Sunday, April 11, 2010

Transport Nexus

Cable Car with Bay Bridge
Many cities have acquired an icon in the modern sense: a signature image, usually a monumental structure, that instantly connotes it. The modern era prototype is surely the Eiffel Tower, famously visible from every apartment window in Paris.

San Francisco has two such icons, the Golden Gate Bridge and the cable cars, and it is a curiously interesting fact that both of them are transportation infrastructure. (Disclaimer: The bridge tower in the image is part of the Bay Bridge, not the Golden Gate, which is not conveniently juxtaposed with the cable lines.) I can't think of any other city that is so much symbolized by part of its public transit system. Perhaps the old classic London double decker buses come closest.

Bridges are iconic for many cities, well justified by the rule of cool, plus the symbolism. But not iconic for any great port city, that I can think of, is its actual reason for being, its waterfront. (Though I'd guess that the Ferry Building is iconic to locals).

Some celebrated facts about San Francisco, such as its hills and fog, are due to purely local circumstance. But most are rather characteristic of transport nexi. Far away from their own varied kitchens, people need to eat, so "half the town was restaurants, and all of them were good," an assertion still substantially true. People are far from their own beds, too, thus the other half of town.

Orbital stations are the well established transport nexi of space, going back to rocketpunk days. But science fiction has, on the whole, been slow to examine and exploit their potential. In written SF only Cherryh comes immediately to mind as treating space stations as much more than bus terminals.

(My reading is grossly fragmentary, and other examples are welcome, but I believe my overall point stands. Hollywood, on the other hand, discovered with if your 'ship' is a space station, it works like Dodge City. The action can arrive by stagecoach spaceship, and you don't need to create a whole new planet every week.)

One reason for the neglect of stations may be that that a large, ramified space station would be the most urban of environments, and space SF has a deep rooted anti-urban tradition. The colonists were always escaping an overcrowded Earth of dystopian cities, heading out to terraformed or extrasolar worlds of, well, wide open spaces. It was mid 20th century suburbanization on a cosmic scale.

Of the two writers who did most to shape our conception of space travel, Heinlein was fixated on the political ideal of the Jeffersonian yoeman farmer, while Clark had a William Morris streak, and tended to portray his idealized futures as a sort of rustic English exurbia. (Yet in The City and the Stars, the stasis of civilization is broken by Alvin of Diaspar, not by anyone from stuffily superior, rustic Lys.)

Isaac Asimov was an unabashed urbanophile - the man who gave us Trantor, after all. But he was not much interested in the details of space travel, and wrote very little rocketpunk. The Spacers in his robot 'verse, in fact, can be read as a fairly withering commentary on the standard vision of space colonization.

In Realistic [TM] space futures, stations may be not only the center of the action, but in human terms nearly all of it. A research base on Mars might grow into a college town, but activities such as mining are be highly automated. Human presence will tend to grow up around the transport nexi, for the reason cities always have, because that is where people are coming and going.

Even in an operatic setting of shirtsleeves colony worlds, my money would be on stations as centers of the action, and a network of stations might be the most 'natural' form of interstellar polity. Star Wars, with its rather Asimovian setting, puts one famous scene on a planet surface instead of a station, but still captures the essential Romance of cities:

"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy ... most of the best freighter pilots are to be found here."

The image is from a Ukrainian blog, mostly of automotive images.

As you may by now suspect, my absence from my computer last week was because we were visiting San Francisco. As soon as we can, um, put the financing together, we will be moving there to become true stationers.


Sabersonic said...

Glad that the trip to 'Frisco gave you some inspiration for this blog entry.

As for Orbital Stations, they do make some logical sense of space progress progression in that they're the center of trade and commerce what cities and harbors were back in the pre-space age. A location where cosmopolitan culture, tales and rumors congregate and make for what would have been some paper cut out location life and rhythm. Granted, the only two Sci-Fi shows that I can think of that feature such a backlot are Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 and even then the location portfolio extends beyond the habitable station.

It's probably due to that there is only so many stories one could conjure in even the more developed of orbital stations. The audience expect more exotic locations for their stories even though logistically orbital stations are economically viable if done correctly. Still, there is a sense of romance in such a cosmopolitan environment to any newcomer who is out to make it big for themselves.

- Sabersonic
Gmail Address

P.S., is there something wrong with the comment posting script? I tried numerously last night and now to publish my comments without success and I had to switch browsers from Firefox to Explorer. Even then I had to hit "publish" twice.

Ferrard Carson said...

I'm inclined to disagree with Sabersonic about there being only so many stories one can tell on a space-station. I think the problem with space-stations in pop culture have been that they've always been approached from the top-down in a Star Trek way that explored an idealized authority. I seriously doubt any such ideal society will evolve in the future, and I'd be inclined to go with Rick's notion of Mos Eisley IN SPACE!

Approach space stations from the bottom up, however, in a Firefly or cyberpunk manner, and you'll get a very different view of them - shady orbital stations where you can get just about anything you want... for a price. It's the perfect nexus for organized crime, given a station's importance to inter-planetary commerce and transport. Plus, in a setting with a Balkanized earth, there will likely be no serious push to police the space station in the first place unless it's run by one country alone, and in that case, I wouldn't be surprised if that country extorts anyone else who uses their spaceport.

If you want to expand on the Western analogies that are found so often in SF, then the station would be a railhead like the sort cattle-drivers used to send their cows to, with the associated markets of extortion and dens of ill-repute that go hand-in-hand with such a locale.

Any way you slice it, still a multitude of juicy stories to be told, and not so few as to justify the poor treatment space stations have received from media.

~ Ferrard

Neon Sequitur said...

I've noticed a few stories featuring orbital stations/habitats by authors in the 'new space opera' crowd: Reynold's The Prefect took place in a variety of orbital habitats. And Hamilton's Knight's Dawn trilogy had at least two sentient orbital as characters, IIRC.

Reynolds' universe in particular offers endless possibilities for stories set on board space stations. The 'Glitter Band' is made up of approx. 10,000 independent orbital space habs, with some truly unique societies and governments.

The RPG Transhuman Space also made excellent use of orbital stations. In that setting L5 is a haven for 'experimental' societies, while L4 is known as the 'Junk Jungle', a conglomeration of dis-used and cast-off habs filled with squatters of every description. (Strangely, the most common complaint was that would-be GM's couldn't figure out what to do with the THS setting.)

jollyreaper said...

I think stations would come in as many flavors and varieties as we have for towns. Some stations would be as rudimentary as the railheads that were mentioned. Others could become as elaborate as the famous kingdoms located on the intersection of rich trade routes.

Is the station wholly owned by someone or some faction or is it jointly held by a joint venture of several powers? Could it not be one station but a collection of habitats sharing the same lagrange point? What's the need for cargo handling? This is a particular point. With ocean-going ships, transferring cargo at sea from one to another is a painfully delicate art. Only the US Navy can really handle underway replenishment properly.

But in space it should be relatively simple to transfer cargo. I'm reminded of the supply dumps from the various X-Wing games. They're just points in space where freighters would drop off their massive supply containers like a semi dropping its trailer. There would usually be a ring of mines setup to detour the casual thieves. There might even be a simple station setup to provide living quarters and support bays for starfighter pilots who provide the additional security.

The most logical hard SF station I can imagine would either be at the end of a space elevator and the next most logical one would be on a lesser-developed world where specialized vehicles handle the heavy lifting and the station provides storage for cargo that will later be picked up by starships.

The next best location would be a support station for belt mining. Depending on the system, maybe the asteroids are ferried into orbit around a planet, maybe they're left out in the belt and the station keeps itself centrally located between the most productive mining sites. And the most logical place for that would depend on where orbital habitats might be, where the bulk of the population would be living.

I still can't help but to think that, given that everything is in space, it's truly worthless to make a structure that's completely immobile. I like the idea of stations that can move around, albeit not as fast as the smaller starships. It all depends on the technology of the setting as to how plausible this would be. But especially for habitats, I like the idea of them being able to move out into interstellar spaces and hide from threats.

The next question, of course, is what would the trade products be? We've been going back and forth on that one for a while and there's still a lot of different answers, depending on just how expensive transportation is in the setting. said...

I've been crafting the primary star port for the RPG FTL:2448: Alverez Station, in orbit about Fomalhaut V AKA New America.

Snapshot: Life on Alverez Station


Snapshot: History of Alverez Station

My view of a family/corporate owned orbital space station living off the pickings of one of the most target rich asteroidal mining locations near Terra. It's also a major trade port, yet it is very insular and it takes a while before folks consider you to be a stationeer.

I had one such character who had a fear of traveling in spaceships mainly because they are so small compared to the massive Alverez Station.

The other controversial aspect of living on Alverez Station is that they practice behavioral modification on their citizens, AKA "clockworking" a term from an old 20th century novel. They don't try to suppress aggressive behavior, instead they redirect it towards other interests and endeavors. This is why a Alverez Stationeer is very good at what they do, it's what they really want to do thanks to cradle to grave behavioral modification.

Does crime exist? Oh yeah, especially among the new immigrants. But even "clockworked" citizens commit crime. It's an imperfect science, since you're dealing with the most adaptable organ in any sentient species.

Also, money talks. If you're one of the rich families, one of the Shareholders in the station, it's highly unlikely that you will be involuntarily clockworked. None of the Alverez family, up to first cousins, has ever been clockworked.

Now, I came up with this draconian concept due to conversations on SFConsim-L and the infamous "3rd Generation" rule. (Sorry, I can't find a link for that.) It states that no space colony will survive past the third generation of the colonists, as they will not have the drive to maintain the colony in a running state. I don't believe that, that assumes that there is no cultural change in the colonists and that the education program ignores the realities of living in space.)

Thucydides said...

Various sorts of space stations can exist, with different parameters leading to different societies.

High throughput ports (like the ones at the ends of Skyhook orbital elevators) will have lots of facilities for the "sailors" and "longshoremen" (they may be facilities for semi-automated or teleoperated systems), as well as maintained crews and port officials. Lots of money and valuable change hands, so corruption and crime may be rampant.

A naval support base built on a NEO will be a totally different environment; the crew and contractors will be operating under a code of service discipline, but dealing with boredom and an irregular work load.

Most asteroids will probably have very limited transportation facilities (a cycler might be by once a decade or so), unless they strike it rich, in which case they might end up like Dubai, with lots of money to import luxury goods. Otherwise, the transport is one way outbound as ices and minerals flow down the mass driver.

Given the low population density and the difficulty of surviving in hostile alien environments, most places will be like an apartment block, with everyone and everything sealed inside for protection and shelter. Expansion will probably be by driving tunnels to resource or energy nexus points and building another apartment block there, so most story settings will be quite urbanized, at least until large open Island 3 type colonies can be economically built.

Rick said...

Have other commenters had trouble logging on? I'm going to guess that Blogger was having trouble for a while. Sometimes 'the cloud' gets a bit foggy.

I agree with the point that SF has tended to look at stations top down. The word 'station' has that bias, and the early stages almost have to be.

For that matter, viewed from a different perspective there is no inherent difference between a station and a ship. Clamp on propellant tankage and a deep space drive, and you are good to go. There are devils in the details, such as heavy radiation shielding, but there is no inherent immobility.

And I agree that cities will come in a multitude of forms, political and structural.

I am not a fan of single megastructures, but getting around town is a LOT easier if the town is physically connected. No matter how much you streamline things, using space taxis to get around means two human space missions every time you want to go downtown.

But connecting different rotating and nonrotating sections is also dicey. One solution is a drum, essentially parallel rings along one axle, allowing (theoretically) indefinite extension.

Anonymous said...

I haven't had much time to comment here recently (Work = Much craziness), but after reading this post I just wanted to say "Good choice". San Francisco is a beautiful city.


Thucydides said...

Top down= navy bases and scientific research facilities. These are built for a specific purpose, and generally have little economic rational behind them, although military bases may develop garrison towns and eventually grow into larger settlements (especially when the military rational passes). If the military reason for the base fades away without any compelling economic rational to replace it, it is usually abandoned (think of Hadrian's Wall, the Maginot line or old ICBM silos).

Bottom up= trading ports, crossroads, tollgates and locks, marketplaces. They start small but their economic usefulness attracts more people and more activity, in a positive feedback loop leading to towns and cities.

There is also devolution, the port cities of the Hanse are no longer economic powerhouses, and I can see Luna going the way of Detroit after it becomes more economical to harvest 3He from the atmosphere of gas giants (the Pearson elevator to L1 is a minor tourist attraction, and L2 is a brownfield of abandoned mass catchers in parking orbits. Only criminal gangs and Libertarian squatters make their homes in and around Luna).

Of course lots of compound scenarios can exist as well; an occupying power builds a fort overlooking a captured port, or the squatters become the nexus for urban renewal because they (insert "x" here)...

Anonymous said...

Space station as transfer points or airliner-like 'hubs' may also develop into transport nexui (?); take a shuttle to an orbital station, boarda 'liner' to the main Jupiter orbital and then take a small 'moon hopper' to Callisto colony. Like flying from Colorado Springs to San Fransisco and then on to just takes longer to get to Callisto (and then you have to worry your luggage has gone to Mercury Research Outpost 2)

Also, when you add on as many rings to a tube as you can, then build another tube side-by-side and connect the end-caps to each other with nonrotating 'bridges' (maybe moving or expanding the solar collectors as needed); just keep adding tubes to the arrey and adding rings to each tube...if the station is out in the Kupier Belt (supporting ice miners) then replace the solar collectors with reactor pods.

The blurry line between station and ship would be even more blurry with the deployment of the 'space control ship', a very high endurance ship with a very low-G torch or sub-torch drive, and a host of smaller mission ships...

On a side note: from what I've heard San Fran is Good luck!


Byron said...

The problem with a space station as Mos Eisley is simple. Who's providing the air? A lawless space station sounds good, but it's going to run into an extreme form of the "Three Generations Rule" from AVT. Either air will be ignored and everyone dies, or it will be the major point of conflict. No space station can survive without a single controlling power that runs the life support. The same applies to any other form of space habitat.

Neon Sequitur said...

The 'Mos Eisley' concept may not work for an entire functional space station, but it makes a bit more sense if all or part of a station is considered 'written off'. Babylon 5 had a slum sector, which the station management considered not worth cleaning up. This conveniently allowed the writer(s) to have both a strong central authority on B5 as well as part of the station which resembled Mos Eisley.

In Transhuman Space, the 3rd gen rule might be considered a blessing when it comes to squatters in abandoned habitats. It saves the Powers That Be the expense of evicting them, or even deciding who's responsible for doing so. It's a given the life support will fail eventually. Until that happens, however, it's sort of a temporary 'tent city' version of Mos Eisley. (And that sounds like yet another pile of story ideas....)

jollyreaper said...

The problem with a space station as Mos Eisley is simple. Who's providing the air? A lawless space station sounds good, but it's going to run into an extreme form of the "Three Generations Rule" from AVT.

There's no reason that this can't be worked into the plot. Our own human nations are not immortal. Our corporations can be consumed or die of incompetence. Just because Rome was not eternal did not mean it could not exist for the span it did. The vast majority of seeds do not become trees but that does not mean a forest cannot be.

Any properly vast station would have hundreds of sectors with redundant life support and power generation systems. If we imagine the station as an island in space, consider Hispaniola. On one side we have a functioning states, the Dominican Republic. On the other side we have Haiti, a dysfunctional mess. Same island, same resources, different results.

I could imagine a very interesting setting on a vast station that is suffering from the collapse of unified control. Some sectors are properly maintained and society is functioning as it should. Other sectors are in poor maintenance. Some of the common areas are completely out of maintenance, possibly open to hard vacuum. Perhaps the functioning side lacks the resources to fix the broken areas, maybe lack the manpower.

You have a story of resource depletion and civil war on Easter Island. A relatively advanced primitive society tore itself apart, likely over religion and politics. Imagine if you had a dozen islands within sight of each other, some of them maintaining social order while others descend into cannibalism and anarchy.

So as far as your Mos Eisley station example, a small one would be operated by one pirate king, the same way pirate settlements in the Carribean were founded by notable individuals. His house, his rules. Visitors pay rent. He provides the power, air, and food. For larger pirate settlements, each faction would maintain their own area. You wouldn't see chaotic evil pirates running these places, they'd be pragmatic amoral. These would be the guys you could trust in the sense that you know they are rational and have reputations to maintain in the community. You might get knifed in the back if no one is to be the wiser but they're not going to cheat you openly in a way that would harm their reputations. Get known as a cheat and no other pirate will risk doing business, savvy?

The rationale for a pirate haven like this is fairly obvious. Pirates can't get their ships worked on in legitimate yards. They need a place to handle repairs too big for the hands onboard. They need a place for R&R, can't exactly stretch your legs in places where the cops are. Ships can refit and recrew here. And there's also the need to fence stolen goods. Here pirate cargo gets traded to "honest" merchantmen and can get back on the open market.

Now any number of things can happen to jeopardize the viability of such a pirate haven and that's where the stories get interesting.

jollyreaper said...

The 'Mos Eisley' concept may not work for an entire functional space station, but it makes a bit more sense if all or part of a station is considered 'written off'. Babylon 5 had a slum sector, which the station management considered not worth cleaning up. This conveniently allowed the writer(s) to have both a strong central authority on B5 as well as part of the station which resembled Mos Eisley.

Every city has an underbelly. If we're not talking a research station with a hundred people but Babylon 5 or bigger, true cities in space, it only makes sense.

Another thing to consider is that Mos Eisleys can be repurposed from abandoned equipment. If we consider historical pirate ships, none of them were ships of the line, none of them were large and dramatic 200 gun ships. Actually, few were laid down as proper warships to begin with. Many were civilian jobs that were captured and refitted for war with extra cannon. The biggest deciding factor in the favor of the pirates versus their targets is that pirate ships were tremendously overmanned. Civilian companies would seek to operate their ships with the bare minimum of crew to maximize profit. That meant a victim ship might have a crew of 13 and be significantly outnumbered by the attacking pirates.

Byron said...

In our hypothetical space station, however, why would people who are keeping their sections in good shape provide for those who don't. Any earth analogy can only be taken so far, as we can managed to get all we need to live pretty much on our own here. The same is not true of a station, and if a sector is in chaos, the life support is going to get neglected, and that's going to lead to a crash very quickly. Atomic rockets points out that a space colony very much resembles a hydraulic empire. It simply can't be anarchy. There might be some parts that are seedy, but I doubt an entire station will be a lawless area, or even most of it. The pirate lord described is plausible, however.

jollyreaper said...

Ah, good question. That's just it -- it wouldn't be a hydraulic empire. For a large station, I'm imagining it being more like a condo. Stations have sections and sections are controlled by some form of polity, a faction. All the equipment necessary for survival is contained within that section. Each section beyond that is also self-supporting, just like owners in a condo -- the owner pays the note on his mortgage and nobody else in the community needs to help him on that. Of course, condos have areas of common responsibility and expense. When the organization becomes dysfunctional, that sort of stuff deteriorates. And then you can end up with the situation of individual units held onto by owners as the rest of the neighborhood deteriorates.

Now you may ask "Why would a station be built with so much redundancy in the first place?" And that would be precisely to avoid the situation of a hydraulic empire as you state. Say three factions come together to build a trading station in neutral territory. The expense is greater than any individual power can afford so they split the cost. The station is constructed. Each faction has territory on the station that they own in the clear. Furthermore, those sections are self-supporting for all essentials because they wish to avoid the chance of anyone cutting them off from the station's grid. But because there are common needs of the station, all three pay towards the maintenance of the structure and what elements cannot be easily triplicated. On paper this operations company may be considered independent and neutral with personnel drawn from all three factions or maybe from third parties. But you can well imagine how things on such a station could become dysfunctional in time.

Byron said...

I can see that, but I doubt there will be too many different sections. Partial ownership makes sense, but duplicate life support? Economies of scale will pile up quickly, and a portion with seperate life support is basicly a seperate station. I can see several different zones, but not a "condo" situation, with lots of little grids. Even then, what parts are held in common that can deteriorate without jeprodising the station that are expensive?
If three parties can't each fund their own station, how does each pay for all the goodies to be self-contained? I suppose bulk ordering could bring the prices down some, but not that much.

jollyreaper said...

I can see that, but I doubt there will be too many different sections. Partial ownership makes sense, but duplicate life support? Economies of scale will pile up quickly, and a portion with seperate life support is basicly a seperate station. I can see several different zones, but not a "condo" situation, with lots of little grids. Even then, what parts are held in common that can deteriorate without jeprodising the station that are expensive?
If three parties can't each fund their own station, how does each pay for all the goodies to be self-contained? I suppose bulk ordering could bring the prices down some, but not that much.

All of this can boil down to the nature of the setting. You know how the next step beyond a wheel station like in 2001 is to stick another wheel right beneath the first one? Perhaps the sections could be arrayed like that. They're essentially separate stations but the connection allows for cheaper transport.

There was also an interesting idea proposed in the original High Frontier book. Say you've got two separate stations at L4. You want to travel from one to another. Since the station is already turning, you have inertia on your side. Hop in the transport car. When the station has turned so your trajectory would take it skimming along the other station, you are released. You coast along and the timing is such that when you are coasting past the other station, it is turning at your same speed and you magnetically grapple onto the airlock. If the timing is right, no propellant would be used for any of this.

And just so you know where my thinking is going on this, stuff like the current space station would be considered an RV camper. Babylon 5 would be a starter station. Clarke's Rama would be when you're starting to get into serious territory.

There was some scifi book a while back where there was talk of the different places you could live, planets and asteroids and ships and stations and whatever. Someone said "A world is defined as something you could not fully experience within a lifetime." And this tremendously huge space construct was called a world by that definition. I think it fits.

Jean-Remy said...

The problem with the "stacked wheel" station is that life support redundancy becomes the least of your worries. Such a station absolutely needs both its habitat wheels (or all in case of bigger stacks) to rotate in synch and perfectly smoothly. When they do not little things like precession and harmonics come into play, and those will *really* ruin your day. If the station doesn't fall out of orbit and burn in the atmosphere it will rip itself apart.

No matter how many redundancies you want to build, a space station is going to be a gestalt entity. Otherwise it's just two space stations. What affects parts of the station affects the entire station. All systems will *have* to be centralized. Redundancy yes, but each command center has to control the entire system. There are no independent systems, there is just the station.

A space station can simply not be a democracy. There is NO margin of error, and NO time to discuss things in a committee. Things will happen and the reaction time must be instantaneous and absolute. Space is the single most hostile environment we have ever worked in. There is no opening a window if the AC goes klunk. There is no time to dither endlessly in meetings when something goes pear-shaped. The power of the law enforcement arm has to be total. A criminal does not endanger the goods of a single citizen, he endangers the life of everyone on board by his very existence. Weapons are not allowed. Strikes are not inconveniences. Riots are unthinkable. Civil disobedience in any shape or form is a direct threat to the integrity of the station.

A space station is a fragile bubble of metal that lives or dies on the discipline of those living on board. Without strict discipline a space station cannot endure.

There is no room for Mos Eisley in space because there is no room for error in space. A riot in L.A. can eventually be contained. A gang war in Chicago will pass. A student riot in Paris will be a historical footnote. A fire in Rome will clear room for more construction. L.A., Chicago, Paris, Rome endure. A space station will die.

Jean-Remy said...

And size does not matter in any case. No matter how thick your hull is, punching a hole in it will kill you. Failure to maintain any of the thousands or millions of components will lead to structural failure, and there is no such thing as "partial structural failure". Think of the Twin Towers. A few floors were blown out, some support beams were taken out. The towers failed utterly, yet a lot of people got out.

No one will get out of a space station that suffers a catastrophic structural failure, and the bigger it is the harder it will fall. And that goes double for any Island concepts: that big empty open vista inside? That is a guarantee for a structural collapse to be absolute.

I'll say it again. A space station is a gestalt, a whole, a totality, a single entity. Divided, it will fall. I would say the more humans you put in it, the more certain you will be that it does.

Anonymous said...

From Mr. Blue

One could probably use the old American Frontier model for this. The way I see it, you have:

-Forts/ Outpost: Stations that are military in nature.

-Boomtowns: Temporary stations that form around rich mining areas.

-Settlements: Big, long term stations.

-Ports: Big stations set up to handle interplanetary traffic.

Of course, there's probably other combos as well.

jollyreaper said...

A space station can simply not be a democracy. There is NO margin of error, and NO time to discuss things in a committee. Civil disobedience in any shape or form is a direct threat to the integrity of the station.

Good points. Just imagine the kind of culture that would come from such an environment. I think that would seem more alien to us than the environment itself.

A place like Babylon 5 has more margin for error. But imagine a station where resources are really running on the edge. There's no tolerance for people who cannot pull their weight. Euthanasia would be a constant presence. Unfit babies would be aborted the moment the genetic tests came back negative, anyone crippled to the point of no longer being able to work would be euthanized. Same goes for the old and infirm.

We're all used to the examples of irrational authoritarianism like North Korea. Leaders are arbitrary, capricious, and cruel. Often huge inefficiencies come about to satisfy ego. But what would be really strange is if the tyranny was utterly pragmatic. You have a nigh religious devotion to order and stability with an eye towards keeping the station going. Unpleasant but necessary.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that a major spur to space station construction would (assuming its possible) be FTL travel. In all good space opera the hero's ship takes off from a planet and whizzes through hyperspace to the destination but the one prediction that I am going to make with certainty about FTL is that it is not going to be cheap.
If the way to the stars is via wormholes then their mouths are going to quickly acquire a collection of passenger terminals, freight yards and dockyards (complete with sleazy bars and houses of ill-repute)
If it is via something like an Alcubierre type drive then it depends on whether or not warp bubbles can't be generated too close to a star in good sci-fi tradition, so in that case its not efficient to have seperate flights from every planet/moon/station in the star system to the next one but it would be logical to have a marshalling point somewhere in deep space beyond the star's cutoff point. (also with sleazy bars)
Whilst the Imperial Fleet and the villains private interstellar yacht might leave from a planetary surface, the ordinary citizen would catch a shuttle from Earth, Luna, Mars or one of the asteroid colonies to a deep space port where they would catch their flight to Alpha Centauri

Jean-Remy said...

But I don't think Babylon 5 could exist as it does. It was bombed repeatedly, from the inside. The shockwaves from each explosion would have propagated the entire length and breadth of it. The stress fractures would affect every single load-bearing strut because it's all solidly connected together. Even one explosion would've destroyed the station, if not instantly at least weakened it. It's not a city where you can bomb one city block and the rest of the city isn't affected. Everything is bolted welded and fused together. Everything connects to everything else.

The only reason the US and any other country can be less than an absolutist regime is that pretty much everything is expandable. L.A. suburbs? Expandable. Twin Towers? Expandable. New Orleans? Expandable. Is it a cold appraisal? Yes, but it is true. We've lost those things and the US has not collapsed. Lose but one section of a space station and you've lost the station. Nothing is expandable.

Byron said...

I have to vote for something of a middle ground. While I mostly agree with Jean that stations are going to be fairly authoritarian, I doubt they'll have to be so incredibly rigid. If built properly, they could probably continue running without active maintainence for a few days, but if someone's making trouble with leadership, they might find that they have no air. Multiple control centers simply won't work, but there might be a small criminal element, though not of the nastier sort. I can imagine a situation where the stationmaster will turn a blind eye to just about anything that doesn't directly endanger the station itself, so long as air fees get paid.

Jean-Remy said...

White-collar crime, strictly. Blue-collar involves too much violence, and a single uncontrolled act can set off an accident. Anyone caught tampering with equipment is summarily imprisoned, or spaced. Sabotage is a capital crime. Laundering money can be ignored as long as Stationmaster gets his cut, sure. The problem is that white-collar crime does engender violence as well, of the organized kind, a worst nightmare even than a random single violent criminal, so even that is going to be monitored very closely. For that matter, all information is strictly controlled.

Rick said...

Typo alert - you surely mean 'expendable,' but I generally agree with your point. A space station or hab structure, of whatever size, is fundamentally a spacecraft.

I am uneasy about megastructure stations like classic O'Neil cans because they will be subject to mega failures. Multiple rings on a single axis is somewhat more robust; even if the axis broke, the two sections would tend to drift apart, and rings away from the break point should remain intact.

Politically the entire stack has to be a single entity, but each ring can have its own life support, and a limited degree of local autonomy.

A constellation of stations is a very different matter, because a station can secede simply by changing its orbit and going to some other constellation.

There's enough to be said about the politics for another blog post!

Jean-Remy said...

Ack yeah expendable not expandable.

Byron said...

That's mostly what I meant. I doubt professional criminals will be common, at least not as primary jobs. Honestly, I question the value of space stations for habitation use, at least as a real "place to live" in the O'Neil sense. While a town may grow to support a transit station, a planet is a much better place to go from a logistics standpoint. If I can manufacture locally, it's much easier to do so, and I can afford a lot more mass. I'm working on a universe involving a lot of Lunar colonization, and I've come up with a lot of stuff like this about life support. The Life Support Board is actually separate from the rest of the government, but the larger mass options give me a little more room for redundancy.
Actually, the whole life support thing reminds me of the very early Robert Heinlein story "Roads Must Roll." While the mechanism is different, the basic concept is the same.

jollyreaper said...

That's mostly what I meant. I doubt professional criminals will be common, at least not as primary jobs. Honestly, I question the value of space stations for habitation use, at least as a real "place to live" in the O'Neil sense. While a town may grow to support a transit station, a planet is a much better place to go from a logistics standpoint. If I can manufacture locally, it's much easier to do so, and I can afford a lot more mass. I'm working on a universe involving a lot of Lunar colonization, and I've come up with a lot of stuff like this about life support. The Life Support Board is actually separate from the rest of the government, but the larger mass options give me a little more room for redundancy.

I can imagine an excellent story taking place at a collection of such colonies. To spin a simple scenario.... There's a system with rich belts of mineral x. Several factions agree to setup mining operations there. They make a good go of it for two or three generations but conditions change. I doubt they'd exhaust the deposits so it would be one of the following:
A) Market conditions change and the price of mineral x falls so they're barely profitable.
B) War screws up the market so the system is cut off and nobody is making money.
C) "Warp storms" or some other plot complication cuts the system off to FTL traffic.
D) Some system-wide war sees everyone balkanize and by the time the fighting is done most of the high-tech orbitals and occupied planets are wiped out leaving our stations here as the few survivors.

However we arrive at the point, the condition is that these stations are backwaters, living on the edge of sustainability, and rife with political discord in each and every one. Several stations have failed already for reasons already discussed in this thread. The dead stations stay with the live ones and remain as constant reminders of the doom that could come at any time.

Thucydides said...

While Jean makes a very strong argument for a "Hydraulic Empire" type of social order in a space colony, I would suggest that going too far in that direction is as dangerous, if not more so, than the "Mos Eisley" spaceport model.

Authoritarian regimes are quite brittle, and generally fail when forced to react to unexpected influences. Historical examples were long lived since the early Hydraulic empires like Pharonic Egypt were surrounded by hostile environments which limited approach routes, while low population densities and limited technology kept potential enemies at arms length. Since technologies that allow for large space stations also allows for free travel through the solar system, and high energy and information density is available to everyone "out there", rude surprises can appear at a moments notice either inside or out, causing the regime to fail.

Station or colony architectures which emphasized dispersed independent or semi interdependent structures and systems would be more robust by nature, and more amiable towards democratic and free market type societies. Digging into an NEO and filling mined out sections with epoxy hardened "balloons" is one possible model of the physical structure, Marshal Savage's vision of a series of nested bubbles in the "Millennial Project" is another. Even treating the shell of the Island 3 as a series of independent units all structurally linked together in a large cylinder provides a degree of robustness missing from the initial design concepts (if nothing else, each module can act as a life raft if the station suffers catastrophic failure of the structure or ecosystem).

Perhaps the unhappy compromise would be the Fascist Corporate State (in its correctly political meaning), with ownership responsibilities devolved to the people, but the "State" attempting to direct the social, political or economic outcomes through taxation and regulation. We know through history that the "Law of Unintended Consequences" partially nullifies the "desired" effects of regulations and taxes, and F.A. Hayek's treatment of the "local knowledge" problem demonstrates that it is impossible for any person, committee or oligarchy to know and understand all the intricate interrelationships of a functioning economy in real time (or even close to real time), so "black markets" develop to fill the voids and supply demands that are not met or malformed. (Even in western "mixed economies", the underground economy of unregulated, untaxed transactions fulfills the same function).

Maybe Heinlein was on to something...

Anonymous said...

From Mr. Blue:

Some station societes would form in a very organic fashion.

Let's say there's a big rush to mine (X) in the astroid belt and a lot of independant prospectors head out to strike it rich.

Bill figures he can make a fortune selling space suits, mining tools and the like, so he loads up a freighter and sets up shop.
Sally also had the idea of setting up a hydrophonic farm/ yeast vat/ and resturant, and also headed that way. As it's a pain for a miner to make two different stops, Bill and Sally decide to dock their freighters (man, there is no way to say that without sounding dirty) and maybe even set up an extra hab for a hotel...

Pretty soon, as word gets round, other enterprising individuals begin to connect. Bits and pieces are added- an empty fuel tanker as a bar, a repair yard, or even an offical buyer for (X)- sure, he doesn't pay as much, but it's a lot better that flying it to Mars yourself. And other services begin to set up shop.

Then, Billstown becomes an interplanetary destination in it's own right. After all, where else on the 'Belt can one get their ship fixed, pick up some spare hands, have a good meal and a drink, and, um, visit the Seamstresses (hem hem).

Of course, once the mining runs out (or whatever else), the boomtown becomes a ghost town. Any spaceworty ships will be flown off, everything else may be left behind, or salvaged.

But, if the location is good enough, this random jumble of habs, freighters, and other items can become something better...

I think I have a story idea.

Stevo Darkly said...

Hi again.

While Jean makes a very strong argument for a "Hydraulic Empire" type of social order in a space colony, I would suggest that going too far in that direction is as dangerous, if not more so, than the "Mos Eisley" spaceport model.

I'm going to agree with Thucydides. Jean does make a foreful argument for a space hab society with strong centralized governance, but his social design proceeds from his physical design philosophy for a big rigid hab. I think there are powerful arguments for a modular/segmented design, with some degree of redundancy, for a very large space habitat, rather than one large unitary structure with a high degree of centralization.

While economies of scale speak loudly, too much centralization can increase vulnerability because you've concentrated key facilities in a central point. This applies not only to physical equipment but also decision-making ability. If a meteor happens to puncture the one sector where you happen to keep your One Big Power Plant or One Big Air Purifier -- or One Big Government -- then you're doomed. Better to have smaller multiple power generators, dispersed air purifiers and local leaders scattered throught the place.

Also, if the regime is too prisonlike, it gets more expensive: you'll have a harder time recruiting inhabitants and workers for space, unless you pay them more to compensate. Unless you use your space habs as gulags, with slave or convict labor.

On a related matter, one thing I don't like about the big open O'Neill "islands" is that -- while the views are great -- they can't grow incrementally. You have to build the whole big damn thing at once. And then do you import a full-capacity population all at once? Real cities don't grow like that. And it would maximize your initial start-up costs.

Or do you start with a smaller population, and let it expand into the already built but initially empty "ghost" areas around it, like depopulated ruins in reverse? New apartment buildings are like that, but the owners try to fill them up as quickly as possible. Empty quarters are both unprofitable and creepy. But can you fill up a whole pre-built city that quickly?

I recently stumbled across the ASTEN space settle concept as a nice compromise. (See the link to a PDF overview at this site.) It's big, and has a few large airy areas, but mostly its modular and segmented. If I'm reading the plans right, you could add to it by as few as one or two "habitation modules" at a time -- one hab module being the equivalent of a single-family dwelling, I believe.

Maybe most urban populations would live in the ASTEN habs, with the O'Neill Islands undertaken as large recreational developments along the lines of Disney World. They'd serve as nature reserves, parks and resort areas. They'd have very small permanent populations, but with tourists and vacationers from other nearby habitats constantly rotating in and out to occupy hotels, rented cottages and campgrounds.

And if these particular Big Unified Rigid Structures really do require a Big Unified Rigid Ruling Authority, well, people might be more likely to accept that for a limited time (while on vacation) than on a permanent basis. It'd be like a Texan vacationing in Singapore. "Wow, this place sure is clean and pretty! But hey, don't spit your gum on the sidewalk; they execute you for that here."

Stevo Darkly said...

To clarify my closing comment, I mean that even if the O'Neill vacation resorts and parks have to be big, rigid, regimented and centralized, the big Asten habs where people would live everyday lives could be modular, segmented and decentralized, with less close daily supervision. Thus people could have the best of both worlds: Living freer, but visiting prettier.

Jean-Remy said...

Like Rick, Hollow Megastructures make me envision Megadisasters. Think Titanic, but on a far vaster scale. The pproblem is that even modular system won't allow for what Rick called a "clean break." I don't think there is such a thing as a clean break in an orbital structure, and especially not if there's any kind of spinning going on. Even a slight variance in spin rates would at best destabilize the entire station and knock it out of orbit. Torque is a really nasty piece of Mechanics. Torsion stresses are far harder to compensate for than lateral ones. Ask any engineer, designing things that spin is a nightmare.

Thought exercise:

* Take a pack of uncooked spaghetti. Hold the spaghetti at both ends and bend. You get a relatively clean break (and it fits in the pan of boiling water.)

* Now grab both ends and *twist* in opposite direction. No more clean break. You're going to be left with a mess. In space you'll have to add the wild trajectories of everything that was once rotating is now spinning uncontrollably and hitting everything else.

To be honest I see life support as *less* of a critical component of the station than, well, station-keeping. In the sail age, ship crews were kept in check not because the officers held the water. You could kill them and *take* the water. The officers, however, knew how to navigate. In the space station the ruler is not who he controls the water, or even air.

The ruler is he who controls the station-keeping thrusters.

Byron said...

Jean "In the space station the ruler is not who he controls the water, or even air.

The ruler is he who controls the station-keeping thrusters."
Definitely. This is why colonizing Luna makes more sense then space stations.

Let me clairify the "hydraulic empire" thing. First, I'm not saying there will be only and exactly one life support system, without redundancy. However, redundancy is there so that if one fails the other can take over, not so you have two seperate areas.
Second, any life support area will be a hydraulic empire. This is absolute. The absolute upper limit on the number of power groups in a station is the number of differnt life support sectors. This assumes that spin is taken care of, otherwise it's just one sector. While you can say that there are multiple independent areas with seperate life support, you've just moved the problem down a level, not gotten rid of it.

The problem with a "grown" station is that it can't spin. This is because of what Jean pointed out, and I have to agree. I suppose you could do something with tethers or some such, but basicly, it can either be ad hoc and in zero-g or unitary and spinning.

Citizen Joe said...

I think that one of the big problems with spin grav is how easy it imbalances. People simply walking around or congregating can throw the whole system out of whack. So that would seem to need some sort of balance monitoring with ballast pumps. When something like another ship docks with a station, that is a huge imbalance introduced. That implies that docking and launches would occur at minimal or non-spinning locations.

Of course, if you needed gravity, why would you be stationed in space? It makes sense to me that most of a station would be without gravity and only a small portion would be spun to accommodate the fragile nature of people.

Jean-Remy said...

"Of course, if you needed gravity, why would you be stationed in space? It makes sense to me that most of a station would be without gravity and only a small portion would be spun to accommodate the fragile nature of people."

Two problems

1/ Long term human habitation of a space station *requires* spin grav.

2/ Spinning an entire station is a lot easier and safer than spinning a wheel. The wheel would require some pretty hellacious ball bearings, flywheels, seals, hydraulics etc... The more complex the system, the more fragile, and if the wheel starts ripping out of its bearings you are in a WORLD of hurt.

Neon Sequitur said...

Do we include asteroid bases under the heading of 'space stations'? I ask because they seem robust enough to avoid some of the problems being discussed here.

* They can be any size you like: 10m or 10km across, or anything in-between.

* The 10km variety is expandable, as long as you've got tunneling equipment.

* The larger types aren't so fragile (from the outside) if you tunnel deep; 100m of rock = hard target. Access points will remain a problem.

* They can be subdivided easily: two or more networks of tunnels/chambers might expand for many years without meeting, even if they're within a stone's throw of each other. (pardon the expression)

I've barely scratched the surface here; asteroid stations are whole different ball game. (And playing ball in spin-g sounds like all kinds of frustrating, btw.)

Stevo Darkly said...

Recent comments add an interesting "spin" to the problem of free-flying space habs, ha.

I overlooked the problem that if you want to be able to make many small incremental additions to a spinning hab over time, you need a method of doing that doesn't require you to take the spin off the station during the construction/part-mating/expansion process. In an O'Neill Island-type colony with lakes and topsoil and ranch houses and birds' nests, despinning the colony would itself be a major disaster.

In a space hab like the ASTEN, maybe you could add individual hab modules to a colony while under spin by taking the new hab modules aboard at the spin axis, then "lowering" them into position at the rim, guiding them with cables along the way. This doesn't seem to be part of the current ASTEN design, but perhaps the design could be modified to allow this.

Of course, you still have the problem that an addition would unbalance the current configuration of the hab, unless you are able to add two additions of identical mass to opposite sides of the rim simultaneously and symmetrically. This sounds a little tricky.

As Citizen Joe said, you would still need a hab-wide ballast reconfiguration system to keep the entire system in balance and prevent a case of the wobbles, as large and small shifts in mass distribution wihtin the hab will be happening all the time. Probably this would be a system of pipes that moves water ballast around to counter shifts in balance.

Byron said...

The problem with asteroids is that you get the worst of both worlds. It's hard to spin, but I doubt it provides enough gravity to be safe long-term. We don't know about living on, say, Luna, long-term, but it could be healthy.
I almost think that a spinning space station will be a giant wheel framework that modules are strapped onto, which would allow expansion. It wouldn't be an O'Neil island, but it could be safer and cheaper. If the wheel is big enough, the floors could be flat, and the modules wouldn't have to be custom built.
Even then, the whole idea of long-term residency in space strikes me as weird. Living in a Lunar colony is still an environment where you don't have to worry about structure, and you can go outside without too much trouble, neither of which is true for a space station.
Is it possible that space stations will end up like Luna from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? Not so much as a penal colony, but as a place people mostly go to stay? Or would it be easier to just make a small centrifuge inside the pressurized portion of the ship for sleeping and such? It seems that most of the reasons to be in space require attached stationary zero-G.

Citizen Joe said...

Bring your module in at the axis and then lower it into position while simultaneously balancing with your water ballast. That allows you to move incrementally rather than multiple tons instantly added.

If you have a wheel (I like counter rotating wheels) spinning inside a pressurized hull, then you can shut down the pair for maintenance on your bearings. Since the whole system is pressurized, you don't have the major problem of sealing hatches. You probably still have to seal them, but not as tightly as a vacuum seal. Ballast systems would still be needed and each wheel would need its own power supply. On the plus side, counter rotating just requires power to the drive cog rather than using remass.

I don't believe that spin habs will be created for people. It is not cost effective. However, if chemical processes need gravity (or even variable gravity) like huge He3 vacuum distillation towers, then gravity is a byproduct of the manufacturing process.

Thucydides said...

How big of a problem is spin?

Much depends on factors like the size and mass of the spinning object, the distribution of mass within the object, the period of rotation and so on. One of the reasons Island 3 is so huge is it can out mass any object within by several orders of magnitude, and spins at an extremely sedate rate of .6 RPM, so internal movement would be damped out by the sheer inertia of the design. Most people also forget the actual design of Island 3 was two cylinders coupled together and rotating in opposite directions to cancel out precession and other undesirable effects of spin. In space, you have to build big!

By this reasoning, the rotating hab aboard the Discovery would become very unstable due to the movement of the two astronauts during flight, since it is quite small and light, and spinning very rapidly. David Bowman and Frank Poole are a significant fraction of the mass of the centrifuge itself and one of HAL’s unspoken jobs must be to keep the hab balanced at all times. A rotating ship design has fewer issues in terms of becoming unbalanced, but will have gyroscopic effects. Despinning before thrust is applied is probably SOP for a ship of this sort.

On the other hand, rotational effects could have some positive uses. Many WWI era aircraft were powered by rotary radial engines, which had crankcases fixed to a bulkhead on the aircraft while the cylinders spun around. The propeller was attached to the engine block and spun with the cylinders (Radial engines from the 1920’s on had fixed engine blocks and the crankcase turned within, the way you expect). The spinning mass gave the airplane some very crazy flight characteristics, but fighter pilots could actually use them to their advantage (slapping the stick over in the direction of engine/propeller rotation could cause the plane to make an insanely tight turn in that direction only, allowing pilots to turn inside their opponents and set up a shot with the machine guns). I’m not sure if a direct analogy exists (Martian “SPAD’s” with rotary fusion engines mixing it up in the asteroid belt?), but this is something that will be learned with experience.

Asteroids could have multiple habitat zones depending on the skill, energy and preferences of the inhabitants, some people will want to live in zero G, while others might go to the trouble of creating “hamster wheels” inside the asteroid for gravity. Either they put together counter rotating wheels, or agree with their neighbours to get a vector sum of zero when all the spins are added up. Even pumping plastic bags full of water can create massive radiation shielded structures with many of the properties of an Island 3 (at a much reduced scale); the Neofuel site outlines a 100m diameter donut that can hold 150 people, weighs 8000 tons and is formed with a 12 ton plastic bag. A larger 215 m diameter donut holds 1900 people, weighs 40,000 tons and is built from a 60 ton plastic bag, so adding large structures does not have to be expensive or drawn out. (I can also imagine stacking these donuts together like a pile of tires and capping the ends to gain additional internal space). I also imagine the ASTEN hab idea being used to build the Island 3, assuming the hab units click together like LEGO and the resulting unified “roof” area is the floor of the central cavity. Once again, each hab can be used as a “life raft” should something go wrong, but like any other Island 3 type architecture, there is no incremental expansion.

That is probably the most interesting intersection for a story idea; how is the society going to react as living room is squeezed in the existing Island 3, but there are not enough people to justify building a new Island colony?

jollyreaper said...

There's also a minimal size necessary for a rotating habitat. I forget what the dimensions are but the reason for it is the effect of rotation upon the inner ear. If the gradient the standing human body is in is too steep, balance gets all out of whack. So you couldn't just stick someone in a 20 foot diameter wheel, spin it up, and expect all to be hunky-dory.

Citizen Joe said...

There's a nice spin calculator at:

Neon Sequitur said...

I use an online spin-g calculator, located here --

For general use, a habitat needs to spin no faster than 1rpm. If you want 1rpm and 1G, you'll need a radius of 894m at the 'floor' excluding the thickness of the hab's outer wall.

If you're comfortable with lower gravity, say one-third of a G, then you'll only need a spin radius of 295m.

Concerning asteroid stations and spin: nickel-iron asteroids in the 1-2km range might be 'spun up' in the process of hollowing them out, or mining them. Either one would produce slag, which could be used for reaction mass in surface-mounted mass-drivers for the purpose of imparting spin.

Some (or most) asteroids of this size aren't well-balanced for spin, so a great deal of material would have to be stripped away to bring them 'into round' which could also be used as reaction mass to induce spin.

Anonymous said...

Astroid habatats: you could hollow out a cavity or cave inside the asteroid and build a rotating 'tin can' (or two counter-rotating cylinders). The remaining body of the asteroid would sheild the colony from radiation and micrometoriods.

Stations with different missions would require different designs: people housing habs would need spin, so would probably be whell or cylinder shaped; Manufacturer/shipyard types might just be a collection of various modules; agriculture typs might just be a huge array of 'glass' topped modules tied together along with some support structures; other types would need other designs, so use your imagination!


Citizen Joe said...

Just as a warning, assuming a hollow cylinder with spin grav on the shell, the atmosphere is going to do weird stuff because it isn't 'grabbing' on to the shell. That could mean wind speeds in the hurricane force ranges. If you install baffles and wind scoops, you can keep the air 'stationary' with regards to the shell, but that is going to stratify your air mixture, possibly leaving it toxic or extremely flammable. A compartmentalized ring can keep the air in good condition though.

Rick said...

I see that two different commenters already found SpinCalc.

Spinning a structure does not seem terribly difficult, so long as it is built to take the loads, and I'll guess that the wobble from small masses (like people) moving around won't be a serious issue. But construction work will have to be very carefully planned, and if wobble gets out of hand you could be in a world of hurt.

I am a doubtful of hollowed out asteroids, as probably more work than just building a structure. For that matter, are many (or any) asteroids made of a single big rigid lump that can be spun? If they are all 'rubble piles' this could be a nonstarter.

Luke said...

A space station can simply not be a democracy. There is NO margin of error, and NO time to discuss things in a committee. Things will happen and the reaction time must be instantaneous and absolute.

The reasons given above do not invalidate a democracy. You can still have an elected body that sets policy, passes laws, and the like. You just need a strong executive branch of government that heads the maintenance and emergency response departments. The chief executive makes decisions that are immediately acted upon, for things like maintenance emergencies and avoiding intercepting space debris.

The power of the law enforcement arm has to be total. A criminal does not endanger the goods of a single citizen, he endangers the life of everyone on board by his very existence. Weapons are not allowed. Strikes are not inconveniences. Riots are unthinkable. Civil disobedience in any shape or form is a direct threat to the integrity of the station.

I don't see that this necessarily follows, either. Personal weapons are not likely to cause serious harm to a station (even if they penetrate the outer hull, which is very unlikely due to the amount of radiation shielding needed, it takes a very long time to depressurize, and the pressure difference helps you when applying emergency patches from inside). Criminals will not kill everyone if they beat up a mark, club him over the head, or even shoot him. Peaceful civil disobedience can be tolerated as long as it does not interfere with vital operations. The same is true of strikes - a strike at the scooter factory is not going to kill people, everyone can wait until the management bargains with the labor because people can get by for a while without buying new scooters.

Now, you may find that vital services - life support, maintenance, emergency response, and nav control - are run in a strict hierarchical manner, perhaps similar to today's militaries. Orders are expected to be obeyed while mutinies and desertion are dealt with harshly.

Of course, you may find that authoritarian regimes use the above arguments to justify their power and control.

Luke said...

On rotating habs - a passively stable magnetically levitated bearing in vacuum (like inductracks) would be reliable, essentially maintenance free, and require very little energy to overcome the extremely small drag and de-spinning torque it would produce. I see no reason you can't have a habitat wheel rotating around a stationary spindle.

For any rotating structure, you will want it to be wider in diameter than it is long. A long rotating structure is unstable. Any loss mechanism (such as air or water moving around) will couple the spin-around-axis motion to the tumble-end-over-end motion. A longer than wide rotating structure will eventually turn all of its spin-around-axis motion into the tumble-end-over-end motion. This is bad. (In technical terms, you want the rotating structure to be rotating about the principle axis with the largest moment of inertia).

I tend to agree that counter-rotating designs will be problematic. Either have a monolithic rotating structure, or a spinning wheel coupled to a non-spinning section using the above mentioned magnetic bearings.

Rick said...

Your political points anticipate an upcoming blog post - I think the potential for free institutions in a station context is being greatly underestimated.

Thanks for the point about spin - I did not realize this, and in fact most discussion of large space habs seems to ignore it.

And your point about levitation bearings could be major good news, because for a city sized station it is very desirable to have multiple spin habs with 'bridges' connecting them, rather than a single spinning megastructure. You'd need some fairly fancy airlock connection between spinning and nonspinning sections, but it's still a lot simpler than having to use space taxis to get around.

Thucydides said...

It seems odd that Gerald O'Neill did not consider tumbling in his Island designs (although the bulk of Island 1 and 2 are spheres).

Since Island 3 is built around two parallel structures coupled together to cancel rotational forces, the potential to tumble is reduced a great deal. I think we all agree that any structure should be designed to have a zero sum when all the rotational forces are added together. Contra rotating structures on a single axis are possible (at the end of WWII, a number of aircraft designs used contra-rotating props on a single shaft), but the added complexity means this should be reserved for high value applications.

A practical spaceship might resemble a mini Island 3, two rotating hab modules on either side of a frame which houses the engines, fuel tanks etc. This can be scaled up to the point of coupling Island 3 to a massive drive frame to create an interstellar ark. Stations and spaceships are more of a continuum rather than separate entities.

Jean-Remy said...

* While there might be some partially democratic institutions on a space station, I can only see them paying lip service, a way to pacify the population. The reality is that instituting Martial Law on a space station would not only be easy, but would be the true reality underneath the veneer. The central authority in the control center is in charge of air, water, spin, but also population control via airlocks between the sectors, and of the information network. Once you control information and population mobility, your control is absolute.

Why information control? Well I would think than any pirate broadcast radio is a danger to the station. Like on a modern aircraft, all electronics and transmitters must be shut off, either on take-off/landing (electronics) or for the duration (transmission devices) so as not to interfere with the aircraft's avionics and own transmission. If your space station has any kind of significant orbital traffic to deal with, the EM field around said must be tightly controlled. Wired communications are of course entirely the purview of whoever installed it when the station was built. Because of constant maintenance, there can be no clandestine wired communication network installed.

Why population control? That too is built-in into any space station, from regulated access areas to pass cards to internal monitoring cameras, regularly spaced airlocks, semi-independent sectors, containment blastdoors for oxygen leaks and fires, the very nature of the structure of a space station not just furthers but demands tight population movement regulation.

Granted, those points only further the possibility of authoritarian control rather than impose it, the very fact they exist at all precludes democracy in the form we understand it. Whoever holds the control center holds absolute power. I'll refer you to Lord Acton about absolute power and its effects.

* As far as the logistics of spinning a space station, if we start with the premise of long-term habitation on a space station we've already decided it was feasible. I am sure that there are as many solutions as there are futurists and space planners, and that if we have a large space-borne population, we'll see this variety in design. I doubt there would be a universally accepted "best solution" because each station will be built after others have succeeded, and failed, and will take their lessons from it, or new technologies will arrive. We;ll see spinning wheel, counter-rotating drums, even hamster wheels in asteroids. Everything will be tried once, and probably several times.

* About the 3-gen rule. I don't subscribe to it. We're already a highly mobile population. I don't think there is much expectation for any family to stay in the same suburb/district in a city, never mind the same city, for three generations. I personally have lived in no less than four states in the US (and even more cities) not to mention I was born in France. Then again I am not a good model of a sedentary person. I do know people who haven't moved far, yet even them have at least moved between two or three different towns or cities. Does that mean that the cities are not viable? Of course not. There is a constant influx of new blood. While the founding families might not be on Space Station Alpha by the time the 3rd generation comes around, that does not doom the station. It simply means one family has moved out, while another one (or two, or three) have moved in, and the station continues to thrive.

Jim Baerg said...

Thank you Luke for pointing out some of the flaws in Jean Remy's position on democracy in space habitats.

I will also point out that on earth authoritatian regimes have worse environmental problems than democracies with free speach. That seems the closest analogy to keeping the life support systems in good or bad order on a space station.

Citizen Joe said...

I came up with a design for concentric rings as a Mars Orbital. Docking was at the central hub. Mars level gravity was at an intermediate ring. Earth gravity was at the outer ring. This gives people time to acclimate to Mars gravity before landing.

Jim Baerg said...

Jean Remy: Re: information control

It's not necessary.

There would need to be frequencies reserved for space traffic control etc., but there would be plenty of bandwidth available for anyone to send all the information they want with no need for government approval.

The space habitats that don't have dissenters pointing out where the Powers That Be could do better will be the ones that fail first.

VonMalcolm said...


White collar crime leads to blue collar crime IMO. The less money/power the general population has the more stress the general population has. The more that stress is heaped upon the general population the greater the probability that some unhappy underling goes Cho and takes the hole damn station with him to blazes. I would recommend a zero tolerance policy towards crime of any kind in a space habitat (and on Earth for that matter).

I am pondering the effect of space launch costs on a potential orbital station. If launches were cheap enough would that make an orbital station not much more than a weigh station with some military, scientific, & tourist value? -Or would launch costs always be significant enough to justify the need for a large multidimensional orbital station. On the other hand perhaps vastly cheaper launch costs would enable more ambitious Island 3 type projects if only to see if they could be done.

For a far future hard fiction story background: How about a space station .67 parsecs away bisecting Alpha Centauri and Sol -perhaps orbiting an as-of-yet undetected planemo? This station would have the potential of being vary large as it manages trade in between two ‘distant’ star systems, in essence acting as the only port of call in between the two stellar neighborhoods (presuming Alpha Centauri would be or be made into an active system -and Sol would remain active!). Perhaps the station locale could even develop into a multifaceted city unto itself (with multiple stations).

Would such a station be built on site via gathering materials from rogue asteroids or moons orbiting a planemo or would it be shipped into place whole or piece by piece; or, most likely, a little bit of both; or, perhaps, would it propel itself into position?


VonMalcolm said...


Democracy versus Autocracy on an Orbital Station:

I am getting the sense by reading the comments that any given Orbital Station would be autonomous unto itself, not firmly connected to any Earth government. If a fascist government builds a station would it not be run by fascists? If a democracy builds a station would it not be democratically run? -Communist government = communist space station -no? I guess this also depends on which sector of the particular country (especially if a democratic one) builds the station: private, cooperate, military, government, etc; and this also depends on if the station is built by one particular country or many countries.

The Glitter Band = a Direct Democracy in the purest sense.
Via Wiki:
All habitats in the Glitter Band represent a different format of society, all linked by the common right to vote. A giant computer network runs thousands of polls everyday to decide the general actions of the Glitter Band as a whole. Most inhabitants have built in computer routines in their brains that make these decisions for them, making a conscious effort on only the most important polls.
Every habitat has a polling core, a giant computer that generates the polls and transmits the inhabitants’ votes. Each habitat votes on its own laws and punishments, the only universal crime being withholding someone’s right to vote or access to abstraction (a form of digital communication and virtual reality used throughout the Glitter Band).


Luke said...


I would recommend a zero tolerance policy towards crime of any kind in a space habitat

What do you mean by "zero tolerance?" I hear the term used from time to time, but does this mean that anyone suspected of a crime is punished without a fair trial? Does this mean that convicted criminals are summarily executed? (The latter seems a disastrous policy, since a criminal would then have nothing to lose, and would have no qualms about taking huge risks to his own life, causing excessive damage to the station or innocent life in an attempt to escape, or even taking pre-emptive revenge by destroying the station if he thinks capture is inevitable).

VonMalcolm said...


I was wondering if anyone was going to call me out about that!

The school where the girl committed suicide after being bullied had a 'Zero Tolerance' policy against bullying, but obviously it was in name only.

You're looking at it from another direction, as if a space habitat's 'Zero Tolerance' policy would be too severe and lead to extreme behavior. I do believe 'little sins' do add up and should be dealt with accordingly: global warming, ozone depletion, garbage islands twice the size of the US, are all a result of a lot of little sins (and some big ones) adding up. I truly believe you can be literally nickled and dimed to death, and planet Earth is becoming a testament to that: we'll never expand 'out there' unless we take care of business down here IMO, even if we have no choice but to leave here.

I also believe conflict can escalate from silly things as no-one wants to throw the second punch, no-one wants to fire their guns second (what would the Americas look like now if the Aztecs and/or the Incas took the initiative against the Spaniards?). Laws should recognize these realities: "One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans." (Bismark)

So what should be done to get ahead of escalation and catastrophe or to stop a slow bleed? As far as a Space Habitat goes: How about expulsion to begin with (after a fair trail). As far as stopping the slow bleed here on Planet Earth. . . I'll get back to you on that one!

VonMalcolm said...

Oops Bismarck.

Rick said...

There is a general technical problem with 'way stations' in deep space - you have to burn propellant to slow down for it, and more to speed up again, whereas you could have zipped on past without burning any fuel at all.

Among other things, means that multi-stop deep space cargo missions are unlikely. It is more efficient to send space cargo direct to its destination, without intermediate stops requiring deceleration and then re-acceleration.

Classic orbital stations don't violate this principle, because the cargo is being transferred between shuttles and deep space ships.

The discussion is implicitly assuming independent stations/habs, without inquiring how they got that way, but at this point the concern is with the general possibilities, or inevitabilities, of station life.

Jean-Remy said...

I was wondering who Bismark was...

(hopes no one scrolls up and sees my previous typo between expandable and expendable)

I envision our expansion into giant habitats to be motivated by how much we screw up down here. Pollution and overpopulation and global anarchy as a motivator for space expansion?

The problem is human will remain humans and space stations, we will discover, are far, far less forgiving than a planet. The point was made that a gun discharge inside a very shielded space station wouldn't be devastating. I disagree. Space stations will be a lot more vulnerable than we seem to think. Laxity is forgivable on Earth, but deadly in space. Some excellent points against me where made (I apparently I am in the minority here) and I will grant them, yet I cannot see a democracy the way we think of working on a space station. Call me a pessimist.

Rick said...

'Zero tolerance' strikes me as what administrator types say when they want to sound tough. It usually ends up in practice either with empty rhetoric or rigid enforcement of trivia, in either case producing a lot of embarrassing (or worse) headlines.

Most of the heavy lifting will be done via social norms, not formal law.

VonMalcolm said...

At a least an Orbital Station Democracy would be made of (presumably) the best and brightest, which also presumes the station is not and will not be passed down generation to generation with idiot sons and rebellious daughters taking the place of qualified fathers and mothers.

Children/Teenagers/Sophomores in Space? I know generation ships make a good part of sci-fi but is this at all reasonable and/or possible?

Anonymous said...

Military founded stations would be run as any military base...corporate founded stations will be run as efficently or as recklessly as any corporation here on Earth...private organizations that found a station could wind up as anything...government founded stations would reflect the parent government, at least at first; after several years/a few generations, ways that don't work (old or new) will be discarded and ways that do work (old or new) will be retained; they may not all work on all stations!

If you're Sci Fi setting has wormholes, then having transfer stations on either side might work; especially if you have to have specialized craft to navigate them.


VonMalcolm said...

'Most of the heavy lifting will be done via social norms, not formal law.'

True, but I don't lock my door for the 99.99% who follow the social norm, I lock it for the 0.01% who don't! -And those .01% on a space habitat are a disaster waiting to happen!

Jean-Remy said...

"And those .01% on a space habitat are a disaster waiting to happen!"


On Earth that .01% is, at a national infrastructure level, less than a troublesome footnote. They are no threat to the overall stability, integrity and viability of a nation as a whole. Therefore you can relax the rules and let that .01% run amok, steal things, even kill people.

On a space station that .01% will jeopardize the very existence of the space station. Rules *must* be stricter, because societal norms do NOT have sufficient power to control this rogue element. In fact without the fear of the Police, I would say you can bump that number up to 1% or even 10%. I do not believe societal norms are remotely sufficient to hold a nation together without a strong enforcement branch. On a space station that enforcement branch both needs to be, and has the tools to be, far more efficient.

As I said before the space station comes with a built in system for population control and monitoring. This facilitates the existence of a police state to such an extent that it is almost inevitable it will develop into one. And such will be welcome with cheers from the law-abiding population. After all, only criminals have anything to hide.


Jean-Remy said...

I feel I must add a word. My opinion that a space station must develop into a strong executive-centered government with little similarity to what we consider "democracy" is not born out of my preference for such a system in this setting, but from the belief that it will be a matter of fact. In no way do I condone or endorse it, rather I fear it.

Unfortunately I cannot imagine a fragile outpost in a tremendously hazardous environment to live long simply on the wish and hope that people will be smart and honest enough to abide by a democratic system. It works on Earth because Earth allows for safety valves like the L.A. riots. There are no such safety valves on a space station. Ultimately I think long term habitation in space is a pipe dream because I fully realize that a police state does not allow for this release valve and is therefore also doomed.

Space stations will most likely be limited to short-term transient habitation between spaceship connections, and workplaces for "space longshoremen" who work on the space station for 6 months at inflated salaries, then return ground-side for 6 months (modeled on deep sea oil platforms)

Luke said...

I am failing to see why a small criminal element will doom a space station. A mugger or shop-lifter is not going to cause catastrophic failure. You can engineer space stations to be robust, fault tolerant systems. I'm not seeing how the thesis that space stations must become autocratic applies any more to space habitats than to, say, Netherlands, which could suffer catastrophic failure of the dikes that would wipe out much of the country, or than New Orleans which did suffer catastrophe when the sea came churning in but not because of crime (of which it had a good helping before Katrina came along).

Sure, it is possible that severe social unrest could doom everyone on board. Not every place is Los Angeles, however (thank god!). The city I live in, for example (Richland, WA) has never had any large scale unrest. We, and the nearby cities of Kennewick and Pasco (and further afield, Yakima, Pullman, Walla Walla, Ellensburg, Moses Lake, Wenatchee, and Spokane, plus innumerable smaller towns) are generally well policed, peaceful, law-abiding, and with strong emergency response services and civic involvement. Now, one could say that one little mistake at Grand Coulee Dam would wipe us off the map in a flood of magnitude not seen since the last ice age; or the Energy Northwest power reactor could suffer a melt-down, Chernobyl-style, and kill us all. One would be right. This does not turn the city I call home into a police state - we all enjoy the Freedoms that Americans in general and residents of the great state of Washington in particular have come to expect. If there is a problem at the reactor, if the high level radioactive waste drums on the Hanford nuclear reservation burst and threaten to inundate us all, if a wildfire comes sweeping across the scrub-steppe, we have well trained emergency services ready to act. We have security where it is needed. In the mean time, we choose our leaders democratically, have healthy public debates on civic policy, and can even carry weapons in plain view or (with a licence) concealed. Occasional criminal activity doesn't change this, even though a stray illegal firework during the baking hot and dry summers could (in principle) burn us to the ground.

And no, a firearm will not penetrate the outer hull of a habitat that can protect its inhabitants from galactic cosmic rays. The latter requires at least a ton of material per square meter. That's at least 13 cm of structural steel, 29 cm of diamondoid, or 55 cm of nano-carbon-stuff. A high powered deer rifle can penetrate a little over 1 cm of RHA (Rolled Homogenous Armor - a standard steel armor). 13 cm of high strength steel wouldn't even be dented by a bullet from a deer rifle.

Even if the bullet did somehow punch through, it leaves plenty of time for maintenace crews to patch the hole. A .30 caliber (0.762 cm) hole with a 100 kPa (1 atmosphere) pressure difference across it will be losing air at a rate of about 150 cubic centimeters per second. A 10 m x 10 m x 100 m pressure compartment in the habitat has 10 billion cubic centimeters of air in it. This will have a characteristic depressurization time of more than two years. This is plenty of time for maintenance to fix the problem. Especially if someone has the presence of mind to slap a flat bit of something across the hole - air pressure will suck the plate onto the hole, making the rate of air loss much slower.

Jean-Remy said...

The problem with a space station is not necessarily the weakness of its outer hull but the fact that everything is going to be in precise balance. Biosphere 2 has already shown us that complex enclosed inhabited environments will be extremely delicate and going to be failure-prone even when everyone is dedicated absolutely to the success of said. Even if one bullet does not puncture the outer hull it might lodge into a power conduit, puncture a water main, or hit a part of the recycling systems. Internal walls that are not structural bulkheads will be as thin and light as possible. The same deer rifle might push its bullet through several non critical walls, damaging enough systems to cause cascade failures. The worst nightmare of any ship at sea is fire. On a space station it will be a disaster. Before you say open the airlocks and pump the air out, there are plenty of chemical reactions that provide their own oxidizers. Case in point, again your rifle. There's nothing stopping it from firing in a vacuum as gun powder produces the oxidizer for its own combustion.

I just cannot see a space station built with so many redundancies that it can deal with deliberate tampering, or even "accidental" tampering as a direct result of violent action. I do not know of any sea-going vessel, remote scientific outpost, or deep-sea oil rig, that is run on a democratic system. Democracies work best when everything is not trying to kill you. Discipline is essential in this hostile an environment, and large groups of people are not.

A space station is not a monolithic block of metal impervious to violence. It is a delicate system in balance teetering between viability and the abyss. These space stations would be, when built, the culmination of our technologies, the extreme limit of what we can build. They will be extremely complex machines run on millions of delicate interwoven systems which all have to perform within exacting margins because you can't just open a window or run outside if things go wrong. If we've learned anything from our relationship to technology, it is that the more complex a system, the more chances of failure it has, and the more impressive the failure will be when it happens.

Injecting into this already delicate balance of technology the random rogue element of a large human population...

VonMalcolm said...

Okay Jean, I nominate you ‘His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Jean Amin Remy, VC, DSO, MC, Conqueror of the Democracy in Space in General and Earth Habitat L2 in Particular. I’ll be your Commandant of Security. I already have my Pulsed Energy Projectile gun at the ready capable of firing an ‘excruciating bout of pain" from over a mile away by firing “a laser pulse that generates a burst of expanding plasma when it hits something solid” producing an electromagnetic pulse which triggers impulses in nerve cells.

I will also bring along my black leather cape, titanium toed space boots, and James Carville mask for intimidation. Commandant Adolf Von Malcolm has got your back! (Insert evil laughter here.)

*I guess fear mongering is how Fascist States rise in the first place!*


I was always amazed that another ‘big attack’ didn’t happen on U.S. soil after 9/11, so if a country of 300 million can be kept relatively safe with all of its miles and miles of borders (do I dare thank Bush & Cheney for that?) a Space Habitat of 10,000 shouldn’t be impossible to keep out of harm’s way. On second thought does the Bush/Cheney regime back Jean's and my arguments! Okay, maybe we didn’t/don’t have a police state here, but we did/do(?) over *there*!

Jean-Remy said...

Wait I think you forgot something about Lord of all the Fishes in the Ocean or something like that, no?

(My memory is a bit vague. I can never remember who I ordered executed today. It's embarrassing when I write an execution order and I find out he's already dead. Ah well.)

Jean-Remy said...

More seriously:

I think we sort of forgot that what we call a democracy is really a framework that support distinctly non-democratic sub-systems. Of course the military is non-democratic (big duh) but so are all the corporations that fuel and finance said democracy. Granted there is a Board of Directors that votes, and presumably shareholders have a say in company policy (but really don't *cough cough* right Enron?) however employees within said company are managed in a strict hierarchical structure. Democracy is really only for non-business hours and week-ends. Unless you are working overtime and week-ends.

Since space stations will be either military (non-democratic) scientific (non-democratic) or corporate-run (non-democratic) that leaves us with a general loose framework that might call itself democratic (as in, the stations fly the flag of a democratic nation), while each space station is within itself a non-democratic institution. A city can be democratic because it wasn't purpose-built by a single entity (political or financial) for a specific goal. A space station will be.

I thought about it and I'd really like to add "and Lord of all the Fishes in the Ocean". it has a nice ring to it.

VonMalcolm said...

That title was lifted from Idi Amin's real title via Wiki. Wilhelm II's was much longer, like a paragraph long, but Idi's was more appropriate.

Pro Democracy: Churchill:
'Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that Democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.'

Anti Democracy: Mencken:
'All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As Democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.'

Translation: When you have a bunch of idiots making decisions you're f#kt; When you have one idiot making the decisions you're Hella-f@kt!

Democracy, Fascism: same thing really, it just takes fascists less time to find their moron!

VonMalcolm said...

As I think Jean was alluding to, perhaps the form of government would be linked to the length of time people would be working in (or around) the space habitat: the shorter term the less need or desire for a democracy, the longer term, especially if new generations are being raised, the more need for a say in the system.

-And on raising children in a space habitat: perhaps one could start a family in space but it would be wise for all parties involved not to 'assimilate' children there. Perhaps (a) parent(s) could rear a child to five or six before returning to Earth for the child's education and development (and before the child becomes a potential menace and hazard). That would give a particular miner, researcher, soldier, etc. plenty of time to do their duty (while still being with their growing family) before returning back to Earth.

So sleepy; I better stop now: I may be rambling: rambling I may be: Stop now I better. So sleepy.

Jean-Remy said...

I recognized Idi Amin's self-aggrandizing title, I just seemed to remember something about lord of fishes and beasts, or some such ridiculousness, was tacked on. The title became longer as his reign went on.

VonMalcolm said...

Jean, you're right: I dropped the ball on that one (or Wiki did); the joke would have been much funnier with the missing line. Thanks Wiki! I should go edit the article.

All three titles via:

“His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.”

Some others:

“Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith."

“Barack the First, by the Grace of Reverend Wright, Leader of the Free World and Territories, Salary Czar, Defender of Bill Ayers.”

Luke said...

Jean Remy

You have a valid point that if a space station is seen as a job - similar to a stint on a sea-going vessel or oil rig - those on board will very likely live in a hierarchical environment. However, if a station is where people live, not just work, I see it more and more likely that you will see increased responsiveness to the will of the populace. Perhaps the important distinction here is between stations that are run by an outside organization for a particular purpose, and stations that arise in a more "organic" fashion where people immigrate in to take advantage of opportunities and set up home. When you have a station of the former type, and you have enough people there that they want it turn it into the latter type, you get an interesting story.

Biosphere 2 has already shown us that complex enclosed inhabited environments will be extremely delicate and going to be failure-prone even when everyone is dedicated absolutely to the success of said.

I think that what Biosphere 2 has shown us is that a well engineered life support system will not be designed or run like Biosphere 2. If approached as an engineering problem rather than trying to set up a naturally complex self regulating system, you are likely to get better results.

Even if one bullet does not puncture the outer hull it might lodge into a power conduit, puncture a water main, or hit a part of the recycling systems. Internal walls that are not structural bulkheads will be as thin and light as possible. The same deer rifle might push its bullet through several non critical walls, damaging enough systems to cause cascade failures.

But this is no different to gunfire inside buildings here on earth, where a stray shot can puncture a water pipe or power conduit. After the excitement has died down, you can shut off the water pressure at the nearest valve, or flip the circuit breaker, and have maintenance come and patch things up. If instead of a deer rifle (after all, there are not may deer on most space stations) the gunfight was between people armed with pistol-caliber weapons, a stray bullet would not be likely to penetrate a water pipe (although it could still sever power lines). This leads us to ...

The worst nightmare of any ship at sea is fire. On a space station it will be a disaster.

This is what the fire department is for. In 20% oxygen, 80% nitrogen, 9.8 m/s^2 of acceleration, fire will burn only about as fiercely as it does on earth. In the living areas of the station, the walls and structural support are likely to be non-flammable and you will not find bulk volatile fuels. This removes most of the residential fire concerns we have on Earth. You may have increased fire concerns in "engineering" areas, but vital, high risk areas are likely to be under higher security, just as nuclear reactors are in our world.

Before you say open the airlocks and pump the air out, there are plenty of chemical reactions that provide their own oxidizers.

Actually, I would design fire suppression systems into the building, with sprinklers to damp down the flames and the ability to pump oxygen depleted air into affected rooms. Further, areas of high fire risk could be kept in the microgravity regions of the station, where fires either choke themselves on their own waste or burn very slowly, limited by the rate of oxygen diffusion rather than being fed by bulk flow of oxygen rich gas past the combustion region.

But that's sidestepping the point - what chemical reactions are you thinking of that provide their own oxidizers that you are likely to find on a space station in any significant quantity? The only thing that comes to mind are hypergolic rocket propellants, and I would only expect these on near-term spacecraft with future space vessels replacing them with safer alternatives (such as plasma thrusters).

Jean-Remy said...

"But that's sidestepping the point - what chemical reactions are you thinking of that provide their own oxidizers that you are likely to find on a space station in any significant quantity?"

Hypergolic fuels: Station keeping thrusters might use them. Hypergolics are nice because they don't require complex ignition systems or magnetic bottles like plasma.

Gunpowder: Police weapons and smuggled private weapons.

Alkali metals: from sodium to cesium, tend to be slightly allergic to water. Granted those are unlikely in non-laboratory areas, but they still might be present on the station.

Solid rocket fuels: Unlikely in inhabited sections, but possible in the industrial section. Again like hypergolics a solid rocket booster is cheap and simple compared to LOX-LH2 or plasma rockets.

Aside from fire risks, there are plenty of household chemicals that aren't friends. I accidentally used bleach and a toilet cleaner with Hydrogen Chloride as active ingredient together. It took nearly two days to vent out the chlorine gas from the top floor with the windows open and box fans going.

Rules and discipline have to be more strictly enforced when just unthinking stupidity can inject poison gas into the air recycling system, never mind active criminal thought.

You mentioned accidents of the sort happening in buildings, but on Earth people can just run out into the street if there's a problem. However I do take your point I may be overly pessimistic about the fragility of a space station. On the other hand, this is definitely a domain in which I would err on the side of caution.

Byron said...

I would almost see a long-term colony based on the US system run with four branches of government: Executive, Legislative, Judiciary, and Life Support. I've been thinking about this for a while, and have been working on a setting involving a war between the US and Luna, which broke away a while ago. In it, the Lunar Life Support Board is completely separate from the rest of the government, probably run on a corporate model. (I didn't spend too much time on that part. Spacecraft are more fun.)
The point is that I don't think everything has to be controlled by the same people. While the main government may be democratically elected, they won't be charged with maintaining the life support. Actually, the more I think about it, the more it seems like the courts today.

I still think that a station will be rather vulnerable, but much easier to protect as well. People simply can't smuggle stuff well, and while some things may get by, I doubt you can bribe a customs agent on a space station to let you smuggle explosives onboard.

Thucydides said...

I think that some form of democracy and free market will exist on a space colony (not a space station) regardless of what the Colony's "Dear Leader" would want.

A space station is small enough that it would represent a single purpose (by analogy, a nuclear submarine, oil platform or factory), so the rules and regulations of the owner/operator will be the absolute "law of the land" and the station's captain/manager/director of operations will have the powers and prerogatives of a ship's captain here on the high seas of Earth.

Larger entities like colonies (regardless of their origin) will have many more people interacting, and the interactions scale geometrically as the population increases (both permanent residents and transients), which brings about F.A. Hayek's "Local Knowledge" problem. A democracy and a free market provide fairly open conduits for knowledge to flow, so the overall outcomes will be closer to optimal for the entire population (although there will always be some who do better or worse than others).

A rigid authoritarian system, no matter how brutal and repressive, will spawn black and grey markets to deal with unfulfilled demands for products and services. The former Soviet Union tried to ruthlessly suppress black markets, incorporate free markets into the system (the New Economic Policy or NEP 1921-28), allowed for limited free holdings on farmland and eventually turned a blind eye to the problem. Similar results can be seen in places as diverse as Iran, Cuba and the DPRK, and even in western mixed economies, an underground economy of unreported and untaxed transactions exists.

I also think Jean might not be counting on just how determined people can be when the crunch comes. The settlement of New France in the 1500's and the competing English efforts in "Rupert's Land" (officially the drainage basin of Hudson's Bay, but encompassing most of northern Canada) was an effort comparable to space exploration today, with primitive science, technology and medicine pitted against a relentlessly hostile territory and climate (during the Little Ice Age to boot!). New France eventually failed, and one large factor was the continuation of a fairly rigid medieval social and hierarchical structure which limited people's opportunities to experiment and adapt. (Only Voyageurs who had pretty much cast off from New French society learned to live off the land and survive, but tied to New France for their markets and supplies they were never a major factor in society).

The Bay men, who had market incentives to improve their lot in life, managed to eke out a tolerable existence and even fight successful wars against their rivals. An alternative model is the Puritans, who had unyielding faith in God and determination never to give up (more than a few Puritan settlements were consumed in the icy wilderness because of that). Even the Puritans were eventually swamped by freebooting settlers with less rigid outlooks on life, and the Bay men were eventually marginalized by the greater opportunities to be found outside their frozen wilderness. (there were just too few resources to build a large population, and larger populations in warmer, more diversified environments in Upper and Lower Canada eventually settled the modern social, political and economic outlines of Canada).

Regardless of how much the Dear Leader would want to impose it, or theoretical arguments of how desirable control is, the systems will either become more flexible and responsive, or seize up and collapse.

Luke said...


Just to throw a different system into the mix ... I had been thinking of a government based on the US system with the traditional three branches of government. The head of the executive branch would be the leader of the life support organization, much as the US president is at the top of the military chain of command. In this conception, the life support/maintenance/emergency response organization would draw heavily on military models of organization, motivation, and training.

Rick said...

Just remember my official title, God of This Blog, and everything will work out just fine!

Under the more conservative sets of assumptions, the issue of governance will hardly arise, at least not in the colorful forms we like for Romance.

Antarctica is not a bad approximation of a human space presence on a scale of thousands. They can run out of a burning building, but can't stay outside for long, and over winter they are cut off for months. I imagine its politics, such as they are, are not much different from any other military, industrial, or scientific outpost.

The greatest constraint on station managements, in practical terms, may be poor morale leading people to not request another tour. The human space presence will have to get large indeed before you have trouble finding volunteers, even for tedious Nostromo type missions.

To have 'true' communities in space - with children and the aged - you need a robust space tech and high enough economic level to support the nonworking part of the population, along with the tertiary sector such as teachers and for that matter cops. At that level, survival should not be all that precarious.

On life support, the one thing Biosphere II showed is that the challenge is non trivial. The fact that there has been no Biosphere III suggests that no one, now, can come up with a convincing plan for doing it at moderate cost, at least not enough to get anyone to pay for it.

We will probably burn through many billions in learning how to do it, but we can't say now how big and expensive the final product will be. My guess is, pretty large, at least thousands to perhaps a million tons of biomass.

Michael said...

On Democracy, Police State, Mobility, and Freedom. (a bit long)

There's been a lot of discussion about centralized control vs. democratic control in space habitats, but I think this is overlooking the more important ingredient of freedom: Rule of Law and Equality Under the Law. Considering low voter turnout in many democracy's the ability to vote is not required for a happy and productive society. What is important is the knowledge that what one does today will matter for the future, that what one earns or builds will still be owned to an indefinite period of time from the present. Western economies tend to do all right. Economies where the state powers regularly claim property and businesses tend to suck. Stable democracy's tend to protect property with a stable Rule of Law, so we equate Democracy with Freedom. Nowadays, democracy is just the "cool" way to run government, but it is not the only form that can provide stability, protect its citizen's property, and allow them to be productive and happy.

I subject to the group that equality under the law and protection of property are more important for a society than the right of every citizen to vote. Apply this to the space station question, and your "freedom vs. oppression" spectrum is not "democracy vs. central control" but "rule of law vs. rule by whim".

If a station has a sign at the airlock posted by the owner that says: "This is my land, these are my rules, leave if you don't like it." and has a history of treating its residents by those rules, consulting them on changes, and (most importantly) allowing them to leave, you have a free society.

This is where Mobility enters the mix. This type of station is only really a free society if leaving is an option. So even if the station boss technically allows leaving, but financial or logistic hurdles are too high to practically allow leaving, it will not be a free society. If you citizens can't reasonably leave, they are ripe for oppression. If they can leave, you have to treat them well enough. Subsequently, if they can leave, there is competition for citizens, and stations are obligated to both preserve safety and make the yoke on the citizenry lighter.

Mobility allows voting by leaving, and protection of property allows a free society without a democratic society.

Michael said...

In the scenario outlined above, a free society might organically arise at a transport nexus (say Mars orbit). A variety of stations exist for various reasons, probably to the point that some overlap in purpose if the transport nexus is important enough. Citizens flow between stations to stations that fit their needs for any given time. The whole conglomeration acts as a free society, and probably has shared laws or customs, and culture, that still probably leave the whole mass short of classification as a "state". Draconian station-masters find their citizens leaving rather quickly, and so do incompetent ones. They might find that they lower the value of their station so much that they're bought out because they can't afford to keep it running.

You also might run into a situation where you have disagreements between citizens and station-masters where the station-masters don't allow citizens to leave (a not-free society). This would probably be long-term doom for the station, but might be necessary for short-term survival. It might arise from citizens trying to get out from under onerous contracts keeping them at the station.

It might generate a whole side business for traders to smuggle people out of stations (although the sort of station that prevents citizens from leaving is the sort that seizes the property of those that try and undermine its authority).

Citizen Joe said...

I think I suggested this for colonies. 1 share = 1 vote. Minimum 51% of shares to be held by residents of station. Vote to elect the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors then appoints officers for the station (presumably based on aptitude). The officers answer to the Board but can act efficiently and quickly. The Board answers to the Shareholders.

Jim Baerg said...

Re: Biosphere II

The mistake they made was to think in terms of getting it right the 1st time.

They should have been thinking (& talking publicly) in terms of:
We close it up & see how long it takes for something to go so wrong that we have to open it. We fix whatever went wrong & close it again. Repeat until we have it running on a closed cycle for decades.

Anonymous said...

A Federal Republic, like America, has non-democratic institutions incorporated into it's structure...also, there are different levels of law enforcement, each controled by a different political stations would have something like this and space colonies could have an elected government to do things like take care of non-critical gardens, how many cubic meters each family can have, what type of 'zoning' laws would apply to the residential areas; life support, station security, and operations would be run by a military or corporate-style hierarchy. Instead of life imprisonment, you'd have permanate exile; some crimes that don't have analogues here on Earth would carry the death penalty on a space station or colony...besides, if things get too out of hand (read:they have pissed off a major power), military forces could be sent...costs, in this situation, won't be a concern until after the fact.


Stevo Darkly said...

It occured to me that a dramatic event that could occur in a science fiction story, but which I've never seen, is a "wobblequake" aboard a spinning habitat. It would be something like a washing machine becoming unbalanced, but probably (I hope) not as severe.

As noted, I expect a spinning hab would have an automated rebalancing system that constantly monitors imbalances and corrects them by rerouting water ballast through a system of multiply-redundant pipes and tanks. Even so, there might be occasions when the system would be temporarily overwhelmed:

- Bugs in, or sabotage of, the automated system that runs the ballast-rebalancing system. Or perhaps more likely, faults in or sabotage of the sensors that tell the system when the hab balance needs correcting.

- Sudden and unexpected shifts in the distribution of mobile masses within the hab. "Hey, everybody! The really hot actress, Ashley Plume, is aboard!" "Where is she?" "She's in the sector G-7 dining area, signing autographs and posing for pics!" "Let's go!"

- As a side effect of other serious damage inflicted on the station, as when the raiders from the Pirate Kingdom of Triton blow a large hole in one side of the station and a lot of equipment and air (and rebalancing ballast) spills out. Even if that section of the hab can be sealed off, the survivors are likely to be shaken about unless and until balance can be restored.

"Wobblequakes" would be more likely in smaller habs than in larger ones. Depending on how good the rebalancing system is, small but frequent tremors might be a common feature of living in some habitats, which everyone but newbies would ignore (kind of like living in Los Angeles).

Mention of frequent "wobble tremors" might also be used in a story set in a shoddy, aging or run-down habitat, to help reinforce a mood or atmosphere of danger or foreboding or general run-down-ness.

Rick said...

I don't know a thing about the forces that act on spinning bodies, but I wonder if a 'wobblequake' wouldn't cause the thing from going into a full tumble that would wreck havoc if it didn't cause a breakup.

Anonymous said...

Rick said:
"I don't know a thing about the forces that act on spinning bodies, but I wonder if a 'wobblequake' wouldn't cause the thing from going into a full tumble that would wreck havoc if it didn't cause a breakup."

I'm not really sure if that would happen immeadately, but it would seem to be a really good idea to dampen that wobble as soon as possable...and it would be a wonderful story prop!


Citizen Joe said...

While an outside observer would see a weird oscillation, it would translate into varying gravities to those on the rim. In the multiple ring scenarios, this kind of vibration could drift rings into catastrophic contact. Likewise, it could shear the axle

Luke said...

A "wheel" type hab, with a much larger diameter than length, is passively stable against wobble-quakes if there are significant damping mechanisms to couple rotational motion into other forms of energy (such as water that can slosh around).

A "spindle" type hab, much longer than its diameter, is unstable against these sorts of disturbances, and will eventually end up tumbling end-over-end unless active controls are used.


Jean-Remy said...

So does that mean than an O'Neill cylinder is inherently unstable?

Luke said...

The original design of O'Neil's Island 3 habitat had two coupled counter-rotating cylinders. This would be neutrally stable against "wobbles" (change in spin axis) - perturbations will neither tend to damp out nor amplify. This depends on the two cylinders being mechanically locked together. A free floating single cylinder of the Island 3 variety would tend to end up tumbling end over end.

Rick said...

I wasn't aware of the original design (and the coupling seems like a bear), but a single rotating cylinder is the image I always had, and I think the image most people have, a la Babylon 5.

It's amazing to only learn now that it has such a serious problem.

Damien Sullivan said...

I wonder why I'm not getting gmail notifications.

Space stations show up in Bujold, somewhat. Klein Station in Ethan of Athos, and some stations in the Hegen Hub in The vor Game. Klein probably has the most busy port and home feel; of course, we see the most of it. There's also quaddie habitats in Diplomatic Immunity, but that's more of a full space colony than a transit nexus.

I think Klein managed to feel more open; Cherryh's feel like claustrophic corridors. Tradeoff between building cost and non-sucky lives. Then again, just about all Cherryh feels grim and claustrophobic.

Damien Sullivan said...

Not all crimes are equal. Pickpockets and muggers won't be threatening the integrity of the station. And with use of bulkheads and compartments, I'm not sure explosions would tear the whole place apart. When you have a quarter million lives at stake and had a war 10 years ago, it makes sense to build such that it's survivable. Ability to seal of volumes, vibration dampers, etc.

You want fast decisions in a crisis, but that's not incompatible with democracy. FEMA and the US military answer to a democracy but aren't directly that way. Strong parliamentary majorities can have lots of speed and power, while still being accountable.

Klein Station gave an interesting dichotomy: Security had to obey the usual strictures of civil liberties and search warrants. Health Department didn't, if there was a tipoff about infection.

Damien Sullivan said...

Besides different E&M frequencies, there's also use of communication lasers which won't interfere with 'avionics'. So I think there's little excuse for controlled communications. And encryption can defeat censorship; if the leadership blocks encrypted e-mail, you know you have a problem.

I do not know of any sea-going vessel, remote scientific outpost, or deep-sea oil rig, that is run on a democratic system.

These days, maybe not, but pirate ships of the past were typically very democratic, possibly the most egalitarian societies on the planet at the time. Captain had absolute power in combat, but other decisions were made by the pirates as a whole, with a formal charter defining roles, rules, shares, and social insurance for the crippled. Captain had maybe two shares of spoils, far more equitable than Royal Navy officers.

Rick said...

I don't know what is happening to notifications. Is the 'email follow up comments' box checked?

I agree that space conditions don't preclude democratic governance. Republics from ancient times had emergency rules, like the Roman office of dictator. Such mechanisms can break down, but they aren't foredoomed to.

Medieval merchant seafaring operated under rules not unlike later piracy, and that may have been the case for traditional fishing fleets into modern times.

Unknown said...

Perfect Observation

I personaly think the first step of REALLY developing the solar system is to build an Orbital Fuel Depot and Spaceport, in the best case scenario connected to earth via Space Elevator. The Station will serve as an Spaceport(i.e. Transport Nexus),Spaceship Construction Facility,Fuel Depot, Space Hotel,Lab and Zero-G Manufacturing Plant. On the surface there will a floating Plattform in the Ocean, where seagoing ships from Luxury Cruisers, Helium-3 Tankers and Platinium Group Metal Container Ships will bring take Cargo and Personell.(i.e ANOTHER transport Nexus.)
Once cheap, efficent Transport exists between Surface and GEO, affordable Space development will beginn.
Near Asteroids are mined for Water(to be drunk,feed to Plants,be electrolised in Hydrogen and Oxygen to be burnt as Propellent and to be breathed by Astronauts respectivly) and Platinium Group Metals.
Luna´s Economy will be devided in the near side and the far side. The near side with its Apollo will become a popular tourist spot with its apollo landing sites, Lunar Golf Courts, Moonhotels, Roverracing tracks, while the far side will be dotted by automated Helium-3 Extraction facilitis
Mars will also become a transport nexus of its own,in case of a space elevator of its own.
Mining Metals both on the surface and on the nearby asteroid belt
and sendt to earth it will be mainly a industrial outpost and research colony,producing intellectuall Property,the most immportant thing in an Post-industrial economy(i.e. Silicon Valley IN SPACE)since you can synthesize almost anything you need on mars via in-situ resource utilization a lot of people will chose to stay,have children,grow old an die, others are just here for the money, waiting for the next hohmann transfer time window to open after 2,5 or 7 years, getting their paychecks on earth

Saint Michael said...

I have a vision of the populated Solar System being mostly space stations, for gravity reasons. Most planets and moons are deficient in gravity, and humans need a fair amount of it to stay healthy for more than a short duration.

There would be three major kinds of stations, call them Work Camps, Homesteads, and Travel Hubs.

Work Camps are generally mobile platforms around the outer moons, Belt, etc. The workers will of course mostly be robot drivers (or robot-repair-robot drivers) and technicians, military, and scientists. Expect "camp followers" and Amenities Ships to service them. See also Company Towns.

Homesteads are intentional communities of those who want to build their own ideal culture, preserve their own culture/values, or just Get Away From It All. These would prize self-sufficiency and probably develop an insular small town mentality. These kinds of communities will not be plausible until late in the game when Station-building gets relatively affordable. Even then, don't expect Space Amish. I suspect most of these settlements will fail for non-technical reasons.

Travel Hubs, of course, will be the big dogs. They will also be the most Mos Eisley-an, just as "down by the docks" is usually crime-ridden. Expect horseplay, shenanigans, and general hooliganism. Cyclers are related, but less overtly pirate-friendly.