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This is, for the record, the same universe as in Is space piracy orbitally practical? and How can I prevent Kessler Syndrome among space stations?.

In my world, circa 2100, space stations orbiting Earth, Venus and Mars provide transit hubs for the inner Solar System. Small shuttles take people to Low Earth Orbit, and larger ships ferry them from there to other destinations, following flights similar to kingledion's suggestion (from Earth to Mars, a 3.60 km/s burn for acceleration and the same for deceleration, via Hohmann transfers). Currently, Pan-Solar Spacelines has commercial flights to:

  • Earth, Venus and Mars
  • The Moon
  • The asteroid belt, once a month
  • Flights to the Jovian moons, primarily chartered by major governments sending publically-funded exploratory missions.

My traveler is about to head to Mars from Earth, immigrating to the newest polar colony. However, his flight is delayed, because of [X]. I'm trying to figure out what [X] could be, in terms of a uniquely space-based delay. This should rule out Earth problems like normal weather and congested flight paths.

What are the main problems that will plague spaceliners in this world?


To be clear, I'm not looking for overly fanciful one-time-only disasters that could cause delays, but more normal and common issues. Suggesting the outbreak of war between Earth and Mars, for example, would not be a normal event and is not what I'm looking for.

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    $\begingroup$ So you don't want answers like "There's a terrorist in the building!"? $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Dec 14 '16 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre If you could show that there would be terrorist threats unique to space, I'd definitely take that, but that's in general also an issue on Earth airports, too. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 14 '16 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ You're asking this about the same universe as space pirates and you wonder why there might be delays $\endgroup$ – Kys Dec 14 '16 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Kys In what I can only refer to as the Golden Age of Piracy, I'm guessing there weren't too many shipping delays because of piracy. In theory, it's a threat you can't predict. You can only hope for the best, and deal with it when it happens. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 14 '16 at 15:45
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    $\begingroup$ @njzk2 Moving about in space is all about orbits, and to change orbit you have to change your speed. The faster you're moving, the higher your orbit. Different types of fuel provide different amounts of thrust per unit of mass they have. If you have two amounts of fuel "1kg of Foo", "2kg of Bar" there's no easy way of comparing them without knowing more information. So instead of using an amount of fuel, you use an amount of change in speed. This is known as delta-v. So it takes roughly 3.6 km/s delta-v to get from earth to mars.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta-v $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica Dec 15 '16 at 13:32

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Someone detected an asteroid

There are lots of small asteroids. Even in 2100, when the solar system is well mapped, carbonaceous asteroids with low albedo will be very hard to detect passively. Further, radar is relatively ineffective for scanning the vast distances between Earth and Mars.

A few hours before scheduled departure, a freighter coasting to Mars detects a small 100m asteroid on passive IR, and reports to the Solar Coast Guard. A notice-to-mariners is sent out to all ships in the inner solar system. Most flights are unaffected but Martian Spacelines delays a scheduled burn in 6 hours time for an Earth to Mars transit due to uncertainty about the asteroid's whereabouts. Given that their ship intends to burn once and then coast for months, it is very costly to have to make a course correction mid-flight. Since the passengers were still in the terminal, they delayed boarding to prevent unnecessary waiting.

The Solar Coast Guard contacts Traffic control Mars (TCM) to update the asteroid. TCM fires up the phased array on the nearest deep-space radar station and detects the asteroid. After an hour of study, they have a confident plot of its course, and release another notice-to-mariners.

Martian Spacelines re-checks the nav plot, confirms the asteroid is not a problem, and boards the flight, 8 hours late. Not really a big deal, given the months of travel time.

Coronal Mass Ejection

This story is a lot simpler. "Coronal Mass Ejection detected", said the voice on the loudspeaker as the alarm lights flashed yellow, "estimated bow shock arrival time is 11 hours. All spaceflights have been secured. All station personnel report to emergency radiation shelters. All passengers report to your carrier information desk to find your designated shelter spot. "

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    $\begingroup$ Do you perchance know if LEO objects are partially shielded by magnetosphere from CME radiation and are instead under risk of being fried by EMP blast caused by resultant Geomagnetic Storm? That would be a great reason to stay on station that is both EMP-hardened and radiation shielded (by both lead and magnetosphere) instead of boarding the ship which, to save weight, will have none. $\endgroup$ – M i ech Dec 14 '16 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech LEO is well within the magnetosphere. You would be suicidal to leave the magnetosphere when a CME had been reported; with the thrust levels that I understand to be possible in the OP's scenario, I don't see any way of outrunning the mass of charged particles (average speed ~500 km/s), much less the x-rays and near-light speed cosmic rays. Even in the magnetosphere, the interaction of charged particles with the magnetic field will cause all sorts of unwelcome events. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 14 '16 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ How about a CRE that isn't intense or well-aimed enough to actually be threatening, but just powerful enough to increase the failure rate of electronics (and cancer rates of crew) by a fraction of a percent, and the Space Bureaucrats say that that's considered Unsafe and ground all flights. That sounds like a plausible day-to-day occurrence, for sure. $\endgroup$ – Maxander Dec 14 '16 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ Keep in mind that "a few hours" might be only slightly more than the speed-of-light communications delay for the message getting from the source to the destination, depending on the exact orbital arrangement at the time. Mars is never closer to Earth than a few minutes away by light, and a straight line at opposition would be something like half an hour. Throw in a hop across a satellite because the Sun is really noisy in both visible light and RF which makes communicating across it very difficult, and you can easily approach 40-50 minutes message propagation delay when all goes perfectly. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 15 '16 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ The CME bothers me because ships are in transit for months. Why would it be an issue for launching only? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 10:09
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People aren't there to transport

Perhaps this space line has an agreement that it won't leave until all the customers have arrived. Given the time between each flight, this might be reasonable though potentially costly in terms of extra fuel required to compensate for a sub-optimal launch time.

Technical problems

The spaceship toilets are out of order. No one wants to get hit with hyper-velocity feces.

Fueling problems

If a problem with the fuel is found, that will delay departure. Say, the hydrogen is contaminated with something that will really mess up the engines. Purging the tanks, cleaning them and refueling can take a long time.

Space Traffic Control Congestion

There's lots of ships coming and going. As with terrestrial airports, if a take-off window is missed, it may be hours before there's another opening in the take-off schedule.

Worker Strikes

The technicians required to make the station work are on strike. This could be the fuel union, the engine repair union, or the hospitality union.

Piracy

There are pirates in the area and they need to pass before the flight will leave the station.

Kessler Syndrome

Something very big has exploded into lots of pieces that are now spreading out over an important orbit. Finding a hole in all the debris may take some time. Cleaning up a Kessler event will take a very long time.

Solar Weather

Perhaps there's a particularly nasty coronal mass ejection or solar flare headed towards the space port. Given that most trips will happen outside Earth's shielding, intentionally putting humans in the way of such energetic events is willfully negligent. I predict huge court awards against a company who ignores solar weather predictions.

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    $\begingroup$ I suppose I underestimated the importance of something like Kessler syndrome. Space disasters like that are a lot harder to deal with than disasters on the ground - although I'm trying to think of something to compare it to, and failing. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 14 '16 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ The closest thing I can think of is a constant high speed wind storm at a terrestrial airport. Dirt and grit get into everything. $\endgroup$ – Green Dec 14 '16 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ I think you deserve a point just for the note about hyper-velocity feces $\endgroup$ – Samwise Dec 14 '16 at 22:53
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    $\begingroup$ About "People aren't there to transport", don't forget that if you miss your transfer orbit window, it might not even be feasible to make the trip that time, because you would need significantly more fuel to hit the target point in the target orbit. At some point, you may have to either just depart anyway, scrub the flight entirely, or load up more fuel, which all else being equal will impair your payload capacity, which may have other implications (can't deliver cargo which you have entered into transport contracts for, for example). $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 15 '16 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Nzall, your nitpick is accurate, only a few of these are specific to space travel. To be fair though, my answer and edits are for the question before HDE added the specific to space travel. Otherwise, I'd totally agree with you. $\endgroup$ – Green Dec 18 '16 at 22:37
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The real problem with spaceflight in the plausible mid future is that there are specific "windows" that need to be met in order to achieve minimum energy trajectories (or indeed, any trajectory; the timing of the window changes with the trajectory chosen).

So there can actually be no "delays" the way we see in a modern airport or train station, if you miss the Mars launch window because someone was late boarding, you need to wait almost two years before the next synodic period lines up the planets. No space line is going to provide two years worth of hotel vouchers, so the "Martian Queen" is blasting off on the mark, and any unfortunate passengers who missed the flight are on their own.

This also provides an interesting observation about spaceflight. Since synodic periods are well known long in advance. spaceships will be launching at almost the same time leaving a "convoy" of spacecraft heading to the same destination. The spaceports will also be equipped to deal with "surge traffic", so people living and working at the spaceports will see massive increases in business whenever the synodic periods occur, and you can imagine prices will also rise to reflect that (squatters at the Deimos spaceport will be ejected every 18 months or so to make room for the high paying passenger traffic.

So the real struggle isn't going to be spacecraft being delayed, it is going to be dealing with the sudden surges in traffic, price gouging and the sharp operators who are trying to work the system to get the best deals. People who "miss the boat" are also going to have to find a way to live for the next synodic period before they will even be able to book a new flight (and there may be a subculture which tries to make people miss their spaceflights and then keep them as indentured servants on the planet working off their life support bills).

Much like the idea of space piracy, the reality of space is far stranger, and the problems people are going to face will be much different than what we are used to. Being stuck on a planet might actually be a hostile act by "slave traders" seeking to get enough indentured servants to fill work contracts on Mars, for example.

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    $\begingroup$ Mars Surveyor's launch window was 6-25 Nov 1996. So you can be delayed days and still not be delayed years. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 14 '16 at 17:52
  • $\begingroup$ The OP suggests there is a fair bit of space traffic, so while the window might be open for several days, your slot at the spaceport might have to be cleared very quickly so another spaceship can be loaded and launched. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Dec 14 '16 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ This is based on the assumption that launches must take place during (or near) the minimum distance between the origin and destination. While that's a safe assumption now, it's probably not in a future with regular interplanetary travel, particularly for transports launched from LEO, rather than from the surface, as "launching" from LEO takes vastly less fuel to achieve escape velocity. Sure, it will take longer, and be more expensive when your planets are further apart, but that doesn't mean it will be impossible or even cost-prohibitive. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Dec 14 '16 at 23:15
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    $\begingroup$ Even if there is a few days give in the launch window there is always an end point where one more delay will mean missing the entire window. $\endgroup$ – Stig Hemmer Dec 15 '16 at 8:15
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Give an obviously fake reason that your main character realizes isn't feasible, and then have it really be due to something fun, like a colony revolting, or an outbreak of Space Black Death.

Or, more mundanely, you didn't fill out form AE-37 on your Global Exit application, and need to be questioned about it, but you did fill out BC-12, which authorized you to enter the space station. The Global Exit authorities aren't allowed on the space station due to a Union Contract, and nobody can legally question you about the form. They also cannot let you board a spacecraft or return to the surface.

Alternatively, someone's name on the manifest matches a name on the Pan-Galactic No-Fly list, and the shuttle is not authorized to dock until it is all sorted out. Add Bureaucracy and simmer on Low until resolved.

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  • $\begingroup$ lol at AE-37 :) $\endgroup$ – Innovine Dec 15 '16 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, that was a nice reference. // cc @Innovine $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 16 '16 at 9:43
  • $\begingroup$ That’s all stuff that happens today, not unique/specific to space travel! $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ that just makes it feel more realistic. You can get pretty absurd and people will still believe it. $\endgroup$ – Marshall Tigerus Dec 16 '16 at 13:53
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I came up with some basic ideas before posting the question:

Space weather

Radiation problems can severely damage a spaceship's instruments, making navigation and flight severely dangerous or impossible. Additionally, impacts from micrometeroids/debris can damage the ship, even if protections like Whipple shields are in place. While the spaceliners should be prepared to deal with a minimal level of such problems, and unforeseen impact could mean substantial delays.

Additionally, electromagnetic events could cause damage a spaceship's communication systems, which would be imperative for any journey. There's virtually no other way for control centers to track it, or to know the status of the mission. Without communications, the ship is crippled. Fixing the systems could cause a decently long delay.

Fuel/oxygen leak

Apollo 13 had to be aborted because of the explosion of an oxygen tank. While the astronauts made it home, thanks to some ingenuity on Earth and in the ship, it was an extremely close call. Airplanes do have issues with depressurization, and have crashed because of explosive decompression, but in a long space mission, losing even a tiny bit of fuel or oxygen can be devastating. It's nine months to Mars; a small leak before leaving the space station could kill the crew. If there is a problem with this, there will almost certainly be delays.

Delayed Earth-to-station shuttles

People have to get to the space stations via small shuttles, which are quite more extensive than airport monorails or taxicabs. If one is delayed or has a problem, approximately ten people could be left on the ground, or could be dead. Spacelines will be very reluctant to let flights go before everyone has boarded in such a case - except in cases of extreme shuttle delays - because space travel is not too cheap, and not exactly regular. If you miss your flight, you could be set back days or weeks, and spending that time on a space station is not fun. At the same time, going back to Earth is expensive.

It's since been pointed out that alignment issues could mean that flight windows are narrow. A large amount of flights in a short time could mean that a person could always maybe catch a later flight, and waiting just for the sake of a few passengers could set the others back a long time. It seems that the spaceline might prioritize the rest of the flight.

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I'm going to start with one you don't want.

Ordinary weather

Pilots will need to spend a certain amount of time planetside to stop them going blind. The weather has delayed his launch to orbit and hence the ship he was piloting.

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  • $\begingroup$ Oh, nice. I remember reading this, but I evidently forgot it. There are probably other health risks; can you expand upon some, if you know them? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 14 '16 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868, osteoporosis is the classic one, but I'm about to leave work so I can't write it up now $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Dec 14 '16 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ That's a micro-gravity effect, not a "space travel" effect. Given the various negative effects of prolonged exposure to micro-gravity for humans, I would take it as a given that a future involving human space travel would require eliminating micro gravity. (Probably rotating habitat rings in the OP's world.) That being said, there's no reason why people involved in the space-travel industry wouldn't live or vacation planet-side, where they could be subjected to delays due to terrestrial weather events. $\endgroup$ – HopelessN00b Dec 14 '16 at 23:25
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It's not a delay

It's just cheaper to get in orbit earlier and wait around then to get an orbital flight just before your inter planetary flight.

I would liken this to a person taking the bus to the airport instead of a taxi. It is cheaper but you don't set the schedule. Thus you have to wait around longer.

Another option is the "just in time" orbital flights were all booked up years in advance. So you need to take an earlier one and then wait around.

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    $\begingroup$ Wait for an earlier one? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 10:14
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Unexpected Decontamination Delays

On the previous flight some freight crate broke and spilled its contents in the freight hold. Since the quarantine rules for space travel are much more strict than for earth travel, the entire freight hold must be thoroughly decontaminated now. And since space travel is not as much developed as today's air travel there are no replacement space ships available on short notice.

Ships and Resources Needed For Emergency Flight

An emergency has occurred on a Jupiter moon (accident, plague, ...) and an emergency flight from Earth to that planet must be performed to help the colony. Two story possibilities:

  • space travel is not very advanced yet, so for an emergency flight the scarce resources at the space port (fuel, ablative shields, entire ships that will be sacrificed during the unusual flight) must be bundled to allow a faster flight. All non-emergency flights must be delayed until new resources have arrived from Earth.
  • space travel is advanced, but the required alignment of the planets means that only in very narrow windows the trip is possible. This is usually no problem (since the planet movements are very predictable, so the flight are just scheduled accordingly); but there is no flexibility. So if an emergency flight causes one of the travel windows to be occupied, the entire planned schedule must be thrown out of the window. Disclaimer: I don't know if the travel windows are really that narrow and can really only be occupied by a single ship.
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Cargo gets priority

I'm reminded of the game Gazillionaire where the space ship operator is primarily shifting around commodities. Taking on passengers is a secondary concern. If some shipment has too much mass there is a needed emergency repair part, or even a simple math error the ship needs more space or less mass. Passengers get cut first because that cargo has to go out, the passenger can chill out in his bunk.

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Goddamit Bill, your space passport is due tomorrow!

you clearly didn't remember that your earthling country passport is valid to travel to our glorious international commute station, but that you need a Interspatial International Passport (IIP) to get out of the earth's orbit!

You are now stuck a Saturday afternoon ( Local time ) in a waiting room near the main hall, expecting a video call from your representative in the GESA (Global Earth Space Agency), who will inform you of the procedural of requesting a new passport. You're lucky though, there's a lot of stores, ATM's and atleast two restaurants of each type of cuisine in the solar system. Guess you won't fly until monday, atleast.

PD: Another option could be : Hey, you didn't vaccinate for Mars Flu, you can't board until you visit a medic practician, and they're all off until monday.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think that is similar enough to modern travel, where you might not have all the right visas; e.g. you had no idea that a transfer counted as entering France. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly. that's why i think it's both realistic. Another option could be : Hey, you didn't vacunate for Mars Flu, you can't board until you visist a medit. $\endgroup$ – CptEric Dec 16 '16 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ Yes it’s very realistic. But the OP wants something unique to space, not the same stuff that happens with current travel. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ Mars flu can't be found anywhere else on the solar system than mars. for now and thanks to the vaccinations none of you have taken * points to the med bay *. $\endgroup$ – CptEric Dec 16 '16 at 18:45
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  • A small delay caused the ship to miss a launch window. Now they have to wait for the next one.
  • Some arcane bit of legislation gives traffic precedence to solar sail craft. Highly energetic drives may not be used where their exhaust endangers the fragile sail. (Or does that count as congestion?)
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    $\begingroup$ next launch window to mars in about 2 years, sweet sweet delay. No small delay can stop a fast accelerating craft with lot's of delta. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Dec 15 '16 at 22:19
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There's no need for anything outlandish, you can look to what happens in the real world:

Bad industrial relations

Strikes by a union are a relatively common reason for flight or mass transit delays in the real world. The company running the flights has got into a protracted dispute with its baggage handlers/pilots/spaceport operatives/flight controllers/whoever and flights are disrupted for a long period. Optionally, the remaining flights are rationed to the most important travellers and our hero doesn't make the cut.

There is also potential, if you want it, for narrative interest in the reasons behind the Union action which is likely to be considerably more interesting and fruitful that a coronal mass ejection or similar natural occurence.

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Lots of very good answers this late in the game, but I ran across your question and had a thought that felt unique enough to warrant a small entry. Fuel Logistics will play a very big part in a society where spaceflight is common and matter-to-energy conversion is still just science fiction.

"Station Maintenance"

A week prior to a scheduled launch, several innocuously small events required maneuvering thrusters on the LEO station to be fired a few more times than anyone really anticipated, and now the station is 'low' on fuel.

There is no actual danger of being unable to maintain an orbit, but as a safety measure, with a good margin for error, this one particular LEO station - the one you need - is standing by all incoming craft for two orbital periods, during which a fueling craft will have docked with it; it's not that a passenger shuttle can't transfer fuel to the station, but they don't carry enough spare for it to be meaningful except in life-or-death situations, because it's spare for the passenger shuttle.

This very conservative 'fix' is standard practice, and it is accomplished by simply moving up the time table for the regular supply launch vehicle. The trade off for the delay is that the orbital platform has an opportunity to properly address any operational or safety margins prior to taking passengers; safety margins stay as wide as feasible for all non-crew passengers. The protocol became standard practice when earlier stations had some close calls while performing maintenance burns with ships and passengers docked, using extra fuel and coming rather close to having a bad day in general.

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  • $\begingroup$ Add to that “chaos” so that everyone in the swarm needs to adjust more than usual, without needing some real reason. They all affect each other’s orbits in the crowded Lagrange point, and the dynamics are actually unpredictable. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 12:06
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I'd be tempted to go with a classic homage. Waiting for a supply of lemon-soaked paper napkins.

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    $\begingroup$ This is not a full answer, just a comment. You would be able to post comments when you have gained more reputation (points). $\endgroup$ – Hohmannfan Dec 15 '16 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ It's more of a literary answer than a technical one. Maybe those don't belong here. Sorry about that. $\endgroup$ – mlv Dec 15 '16 at 20:07
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I'm no astrophysicist, but if the space station(s) themselves are in orbit around their respective planets, then there would only be particular windows of time where you could launch from Earth to Mars, right? If the ferry's departure is delayed too long by more mundane means, then the planet Earth (or even just its gravity well) will become an obstacle to ships trying to launch towards Mars, and then they'd have to wait until the space station orbits around the planet again before they can take off.

Passengers in such a situation would probably not want to go back down to the surface - even if the delay is the better part of a day or longer - simply because the cost and/or effort required to get to and from the surface is a hassle in itself. This may or may not be a fairly common issue in space travel, depending on how often the ferry gets delayed from its planned launch window because of technical reasons.

For an even longer-term issue, the alignment of the planets themselves would create "blackout ranges" where it's just not practical to run the ferries. If Mars is currently on the other side of the sun from Earth, for example. In these cases, the space-liner companies would likely stop booking ferries well in advance of a blackout, though, as it could be months or years before the planets are close enough again to make running ferries feasible. This is probably not useful for the specific story point you're setting up, but it's something to consider as a background element to the setting.

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Something 'really big' struck the Moon. There's a glowing crater, lots of debris splashed into space, and some of it is heading toward the ring of orbitals surrounding the Earth. The AIs, as powerful as they are (it is 2100, right?), need to get together and 1) model the dynamics of the debris field in virtual precog mode, 2) redirect the Kessler laser turrets (we will have needed to be prepared for this for some time now) to vaporize the small stuff or steer by surface ablation the larger stuff. Some incoming ships within a certain window of arrival are hosed (the early ones dock), but thankfully we have a large fleet of autonomous refueling drones, and ships can redirect to the small, hollowed-out asteroid stations parked at the L1 and L2 Lagrange points. BTW, FWIW, I'm thinking that orbital spaceports wouldn't be in very low-Earth orbits, would have really good stickyhulls (orbiting Kessler sweepers), and be the safest places to be if you couldn't make it back to the surface in time. Phew...glad I cleared that up.... (BTW again, this scenario would be more in the judiciously-fanciful than the overly-fanciful category, right?)

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  • $\begingroup$ You didn’t know something “really big” was incoming well in advance? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I guess you're right. I put it in quotes generally to add waffling and fuzziness, since I'm no authority on the bigness vs. amount of debris issue. If I posited that the AIs would be all over detection and modeling of the debris bits, they'd probably be all over detection of the incoming big guy. I just have to make this work...mmm...Kessler laser turrets.... $\endgroup$ – Ms Jy Dec 17 '16 at 8:52
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Security

Interplanetary transit is plagued by many issues related to crime:

  • Smuggling of proscribed goods - everything from drugs to subversive literature to gene-modified animals and plants
  • Attempts to evade currency transfer limits
  • Wanted criminals trying to escape prosecution
  • Terrorists
  • Fencing stolen goods

When the various security forces (planetary, orbital, commercial) suspect an attempt to use interplanetary transport to break the law, they can prevent ships from docking and undocking while they investigate. Sometimes these lockdowns are done randomly just to keep the criminals nervous.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't see how any of this would be specific to space travel. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 15 '16 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling it a nice touch to story, specially a story with space pirates. I personaly would pick this one - some kind of hack compromising the launches (as in die hard) good reason to delay all flights and try to figure out if those who already in flight they fly in correct orbit, so maybe the ships which are left can be used to save those who fly at the moment because they may do not have enough delta-v for their destinations on their orbit - drama, space drama etc. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Dec 15 '16 at 22:24
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Important politicians or VIP will jump the launch window queues, delaying the lesser priority traffic by an orbit or two.

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Some unexpected spacecraft got in the way Some people who do not have authorization from whatever authority that coordinates all launch sequences decided to put their own spacecraft in orbit around the Earth not very long before your flight was scheduled to begin, and its trajectory comes so close to the flight plan that flights must be delayed by several minutes just in case the new spacecraft explodes into a potentially deadly shrapnel cloud.

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  • $\begingroup$ This could even be a mysterious alien craft or a wreck a la The Flying Dutchman. But this would be a plotline in itself, which the OP may or may not want. $\endgroup$ – user3106 Dec 15 '16 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ Spacecraft in orbit move at several kilometers per second. If a safe distance is 100x the maximum dimension of either spacecraft, which in turn is 50 meters once in orbit, that's 5000 meters or less than a second's travel distance. (Remmeber that both are moving at similar velocities.) And even if a several-minute delay was required, you wouldn't be operating close enough to the limitations of the launch window for your spacecraft that this is a problem in the first place, because then any problem could completely derail your travel plans. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 15 '16 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ If the spacecraft suddenly exploded (you never know, stuff does have a tendency to explode and this would likely not be something well designed against it if it was not done legally), the shrapnel could fly out at speeds of 1km/s or more, and if the intersection would be a distance away (several minutes after launch being the potential intersection time), it would not be adviseable to launch due to the large uncertainty (+/-several hundred kilometers) as to where the shrapnel might be when your spaceship gets there. Or it might have already exploded, making a cloud hundreds of kilometers wide. $\endgroup$ – Jarred Allen Dec 15 '16 at 23:44
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Im basing my answer in these two comments:

Kys: You're asking this about the same universe as space pirates and you wonder why there might be delays

HDE-226868: In what I can only refer to as the Golden Age of Piracy, I'm guessing there weren't too many shipping delays because of piracy. In theory, it's a threat you can't predict. You can only hope for the best, and deal with it when it happens.

In the Golden Age of Piracy there was not quick communication, so what would you do? Wait for a letter sent via raven by other ship? Even if possible, with the delay it would be unhelpful so you just set sails and hope for the best.

Circa 2100 maybe you can´t detect those nasty space pirates (although you totally absolutely could, but let's say you can't because you want pirates to be a thing), but what you can do is to communicate with Earth with, at most, a few minutes delay.

Other spaceships might send reports of sightings or attacks, and your flight would be delayed for a few minutes/hours until the spaceport security (or the army or whatever) makes a whole DRADIS sweep, assesses the situation, evaluates the risk, checks with their legal/insurance department and finally gives the spaceport the green light, which kinda means "the protocol says the course is safe enough", so the spaceship could still totally be raided if you so please.

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I’ll elaborate more on something o.m. posted: mixed sail/rocket use.

Sails are huge. Something might go wrong with one, damaging the rigging or otherwise fouling the sail. After repairs, it needs to maneuver to get back on course, or otherwise chart a fresh course. This is not a slow Hohmann orbit, but a constant power situation. Think fast clipper ship among all the barge traffic.

Now high thrust rockets used for setting up Hohmann orbits can damage a sail, so traffic control must plan for their positions. The plume can stay hazardous for millions of miles!

So, a sailcraft having an emergency failure will cause a black-out of “burns” until it is repaired and a new course registered. If you don’t know exactly where it will be, you can’t be sure your burn avoids it. Until it is repaired, you don’t know how far off original course it will get, and have to black out larger tragectories for burns as time passes.

Just be sure the directions make sense. The lightcraft needs to be in the opposite direction of the ∆v maneuver. But the ∆v isn’t in/out but east-west to change your orbial speed. Sacrifice a few Kerbals to get the feel for it.

So, is that unique enough, relative to prior travel delays?

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There are several types of reasons, and we can ball them up in some categories:

Social & Economic

Pilot strike

We see it when larger aerospace companies or the aerospace control in Europe go to strike nowadays: nothing moves, no passenger gets off the ground. This does stop almost all traffic.

Bureaucracy

The future might be a huge mess of bureaucratic barriers everyone needs to climb over to get his flight. And skipping any might mean to miss not only the next flight, but to go through all of them again.

Quarantaine

Anyone traveling to the stars might need to keep up a very strict quarantine regime, which gets extended for a long time if they even sneeze! Unlucky you, that you had dust on your nose at the wrong moment.

Overbooked

Ever stood at the airport and couldn't get your plane because the plane was overbooked? Maybe the company running the space transport just did the same... and only has a monthly or wider spread flight shedule.

Religious ban

There might be days when the most widespread religions ban interplanetary travel due to some reasons.

Environmental

Impact Season

Space debris is out there in tons. Some collide with earth all the time. But a spaceship has less protection from passing space rock than the transit station, and even that is not perfectly safe... but better than being out there.

Damage

No matter if it is the ship's coolant leak or something: repairs in space are notoriously tricky and slow in 0g environment. This can delay travel really long, as there might not be replacement ships or parts readily available.

Transfer Window closed

Now, space travel is clearly time-dependent. Due to a pileup of tiny errors like a docking clamp not opening properly, a tiny error in the data input into the autopilot and a hysterical woman during boarding the whole process of getting off station and onto the right facing to intercept earth just took way too long. In extreme cases, half an hour can decide if the fuel in a spacecraft has a chance to intercept a target with corrective burns or not. So the craft has the unheroic solutions of either getting rid of cargo to increase the stored fuels reach... or to return to the station and wait for the next window to open or restock on extra fuel.

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Meteor or other orbital debris impacting something critical to refueling.
Maybe a primary tank gets hit -- or worse yet, maybe the main fuel distribution manifold gets shredded. Certainly repairable, but probably not fast, especially if key personnel are injured as well. Vacuum welding of metals can get tricky, even with all the right tools, supplies and energy source.

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    $\begingroup$ I tried to cover this in my answer, under the section on space weather. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Dec 14 '16 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE, sorry I missed that. (I think of space weather as radiation, not as chunks big enough to cause mechanical damage.) $\endgroup$ – Catalyst Dec 14 '16 at 16:29
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Technical failure. Just like airborne flights are often delayed because a final inspection finds a failure in the equipment. A circuit board was knocked loose by vibrations. A fuel loader missed one of the tanks...because the company hired cheap, dumb people for the position.

Human delay...a man forced to stay in space one day longer than his psyche can take, goes on a rampage, destroying the flight computer. The pilots are drunk...again. The stewardesses are fighting over duties.

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    $\begingroup$ How’s that different from air travel today? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 10:13
  • $\begingroup$ The OP didn't ask for things different from air travel today. Basically, my answer was SSDD. $\endgroup$ – Sensii Miller Dec 16 '16 at 20:34
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Not exactly sure this is what you're looking for;

but since gravity is far lower on Mars than on Earth, your traveller's may need to be delayed so that they can undergo some training to rebuild muscles, else they won't be able to function normally under the relatively intense gravity of Earth.

Mars gravity is 3.7 m/s^2, wheras Earth's is 9.8m/s^2. Which is a considerable difference. For instance a 38 pound person on Mars will weigh 100 pounds. Imagine if you suddenly had to carry around an extra 60 pounds, (or in relative terms it sounds even more; carry an extra 1.5 of your own body weight).

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point… it might apply to the final spaceport-to-surface leg, and he slacked off on training while in transit or had an unknown medical problem, so he unexpectedly failed his Earth Gravity checkup. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 10:18
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Flight crew and cabin crew had their monthly radiation check-up and it was found that the pilots accumulated more than their monthly allowance of gamma-ray exposure, possibly due to navigating too close to the beam of a gamma-ray burst event that month. The pilots were grounded and need to be replaced with a flight crew from Down Under, which will arrive real soon now.

Shit happens. :-)

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    $\begingroup$ The beam of a GRB is the wrong scale for interplanetary traffic. The spacecraft will monitor radiation, so exposure is not a surprise later. How would they know from an exam, anyway? Esposure is metered. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 12:08
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz While this sounds dandy, this is worldbuilding.se, not physics.se. Spice up the story with a little artistic freedom :-) $\endgroup$ – Jens Dec 16 '16 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ This is Worldbuilding, not “SyFy bottom of the barrel script service.” we're here on WB to make our ideas smarter, so putting down such criticism as unnecessary is not the right thing to do here. Such criticism is what we do here. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 16 '16 at 13:55
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Communications Delays

It seems someone in the Martian immigration office has failed to file the necessary paperwork for your immigration. On Earth, this kind of paperwork issue could be settled with a quick phone call followed by a fax. Unfortunately, the communications delay between Earth and Mars can range between 13 and 24 minutes.

Earth asks for the form; Mars asks for clarification. Earth provides clarification; Mars requests additional paperwork. Earth provides paperwork; Mars attempts to send immigration papers but sends the wrong ones. Earth alerts Mars of its mistake, but the work shift has changed on Mars, so Earth has to recap the entire process. A few more messages go back and forth, and finally the papers arrive, anywhere from 2 to 4 hours later. By that point, our protagonist has missed his flight and will be forced to wait for the next one.

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Bad Navigation Software

You have not talked too much about how your ships navigational software works, but with this much commercialization going on, it's likely we've offloaded all the actual rocket science to a program. Like all software, there are bugs. Perhaps the captain of the ship your character is waiting for forgot to patch when last at port so the ship isn't using the updated software, so it picks a series of burns that result in a slower route.

You could combine this with some of the other delays people mentioned. "They skimped on the navigation software at corporate so we had to take 3 days manually going around unexpected micrometeorites."

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Unexpected decompression in the departure lounge!

A micrometeorite has punched a tiny hole in the floor of Departure Gate 13 and the air is slowly leaking out. There's no need to panic, but for the sake of staff convenience and passenger safety, passengers are escorted out of the room and not allowed back in until the janitor has glued a patch to the hull. This is terribly inconvenient for you, because that gate is docked to the big main airlock of the Mars Express, and since the flight attendants won't let you (and the other 100 passengers) sneak in through the little service airlock, boarding is delayed until the gate is declared safe for use without pressure suits.

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It just so happens that today is Intersolar Expo Day!! That's a week-long holiday celebrating the first return flight to Mars! Yay!! Everyone is coming in from the planets for it. You can't get flights out because of all the incoming, but there will be plenty of trips to everywhere at the end of the Festival. Share and Enjoy!!

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