# Keeping a retro style to sci-fi spaceships?

In my sci-fi world, mankind has begun colonization of the large asteroid Ceres. There are several established towns on the surface, but most of the population live underground in icy/rocky caves. The major industry is mining and exporting water-ice. Ceres is undergoing a rapid transformation from primitive mining backwater into a trade and refueling hub. It's becoming a focus point for belt mining, and a major supplier of water-ice and precious metals as mankind starts to explore the rest of the solar system. There are a few orbital fuel depots and repair facilities now, and large trading ships come and go frequently. Many see a chance to make their fortune by going to Ceres for a few years to try to strike it rich.

My story follows a pilot, who does short surface to orbit flights. He's a delivery boy basically. He's poor, with little opportunities, stuck in a dead-end job, working long hours for crappy pay, and he's doing it in a leaky, worn-out ship held together with duct tape. I am really trying for a realistic feel to everything, with one concession for style: I love retro tech! I want the spaceship cockpits to be filled with switches and levers, analog dials, and gauges, and I want to avoid computers, holograms, and anything high tech as much as possible. The ship is cobbled together from spare parts and ingenuity. Higher tech equipment can and do exist in my world, but just not on-board my protagonists spaceship.

How can I explain the lack of more modern, convenient technology? I want to focus on astro-navigation, where my protagonist flies with the use of a sextant, stopwatch, observations, and maybe a primitive computer to do basic orbital mechanics calculations. It's all seat-of-the-pants flying experience. A GPS satellite system seems likely and economically possible to build around Ceres at this point, but how do I explain that my pilot doesn't have a GPS receiver on board, or a laptop or tablet computer capable of drawing 3d orbital paths even? I wish to keep the description of the pilot character to an absolute neutral minimum, so no weird religious beliefs. He's an average Joe in all ways.

A good answer to this question will explain and support my stylistic decision to only have primitive mechanical instrumentation available on the protagonists spacecraft (think 1960s space tech level) in an otherwise future sci-fi scenario. Radio receivers are ok, as are radar and the kinds of instruments you'd find in a light aircraft cockpit, but I need a way to explain the absence of computers and screens. These things would likely be affordable even for the most humble of vehicles. So why are they not available here?

• Have you had a look at similar questions? There's plenty: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/97615/… – dot_Sp0T Apr 11 at 11:17
• The first question I would have is why would a human be out there doing this? That is a lot of mass spent on life support and keeping a meatbag alive for long periods of time when an automated system would be vastly more efficient and better in every way. Why pay an astounding premium price for human operations? If one had so much money they didn't care about cost but wanted some romantic notions of manned spaceflight, they would pay for safe and stable. – pluckedkiwi Apr 11 at 13:19
• I'd take a look at the Aliens franchise (mainly 1, 2, and Isolation) @Innovine. It's rooted in the 70s even though it's a futuristic setting. The equipment in those movies and game are probably the kind a vibe you're going for. If it's too advanced it's still a good look at the world building they did to make it still feel like the 70s – Celestial Dragon Emperor Apr 11 at 17:24
• You're going to have a major issue you're overlooking: is he going to be allowed to be piloting a refugee from the 1940s anywhere near anyone else? Consider the following: do you think NASA or Roscosmos would even consider allowing a ship piloted by that kind of dead-reckoning anywhere near the International Space Station? – Keith Morrison Apr 11 at 17:41
• My version of Ceres has a bit of a wild west goldrush feel to it. Sure, there are safety protocols and space regulations, on paper at least, but these are commonly violated. There's no effective police force. As long as you don't step on the toes of the large mining corporations it's anything goes. These pilots are dirty, smelly miners in their space diggers, not NASA's Right Stuff bravely going where no one has gone before. – Innovine Apr 12 at 5:56

## The licenses are too expensive

If there's mining on Ceres, it's probably run by big corporations. In an effort to control the colony and all activities in the belt, the corporations have introduced/lobbied for laws that strictly control space ships and all electronics with everlasting patents and costly licenses to allow use. These are ruthlessly enforced with EM-scanner equipped patrol ships.

After a number of ships were abandoned on Ceres with the owners jailed or executed for falling behind on payments, some enterprising colonists stripped out all patented electronics and replaced them with pre-patent tech. The corporations tried to outlaw that as well, but suffered a narrow defeat against the "right to fly" movement. That made the basic propulsion tech free to use for all.

Some years later, these free flyers have found a niche running odd jobs for corporations and private people unable to afford proper transport. Of course, they also provide a good deniable method of transporting things the corporations really don't want to be associated with...

The scenario can be modified to suit your taste:

• The protagonist might be the first or only one to have exploited the loophole.
• There could be tiers of technology licenses available, resulting in ships with varying levels of tech on board, from levers and vacuum tubes to screens to AI piloted ships.
• The use of EM-emissions scanners might be the primary means of detecting ships in the asteroid belt, since it's fairly easy to pretend you're an iron-rich rock when radar is looking at you. This gives smugglers and the protagonist a very good reason to go low-tech.
• since it's fairly easy to pretend you're an iron-rich rock when radar is looking at you if you have enormous liquid hydrogen tanks to get rid of excess heat without radiators, or you found a way to beat the laws of thermodynamics, that is. In the latter case, why are you scraping by in the Belt instead of literally ruling the entire System? – Eth Apr 11 at 15:52
• I would like to avoid trouble and conflict if possible, so I don't think stealth and threats are things to worry about. But the idea of prohibitively expensive software licensing by evil corporations (looking at you, adobe) is totally awesome :) – Innovine Apr 11 at 17:09
• This seems most plausible -- think of the practically infinite copyright and powerful DRM we have now, imagine a very slightly different universe with infinite patent. Or copyright on similar technologies. If you can't make it with the raw materials and factories on Ceres, it's probably expensive and licensed anyway, not much of a stretch to go to "pay your OMS license or it's remotely disabled". Choice between license and food...food wins, pilot figures out how to dead reckon in the low gravity environment. Nicely dystopian and a great warning to stop our current real-world DRM path! – madscientist159 Apr 12 at 2:29
• +1. Never have I ever patched together a quick and dirty kludge to replicate the functionality of a piece of licenced software. No sir. Not I. – Joe Bloggs Apr 12 at 7:31
• Look up articles about people cracking John Deer tractors because the DRM prevents cheap repairs or what caused the Boeing 737 Max crash and the software was omitted from the basic aircraft package. There are more than enough real world examples to make a retro spaceship believable from a cost/DRM free perspective. – Michael Shopsin Apr 12 at 18:30

Maximum security (or paranoia, if you prefer). Rightly or wrongly, your protagonist believes that someone might use more advanced technology as an avenue to take over the ship or otherwise do him harm. All the controls are manual so that no one can take command away from him. All of the data displays are analog so that no one can use them to figure out where he's going or where he's been. If he has a computer, it's just for crunching numbers and charting the odd orbital path (and doing his taxes) - when he arrives at a course, he makes sure to double-check it before entering it by hand.

Since you specify that you don't want this to be a personal eccentricity on the part of your pilot, you should figure out why he and/or his employer would be so worried. Maybe the government has a habit of spying on ships and seizing those involved in shady business. Or maybe they have some cutthroat competitors who wouldn't be above staging an "accident" if they had the means to do so.

• So rather like the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, which was originally saved by the Cylons due to it being older tech that they couldn't insta-hack? (2005 miniseries) – April Apr 11 at 15:07
• I don't know about hackers and directed attacks, but the idea of rampant and relentless virus attacks is pretty good! – Innovine Apr 11 at 17:12
• Any advanced technology that gets near a 'net node is instantly overcome by super advanced spam that bypasses any and all filters. Your ship is crashed by boner-pill adds popping up all over the HUD. – Brizzy Apr 12 at 3:24
• Personally, I would make the threat less pervasive and more personal. If the threat is pervasive - everyone's starships are at risk all the time - there's an extremely strong incentive to develop appropriate countermeasures. On the other hand, if this is something only a few people have to deal with regularly (people on the run from the law, or dealing with sketchy outlaw buyers) it's easier to just put up with the old machinery because there isn't such an economy of scale. – Cadence Apr 12 at 3:33
• @Cadence +1 It could still be a pervasive threat but there is an industry coming up with counter measures that people can purchase (e.g. just like with anti-virus software today). Its a bit of an arms race. But maybe the main character doesn't have the money to purchase Norton 3,100A or the means to maintain upgrading it. Old school tech is a fail-safe (from the perspective of hacking) one time buy. – B.Kenobi Apr 12 at 5:30

A computer screen takes power. A physical switch, on the other hand:

A) Can display its state with no power needed
B) Provides physical feedback when used, or can be checked by touch when looking at something else
C) Can't suffer from a glitched display showing the wrong information

That physical "clunk" of disabling exterior vents before exiting atmosphere is reassuring. A weedy "beep" doesn't have quite the same tactile response.

Also - have you ever tried looking out of a window at night, from a brightly lit room? When trying to avoid crashing into another spacecraft, you don't want the viewport to be covered in a bright reflection of your monitor.

As for GPS? Well, GPS can be spoofed, and some of the cargo he delivers is valuable to other parties. This lack of reliance on GPS is one of the reasons that your character is seen as a safe and secure transportation method

• The only problem with this is that GPS(GLOBAL Positioning System) can't be used in interplanetary space. There may be some other kind of positioning system, and radar would be fairly common, but GPS as we know it currently is a no-go. – Dawnfire Apr 11 at 19:54
• @Dawnfire, GPS can be used, if you can receive the signal. Admittedly, Ceres is a bit far away and the lack of angular distance between satellites means you won't get much accuracy, but using GPS from the lunar nearside is certainly practical. – Mark Apr 11 at 20:31
• @Dawnfire Ceres is a globe. The question suggested that there were positioning satellites in orbit around it. It might be on a different frequency to the Earth GPS though – Chronocidal Apr 11 at 22:03
• I assume a bunch of satellites in orbit around Ceres, providing GPS-like functionality. – Innovine Apr 12 at 5:52

Love the answers so far! One option I haven't seen yet, though, relates to the nature of Ceres as an environment, both physically and economically.

Because of Ceres' low gravity, you don't need to make a ton of complex calculations: you can escape the gravity well pretty easily with a minimum amount of fuel. On our world, we think of getting to orbit as more complicated than flying a plane, but that's because Earth's escape velocity is so large that it takes a lot of work to get there. On Ceres, though, things aren't nearly so difficult.

Basically, to go from surface to orbit, all your protagonist needs is the spaceship version of a rowboat.

As such he doesn't need a lot of bells and whistles. He's basically in an airtight room with some thrusters attached. Everything can mostly be eye-balled, so just point your nose towards the blinking light and press the gas pedal. No need for computers, and in such a situation, you don't want a bunch of displays; something dead simple, easy to repair, and with hardwired redundant systems will win the day every time.

Around Ceres, all those electronics would merely be a distraction.

Now, why doesn't he have at least a smartphone? Why can't he use GPS? Simple: economics.

The OP says that computers and screens and such are cheap even for the humblest of craft in his universe, which I think may not be an accurate assumption (remote areas have to import everything, which makes everything expensive – all the more so fancy electronics), but for the sake of argument, let's just concede the point.

Even if he has a smartphone, it may not be terribly useful. From a smartphone maker's perspective, Ceres is not what you'd call a 'large market.' Why, then, should you mass produce devices that work in the Ceres environs? Rich people will pay you to make custom versions with high precision scans of Ceres and all the other inhabited asteroids, custom features, and AI flight controls; they can probably make a ton of money outfitting space yachts. But to do that for some asteroid dweller who can barely afford food? Why even bother.

Maybe, even, he has a smartphone, and it can pick up GPS signals. Unfortunately for him, though, Google Maps is made for earth, not Ceres, because, again, not enough of a market for that. As such, it doesn't even have a map of the surface, let alone being able to locate you on or around it.

So, to sum up:

1. He's driving a space rowboat.
2. Most of the spaceflight he's doing can be eyeballed
3. Electronics in his price range aren't helpful, and are probably just distracting.
• Not sure that reasoning would convince me on its own, but it works well in combination with other answers. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Apr 11 at 15:39
• I am fascinated by the idea of eyeballing the flight. You're right; I'm completely used to the gravity well around earth, and was thinking of navigating in those terms. Around Ceres, is it enough to just fly point-to-point in straight lines??? this changes everything if so. my engines will be hydrogen peroxide, I've not done delta-v calculations yet but I assume they will have quite a bit... maybe this calls for a new question?! – Innovine Apr 11 at 17:25
• The gps system would become available around ceres as many large, expensive mining craft start using the space. – Innovine Apr 11 at 17:29
• @RutherRendommeleigh could you tell me more? Always looking to improve my answers! I have to agree that the econ argument is a little on the weaker side, is that what you were talking about? Would love your input! – Elliot Schrock Apr 11 at 17:47
• @StarfishPrime what's becoming increasingly clear to me is that things like suicide burns are not required. That's a fuel-saving move, and isn't of much concern here. With a radar rangefinder, range rate, and knowledge of the acceleration the engine can do, you can continuously predict the velocity at the touchdown point. Should give the pilot plenty of time to brake on the way down, and know when he's approaching a point where even full thrust the rest of the way will produce a hard landing (or crater) – Innovine Apr 12 at 5:49

Trying to go in a different direction here, I would suspect the reason to use analogue equipment and jury rigging is that the space environment is seriously hard on digital equipment.

There are no fabs or chip factories on Ceres or anywhere else outside of Earth because the vibrations from launching manufacturing equipment into orbit seriously degrades the equipment. Optical masks no longer are in alignment, which makes building chips to micron level precision impossible, for example. Similar effects happen to high end 3D printers and other advanced forms of manufacturing. Once you are on the Moon and beyond, the only way to make "new build" equipment is to use industrial techniques from the mid 20th century-lathes, milling machines, welding, riveting...locally sourced electronics are vacuum tube for many of the same reasons.

Because the size and weight of industrial equipment, very few machines are actually being shipped to orbit, so you have the bottleneck of either buying bespoke items built and tested on Earth, then launched into space for you, or hard pressed machine shops with limited amounts of equipment needed to actually build or repair your stuff on Ceres. This would also explain why you actually need humans doing things, buying bespoke robots from Mitsubishi and boosting them into orbit and then to Ceres would be extremely costly, while humans are still far better at general purpose work and can switch jobs in a heartbeat or train to do now jobs long before a new robot can be delivered.

So there would be a huge dichotomy between the very wealthiest of people and companies, which can afford to have everything build on Earth and delivered to them, and everyone else who is essentially using the town blacksmith to build things.

This state of affairs isn't going to last forever. The tools are being used to build new tools in a geometric progression, and eventually it will be possible to make chip fabs or 3D printers on the spot, but this might take decades due to the small base they are starting with (a few machinists and a handfull of tools), and the fact the industrial base is fully engaged already with keeping the existing infrastructure going. At a meta level, you could ask yourself if factions on Earth are deliberately exacerbating the situation to wring the most profit from the space colonies.

• This is actually quite interesting, and I'm curious to see what others think of it. We already can launch laptops into orbit though, so I don't think getting some to Ceres would damage them. I also suspect that equipment would travel to Ceres if it meant more precious metals being returned. However, I love the idea of locally sourced manufacturing being kind of primitive, and a wealth disparity with those who can afford the fancy import products, these are very useful ideas for me! – Innovine Apr 11 at 21:18
• This would be the science behind my answer if I made one. The reasons being that we've perfected cryosleep and anti-radiation meds. He wakes up every ~200y to do his thing. By year 600, half of the stuff wouldn't work anymore... 50% is pretty far from a minimum safety factor of 4. That's a no-go, Flight. – Mazura Apr 12 at 1:57
• @Innovine We can launch laptops to orbit, but we can't launch laptop factories to orbit. In an economically-driven space world, components launched from Earth are going to cost orders of magnitude than things made in space. If you're an average Joe, are you going to use a \$100,000 GPS module from Earth, or the$500 analog altimeter made by Steve down the next-door crater? – Skyler Apr 12 at 14:25
• "There are no fabs or chip factories on Ceres or anywhere else outside of Earth because the vibrations from launching manufacturing equipment into orbit seriously degrades the equipment. Optical masks no longer are in alignment, which makes building chips to micron level precision impossible..." I couldn't disagree more. Lithography tools could definitely get bumped out-of-alignment with transport, but that's true here on Earth too. So what happens? You realign everything once you've installed it to it's new location. Zero-G space would actually be ideal for the semiconductor industry. – LetEpsilonBeLessThanZero Apr 14 at 0:10
• I feel like your comment is half-right, with respect to the science involved. If machinery is being damaged by transit, the obvious solution is to build it in situ. However, there are other factors that would make microchip fabrication an onerous task. Chip fabrication benefits greatly from economies of scale, but the basic equipment and even the sterile, vibration-free factory environment is resource-intensive to build. Also, while silicon would be plentiful on Ceres, the energy needed to refine microchip-grade silicon would be scarce that far from the sun. So chips would surely be expensive. – Skatche Apr 14 at 7:52

Fashion. The driving force behind this in real life.

The retro movement over the past decade or so has produced many modern cars that have been specifically designed to look old. While they've stopped short of actually using outdated technology (I've yet to see a new MINI with a choke cable), I wouldn't underestimate the power of fashion.

That's just mainstream releases from large manufacturers. There's also a growing industry producing essentially brand new examples of classic cars (with only select upgrades).

• If you have oodles of money, Eagle will produce for you an updated (but still thoroughly antiquated) E-Type, as will Jaguar themselves (using unregistered chassis numbers from their low-drag project in the 60s).
• Singer will similarly liberate you of a small fortune and produce what amounts to a brand new and thoroughly modified classic Porsche 911.
• Pur Sang in Argentina will even manufacture for you a completely ground-up Bugatti Type 9 or Alfa Romeo 8C to entirely original interwar specifications.
• If you're not an oil baron (but still not wanting for cash), Frontline Developments will manufacture for you a brand new MGB (again, with suitable upgrades).

A similar, or even more exaggerated retro movement at some point in the future could well lead to spaceships being designed using retro technology. 'Evoke the feeling of the first spaceborne pioneers', or some other marketing line ;)

Of course, yours being a rickety bucket I expect it isn't one of the megabucks retromods. Perhaps your protagonist owns the spaceship equivalent to a PT Cruiser (shudder)...

• There was a John Varley story which had a spaceship which looked like a Jules Vernes creation, and this was due entirely to the owner's willingness to spend a small fraction of the base price on aesthetics. As she put it, "There's no real necessity for a ship to look like a hatrack f**king a Christmas tree." – WhatRoughBeast Apr 11 at 17:52

The ship was originally built for an eccentric bajillionaire who wanted it steampunk classy theme. With everything custom made over the years all repairs have been jury rigged temporaryish solutions that just never got fixed properly if they even could since the bajillionaire is long dead and gone.

• I figured someone would have already written up the answer I had in my head. That was you. :-) – Cyn Apr 11 at 14:13
• I think this unusual retro custom styling would be quite expensive and luxury, not run-of-the-mill – Innovine Apr 11 at 17:14
• No engineer actually understands how everything works, they've fixed individual issues over time but there's a dial marked 'Boogy Gauge' and a switch labelled 'Serendipity' that no one actually knows the purpose of. – Kilisi Apr 11 at 20:51

Retro fitting a space ship with more modern systems is a nightmare.

This holds true already on existing systems. Look at the Space Shuttle or at some airplane or car designed in the late 70es: you will hardly find modern stuffs, even though the whole assembly is still used today (or until few moments ago for the Space Shuttle).

If the thing works fine and there are no major issues, it is simply convenient to let it run as long as it can and not spend money in upgrading it. This would especially fit your character:

He's poor, with little opportunities, stuck in a dead-end job, working long hours for crappy pay, and he's doing it in a leaky, worn-out ship held together with duct tape. I am really trying for a realistic feel to everything, with one concession for style: I love retro tech! I want the spaceship cockpits to be filled with switches and levers, analog dials, and gauges, and I want to avoid computers, holograms, and anything high tech as much as possible. The ship is cobbled together from spare parts and ingenuity.

• Yeah but a gps receiver in a phone isn't a particularly complex retrofit, yet would make his life so much easier. It's probably even life-saving. – Innovine Apr 11 at 8:59
• @Innovine, my first mobile was an Ericson GA628. I doubt that it would be able to take in a GPS with low cost modification (starting from the unfit screen). – L.Dutch Apr 11 at 9:02
• Yes but we're talking about the colonization of Ceres now, not the 1980s. – Innovine Apr 11 at 9:34
• @L.Dutch I'm pretty certain you could cobble something together that would text you some coordinates. Could probably hack the contact-details-over-IR protocol to do a similar thing ;-) – Starfish Prime Apr 11 at 20:36
• My problem with this answer is that, unless he stole an original Space Shuttle from a museum, even the oldest, most basic model of spaceship the guy could have acquired would have been made in an era when commercial interplanetary travel was a thing. The stock systems might be ancient compared to the state of the art, but they'd be way more advanced than what we have today, let alone a stopwatch and sextant. Also, why not just buy a standalone GPS nav and stick it in the cockpit like we do used to do with older cars? No retrofitting needed. – Ruther Rendommeleigh Apr 12 at 13:10

## It’s an Accessability Option

The aliens or robots or whoever this ship was really designed for have a fancier way of piloting it, but humans don’t have built in wi-fi or telepathy or the ability to see ultraviolet. Fortunately, there’s a backup system of switches and gauges. It was thrown in only because it had to be, but it’s the lowest-common-denominator every species can use. Not everyone can see the same colors, but everyone can tell that a button is lit or unlit.

## It’s the Emergency Backup

The ship came with “manual” overrides, but was never intended to be flown that way on purpose. In fact, a ship with no working computer would be sold for scrap.

## It Only Looks Primitive

There’s a computer in the spaceship; it’s just accessed through an analog interface because that’s how people like it.

## It’s Simple and Reliable

Mechanical fire-control problems were a solved problem decades before space flight.

## If You Made It too Easy, Any Idiot Would Do It

The real danger isn’t human reaction time, or that somebody will fail to enter the right coordinates with his life on the line. Space flights are long and boring, and mostly an exercise in Newtonian mechanics.

It’s letting anybody get into a spaceship and say, “Plot a Course for Mars.” Making people perform the basic steps manually guarantees that only pilots who understand the basic principles of space flight can get themselves into trouble.

• Actually, just having broken equipment on board is a quite creative solution :) – Innovine Apr 12 at 12:21

## (Really) bad spaceships can only carry robust devices

The ship is cobbled together from spare parts and ingenuity.

Imagine the engine is good enough to allow surface to orbit flight, but the hull is at the "handwork" level. As a consequence, all devices on board undergo sever shocks and vibrations. Modern electronic components would be able to endure it for a while, but would suffer frequent breakdowns on the long term. Your character is poor, and can't afford to replace his devices on a regular basis.

Then, he has to go for technologies less subject to vibrations. He can't afford pieces of electronics dedicated to these special conditions. The only (cheap) possibility for him is to use old-fashioned wires and switches.

Realistically, he would have a GPS receiver though. But for the same reason, he cannot entirely rely on it. So, in case of breakdown, he gets in the habit of computing his position and trajectory himself using basic technology. He just uses the GPS to check his results.

........................................................................................................................................................

You can say that he used to employ modern and convenient technology, but had to change his mind over time for these reasons. You can also imagine that one day he almost died because of a GPS failure, which would explain why he only trust "sextant, stopwatch, observations" and his own calculations.

• Solid state electronics are less at risk to shock and vibration (assuming proper construction can mounting) than purely mechanical linkages and systems which, by definition, have to move and thus suffer from issues like structural fatigue. Electronics built into artillery shells can withstand over 15,500 g of acceleration. – Keith Morrison Apr 11 at 22:37
• Right, but isn't the "retro-tech" he mentions all about "solid state electronics"? An even bigger amount of metal is allocated to weldings, compared to miniaturised devices. – Argemione Apr 12 at 10:57
• if there are manual controls and switches and dials by definition everything can't be welded solid because things have to move, and those things create mechanical weaknesses to vibration and shock. – Keith Morrison Apr 12 at 14:56

Maintainability You can replace a lot of switches with a touchscreen and it will save you cost but if your touchpad fails you basically have to buy a new one. If you have switches you can possibly rewire them so that the dysfunctional ones are on non-vital systems. You can also replace them individually which might not makes sense in a proper cost-benefit analysis but might be the only option for people with money problems.

User experience You can replace a keyboard with a touchpad but touch typing is almost impossible. I don't know what kind of user interfaces people could eventually get used to but there is definitely a benefit to having simple, tactile things.

Cost At least this holds for holograms. Since we don't know how to make them yet, it might still be difficult and therefore costly in your future.

Admittedly, none of those will justify the absence of even a basic computer.

Radiation Or a similar phenomenon. It doesn't actually prevent electrons from going to and fro but it induces sufficient fluctuations that complicated electronic components get fried. Of course the rich people have 5 levels of fall-back systems to check each others results and enough shielding to not even need it. There might be an issue with this being a problem for humans, too. I have no clue bodies work. :p

Sextant Just to point this out, I don't think a Sextant would be a good device for your runner in any case. If you want a mechanical navigation device you can and probably have to devise something better with modern techniques. Even if it's purely mechanical.

If your protagonist is only making trips from Ceres to surrounding stations he might also be able to fly by sight and not need a sextant in the first place. After all, a sextant tells you where you are. Given a fast enough ship you don't have to verify your position between leaving from a point which you already know and having sight of your destination.

• I was also thinking radiation, but unfortunately there isn't much there near Ceres. I originally used Europa for this, and the radiation and magnetism from Jupiter, plus a bit of handwaving, was enough to explain away microchips and computers for me, but around Ceres it's mostly just empty space... – Innovine Apr 11 at 12:20
• @Innovine : The engines might be old and decrepit and might leak some EM radiation inside the cockpit? – Calin Ceteras Apr 11 at 15:23
• That's a great idea, but would enough EM to stop computers working be fatal to a pilot? – Innovine Apr 11 at 17:16
• Regarding the sextant, orbital time around Ceres is similar to low earth orbit, like 90mins or a bit more. The gemini astronauts used a handheld sextant (among other tools) when performing a rendezvous, to verify the relative positions and rates of change of the vehicles. That's exactly what I want to do, although maybe the sextant can be built into the ship, like the one on Apollo. It also does not need to be the primary tool. Navigation beacons on the surface would also be available from time to time but if the receiver breaks, a sextant would be welcome – Innovine Apr 11 at 17:19
• Even using the available medical innovations, pilots operating in such a radiation-rich environment would die young, reaching at most 150 years old. – joeytwiddle Apr 12 at 9:31

He doesn't need it

Ceres has a diameter of less than 1000km. Even at plane speeds, you can orbit it in a few hours. If he has been flying long enough, he knows the landmarks. If the settlers installed an artificial magnetosphere to protect against solar storms, he could use a completely non computerised compass to navigate.

Whilst you might call it a "spaceship" it's not going interplanetary so it really doesn't need computers, navigation, life support (beyond basic heating) or any electronics. It's little more than a glorified space bus. It will only be out of port a few hours so already contains enough air. Portable scrubbers and spare O2 tanks can be added for longer trips if needed or an emergency one in case of a break down.

Any further navigation needed can be done via a directional antenna. He sets the radio to the control tower of the destination and rotates the antenna for the best signal and then heads in the direction of the antenna. One dial to set the station and a crank to turn the antenna and you have your direction.

Your protagonist is still driving around in a "first gen" spaceship.

This would be roughly equivalent of taking really good care of your car built in 1976 and still being able to drive it today even after 500,000+ miles.

• New spaceship models come out every year, but your protagonist still prefers using what he already has.
• He doesn't need any fancy tech to travel in space, because that fancy tech didn't exist when humans explored space (in this story's universe). He prefers the 'manual transmission' of spaceships.
• Most parts on his ship have been replaced at one point or another, making many trips to the space junkyard to keep his ship in working condition.
• Your protagonist has extensive knowledge on the mechanics of his spaceship, since he's spent significant amounts of time replacing parts (and using duct tape).
• Do drivers of vintage cars use paper maps, or do they have their phone with them? – Innovine Apr 11 at 20:48
• They drive from memory, most of the time. May get spoken route information for a new location. (Traditionally: Go left at this pub, right at that one and keep going till you see the spire of that church.) – Willeke Apr 13 at 19:40

## It's how it all started and there was no good reason to change.

Every last piece of equipment had to be shipped over from earth. Between the distance and the tyranny of the rocket equation, the hardware had to be reliable, and field repairable, because replacement parts were six months (plus the wait for the next launch window) and fifty million bucks away.

Most of this initial delivery of equipment was purely mechanical, because integrated circuits are impossible to fix without clean rooms and other heavy and fragile items that take up cargo space and may themselves be DOA, leaving the crew to die.

The gravity of Ceres is low enough to make manual orbital rendezvous a possibility; while the procedure was by no means easy, it was still vastly preferable over being stuck on Ceres because the automated shuttle is broken. So the first shuttles were manual, and have been used and fixed with duct tape ever since.

Sure, the settlement has grown since those early days, but that pioneer spirit of "if hitting it with a wrench doesn't fix it, we don't need it" and "keep your toys, we're working" lives on. Why replace a perfectly good manual ore truck with an automated one made by some tech valley nerds on earth for whom their closest experience with a space habitat is the local Starbucks? They don't know what the colony even looks like.

Some traces of technology have been showing up lately, but no one is in a particular hurry to use them other than maybe reps from earth who can't live without their creature comforts.

Things like those GPS satellites, which turned out to slowly creep out of alignment due to a magnetic anomaly the miners knew about because none of the highly paid software consultants bothered to ask them about the local hazards, ending up overreporting altitude by some 500 feet. After a new automated landing craft came in for a supersonic landing at 400 feet, the miners decided they didn't want to trust their lives to this electronic garbage and continued to fly their old manual barges using their own functional eyes. Sure, they say it's fixed now and can totally be trusted. Yeah right.

### You can't, because seat-of-the-pants flying doesn't happen for orbital mechanics.

You're misunderstanding just how sophisticated the 1960s tech was.

There's a reason that after NASA had selected America's best pilots and put them in spaceships, they ran those spaceships on precalculated trajectories with no manual intervention. The reason is that the maths behind orbital mechanics is hard, and trajectories over distances where you can't see the other side are not something which can be done by intuition. The astronauts' skill was only required for the final touchdown of the lander on the surface of the Moon and for connecting the lunar module back up to the command module - everything else was calculated for them by a team of some of the country's best engineers and mathematicians. That's how the 1960s technology worked.

Even with sailing ships, the maths to follow the shortest distance between two points on a sphere is notoriously tricky; and similarly the maths to work out your location from a sextant sighting. It's the reason navigation was a skilled job for officers, because it needed a serious level of maths skill. It's easier these days when we have electronic calculators, but you still need to know what you're doing. And that's just for going round a sphere.

For sure, if you've got a computer then it can work out the trajectory for you. In which case you can program the 1960s tech with the trajectories which your computer comes up with - and then set it going and sit tight until you arrive at the other end. If you haven't got a computer, you can spend a week doing the calculations for your trajectory - then program it, set it going, etc..

As with the Apollo landings, the only seat-of-the-pants element is with the final approach and landing. The rest of it is all maths, and very hard maths at that.

• Yes, but I'm not writing a non-fiction documentary here. Check the name of this stackoverflow group. Flying a ship has become so commonplace in my world that it's become like bush pilots or crop dusters. Have a few beers, hop in the ship, do a few cargo runs. Also, FYI, the APollo astronauts did their own manual position checks from onboard the spacecraft, and compared these to the position estimates derived from radio dopplar measurements and ground observations, and ground orbital simulations. They compared very well. – Innovine Apr 11 at 20:03
• One other thing, orbiting around Ceres is utterly unlike orbiting in Earths gravity well. Fuel efficiency isnt even remotely a concern as it's almost zero g anyway. I am starting to think its possible to just point the ship where you wanna go and hit the gas, travelling in a straight line, pretty much. Not sure theres very hard maths involved there. – Innovine Apr 11 at 20:04
• A lot of the whole "flying in a straight line would be more efficient" thing comes from some misunderstandings about orbital dynamics. Ceres itself doesn't have all that much gravity, but the fact that its orbiting around the sun is very important, and comes with all the weird quirks that the Apollo astronauts had to learn, like the fact that thrusting against where you're going causes you to speed up. Let me stress: you cannot properly reach an orbit around just about anything just by eyeballing it. This is even more the case when talking about intercept courses. The math behind it is hard. – Dawnfire Apr 11 at 20:18
• @Innovine Hell, if you really want to try it, get a copy of Kerbal Space Program and practice around one of the lighter planets. Not entirely accurate, but still gets you a ballpark answer of how hard it would be. – Dawnfire Apr 11 at 20:27
• No, i mean eyeballing it by looking out the window. If you need the map to orbit minmus you need help. – Innovine Apr 11 at 20:50

There has been a serious problem with rogue AIs and a human-machine war that humans barely won (possibly leaving Earth a blasted wasteland). As a result all advanced computation devices (basically anything programmable) have been banned.

Tl: DR: Electronics can be hacked, humans can't. Humans are greedy, a series of incidents forces governments and corporations alike to start using more and more human-piloted craft to prevent theft and terrorist attacks. A single drone that is hijacked (during it's mining operation for example) will be catastrophic if it rams an orbital station or a colony. The cost/effectiveness of using pilot instead of drones rises and might be made mandatory.

Long version:

"Today Mining corporation X reported the disappearance of 2 of it's supply ships. This is a disturbing continuation of the trend with the 4 disappearances that happened earlier this month. Mining corporation X has accused Mining corporation Y of theft, although if these allegations will ever reach court is doubtful..."

"Mining corporation Z suffered a malfunction in one of it's mining ships, causing it to ram their orbital station with great loss of life and materiel. Shortly before the incident a strong external signal was detected that is suspected to have hijacked the ship, causing it to lose contact with it's controllers. Spokesmen of Corporation Z have issued their condolences along with open threats to the other corporations..."

"To safeguard the international community and trade in space the UN has voted with a large majority that all spaceships should be manned during their flight, so that further drone incidents can be averted. Too little too late according to many of the families who have lost loved one's in the brutal competition gain a mining monopoly. Most of the corporations had already started employing manned ships. The cold statement issued by some of these corporations was simply that the costs of life support and fuel outweighed the potential for theft and destruction a single ship represented..."

"The United armed forces are to patrol space and seek out any drone vessle they can find. After two incidents where an unknown mining corporation used unmarked drone ships to destroy large portions of a surface colony and an orbital station. Any ship that looks like it is controlled automatically will be investigated and if need be destroyed. Protesters fear for the quality of life of the pilots that are often stuck for months in a small space. Drones could easily try to emulate human pilots causing a high risk that piloted ships might show up as a false-positive due to it's many electronics. This has prompted the mining corporations to reduce the amount of electronics pre-emptively, severely reducing the quality of life of it's occupants..."

• I like how you start with "humans can't be hacked" and then segue immediately into "humans are greedy" ;-) – Starfish Prime Apr 11 at 20:45

Extrapolating from current-day technology, I'd suggest that in your future scenario, hacking and spam may have escalated to nigh-unimaginable pains in the ass. Virtually every electronic system may be so infected with spyware, viruses, and advertisements that nobody dares rely on it. Some of the worst malware may be written by pranksters to activate at the worst possible moments, e.g. in the last half-second before landing rockets fire to make a safe landing. It wouldn't take too many incidents like that before people started to study how to make their own calculations and rely on the computers as little as possible.

For realism, I would avoid the (2nd) Battlestar Galactica scenario where evil robots hack our computer systems to disable and destroy our ships; it's much more depressingly realistic to imagine a self-induced apocalypse of advertisements, malware, porn, and spam consuming the Internet from within.

• Depressingly realistic is the key thing here, absolutely :) – Innovine Apr 11 at 17:55

Robustness, redundancy, parts flexibility, system visibility, and human control:

You're in space, you have limited resources, and small mistakes mean you die. - Are You going to trust that a programmer sitting in a cubical back in earth actually double checked his math before punching out on his last day at the company?

Build the controls out of small and highly task specific modules with limited functionality coverage - These have been tested for decades, and we know what they do. [This is part of why we're still sending 486 era, and even older, hardware designs to space.]

Things like touch screens and complex computer systems are delicate, and not flexible in how they're fit together - while you could cram all the controls into something the size and weight of a small smart phone, fixing it [or spotting faults] in something like that would be difficult. And faults are deadly. - Much like we can build "All glass" cockpits in aircraft today that controls all functionality from a single screen, we still typically fill a cockpit with an array of dials and switches - Because dials and switches don't disappear if a single power cable to the one screen has a fault.

And why take manual navigation measurements in place of trusting the 'GPS' [or space positioning system? Orbit positioning system?] - Treat it like some seasoned sailors still do: A handy tool that aids the manual measurements rather than replaces it.

Make it a cultural norm to simply not place blind faith in such a system, possibly to the point that pilots even just leave them behind to save on mass and energy usage.

• Going to split comments up for individual issues.... As a software engineer who used to specialise in safety-related, no you don't trust any engineer. You trust the well-engineered process which ensures you need multiple failures by multiple people in order for the bug to get out. You trust the multiple redundant devices with multiple redundant sensors, which may even have been designed by separate teams. When screw-ups happen (737-MAX8) they're bad, which is why procedures are so tight and screw-ups are so rare. – Graham Apr 13 at 1:21
• Re the old hardware, you're right but for the wrong reason. The issue is rad hardening. The smaller the transistors, the easier it is for random radiation to corrupt the state of memory. Older hardware is more robust that way. However new kit is cheaper, so astronauts these days just take regular laptops and bring spares for when one dies. The other reason of course is that Soyuz is still in service, and the Russians haven't been able to update its systems, not because they don't want to but simply because there's no money. – Graham Apr 13 at 1:26
• Re dials and switches, that's a misconception. Whilst cockpits still have dials, these days they're driven by a computer - they don't come directly from a sensor. Sensors fail, and cables fail. The weight of cables on older planes at one cable per sensor was crazy - and if there's a major fault (DC-10) then you tend to lose them. Going digital and networking your plane makes it way more reliable, and a computer can automatically cross-check sensors to flag up which ones look faulty and can't be relied on. The old dials are just kept because they're a convenient way to display information. – Graham Apr 13 at 1:34
• @Graham do you have something USEFUL add to IMPROVE the answer? Original question asked for how to achieve a look and feel that stretched beyond probable reality... – TheLuckless Apr 13 at 1:39
• Your "seasoned sailors" presumably aren't leaving sight of land. Once you're over the horizon, navigation is hard, just on the sea. That's where Harrison's chronometer saved countless lives by letting you work out where you actually were - and even with a chronometer the maths wasn't that easy, and the place you were going wasn't moving. In space, it's even harder to work out position and direction in 3-D with star sights - and then you have to hit your destination which is also moving in 3-D, and then allow for gravity. Rather rely on a computer to calculate that? I know I would. – Graham Apr 13 at 1:46

The just don't make them like they used too (It's a pitch for marketing): Sure, it ain't your daddy's ship. Hell, your grandpappy's ship probably had more tech than this. Heck, I have some gizmos on here that run on Fortran code (for you non-computer geeks out there, Fortran is a programing language and a lot of the code on the Space Shuttle was written in Fortran. It was a legacy lanugage (meaning you only really need to know it if you have to maintain old programs running on it) well before the shuttles were retired.). But I know my girl... she can put down and blast off with the best of them shiny ships... and half the price too... they charge you for the fancy gizmos my girl don't got cause they don't need them. To my mind, pretty and shiny don't mean much when your in the business of getting something from surface to sky and sky to surface.

The just don't make them like they used too (It's true as well): Provided you have the parts available (that's where you can have some trouble) or machined for cheap, it's usually easier to fix old tech than it is to fix new tech. Most early cars are rather simple in mechanics and can be fixed reasonably well on the cheap and on the fly. A modern car will need a laptop coumputer to calibrate all the computers that are controlling things humans couldn't for maximum efficiency. Not to mention, a lot of tech does have several generations of backwards compatibility with older equipment because if the parts are no longer made. the users will go to competators, especially if they can afford a fix but not an upgrade to the whole.

It takes a Lickin' but Keeps on Tickin': Look up the USAF A-10 "Warthog" plane... it's an old airplane (the company that made them no longer exists), and an ugly one at that (A common joke is that the A-10 flies by engaging gravity in a staring contest until gravity runs away in terror of the ugly plane). It also made successful missions (meaning it went flying, killed the adversary... and landed with the pilot in a reasonable state of alive) with 80% of it's total wingspan shot up, an engine faliure, the complete loss of it tail. It even survived retirement plans by the airforce... twice! As it should, because it's primary job flying low enough to the ground to kill tanks. It's first flight was in 1972 and it's now believed that the end of it's lifespan will occur in the 2040s... proudly serving in the USAF for 70 years.

Similarly, do to the cost of making them, ships in the navy (especially the U.S. Navy) are built with life spans measured in decades. Again, in the U.S. Navy, a fully Nuclear Carrier force became a thing only in the early 00s, when the last conventional powered carrier was retired... ships from World War II were serving as late as the Gulf War in the early 90s. The U.S.S. Enterprise is the third longest serving U.S. Naval ship, retired within the current decade (the Constitution, one of the original 8 ships of the U.S. Navy, is still "active duty" though ceremonially only and the U.S.S. Pueblo hasn't been decommissioned officially because it's still held as a captured ship by North Korea). Suffice to say, your hero's ship might be built to last and despite being a dated ship by comparisons and may need a touch more TLC to modern ships in her role, she's not about to go gentle into that good night.

I didn't get this far on charming personality alone: Because she's so dated and so old, most hostile pirates think she's easy prey... until they realize she's out of context. Because the new tech is used by all the pilots, the pirates know how to deal with modern ships... she's not modern and they can't quite fight her right. Perhaps a lot of their tech is designed to disable the modern ships... the old girl doesn't use that tech, so they are effectively weaponless against her... and modern ships in her fucntions will have countermeasures to prevent disabling... the old ship has guns. Big ones... that still can't be defended against... And most pirates would rather live to fight another day than get killed... and they don't want to ruin the ship more than what is necessary because that will blow up the cargo, their real goal. So showing your pilot ready to blast them out of the sky will cause them to flee. Put it this way: If you're talking on a Smart Phone, who's gonna scare you into being quite for others courtesy? The guy who texts you to be quiet? Or the guy who Puts a working cannon in your face and lights the fuse? (Yes, I know it's an exageration, but one's gonna mess with tech... the other is going to kill you. Who are you more likely to shut up for?)

A space ratrod built from the junkyard

The protagonist worked in the repair bay. He always wanted to be a pilot, but [social status/wealth/guild membership/personal background] prevented him. Constructing test harnesses to check out gear is part of the job and when that automated cargo skiff that was already past end of life suffered a major electronics failure, he saw his opportunity. Built from parts on the scrap pile, the primary control systems are gone/missing/broken and everything else is cobbled together to get to barely functional. The bridge and quarters is part of an old crew transporter that was designed to keep miners alive for the 11 month journey from Mars with as little energy as possible. Thrusters from a tug have amazing reaction force and engines from a wrecked pleasure yacht happen to use the same fuel configuration.

Autopilots are very expensive and specific to their hardware, so no system supports mixing parts from the 4 major mining guilds. But that doesn't matter. As long as he stays out of the gravity wells of Mars and Jupiter, sailing from the cargo station on Deimos to Ceres and out as far as Hygiea can be hand calculated. The equipment has its own internal controls, so a handful of analog inputs can keep it ticking. Hitting the exact spot for Mars gravity assist to and from Deimos is the hardest part. The autopilots can triangulate off the mining guilds' encrypted UNav systems in a few seconds and calculate the trajectory instantly, but with 6 to 8 measurements over 3 hours and a little bit of trig the window can be calculated.

Because there are still controllers running subsystems it would be easy to handwave how any number of extremely complex systems function without the pilot flipping dozens of switches per hour, like maintaining life support and thermal control, while being able to delve into the details of navigation or whatever else.

A current analogy - Automotive ECUs

Modern cars are loaded with computer controllers. The hardware and software is so specific that every major component has its own controller and there are few 3rd party options. Some cars can have as many as 100 control units. Hobbyists and motor heads have cobbled together analog switches to engage transmission lockups or use a laptop sitting in the passenger seat to frequently edit values for arduino-based fuel injection controllers. Mixing subsystems from different origins is common and requires hacks and ingenuity.

The "Corps" workers get the Tesla version of spacecraft, while the rest of the contractors and low level employees are stuck with the equivalent of a 1960's Volkswagen Beetle, if you assume that it is entirely assembled from spare parts... And not just Volkswagen parts, but bicycles, a couple tractors, and even a couple washing machines and refrigerators. Plus your average Joe can learn the mechanics a lot quicker the more simple the craft is constructed. The construct won't last long, but it is easy to repair if you have the spare parts laying around (or you can find an unattended washing machine or broken repairbot). Just substitute some of the aforementioned parts for futuristic similies.

I don't want to post any new answer, just slightly expand and combine existing.

I like the idea that computers and electronics are known technology but are banned for a some reason. Cyrus posted a good example here.

Another example: I have recently seen manga/anime series 'Clockwork Planet'. Everything was mechanical and all electronics (so called 'electromagnetic technology') was banned because electromagnetic waves could disrupt the motion of tiny cogwheels.

You could just apply similar concept that, for instance some fancy new propulsion system used for interplanetary travels can be destabilized by the source of electromagnetic waves or static electricity or even tiny magnetic fields.

I do agree with Graham that orbital mechanics is difficult so indeed you need some kind of computers for computations. But as stated previously, how about just using some other medium like:

• Mechanic -something as mentioned in Clockwork Planet or something like Antikythera mechanism or Pascal arithmometer.
• Pneumatic or hydraulic -you just need to replace voltage with static pressure.
• Photonic
• Bionic -I mean using specialized or genetically engineered organisms or living tissues in order to perform calculations. It may look like some kind of The Flinstones but it had been researched already.
• Genetic or molecular -using DNA, RNA, ribosomes and intercellular processes to store and process information.

# You don't need to explain anything.

What you're describing is retrofuturism. Just like steampunk, dieselpunk, etc, those universes simply start at some past that we know and diverge as alternative reality from there. If you read SF classics today (like Wells, Lem, Asimov) they don't appear invalidated by today's tech. Their universes simply took a different turn. Instead of smartphones and selfies they went for family rockets and nuclear-powered cars. How is that a bad thing?

You don't need to explain anything, it is your universe. As long as it's internally consistent, it doesn't have to be traceable back to modern day. Guess what, in 10, 20 or 50 years from now, new tech will emerge, and your story will show a dire lack of it. And the readers won't be bothered, they'll take it as retrofuturism, so there is no reason to not start as it in the very beginning, if that fits you.

So no, a GPS constellation could not be built with electromechanical computers. But a Master Calculator that takes sextant readings in slide rules and plots trajectory on a punch tape - that's something your pilot can have, on a rocket that his grand-grandfather bought for his grandfather when the latter graduated in 2019.

• I think I need to explain it to myself, more than any audience :) – Innovine Apr 13 at 17:47
• @Innovine Yeah, the "it's retrofuturism" part explains to you, the readers are supposed to notice what genre it is. – Agent_L Apr 13 at 17:47

The current GPS system has two levels of precision - military (10m I think) and civilian (100 meters). The GPS system on Ceres might be similar - or even pay-only, and the license to use it (or the monthly payments) much too expensive for some company or another.
Or maybe the space-GPS is expensive (similar in a way to how the car-specific GPS units won't run on the 24V electric system of trucks, and if you solve the voltage problem they will recommend you to take your 18-wheeler into historic villages with narrow streets, building overhangs, impossible grades and tight corners.

It was not built as a spaceship.

source Your character is a mechanical wunderkind, raised in rural Nebraska. He can build just about anything if he can find something to build it out of. His spaceship is assembled from things he found junked or unwanted in and around his hometown and he has been out in the barn working on it since he was 8. Not a few of the labels are in the handwriting of a third grader. When he left home, he went straight up.

I picture the builder as more than a little Aspergery; no patience for form, decor or convention. The things he makes are changed from their original form only in so far as necessary to get the job done; it is not hard to figure out their (various) original purposes. It is all about function, function, function. This also explains why he is setting out on his own rather than take one of the lucrative jobs offered to him by people who recognize his genius.