 1.

Orbital high ports

These are primarily starship ports and service bases, though they may have other functions.

With our current assumptions, at a given time 3/4ths of the ships are en route, the rest are in port. So at the stations of the dozen colony worlds there will be docked about 15 cargo ships. One or two would be large cargo ships. A cargo ship will arrive and depart about three times a day.

Orbit-to-surface traffic is heavy. If each shuttle can carry the load of a 747 jet, about 100 arrive and depart each day. If starship fuel is shuttled up from surface, some 150 daily tankers arrivals are needed as well (if 4 daily flights per shuttle, about 65 physical shuttles are needed).

This is for a typical station. The busiest station in the trade network might have twice the traffic volume.

At any one time we might expect to find 200 to 300 off-duty starship crew at a typical station (probably all in bars). Unlike airports, passenger traffic is small. 200 or so arrive and depart each day. Passenger shuttles will also carry station crew, ship's crew going sightseeing, so there will be a few daily passenger flights.

A station is a ship without a drive engine, so its capacities can be estimated the same way.

If 10% of the overall cost of the merchant fleet goes to support the stations (since the stations maintain the ships) then the stations taken together will have about a tenth of the fleet's deadweight mass, or 180,000 tons all told. A typical station would then have a mass of 15,000 tons, not counting cargo awaiting loading, fuel in storage tanks, etc. But stations are likely to grow by accretions over the years and become sprawling structures extending hundreds of meters in all directions.

Using same estimates for cargo ships, the maintenance crew of an average station would be about 150. However, stations provide the major ship maintenance, so they probably have about as many technicians altogether as the ships themselves do. They alone will multiply the station population by tenfold; support staff and miscellaneous services might double it again, so a typical station could have some 3000 workers. The largest stations might have two or three times as many.

Living quarters will be nearly as expensive ship quarters, but frequent shuttle fare also add up. The income from shuttle fare can be used to subsidize living quarters rent, so many people could live on board, even with families. Station could be a cosmopolitan orbiting town.

The entire space-faring population of the trade network, ship crews and stationers, come to well over 50,000, maybe as many as 100,000 (out of a total population on 12 colonies of some 120 million). The space economy as a whole however employs many times more. If the merchant marine industry accounts for 3% of the economy it will also employ 3% of the workforce, 2 million people. With a similar number employed in the import/export industries.


The expense of a trade-protection navy is an insurance premium charged against trade.

Assumption: the insurance premium to fund the navy is 10% of total value of trade.

Say the 12 colony network is a trade federation and the insurance premium for defense is 10% of total value of trade (this setup could just as well be one planet monopolizing trade, in which case the navy protects the franchise. We will call it a federation anyway). Half the value of trade goes to support the merchant fleet (the other half is initial purchase cost of shipped goods) therefore the cost of the war fleet will be about 1/5 of the merchant marine

Assumption: warships have the same relationship to cargo ships as cruisers do to ocean liners or jet bombers to airliners.

Instead of cargo, warships carry weapons, sensors, armor, more powerful engines, and greater fuel capacity. Ton for full-loaded ton they are more expensive than trade ships (maybe x2) but cost per deadweight ton is about the same since technology going into it is similar. (some present day warplanes have higher cost-to-mass ratio than jetliners. This is due partially to "gold-plating" of weapon systems and partial due to false economies such as small orders that reduce production efficiencies. We will assume that a navy funded by merchants will not allow such expensive stupidities)

Assumption: For first approximation, scale down merchant marine by factor of 5 to get war fleet.

  • 1 battlecruiser per 5 heavy freighters
  • 1 cruiser per 5 medium freighters
  • 1 corvette per 5 small freighters

This will give the following order of battle:

  • 15 battlecruisers
  • 60 cruisers
  • 80 corvettes

This may or may not be balanced, substitute as needed.

(ed note: for a discussion of what Rick Robinson means by those three ship classes see his analysis here)

Space navy combat starships will require auxiliary starships to support them: food supply ships, ammo and missile supply ships, repair ships, hospital ships, fuel ships, etc. So some of the cruisers and corvettes in the order of battle will have to be traded for auxiliaries of various kinds. Some civilian cargo ships can be requisitioned in wartime for auxiliary missions (such as tankers). Depending upon technology and threat level, it might be feasible to fit cargo ships with weapon pods instead of cargo and use them as armed merchant cruisers. And warships might be fitted with cargo pods to become very well-armed transports.

Assumption: a warship's deadweight mass is 1/3rd (0.33) of loaded mass (propellant always dominates a reaction-drive spaceship's mass). You could call the deadweight mass the Washington Treaty Mass.

Assumption: the following deadweight mass values in the following table.

Assumption: warships are always cigar shapes because Hollywood hates spheres

We have already assumed that purchase cost of a spacecraft is $1 million per ton of deadweight. We have also assumed that each ton of loaded mass equals 3 m3 of volume.

Result of assumptions:

Warship typeLoaded
Battlecruiser30,000 tons10,000 tons$10 billion90,000 m3200m × 30m
Cruiser7500 tons2500 tons$2.5 billion22,500 m3120m × 20m
Corvette2000 tons700 tons$700 million6000 m375m × 12.5m

Corvette are the length of a 747 or C-5 Galaxy but larger diameter. Very close to space shuttle in launch configuration. Since corvettes will have a surface landing module (for gunboat diplomacy) they may even look like space shuttle stack (with a big winged thing stuck on the side). Merchant express mail couriers might be a civilian version of courvette.

During peace time war fleet has lower operating tempo than merchant marine. May spend half their their time docked instead of the one-quarter that merchants do. This saves operating expenses. The savings allows greater procurement, so they are replaced and retired from active duty after 20 years instead of 30. Then they go into a mothballed reserve force for another 20 years, so reserve is the same size as active fleet. As with cargo ships, warships might undergo top-to-bottom overhauls and remain in service longer.

Crews are larger in proportion than for cargo ships. Operating crew will be augmented with offensive and defensive weapon controllers, scan/ECM, and communication/intelligence; larger ships will have in addition a command staff.

The maintenance technicians will be larger per unit cost because they have to repair battle damage, during or after the battle.

Of course there is no hotel staff.

Some warships will carry a landing force of marines or espatiers. Due to berthing cost and limited space (mass ratio of 2.0, remember?) there won't be many marines, but they will be highly trained (SEALS).

Warship typeCrew

Crew numbers will be higher if they have a landing strike team embarked

This is not a huge crew force. about 10,000 for the entire fleet, with probably a similar number on shore duty at any given time. Add in the marines and the total wearing uniforms is still no more than 25,000 to 30,000. Perhaps with a similar number of civilian employees.

Defense spending for running the fleet (by far the largest budget item) is a modest $72 billion, 0.6% of trade federation's combined GPP. In a prolonged major war this would expand greatly. But this is supported by trade. If the cost of trade protection (the insurance premium) approaches or even exceeds the value of trade itself, there will be a collapse of political support.

Operations in a trade war will be primarily in space. If large scale planetary landings are required, cargo ships can be pressed into service as troop transports. Light infantry is roughly equivalent to civil passengers: 1 ton equivalent cargo capacity per soldier. However heavier equipment, shuttles to carry troops/gear/provisions to surface, armed shuttles for close air support, will all be required. So for an invasion force, 3 ton equivalent cargo capacity per soldier, not counting the naval escort.

If 1/10th of the entire merchant marine is gathered as an invasion force it can transport and land 120,000 light troops, less if heavy equipment is required. But 120,000 troops is a pretty big force to invade a planet of 10 million people.

Middle-period Empire

Suppose instead of 12 worlds, the empire had a thousand worlds, each with a population of 100 million. Then all the above can be multiplied by a factor of over 800. Improved technology will increase size and number of ships. If typical ships is x3 in linear dimensions they will be x27 greater in mass, and fleet can have x30 as many of them.

Large cargo starships: if spherical 300m diameter, if cigar 1,000 km long. Cargo capacity 1 million tons. Full-load mass of 5 million tons each. Empire will have about 1000 ships of that size (and some larger). It will have 50,000 medium cargo ships with cargo capacity of 20,000 tons, and hundreds of thousands of smaller vessels.

Great hub-route stations will have population in the millions.

Navy battlecruisers will be 1 km long, full-load mass of 3 million tons. Build cost $1 trillion. Crew of 30,000. Empire will have 125 battlecruisers in the fleet. It will have thousands of cruisers with a full-load mass of 100,000 tons. Naval budget can be held down to $60 trillion.

Galactic Empire

100,000 worlds with average population of few billion each. The scale factor is another x3000. You can do the math yourself.


      Why assign a price to a spacecraft in, say, 2237? Whatever it costs will be quoted in rupees, florins, or some new unit, and the raw figure wouldn't mean a thing to us if we knew it. Which is just the point. We want to know how much a spaceship costs in context — how many people can afford a ticket, how many schools can be built for the cost of a gigawatt laser star.

     In this ongoing discussion we're considering a recognizable future economy and technology. No Singularity, and not enough time for society to have evolved out of recognition. Perhaps the Industrial Revolution will reach maturity, in which further refinements are gradual. The first decades of aviation had Moore's Law style progress, but jetliners have had much the same performance and appearance for the last 50 years. A lot of low hanging fruit has already been picked. In any case, we're dealing with a fairly recognizable future economy and technology, able to do a lot of things we can't, but doing many familiar things in familiar ways. In 2237, long distance air transport (the only kind likely to be common) will probably be at high subsonic speeds, in jetliners that mostly just look and fly like jetliners. They may have nanomaterial strips instead of flap actuators, but only geeks would notice. Spacecraft will also be broadly recognizable, because we already build them. We've built many small robotic ones, and are starting to build big ones. The International Space Station is not unlike the forward end of an interplanetary ship, minus the main drive with its big propellant tanks and radiator fins or solar wings.

     The ISS has a 'dry' mass — structure and equipment, minus all consumables — of 304 tons, about 10 percent more than the super jumbo Airbus A380 (277 tons). They are also roughly the same size, in overall dimensions (both having 'wings') and in bulk, with pressurized volume about 1200 cubic meters. The ISS has a crew of six as an exploratory craft, and about a third of the volume is living space, so if configured as a transport, so to speak, it might carry 20. An improved and mature technology will surely improve on the ISS, but the most desirable improvement, better toilets aside, is making it cheaper. The ISS has cost something like $50 billion, about $170 million per ton. This is too much. We can't be getting around in spaceships that cost $50 billion just for the forward section, minus the parts that scoot it around. As a comparison, the slightly smaller Airbus A380 can be yours for about $325 million, depending on options, or about $1.2 million per ton. 747 variants are comparably priced. In the broadest structural engineering sense they are all similar constructions: lightweight pressure tanks and trusses (e.g. wing spars), fitted with complex, lightweight equipment and electronics. So what accounts for the difference in cost?

     The notorious Washington 'iron triangle' bears a share of the blame, from outright fraud to shameless overcharging, to subcontracting work out into 400 congressional districts. Throw in policy changes that can throw out years of design work. Also the ISS is a prototype, in a fact a sort of meta-prototype. Skylab and Mir were caravels; the ISS is our first try at a galleon. The builders not only had to handbuild it, which makes any prototype costly; they had to work out all the design requirements. My general rule is that a prototype costs about 10 times as much to build as a production item. It doesn't take too much squint to imagine that a comprehensive development program costs 10 times as much as handbuilding the prototype. Which pretty much gets you to the price differential between an Airbus A380 and the ISS.

     A bit of bad news is that building satellites is an established, mature industry, and they also cost on order of $100 million per ton dry mass. One reason is a launch cost to LEO of $10 million/ton, with most satellites going to higher orbits, a strong motivation to cut weight to the extreme. Satellites squeeze a lot of sophisticated gadgetry into a very small mass. They are equivalent to the most expensive parts of a large spacecraft, minus the (relatively) cheaper large tanks and structures. So I'll ignore satellites and repeat my round number guess, that future production spacecraft might, with some good luck, cost the equivalent of $1 million per ton of dry mass, more or less what commercial jets cost today. (Allowing for inflation, big jets of the 1950s and 1960s cost somewhat less, but still on the order of $1 million/ton.)

     I think it is highly optimistic, given that it is a 100 to 1 cost reduction over current space practice. A lot of people think it is very conservative. A million a ton — $1000 per kilogram, $450/lb — is pricey, and it makes really big spacecraft horribly expensive, like the $50 billion laser star I outlined for Ferrell. Modern naval ships cost only a tenth as much, ton for ton (carriers even less). But naval ships use thousands of tons of cheap shipbuilding steel. Lightweight materials are used extensively in superstructures, but the hull, where most of the mass is, is built of good old steel, and everything on all decks is massively braced against the heave of the sea. Seagoing ships are very strong, but they are not lightweight. There is a loose analogy here to laptop versus desktop computers; it costs more to pack power into a lightweight container. Spacecraft don't need to be compact, and crew cabins and propellant tanks are inherently bulky, but they do need to be as lightly built as practical. This naturally pushes up cost per mass: you're hanging the expensive parts on a much lighter (and thus more expensive) chassis.

     And after all, the cost of jetliners hasn't kept jet travel from becoming pervasive. For the adventure minded, third-hand deep space ships will in time be available for far less than their original sticker price, perhaps $10 million for Serenity. Progress in space has been and will be slow, because up front costs are enormous, tens of billions, even hundreds of billions over a couple of decades, say to establish the first base on Mars. But it we do it at all, eventually someone will come up with the DC-3 of deep space, or more likely a combination of basic drive, support, and habitat pods that can be configured to a variety of missions and turned out in production runs of scores, eventually hundreds. Models might be in production for 50 years and in service for a hundred years, still serving outposts that don't rate modern ships. When they are finally gone they'll be remembered as the ships that opened up space.

DR. CHARLES E. GANNON: Nicely argued and written. A few additional considerations:
  1. much of the space architecture and materials involved, and extreme expense of uber-tight designing (reduce volume and mass as much as possible) are driven by our current need to build planetside, and then deploy up through 1 gee and 1 std atmosphere. While a space-based industrial sector will not make nonsense of these limitations (for all sorts of reasons), I think we can expect the pitiless and brutal design efficiencies (and concomitant expenses) to diminish significantly. Perhaps not a whole additional order of magnitude, but possibly by a factor of 2-5. And at that rate, you start approaching HULL costs for wet navy vessels.
  2. Now, when it comes to powerplants, life support, etc.—you are still going to have the godawful expense of 24/7 100% take-it-with-you power and lifesupport. They're always going to be the priciest creations in humanity's golfbag of tech toys.
     RICK ROBINSON: Yes, the current need to launch through gravity and atmosphere, and atop very expensive boosters, forces pretty extreme designs on spacecraft.
     I don't think hull/structure costs will fall to wet navy levels simply because the construction will remain a lot lighter — mass is a direct propulsion penalty. But they can be at least as cheap as airframes, arguably somewhat cheaper because of less purely structural demands.
     But you are right that power and life support will remain the big cost drivers. The hab structure is probably the cheapest major part of the hab module, the real money going into all the life support plumbing.

     QWERT: Very interesting.
     Just an adition: Affordable travel by Jet owes not only to improvements in technology but also thanks to a general increase in wealth (which in a sense is related to tecnological progress). So air travel is today affordable, because most people produce more wealth than twenty years ago.
     This is the reason why i wouldn´t reject the posibility that supersonic passenger jets may become something common in the future (you only need to maket time more valuable, in other words you make more money working during those hours than what you save using a subsonic jet).
     This would also be an important reason of why space travel becomes affordable: not only because it gets cheaper, but also because whe become wealthier and are able to afford it.

     CARLA: Interesting piece. Launching from earth makes the mass penalty very severe; I'd guess this is part of the reason why some of the sci-fi I've read (not a large sample) features industrial manufacture in space.

     IAN M:

     "We want to know how much a spaceship costs in context — how many people can afford a ticket, how many schools can be built for the cost of a gigawatt laser star."
     Yes. It doesn't really matter if you say the ship costs one million of the yankee dollars per ton or fifty thousand Afro-Caribbean kopecs per ton. For the purposes of fiction what we really want is the ratio between starship costs and Jim-Bob's salary at the rocket manufacturing plant (Where he oversees the wet-nano tanks that churn out long-chain diamondoid fibres for the casing spinner). By triangulating between that ratio, the drive thrust and endurance slected, and the type of authority that backs the early drive into space, you can learn a lot about the author's politics.
     That ratio determines whether we have individualistic Belters flitting about in ultralight one-cabin mining ships, or massive ore refineries like the Nostromo from Alien (A ship owned by a company with so little concern for the wellbeing of its personnel that it didn't even provide them with lifeboats or evac pods).

     Carla — That's one of the reasons, although SF writers tend to skip over the hard parts of feeding all these people and supplying them with air and water (It's a bit like the historical fictions and fantasy novels that ignore just how many farmers it takes to feed one mounted warrior, have happy well-fed peasants eating chicken every day). The other reasons boil down to getting as many people into space as possible for the story background, and a leftover from the highly optimistic ideas of the Sixties and Seventies (Jerry Pournelle's A Step Further Out and G. Harry Stine's The Space Enterrpise are available cheap in used book stores, if you really want a taste of that optimism).

     "A bit of bad news is that building satellites is an established, mature industry, and they also cost on order of $100 million per ton dry mass. One reason is a launch cost to LEO of $10 million/ton, with most satellites going to higher orbits, a strong motivation to cut weight to the extreme."

     Another reason is that there's no routine maintenance on these things. How much would an airplane cost if you could only repair the engines or electronics during flight?


     Carla - Yes, lift cost from Earth is a big reason to make stuff in space.
     But there is an odd little paradox involved. Launch cost has to come down (by at least 90 percent) to make large scale human space travel likely at all. And once launch cost is reduced, it may be cheaper to haul stuff up than to build a whole new industrial infrastructure in deep space.

     qwert and Ian - Your points are closely related.

     The figure we are really most concerned with is the price of a ticket, and (not unrelated) the cost of a year's food and rent on a living cubicle, relative to incomes on Earth. These costs are what determine how many people go, or are sent.
     Long term economic trends: The 'market basket' of available goods has grown enormously, of course, but there are long term reference points like the price of food staples relative to average incomes. Over the industrial revolution as a whole, productivity, real incomes, and living standards have increased by about 3x per century. But since about 1973, real incomes for 80 percent of 'Murricans have been pretty stagnant; income growth has been almost entirely in the upper fifth. ;Which relates to qwert's point, because those are the people who fly regularly, and they are flying more as their incomes grow.

     I personally think this is a sign that the Industrial Revolution is entering its mature phase. And to some degree there is a law of diminishing returns for economic growth itself. Once an economy can comfortably feed, cloth, house, and medically tend to its population, further economic growth essentially goes to buying toys. (I am not getting into how and whether a society actually does those things, only whether the economy CAN do them.) The US reached this level around mid 20th century; Western Europe a few years later, then the East Asian tigers, and now India and China have achieved it for about half a billion people, though another billion and a half remain in third world = essentially pre-indusrial conditions. If we don't fark it up, the planet will be mostly 'developed' by 2100, with traditional mass rural poverty mostly a thing of the past. Poor regions will be comparable to poor regions of the EU.

     On the other hand, the cheap oil ride is clearly over. To do the above we will have to do it with sustainable techs, not cheap. And we will have to deal, politically and socially, with the reality that most of the world's people live fairly modest material lives and do mostly grunt work. Probably there will be an economic oligarchy. No one believes in old fashioned 1900 era socialism any more; the modern era left is about constraining capitalism, not abolishing it. Some restraint will be needed, because it is already clear that we are basically running a life support system and have limited margin to screw it up.

     Space, to be honest, falls in the broad class of toys. Earth's basic economic and ecological problems have to be more or less solved in this century, before space will be a big factor, even if powersats end up handling several percent of global power load. And no foreseeable deep space tech is going to transform life on Earth the way orbital tech already has — materially, hardly at all, but enormously in how we communicate, including this blog. But we will do space anyway, because we can, and because a sustainable planet can afford $100 billion/year or so to do Cool Stuff in space, some of which may lead to profitable byproducts.

From THE PRICE OF A SPACESHIP by Rick Robinson ()

Ship Builders


Shipbuilding contract, which is the contract for the complete construction of a ship, concerns the sales of future goods, so the property could not pass title at the time when the contract is concluded. The aim of shipbuilding contract is to regulate a substantial and complex project which the builders and buyers assume long-term obligations to other and bear significant commercial risks.

Shipbuilding contract is a non-maritime contract and not within the Admiralty jurisdiction because it is insufficiently related to any rights and duties pertaining to sea commerce and/or navigation. The property passes to the buyer when the ship has been completed. To avoid difficulties, provision can be made for the property to pass in stage in the process of development and construction. It is different from most hire-purchase agreements where the seller has ownership of the property until the payment of the final installment.

Under the Sale of Goods Act 1979, this kind of agreement to sell ‘future’ goods may be a sale either by description or by sample. The sale of new building ship, which is large manufacturing project, is obviously undertaken by description. It is a condition to comply with the agreed description when performing the contract.

Standard forms of contract

Shipbuilding contract are constructed within the framework of standard contract forms amended by the contractual parties to meet their particular requirements. The choice of form will be based on the influence of trade association which the builders belong to.

Principal Form
  • SAJ Form
    It is published by the Shipbuilders’ Association of Japan in January 1974 and the framework of this form is commonly used in South Korea, China, Singapore and Taiwan.
  • AWES Form
    It is the standard shipbuilding contract of the Association of European Shipbuilders and Shiprepairers which revised and reissued in May 1999.
National Form
  • The Norwegian Shipowners’ Association and Norwegian Shipbuilders’ Association
  • MARAD Form (The Maritime Administration of the United States Department of Commerce)
    It is used in relation to American newbuildings financed under Federal Ship Financing Program authorized by Title XI of the Merchant Marine Act 1936.

Formation of contract

There is no requirement that a shipbuilding contract should be concluded in writing, it will be also legally enforceable in oral provided that necessary formal elements are present. The main terms of an agreement, such as expenditure, timescale and risks involved in shipbuilding, are better to record in written form.

In order to create an enforceable agreement, the essential elements for an agreement to form a legally binding contract must be presented, they are:

Where all these elements are present, a legally binding contract comes into effect. Otherwise, if any of the elements are missing, there is no legally binding contract.

Duties of a builder

The duty of a builder is to complete the new building ship in accordance with the design and specification given by the buyer. He must ensure the materials he uses are fit for the purpose required and must carry out the building works with general standard of skills expected for a shipbuilder since the buyers rely on the builder’s skills and judgment when contract is being performed. He should also comply with the safety requirement laid down in the Merchant Shipping Act.

Passing of risk

Within the shipbuilding contract, the risk does not pass from builder to buyer until delivery of the completed ship. It is suggested that builder should take out an insurance cover before the delivery of ship.

What are the builder’s remedies?

If the buyer cannot fulfill the payment, the builder may:

a) exercise his possessory lien;
b) resell as a result, exercising his lien;
c) exercise a common law right of stoppage in transit; and
d) sue for the price

The buyer may want to exit from the contract due to change in market situation or financial situation. When the builder had made use of his contractual remedy to cancel the contract for the future, the buyer’s default indeed will trigger the guarantor’s liability and make the letter of guarantee operative. Moreover, if the buyer fails to take delivery, the builder may sue him for failure to accept. The builder has remedies available when the buyer breaches the contract.

What are the buyer’s remedies?

If the builder fail to deliver the ship, the buyer may:

a) seek specific performance; or
b) sue for non-delivery

There may be an express term in the contract that the property is to pass in whole or partly by stages to buyer before delivery, this does not mean that the buyer has the right to reject the ship if it fails to meet up with the required standard.

The buyer has the right to examine the complete property before he is obliged to signify acceptance. He has no right to reject after accepting the delivery, but only to redress if he discovers fault is by way of damage.

The builder must notify the buyer the ship’s readiness for trials which will be taken place at the agreed place of delivery. The buyer may choose any place to take the delivery and the costs are for his account.

The time of delivery is normally stated and treated as an essential term of the contract. If it is not mentioned or it is not an essential term, the builder should deliver the completed ship within a reasonable time. “Reasonable” will be determined case by case.


Shipbuilding contract is different from the general sales contract in terms of nature of contract, time frame and passing of risks. Each shipbuilding contract is tailor made where there are different requirement from each buyer.

Shipbuilding contract needs very careful drafting of provisions in contemplation of the likely event of damage before completion.

From the Wikipedia entry for SHIPBUILDING CONTRACT

Shipbuilding is the construction of ships and other floating vessels. It normally takes place in a specialized facility known as a shipyard. Shipbuilders, also called shipwrights, follow a specialized occupation that traces its roots to before recorded history.

Shipbuilding and ship repairs, both commercial and military, are referred to as "naval engineering". The construction of boats is a similar activity called boat building.

The dismantling of ships is called ship breaking.

Early modern

West Africa

Documents from 1506 for example, refer to watercraft on the Sierra Leone river, carrying 120 men. Others refer to Guinea coast peoples using war canoes of varying sizes – some 70 feet in length, 7–8 feet broad, with sharp pointed ends, rowing benches on the side, and quarter decks or focastles build of reeds. The watercraft included miscellaneous facilities such as cooking hearths, and storage spaces for the crew's sleeping mats.

From the 17th century, some kingdoms added brass or iron cannons to their vessels. By the 18th century, however, the use of swivel cannons on war canoes accelerated. The city-state of Lagos for instance, deployed war canoes armed with swivel cannons.


With the development of the carrack, the west moved into a new era of ship construction by building the first regular oceangoing vessels. In a relatively short time, these ships grew to an unprecedented size, complexity and cost.

Shipyards became large industrial complexes and the ships built were financed by consortia of investors. These considerations led to the documentation of design and construction practices in what had previously been a secretive trade run by master shipwrights, and ultimately led to the field of naval architecture, where professional designers and draftsmen played an increasingly important role. Even so, construction techniques changed only very gradually. The ships of the Napoleonic Wars were still built more or less to the same basic plan as those of the Spanish Armada of two centuries earlier but there had been numerous subtle improvements in ship design and construction throughout this period. For instance, the introduction of tumblehome; adjustments to the shapes of sails and hulls; the introduction of the wheel; the introduction of hardened copper fastenings below the waterline; the introduction of copper sheathing as a deterrent to shipworm and fouling; etc.

Industrial Revolution

Though still largely based on pre-industrial era materials and designs, ships greatly improved during the early Industrial Revolution period (1760 to 1825), as "the risk of being wrecked for Atlantic shipping fell by one third, and of foundering by two thirds, reflecting improvements in seaworthiness and navigation respectively." The improvements in seaworthiness have been credited to "replacing the traditional stepped deck ship with stronger flushed decked ones derived from Indian designs, and the increasing use of iron reinforcement." The design originated from Bengal rice ships, with Bengal being famous for its shipbuilding industry at the time. Iron was gradually adopted in ship construction, initially to provide stronger joints in a wooden hull e.g. as deck knees, hanging knees, knee riders and the other sharp joints, ones in which a curved, progressive joint could not be achieved. One study finds that there were considerable improvements in ship speed from 1750 to 1850: "we find that average sailing speeds of British ships in moderate to strong winds rose by nearly a third. Driving this steady progress seems to be continuous evolution of sails and rigging, and improved hulls that allowed a greater area of sail to be set safely in a given wind. By contrast, looking at every voyage between the Netherlands and East Indies undertaken by the Dutch East India Company from 1595 to 1795, we find that journey time fell only by 10 per cent, with no improvement in the heavy mortality, averaging six per cent per voyage, of those aboard."

Initially copying wooden construction traditions with a frame over which the hull was fastened, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Britain of 1843 was the first radical new design, being built entirely of wrought iron. Despite her success, and the great savings in cost and space provided by the iron hull, compared to a copper sheathed counterpart, there remained problems with fouling due to the adherence of weeds and barnacles. As a result, composite construction remained the dominant approach where fast ships were required, with wooden timbers laid over an iron frame (Cutty Sark is a famous example). Later Great Britain's iron hull was sheathed in wood to enable it to carry a copper-based sheathing. Brunel's Great Eastern represented the next great development in shipbuilding. Built in association with John Scott Russell, it used longitudinal stringers for strength, inner and outer hulls, and bulkheads to form multiple watertight compartments. Steel also supplanted wrought iron when it became readily available in the latter half of the 19th century, providing great savings when compared with iron in cost and weight. Wood continued to be favored for the decks.

During World War II, the need for cargo ships was so great that construction time for Liberty ships went from initially eight months or longer, down to weeks or even days. They employed production line and prefabrication techniques such as those used in shipyards today. The total number of dry-cargo ships built in the United States in a 15-year period just before the war was a grand total of two. During the war, thousands of Liberty ships and Victory ships were built, many of them in shipyards that didn't exist before the war. And, they were built by a workforce consisting largely of women and other inexperienced workers who had never seen a ship before (or even the ocean).

Worldwide shipbuilding industry

After the Second World War, shipbuilding (which encompasses the shipyards, the marine equipment manufacturers, and many related service and knowledge providers) grew as an important and strategic industry in a number of countries around the world. This importance stems from:

  • The large number of skilled workers required directly by the shipyard, along with supporting industries such as steel mills, railroads and engine manufacturers; and
  • A nation's need to manufacture and repair its own navy and vessels that support its primary industries

Historically, the industry has suffered from the absence of global rules and a tendency towards (state-supported) over-investment due to the fact that shipyards offer a wide range of technologies, employ a significant number of workers, and generate income as the shipbuilding market is global.

Japan used shipbuilding in the 1950s and 1960s to rebuild its industrial structure; South Korea started to make shipbuilding a strategic industry in the 1970s, and China is now in the process of repeating these models with large state-supported investments in this industry. Conversely, Croatia is privatising its shipbuilding industry.

As a result, the world shipbuilding market suffers from over-capacities, depressed prices (although the industry experienced a price increase in the period 2003–2005 due to strong demand for new ships which was in excess of actual cost increases), low profit margins, trade distortions and widespread subsidisation. All efforts to address the problems in the OECD have so far failed, with the 1994 international shipbuilding agreement never entering into force and the 2003–2005 round of negotiations being paused in September 2005 after no agreement was possible. After numerous efforts to restart the negotiations these were formally terminated in December 2010. The OECD's Council Working Party on Shipbuilding (WP6) will continue its efforts to identify and progressively reduce factors that distort the shipbuilding market.

Where state subsidies have been removed and domestic industrial policies do not provide support in high labor cost countries, shipbuilding has gone into decline. The British shipbuilding industry is a prime example of this with its industries suffering badly from the 1960s. In the early 1970s British yards still had the capacity to build all types and sizes of merchant ships but today they have been reduced to a small number specialising in defence contracts, luxury yachts and repair work. Decline has also occurred in other European countries, although to some extent this has reduced by protective measures and industrial support policies. In the US, the Jones Act (which places restrictions on the ships that can be used for moving domestic cargoes) has meant that merchant shipbuilding has continued, albeit at a reduced rate, but such protection has failed to penalise shipbuilding inefficiencies. The consequence of this is that contract prices are far higher than those of any other country building oceangoing ships.

Present day shipbuilding

Beyond the 2000s, China, South Korea and Japan dominate world shipbuilding by completed gross tonnage. China State Shipbuilding Corporation, China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, Hyundai Heavy Industries, Samsung Heavy Industries, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering and Imabari Shipbuilding supply most of the global market for large container, bulk carrier, tanker and Ro-ro ships.

The market share of European ship builders began to decline in the 1960s as they lost work to Japan in the same way Japan most recently lost their work to China and South Korea. Over the four years from 2007, the total number of employees in the European shipbuilding industry declined from 150,000 to 115,000. The output of the United States also underwent a similar change. Key shipbuilders in Europe are Fincantieri, Navantia, Naval Group and BAE Systems.

Modern shipbuilding manufacturing techniques

Modern shipbuilding makes considerable use of prefabricated sections. Entire multi-deck segments of the hull or superstructure will be built elsewhere in the yard, transported to the building dock or slipway, then lifted into place. This is known as "block construction". The most modern shipyards pre-install equipment, pipes, electrical cables, and any other components within the blocks, to minimize the effort needed to assemble or install components deep within the hull once it is welded together.

Ship design work, also called naval architecture, may be conducted using a ship model basin. Previously, loftsmen at the mould lofts of shipyards were responsible for taking the dimensions, and details from drawings and plans and translating this information into templates, battens, ordinates, cutting sketches, profiles, margins and other data. However, since the early 1970s computer-aided design became normal for the shipbuilding design and lofting process.

Modern ships, since roughly 1940, have been produced almost exclusively of welded steel. Early welded steel ships used steels with inadequate fracture toughness, which resulted in some ships suffering catastrophic brittle fracture structural cracks (see problems of the Liberty ship). Since roughly 1950, specialized steels such as ABS Steels with good properties for ship construction have been used. Although it is commonly accepted that modern steel has eliminated brittle fracture in ships, some controversy still exists. Brittle fracture of modern vessels continues to occur from time to time because grade A and grade B steel of unknown toughness or fracture appearance transition temperature (FATT) in ships' side shells can be less than adequate for all ambient conditions.

Ship repair industry

All ships need repair work at some point in their working lives. A part of these jobs must be carried out under the supervision of the classification society.

A lot of maintenance is carried out while at sea or in port by ship's crew. However, a large number of repair and maintenance works can only be carried out while the ship is out of commercial operation, in a ship repair yard.

Prior to undergoing repairs, a tanker must dock at a deballasting station for completing the tank cleaning operations and pumping ashore its slops (dirty cleaning water and hydrocarbon residues).

From the Wikipedia entry for SHIPBUILDING

(ed note: Natalya Regyri is a very skilled engineer. She and her team mate Zoya have been through the starship transport business from top to bottom. As it turns out, Zoya is the granddaughter of Konstantin Usoko and Madoka Usko. Who are the owners and CEOs of one of the largest transport megacorporations in space. The Uskos are most pleased with the education in business and geopoltical matters that Natalya has given their granddaughter. As a gift, they give Natalya several billion in hard currency to create a small transport company. Natalya goes to the Manchester ship yards to purchase a transport starship, with Konstantin Usoko tagging along. Director Aitkens of Manchester Yards is under the misapprehension that Natalya is a foolish girl who doesn't know what she is doing. Silly boy...)

      (Natalya said) “I’m still not sure. We’ll have it ironed out by the end of the week.”
     (Director Aitken said) “Well, as soon as you do, let us know so we can add the color scheme to your hull,” he said.
     “You have a hull already?” she asked.
     The side-eyed glance he shot at Konstantin was so fast, she might not have seen it if she hadn’t been looking at his face. “Well, we have one that we think you’ll find suitable for a startup operation like yours. Subject to your approval, of course.”
     Natalya smiled. “Of course. What are you thinking?”
     “We have a smart fast packet—”
     “No.” Natalya cut him off.
     “Director Aitken. I’m not interested in your fast packet. What’s the model? Javelin?”
     He blanched. “It’s a great starter ship for a new—”
     “I already have an Unwin Eight that I’m quite happy with. It makes a lovely yacht. I need to haul freight.”
     Konstantin chuckled low in his chest.
     Natalya smiled at him before returning her gaze to Aitken.
     “Uh, well.” He sat back in his chair measuring the distance between Natalya and Konstantin with his eyes. “What did you have in mind?”
     “I’ve heard that you’ve got a new mixed cargo hauler. The Eighty-eight? I assume it’s because it’s rated for eighty-eight metric kilotons?”
     He brightened. “Exactly. Same basic design as our older model Industrialist class multi-cargo hauler. Six standard wedge containers on a spine—”
     “Too small,” Natalya said.
     “Too ... small,” he said, pausing over the operative word.
     “Yes. I’m hauling freight. You can imagine that since I’m allied with Usoko Mining that mostly what I’ll be hauling is metal and metal products. What I had in mind is a Barbell.”
     “A Barbell? For a startup?” He seemed completely at a loss, his gaze sweeping back and forth between Natalya and Konstantin, who gave every indication that he might not actually be listening as he fiddled with his tablet.
     “I have contracts to haul over a million metric kilotons of metal in the next eighteen months, Director Aitken. Madoka Usoko didn’t give you a few billion credits so you could sell me a yacht.”
     Aitken nodded. “Of course, of course.” He blinked several times as if trying to reconstruct his worldview in light of a cancellation of basic physics. “We have several hulls in the yard, of course. A number of Barbells. Are you sure?”
     “Do you have anything bigger?” Natalya asked. “Two hundred metric kilotons gets me where I need to be, assuming it’s got the guts to haul it where I need it hauled.”
     “Uh,” Aitken said. “We have a standard configuration ... ” Aitken paused on his own when Natalya shook her head. “No?” Aitken’s voice all but squeaked.
     “The configuration I see most often is Oscar-class Origamis with barely enough fusactor (fusion power reactor) to recharge the (jump drive) capacitor in less than a day and only enough capacitor for two back-to-back jumps at that. That’s barely enough for three Burleson units loaded.” Natalya paused. “Are you saying your standard is better than that?”
     He cleared his throat and shook his head. “No,” he said. “That’s the standard CPJCT configuration.” He cleared his throat again. “What did you have in mind?”
     “At least Tango.”
     His eyeballs all but bulged out of his head.
     “You’ll need to beef up the Pravda to punch it and the emitter buses to carry the additional load. Standard bus can’t carry that much juice.”
     Aitken shook his head. “I ... uh ... We need to regroup, I think.” His gaze swept across his deck as if he’d lost something vital—like his nose.
     “Director Aitkin, I think you’ve been operating under a mistaken notion that I might not know what I’m doing.”
     “I thought you were a businesswoman,” he said. “You sound like an engineer.”
     “Those two things are not mutually exclusive. I hold a bachelor of science in interstellar systems and an engineering third officer license. I’ve spent the last five stanyers helping to build the next generation of couriers and working to establish Mr. Usoko’s new production platform. Earlier this stanyer I worked with Dr. Margaret Stevens to develop a new technique for recovering clippers who have had a catastrophic failure of their drive emitter harness. I know which end of the spanner to club you with and I’d prefer not to have to demonstrate my expertise.”
     Aitken opened his mouth but closed it again.
     “How about we start again? Shall we?” Natalya asked. She stood up and crossed to his desk and offered her hand. “Nice to meet you, Director Aitken. My name is Natalya Regyri and I’d like to buy one of your ships but I have some pretty specific needs. Since you don’t know a Phillip’s head from a dogging handle, how about you and me and one of your sharp design guys sit down with a couple of pots of coffee and have a little tête-à-tête. What do you say?”

     The designer—a guy named Hel Alves, dark hair, dark eyes, and ink stains on his fingers—had been right with Natalya until she started talking about the emitter buses. He held up a hand. “I believe you. I need somebody who knows how to do this here so we get it right.”
     Ten ticks later his power guy—Paul Folsom, a stringy old man with a braid of solid white hair hanging down the back of his coverall—ambled into the office. “Cha got?” he asked.
     “Barbell hull, Pravda 9500X driving a Tango Origami,” Alves said.
     “You’ll blow the emitter buses,” Folsom said. “Maybe not the first few jumps but push it out to six, seven BUs? (Burlson Units, measure of interstellar jump distance)” He made a buzzing sound between his teeth and flashed all his fingers in the air like an explosion.
     Alves looked at Natalya. “You knew this how?”
     “Terror is jumping into a system and knowing you can’t jump out again,” she said and shrugged.
     “You really want to do this?” Folsom said. “Upgrade the Pravda with their new cooling jacket, takes fuel consumption down by at least twelve percent but the payback is in maintenance costs. Lower core temp, still have plenty of power with the jacket bonus, but costs half as much to run.”
     “What about the capacitor?” Natalya asked.
     Folsom squinted at it. “It’s a little short for a Tango.” He looked at Natalya. “How big a jump are you thinking?”
     “Six, maybe seven.”
     He waggled his head back and forth while his gaze raked the schematics on display in front of them. “What you got will give you two jumps back to back. It’ll be dry as the outside of an airlock’s door, if you do, but even a few ticks between jumps will give you a little wiggle room.”
     “What if we take it down two steps?” Natalya asked.
     “That’ll give you enough for one jump,” Folson said.
     “Install three in series with a latch circuit between them,” Natalya said.
     Folsom’s eyes widened and he leaned over the plans. “Brilliant.”
     “You know where I’m going with that?” she asked?
     “Of course,” Folsom said. “Slim it down by knocking it back. Saves the volume and makes enough room to put in three. Link them up so only the last one is connected to the Burleson drive. Capacitor discharges, ship jumps. By the time we know where we are, the second one has charged the first one, the third one has charged the second, and the fusactor’s already filling the third again.”
     Alves stared at the design before glancing at Natalya and then at Folsom. “Why didn’t we do this before?”
     “Nobody asked,” Folsom said.
     “We’re going to need heavier power buses,” Natalya said. “Heat load on the emitter arrays.”
     Folsom nodded. “Take the buses up one size bigger than minimum rating.”
     Natalya nodded. “The extra mass will bleed the heat off and pass it to the bus races back through the ship. Are the standard races big enough? I seem to remember scrubbing the hell out of my knuckles trying to change one out.”
     Folsom chuckled. “The larger buses are thicker, but the same width. Just need to upgrade the junction boots.”
     “Will that give me six BUs per jump with a full can?”
     Folsom shrugged and looked at Alves.
     “I think so,” Alves said. “I’m not sure it matters as much as you think.”
     Natalya grinned. “You’re thinking that even if I only get five BUs, I can get fifteen BUs in less time than a standard Barbell can get six and get there with less accumulated jump error than if I made it one jump?”
     Alves laughed. “Yeah. As a matter of fact that’s exactly what I was thinking.”
     “So, that’s sorted. About the crew quarters ... ” Natalya said.

     Three stans (standard hours) later, Aitken smiled across a table littered with notes, sketches, and print-outs. “Are we agreed?”
     “Read it back, please,” Natalya said.
     “We’ve got a custom Barbell with enhanced crew quarters, one extra officer’s stateroom, a modified engineering section that I don’t understand but is spelled out in these specifications and all the people know what it says agree to.” He looked up. “All right so far?”
     Alves, Folsom, and Natalya all nodded.
     “The bridge will have all Mark-20s linked on a high-density fiber network with repeaters in the captain’s cabin and telltales in each officer’s stateroom. I’m seeing an enhanced data suite, the upgraded graphics, and a ridiculously pimped-out communications system.” He looked up. “Still good?”
     Alves nodded, Folsom shrugged, and Natalya grinned. “How much?” she asked.
     Aitken shook his head. “Honestly, I have no idea.”
     “This is going to be more than a standard Barbell,” Alves said.
     Folsom laughed. “I think the question is how much more?”
     “What do you get for a new, off the ways, vanilla Barbell?” Natalya asked.
     “Three bill,” Alves said.
     Aitken said, “We sold that last one for four bill.” Alves made a sour face but a sharp look from Aitken had him clamming up.
     “Gentlemen,” Natalya said. “Gimme a tick?”
     They all nodded.
     Natalya got up from the table and grabbed Konstantin by the arm, pulling him out into the corridor.
     He grinned at her. “You don’t need my opinion. I don’t think Madoka could have wrestled those cats into the same bag.”
     “What’s the right price for a vanilla Barbell. Three or four?”
     He shrugged and wrinkled his lips a bit. “Depends. There’s not really a standard. Three on the low end. Four with the good upholstery.”
     “You have any opinion on what this customization will cost them?”
     “As percentage?” He shrugged. “I have a guess.”
     “So do I,” Natalya said. “What’s yours?”
     “Thirty percent.”
     Natalya nodded. “I’d have said thirty-five. Those Burleson Drives don’t have a linear cost to power ratio. Each higher step costs a lot more than the previous one. Dropping the capacitor ratings and running them in series compensates for that because they have the same problem. Lower rating is a lot cheaper. The three lower-capacity ones probably cost about the same amount as the one big one.”
     “Makes sense, but I have to tell you, you may as well be speaking Greek for all I’m following it.” Konstantin grinned and patted her shoulder. “You know what you’re talking about in ways they’re not used to having to deal with. Use it.”
     Natalya gave him a hug, surprising herself as much as Konstantin, before returning to the room. “Gentlemen, sharpen your pencils.”
     Alves and Folsom settled back in their seats with big smiles and glances at Aitken.
     For his part, Aitken stiffened his spine a little and glanced at Konstantin before looking at Natalya. “Why do I have a feeling this won’t go the way I think it should go?”
     Konstantin’s rumbling chuckle sounded loud in the quiet compartment.

     Neither Natalya nor Konstantin spoke until they undocked, Natalya at the helm slipping the Star Struck away from the yard. After a few ticks, Konstantin started laughing. Just the odd “ha ha” sound every so often. Before she knew it, Natalya laughed along with him.
     “I just spend almost five billion credits,” she said between chuckles.
     “Maybe, but you just saved a billion, too.” Konstantin said. “Probably more. Aitken knows how much you have in escrow for him.” He shook his head. “That exclusivity thing? I couldn’t have done it.”
     “What? Telling them I wanted exclusive rights to the design?”
     “Yeah. I thought Aitken was going to swallow his tongue.”
     “One of the things we learned at the company that shall not be named is that big companies forget there are little companies that have advantages they don’t.”

From HOME RUN by Nathan Lowell (2018)

Used Spacecraft Yard

A used spacecraft yard is sort of like a used car dealership. Generally infested with shyster used-car salespersons, you know the type.

A boneyard is a storage area for spacecraft that are retired from service. Most spacecraft at boneyards are either kept for storage or have their parts removed for reuse or resale and are then scrapped.


      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

Spacecraft Financing And Repos

RocketCat sez

Oh, you stupid naive rock-rats are all alike. Every last one of you think you're the first to come up with the bright idea of fishing between the sofa cushions until you promote the down-payment on a broken-down fifth-hand death-trap hunk-o-junk OTV and to use it to strike it rich asteroid prospecting or cargo hauling.

Blinded by the sight of your future riches when you discover the mother-load, or deluded by precious childhood myths of how hard work is always rewarded, you don't bat an eye at the usurious terms on the loan agreement you sign with an ounce of your own blood.

If you had two brain cells to rub together you'd realize that anybody who'd lend you money on the strength of your pathetic business plan has gotta be a loan shark. Their two associates: "Bugsy" and "Knuckles", should have been a tip-off.

So out you go, in debt up to your eyebrows, into the wilds of the asteroid belt. Only to find to your dismay, that all the asteroids are either [a] worthless or [b] already claimed. No matter how hard you work.

As the time for the next payment draws closer, the hab module's humidity regulator breaks down under the incredible strain of dealing with the flood of cold sweat pouring off your brow. Black despair becomes your bunk-mate.

How are you going to get yourself out of this fine mess, Horatio Alger?

When the loan shark forecloses on you like the sub-prime mortgage you are, you have limited set of nasty options.

[1] You can let them repossess your sky trash ship then hit the asteroid slums a broken person, pan-handling for your air-tax.

[2] You can try to avoid the loan shark, while you frantically try to scrape together the loan payment, trying not to think about interest compounded hourly. When you have it, you have a quaint fantasy in your head that your late payment will only result in a few broken limbs which will only partially impair your ability to earn money for your next payment.

[3] Or you can just flip out, scream to the uncaring heavens how you ain't gonna take it no more, and paint a big Jolly Roger skull-and-cross-bones symbol on the side of your ship.

In the latter two cases you will eventually be faced with Bugsy and Knuckles in a dark alley, quietly explaining that Mr. Shark is very unhappy with you while systematically doubling the number of bones in your skeleton. Unless you are truly out of luck and Mr. Shark contracts some professional bounty hunters to track you down and repo your ship.

Small businesses or even a Maw and Paw team might want to purchase a spacecraft to use in their startup business. A small ship can be used for asteroid mining or small cargo transport. Since spacecraft are going to be incredibly expensive, the happy couple will have to draft a business plan to convince Dealer Dan The Used Spaceship Man or the First National Bank of Ceres to advance them a mortgage loan or other type of financing.

Invariably many of these small businesses will discover that their business model does not capture enough value to keep up with the mortgage payments. They default. Sooner or later (depending upon how lenient the lender is) the business be hit by foreclosure and their ship will be repossessed. The bank will tell them to return the spacecraft or face a replevin lawsuit.

Honest businesses will meekly surrender the spacecraft to the bank and try to get a lift back to the civilized parts of the solar system. Desperate businesses will turn off their automatic identification system, and hope they can get the mortgage money before the bank catches up to them. Businesses that undergo psychotic breaks can "skip": run away from the bank's mortgage and become a full pirate.

For the latter two types of foreclosure, the banks will need specialized employees or contractors to get their spacecraft back. Repo crew and bounty hunters. They are needed since a pirate will just use the bank's replevin as toilet paper. If you are dealing with a pirate, the repo crew will probably need to be armed. The situtation and the local laws will determine whether "armed" means sidearms or ship-to-ship missiles. Tough minded banks might consider the destruction of the forclosed spacecraft to be almost as good as repossession. Potential pirates might think twice if the bank has a reputation for bringing defaulters in dead or alive.


Shipbroking is a financial service, which forms part of the global shipping industry. Shipbrokers are specialist intermediaries/negotiators (i.e. brokers) between shipowners and charterers who use ships to transport cargo, or between buyers and sellers of vessels.

Sale and Purchase

Sale & Purchase ("S&P") brokers handle the buying and selling of existing vessels in the secondhand market or contract new ships (called newbuildings in industry parlance) from shipbuilding yards. S&P brokers promote opportunities and discuss market trends with shipowners, charterers, investors and bankers, as well as reporting on market sales, vessel values, market trends and activity. When a shipowner has a vessel to sell or is looking for a vessel to acquire, the shipbroker will scour the market for buyers, or for suitable sales candidates, discuss with potential counterparties or their broker the main points of the sale transaction and eventually negotiate all of the details, usually based on a standard contract. During such proceedings, shipbrokers not only negotiate the price of the vessel on behalf of their principals but also all the logistical details for the transfer of the title and the vessel itself to the buyers (new owners), including the banking arrangements. During any negotiation minor disputes may occur which are to be handled in accordance with market fluctuation, i.e. the market may be moving in favor of the buyer (vessel price is softening) or in favor of the seller (vessel price is strengthening) giving each party a potential reason to cancel the transaction. When shipbrokers act on behalf of passive investors or financial buyers, they may also have to find time charter employment for the vessel and assist with practical arrangements such as the appointment of ship managers. Some S&P brokers specialize in the sale of ships for scrap, requiring a different set of skills and contacts.

From the Wikipedia entry for SHIPBROKING


     Bank financing is available to qualified individuals for the purchase of commercial starships. After a down payment of 20% of the cash price of the starship is made, the shipyard will begin construction of a specific vessel. Upon completion, the vessel is delivered to the buyer, with the bank paying off the purchase price to the shipyard. Because the bank now holds title to the ship, the price must be paid off in a series of monthly payments to it. Standard terms involve the payment of 1/ 240th of the cash price each month for 480 months. In effect, interest and bank financing cost a simple 120% of the final cost of the ship, and the total financed price equals 220% of the cash purchase price, paid off over a period of 40 years.

     In addition, the bank will insist that the purchaser submit an economic plan detailing the projected activity which will guarantee that monthly payments are made. Unless a character has some form of guaranteed income (perhaps large rents from some property he owns), this condition will generally rule out purchases (at least financed purchases) of yachts, military vessels, or exploratory vessels (i.e., the more expensive ships).

     Subsidies: The government may subsidize larger commercial vessels (built on type 600 hulls or larger), primarily to assure consistent service to specific worlds. These subsidized merchants are generally assigned a specific route connecting from 2 to 12 worlds of varying characteristics. The route will generally be determined before a subsidized merchant is purchased, to allow tailored design features as may be necessary. When a subsidized merchant is ordered, the character himself must make the 20% down payment, with the government assuming responsibility for the payments upon delivery, and taking 50% of the gross receipts of the ship while in service. The character is responsible for all expenses and costs of operation.

     Subsidized merchants are also subject to mobilization (and use as auxiliaries) in the event of emergency or hostilities. At the end of 40 years, the vessel is completely paid off, and full title passes to the character, but the vessel remains subject to mobilization in case of government need.


     Most vessels are constructed from standard design plans which use time-tested designs and combinations of features. Shipyards work from these plans which cover every detail of construction and assembly.

     Naval Architecture: (non-standard customized designs) Small design corporations can produce design plans for any vessel type once given the details of what is desired. The design procedure is followed to determine what is available and allowed, and the results are presented to the naval architect firm. They produce a detailed set of design plans in about four weeks for a price of 1% of the final ship cost; they can be hurried to finish the job in two weeks if paid 1.5%. Once the design plans are received, the shipyard may be commissioned to produce the vessel desired.

     Standard Designs: There are a number of standard design plans available; they have been in use for a long time, and are available for a nominal fee (Cr100 for the set). Standard starship plans available are: 100-ton scout/courier, 200-ton free trader, 200-ton yacht, 400-ton subsidized merchant, 600-ton subsidized liner, 800-ton mercenary cruiser, and 400-ton patrol cruiser. Standard plans are also available for the following small craft: 20-ton launch, 30-ton ship's boat, 30-ton slow boat, 40-ton pinnace, 40-ton slow pinnace, 50-ton modular cutter, 95-ton shuttle, and 10-ton fighter. Other standard plans may be available at various localities.

     Standard designs are easier to produce; their prices reflect a 10% reduction in normal pricing. The details of the standard designs are shown at the end of this chapter. Standard design vessels are often available used (10 to 40 years old) at reductions in price ranging from 10% to 40%, as indicated by the referee.

     Construction Times: Time required for building any vessel depends primarily on the hull. The drive potential table indicates construction time for each tonnage of hull; any hull over the indicated tonnage requires the next higher construction time. The standard hulls table gives shorter construction times for those hulls; they are more familiar to the shipyard and easier to build.

     Costs and Payments: A shipyard will insist upon a 20% down payment with the order for the vessel, as well as a demonstration that proper financing is available to cover the balance when due.

From THE TRAVELLER® BOOK by Marc W. Miller (1982)

The Xinglong died stupid. Afterward, everyone knew she was one of thousands of small-time rock-hopping prospector ships. The Belt was lousy with them: five-or six-family operations that had scraped together enough for a down payment and set up operations. When it happened, they'd been three payments behind, and their bank—Consolidated Holdings and Investments—had put a lien on the ship. Which, common wisdom had it, was why they had disabled her transponder. Just honest folks with a rust bucket to call their own trying to keep flying.

If you were going to make a poster of the Belter's dream, it would have been the Xinglong.

The Scipio Africanus, a patrol destroyer, was due to head back down toward Mars at the end of its two-year tour of the Belt. They both headed for a captured cometary body a few hundred thousand kilometers from Chiron to top off their water.

When the prospecting ship first came in range, the Scipio saw a fast-moving ship running dark and headed more or less in their direction. The official Martian press releases all said that the Scipio had tried repeatedly to hail her. The OPA pirate casts all said it was crap and that no listening station in the Belt had heard anything like that. Everyone agreed that the Scipio had opened its point defense cannons and turned the prospecting ship into glowing slag.

From LEVIATHAN WAKES by James Corey (2011)

The promise of private spaceflight brings with it the conditions of the socioeconomic systems from which it stems. By the mid-22nd century, there are so many private space operations that the asteroid belt and many of the minor bodies of the solar system are crawling with mining operations. Their primary function is not to send their goods back planetside — such an endeavor requires more ∆V than it’s worth in most cases — but to supply other interplanetary operations.

Rather than investing in such risky enterprises themselves, corporations offer to buy shares in small, independent mining operations, giving its debtor the upfront liquidity to purchase the necessary mining equipment, expertise, habitat, and spacecraft to establish a mining and manufacturing endeavor.

Many such operations, through either dishonesty, lack of due dilligence on the part of the sponsor corporation, or prospects that didn’t pan out, exceed their allotted time to turn a profit. By 2170, a majority of the Euros invested have failed to return home with interest and the corporations are looking for a way to reduce the scale of their losses.

When corporations foreclose on such an operation, though, the cost of retrieving the assets is likely to exceed the value of the assets. Rather than throwing good money after bad, corporations offer bounties on the assets of a foreclosed operation, payable to anyone who returns them.

Some miners consider their options and turn them in to their creditors themselves. Some hole up in asteroid fortresses, maximizing the cost of retrieving them.

Some assemble their resources into a spacecraft and run.

The latter the pretty for Repos — solitary entrepreneurs who specialize in altering the vector of a spacecraft to bring it into the reach of corporate interests who will pay to regain the value of the assets, typically liquidating them to recover as much of their investment as they can.

Because equipment gets worn and obsolete over time, the earlier a repo can return foreclosed equipment, the greater its value and the greater the repo’s cut. However, as a matter of policy, corporations will pay a flat fee for returning the defaulters to their authority so they can sue them. The prospectors’ old, obsolete equipment is often worth less when resold than it is to the repo, who often take any useful equipment for themselves to repair or modify their own craft.

Repo Strategy

Repos use several features of interplanetary law (such as it is) to their benefit.

  1. No laws, nations, or corporations control interplanetary space. Many craft have sets of laws, particularly when they carry large groups of people, but their laws have no weight while berthed or over any other craft in space.
  2. No individual or craft found piercing the envelope of a habitat will ever again be given berth in a station or spaceport. The UN considers such an action a crime against humanity except within the bounds of two nations under a declared state of war*, and almost every other port considers an individual who would do such a thing to be an existential hazard to the habitat.
  3. Likewise, most stations and spaceports view with an attitude between suspicion and existential fear any craft that will not allow another to dock, on the assumption that any restriction on docking endangers all who travel space. Some societies weigh the actions against mitigating circumstance, where others view it as an absolute law.

Repos therefore broadcast their endeavor for all to see, effectively holding themselves hostage, daring their quarry to take aggressive action that would forever banish them from their sources of fuel, water, food, and companionship. Because of the increased mass of additional crew, few repo craft can afford a second crew member and their associated life support. On the other hand, uncrewed craft are ready targets for any defensive capability a fleeing craft might have.Their pursuits are a popular form of entertainment and many several better-known repos help support themselves through corporate sponsorship of their broadcasts.

This craft, however, is not owned by one such repo. Instead, it is owned by Francesca “Frank” Nguyen, herself a former prospector who purchased her way out of debt by repossessing a malfunctioning, obsolete, adrift hydrogen mining craft. To return it to its corporate creditors, she approached its airlock with an MMU, then tased the crew, piloting the craft herself to Chiang-Diaz Station in a nearby Jovian orbit, and retrieved the bounty on the fugitive Archer Family gang.

She has since incorporated into the craft a radiator from a small space station, a drone launcher from a Jovian ring mining operation, and the cupola from a crewed space tug. She’s been unable to upgrade the NERVA-style nuclear engine to a VASIMR that would give her a much wider range of tactics for approaching other craft, but fully intends to do so when she’s got the kwai.


      Monthly payments too.

     It is a common misconception that banks only float loans for traders and merchants to buy ships. Not true. Especially not true if you read what I posted about the Company and groups like the TAS (which may actually be divisions of the Company but let's not get into that here). Having a stake in exploitation er ... exploration is just too crucial to leave to amateurs like the Scouts or Navy.
     Those clowns might make new knowledge public for some trumped up ideal like 'the good of mankind'. Well what's good for the Company is good for everyone! Besides banks don't care how you make their/your money. You can haul cargo, frozen immigrants, perfumed nobles or make it other ways. You just need a good business model.

     There are very few ships built with ground assault in mind despite what conspiracy buffs tell you about CorpSec black ops. Thus mercenary groups often face a shortage of vessels willing to deliver them to landing zones. Most people built a ground assault transport (or modifying an existing ship) can find steady work with a number of up and coming mercs who can't afford a Broadsword yet or do not want the hassle.
     Being owned by the bank has a certain cachet. It's amazing how many planetary governments will wait patiently for your ship to land, then engage the mercs as they debark. No one wants to piss off the bank. The same goes for mercs on the ground. Hardened mercs, warlords and despots will usually treat the ship (and therefore her crew) well, allowing them to leave unmolested or offering gainful employment. This may have something to do with some banks siccing a transport full of lawyers on people stealing bank owned ships.

     Search and rescue can be very lucrative. Many backwaters simply don't have the personnel pool for a dedicated and effective search and rescue operation. These operators usually work for minimum when on standby and charge the recipients of their services. They also operate a sideline hauling stuff to and from orbit.
     Many Jovian outposts and market areas hire an SAR ship and crew as refueling can always go horribly wrong or will gift a freelance ship fuel to make sure it sticks around just because its a draw.
     Some (nearly all) SAR operators double as salvage operations because sometimes they don't make it in time.

     Seeker class ships are often bought by entire clans or a single crew that made a huge strike. But sometimes banks will allow a Seeker to be mortgaged. Due to the risk the loans are usually made by local banks in the same belt because not supporting the locals can be very bad for your business. Nevertheless various waivers have to be signed that allow the bank first crack at the estate of any deceased crew. Read the fine print if you're a family man/woman/other.

     Universities often send expeditions to points of interest. When they don't have any expeditions out they have no use for a starship. Chartering ships for research is fairly common and a captain with academic connections will find a number of colleges ready to charter him. He can also haul cargo between charters. Free traders are usually the ship of choice for this business as the high cargo capacity and passenger capacity is desired.

     Luxury Charter
     People used to travel often forget there are beautiful sights in space and amazing opportunities to experience: low gravity skiing on a gas giant's frozen moon, skimming a planet's rings, re-entry parachuting are just a few. The people who can afford this will want accommodations making high passage look like a smelly surplus spacesuit. All this costs credits. Luxury ships may seldom if ever leave their home system (chosen for surplus cash and beautiful stellar bodies).

     This sort of operation is set up quite often in war zones. If your shipping is already being shot at sending out armed vessels insures the investment. As a business privateers usually avoid tangling with warships and can be operated with acceptable levels of risk. The problem is making sure the ship owner does not skip or turn pirate. On the bright side a privateer can find constant employment in a war escorting other mortgaged ships for the bank!


One of the most overlooked aspects of space travel in science fiction settings is infrastructure. Space travel today is barely begun and is almost impossibly hard. The only way our first voyages have succeeded is with a lot of people on the ground working incredibly hard. In the future new propulsion systems and engineering techniques will make it easier but I sincerely doubt it will ever be easy. It will require a lot of time, energy and skills compared to most other human endeavors (except possibly terraforming and kicking coffee).

Say we have something like the Traveller maneuver drives: you put your power in one end and your ship moves to the other end sort of. No deadly rocket blast necessary. No one needs a spaceport, right?


First of all antigravity (or whatever handwavium you use) is expensive. A Scout ship alone costs 36 Mega-Credits (Mcr). Its routine maintenance is 36,000 credits a year and that is not figuring in life support, wages, fuel, supplies, and non-routine costs like repairs or ordinance. For a comparison, in Classic Traveller high living (great food, swank accommodations, lighting your cigarettes with credit notes) costs about 900 cr. a month. A credit buys a lot.

In a setting like this earning money to keep your ship flying is a major concern (let alone paying a gorram mortgage). This has two effects: time is going to be precious, ships are going to try to cut expenses.

Time is precious because you need time to do whatever it is to pay the bills. In the example above your courier could wind up costing you say, 6000 cr. a month. That's two hundred a day so you don't want to waste any of it sitting around repairing a busted strut or Johnston rod.

As expensive as ships are they could be even more expensive. So manufacturers will try to cut costs where they can. That means anything not devoted to maintaining life and getting from point A to point B will be made as cheaply as possible, like landing gear. So you are going to want a more or less level stretch of concrete to land on, otherwise you waste time fixing your struts and rods and such.

Saving money by optimizing your ship for vacuum work could save you a bundle. In Cepheus Engine game streamlining costs 100,000 credits per ton. That doubles the price of some hulls, an important fact if you are paying for your ship. Not everyone steals their ship — but even in that case, you need a paint and body shop to alter it and someone to forge legit seeming credentials for it.

Yes pirates/smugglers/slavers have their own infrastructure. Their ships need frequent repairs as most merchants will fire at least one shot to make things look good for the insurance company. Sometimes they panic and actually hit the pirate!

In that case they need repair facilities for their prize ship as well. Pirates have to make things look good too.

Maintenance was mentioned. Annual maintenance comes up way faster than anyone expects or wants. It requires a dock or shipyard or whatever to allow major overhaul of ship systems. Presumably you could do this in the wild but you'd be looking at longer times and an overworked engineering gang at the end of it.

But say you don't want to waste time and put wear and tear on landing, just drop your cargo off in an orbital station and pay for a shuttle to ferry it down. Except shuttles need infrastructure, landing fields, fuel and re-mass storage. Stations need maintenance. It's all infrastructure.

I haven't even touched on ship construction but you get the idea (that may turn up in another post).

Maneuver drives are fairly expensive and considering that cost, worlds might find it useful to develop other ways to transport loads to and from orbit. A maneuver drive ship is an all purpose spacecraft (that's an oxymoron at our present stage of development by the way). Ships dedicated to lifting cargos or orbital transports can be specialized to reduce some of those costs. They don't necessarily need antigravity. Laser launch vehicles, reusable chemical rockets, orbital towers and space bolos are all being discussed and planned now. Give them a few tech levels and they might give an antigravity device a run for its money (no pun intended) for simplicity and economy.

If you are using hard-science style torch-ships, infrastructure becomes even more important or your planet becomes instantly recognizable. It's the one with the large scorched areas and the Bladerunner-esque yellow fog. Player characters are not the only people you don't want to give a 100 terawatt fusion drive to.

In fact antigravity technology might revolutionize infrastructure instead of replacing it. The previous tech level you used mass drivers to shoot cargo into orbit, now you use MFTN (Middle Finger to Newton) driver to smoothly loft shuttles and bulk cargo containers. But don't forget, antigravity devices need support systems too.


What happens after your characters (whatever your SF RPG system of choice) break the law? The usual answer is 'we lift ship asap!'

That's a very good strategy but again let's see what happens.

Let's say you break the law and buy a ticket to a planet one parsec away, one not regularly visited by the planet you just cuckolded. That means it will cost that planet's government at three (passenger starship) tickets to bring you back for trial (sheriff ships out to get you, sheriff ships you and himself back to original planet for trial). In Cepheus Engine this means 26,000 credits. Why yes you are paying for high passage. No one is going to want to share a cabin with a captured fugitive, though the sheriff can fly middle passage.

Low passage is a distinct possibility (for the prisoner at least). But losing a prisoner to sleeping sickness and then finding out he was innocent (or presumed innocent from the start as some cultures believe) might be regarded as a violation of rights. So you'd probably have to go with high passage for the person of interest.

That 26,000 cr. means some crimes are plain going to be forgotten. Assault, breaking and entering, theft etc. The exact details will vary by world. Capital crimes would probably have a higher reasonable cost associated with them.

I am purposely leaving piracy out of this post. Piracy falls under the Navy's aegis. They have plenty of bucks, have to spend their budget and are happy to chase you to the Galactic Rim and points beyond.

Even if it is a matter of murder say, how far will a planet pursue a fleeing suspect? Was the victim anyone important? Are there extradition treaties with his probable destination. Are there other suspects and how likely is this person to be convicted if he is brought back? You can't put a price tag on justice but that's what people do.

If you have communication limited to actual travel it gets even harder. In Cepheus Engine terms you would need at least a Jump 3 ship to outpace the faster civilian ships which means a bottom tier warship in most settings is zipping around dropping off wanted posters. Make that several ships, just to circulate wanted posters. But what then? Are the police of other planets or starport security going to concern themselves with your case? Probably not unless there is also a (fat) reward included. And transportation guaranteed.

Enter the bounty hunter.

Bounty hunters hang around starports and wait for those wanted posters to come in. they read them with great interest. A starport has no laws against packing heavy  firepower and they usually do so. They snoop around and buy a lot of drinks and if they play their cards right, they catch a fugitive. What then?

Some planets have extradition procedures with their neighbors. If the crime doesn't warrant the cost of a passage back, then Planet A could try the fugitive under the laws of the Planet B and impose punishment under that planet's penal code. In exchange the Planet B will treat felons from Planet A it captures similarly.

Sometimes a felon will jump bail or be found guilty and still escape imprisonment. In this case Planet A would imprison the fugitive to serve time there.

There are some people, however, that Planet A would want no part of no matter how buddy buddy they are with Planet B. There are some people Planet B wants back. In that case a subsidized merchant comes in handy. Subsidized merchants get funding from the government to provide necessary commerce to worlds. While sending a warship to transport a prisoner is pretty expensive a subsidized merchant could be pressed into service. The Navy pays part of the ticket(s) to transport, Planet B pays the rest. Everyone is happy (except the crew that have a dangerous criminal onboard).

Detached Scout service couriers are great for this. They can be called back to service for almost any reason and a prisoner run is one of those. They usually fit the cargo hold out for the prisoner (meaning a mat and several buckets) and lock the door. With no mortgage and fuel provided by servce bases or skimmed for free they can easily cut costs on transportation. Besides those guys seem to enjoy that sort of thing.

Some couriers even adopted a business model, transferring crooks between the planets of a cluster. From there it's a small step to turning bounty hunter and bringing the bad guys in themselves. A reward is a reward after all.


      The minimal power managed barely a quarter standard gravity. Beagley ignored the ladder and just dropped the three meters, he covered them as they descended feeling a little silly, a former bureaucrat and money handler playing cops and robbers. He was still glad of the shotgun in his gloved hands. That was why he only jumped a little when the others lit behind him.
     The crew deck had a much more up to date entertainment center and newer carpet than their own ship, Sandoval noticed. The media screen had a golden trefoil on a red background showing.

     Thanks for sharing,” Skipper said walking over to the screen’s console. There should be a remote but like all other remotes it was uncannily good at hiding when you really wanted it. Skipper found a hotkey and hit it.
     Don’t hit nothing marked destruct,” Beagley said still looking about. “There’s clutter, dishes, knick knacks around. They didn’t stow for liftoff or ftl insertion … they left in a hurry.”
     Unless they’re still here,” Skipper answered. She was immediately sorry. None of them wanted to move to the bridge yet.
     How’s your stomach babe?” Sandoval asked trying to change the topic.
     “Fine … total terror puts a little nausea in its place fast,” Beagley muttered. Skipper couldn't get the hot key to work. Finally remembering her suit glove had a special patch to work a touch screen belatedly, she uncovered one finger tip and pressed.

     A ship’s officer looked out at them from his bridge station. He had the star and sextant badge of a navigator. The crispness of his uniform, the depth of focus, all told Skipper this was an AI. Of course the name badge on its chest with a banking logo did too.
     “Greetings! If you salvaged this ship my employers will gladly reimburse you five percent of its current value after deductions for breakage, depreciation, taxes and outstanding fines and transfer fees!”
     “Your masters are all heart. What happened to the crew?” Beagley asked.

     The AI hesitated.

If you think your merchants and traders have a hard time making their ship payments, ask a banker about finding a ship once the captain decides to skip. Banks are in the position of floating loans to people who can flee at hundreds of times the speed of light. Of curse the bounty hunters and repo men get all the media treatments but they are really a last resort and do not in fact deter skipping captains very much. Most of the skipping is deterred by precautions.

Vetting: a thorough background check on loan applicants is the first step. Fingerprinting, retina scans, DNA profiling and other scans are taken to establish identity and add to a central law enforcement database (Loan Applicant: You ain't sticking that thing in my mouth. Bank Examiner: It don't go in your MOUTH!) In addition to having an identity banks lean towards granting loans to people with other business, family ties or better yet property (that can be seized) on the branch's world.

Business Plans: you should have one of your own, but some banks will help you tweak it or help with networking. Believe it or not they want you to succeed and keep paying them.

Snitches: if this is your first ship, despite vetting you will most likely have a crewman making a little extra on the side. He basically reports any dirty dealing to the banks heading off any attempts to skip (in exchange for a fat bonus).

Security keys: the more benign form of this is a hidden security program (often part of the anti-hijacking program). Every time you make a loan payment the bank transmits a code to your ship and everyone is happy. Miss a payment and the computer will have all manner of responses: denying entry to the ship, transmitting a distress call (the captain and crew's pin numbers etc). Some more tight fisted banks may load a full artificial intelligence on your ship designed to incapacitate crew and take the ship back to a branch office — more or less. Course data may need updating and you are dealing with accountants and not navigators.

Other less savory institutions may let their AI employ less humane means to coerce a crew into obedience. These range from blasting horrific music from hidden and armored speakers to opening airlocks, shutting airlocks and repeating as necessary.


The life of a free trader in general can suck. I'm not referring to making your monthly payments (though those suck too). A combination of running cargo, carrying passengers and wise speculation more often than not will let you turn a profit. No hard work, does pay off in Traveller despite what the LBBs advise. I refer to all the people trying to separate you from your hard earned credits.

The first obstacle to financial independence is often considered to be piracy. True to a point. Sometimes you can avoid them (the rumor mill is good for tips (buy a round in the local watering holes.) But as previous posts have stressed piracy is not limited to sociopaths in black painted cruisers randomly shooting at ships. Pirates will use their own rumor mills and spies to find out when you are carrying a juicy cargo. Take precautions.

The fact is if the skull and crossbones set has a an inside man at the port there is little you can do about it. they've spent years probably weaseling their way into a good position to pass intell to their peg-legged patrons. there are some signs that an informant is in place. If a number of ships from your departure point are attacked then there's probably a mole involved. The mole will request the pirates NOT jump ships in their home star system instead passing on the target's flight plan and following them for a jump or two. Remember the Frontier usually does not have an intelligence service set up to coordinate reports from a number of worlds. You however are fairly mobile and could do what government doesn't care to.

Sticking a spy or saboteur on your ship is good way of incapacitating a target. Be wary of people seeking working passage. Run background checks on everyone, including passengers. make sure they are who they say. Be wary of stowaways as well. There's a reasons they often pay for with their lives. Some surveillance equipment and software may pay for itself and save your life.

Your own crew can be a source of information for pirates. Believe it or not the way I hear it, some spacers occasionally partake of a taste of the grape and loosen their tongues. If you have a particularly juicy cargo do not tell anyone who doesn't need to know. Better still tell them it's something else. A cargo of video games becomes seed corn. A shipment of guns becomes construction materials. No pirate is going to go after a cargo of cinderblocks and plumbing fittings (unless they have a buyer in the construction business).

Having a functioning weapons system is often enough to discourage a pirate. A new pirate. The more established ones are going to have ships bigger than yours and bristling with lasers and missiles. This is often enough to discourage a merchant and make them surrender. They can salvage systems from ships they wreck or trap and they are probably a damn sight better shots than your guys since they put their skills to use more weapons and missiles. Nevertheless they do not want to fight when they don't have to. They have payrolls to meet, supplies and munitions to buy, and operating costs to cover.

So merchants convoy. Six or seven lasers will make even the most hardened pirate move on and seek softer targets. Law abiding ships can form up and convoy whenever and wherever they wish of course. Pirates do not have this luxury. A number of heavily armed vessels with registration anomalies will usually lead to the Navy taking a keen interest.

Note pirates will form their equivalent of a convoy. They call it a raid or blitz and it is formed to sack a large and well defended target like a colony or high port. This is a perfect storm of indisputable intelligence on a mind bogglingly valuable score that is delivered in time for the local pirate king to gather a number of ships to raid a well defended installation. But that is for another post.


      Sergeant Cutter and his band have just arrived at Regina. After their latest venture, they have enough money pooled together to make the down payment on that ship they've been dreaming of.
     The bank is contacted and the construction begins. Months later an excited crew boards its new home and shuttles out of orbit. They spend several months trading along the established routes, making sure the payments are promptly made each month. Then, when cutter is certain the bank 's suspicions are allayed, he gives the order to skip. The plan is to leave Regina subsector far behind, along with the bank and its cumbersome payments.
     The Bank of Regina gets burned again, or does it? Obviously, a bank which finances the construction of ships costing into the billions of credits has methods of preventing (or at least discouraging) such acts and of bringing the perpetrators to justice. Banks finance ships knowing the risks involved, and they do everything possible to push the odds over into their favor.
     The following is a method of dealing with skipping as it is handled in my campaign, as well as a possible new source of income and adventure for players.


     Whether your campaign has an independent bank on each world, a subsector or sector wide organization with branch banks on each world, or a master bank with a central headquarters and numerous branches, it is not illogical to assume that banks will cooperate to reduce losses. This will most likely take the form of an information sharing network among all banks in a given empire or at least within a sector. Banks would need information on a client's credit rating to efficiently screen bad risks. Such a system can be assumed to be in effect within the Imperium, and within the other interstellar empires of the Traveller universe. There is a very good possibility that information is shared between empires, under normal conditions.
     Given this system, characters who make a bad record for themselves in one region will find their record following them throughout their travels. The ways of getting around this (forged ID documents, shell companies. assumed names, etc.) are all imperfect, and involve some degree of risk. Buying a ship and getting around the system can be a major challenge to a group of adventurers, and can provide months of pleasurable gaming sessions.


     Banks take very direct steps to prevent clients from skipping out before their loan is repaid. The simplest way, and in the long run, the cheapest, is to screen out unfavorable clients beforehand. Before the loan is finalized. a credit check and background review will be conducted. If these reveal no problems, and the client shows an ability to repay the loan it will be approved. These checks will vary from exhaustive research for new clients to rather token searches for well established clients or large property owners with deep roots in the region concerned.
     Credit: Banks will know of bad credit characters have established with other banks, unless that information could not reasonably have reached the bank at that time or the players have taken measures (such as false names, bribes, etc.) to prevent it. In general, banks send out information on skippers or delinquent payments as soon as such status is realized. Inside the Imperium, information reaches other banks in rough correlation with the x-boat system.
     Collateral: A bank will often demand that a client put up property to act as security for a loan. Though it is rarely enough to cover the price of a ship, it has been found to have some deterrent effect.
     Background Review: Banks will study the client's travelling and business habits. Specifically, they will look for criminal records, a tendency to fail in business ventures, and any involvement with organizations which the bank considers questionable. If there is any doubt about the character's background, it is very likely that the loan will be denied.
     Intended use: Banks place a great deal of weight on the use to which the ship will be put. Possible use of a ship in a risky venture will be cause for the bank to deny the loan, but stable ventures with low profit margins wtll not look very promising either.
     Most banks are reluctant to completely trust some clients with the several million credits involved in building a ship. even though no flaws in the client's background can be discovered. In cases like these, some banks have been known to take additional measures to secure the bank's investment. A timer may be built into a ship's computer so that the computer will cease functioning if it is not reset by a bank official each month after the payment is tendered. The timer, of course, is removed when the payments are completed. Most banks, however, find it simpler to deny the loan application in the first place.


     Despite all the measures bank's take to deter skipping, a clever group will occasionally slip past the safeguards, or an honest group will succumb to temptation. This is where the repos come in.
     Repos are people who pursue and retrieve ships and crews who have skipped. The term is descended from the word "repossession". Occasionally, a repo will be hired to retrieve other stolen property.
     There are basically two types of repos, those who work for a bank or other financial institution and the independents (who work for themselves).
     Company repos receive a salary (generally Cr50,000 per year) plus a bonus of 2% of the value of the recovered ship. Their employer pays their expenses. They have access to their firm's information network, and can usually count on the cooperation of local financial institutions and police.
     Independents have no financial backing, and generally charge expenses plus 2-5% of the value of the recovered vessel. If some or all of the crew are wanted for other crimes, the repo can collect all of any reward for their apprehension.


     An individual wishing to become a repo usually starts by consulting the current Shipping Registry in any large library at A and B starports. The delinquent section lists all ships in the subsector posted delinquent by a financial institution, their last known location, the ship's description and transponder codes, the names of the crew, the value of the vessel, and the institution seeking repossession. Most of these ships are probably being sought by company employees, but there is always a chance that an independent can beat them to it.
     An individual with connections can have access to the " scorched list." This is a list of vessels whose crews have killed one or more repos. These ships often have recovery fees of up to 10% of the ship's value. These vessels are also being sought by law enforcement authorities, who have a low opinion of repos in general and independents in particular. Seeking vessels on the scorched list often involves considerable risk.
     Legal Aspects: Legally, company repos are employees of the financial institution holding title to a skipped vessel, and are allowed to take direct possession. Independents are (from a legal standpoint) ordinary citizens reclaiming another's stolen property, and must immediately turn the ship over to the local authorities. Repos are allowed to use reasonable force to take possession of a skipped vessel. and may defend themselves if attacked. but they are all subject to the murder statutes (even in the case of ships from the scorched list, although judges are often lenient in such cases).
     If a ship's cargo belongs to the crew of the skipped vessel, it becomes the property of the financial institution holding the note on the ship. If it belongs to a party unconnected with the skipped vessel (if it has been stolen, or is a contracted cargo), it remains their property.
     Repos are not law enforcement officers, and cannot call for assistance from law enforcement agencies. They have no rights over and above ordinary citizens, except for the few they gain if they are employed by the company holding the note on the vessel. They are subject to criminal prosecution for any laws they break in pursuit of a skipped vessel.
     Tracking Skips: Tracking is not following physical tracks through space, but the skillful use of available information combined with intuition. An experienced repo will look at the background review conducted by the bank (available automatically if a company repo) to see if there are are any specific regions the crew frequents, any preferred business ventures, travel patterns, and so on. Because of the large number of variables, it is impossible to give specific rules for tracking a stolen ship in the space available, so individual referees will have to determine the results according to the situation.


     Banks and other financial institutions are not suckers. Players who skip out on their payments should spend the rest of their career looking over their shoulder (after all, nobody said life was going to be easy ).
     Repos should add flavor to any campaign, whether as a new way of making money, or as another thing for your players to worry about as they travel the universe.

The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No. 16 (1983)

(ed note: this situation is happening to terrestrial sea-going freighters. But this could easily happen in a science fiction future with starship freighters, resulting in a very entertaining background for a science fiction writer to use.)

With South Korea's biggest shipping company filing for bankruptcy protection, the vessels, sailors and cargo of Hanjin Shipping are stuck in limbo, stranded at sea.

     Ports, fearing they will not get paid, refuse to let them dock or unload.
     That means the ships are forced to wait for Hanjin, its creditors or partners to find a solution.
     It's a case of unprecedented scale, with experts expecting the deadlock to last for weeks, if not months.
     "[It is] a major disaster for the shipping companies and for the companies that own the goods in those containers," Greg Knowler, maritime and trade analyst with IHS Markit, told the BBC from Hong Kong.


     Not only are ships not allowed to unload, containers waiting to be picked up are also being held back by the ports as collateral over unpaid bills.
     And even if the ports did allow them in, Hanjin would probably not as the vessels could expect to be immediately repossessed by the firm's creditors.
     Beyond the ships and containers, there is of course the cargo within those containers — in many cases part of a tight chain of supply and delivery. (Just-in-time manufacturing)
     By September, the global shipping industry is already into what is its busiest time of the year ahead of the Christmas season.
     "Just imagine, there are some 540,000 containers with cargo caught up at sea," explains Lars Jensen, chief executive of Sea Intelligence Consulting in Copenhagen.
     That means that a lot of the goods en route to the US are geared at the busy year-end holidays and any disruption will be a major headache for the companies that have entrusted their products into the hauls of the Hanjin freighters.


     Let's break down the somewhat confusing ownership structure at play here.
     Hanjin operates partly with its own ships, and partly with vessels it leases from others. So some of the vessels stuck at sea are owned by other companies who now can't get them back and on top of that have to assume they won't get paid for leasing them in the first place.
     The containers on board the ships are also not all Hanjin's own. As the company is part of an alliance with five other cargo firms, there will be a mix of containers on each vessel — some belonging to Hanjin, the rest to the other four partners.
     And lastly, there are the firms who own the content of the containers, for instance an Asian electronics firm sending its goods to the US market.
     Hanjin's bankruptcy is the largest ever to hit the shipping industry so there's no roadmap as to what will happen now, no precedent of comparable scale.


     There are the containers stuck at ports.
     Let's take a container brought from, say, the Philippines to Hong Kong, to then be picked up from there and taken to the US.
     Berthing and handling of that cargo at the Hong Kong port costs money. If Hanjin can't pay that, the port will hold on to those containers as collateral until someone will be willing to pay.
     A possible solution would be that the companies who own the contents of those containers ask other shipping companies to step in and pick up where Hanjin left off. The cost of this would be immense, and would come on top of anything they had already paid to Hanjin beforehand. Part of it might be covered by insurance but it would still be an extremely costly endeavour.


     The containers stuck on board the ships are the next problem. While at sea, there is no way to get the cargo off board.
     Ships that are only leased by Hanjin could see their actual owner take back control and bring them into a harbour. They would still need to be cleared of their cargo but could then be leased to other companies.
     Given that the owners of any leased vessels would probably not want to foot the bill themselves they may try to draft in the four partner lines that have containers on the ship or maybe even the companies whose cargo is inside those containers.
     The ships owned by Hanjin itself would most likely have to be sold before anyone would bring in the money to get them into a port and cleared. The fact that they would have to be sold as is, i.e. at sea, and with a load of overdue containers on board would probably weigh down the price of the vessels.


     Each stranded ship has about 15 to 25 crew on board. Unable to call at any port, they will have to depend on the supplies they have with them until a solution can be found. While food should last long enough, they will eventually need fuel.
     In a worst-case scenario, should they find themselves unable to pay for fuel being delivered by a shuttle, they would risk running into serious trouble. In that case though, nearby ports would likely be forced to accept them.
     Aside from the prospect of being stuck for weeks at sea, the sailors will also face uncertainly over their wages. Most of them are not actually hired by Hanjin but by crewing agencies. Those agencies are unlikely to get paid by Hanjin and therefore won't be able to pay the crews.
     "Unless someone steps in very quickly — and there is no sign of that — this will last a very long time," according to Mr Jensen.
     Ships, cargo and crew might find themselves stuck for weeks, if not months, without knowing when and where their current voyage will end.

Ship Market Disruption

Like any other industry, the spacecraft trade and transport industry is subject to the dreaded spectre of Disruption. Current day examples of technological disruption include how internet delivered news is destroying the printed newspaper industry, how Uber is destroying the taxi industry, how Amazon is destroying the brick-and-mortar dead-tree bookstore industry, and how the advent of self-driving trucks could inflict five million truckers with technological unemployment. Not to mention self-driving automobiles.

This is good from the perspective of a science fiction author. Utopias are boring, but times of massive disruption create lots of angry people and angry people can drive exciting plots for a novel.

As a worked example I mentioned how clusters of boom-towns around orbital propellant depots could suddenly become ghost towns when technologically disrupted by the advent of commercial nuclear rockets, establishment of a laser thermal network, or the like.

More simply, the page about Calculating History shows how the sudden availability of a commercial rocket engine with improved specific impulse can change what trading/transport mission are commercial viable (or even possible). Ship captains stuck with the old obsolete rocket engine are at a severe competitive disadvantage. Plenty of pathos and anger will be created, all grist for the science fiction author's mill.

On the flip side, if a new piece of technology threatens a megacorporation with disruption (or even extinction), you can rest assured they will not go quietly into the night. They will use every means at their disposal to neutralize the threat. Which can make life very exciting for the researchers developing said technology, as they flee for their lives from corporate assassins determined to silence them. This is also grist for the science fiction author's mill.


(ed note: in the story, older ships use ion-drives powered by fusion reactors. They have been rendered obsolete by the "blowtorches", which are apparently some kind of fusion torchship. The ship costs and other details have been invented out of thin air by the author, but they were fined tuned to create the economic trap that has ensnared poor Captain Zeke. The main point being that the newer ships are vastly cheaper.)

Zeke watched the red light on the panel fade, then listened to the chatter of the relays as the ship searched its way back to its course. The pip on the screen had disappeared into the background of snow that the anti-noise circuits could no longer blank, even this far from the sun. He dropped his eyes to his hands that lay on the board, staring bitterly at the knuckles that were swollen with arthritis and covered with coarse hairs that had begun to turn grey.

Behind him, he heard Mary sigh softly. “Those blamed blowtorches," she said, but her voice was as tired as he felt, and the old anger at the smaller, direct drive ships was almost automatic. "He might look where he's going."

If their boy had lived, things might have been different. Zeke sighed and got up, heading back for his regular tour of inspection before tea. He passed the three other empty seats in the control room. Bates had died on Venus, Levitchoffsky had sold out to join a blowtorch company, and Ngambu had gasped out his life from a sudden stroke only three years before, leaving the Midas entirely to Zeke.

He went back through the empty crew quarters, past the equally empty passenger rooms, and through the holds with their small load of freight, until he came to the great engine that drove the Midas. There, for the first time that day, he relaxed. Elsewhere, the bright-work had long since dulled, but the huge fusion converter was the one thing he never neglected. It purred on smoothly, turning a trickle of the hydrogen in ordinary water into huge floods of power, and it gleamed under his approving glance. They weren't building engines like that any more—not since the blowtorches had taken over. A complete blowtorch weighed less than the seven thousand tons of power equipment the Midas carried. It had been constructed when spaceships were so tremendously expensive that their engines were designed to last almost forever. The ship could fall to pieces around it, or he could be forgotten for generations before it began to fail.

Then the satisfaction passed. Even the engine had one weakness—it needed someone to feed it and to give it the minimum care. Once he was gone, the engine would die with him. With the blowtorches controlling the space lanes, nobody would be interested in an old ship, no matter how well the engine could convert hydrogen to power for the great ion blasters to hurl out in driving force.

Reluctantly, Zeke turned from the engine room and on back toward the complexities of the driving tubes. He moved slowly now, putting it off as long as he could. The blast that had been wasted in trying to avoid the blowtorch had been too strong; somewhere, some part of the controls had mis-functioned. Now…

It could have been worse. The drivers were still functioning, at least. But the imbalance that had been creeping up was worse. The strain of the needless correction had crippled them more than a year of normal use could have done.

Zeke moved about, avoiding enormous bus bars and giant electronic parts in the huge but crowded section out of old habit. He could make up for the damage to some extent, by inhibiting the less worn sections. But it was only a temporary expedient. The Midas was long since overdue for dry-docking and repairs. It could no longer be delayed.

(ed note: Zeke goes to the office of the company he had a contract with to see about renewing the contract. The new president gives him an envelope.)

     He passed over an envelope. Zeke fingered it open, staring at the cheques. Then his eyes snapped back to Hathaway.
     “Termination? But—”
     Hathaway looked more uncomfortable, but he nodded. “ Unfortunately, we can't renew the contract, Captain Vaughn."
     “But Williams told me…"
     “I know. And I'm sure he meant to keep you under contract as long as you were in business (but CEO Williams died of old age a few years back). I don't know whether he ever told you, but he served for a year on one of the old ion-drive passenger liners, and he was quite sentimental about all ion-drive ships. He had contracts with five, in fact, at one time—though the other four have all been retired. But he had a constant fight with the stockholders over it. As a new president of the company, Captain Vaughn, I don't have the authority that he had."
     “ I don't get it," Zeke said. The man was practically telling him he’d been a charity case. And that made no sense. “I charged less than the blowtorches! And freight rates went up last year, too."
     Hathaway looked like a man caught beating a dog. His voice was unhappy, but there was no uncertainty in it. “That's part of the reason. When the rates went up, Hermes Freight offered us a contract at the old rate, in return for exclusive rights. And since that represents an annual saving of several million dollars to us, we couldn't turn it down. l’m sorry, Captain Vaughn, but it was out of my hands.”

The Midas loomed up huge among the smaller blowtorches there. They had never succeeded in building a blowtorch drive larger than the original, and the problem of phasing more than one such drive had kept them from multiple drive. Originally, the small ships had contained less than half the cargo space of the Midas, though they'd stepped up the efficiency until it was now about the same.

When the direct conversion of a tiny, intermittent fusion blast to propulsive drive had been invented, the spacemen had laughed at the ships designed for it. They had seemed little more than toys. And the inability to increase their power beyond certain limits had already been recognised. Obviously, with a few more improvements in the reliable, proven ion-drive and fusion motors, the tiny bloworches would never have a chance.

Spacemen, Zeke now knew, had been right in everything but their knowledge of economics. The big power generating motors and the ion-drive could have been improved, and ships far better than the maximum for the blowtorches could have been built. But they never were. A ship like the Midas had cost over twenty million dollars to build. The huge motor alone had cost sixty percent of that. And for the same money, forty of the direct-drive ships could be completed.

In every way except one, the ion-drive was more efficient. But that one way was the determinant. It wasn’t economically efficient to tie up twenty million dollars and its interest when two blowtorches would yield the same return for a single million! The ship companies stopped contracting for ion-blast ships, and the progress that could have been made still remained only a possibility.

For a while, during the brief trouble between Mars and Earth, when it seemed interplanetary war might occur, Earth had suddenly grown interested in the big ships again. The government had bought them up, planning to arm them. Then the scare had blown over, and they were dumped onto the surplus market, since no freight company was still equipped to use them. Bates and Levitchoffsky had scraped up the price of one, taking Zeke in as engineer and Ngambu as pilot with equal shares for their skills. A lot of spacemen had done the same.

But that had been forty years ago, and now apparently the Midas was the last of the old ships. Zeke had seen some of the others, scrapped on the outer planets, or blown up because the old engineers died or quit; they weren't training men now to service the big motors properly.

Callisto had been an outpost then, the point beyond which the big companies and the blowtorches didn’t go. Zeke and men like him had built the outplanet colonies; when the blowtorches quit, ships like the Midas had been the lifeline for all beyond Jupiter. Even now, there was a copy of a picture of the Midas on the planet seal of Neptune. And kids had wanted to grow up to handle such ships. They hadn't been able to land without a bunch of kids—and grown-up kids, too—streaming out to admire them, and to ask to go inside, to gasp in awe at the engines.

Now to greet him there was only the estimator from the repair company Zeke had consulted on landing. He was standing doubtfully in the main lock, and he swung quickly as Zeke came in.

“Oh, hi, Captain Vaughn. I was just coming to look you up. How soon would you want her rebuilt?"

Zeke frowned. It was a foolish question, but it apparently wasn't meant for a joke. “As soon as possible, naturally. But—well, how much—"

“Impossible!” Now the estimator seemed to think Zeke was being foolish He grinned doubtfully. “We don't keep stuff here to fabricate all this. In fact, you’re lucky we've got a man who can handle the job. No other company this side of Earth would touch it. We'll have to send to Mars for scrap parts for some of it, and maybe get other parts specially tooled at Detroit. Look, you sure you want her drydocked?”

“How much ?“ Zeke asked again.

The man shrugged. “I haven't the foggiest notion. It’d take three months to get estimates on the parts. In round numbers, maybe a million dollars for parts, plus shipping and labour, if you want a complete overhaul. A quarter of that just to work on what you’ve got wrong with the drivers, if we disregard minor defects. Your engine looks sound. And you might get by a few more years on the controls. You sick?”

Zeke shook his hand off. He‘d been foolish to think it could be done for what he had. With a bitter grin at himself, he took out his bank book and passed it over.

The estimator whistled.

“That‘s it," Zeke told him.

“Umm." The other stared at the older man, and then shrugged “ All right, l’ll level with you, Captain Vaughn. I was padding it—I like a fat commission as well as the next. But I wasn’t padding it that much. Not by a tenth!" He pulled at one ear lobe, staring about at the ship. Then he shrugged.

“Maybe there's something we can do, though," he suggested at last. "We've got a few old parts, and we can jury-rig a little more. For twenty-five thousand, we can retune those drivers enough for you to pass take-off inspection here. Hell, since I'm one of the inspectors, I'll guarantee that. Take us maybe two weeks. Then you can take the ship across to Venus. They're short of metal and paying top scrap prices. You could probably get enough for this outfit to pick up a fairly good used blowtorch, or to retire on. They jury-rigged a couple of scrapped ion blasters on Earth and crawled across with them recently, so there must be a good price there. How’s it sound ?"

Zeke brought a trembling hand up to a big wrench on the wall. “Get off!" His voice was thick in his ears. “Get off my ship, damn you !"

“What the heck gives ?" The inspector took a backward step, more as if humouring Zeke than in fear. “Look, I'm trying to help you. You crazy, Captain ?"

The brief anger ebbed back into the general dullness, and Zeke let his arm drop limply. He nodded. "I don't know. Maybe I am. I must be, landing on Callisto without finding out ahead of time they had take-off inspection now. All right, fix her up."

There was nothing else he could do, of course. It would leave him enough to buy supplies, at least. And fuel was no problem—he‘d learned places to find frozen water years before, and the fuel tanks were nearly full.

But with the contract with Saturanus ended, getting freight enough to keep going was going to be tough. If the Midas had been in top condition, he could probably get a fat contract for the new mines on Pluto, since it was hard to get blowtorch pilots who would stick to the long haul so far from any recreation. But the mines wouldn't risk their ultra-precious ores without a full inspection of the ship. They'd turned him down five years ago. Now it was out of the question.

(ed note: as a side note, the story does have a sort of happy ending)

From THE STILL WATERS by Lester del Rey (1955)

Spacecraft Insurance

Shipping cargo via seagoing ships and trans-oceanic trade can be really lucrative, but just one shipwreck or pirate encounter on the far side of the globe will result in a total loss. Spacecraft will be no different, except you will probably be able to spot the pathetic remains of your ship through a strong telescope.

The loss of ones ship is a risk, and the management of risk is the world of Insurance. Anybody who was required to purchase liability insurance for their automobile has a rough idea of how it works. The insurer is betting that they will get more money from you in insurance premiums than they will have to pay out to settle any car wrecks you cause. Which is why they jack your premium if you actually have an accident or get too many traffic tickets. The insurance companies spend lots of money researching methods of calculating the precise amount of risk involved with anything they cover. They also keep a close eye on the behaviour of anybody they are underwriting.

Maritime insurance dates back to ancient Greece, but the real innovations were brought about by Edward Lloyd opening a coffee house in London in 1688.

In those times there were over 80 different London coffee houses (selling the "new black liquor from Turkey"), each associated with a different type of clientele. Coffee houses had already become associated with news, conversation, and commerce. The absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which it was possible to engage in more serious conversation than in an alehouse.

Lloyd opened his coffee house in a tiny area between the Tower of London and Thames Street, close to the Navy Office in Seething Lane. This just so happened to be the place where the world of London shipping and London finance intersected. While business was done at the Royal Exchange, news and information were gathered in coffee houses. So for Lloyd, it was a case of the three important parts of a successful business: Location, location, and location.

Lloyd's little coffee house quickly became very popular with ship’s captains, merchants and ship owners due to its location. Lloyd didn't have to listen to the sailor gossip for long to realize that all this intel was very valuable. He started publishing a regular sheet of intelligence on ships, individual ship seaworthiness rating, cargo and foreign events (which is still published to this day), and establishing a network of correspondents in ports across Europe. Coffee houses in general were already known as centers for news. Lloyd's sheet was a shipping list containing each ship's name, owner, captain, port of departure and destination, tonnage, number of decks, guns if any, where and when the vessel was built, and most important of all a rating of the ship's hull and equipment. Hulls were rated by how sound they were by the letters A, E, I, O, and U. Equipment was rated either Good, Middling, or Bad. So the best risk was a ship with the rating AG, the worst was UB. Priceless information for an investor or insurer.

The investors and ship insurers took notice, and Lloyd's became the go-to place where the rich made deals with ship owners. Lloyd soon had to relocate his coffee shop to a larger building closer to the Royal Exchange, and offered the patrons coffee, tea, sherbet, and fruit punch. Not to mention unlimited pens, ink, and paper for deal writing — on the house. I suspect that Lloyd trained his employees to listen carefully to any conversations within ear-shot, and report back, because coffee houses were not only centers for the distribution of news, but also for the gathering of news.

Lloyd also hosted "candle auctions." For instance, say Cyrano Jones has a parcel of Spican Flame Gems for sale. The potential buyers gather at the auction site, the auctioneer sticks a pin into a candle an inch or so down from the top, lights the candle, and the frantic bidding begins. When the candle burns down to the point where the pin drops out, the auction is over and the high bidder has won (this is the origin of the phrase "to hear a pin drop"). The point of the candle is two-fold. First the time limit gets the bidders all frantic, which increases the seller's hopes of a bidding war breaking out. But secondly and more importantly, nobody knows exactly when the pin will fall, making it impossible for somebody to make a last-second bid. A similar method is used in the present day on some online auction sites. The exact ending time is randomly selected in order to foil last-second auction sniping.

Lloyd's coffee house had become an insurance marketplace. Starting with the Lloyd's Act of 1871, it became a partially mutualised marketplace within which multiple financial backers come together to pool and spread risk. This was the origin of the famous Lloyd's of London. Edward Lloyd had spotted a hole in the market and swiftly moved to fill the niche.

The insurance marketplace also attracted an infrastructure of useful specialists, such as shipbrokers, admiralty lawyers, bankers, surveyors, loss adjusters, general average adjusters, etc. To get a cut of the action you had to be where the action is, and all of the action was at Lloyds.

Naturally the underwriters exerted considerable power over the ship owners. If your ship was rated as being a broken-down shipwreck-waiting-to-happen, nobody will be willing to hire you to ship cargo, front you the money for cargo speculation, or insure your ship. Owners had to clean up their act to improve their ship rating, and the underwriters decided what counted as cleaning up. David Drake applied these concepts to the Bonding Authority featured in his science fictional mercenary stories.

The practice of insuring ocean shipping has the quaint name of "underwriting." The name was coined in Lloyd's of London, where under the Lloyd's risk information on the slip of paper the insurers would literally write their names.

Everything old is new again, so science fiction authors can confidently add a futuristic Lloyd's of Luna to their universe. Or even have Lloyds of London still in existence hundred of years from now. Use the way that candle auctions transformed into random online auction end-times as a template to make it more futuristic, transpose the music to a science fiction note so to speak.


      He gulped beer noisily. "Boy," he said, "boy, oh boy!. Am I ever glad to get off that rich b***h's toy ship!"
     "But you're rich yourself, surely," said Grimes. "You must be, to be an El Doradan …"
        "Ha! Me an El Doradan! That'd be the sunny Friday! No, Captain, I'm just a poor but reasonably honest Dog Star Line second mate. Beagle happened to be on Electra when her ladyship was there to take delivery of her super-duper yacht. Seems that she came there in an El Doradan ship—they do have ships, you know, and a few playboy spacemen to run 'em—and assumed that she'd be allowed to lift off in her own fully automated vessel without having a qualified human master on board. But Lloyds'—may the Odd Gods of the Galaxy rot them cotton socks!—got into the act. No duly certificated master astronaut on the Register, no insurance cover. But money talks, as always. More than a couple or three Dog Star line shares are held by her high and mightiness. So the Old Man got an urgent Carlottigram (FTL telegram) from Head Office—I'd like to know what it said!—and, immediately after receipt, yelled for me and then turned on the hard sell. Not that there was any need for it. The offer of a Master's berth at well above our Award rates for the rank … Only a yachtmaster, it's true—but master nonetheless and bloody well paid. Like a mug, I jumped at it. Little did I know …"
       "So you don't like the job, Captain," said Grimes.
       "You can say that again, Captain. And again. Cooped up with a snooty, rich b***h in a solid gold sardine can …"

     The next day was a heavy one for Grimes. There were, as yet, no Lloyd's Surveyors on Botany Bay; nonetheless The Far Traveler was required to have a fresh Certificate of Spaceworthiness issued to her before she could lift from the surface of the planet. Of course, the Baroness could depart without such documentation if she so wished— but without it her ship would not be covered by the underwriters. And she was, for all her title and air of elegant decadence, a shrewd businesswoman.
     She called Grimes to her presence. The robot butler ushered him into the lady's boudoir where she was seated at her beautiful, fragile-seeming, pseudo-antique desk. She was wearing the heavy-rimmed spectacles again, was studying a thick, important-looking book.
       "Ah, good morning, Acting Port Captain … Now, this matter of insurance … As you already know, Commander Delamere's artificers were obliged to pierce my hull to fit the towing lugs. Today they are making the damage good as required by the contract. After these repairs have been completed a survey must be carried out."
       "By whom, Your Excellency?" asked Grimes.
       "By you, of course, Port Captain. You will receive the usual fee."
       "But I'm not a surveyor …"
       "You are the Port Captain." (Commander of the space port) A slim index finger tipped with a long, gold-enameled nail stabbed down at the open pages. "Listen. On planets where Lloyds maintain neither offices, agents nor surveyors Lloyd's Certificates may be endorsed or issued by such planetary officials as are deemed competent by the Corporation to carry out such functions. Port Captains, Port Engineers, etc., etc. … Commanding officers of vessels or bases of the Interstellar Federation's Survey Service…" She smiled briefly. "I have no intention of paying a surveyor's fee to your friend Commander Delamere. In any case, as his people are making the repairs he is ruled out." She read more. "Commanding officers of vessels or bases of the Imperial Navy of Waverley. No, I'm not going to wait around until that Waverley cruiser—Robert Bruce, isn't it?—condescends to drop in. So …"
       "So I'm it," said Grimes.
       "Elegantly expressed, Acting Port Captain. But I suggest that you accept guidance from the computer. After all, she is the ship's brain. She is the ship—just as your intelligence is you—and is fully capable of self diagnosis."
       "Mphm," grunted Grimes. He wanted to pull his vile pipe out of his pocket, to fill it and light it, but knew that to ask permission so to do would bring a rebuff. He said, "So you need a Lloyd's Surveyor as much—or as little—as you need a captain."
       She said, "I need neither—but Lloyd's of London insist that I must have both. And now may I suggest that you get on with your surveying?"

     Finally he went back to The Far Traveler. The repair work had been completed but he thought that he had better go through the motions of being a Lloyd's Surveyor, even though it was almost impossible to detect where the golden hull had been patched, even though Big Sister had expressed her grudging satisfaction. He told the engineer lieutenant not to dismantle the staging until he had made his inspection. He tapped all around the repairs with a borrowed hammer, not at all sure what he was looking or listening for. He told the engineer to send to the destroyer for a can of vactest and then to have the black, viscous paste smeared all over the skin where the plugs had been inserted. Big Sister complained (she would) that this was not necessary, adding that she was quite happy with the making good of the damage and that she objected to having this filthy muck spread over her shell plating. Grimes told her that he would be signing the certificate of spaceworthiness and that he would not do so until he was happy.
       Sulkily Big Sister pressurized the after compartment. Not the smallest air bubble marred the gleaming surface of the vactest. The artificers cleaned the gummy mess off the golden skin, began to take down the scaffolding. Grimes went aboard the ship to endorse the Lloyd's Certificate of Spaceworthiness. The Baroness was almost affable, inviting him to have a drink. Billinger was conspicuous by his absence.

From THE FAR TRAVELER by A. Bertram Chandler (1977)


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.

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