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At the end of a recent movie, the hero wakes up in a space station which is probably only a few kilometers wide and generates gravity by rotating. In this station, kids are playing baseball.
It strikes me as implausible that baseball becomes a major sport in space stations because:

  • Requires a large volume (~100m*100m*50m)
  • At every one time, only ~2 players are running, the rest are walking or watching
  • Efficiency: 250,000 m³/active player

In comparizon, basketball is about as much fun, and is much more efficient in terms of physical activity / volume:

  • Small volume (~30m*20m*15m)
  • At every one time, ~5 players are in full action
  • Efficiency: 1,800 m³/active player

QUESTION: Pushing this reasoning to the extreme, what sports would be likely to be played in a space station where volume is scarce?

Additional requirements:

  • Physical and healthy
  • No virtual reality
  • No treadmills
  • Designed for team play
  • Fun to play and watch (at least it can be imagined that most people would enjoy it)
  • Not too sensible to pressure/temperature/gravity. The Space Olympics gather teams come from different stations with slightly different environments (no huge differences though, environment is rather similar to 2015 Ecuador).

Both existing sports and invented sports are OK, existing sports preferred.
Please try to calculate volume efficiency for each sport you suggest.

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  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Spoiler warning? $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Mar 9 '15 at 5:13
  • $\begingroup$ @DanSmolinske: Indeed! Fixed I think. $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Mar 9 '15 at 5:16
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, hitting a baseball on a rotating space station must be an interesting experience... $\endgroup$ – Tim B Mar 9 '15 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ The physics of baseball within a centrifugal-gravity station seem questionable as well. $\endgroup$ – Random832 Mar 9 '15 at 19:22
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    $\begingroup$ Pyramid, obviously! :) $\endgroup$ – Pål GD Mar 9 '15 at 22:05

13 Answers 13

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Tug of war:

At the very extremes, this can be played by teams of arbitrary size (although the rope strength must be sufficiently high to prevent injuries) Since each tugging team member is in close contact with their teammates, this will mean that the volume efficiency rises with the team size, up to a certain limit.

Assuming 10 vs 10 tug of war, the volume required is approximately $\frac{\text{2m*2m*20m}}{20}\text{=4m}^{3}$ per person. Even after adding spectators' stands, this probably has one of the lowest volume requirements.

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    $\begingroup$ If we build a stronger rope, we can add a lot more people. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 9 '15 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ If we build a longer rope, it can cross the centre of rotation, which might prove interesting as the other team lands on you when you win $\endgroup$ – Pete Kirkham Mar 9 '15 at 23:15
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Squash

  • Volume: 32ft * 21ft * 18.5ft = 12432ft3 ≈ 3790m3
  • 2 players at once minimum/4 players at once maximum
  • Volume efficiency: 1895m3 (singles) or 947.5m3 (doubles) per player

Spectators can watch through windows which will save space.

Fencing

  • Volume: 14m * 2m * 7m = 196m3
  • Two people on the strip at a time
  • Volume Efficiency: 98m3 per player

To save space with spectating, you can have a setup like squash where you watch through a window. You could also make this better by having more than two at a time. It could be a 10-person free-for-all. Of course you'd have to make the strip a bit bigger.

Dodgeball

  • Volume: 60ft * 30ft * 20ft = 36000ft3 ≈ 10970m3
  • 12 players are on the court at once (2 teams of 6)
  • Volume Efficiency: 914m3 per player

Once again, dodgeball can be watched through windows. Making bigger teams can the game more enjoyable as well as adding obstacles on the court.

I'll add more later when I think of them

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  • $\begingroup$ I remember a squash game on DS9 specifically; I always wondered why they were playing squash of all games, I guess the writers thought of the constraints of a space station for once :-) $\endgroup$ – k_g Mar 9 '15 at 5:41
  • $\begingroup$ Dodgeball: I would say 1218 rather than 914, as at any one point one of the sides have more-or-less only 1 player active, plus maybe 1 or 2 prisoners. $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Mar 9 '15 at 6:13
  • $\begingroup$ There are variants of swordfighting sports that are team-based; the one I know of is full-contact 5v5. $\endgroup$ – Mike L. Mar 9 '15 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ Note that Volleyball has basically the same parameters as Dodgeball above, and is generally more popular among adults. $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Mar 9 '15 at 17:31
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Water polo:

  • Volume 25m * 15m * (2m + 2m) = 1500m3 - middle sized pool, 2m of water, 2m of air
  • 14 players - 6 in field, 1 goalie at each team
  • Volume efficiency - 107m3 per player

Note that pool size is variable ranging from 10m * 20m to 20m * 30m giving efficiency of 57m3 and 171m3 respectively.

Added bonus is, that pool can be use for water storage and heat exchange for the reactors.

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  • $\begingroup$ Relevant: what-if.xkcd.com/29 $\endgroup$ – March Ho Mar 10 '15 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ As a former waterpolo player, this would have been my answer. I'm just unsure how they would keep the horses from drowning. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Mar 10 '15 at 19:49
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Roller Derby (and variants)

Arena size: 30m x 20m x 4m (seems a reasonable height) = 2400m3
Active players: 10
Efficiency: 240m3 / player

Here's a fast-paced team sport that seems well-suited for a space station. The arena size above is a typical Earth arena. In a space station, to conserve/recycle space, you could do away with the standard "oval" format. Wind the track around existing structures, make it a kilometer long, whatever. When it's not being used for the sport, it's a track that people can run/bike/skate on. Your station is going to have some sort of fitness track anyway, right?

Similar "team-based racing" could be done in a variety of different formats, with or without skates.

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  • $\begingroup$ Depending on the size of the ring, you could just make the track wend all the way around the ring. Even if it's only as big as the wheel in 2001 it'd still be plenty good. Wouldn't work as well for spectating, but you could have cameras all around... $\endgroup$ – aslum Mar 9 '15 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ @aslum Agreed. It might not work so well for roller derby in particular (since there won't be as much lapping), but for other race-type sports a longer track could be better. Racetracks in general are narrow, bendable, and multipurpose, so they could be fit in a lot of places. $\endgroup$ – Geobits Mar 9 '15 at 15:15
  • $\begingroup$ I like it. Welcome to the site Geobits. $\endgroup$ – James Mar 9 '15 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ @James Thanks! I've been lurking since it went public. You guys are strange :D $\endgroup$ – Geobits Mar 9 '15 at 15:28
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I'm sorry that I can't (yet) comment on other answers, so this is a standalone answer meant as a comment to the water polo answer.

Water polo in an oxygen-saturated perfluorocarbon pool. Would add more of a third dimension (even more volume-efficient?) and does not rely on gravity at all.

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    $\begingroup$ Basically Blitzball from FFX with a more realistic solution than players who can hold their breath indefinitely. I like it $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Mar 9 '15 at 21:21
  • $\begingroup$ Err... breathing the liquid everyone is exercising (sweating) in? I think I'll pass. But nice idea. ;-) $\endgroup$ – DevSolar Mar 10 '15 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ @DevSolar Not to mention, everyone pees in the pool. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 11 '15 at 13:27
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Well, for me, the first thing that comes to mind would be volleyball. A volleyball court is 18m by 9m, and sustains a playerbase of 12, having at minimum 2 players active at any one time. It also fulfills most of your other requirements though the 'fun' is subjective, and the gravity thing is vague (I think all sports would be susceptible to gravity fluctuations).

A more imaginative and definitely entertaining sport to watch would be, I think, group ping-pong. Think about nearly 8 people standing around a ping pong table trying to hit the ball without smacking into each other. Fun!

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  • $\begingroup$ The question asks about volume. Don't the ceilings need to be pretty high on a volleyball court? $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 9 '15 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @KSmarts: The rules require 7 m, but I recall that for international matches the ceiling needs to be at least 12 m high. $\endgroup$ – Raketenolli Mar 11 '15 at 9:24
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Designed for team play

Although I sense by team play you mean you are looking for a competitive sport where teams interact with each other I think stretching this requirement a little bit gives some interesting options.

Volume-efficient made me immediately think of Qigong – something very many people can take part in simultaneously. You might have seen the typical Qigong pictures of Asians practicing in parks.

Now this by no means qualifies as competitive. However, thinking of Irish dance – or dance in general – you can have competitions that are definitely interesting to watch. And well, you can compete with other teams. If you don't like dancing for some reason you could have competitions in synchronous walking – yes, that's a thing – or any other kind of "movement art" like gymnastics or – something typically American – cheerleading.


The sports I mentioned only have interaction within the teams if that is okay for you. But they have many advantages. For example:

  • you need no special equipment – no additional storage requirements
  • you need no dedicated spaces for them
  • they are scalable
  • they can be non-competitive if you want to – maybe you want to encourage harmony and unison
  • they have a very low risk of injuries

After all I think these are the kinds of sports you would be doing a lot on a space station.

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Boxing

Boxing rings are (according to some stats I found) around 6x6 meters, which means the volume needed per player is about 18m2 and the height is only limited by what is comfortable for the people using it, although I would make it about 3m high because otherwise people get claustrophobic. That gives a volume of about 54m3 per player.

You can probably fit in a whole bunch of other martial combat sports in the same ring. Since they are designed around the idea of the players being in direct contact, they automatically take up far less space than any sport that is based around players being far apart from one another.

However, although very compact in terms of area, most martial arts aren't directly designed to be played by teams. Changing the sport to allow multiple persons on each team might be very interesting.

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  • $\begingroup$ If using 6*6 meters strictly, let's replace ropes with padded walls. Team boxing sounds entertaining, and with good rules and fair judges it the real-sport equivalent of lucha libre. $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Mar 10 '15 at 8:47
  • $\begingroup$ You could go back in time and bring back a sports-version of mass combat. You could cram dozens of combatatants in a fairly small area. $\endgroup$ – Erik Mar 10 '15 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ I did a quick search, and it looks like most other combat sports require a little more space. Taekwondo has an 8x8 m combat area, and Judo is either 8x8 or 10x10. Wrestling has a 9m diameter circle. So, you could use a 10x10 meter ring for all these sports, but that's a little less space-efficient. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 11 '15 at 18:13
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I have a few ideas that haven't been mentioned yet.

Hockey

An ice hockey rink (by NHL rules, which we'll use since it's smaller than international rules) is 200 feet long and 85 feet wide, and has rounded corners with a 28 foot radius. This gives a floor area of about 16327 square feet, or 1517 m$^2$. It doesn't need to be very tall, so we can just give it a comfortable ceiling of 3 meters, for a volume of 4551 m3. Hockey is played with six people on the rink per team (penalties notwithstanding), so there are 12 people active at a time. This gives a space efficiency of about 380m3/player.

Track Cycling

The banked tracks for bicycle racing (velodromes) are specially built, with no strict dimension requirements that I could find, so I will use the parameters that I could find to make some estimates. By the rules used by the Olympics, the track is 250 meters long by a measurement near the inner edge. It is an oval, with two straights and two 180-degree curves. While the exact dimensions are not standardized, one measurement I found gave a 16.6 m radius for the curves, which gives straights that are about 73m long. Most tracks are 7 or 7.5 meters wide, and there is also a 4 meter wide safety zone on the inside of the track proper. Using these dimensions gives a surface area of about 3150 m2. (This does not include the center of track, which could be used for other purposes, though that would interfere with the spectator value.) A 3 meter height seems reasonable here, too, so that gives a volume of 9450 m3. This estimate is probably a little high because of the banked curves, but it's close enough for government work.

One advantage of a cycling track (or any type of track) is the variety of events it can host. There are two-person races or even one-person time trials, and both sprints and endurance races. This means that a track could be in use more often, making the space more time-efficient. This variety also includes the points race, which is a mass-start race involving a large number of riders. If we allow for 30 riders (the Olympic event has had as many as 28 participants, so this seems reasonable), then we get a potential space efficiency of 315 m3/rider. There are also "Madison" races, which are like tag-team racing. Again going by the Olympics, this can have as many as 36 riders, in teams of two. Since half of the racers are "resting" (but still riding) at any time, you might not allow this count. If you do, that improves the space usage to 262.5 m3/rider.

One other consideration is that reduced gravity could be to your benefit, allowing you to reduce the volume used by increasing the banking angle of track. Or, if closer to Earth-normal gravity, the inner safety zone could double as a running track when the bicycle track is not in use, giving more use to the same space.

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Regarding Interstellar, I believe the reason for baseball being shown was to show that they were living a similar life (minus the environmental issues) to what they had on Earth. And the use of baseball in the establishing scenes on Earth was meant to further the parallels the movie was drawing with the dust bowl (when baseball was by far the most popular team sport in the US).

Anyay, to answer the queston your requirement of team play knocks out a lot of good, space limited options (wrestling, raquetball, etc.). If doubles raquetball or badminton count as "team sports" they likely win due to their ability to be played in relatively small indoor spaces. Otherwise, there are a number of team sports on a roughly basketball sized court (basketball, futsal, volleyball, hockey, etc.) but not many played in a smaller area. Which makes sense, because for a sport to be "physical" it requires a certain amount of space for each competitor to move around in.

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  • $\begingroup$ What would be the efficiency for doubles badminton? $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Mar 9 '15 at 6:15
  • $\begingroup$ A badminton court is 6.1 x 13.4 m (but call it 15 so you have room to serve) for 90.1 m^2 for the court. Divide that by 4 and you get about 23 m^2 per player for doubles. Call it 5 m height needed to have reasonable clearance and that would give you about 115 m^3 per player. $\endgroup$ – Tom Anderson Mar 9 '15 at 7:04
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Quidditch

A quidditch pitch is 150 m long, 55 m wide and probably about 25 m high (highest goal at 15 m); the game has seven players moving more or less constantly on each side, even though the physical exercise is mostly carried out by flying brooms and not the players themselves. So this is not extremely volume-efficient at nearly 15 000 m³ per player, but I'm assuming that you could play in a smaller volume, and it does not rely on gravity at all. A zero-gravity environment would actually get you much closer to real-life quidditch!

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  • $\begingroup$ "Real-life quidditch". You know, the sport played by real-life wizards riding real-life magical broomsticks. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Mar 11 '15 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ @KSmarts: Well, yes. Your real-life 4 cm thick, 2 m long magical broomstick is full of Li-ion batteries totaling about 1 250 Wh of energy and a maximum power output of 1900 W. So you attach a propeller and fly around! $\endgroup$ – Raketenolli Mar 12 '15 at 13:01
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Basketball

This has already been mentioned, so I'll just mention the idea of an even more awesome variant Cylindrical Basketball, where the court actually wraps around in the 'crosswise' direction, and the hoops are equal heights above all parts of the court. Zero-G versions would be equally awesome. Obviously only feasible in space.

Football

...which Americans call soccer. Five-a-side and six-a-side games are played in spaces about the same size as a basketball court. Opportunity for really awesome ball control in low gravity and with Coriolis force to take advantage of.

Lacrosse

Only a little bigger in space requirements to basketball, and open to the same variations above.

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Video Games

I think this one wins with $2~\text{m}^3$ per player (for console games, $3~\text{m}^3$ for PC games).

The only requirement this falls afoul of is "physical and healthy" (or possibly "no virtual reality"). However, on a space station with extremely limited space, people would probably use dedicated excercise equipment.

"Fun to play and watch" is a matter of opinion; some people find gaming more exciting than any physical sport.

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  • $\begingroup$ This would certainly be an option if the requirements did not mention: 1) Physical and healthy 2) No virtual reality 3) No treadmills (your dedicated exercise equipment link is for a treadmill). I agree for the fun part, though. $\endgroup$ – Nicolas Raoul Mar 10 '15 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ @NicolasRaoul I did indeed forget about the "no treadmills" rule! This answer is mostly joking, though $\endgroup$ – 2012rcampion Mar 10 '15 at 2:43

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