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Any story about an independent, self-owned tramp spaceship crew tends to implicitly or explicitly raise the question of how the crew got a spaceship, how it afforded it, and why it doesn't just sell the ship and retire rich, especially if it otherwise doesn't seem to own much in the way of expensive stuff (as is often the case in such stories).

If, in a given setting, private ship owners (rather than, say, leasers or corp-hired crews) are ubiquitous and customised ship designs varied, then the only way to justify this is to make the ships be relatively low in sale/production/design cost.

Thus the question: How can relatively affordable spaceships can be justified?

Constraints and considerations:

  • I'm trying to find how to justify affordable spaceships without upsetting economies. That is, mildly well-off independent entrepreneurs buying a spaceship outright and starting a small transport business should become viable, but whatever enables that shouldn't produce rapid exponential growth or radically influence the affordability of other goods.
  • Post-scarcity or a broad requirement for all captains/crews to be super-rich isn't a solution, as I'm looking for justifications that won't require significantly distorting the rest of the economy. Just because one can afford a ship shouldn't mean that one is also rich enough to never worry about the cost of adventuring equipment ever again.
  • Existence alternative technological paths that reduce the curve of economies of scale (making small-scale production more efficient and/or reducing the efficiency gains of larger-scale production) are acceptable (so long as they don't lead to post-scarcity), welcome, and in fact probably necessary.
  • Affordable ships should go hand in hand with not-too-high profits from owning one, as otherwise ships become rapid exponential-growth investments.
  • Some bending of fundamental laws of nature is acceptable, but I'd like to be able to justify them in at least recognisably science-fictional range of settings (Star Wars are about on the edge of how soft/fantasy-ish settings can be to stay within the scope of the question).
  • Given the point above, reactionless drives are an acceptable and even welcome part of the solution, as they remove concerns about expensive liftoff. However, it's important to make sure affordable reactionless drives can have unintended side effects on settings, so any suggestions of making such drives even more accessible should come with the possibility of preventing or at least restricting unintended side effects.
  • Indebted captains and rented/leased ships are beyond the scope of the question - I'm looking for achieving affordability, not for a way to let people hold something they can't afford. My go-to default is that ship owners operate as Physical Person Entrepreneurs (not sure how to translate it into English) rather than Micro-Corporations.
  • Surplus from a prior mass production run (e.g. ex-military) isn't what I'm aiming for, as that would imply greater uniformity of designs and less customisation than is desired. I'm looking for excuses to make shipbuilding relatively cheaper/easier, not selling of already-built ships at a loss/discount for some reason.
  • By bespoke I mean that the ship designs/constructions/etc. are meant to be meaningfully very varied and customised. Examples would be Star Wars' YT haulers, of which I've seen it written that no two are alike aside from a vaguely recognisable silhouette, or Aether Sea's millions of aethercraft variants. I don't mean something as superficial as varied paintjobs.
  • While the idea of spaceships being some variant of tamed and cybernetified Space Whales or similar is interesting, it's not what I mean by bespoke spaceships. I'm looking for things that are made, not found with most of the work already done.
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    $\begingroup$ Can you define better what you mean with the bullet "indebted captains"? 90% of the business on Earth is based on loans... $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jun 15 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ @vicky_molokh: Businesses run on debt because it's the smart thing to do. Most businesses are legal persons separate from their owners. It makes little sense to risk owner's own money in the business instead of using the bank's money. If the business fails, then the business fails -- the owner doesn't lose their shirt. The invention of the limited liability company was an extraordinary event which gave huge impetus to business development. I cannot see any reason why a small transportation company would buy the trucks/spaceships with the owner's money instead of the bank's. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 15 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Because I do not assume that the social attitudes to debt in all sci-fi settings are the same as in the modern West. Some may be more similar to those of other cultures from other times and places. Or have a mixture of attitudes. $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Jun 15 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ @vicky_molokh: Without lmited liability companies and debt-based businesses what you have is a very slow moving economy. No spaceships. And I don't get what's the link between social attitudes to debt and debt-based business -- it is the business which runs on debt, not the owner. It is simply a device to allocate capital from savings into economic development. Without limited liability companies and debt-based businesses there won't be any way for savings to earn a profit; you are throwing out pensions, for example. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 15 at 11:26
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP For many settings (particularly those with spacefaring histories lasting millennia), a slow-and-sure economy is appropriate. Even if not examining specifically worldbuilding of those settings, I'm focusing on ship crews and captains who are Physical Person Entrepreneurs (not sure what the English translation of the term is) rather than corporations, and for PPEs getting into debt is riskier due to direct liability. Anyway, this seems to be turning into a tangential discussion of the sort that results in deleted comments or moderators moving stuff to chat (at least on other stacks). $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Jun 15 at 11:48

29 Answers 29

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Drives are cheap and light.

Assume a technology that makes interstellar craft affordable. Instead of expensive, disposable rocket boosters to get into orbit, there is a sublight/maneuver drive that takes only a small fraction of the ship's total weight, leaving plenty for cargo and for a hull constructed out of normal steel, not titanium or expensive alloys.

This weight and cost consideration includes the fuel or reaction mass. It is bad for most stories if ships never run out of fuel, but fuel isn't the overriding design consideration as in contemporary spacecraft.

With enough thrust, even bricks can fly.

The sublight maneuver drives are powerful enough that ships don't have to aerobrake on reentry. That means they can be rough boxes rather than slim, streamlined needles, and any backyard mechanic can weld another box onto it. That brings the "custom" part of your story.

Drives/Power/Computer last longer than hulls.

Few moving parts in the engines, nothing that wears out unless the drive is overloaded by desperate characters, so those can last for a century. The hull, on the other hand, is subject to stress during spaceflight and atmospheric maneuvering. Either it has to be patched, or a completely new hull must be built every couple of decades around the old engines.

Doing that takes no great skill, more what a boat builder does than the R&D that goes into a modern airliner. Hull builders can follow the original plans, or they innovate on demand. ("That many cabins? Hmm, make her longer or cut the hold?")

Ships are reasonably fast.

A typical flight from the surface of one planet to the surface of another takes only a week or two. That will greatly simplify life support. Take a CO2 scrubber, an oxygen tank, and there you go. No need for fancy hydroponics or 99.9% efficient recycling.

Ships are small.

Use the technobabble for the stardrive to discourage large ships. Either they cannot go FTL at all, or they are less efficient. That means the necessary traffic will be carried by many small ships rather than a few big liners.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer seems to be heading in a broadly useful direction. However, I do have a request for clarification: how would you justify the material/component cheapening in the first section in a way that would focus on spaceships, and not be so cross-applicable (to other fields of manufacturing) as to effectively just increase absolute wealth across the board? $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Jun 15 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ @vicky_molokh, cheapness is relative. A used 18-wheeler truck can be well into the six figures in the US. Give the starship a similar pricetag -- there are many truck owners who struggle to make ends meet. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Jun 15 at 11:58
  • $\begingroup$ FYI: Even the nearest star to the Sun (Proxima Centauri) is a few light-years away. While sublight travel can make the travel time experienced by the crew arbitrarily short (because special relativity), any interstellar trip will still take years for the people in those star systems. Which probably isn't what the OP is after. The solution: Cheap, efficient FTL drives of some sort. To keep the tech that makes FTL drives cheap from making everything else cheap too, you could have it based on some existing technology- maybe they're manufactured using the same techniques as integrated circuits. $\endgroup$ – Someone Else 37 Jun 15 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ @SomeoneElse37, I thought it was clear that I was proposing both FTL and STL drives. Check my last paragraph. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Jun 15 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ Would be interesting if they were cheap enough and couldn't be too large, that people started to automate them moving between destinations with cargo. Amazon drones on a whole new level $\endgroup$ – phflack Jun 15 at 19:39
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Let's look at the world of shipping here on Earth for inspiration

I have a suspicion that if you look at the history of shipping, you'll discover that whether it's a cart or a bullet train, the basic limitations for being an independent owner/operator of a shipping company remain the same.

  • I own a pickup truck and that lets me do a great many things, including haul a limited quantity and type of things around as a business. It was bought used and was a \$7,000 investment. I do not own a semi-tractor/trailer with the latest in home conveniences and the ability to haul different kinds of trailers for different types of goods. That's a \$250,000 investment, easy. I certainly do not own a container ship that can haul unimaginable quantities and pretty much any type of goods with a breath taking investment of \$74,000,000 or more. And yet all these creations contain motors that are identical in fundamental operation. Ignoring the technological differences and simply identifying them as "combustion engines," their basic difference is size and cost.

  • With my humble pickup truck I can acquire and/or deliver my limited number and type of goods at homes and small businesses — pretty much locations that have roadside or parking lot access. Yes, I can use a dock — but in most cases that's inconvenient-to-impossible due to the size, design, and operation of the docks. A semi-truck can deliver roadside (I've seen it done!), but they hate it because they want (but don't require) forklifts to move things along faster. They want to utilize large companies or distribution centers. Container ships obviously can't deliver roadside (that'd be cool, though, right?). They require specialized docks with specialized equipment to on/off-load their shipments.

  • Finally, I can fix anything on my pickup. Well, almost anything — I'm not a transmission person, but that's really only for a lack of patience to learn how to do it. There's nothing so complex on my pickup that I can't fix it. Parts are plentiful and readily obtained new or used from the local junk yard. Semi trucks could be maintained by the individual owner, but far more often a team (company) is involved for both repair and maintenance — maintenance that can't generally be ignored or delayed without consequence. Container ships undoubtedly have rigid maintenance schedules are huge teams to keep them operational.

Let's work with those three perspectives

A big, fancy, expensive ship perhaps has the ability to descend/ascend the gravity well of a planet, but also requires someplace to be when it's at the bottom of that well — a large transhipment area dedicated to the ship. It can haul massive amounts of any kind of good, and requires the treasure of the Sierra Madre to keep it running.

But my ship? I'm proud of the new camo-spray-paint job I just gave it! I use it to go Flugert hunting in the rings of Magnemein Six. But when I'm not doing that, I'm either fixing it or using it to ship Granthen sand (the very best sand for cleaning your sidewalks in the universe!TM). I make a modest profit because...

  • The ship and engine are small, simple, and powered only for the size of my ship.
  • My ship is large enough that I can make a profit, but small enough to get to places the big boys can't. It allows me to follow niche opportunities.
  • Engines are never one-size-fits-all. It takes so much more to move the proverbial half-a-planet of goods than it does just a pickup load.
  • A ship this small would never be economical if it tried to land. Too much fuel. It would depend on space stations (distribution centers). I firmly believe such stations would exist as the economy-of-scale moving large amounts of things to-and-from the planet is, to me, obvious. I expect Amazon.com is already working on plans for one.
  • Oh, and did I mention that my ship can really only get around in my local star cluster? I can't cross the proverbial oceans, or even the proverbial continent, and expect to make a profit. I'm only good for working inside my proverbial city. Meaning my profitability-vs-range ratio is fairly small.

Conclusion

Small ships are easily justified when you remove:

  • Tech needed to land on or launch from a planet (or any other significant gravity well).

  • Tech needed to be self-sufficient (long-term travel).

  • Tech needed for major defense, like armor and weapons (uses only established trade lanes, which are certainly policed).

  • Tech needed to deal with large-ship problems like torque compensation (turning a large ship is not easy).

The beauty of space is that a small-engine ship can actually do a lot. Consider Austrailia's road trains. Your cheap ship could haul a very long (much longer than those road trains!) load so long as no significant gravity well was involved. Slow acceleration to cruising speed. During the trip you detach the "tractor" and move it to the back of the train where it serves for deceleration. Heck, I can easily imagine the development of tugs associated with the space station distribution node that would handle the work of detaching/attaching the individual payload segments — not unlike a railcar mover.

The resulting ship is basically a flying pickup truck capable of towing a lot of trailers. Small, light, easily maintained, and easily controlled. It would depend on short-run, (relatively) low-quantity trading, which goes on today all the time (think in terms of your local furniture store).

One more thing. That long chain of segments poses an interesting problem to would-be space-faring highwaymen — you can't just hook onto the front and start moving in another direction. The quick smash-and-grab would not work. The end of the chain, thanks to the lack of things like gravity and friction, would snap around like a pair of feral nunchucks and tear everything (including our would-be Butch Cassidy of space) to pieces. Curious. Interstellar "train robbery" is non-trivial. Might make for an interesting question! N'est-ce pas?


Edit: Talking with Paul Z got me thinking. You could improve the profit-to-cost ratio tremendously by using two tractors and not keeping the tractor with the shipment. One tractor pulls the train up to speed, disconnects, and goes back for the next shipment. Near the destination another tractor accelerates out, connects, and slows everything down. Considering how long things might need to travel in space, that would improve the economics so much that you might never have really large shipping at all. Just a thought!

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    $\begingroup$ This is a really fantastic analogy and a very helpful answer! Have a +1! $\endgroup$ – Sam Weaver Jun 15 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ Note that if your setting has space elevators, they fulfill the role of distribution centers excellently - with elevators at large hubs, you have "container ship" deep-space haulers with lots of dV for interplanetary/interstellar heavy lifting, with small tramp ships doing deliveries within the local area, such as to asteroid mining facilities, utility stations, or even potentially gliding to surface locations then taking a lift on the elevator back up. $\endgroup$ – Larkeith Jun 17 at 0:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also worth explicitly pointing out that big discount built into that pickup truck pricing: a new ute will run you 35-40 grand but, because they’re so rugged and easy to maintain, there’s a lot of them out there with a few too many years behind them to be worth anything to the big dealers working off pricing catalogues but still running well enough for quite a few years more - and still saleable for a few grand to their next owner $\endgroup$ – Pingcode Jun 17 at 2:25
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    $\begingroup$ I think you'd still have fleets of mass-produced small ships owned by FedEx/UPS. The independents would have to live off the scraps that were either overflow work from the big guys, or odd jobs that are too complicated for the big companies. $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Jun 17 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Liath you're revealing the ultimate truth that's expressed here: You can fill in the blank with any transportation tech and it works. Boats is a great example because it mimics the "traveling through an environment that's not immediately habitable by humans" aspect of outer space. It's hard for us, today, to imagine an economy that takes ubiquitous space travel for granted. I'm sure the same was once true of large bodies of water to our distant ancestors, yet here we are today... $\endgroup$ – dwizum Jun 17 at 19:59
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I think the main factor that would simplify the ship production and cheapen the ships significantly would be this: most of the ships in the setting are not expected to enter or leave a gravity well of a planet with atmosphere.

It may be that people in your setting live mostly in space habitats. Could be that all the planets have space elevator stations you can dock to for trading.

If you do not need to leave the gravity well, the maximum power output of the engines can be much smaller. If you do not need to re-enter the atmosphere, the hull can be much simpler.

If, additionally, most of your people live on habitats and space stations already, the life support and recycling technologies in your setting may be so advanced, it's an easy task to equip any random tin can with it.

Most other things depend on whether there is a FTL technology and how it works. If there is FTL, but it's enabled not by the ships drive, but by a natural or artificial wormhole, any small habitat can afford to build multiple tin cans for trading - they may be slow, going for something as sustainable as solar sails even, but a journey from their habitats to another solar system through the wormhole will have human-scaled duration.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the concept of FTL being a combination of infrastructure and ship features that enable the ship to use it. This is like improving tires and handling to let cars and various sizes of trucks to run on the U.S. Interstate highway system. $\endgroup$ – cmm Jun 17 at 14:28
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Partial Obsolescence of Space Drives

A space drive (both the cross system FTL part and the in-system maneuvering engines) drop in power rapidly in the first few years of use, before leveling off.

Within the first five years, a space drive drops from its maximum power rating to about half that. It then stays at that level a century or more. It's still perfectly usable for a space merchant, but totally unacceptable for the military, or rich pleasure yachts.

With the rich replacing their spaceships every few years, there is a glut of hand-me-down spaceships on the market, making acquiring one affordable for the lower classes.

The military does something similar, but before they sell their ships they strip out all of their fancy weapons systems. In order to make that process easy, they've made their ships highly modular, and thus while the base frame of all the military ships is very similar, they're heavily customizable (and missing half their systems upon resale, encouraging people to customize them).

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    $\begingroup$ If a space drive lost its power that quickly, then spacecraft would be built with modular drives that can easily be swapped out. Military ships might even be built with multiple drives, even if only one could be engaged at a time, so that they could always have high performance. "Retired" engines would cost a third or less of what new engines cost, and would be used by freighters hauling non-perishable goods. $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Jun 17 at 21:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Monty_Harder unless the ship, or its hull/envelope, is the drive. (c.f. General Products hullis in Larry Niven's "known space" universe). $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Jun 18 at 11:44
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Don't land

The most expensive operation in a typical mission from a planet is the takeoff. If your ship never lands on the surface of a planet, it never has to take off. It can just travel from space station to space station. How freight and passengers get to the planet's surface or how the space station gets freight and passengers to it aren't the space ship's problem.

Not landing makes the problem much simpler. The ship only needs to have maneuvering drives and a space drive. It can refuel in space, which is cheap because solar panels in space can be placed such that they can see the sun twenty-four hours a day. And solar panels can be built by robots using solar energy and asteroid material. The robots can also be built the same way. So refueling is very low cost. And so is space ship construction.

This may seem like post-scarcity, but it only applies in space. As soon as someone lands, they are subject to the normal planetary restrictions. In particular, planets have limited space and can only burn so much fossil fuels per year. So land and energy are both limited on the ground. So your planetary economies are restricted while your space economies are much less so.

What's expensive is landing and taking off again. So simply never do that. Space ship crews spend all their time in space, mostly on their ship.

The bigger problem

The bigger problem is that manned freight ships don't make much sense in space. If I want to get freight from the asteroid belt to Earth orbit, the simple way is to simply throw it. Strap it into something ferrous, accelerate it with superconducting magnets and then catch it at the other end with a funnel made of superconducting magnets. There's no need to send a crew with it. You only need an engine for making minor adjustments so as to avoid space junk or reorient on the funnel.

Passenger ships make a bit more sense. But why would people prefer small ships to large ones? The larger the ship, the more options it can support. To justify small ships, you need to increase the number of destinations. So only a few people want to go to most places right now.

You may want to make your ships faster-than-light and non-inertial, as even in the Solar system, getting from place to place at one g takes a long time. Which in turn makes it unlikely that ships would be leaving every day for every destination. If you have to wait six months in travel, waiting an extra month to gather enough passengers to leave isn't a big deal. If you can get there in four hours of travel, you won't want to wait more than a day.

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  • $\begingroup$ The don't land thing is worth a +1 all by itself. The cost reduction for reduced requirements is huge. $\endgroup$ – Jontia Jun 16 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ "Halfway to the moon, is halfway to anywhere" -Robert Heinlein $\endgroup$ – MongoTheGeek Jun 17 at 20:13
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Self-Replicating Machines

Most people think about self-replicating machines as grey goo style nanotechnology, but upon closer examination of the topic the simplest selfreplicator is an autonomous factory capable of producing two copies of itself and some of the desired product before breaking down. These things can and will realistically be macro-machines in the foreseeable future, even without consider the many issues of large scale nano-bots. Improvements in the fields of AI, material-sciences and three-D-printing will make self-replicators which can produce most goods with minimal human input within the next hundred years inevitable. Even though Elon Musk failed to builed a fully automated Tesla car factory recently, which arguably wouldn't have been a self replicator yet, the fact that this was even seriously attempted shows you how far we are already.

What does this mean?

It doesn't matter if you subscribe to the capitalist or communist theory of value, as supply will be huge and only limited by the access to the resources of however many solar systems your world can access and labour invested into the production of goods will be minimal as well. The economy of such a civilisation will be a low scarcity one, not a true post scarcity one. But this will work fine since while a perfect market is the basic idea of a capitalist system it too is practically impossible, yet capitalism still lets most people survive decently.

This means that the price of a space-craft is determined by its scrap value and possibly the cost engineering blueprints unless the desighn was autogenerated to the specifications of the constructor by an AI or open source.

The nature of such an economy will obviously keep the profit margins small. Bulk trade goods might be rare metals, tholines for farming, Helium-3 for fusion generators and objects which require highly specialised fabrication facilities or can only be produced on one world due to licensing and international property rights (Vodka brewed with Enceladus water can only be produced on Enceladus, otherwise it would not be the priced Enceladus Vodka). Art would be another thing that is still tradable within such an economy, even though art will most likely have an extremely broadened meaning, since anything, like the Enceladus Vodka from before, can be crafted in a unique and artful manner.

So what about the cost of adventuring equipment?

What is cost? In our current culture we view cost as a primarily monetary concept, but this does ignore that even now we also use (pay) time to get goods and services. In the low scarcity and highly automated civilisation described above this relationship is simply reversed. This would be especially true for space craft, since they will seek to cut down on mass as much as possible. Thus having a fabricator on board wich can produce almist everything given the right resources, a blueprint and time. While neither the blueprint nor the resources should be an issue this Santa Claus Machine won't produce equipment instantly, so the time needed to produce the equipment which is needed in a specific situation is its cost.

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  • $\begingroup$ I am digging this, because it would be possible for your space ship to get cancer. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jun 15 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately for this answer, the question rejects a post-scarcity solution. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jun 16 at 6:22
  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer, before reading it I put a comment on the original question asking about whether this limited degree of post-scarcity would be OK as long as there was a market economy including both artificial and natural scarcity, where "producing a manufactured good from raw materials is done automatically so is intrinsically cheap for non-copyrighted designs, but there are still intellectual property laws that make some manufactured goods more expensive, and various naturally scarce goods like uranium or land or livestock or original artworks are still expensive" $\endgroup$ – Hypnosifl Jul 8 at 21:19
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Short version:

Because very few people actually want one and there's a lot of shipyard space that could be used to build quite a few such vessels, and occasional it even is.

Long version:

Most ships are huge and all ships are one of a kind, this situation only really makes sense where the limits of the drive systems being used are unknown and the economy is expanding. The giant bulk transport they built a couple of years ago wasn't the limit, based on its performance so far it isn't even as close as they thought at the time and there's still greater demand than the current fleet can supply so the next ship is still larger. As ships fall further and further behind the cutting edge of economy of scale they have to go farther and farther out from the centre of things in order to stay competitive in the bulk cargo game. With the big ships just getting bigger the shipyards constructing them have to grow as well, not just in terms of hulls being laid down at any given time but also in the scale of construction cradles meaning they will have a fairly rapid turnover of obsolete equipment, obsolete for the largest projects that is.

However there is a certain class of ship that never really needs to change its overall size, although individual designs will vary greatly according to the particular role foreseen for the vessel; the courier. This is a relatively small vessel designed for high speed in real-space and/or FTL depending on the rules of the setting and "port versatility" (being able to dock, or land, at any port, or in a field, or even a jungle clearing at need). These are designed to carry sensitive materials, compact but expensive cargoes, and/or a few VIP passengers. Classic examples of this class of ship include the Firefly, the Tel'tak and the YT-1300. The profit margins on such ships can realistically be quite competitive or absolutely shoestring at the author's/GM's discretion given fixed costs and the vagaries of available work.

Shipyards are familiar with custom one-off vessels, they don't build anything else, but don't produce many ships smaller than the equivalent of a super tanker in the usual run of things. Its not that smaller ships are particularly expensive, they're pretty cheap in fact; it's the fact that they're a niche product for a niche in the market that very few people are actually keen to fill. The lack of demand actually leads to the kind of ship that 8-10 crew can run being even cheaper than one would think, supply and demand, you can find at least one courier going secondhand in most systems as some poor inheritor with no desire to travel the starlanes tries to offload. So while they're worth the yard time its only when staff are between major projects and using obsolescent construction gear.

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The building of spaceships in a space faring civilizations should be similar to how cars and trucks are manufactured in today's standard.

As manufacturing technology as well as experience of spaceship building improves, the cost of creating one should decrease exponentially.

Without knowing more about the world: small group of people should be able to pool enough resources to purchase an average, unremarkable ship. The main issue should be maintenance and operation cost, fuel and repairs. That would make the crew to seek out lucrative deals and contracts. Dangerous travels to the unknown netting more profit than safe, established trade routes.

Competing manufacturing companies could account for a wide variety of designs based on various demands. Like I said, look at today's car manufacturing.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm sorry, but I don't see how that helps me justify the affordability of spaceships from an economical PoV. Your first two paragraphs are also phrased in such a way that any increase in affordability of spaceships should be comparable to the increase of affordability of other stuff, rather than focus on the cheapening of the former relative to the latter. $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Jun 15 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ What would happen, if today's fuel prices increase greatly? It wouldn't be a big deal to purchase a car, but using it effectively and without loss, would be. The initial investment would be minimal, it would require continuous hard work and planning to optimize profit earning. If this isn't the aim of your question, I don't exactly see what kind of answer you are looking for. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jun 15 at 11:31
  • $\begingroup$ This is actually what I thought of when I first read the question, and to me at least, it is actually a viable answer. Upvoted. $\endgroup$ – Hendrik Lie Jun 19 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ This answer while valid from the point of making starships cheap 1. doesn't make them relatively cheap it makes them cheap and all other manufactured goods dirt cheap and 2. "an average, unremarkable ship" is exactly what the OP doesn't want the crew to have "meaningfully very varied and customised" [OP's emphasis] is the requirement. Bespoke means one of a kind not stamped out to a specific model classification. $\endgroup$ – Ash Jun 19 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash Yeah, I get it now. I may add to my answer with further ideas based on that. Though I find it hard to think of a method, where the end product is cheap (and varied) but its components and materials aren't affected. Look at PC's, Smartphones. If the rare earth metals become more expensive, so will the end product. It would require some really creative settings to mitigate that. $\endgroup$ – Lupus Jun 19 at 15:22
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Salvaged alien tech is the basis for space flight. The rest of the ship is whatever you have.

A dead world is littered with artifacts that make spaceflight possible. It is not clear if these are products of technology, some sort of crystal or what, but there are a lot of them. Stick them onto something and it can be a space ship: atmosphere retention and propulsion.

But we meatbags can't just sit in a raw force field flying through space. You have to breathe and pee and poo and sleep and play cribbage. Of course there are swanky purpose-built ships for the military, rich folks and so on. But a lot of people fit out campers, sailboats, shipping containers, toolsheds and tents; what you have, third world style. Anything can be a space ship. They are added to in an ad hoc manner according to need and availability of materials.

I like the idea of a series of barges filled with dirt, growing oxygen-providing crops under the perpetual day of space. The crew sleeps on the soft dirt of their fields. No mosquitoes.

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First off, don't make them bespoke, have them made-to-measure: The initial ship is constructed from a number of mass-produced modules which are connected together. If each ship is constructed from 5 different modules (Cockpit, drive section, crew quarters, and 2 cargo / passenger sections?) and each 'model' of ship offers 5 options for each module, then that's 3,125 different permutations for 1 model of ship, from 1 manufacturer. Multiply that by different models/sizes of ship, and then again by different manufacturers... You get the picture. This also discounts being able to add or remove modules (Personal ship for a small crew? Just the cockpit, drive and crew modules. Freighter or passenger ship? Add extra modules for seating or storage)

Next, your scrappy independent space-tramp crew will customise their ship to fit their own needs with after-market add-ons. Perhaps salvage a module from a different manufacturer and add it on. On a related note - did you know that a fresh-from-the-factory Harley Davidson motorcycle doesn't make the "distinctive noise" associated with them? Due to regulations about noise pollution, et cetera, they're not allowed to - but, there's a different company who will sell you the parts and the instructions to modify your new hog.

So, these ships aren't actually outrageously priced - they're not necessarily normal personal ships, but compared to buying a car it's more like buying Caravan or a Motor Home instead of being like buying a luxury yacht. And, if you can find one that needs a lot of work (and are willing to put in the effort!) you can probably pick up something cheap and ugly to fix up.

As for "why not sell it and retire rich?" - well, we've already established that the ship isn't exactly rare, nor is it the latest model. They can sell it for around 100,000 Quatloos, split that between a crew of 10 - giving them each just under 2 years worth of Rent or a minimal house deposit for a mortgage. Or, they keep the ship and try to average 1,000 Quatloos per week running jobs for the same time to make the same amount.

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Cheap To Build, Expensive To Fly Unless You Cut Corners

This is a simple economics question.

If your ships have a high variable cost of operation (high "cost per mile") but a low cost of construction and storage, they will naturally be easy to acquire, and will not make anyone exponentially rich, because it still costs real money to transport anything anywhere. This high cost of operation could be a combination of fuel and other expendable materials (ablative shields, life support supplies, high wear and tear parts, etc). A low cost of storage while not in use and low recycling value [or high cost of recycling] is critical for ensuring old ships are not routinely scuttled.

Your renegade crew is not rich (the ship is not worth much) and also not indebted (the ship was cheap to buy, and costs almost nothing to keep "parked" in stable planetary orbit) but they'll be motivated to find ways to make money to somehow afford the fuel and other operational maintenance.

Cheap To Build

You want your ships to be cheap to build relative to other costs in the economy? I think this too has a relatively simple economics solution: limited usefulness. Your ship's hull and propulsion technologies have absolutely no other useful application outside of spaceships. The hull material degrades when exposed to the atmosphere. The propulsion is embarrassingly simple but only operates in a vacuum and in the absence of perpendicular forces (i.e. pretty useless on a planet's surface).

Cutting Corners

This part is key: If your crew is willing to take some calculated risks and cut some corners, the operational costs can be reduced to an affordable level by skimping on non-critical maintenance such as safety upgrades, insurance, holo-deck content subscriptions, clean-burning fuel, training, certifications, etc. That means your renegade crew can fly their ship much cheaper than what the average operator would. This kind of corner-cutting is not scalable beyond a tightly-knit team of adventurers, so you'll never see a mega-corporation operating in this manner.

For a contemporary Earth analog just look at the prices of old airplanes. They are probably not as expensive as you think.

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    $\begingroup$ To drive up the price differential, add government certification. The self-owned ship escapes these costs precisely because the owner is also the operator. The government trusts those owners with their own lives. Not a big stretch, that's similar to how airplanes work now. The big carriers have to follow the Boeing and Airbus manuals. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Jun 18 at 13:01
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3D direct metal laser sintering printers that produce finished products and don't need to be put in a furnace.

The last time I looked they were half a million dollars, now they're ~300k. But one big enough to make aerospace parts is going to cost you over one million. That's what's changed in your universe (as it will shortly in ours) : one with a bed big enough to make the parts you want, needs to be more like a hundred thousand.

Selective Laser Melting (Selective Laser Sintering)

On the other hand, SLM can go one step further than SLS, by using the laser to fully melt the metal, meaning the powder is not being fused together but actually liquified long enough to melt the powder grains into a homogeneous part. Therefore, SLM can produce stronger parts because of reduced porosity and greater control over crystal structure, which helps prevent part failure. However, SLM is only feasible when using a single metal powder.

This machine is what you build the rest of the ship around, because you don't leave home without one (there are zero auto parts stores between here and Jupiter). It dictates the size of the landing gear, which in turn prescribe the size/weight of the ship. The hull can be contracted out to the lowest bidder or welded yourself, that's why they all look different.

Affordable machines like these are a literal requirement to get this endeavor off the ground, as it's what would make mass-production no longer necessary for specifically building a spaceship (and make lone space travel slightly less suicidal).

Ships might even be classified by this 'heart' of the ship, e.g., an 8X3 Pinto would have an eight cubic foot bed capable of slowly producing parts from three different elements. Obviously, everyone wants a 24X9 Concorde but those machines are unaffordable and require you to build a crew-intensive, unnecessarily large craft around it. That means less bottom line for any entrepreneur that hasn't increased their EoS to the point of becoming a conglomerate (the 'enemy').

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a good answer. While it is narrow in scope, it is very focused on cheapening shipbuilding, which is the primary thing I'm after. Thanks. $\endgroup$ – vicky_molokh Jun 17 at 6:28
  • $\begingroup$ Even in the future nothing works. "It is unlikely that launching a space vehicle will ever be as routine an undertaking as commercial air travel—certainly not in the lifetime of anybody who reads this. The scientists and engineers continually work on better ways, but if we want to continue going into outer space, we must continue to accept the risks." — Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jun 17 at 15:03
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There will surely exist cheap mass-produced habitable modules including life support and suitable engines. These allow for bespoke constructions(or contraptions heh). However there's a radiation problem. Near Earth, such as on ISS the shielding can be relatively thin, as the magnetic field of the planet deflects charged particles away. In deep space, and to have long-time-survivable environment, meters of heavy shielding will be required. This will be either expensive to manufacture, expensive to propel, or will require a new technology.

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Fab labs AKA rentable workshops.

There is a current movement called the maker movement, people who make things themselves instead of buying them, it is a fairly large movement. Part of that is something called fab labs which are rentable spaces containing all the tools need to do some fairly advanced engineering and construction. people use them to build everything from hand tools to boats and cars.

In the future I could easily see this movement pushed all the way to automated fabrication facilities, robotics combined with AI means all you really need is some engineering knowledge and a dream to build whatever you want. With the raw material and a rental fee and you can build anything. The vast bulk of a ship is fairly cheap materials base metals and radiation shielding. Not every shi will be unique but a large number will be. Many more will be unique in shape and design but with a standard engine or other modules. Automation is becoming more and more accessible (look how many people have 3d printers or cutter/milling machines) so this is by no means an unlikely stretch. Later those fab labs could even take advantage of nanotechnology to be portable, the Schlock Mercenary comic uses this extensively. Basically once robotics reaches a certain level anything but the most advanced technology can be made on the spot with the right raw materials, power, and AI.

There is something else you can add to this. There was an idea for a while of mining out asteroids and then using the hollowed out shell of the asteroid as a the start of a spaceship, just make it airtight and add an engine and life support. Some people will do this just for the look, and every asteroid is unique. I could even see specialized ships "seeds" being sold. Place box on asteroid press button come back in a week to collect your ship.

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The spaceships are alive and attuned to an individual. To become a spaceship captain, you don't need money you need time or rather commitment.

Backstory

Some years from now the rotation of the galaxy drifts the solar system through a region of higher Interstellar medium density. Within this region mankind discovers seed pods. Perhaps an accident involving one of those expensive spaceships ends with a survivor stranded on what appeared to be just a rock in space, but turned out to be a seed pod for a very strange organism.

When a human spends time on a pod, it becomes attuned to them and eventually opens up. At first the podship is little bigger than an escape pod, essentially a one person craft useful as a messenger but little else. As the Captain spends time on the pod it grows in response to the desires of the individual. A decade later you have a Firefly to roam around in. But if the Captain leaves the ship it begins to regress or possibly die. Wiggle room for home comfort breaks I leave up to you.

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Surplus from a prior mass production run (e.g. ex-military) isn't what I'm aiming for, as that would imply greater uniformity of designs and less customisation than is desired. I'm looking for excuses to make shipbuilding relatively cheaper/easier, not selling of already-built ships at a loss/discount for some reason.

Would make things cheaper - not just because there's ships already on the market, but because there's production facilities that already exist, and jobs that help fund local economies.

In short, they're not cheap because there's many surplus ships. They're cheap because there's surplus capacity

The design for a dropship may kinda work as a cargo shuttle, but a cargo shuttle might not need as much armour, have different requirements and weight distributions and so on. They could be built in the same facilities as a dropship. A cargo freighter could be built in a slip meant for a warship of some size, and a modern oil tanker is probably bigger than a aircraft carrier. More or less - they're cheap because they're a way to provide work for yards post war.

Likewise there could be parts commonalities - with downrated or even similar engines, and various components shared between designs. You wouldn't buy a dropship, but your retroencombulator might be the same model and its produced en mass for many models.

Much like cars - captains and crews might choose to modify their ships (the many faces of the correlian light freighter of star wars fame), with engine and software updates bolted or shoe horned in as the narrative goes on. Even if the ship is standard out of the shipyard, depending on their needs. captains may make changes, adding weapons, cargo space or even small parasitic fighters.

If designs are based off surplus hulls, the actual designs might depend on what's available to modify, depending on the condition of the hulls and what the requirements are.

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So, A couple of other people have discussed how small ships can work on the technological/individual/maintenance level. I'm going to talk about on a systematic level.

Wormholes

So, let's talk about two properties predicted for real-life wormholes: first, they're spherical, and second, they have a mass balance. Send too much mass from one side without sending any back, and they collapse.

Now, what does this do for your setting? Well, first, it eliminates the need for small ships to carry around an FTL drive of their own. Second, it creates critical points that can be the location of conflict.

Now, why does this favor small ships? Because a single small ship is unlikely to collapse the wormhole by passing through it. Meanwhile, a "Panamax" of the era has to make sure there's something else going back through the wormhole (and coming out on the other side of the sphere) at the same time so it doesn't collapse the wormhole. A big ship could be waiting for a while until a counterweight is ready to be sent back through, while a smaller ship is more likely to have a counterweight that can be sent through to roughly balance the ship (perhaps another small ship.)

Depending on the "tolerance" (how much mass can be sent through without disturbing the wormhole) you can make out niches. "Panamaxes" that have to be planned well in advance, and basically shut down the wormhole for everyone else for a while, but can carry the large sorts of cargos no other ship can.. Midsized bulk freighters that are big enough to carry a lot of cargo, but have to be scheduled - including the mass they're carrying - in advance, on a schedule. Couriers, small ships that carry priority goods and people and messages on a frequent and frequently-shifting basis, that only affect the wormhole en masse.

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  • $\begingroup$ I use a similar wormhole solution. However the balancing system would encase the wormhole at each throats, that exchanges mass from one side of the balancing system to the other side. And they would not permit passage to the gate in one way if the other side's balancing system is exausted, and would allow trips from the exhausted side. The trip from the opposite of a nearly exhausted side is only allowed if the exhausted side can supply sufficient counter balance to compensate the mass change. Policing would be easy as the balancing system are shells on either side that opens on each passage. $\endgroup$ – Hendrik Lie Jun 19 at 8:41
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TBH its all about the running costs and the build costs.

eg. Imagine you have a space drive that costs 1 fuel unit to travel FTL. In this scenario, you'd end up with a humungous space freighter that waits for cargo and then hops to point B where it waits to be unloaded by small craft. So your small craft are just ferries, last-mile transports.

But if fuel was proportional to mass, then the running cost is more about crew. A huge freighter will still be more cost effective than a small one so would be used a lot more, but there's always a need for couriers for small or urgent deliveries.

Now imagine if fuel was exponentially proportional to mass... suddenly large ships are not cost effective compared to small ones. In fact, the smaller the better.

Now when it comes to economies of shipping, the costs of running it matters a lot, you can't get rich off tranport if all your profits are taken up by running costs, and as the shipping economy increases, the profits available will decrease, there'll always be someone willing to run your cargo for less. So that's why you sometimes have lots of shipping available, and people trapped in a freighter they cannot sell - when they started there were few freighters and profits were good, but today, with all the competition, there's little margin and nobody wants to get into the game and that old, rusty freighter is worthless.

Now the aspect of building custom freighters is simpler in future environments: if you have the basic cargo interface, then ther rest of the ship can be whatever you like. And if you build ships not from a production line but from a autmoated assembly system (eg something a robotic 3d printer) then the difference in cost of any ship is simply the cost of the plans and material used. I'd assume base plans were available for a simple fee (or open sourced!) and then customised by the user before submitting to the yard that would just plug it into a robo-assembler. Assume also the parts would be standardised (eg engines etc) so there's no further problem with maintenance and a custom ship costs the same as a off-the-shelf one.

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Partnership and/or Fractional Ownership

Historically, many shipping houses (including ones which only owned one or two ships) operated as partnerships. An owner or owners' representative was aboard, sometimes in command, sometimes as supercargo. Depending on the model used, your ship could be owned (as shares) by the crew, or the crew could be employees.

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Standard, modular drives

The drive blocks used by 90% of all small-to-medium spacecraft are all standard, mass-manufactured and cheap. You can find replacement parts or whole drives on every station, no matter how far. People use them in case they break down or melt far away from major civilization, most don't want to risk getting stuck on some asteroid mining colony because their drive broke down. So, they go with what's easily procurable everywhere.

Now for the rest of the ship, sure there are some big corporations that produce shiny, premium feel™ assembly line iShips, but those, even if they have nice features and trinkets built in, are usually way overpriced, don't allow for any customization and offer no significant performance boosts over the other kind:

Open source, garage-built hulls. Plenty of low budget entrepreneurs set up minidocks in their space-garages, get a good foundry 3D printer, some assembler bots and design and build perfectly usable ships at affordable prices. Some kids who are just starting out might be willing to build something for you just for the price of materials. They'll even hack the regulators and overclock your drive so you'll run circles around the rich kids with their shiny toys that cost 30x more. No guarantees on stability though. Or any guarantees at all.

A shadow economy

Ships are very expensive, but in this age spaceflight technology is advancing at a rapid pace, so any company, to stay competitive, must throw unholy amounts of funds on research. To get those funds it must sell as many ships it can, as often as it can, at the highest price it can.

So we get planned obsolescence. Not only is the average journey time is decreasing by 20% every five years, but all the other tech like sensors, life support, comms, inertial dampening, etc is advancing at such a rapid pace that owners are forced to change out their ships every 5-7 years to stay competitive themselves.

And they do. The rich ones living in the central sector, working the major commercial routes, that is. That's not for us, though. We're far out of the way, nobody every comes here from Central. No shipping routes from the delivery giants, there's no profit for them here. They keep to the commerce sector where business is fast and money flows in rivers.

And that's true for everyone living on the periphery, the edges of human civilization, save for some important commercial hubs. Even if we outnumber the central sector inhabitants, they have vastly more money than us. So much more that our economies aren't even compatible. We'd need to get our whole colony to save up for a year just to get 1 new ship.

We get our hands on the "old" ones instead. They scrap the outdated models, sometimes recycling them to build new ships, but usually just store them in some orbit. They aren't designed to last, build quality is fairly cheap, but we can still salvage them. Reinforce the hulls, swap out some of the new flimsy, gimmicky systems for the older, more robust kind, customize any additions we might need, like freight hauling modules or passenger blocks, and we have perfectly usable ships.

Not the fastest in the galaxy, but enough to get by, get the mail delivered. We supply all of the periphery with ships they need to survive, to trade, to continue expanding the reach of humanity.

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A recent space war could justify the existence of vast numbers of decommissioned and disarmed small spaceships. Military equipment and supplies are often abandoned during retreat allowing for entrepreneurial appropriation.

While the battle continues, the winning side would be wise to grant ownership of their enemy's ship and lucrative supply contracts to any enemy crew which defects and turns traitor from their previous leadership.

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    $\begingroup$ From the question: "Surplus from a prior mass production run (e.g. ex-military) isn't what I'm aiming for, as that would imply greater uniformity of designs and less customisation than is desired." $\endgroup$ – Arcanist Lupus Jun 15 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Missed that! Thanks for pointing it out. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jun 15 at 20:43
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Ships are expensive as all getout

But we can still work it

I've been reading The Golden Age of the Solar Clipper where precisely this problem exists. A bit of a spoiler, but if you look at the titles of each book in the series (or even just think about it after seeing the first two) its really not that much of a spoiler (the last book in the series pretty much necessitates it).

Salvage. The crew became independent when they were part of another crew under the employ of a larger organization. They salvaged a floating derelict in space--all the crew died and the ship was left intact, salvage of the century--which was then sold at auction for a billion credits. Each man on the crew gets some fraction of the payout, based on their share allotment and a bonus if they served on the salvage crew (i.e. were aboard the derelict and flew it to port). The salvage crew combined their reward and scraped together enough credits to be able to start their own shipping company and buy their own ship. It might have been small, used, and in bad repair, but whatever the factors, they get it for relatively cheap. Running a ship doesn't cost that much, its the hull that'll cost ya.

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Embrace a duality economic system:

  • "Core Worlds" are effectively post-scarcity and near self supporting economies. They have the facilities and tech to churn out key component parts for dirt cheap, and "Primary trade" is handled by massive corporations with their massive ships that can move massive amounts of goods and materials around between the massive and well developed worlds...

But humans love to explore and spread. And many of us have gone well beyond those well developed and supplied "Core Worlds", and keep pushing the boundaries.

  • Just like the largest shipping companies in the world don't bring whole freighters to small out ports and mining towns in the Canadian north, the massive juggernauts of industry can't be bothered handling trade with all the smaller out-worlds and tiny mining or exploration colonies.
  • The major players, with the massive ships driving the larger economies of the fully developed worlds, leave 'the little stuff' to 'the little players' and effectively out source the control and management of the scattered crumbs to other smaller companies while they focus on dealing with the major hubs.

At the end of the day it is effectively the same thing to the major players: They care that goods and materials make it to the trade hubs, how stuff gets to or from the hubs after that is so far removed from upper galactic management that it wouldn't make any difference whether it was handled 'in company' or by 'independents' - They're both so far divided and so hands off as to be the same. [And if the mega-corps don't even attempt to deal in far flung 'local matters', then they don't have to be bothered with regional governors whining at them over corruption - Mega corp cares and worries stop at the edge of the trade-hub, and anything going on there is 'a local matter' and 'not their concern'. As a plus they don't have to pay for dental for teamsters who aren't on their payroll...]

So what does this mean for ships?

Well much like so many hot rods of today are built around the same few massed produced engines, all the small ships are effectively collections of different standardized parts. Whether their 'star drive' is a Feerd-9002 or the Choval-starglide8 [With enhanced stabilization control rods...] or any of the dozens of other small star drives doesn't really matter, as they all have nearly the same interfacing specifications.

  • Various 'unique' small star ships get put together because an engineer found a good deal on various standardized parts in a trade hub, slapped stuff together to deal with a specific mission, and the "Space pickup trucks" wandered off into the galaxy to do their thing.

Ships get customized, often heavily, to meet specific needs.

  • Hauling cattle for a new colony? Refit the cargo holds for that specific run, but grain or ore bins still stack in just as well for later runs.
  • Pirate making 'a quick buck' in the region? Refit with heavier shields/armour and additional weapons pods in the hopes that they'll leave you alone for easier/safer pickings.
  • Billy got drunk and caved in the port side cargo bay while landing at the mining base? Cut out the damaged sections, and weld in a replacement bay from an old junker that's been sitting at the edge of the landing pads since its reactor gave out.

Keep the ships flexible and made from a range of parts built to meet standardized interfaces from a host of different companies, and you can see a wide range of readily affordable yet unique ships.

  • Maybe a lot of captains will be flying around fairly bog-standard Big-Space-Industries Haul-It-Alls, with half of the ships in any port being part of the same class, but they'll each have their own unique bits or customizations.
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Planets are dead-ends. They are deep down a gravity well and filthy, and the people who live down there aren't adapted to space. Strategically they are garbage, being indefensible and a poor place to mount weapon systems.

The only people worth bothering with are people already in space. The only goods worth anything are those already in space. Even if something was useful on a planet, getting it out of the gravity well costs more than finding it in space.

Generations of genetic alteration have made them suitable for living in space; they can handle the radiation etc.

The best places to live are on space stations. Not all of them, the good ones. Space stations are rotation-gravity mega constructs; all the perks of a planet, none of of the pain.

Ramshackle space bases are the next tier down. And below that are the people who live in tin cans with motors strapped on them.

Transporting goods between the places you'd want to live is a living; it is one way to keep yourself in O2 and H2O. Other ways include prospecting asteroids, gas giant dive-scooping, space-jockey construction, rock-rat asteroid miners. All of these lives suck, and there is a constant drain on your volatile.

Space travel is crazy high-tech SF. The "grid" provides a means to both move at sub-light velocity (using "grippers"), and do FTL jumps. The "grid" is controlled by the local state (control of the grid is a veto on all other efficient movement; whomever controls the grid controls space).

This means you can no more turn your ship into a high-velocity weapon of war than you could do it with a bumper car; your ability to move, and even where you move, is at the whim of the grid-owner.

Now this doesn't mean that illegal trade or running from police is impossible; using the grid to halt someone is done mostly as a military matter, as it involves disrupting a lot of legitimate uses of it. Just don't try to ram a habitat.

So

a) Ships are affordable. A shell plus a drive.

b) The drive isn't a powerful weapon. It is more like a hook that connects you to a trolly-wire.

c) Keeping yourself in volatiles and paying grid-fees costs almost as much as the profit you get from trading. So no exponential economic singularities.

d) Definitely not post-scarcity.

The trick is, the stuff that is expensive are consumables. The actual ship infrastructure is cheap. It is only metals. And as a citizen of space, you must have had rights to cubic in a ship or station already; converting that to a rusting portable bucket isn't going to be hard.

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There's a factor more important than any specific fabrication or propulsion technique:

Ships are intrinsically fast and cheap. Safe ships are terribly expensive, both to buy and to operate.

Current intersystem ship licensing requires three layers of hull, triply redundant life support, artificial gravity gyms to maintain bones, and docking at official ports with those ludicrous slip fees. All those safety systems add mass and eat away at cargo space, so fuel per ton of cargo is outrageous

Yet, there are ports that will look the other way when unlicensed ships dock, captains that will take the risks of hull rupture when maneuvering, crew with forged papers that won't hold up to any real scrutiny, shippers cutting corners and profiting the difference.

For an unlicensed ship, the most important asset is an engineer who can keep the thing in the sky, and they all have different ideas, so no two ships will be quite the same.

Lots of people ship out on a rust bucket, figuring if they survive one or two runs, they will have the cash and experience to go legit. A few people even manage to pull it off.

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We can't build ships, and they wear out.

There is trade between the "ordinary" citizens of the galaxy, and (say) an "ancient" or "transcended" civilisation that gained access to and mastery of hyperspatial technology a (cosmologically?) long time ago. They value unique items, especially those that they find surprising. Entities with different thought processes to their own are the most capable of evoking surprise, hence the desire to trade. Or so it is hypothesized: they are essentially inscrutable. We only ever interact with avatars, which are uninteresting robots attached to what appear to be tiny ships. They pay for things they like with FTL ships (and any other "magic" you want in your story). They'll build the ship pretty much any way you ask: "value" appears to be a simple function of internal volume. However, a ship is one piece. It's almost indestructible, but if you do manage to break any part of it off, the whole thing and everything inside vanishes without trace (causing a vacuum implosion if it's in an atmosphere at the time. You might draw a parallel with toughened glass turning into small blunt fragments the moment you crack it anywhere. You might also use this as a reason piracy doesn't happen. You simply cannot break into a ship unless you can persuade its occupants to open up. )

It is hypothesized that ships can be made only in hyperspace, that they end up back there when they die, and we don't have the faintest idea how to establish any sort of permanent presence in hyperspace. All attempts to explore the outside environment of a ship while it is in FTL transit have resulted in the disappearance of that ship and its crew. No traces have ever been detected.

It is known that ships wear out. There are known, progressive symptoms of a ship that is no longer in pristine condition. As these symptoms become more apparent, the ship becomes less safe. What happens when it fails is unknown. It is simply lost without trace. The older it gets, the greater the risk of that fate.

The result is that there is never a shortage of old enough ships, and the real question is how much of a desperado you might be. Do you accept a one in a million chance of disappearing without trace to an unknown fate? One in a thousand? One in ten? Ten to one against?

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The bespoke ships aren't as good as mass produced ships

Out of Date tech: There was a time when it was fashionable for the rich to have their personally built ships but time and ship tech has passed those by. Now, you might get someone with more money than sense to buy one from you but no one who knows what they are doing would buy it no matter how shiny it is.

Built Inefficiently: Look at car trends. The thing has fins and chrome and other things that would make a designers gush and engineers kill designers.

  • Anything they do to work on it takes three times as long (one model of Cadillac required the shop to drop the front end off in order to change a headlight).

  • It is not set up for anything but cruising around. Cargo space? Hah!

  • Getting from the crew section to the "elite passenger section requires exiting the ship.

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This is a variation on Willk's answer (I actually cribbed it from the Heechee universe).

Ships are, more or less, for free.

Both ships and shipyards come from an ancient technology, so advanced it's almost incomprehensible; a "shipyard" is an artificial space monster that can be fed iron asteroids and will produce ships and parts of ships from a built-in menu, or shipyard "seeds" that, supplied with the required materials, will eventually grow into other shipyards.

So now you have lots of shipyards from "eggs" that were smuggled after the discovery of the one true shipyard back in the days, before the government was able to fully clamp down on the discovery. Ships are therefore dirt cheap, even more so if you go for a small one.

Ships can use anything for fuel, and are largely self-repairing.

But both ships and shipyards are next to impossible to reverse engineer, and attempts to do so usually destroy the hero, the ship, or both (think of a jungle savage trying to poke into a modern car. Given an infinite supply of cars, the tribe might learn in time how to drive, but little more).

Some useful side effects might be there - shipyards might possess transmutation capabilities and be able to "digest" and neutralize radioactive waste; a ship's anti-meteoroid shield can be detached and reused somewhere else, and ship's engines can be moved planet-side to produce cheap, clean energy from matter annihilation. This allows some weapon technology - ablation lasers and mass drivers, both energy hogs - but very little else.

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Don't justify it - because most things on our planet happen without justification.

Firstly, let's ignore the fact there will never be a crew as we already have ships and drones and the likes, flying themselves to destinations and back. Robotics companies are already designing robots to transport cargo via drones or carry cargo in the same way humans carry them because the ultimate goal is to replace as much human input as possible.

Secondly, the only people bold enough to fly around space in this manner (knowing the amount of sophisticated tracking technology at that point which would no-doubt eradicate illegal activity anyway) would be criminals.

Why bother justifying it? You don't need to justify it because 99.9% of the population really wouldn't care to ask how anyone got their rocket, what it flies on, where it parks, why it never needs to re-fuel. Ignorance is bliss.

Like today's world for example. How many people in the world right now actually care who the companies are that make the machines that mass produce the food on their supermarket shelves? Who really cared where their plastic bottles went for the last 40 years until it was on the news? How many people will stand up tomorrow and ask Nutella to justify why they are happy to destroy huge areas of rain forest and kill Orangutans just to ensure they keep making money from a tub of chocolate... a tub of chocolate to make people go "mm that was nice". It makes no sense why it's allowed, like most of the things we destroy on our planet.. it makes no sense and you can't justify it.

So to conclude.. the world is full of unjustifiable actions and calculations and most of it makes absolutely no sense why it's happening - but it does. So if our entire planet will happily continue buying Nutella or any other product that is causing the extinction of an animal then absolutely anything is possible like your rocket crew. If anyone asks you to justify it you say "because they just could and nobody stopped them".

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  • $\begingroup$ I find it amusing that any answer can be marked down given it's all completely made up fiction and anything is possible. $\endgroup$ – Adam Whateverson Jul 9 at 10:20

protected by James Jul 8 at 19:42

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