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You have an independent space station, it's in a place that is convenient as a jump point for space ships, so it gets visited. What makes a station like that valuable other than the obvious fuel and R&R for the visitors? (Also, where does the station even get fuel? In my worlds, ships travel via hyperspace. I haven't yet defined what fuel that would need).

It doesn't seem like fueling ships and providing alcohol, food and sundries for visitors would generate enough to sustain a large, functioning station (let's say 6-9,000 people).

This particular station is supposed to be technologically ahead of its rivals, so I'm trying to think of unique/innovative things it might be doing to make it a valuable destination.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do you have 6-9K people, which I assume is average on-hand staff? What's going on in the station to need that many people? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ How is this not a brainstorming question, and thus off-topic for WB.SE? $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 6:17
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    $\begingroup$ Same like any ship harbor, train station and airport on Earth? $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH Bars and brothels, duh $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ @Tom I agree, the line "I'm trying to think of unique/innovative things it might be doing" may as well be in the definition of what is a brainstorming question. MajorTom, I think this question would fit to WB.SE if you could narrow it down to a specific issue, like whether/how would a specific option work. $\endgroup$
    – Neinstein
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 12:24

23 Answers 23

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Trading Post

Space ships for interstellar travel are different to the space ships for planetary landing. Putting both types of engines on the same ship is a waste of money.

Traders do interstellar but not landing.

The station has a fleet of crafts for ferrying things up and down. But they do not do interstellar.

The space station is in a slow orbit around its planet. Traders dock at the station and do their trading there. Then they leave. The station charges a tax on everything bought or sold there.


See a similar answer to the question: Why would space traders pick up and offload their goods from an orbiting platform rather than direct to the planet?

There are different types of spaceships, the same way there are different types of transport in the real world. You can walk, cycle, drive, get a train or bus, or go to the airport.

There is no vehicle that picks you up from your front door, then flies through the air to another country, and drops you off outside your holiday villa. Such a thing is possible in principle. If you were super wealthy you could build a landing strip at both of your properties. But even this is a hassle since you have to listen to planes landing when you are trying to entertain guests.

For the rest of us, it is rare to get an airplane to the shops or to work. The few people who do commute by plane still use other transportation to get from the airport to their workplace. The plane won't drop them off at the door.

Likewise, there are different types of spaceships for different jobs. The spaceships that move from one orbital habitat to another cannot take off or land from the surface. The kind that go from the surface to orbit cannot move long distances between planets.

We could in principle build a ship that does both. But it would be a waste to lug all that surface-to-orbit gear around between planets. Plus that gear was expensive, and it being idle when the ship is in space is lost opportunity cost. That's like having an airplane full of bicycles. They are not doing anything when the plane is in the air.

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    $\begingroup$ Doesn't even have to be in orbit around just one planet, but the station could serve one entire solar system since FTL drives are very likely a completely different mechanism than "regular" (but far more precise) drives, shuttling cargo from planets to station and the other way around. Like major freight ports IRL have train and road connections to the destinations of the individual containers $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ This is kinda like economy works in Eve Online. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ Incidentally, this is captured very nicely in the PC game Empyrion. You have to design your own ships, module by module and block by block. It's very easy to make something that flies perfectly well in space, station to station, but its atmospheric options are either "crash" or "gracefully land but then lack the power to lift off". Making a ship that can do it all is prohibitive and usually means you gave up something else, for weight, like cargo space or weapons. $\endgroup$
    – JamieB
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ I would note that even outside of ship differences, it may still be advantageous to have a trading post in deep space. Imagine 3 different populated areas in a triangle, and some goods to be moved from one to both other corners: you can haul those goods to the first other then the second, but that's a lot of distance (and time). Put a deep space station right in the middle of the triangle, and you may be able to save quite a bit of distance. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 18:15
  • $\begingroup$ Add to that the hassle of politics, import customs and taxes. A duty-free space-port is a place where you can easily unpack all your stuff at once, even if it will still take weeks for everything to get processed through to individual countries on the planet. And the space-port owner will have trade agreements with the entities on the planet and knows all the customs and import laws. The space cargo captain sells to the space station and they distribute it to the planet. $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 11:19
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It would provide the same benefit as a ship's port. It allows you to switch vehicles and provide repairs.

The type of ship needed to take off and re-enter a world's gravity well and atmosphere will likely have different design criteria than one made for sailing the black.

Lifters need to trade efficiency for thrust. It doesn't matter how efficient your thrust is if you can't overcome the planet's gravity. Also, lifters need to be more streamlined and robust to handle reentry.

Long haulers (whether they have FTL or not) need efficiency. They also have equipment that is just extra weight when trying to land and lift off a planet. You need crew quarters, robust life support, entertainment, food store/prep, etc. It also doesn't need to waste mass being strong enough to enter an atmosphere. This gets even more pronounced if the long haulers use FTL drives that aren't used when landing or taking off.

I'm not saying that you can't have a long hauler that can land on a planet (military, new colony worlds, etc.) but it is more efficient to make a long hauler that only long hauls. Any shipping company tries to be as efficient as possible to make as much profit as possible.

All of the stuff that L.Dutch mentioned will happen just because that stuff happens whenever you have people gathered. It's better to make it legal and above board because it will happen either way.

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Logistics Hubs and Ports: The Space Station might be set up in a system with no other habitable world and serves as a logistics hub. Essentially, it's not closer to one major trade power or another, but it's closer to every trade power compare than every other trade power. In this situation, ships will stop to off load cargo to be picked up by other ships, while keeping cargo it already has and taking on cargo bound for it's final destination. The airline industry already works like this with a Hub and Spoke model, where most flights will fly from outlying airports to a regional hub where passengers will make connecting flights to their final destination. It's here not because anything valuable exists here, but rather everything of value will pass here.

Hyperspace Convergence - If Hyperspace in your system works like in Star Wars, than there are specific routes that one has to take in an interconnected network. The space station can be set up in the vicinity of intersections of major hyperspace lanes... allowing for something similar to your Logistics Hub. Lots of ships are passing this point for another location, so infrastructure develops to support the needs of the traffic.

Resource extraction - The system has no habitable worlds, but that doesn't mean it isn't valuable. The space station is set up to provide working quarters plus processing centers and ports for the purpose of shipping a valuable good to other systems (Hell, this could solve your fuel question... the space station is in a system rich with the raw fuel and the station is important because you need infrastructure to work these things. It might make the system a boom town or a company town as well, but everyone is here because "DRILL BABY DRILL".

Strategic Mountain Pass. Opposite of the intersection, here, for some reason, all traffic bound for certain systems must pass through here. Maybe there's only one hyperplane connection between your side and the exciting other side. Maybe it's more of a wormhole that acts as a bypass of millions of lightyears. If two separate governments control either end of this pass, then it could be that both have a continued military and law enforcement presence to keep tabs on the movement in and out of their territory. Deep Space Nine used this reason. After all, what does everyone go to see a space opera for? If you said, "complicated politics that lead to trade blockades" than this is the solution for you!

Diplomatic Neutrality - The space station was set up here to serve as an a body for interstellar diplomacy and negotiation. It was picked not because of it's importance, but rather of it's non-importance. Nobody made a claim to this territory because there was nothing here worth claiming (Babylon V) or alternatively, it's at a logistic hub central location or a hyperspace intersection that means most powers party to the political assembly can reach here... not only does this also add lots of traffic, but now you have political intrigue as diplomacy is all about cloak and dagger. In real life, many nations capitols were located in where they were because the spot wasn't important to anyone, so no one who should be equals is given importance by claiming territorial power.

Remember when people said "You can't make new land?" In effect, real estate is expensive because there's only a finite amount of it on planet Earth. If you could make more real-estate, you can sell it to people who want a place to call their own for pennies on the dollar. Essentially, you are acting as a suburb for people who have that all American dream of two shuttle pods in every space port and a Zendakian Slime Slug in every pot on Sunday! Works well for people who telecommute, or can commute to the place of work on the planet you orbit. Why settle for the mansion on the hill, when you can have living quarters in the stars.

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Look at what many places do to get an income:

  • touristic spot
  • hosting gambling and other borderline activities for which it can act as an offshore paradise
  • renting spaces for activities which can be better done in microgravity
  • produce something which can be advertised as "made in space", for those which might see in it an added value
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    $\begingroup$ Microgravty production is the key thing. People are calculating RIGHT NOW IRL whether to manufacture Fiberglass in space is commercially viable (and with launch prices falling we're soo close to there). Generally any and everything with optics and/or crystal growing (which is a LOT, just think about computer chip wafers) would benefit massively from no or little gravity. And with ridiculously low sci-fi launch costs, orbital manufacturing would be king in a lot of applications $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ I think L.Dutch may have been referring to kitsch tourist-crap rather than actual valuable microgravity products. People will buy all sorts of stupid little things if you tack a "made on Rigel-4" sticker on it. $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Ruadhan both actually (third and fourth bullet) $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Ah yeah, I kind of assumed you meant the renting spaces would be for things like zero-g football and skybiking rather than microgravity manufacturing as-such. and that the fourth point was the kitsch tourist-items (Perfect microgravity starburst-quartz in a pendant! You can't get this on a planet! Never mind that it's basically a byproduct of our normal manufacturing of computer-chips and we get a million of these every week..) $\endgroup$
    – Ruadhan
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 8:43
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Duty free shop / no gravity well

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duty-free_shop

A duty-free shop (or store) is a retail outlet whose goods are exempt from the payment of certain local or national taxes and duties, on the requirement that the goods sold will be sold to travelers who will take them out of the country, who will then pay duties and taxes in their destination country (depending on its personal exemption limits and tariff regime). Which products can be sold duty-free vary by jurisdiction, as well as how they can be sold, and the process of calculating the duty or refunding the duty component.

Those boneheads planetside are always taxing, taxing, taxing. And you never know when there is going to be some new law and you wont be able to get your smokes, or slaves, or fancy cheese!

None of that BS on the station. If it is for sale it is for sale there, and cheaper than down in any taxman infested polity.


Taxes aside doing business on the station makes good sense for bulk commodity export products. Why bring ten thousand metric tons of metal down into some gravity well only to have your buyer have to schlep it back up again to take it home? Bulk commodities storage and transactions occupies a lot of space on the station and accounts for a lot of day to day employment by station residents.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the commodity idea, even though it's not necessarily a technology advancement/advantage. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – MajorTom
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ @MajorTom Most suggestions will be benefits of location and not benefits of technology. If you think about it, the technology involved with skyscrapers has improved dramatically in the last 100 years, but other than the ability to build taller buildings, the technology has had almost no affect on how the buildings are used. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 21:15
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Advertising.

An object about 112m in diameter is visible as a disk from space. Or in space in low Earth orbit, visible from the surface. So a 1 km diameter bill-board could display such things as a logo. Imagine a car logo (as you often see on the back of cars) or a beer logo on a 1 km wide mylar sheet. The advertiser pays per week or month or whatever. The sheet gets spray painted with the logo, then it gets unfurled from the space station. Extra fees apply to provide artificial lighting to increase the visibility.

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  • $\begingroup$ This might be the most realistic, +1 $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Share and Enjoy. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ I've seen that movie. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ But billboards aren't destinations, nor do they require manpower except when changing the ad periodically. I agree this is a good way for the station to make money, but it doesn't make it a valuable destination or necessitate a large permanent population. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ And it demands an audience. This station is not over an inhabited planet. It's a jump point. $\endgroup$
    – MajorTom
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 17:18
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I'm not going to worry about fuel, hotels, conference services, customs, etc. They've already been addressed by you or others.

Rent to the Military

While it's believable that the military would want their own space, the reality is that national budgets are complicated! It's common today for militaries to rent space from countries. If your world has multiple nations, that means you can rent to multiple militaries! (Watch how you word the contracts...).

Neutral Embassy Space

You never know what a nation needs! But I can't imagine a better location for neutral spy embassy space! The ability to conduct espionage conduct delicate negotiations without the burden of worrying if the location has a conflict of interest is of immeasurable value.

Communications Hub

A station that big must certainly have the ability to be the clearing house for all transmissions in the hemisphere over which it orbits! Even folks with their own satellites would use you as a convenient data transhipment area, which means you can also be a...

Data Warehouse

An off-planet data warehouse for secure storage and backup storage. The ultimate solution in case of fire, earthquake, or flood taking out your on-planet workstations!

High Security Vault

And while we're talking about storing valuable things, there is no vault on the planet that's as secure as your vault in space! When people want to store the crown jewels they just stole from England their family heirlooms, they come to you! For a modest fee you'll store their crap valuable goods for generations with an absolute guarantee that they're secure!

Duty-Free Shopping!

My apologizes to @willk, who already had this answer. When you get rolling it's easy to forget what everyone else wrote. I upvoted his answer. You should to. Everybody likes Duty-Free.

Your station was built by a private company? GREAT! Assuming the laws of your world allow this, your station has no national affiliation! Woo-hoo! Duty free alcohol! it's like shopping the Dark Web without having to worry about faceless anonymity or whether or not your credit card is about to be shared with a Nigerian Prince. Never underestimate the willingness of people to buy products tax/tariff/VAT free.

Rent to every college and university with two pennies to rub together on the planet

I can easily imagine institutes of higher learning wanting to teach classes and conduct research in a weightless environment. Or an environment above the Van Allen radiation belts (if you are...). Or simply outside the atmosphere in the vacuum of space! it's a LOT cheaper to rent from you than to buy your own station!

Ore Processing

Who wants the cost of sending ore to the planet? All you really want is the refined material, anyway! Besides, the perpetual meteor shower created by dumping the slag into the atmosphere is really pretty!

Firework Shows

Your sales team really came up with a doozy! They've discovered that there are towns and nations large and small perfectly willing to buy into a fireworks package celebrating all kinds of things! It's safer than launching from the planet surface because you can detonate the fireworks higher in the air... and because you can do that, you can create spectacular shows!

Rent to the Planetary Police Force

Your nations have created an international organization to support policing of the ever increasing interplanetary trade. Pirates are a growing problem and they need to have local resources to stop it! And a few square feet of your station is a LOT cheaper than buying one of their own.

Legal Services for the Discerning Client

You know what else is amazing about having no national allegiance, you are a nation! Even if you're skirting rules because the nations of your world simply have to have your other services, that puts you in a GREAT position to provide legal services with no national attachments. Criminal Sophisticated companies incorporate through you because you have absolutely the best corporate tax rates anywhere and most countries haven't yet realized they need extradition treaties the benefits of working with someone completely neutral.

Base Jumping

Need I say more?! Just sign our liability waiver here, here and here.

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Part One: Space Manufacturing.

Manufactering vacuum tubes?

Pumping air out to make a vacuum for vacuum tubes uses energy and costs money. Outer space provides a infinite amount of much thinner vacumn than can be produced on Earth. If vacuum tubes are sturdy enough to survive passage down to a planetary surface, and other factors are favorable, manufactoring them on a space station could be profitable.

Outer space is a good place for manufacturing anything which requires a vacuum and/or microgravity and maybe also the ability to change the level of gravity during manufacture by rising or lowering the machinery toward or away fromt the center of the rotating space habitat.

Maybe airtight gas bags (or vacuum bags) of airships could be made in outer space. They could have electomagnets in the fabic. They can be exposed to vacuum and lose all their air, and them be folded up and shipped to a planet with an atmopshere. There they can be installed inside airships with atomic power supply. When the power supply is hooked up to the gas bags it powers the electomagnets in the gas bags which al lhave the same charge and so repell each other. Thus the gas bags expand to fill the ineterior and slowly push out all the air from inside the airship. When the interior is completely filled with vacuum filled bags the air vents can be closed.

The step of making the bags in outer space would ensre that there would as hard a vacuum as possible insdide them. And vacuum is even lighter than hydrogen gas and so has more lifting power.

Possibly giant vacuum bags could be used to support colonies floating in the atmospheres of gas giant planets.

And I suppsoe there are lot of other things which people can imagine might be manufactured only in space, or better in space.

Part Two. Space Tourism.

Space tourism is a industry which is just sort of taking off on (from) Earth.

People usually imagine space habitats as giant hollow spinning cylinders filled with air and with about one Earth gravity (1 g) on the inside of the outer cylinder walls. And they imagine that the inside will be one giant void filled with air.

And that seems like a great waste of space and air to me. I imagine that a real space habitat should have several inhabited levels one above the other, like an underground city with several levels, at about the distance necessary for 1 g.

And above those several underground levels there can be an open space like is usually pictured. But not wastefully filling the whole interior above. Instead there will be a roof over that air filled "exterior" space, probablly just a few whundred feet above the "ground" level, a cylinder running all the way around the habitat and supported by columns from below and/or suspended by wires from the center of the cylinder.

And there would be a vacuum above the roof of that open air section.

And somewhere above that roof there would another pair of concentric air tight cylnders with breathable atmosphere. The gravity level on the bottom cylinder in that pair should be about 1.352 meters per second per second or 0.138 g, the surface gravity of Titan. It is claimed that people would be able to strap artifical wings on their arms and fly in the low surface gravity and dense atmosphere of Titan.

So people should be able to take off from the surface and fly higher in regions of even lower gravity in the air filled space between the two cylinders. Writers have imagned people flying with wings strapped to their arms in the vast interior space of O'Neil cylinders. And of course if such flyers get too low and too close to the 1 g level. the gravity will be two strong for them to fly back up and they plummet to their deaths.

So with my design the natives can tell the tourists that they thought of everything and the flying area has been designed to avoid that danger and be perfectly safe. And then a clever enough writer should be able to imagine a way for a dumb enough tourist or a lazy designer of the habitat to find or make a falling danger, and also think of a way to save the endangered person.

And no doubt there are other space tourism features which could be imagined.

I note that a section of the habitat projecting out and down from the 1 g level might be visited by tourists to experience higher gavity. It is quite possible that spending specific periods of time at specific levels of gravity slightly higher than 1 g might be discovered to beneficial for one's health.

Part Three: A Space Graveyard.

Possibly one industry in the space habitat would be storing "corpsicles", dead people frozen in the hope of being brought back to life by the advanced science of future centuries.

In popular culture the forzen dead are depicted as stored in mechanical refrigerator units, but vats of liquid nitrogen are actually used on Earth.

In outer space a volume of vacuum completely enclosed and thus shaded from sunlight should have a very temperature, and so "corpsicles" within it should maintain a steady low temperature. And cleaver designs to make certain the volume within stays within the correct temperatue range through absolutely passive means no matter what happens might be imagined.

Part Four: Port Facilities.

Supplies coming from outer space or from a planetary surface to the space station or habitat to be used there will have to be unloaded in some sort of port facilities. People coming and going will have to use some sort of port facilities.

Thus your space station or space habitat will have some sort of docking or port facilities for its own use. And it may have larger port facilities for commercial use. And as others have pointed, surface to orbit space ships, interplanetary cargo ships and passenger liners, and interstellar cargo and passenger ships might have very different structural requirements and different types of ships might be needed for thoe different purposes.

Thus some sort of port facilities in orbit around planets or floating in interplanetary or interstellar space may be needed in the space travel system of a story.

So science fiction writers have been imagining the use of space stations and space habitats as busy space ports for many decades before Babylon 5 (1993-1998) or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999). Thus making a fictional Ctesiphon Seven or Back Space Ten a space port is very logical.

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  • $\begingroup$ Microgravity tourism; in SF novels I have read there is considerable excitement in the idea on null-G sex. This would be the big attraction for honeymooners and so on. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ And then there's null-G sport. Entirely new kinds of sport. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 8:27
  • $\begingroup$ With all that vacuum available, it's possible to have large-scale distillation for manufacturing processes. They also make liquor. $\endgroup$
    – Wastrel
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 12:04
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It's a distribution center

Very few things are worth producing in space. Mining, refining, manufacturing, farming, packaging, etc. are all things that are cheaper and safer to do on land than in space; so, you need to focus on what you can only do optimally in space.

Imagine you have an Empire of 1000 worlds and only one of those worlds produces a certain thing. All 1000 worlds want at least some of this thing, but sending ships to all 1000 worlds is not economical. Some worlds are just too small to justify direct shipping, and some don't actually produce anything the this colony needs to buy from them. This is where distribution centers come in. Instead of sending out many smaller ships to specific trade partners, they can send a single super freighter to the distribution center to offload your whole interplanetary inventory, and while they are there they can fill thier cargo hold up with all the big and little orders of stuff they need from the other 1000 worlds, and return home. This means, shorter, simpler, cheaper shipping lanes and more availability of consumer goods for everyone.

The reason it has a population of 6-9,000 people is because they have to handle a LOT of cargo. Amazon employs 100s of thousands of people just to cover the distribution center needs of our 1 little world. So, while you might think 9000, is a lot, it's actually a skeleton crew for the job you're getting done here. The vast majority of work is done by robotic automation with humans just being around to keep things in working order. Even will millions or robotic drones doing the real work, it could still take thousands of Technicians, Engineers, Mechanics, Accountants, Security Personnel, Flight controllers, Tugboat Captains, etc. to keep all of those countless automated systems flowing. A distribution center on this scale could be handling billions of dollars of cargo a day; so, it would only take a very modest shipping and handling fee for these space colonist to make money hand over fist as the interplanetary middlemen of shipping.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Very few things are worth producing in space. Mining, refining, manufacturing, farming, packaging, etc. are all things that are cheaper and safer to do on land than in space; so, you need to focus on what you can only do optimally in space." Mining, refining, manufacturing, farming, packaging, might be safer for the employees on a planet, but they would be safer for the planetary environment if they happen in outer space instead of on the planet. Moving them into outerspace might be necessary for survival. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding Not really, the extra fuel you burn sending ships back and forth between a planet will do a lot more damage than local production. Also, space stations have much more volatile environments than planets. Because they are closed systems with very tiny environmental tolerances, any production you do in space will require so much environmental controls, you could make carbon neutral closed facilities for cheaper on planet. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ There are only a hand full of things that have quality advantages when build in zero-G like silicon monocrystals for making microchips, but those are the exception, not the rule. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 14:34
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Ore Extraction

If your station is parked by an asteroid field, then it would be a great place to assist in mining operations, whether that being habitation for miners, equipment sales, or refining ore brought in.

Being a Wet dock

This station, like Tycho station in the novel series the Expanse, could be a very great dock for in-space construction and ship repairs.

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Its a Port

It's a port. Conceptually, no different to those on Earth.

It may enjoy duty-free privileges. Things can be imported, stored there, re-exported, without paying full import duties to the government of the planet below. Value may be added by assembling imports from various places and re-exporting. Maybe cheap labour can also be imported and exploited outside the laws of the planet below.

It may be a necessary quarantine facility. If some new plague arrives from out-of-system, there is a chance of confining it in the station before it is brought down to the planet. It may also exist to keep hyperspace engines at a safe distance, if the technology is such than a catastrophic explosion is possible.

It is likely to be a customs post. People and goods don't get to be transported down to the planet before their documents have been inspected and approved, and taxes assessed and paid.

Organised crime will have its own uses for the station. (I don't believe there is any port on planet Earth which does not boast a statistical over-representation of criminal elements).

Conversely(?) it may develop into a centre of banking and law and arbitration, if it gains a reputation for fair-handed dealing with all parties and incorruptibility. (On Earth, many contracts are drawn up under English, Swiss or US law, even if neither party to the contract is incorporated or operating in those countries).

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Lawless Territory

The station is in open space, which means that there is no government which imposes their laws on the station. This allows the people living and working on the station a lot of freedoms, like for example:

  • Ignore intellectual property rights
  • Be unencumbered by censorship or moral laws
  • Enjoy political or religious freedoms
  • Provide and consume goods and services which are considered illegal elsewhere
  • Avoid government bureaucracy. Either out of convenience or because one has something to hide.
  • Not pay taxes

In order to establish a peaceful environment, the station itself will probably want to regulate some of the points above and might also raise taxes of their own to finance the operation of the station. But having the freedom to enact any laws and policies as they fit the station without considerations for higher governments allows them far more flexibility.

Most of that independence would probably be even easier to acquire on a station that is not near a major travel route. But being in a well-traveled area makes logistics a lot easier. Getting someone to deliver a package to a station on a trade route would be a lot easier and cheaper than to get the same package delivered to some backwater system that's hundreds of parsecs away from the next inhabited world.

So the combination of lax laws and central location makes the station a very attractive place to live and work.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Delaware II, +1. (Why are they all [not really] there if Nevada, South Dakota, and Wyoming have no corporate or individual income tax?) $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 3:25
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Your station provides what its visitors want and nothing more (because why the waste?).

What visitors want is up to you, but it is typically the services that you mention: alcohol, food, and sundries.

A high-traffic station makes for great mercantile opportunities. Some of your income may come from renters who sell goods/services of their own. Body shops for overhauling private spacecraft, perhaps. Take a look at your average city in the West. Every business exists for a market, and many of our major markets will undoubtedly follow us off Earth and into space.

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Look at Singapore. No natural resources to speak of, no massive industrial or technological base, yet one of the wealthiest nations in that part of the world, because it controls the major shipping lane between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Depending on location, the refueling/resupplying might be enough to make the station economically viable.

Or consider Athens--started out as a resupply port, then expanded their industrial base to become a major industrial/commercial and trading hub, something Singapore has also done with some success. You get raw materials in, you get finished goods out, all without having the added costs of a gravity well.

Add in something for the crews to do on shore leave, and ships would love to come to your station--a full load both ways, and entertainment while the unloading/loading is done.

As regards fuel,you can either import from other locations and sell at a premium (seriously, any customers are captive--where else are they going to refuel), or base your station near a suitable fuel source--a star, a nebula, or a gas giant, depending on the fuel you use.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Singapore [...] no massive industrial or technological base": I know that we are on Worldbuilding, but this is a massive difference from the real world. In the real world, "Singapore is the world's 3rd-largest foreign exchange centre, 6th-largest financial centre, 2nd-largest casino gambling market, 3rd-largest oil-refining and trading centre, largest oil-rig producer and hub for ship repair services, and largest logistics hub", as the kind fount of all knowledge informs us. Add a large tourism sector. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ Singapore is not real. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP: Not in 1971, it wasn't. It started out as a place to take in fresh water for ships running from the Near- and Middle-East to the Far-East. Then added cheap labour for semi-skilled industry, then slowly developed the rest over the last 40 years $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 4:05
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Solar Power.

Power could then be beamed back to earth as microwaves etc.

I think it's pretty self explanatory, but the station would provide jobs in maintenance and probably some fabrication.

Cheers

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  • $\begingroup$ That's not a differentiator though - any station could provide that. I can have a station orbit any planet to do that. I don't need to go to a station for it. $\endgroup$
    – MajorTom
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ But then the station will block light from hitting the solar panels on the surface below. Checkmate Atheists! $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ It would be more cost effective to do the manufacturing and the engineering in space. So from material mined from NEO or something like that, then you avoid the gravity well of earth. You could use any of these ideas around any planet, I don't really see the point there. For solar power to be a real option you need lots and lots of surface are which means a lot of solar panels. Then you need a way to transmit that back to earth. A way to repair damage from micro meteors or other space junk etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ As for "the station will block the light. Not sure what you mean by that but it's pretty obvious you would build the station on the planet facing side of the solar arrays. In other words in the shadow of the solar panels. For one this provides a clear line of site from the station to the planet which is important for communication, power transmission, and even docking from the surface. And it would also reduce the thermal management needed in the living spaces. etc.. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ Another thing to consider about space based power. Is that the military is increasingly relying on technology. Such as night vison, rand finders, drones etc. The energy or electrical requirements of the military has skyrocketed. Wouldn't it be nice instead of having to run generators to charge their gear they could just beam that power down from space... $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 15:30
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Illicit Activities

Space law is still in the early stages. Space is not the domain of any existing country. It is hard to agree who can settle a dispute or punish criminals. That means anyone with enough money to build a space station is king of their own island.

This particular station is supposed to be technologically ahead of its rivals, so I'm trying to think of unique/innovative things it might be doing to make it a valuable destination.

Tartarus Station is the final stronghold of freedom in the midst of a galaxy slowly asphyxiating under the fascist paw. Everything is for sale. Everyone is for sale. Just name your price!

We have all manner of technologically advanced but morally dubious (and certainly illegal) services. Recreational drugs. Un-recreational poisons. The Orgasmotron Mk. II. Chemical and biological weapons. Dangerous and experimental body edits. Putting your brain in a robot body. Genetically modifying your children. Obtaining genetic material of celebrities. Bootleg Michael Jackson Albums. "Grey goo" style nanobots. Off-brand Geena Davis clones. Putting your brain in your childrens' bodies. Ordinary nanobots. Caches of private data hacked from governments and corporate servers. Buying spare organs. Loan sharks. Regular sharks (the endangered kind). Selling your organs to pay back the loan shark. Putting your brain in a robo-shark body.

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Surgery/implants/augmentations, aka advanced medicine

You say your space station is ahead of its neighbors, so it should have some high-tech stuff on board, with people who can operate and fix that high-tech stuff. One thing that might be needed for people who come there is getting themselves fixed in a manner that onboard medical personnel and devices cannot reliably provide. Say, devise and create an implant for say ultravision/infravision, or physical augmentation of some kind, an artificial arm instead of one lost in SPAAACE somewhere, etc. Same for drugs in broad sense, microgravity could help in synthesizing complicated molecules usable for both healing and pleasure.

Docks/drydocks

Space ships need repairs, some repairs are not able to be performed on their own. So, have a drydock (with atmosphere if needed) on your station, and repair/replace/upgrade modules at a price, such price could be large enough to sustain the station economy alone, since the demand is about constant, every ship at least needs some diagnostics before allowing it to refuel anyway. What if it'll blow up at a refuel terminal?

Recruitment center

Stations in space are more like island ports in an ocean world, people of all sorts can be found there. You want a new space cadet with some technical background? Why don't you hire that kid with ten years of space travel behind, who just failed to negotiate his salary with his former captain? Or you want some security crew because pirates, well here are some mercenaries that are running dry on cash and would be happy to join you for food and a little extra.

Hypernet hub/endpoint/retranslator

You have a hyperspace travel in your universe, have also a hypernet with station-mounted transceivers for hyperconnectivity, so your station can also be a news provider for those who don't have an energy budget to run their own hypernet access point. For a price of course, yet some info could be available for free, you decide.

Protection from pirates/enemies

Space stations usually have a big (bigger) reactor onboard to sustain life and facilities for larger amount of people, so let's add some weaponry and shielding to protect those civilians (or not-so-civilians) seeking shelter. Weapons of some kind are anyway needed for a space station, as it can't escape if someone would desire its contents, so the offenders should prepare to pay dearly for the attempt.

Where to get fuel - that depends largely on your imagination as an author. For example, some fuel could be mined from solar winds, some from asteroid fields (so mining facilities could be present at or near the station), some from whatever extra dimensions you have there, some are plain converted from incoming energy (mind you do NOT use the station's reactor to generate fuel, unless it's based on some exotic stuff that produces way too much energy to utilize), maybe there are more sources of fuel out there I can't yet recall being named somewhere.

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Pick any small town in the world, and you'll have a model of what a space station needs to be and do. Towns grow up around one of four things:

  1. Transportation and communications hub
  2. Natural resources
  3. Natural beauty
  4. Large target population

The transportation bit can be broken down into a few categories.

  • A. Onloading near natural resources
  • B. Merging of multiple other transport paths
  • C. Reprocessing stations
  • D. Consumer access

Communications hubs naturally follow the paths of transportation hubs.

Take, for instance, Kansas City. That's the point where all of the ranchers drove their cattle to be slaughtered and shipped off. It's a reprocessing point and onloading depot.

Denver is a huge mining town. You'll get one of these just outside of any mining space, like Mercury or the asteroid belt.

St. Louis is a communications and transport hub, where things are stored, repackaged, and change transport modes.

Chances are, any space station near a mining resource will attract processing facilities. Raw materials will be refined on the ground, outside the mine. Once the non-useful parts are extracted, the purified materials will be shipped off-planet to a station where they'll get melded into alloys, pressed into sheets, billets, rods, etc., and then those materials will be shipped to a manufacturing plant where they'll get turned into actual parts, then the parts will be shipped to an assembly plant for things like robots and spaceships. Each step will be incrementally closer to the target customers.

Manufacturing plants need employees, and employees need supermarkets and clothing and a thousand other things. Industrial facilities will accumulate around a shared service infrastructure, allowing for more efficient people management.

And then you have a city in space.

Addendum: Some friends have pointed out places like Las Vegas that focus on giving people somewhere to get away from their normal lives. Las Vegas actually takes advantage of an artificial scarcity of something that you don't normally consider a natural resource: Freedom. People go there for vice-seeking opportunities that are harder to access in the surrounding areas.

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Gas giant hunting

The spaceship is orbiting a gas giant which it scoups fuel from, a mix of radioactive isotopes and hydrogen and helium for fuel. It is uniquely advanced in its ability to go down to the surface to collect huge amounts of fuel, and also there's a native lifeform on the surface. You can go on hunting or nature tours there, so there's a large industry to support that.

Their technologically inferior rivals normally need to rely on asteroid mining and such for fuel gathering, which is much slower and less efficient, and lack the ability to reliably dip into gas giants.

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If we are talking about a completely independent station and not a part of a larger organization, and one that has 6,000-9,000 people (which is a significantly larger population than the town I live in, by the way), then this isn't just a few tourist shops and in interstellar gas station. This is going to be an entire ecosystem. Assuming the employees aren't commuting to and from work at the beginning and end of a shift, a lot of your station is going to be infrastructure for the staff. Think of how a cruise ship works... the guests are there paying exorbitant amounts of money (both built into the cost of the ticket and added on later) for services, entertainment, shopping, drinks, excursions, and so-on. But to provide all of that, the ship has a whole community below-decks not only of people you see, but stores, services, kitchens, shops, and other facilities just for the staff.

Your station offers a convenient stopping-off point for...

  • Refuel/resupply
  • Intermodal freight transfer
  • Customs
  • Communications
  • Medical treatment
  • Mechanical/engineering services
  • Temporary lodging and meals while the aforementioned services are performed
  • Entertainment

Additionally, you have a large staff of customer-facing employees that all have their own needs, too... You are going to need a place to buy groceries, clothing and uniforms, barber shops, schools and teachers for children that end up on the station, janitors, recreational facilities, basic supplies, electronics and appliances, and anything else your average person might need to be reasonably happy and productive while going about their life.

Depending on the standard of living in your universe, it might even be completely feasible to charge back all (or even more than) the station pays in wages in the form of food, rent, and services provided to employees of the station. This is what the mines in Appalachia used to do. The employee makes 1000 credits per week, but before they get their "check" the station deducts 500 for rent, 300 for food, 100 for medical treatments which are mostly necessary because of the reduced gravity in crew living quarters, 120 at the bar, and 87.50 for some cleaning supplies and a bottle of Tylenol you got from the supply closet. You end up with -107.50 credits at the end of the week, but the station is happy to offer its employee's low interest rates on borrowed sums, and they only ever have to be paid back when you leave the station.

Remember too that cost is relative. Unless the laws of physics have been bent in your universe, operating inside a gravity well is going to be really expensive from a fuel standpoint. It is probably still cheaper to pay whatever high prices are commanded at the station than to fly your ship to a planetary body and then have to claw your way back out in order to activate some kind of FTL. It would be safer too, not only for the crews, but definitely for the planetary inhabitants. A large object from space colliding with our planet at high speed is why dinosaurs aren't having this conversation right now instead of us. Let's learn from their misfortune and keep the massive space-freighters far away from situations where a an itty-bitty drive malfunction would be an extinction-level catastrophe.

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Science

A space station parsecs away from inhabitable planets is THE place to experiment with stellar system wrecking things such as strangelets. Same reason why nukes used to be tested on deserts rather than on forrests. You madden and endanger less people this way. People coming in and out are mostly scientists and engineers. Due to its location the station also serves as a port, but that's a side activity.

Territorial claim

In order to claim a territory you have to occupy it. The station is not in much use now, but might be important someday (im case of war or ogher developments), or might have religious significance to some people. They'll keep it staffed to prevent others from claiming that region of space. Again, it will serve as a port on the side.

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Ghetto

There's no revenue stream so reliable as welfare.

You can make money off the homeless. Money off drug addicts. Etc,etc.

Long ago, politicians realised that people will feel virtuous and compassionate purely because they vote for the pro welfare party. Unlike on earth, the local crime, homelessness, and squalor remains totally invisible and deniable.

NGO staff do highly compensated flights in and out with little effect other than to get funding for their employers just like they do today in the developing world.

Fuel is subsidised and the few areas where the ever-so-virtuous NGOs and administrative staff / bureaucrats live remain secure and comfortable.

Like the trendy parts of New York, California, Latin America, Paris, etc, visitors still come.

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Garbage Truck

Orbital debris is already a problem, and no one wants to wake up to Kessler Syndrome. People will pay for someone to clean up.

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