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I am making a video game on-board an old, creaky, leaky space station, which is forgotten or mostly not cared about, drifting around some moon/planet, with a single lonely, weary astronaut on board. I want it isolated and introverted, thoughtful and wistful. A bit like the movies Moon, Silent Running, or 2001 (although not forgotten about, its protagonist is isolated and lonely).

The technology level of the space station is highly realistic, and quite primitive, maybe a bit like Mir. An onboard garden would be ok. Clunky switches and knobs are preferred over holographic displays or touchscreens.

My question to Worldbuilding community is HOW and WHY the station and astronaut came to be in this situation... what events transpired to put him there (and then passed him by, leaving him mostly obsolete?). A core issue I have regards financial realism: How can I justify the expenses and mission importance of placing a manned station somewhere, only to let it fall into obscurity?

The best answers will support the intended atmosphere, and invoke feelings of distance, isolation, and especially the fact that the rest of the world has just moved on, leaving this poor astronaut obsolete. Good answers will not make the astronaut special in any way, he will not be the star in a tragic mission-gone-wrong, nor will he be the victim of unusual circumstance. He's just an ordinary joe stuck with a job no one else wants to do, and pretty much abandoned due to lack of interest in his situation. My core problem is that real space stations are expensive, and require regular resupplies, and so are not very likely to be forgotten or abandoned.. Good answers will explain a way around this economic difficulty.

Good answers probably don't involve him or the ship being very important in the past. Sure, there would have been good reasons for him being deployed in the first place, but good answers explain how and why these reasons faded and became uninteresting. Not broken, not lost, just uninteresting.

Good answers don't involve him pining for home, don't draw attention to home and invoke complicated thinking about home. The astronaut is not trying to escape his fate, he is just doing his daily routine, performing maintenance, but he has accepted his hopeless fate, still performs his role out of a sense of duty, and that's it. Good answers don't invite much speculation into the outside world, and in fact the more boring the answer the better. Plausible shifts of corporate or political interest would be very suitable sources of reasons, as is having the job he was initially sent to do become meaningless, but they keep him there anyway, 'just in case'.

The astronaut isn't about to die. The station can keep him alive as long as he works on its maintenance, which he does. Good answers place the astronaut in a timeless, unchanging existence.

An occasional message from mission control, and regular automated supply drops are permitted. It is ok with alternative timelines, earths and histories, etc, but the technology in use should be clunky and old, but reasonably realistic. Higher levels of technology are acceptable elsewhere in the solar sytem, as long as its nowhere near the astronaut, and could even be used to show how everyone else has moved on, leaving the astronaut behind at his post.

Bonus points if the station is located somewhere with a beautiful view (like Saturns rings).

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closed as off-topic by Mindwin, James, Mołot, Aify, Pavel Janicek Feb 3 '17 at 18:05

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    $\begingroup$ As for the "quite primitive, maybe a bit like Mir" technology level, you may want to keep in mind that real-world space hardware is very conservative. It's usually spec'd conservatively to begin with, so you almost never start out with bleeding-edge components or subsystems, and design and construction can easily take the better part of a decade. Consequently, by the time something is actually ready for launch, the technology can easily be 15-20 years old. Now, look at the ongoing maintenance currently required on the ISS, where the first few segments were launched in 1998-1999. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 3 '17 at 11:54
  • $\begingroup$ @michael kjörling yup, thanks. I mean I want to avoid flashy computer graphic interfaces, holographic displays, ai brains, that kinda thing. Clunky switches and dials over touchscreens. I'm not tied to a realistic earth, history, timeline, etc but the interface and technology should be mir/gemini/apollo style as much as possible. battlestar galactica tv series did this to great effect iirc, as did firefly $\endgroup$ – Innovine Feb 3 '17 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ You might also want to add a paragraph about the gameplay you're aiming at. The desired gameplay will have a huge influence on a potential answer. $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Feb 3 '17 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ Try a bureaucracy. A hundred years ago, for reasons no one can quite remember, the Interplanetary Government (IG) built a small space station on the edge of the galaxy. A young lad fresh out of astronaut school searches the automated job listings and finds the recently open position with a pretty unrealistically bright description of space station manager with a low bar for experience. One thing leads to another, and an automated ship takes him to his priso--- I mean post. The communications equipment doesn't work, and his only visitor is the automated resupply ship. Fast forward 20 years :) $\endgroup$ – Blackhawk Feb 3 '17 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Innovine I do like your edits, and apologies, I should have mentioned this earlier...at this point in time it is probably best to leave the question as is and closed. Not because the edits weren't beneficial, but because the answers that exist (all 21 of them) answered based on the previous version of your question. Making changes to a question that invalidate answers, even if people should have waited to answer until things were clarified, is frowned upon. If you have questions please join us in Worldbuilding Chat and we can discuss. $\endgroup$ – James Feb 3 '17 at 19:58

21 Answers 21

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Generation ship derelict

The plan — or rather: plans — were not grand, not glamorous, not even very well thought out. But with The Great Disaster looming — and inevitably coming — something had to be done.

People tried all sorts of things: mine shafts... suspended animation... just calling it a day and leaving provisions for whoever comes next... and then there were the Generation Ships. Everyone was scrambling for survival and desperately building on what they thought might save them.

With The Disaster™ coming closer, things deteriorated. There simply was not room for everyone. Some would definitely not be able to save themselves. Conflict broke out. Not just between countries, but also some very weird ones happened...

"Either you let everyone of Prime Space Parts Corp. come along or you can just forget that delivery of life-support systems".

"We are sorry, but your shipment of tunnel boring machines has been cancelled because... well... not to be rude but quite frankly: we decided we need them for ourselves. Your payment has been returned to your account. We advice you spend it quickly, while there is still something to spend it on..."

So these plans met with varying degrees of success. By the time civilization crumbled, some projects had been quite successful and managed to save a significant amount of people. Some failed miserably, littering the planet in a state of half-completion. And some were left in a state of some readiness, but never actually used.

And this is where your hero finds themselves: on a Generation Ship ready to receive tens of thousands of people and ferry them to the nearest Earth-like planet that your hero scouted out for them. It was just that when your hero came back to our solar system, and could finally communicate with Earth again, it turned out that it was too late.

The ship was there in orbit around Titan, far enough away to stay hidden from those that wanted to try to steal a ride with it. It is stocked up and ready, with ample supplies. It is not very... well... science fiction like. Some would call it crude and rather squalid to be honest. But it is rugged, and made to hold together for quite some time.

...as long as you do not try any fancy interplanetary maneuvers that is. Doing a long smooth climb out of the gravity well of Saturn and then out of the solar system is all fine and well. But trying to dive deep into the gravity well of Sol and then getting into orbit around Earth, dodging the Moon on the way: no. Just... no. Once approaching the gravity well of the destination star, the idea was that that the ship would get itself into parking orbit among the outer planets and stay there. The refugees would then ferry down to the inner planet(s) with the smaller shuttle transports that brought them to the Generation Ship in the first place, and that then stayed docked to the bigger ship.

It is just that they never got that far. Before the shuttles were built and launched things had gone too far. They did not even have any crew on this big ship. No engineers to run the engine room. No officers to steer the ship. No navigation experts that know all the tricky business of plotting a course for the behemoth of a ship. Your hero knows how to pilot a small scout ship just fine, but it is nary impossible for them to make sense of this huge ship, let alone try to pilot it.

Oh, and was it not just incredibly unfortunate that some nitwit had managed to read the schematics for that one docking port wrong and gotten the polarities reversed, so that when the power supply from the Generation Ship hooked up to your hero's scout ship it blew out every circuit breaker on it, leaving them stranded on the Generation Ship without any means of leaving it.

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Punishment or Quarantine

He doesn't really have to be alone, just be alone for all intents and purposes. His room/ station/bubble, looks in one direction only. There maybe be others, but he cannot see them or hear them and has no idea they are there. He/They disobeyed orders, got into trouble with a superior/have the AIDS of that time -- whatever fits your story.

He still has a job. He has been given just enough hope to believe that one day, they might promote/cure him.. So he eats his tired rations and watches the whatever. He collects the data and sends the information every so often to Base. He has no idea how there are rations or water, but there are.

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Looking for fame/fortune may be risky

Centuries ago people will sail with boats to explore new lands. Your story is just a shipwreck survivor, a space Robinson Crusoe.

Humans are good in unexpected situations

Space exploration is going to be expensive and risky. The auto-pilot won't work in all cases.

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    $\begingroup$ Since I want him to be a bit obsolete, maybe he was an early generation explorer in a slower than light vessel, and is now out in deep space. Then FTL got invented and humanity all jumped off somewhere cool and interesting, leaving this poor guy $\endgroup$ – Innovine Feb 3 '17 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ One doesn't simply survive a spaceship crash and leave what he crashed into. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Feb 3 '17 at 13:46
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WAR1 can always be used to isolate things.

Have the country/countries running the station getting involved in a war with (an)other country/countries. As resources will need to be redirected to the war effort and keeping the nation(s) secure, your space-station will be switched to low-power-mode.

Astronauts aboard will get the new tasks of serving as orbital reconnaissance - they have to monitor the enemy from space and keep an eye out for any spy satellites and similar space-faring-objects.

Supplying your space-station with supplies shouldn't be that difficult as a one-way launch will be comparatively easy (just shoot a rocket with food and parts up to the station2).

1Hooo Haa! What is it good for? Absolutely STORY!
2Well not necessarily that easy, but comparatively more easy than schedule regular missions involving actual people opposed to less valuable stuff

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for war, though doing supply launches in such circumstances might be a bad idea: it reveals your launch site to the enemy, and around that launch site is usually a lot of important personnel and equipment, thus making the launch site a valuable target. Unless you're somehow able to launch such a supply mission from a mobile platform like an submarine. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jour Feb 3 '17 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielJour which would allow to make supply missions even more sparse :) $\endgroup$ – dot_Sp0T Feb 3 '17 at 20:04
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It was once the hopes of humanity to build a space settlement. A series of accidents killed the crew and the project got discarded. It was too costly to begin with. Thus the dead is left on the derelict station. With comms down, nobody is aware of single survivor of the accident. With automated life support designed for 10s of crew members, the system will be able to support him for many years to come. Even though the food will become an issue in the long run, experimental greenhouse could provide enough food for one person. With nothing left to lose, he would continue the original scientific pursue he has started with. Not for others but to keep himself sane.

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Two things that I could think of:

Accident

The station is not quite a station as it doesnt orbit a planet, but was made to explore the outer solar system. He was working in a part of the station, while all other were in the communications room when an asterioid hit that room and killed all other and the antenna with it. Now he is in this space station drifting outwards to reach his destination (some place in the outer solar system) alone, without the possibility to communicate. Food is grown on their farm that was just made as an experiment, but with onlyone person left he can live from it.

Observation Post

The space station was set up long ago to monitor the sun / a planet and now is just sustained by one person, as the human race is a spacefaring civ and does not need the station anymore but does not want to leave the sun / planet fully unmonitored. He gets some food from time to time and some other supplies, but because he is in a place that is not frequently visited and uses old tech he has very little conversations. He might nee to write a report once every week/month/year (even less frequent maybe).

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the observation post... but, any idea what would have been worth a manned observatory? $\endgroup$ – Innovine Feb 3 '17 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Innovine That depends on how much fantasy you want it to have. A lot: They were observing aliens that now are dead due to them ... (maybe a big war, could add depression) Not quite as much fantasy: Some form of strange bacteria / small liveform. Not really any: Weather formations or the effect of rapid CO2 growth in atmosphere due to it being set free from ice. Another variant: Scanning the planet surface (Scan now completed, not worth colonizing) $\endgroup$ – C.Fe. Feb 3 '17 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ "Space control to Major Tom, your circuit's dead, there's something wrong..." $\endgroup$ – Bex Feb 3 '17 at 14:19
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Routine inspection gone wrong

It all started out as a standard routine maintenance mission, planned for 2 weeks. A ship was supposed to pick him up and return him safely.

In fact, the protagonist wasn't the only one there, but also a second engineer.

After two weeks the taxi didn't show up and for worse, the companion went missing somewhere*.

And worse: The supply (oxygen, food, water) brought with them was only enough for two weeks

This leaves your protagonist alone with two mysteries to solve and a struggle with resources.

*Why the second person? In a critical mission you don't send a single person.

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If I understood you correctly, you need to somehow answer, why he is all alone with none or minimal support from the planet.

  • It was a top secret project, that lost most of its financing - We still fancy this top secret mission, but we cannot afford more than one resupply rocket a year. Good luck - your loving and strong nation. This would answer why he gets no attention from public.

  • Kessler syndrome - When number of space debris becomes so high, that it uncontrollably collides and creates even more and makes space travel near to impossible. While the station is on higher orbit, he might be safe there, but trying to return would be statistically suicide and getting resupply rocket, only one out of 4 makes it through, making resupplies very expensive and rare.

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He's a light house keeper.

The 'station' is a navigation point, or a hazard warning. He's manning it, because ... no one wants the "light" to shut off, and so you need someone there to light it, fix it etc.

But as the human failsafe on an otherwise mostly automated environment he can have as little - or as much - to do as you'd like.

See also: Beacon 23

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  • $\begingroup$ This is definitely the kind of role I'm looking for, and very attractive for the atmosphere, but unfortunately I don't think space navigation would require a manned space station :/ $\endgroup$ – Innovine Feb 3 '17 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ Depends where it is. Bear in mind that some environments are just not going to be electronics friendly. And even if they were - lighthouses today still have lighthouse keepers - even though they are mostly automated - because a keeper is cheap compared to the damage done by 'losing' something and not being able to fix it because the weather is too bad to get a resupply/repair on station. $\endgroup$ – Sobrique Feb 3 '17 at 15:19
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There's two things I can think of right off the bat:

Cost

It might be too expensive to bring this guy back - one-way supply drops are of course cheaper than a two way. I'm not sure this idea has much in the way of legs though as you'd need to afford many supply drops

Injury

If the astronaut has some kind of brain injury or something that would kill him as part of an attempted return to earth (exploding embolism for example), then he'd be stuck in orbit without much hope of a return. This could inject some sense of peril for your astronaut in terms of reliance on drugs and aversion to any sudden movements. He's a bit of a ticking time-bomb.

He wouldn't like the stresses of FTL travel either, not one little bit....

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He's the first and only person born in space.

Developing in microgravity rendered him unable to ever survive on Earth, as became obvious while he was growing up. Heart too weak or something.

(optional: disabilities also relevant in microgravity; visible deformities)

Within his lifetime, manned space exploration was cut back again an again, until nothing was left.

(optional: robot space exploration is thriving, with more advanced technology)

Nothing, except for him. Being unable to survive on Earth precluded his return. He's maintained mostly as a charity case and PR disaster avoidance, but at minimal expense, which is way too expensive already. Nobody's going to upgrade his habitat.

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Just because this space station isn't super-high-tech, doesn't meant super-high-tech doesn't exist; it's just that the station is as old and clunky. In fact, it's really, really old; it's been there for a century at least. It used to be a bustling mining station, before the last minerals were eked out of the system, and everyone left.

Function

The station is a passive way-point beacon, originally built as a mining platform. The station was paid for a thousand times over by the mined material, but once it was gone, there was no need for the station any longer. It was converted into a passive beacon, a low-power radio that only activates when other radio signals approach, to tell travelers that the nearby area (probably asteroids) is very dangerous to travel through. As a mining station, it was built to be tough, so it can survive asteroid showers and solar flares; it can also hold a large number of human miners. As a converted beacon, most of the station was stripped of mining equipment, or at least the most expensive and easiest to transport, leaving a nearly empty hulk. But not a dead hulk - the systems keep running, to keep the beacon lit.

Supplies

As a station holding hundreds if not thousands of miners, the station is extremely overstocked for a single person. Water and atmosphere are provided through automated systems; there is plenty of canned food, and probably room for a hydroponic garden or twenty. The station is built to be durable, withstanding both drunken miners and drunken engineers, so the supply systems are redundant and unlikely to fail, outside of a cataclysmic event, and plenty of parts are laying around.

Communication

A beacon doesn't need much in the way of communication; it doesn't even have a long-range radio (well, "long range" on a solar system scale), just its "short range" warning broadcast. If the plot needs it, an unmanned drone can transfer new firmware and receive any error messages from the station on a recurring basis; that allows the astronaut to leave a "message in a bottle" (or rather, an error log) for others to find - and perhaps long-term contact with a mysterious person, somewhere on the other end of that drone.

Arrival

How did this station come to be manned by a single astronaut? Our hero has the (highly illegal) job of collecting leftovers. He travels from one abandoned mining rig to another, finding the last grains of mined minerals, left behind when they were cheap, but in high demand today. He makes a good living, but he's not in it for the money; he's just a loner. At the station in question, his ship malfunctions. Through careful engineering, he manages to arrive at the station, finding breathable atmosphere and warm, if somewhat sparse, living conditions.

Now, he's alone; in orbit around a breathtaking (but lifeless) planet, with nothing but a huge space station to explore and maintain. According to the logs, he's the only ship that's come close enough to need a warning in decades, so he's unlikely to be picked up by another ship. And the dated station doesn't have the parts he needs to fix his own ship... or does it?

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One option might be that he is an overseer for a private enterprise that has some kind of economic interest in the station. Maybe he is on a long contract for them (ten years maybe?) as it's expensive to ferry people back and forth, or the company that put him there has since then got defunct.

The difficult part would be to decide what kind of economic activity it is. Possible mining of fusion gasses from Saturn or some kind of asteroid mining operation. If you allow basic but decent autonomous drones that does the work it may be enough. In a lot of cases the drones don't need to be very advanced and can thus seem like basic tech.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe having it manned gives salvage rights? But the company isn't interested in actually retrieving it or investing more to develop it in the near future, so it just turns into a minor support cost keeping him fed, indefinitely? I like this kind of semi-meaningless to it :) $\endgroup$ – Innovine Feb 3 '17 at 14:14
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I guess most reasons for abandoning someone in space would be financial/political, two examples.

A Space Race and the collapse of a super power

This could be very similar to the Space Race that happened in the late 50's and the 60's between the USSR and USA. And like then, during this race, one of the super powers collapses.

In this case, our astronaut (or kosmonaut) is stationed on a Mir-like space station during the collapse.
Shortly after, the space ship capable of transporting crew back to Earth's surface is launched, however, in the chaos of a regime change standard protocol is not followed and the ship explodes on the only launch pad large enough for crewed missions. The required repairs to the launch pad are too expensive for what remains of the super power.

While still barely being able to fly (much cheaper) resupply missions, years go by. The crew transporting ships are neglected and degrade. Ultimately becoming incapable of ever flying again. Example.

For whatever remains of the super power, politically it is not an option to leave our astronaut to become the first person to die in space, or to let the remaining super power retrieve our astronaut (and the docking procedures are imcompatible anyways).

So now he'll have to wait for the economy of the former super power to improve and for them to rebuild their manned space program.

Search for minerals

Early measurements indicate that it's likely that there are rare minerals/metals (iridium, platinum, etc.) in the moons/discs of Saturn, so a company sets out to mine these.

Our astronaut is the first to make it to a research station to further investigate the existence of rare materials, only to quickly discover there are none at all.

The program is all but scrapped, the company that ran it focuses on other ventures instead. If they could, they would just abandon him, but that's very much against the law, incur heavy fines (and prison sentences for management), and mean lots of very bad publicity. So they just do the absolute minimum to keep from breaking the law in the hope someone he'll die cause of his own mistake or some freak "we couldn't possibly account for that" accident.

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Option one: He didn't start out at the station. He merely got there by accident.
The station itself has been abandoned long ago for being to primitive and is now just a forgotten relic of old times. The Astronaut may have run out of fuel or have had technical issues with his own (advanced) ship. His ship may have exploded and he barely escaped or maybe nothing on his ship works but [stuff that is to advanced for the space station, but is needed for survival/other reasons].

Option two: The station got lost. The astronaut was working on the station and something went wrong. The station lost its orbit and was flung out into space. The technology of the station builders is not advanced enough to catch and return it so they can not help. But maybe (if neccessary) they build one or two rockets to catch up and deliver some supplies while the station is not that far away. (Catching up is much easier than catching up and returning (see https://what-if.xkcd.com/38/).

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Major accident of the rocket used for manned flights

  1. Accidents like those with Antares, Falcon etc. happen all the time. One day, an accidents happens with a rocket that's carrying humans to that station.
  2. A big investigation starts, during which this type of rockets is not allowed to fly. Let's assume there are no alternative to that rocket that may kill people.
  3. Until the end of the investigation, people on the space station will only be visited by cargo ships.

It's quite realistic. The Soyuz rocket is used for both manned and unmanned flights. Imagine it explodes during an unmanned launch. Now we can't travel to the ISS with Soyuz vehicles (because they use the rocket that's exploded), Space Shuttles don't fly, and private vendors (SpaceX, Boeing) haven't yet finished their manned vehicles. The only option are the Chinese, but a) NASA doesn't want to cooperate with them and b) if they did, it would take a lot of time to make the systems compatible (see the Soyuz-Apollon program).

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem with this (and other accident scenarios) is that the astronaut wouldn't be forgotten about, or not cared about. There would be regular comms, it's a terrible tragedy, he'd be a media sensation, there'd be a race to build a working rescue mission, and so on. I want the opposite.. no one cares, he's just forgotten about, maybe control sends a "keep up the good work" pat on the back message each 6 months with his supply drop and forgets about him again. $\endgroup$ – Innovine Feb 3 '17 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ Another option: North Korea builds a space station, sends a human up there and an accident destroys the return capsule. The whole thing happens in secrecy (because they don't want to get bad publicity in case of accident), therefore the number of people, who know about it is small in the first place (and they are all military people). They weigh pro and cons of a rescue mission, and it turns out to be too expensive. So they decide to let the astronaut die there. But they don't want him to get mad, so they tell him they will send rescue eventually. $\endgroup$ – DP_ Feb 3 '17 at 13:47
  • $\begingroup$ Another spin of the same idea: That's a military space station, and therefore nobody knows about it. $\endgroup$ – DP_ Feb 3 '17 at 13:47
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A nearly automated fuel station on Titan combined with bureaucracy

I remember a plan to colonize other planets by building a fuel production facility on the moon with a mass driver to launch fuel to spaceships. You could easily do something similar on an asteroid or one of saturn's moons (Titan is be loaded with fuel). The station is necessary but far enough away to make manned missions very rare. It is mostly automated it just needs a person to schedule launches and do maintenance. supply drops would be mostly medical supplies and empty fuel containers.

Maybe your protagonist works at such a station, originally there was so supposed to be a crew of four but cutbacks have whittled it down to one. Your protagonist should have been replaced by now but everyone knows it is a shit gig so every time they assign someone the task they retire or bribe a transfer. So your poor protagonist has been left there way longer than he should have been.

bureaucracy screwing over a person is a lot more realistic than anything else, it happens all the time. I can image the poor soul trying to stay sane with television, intermittent time lagged internet, and tending the station garden. Imagine enough internet to play chess or once a day text messages, but not enough for anything more.

The more I think about it the more Titan makes sense, fairly hard to get to, oceans of liquid fuel (hydrocarbons) so collecting it just requires a pipe and could be completely automated. The launcher could peek out of the atmosphere so you can have a single spot on the planet with clear view of the stars. You have wind and rain (methane), seasons, and a dense atmosphere so you can have a nice gloomy story atmosphere. You could even have some form of primitive methane based microbial life.

It even gives you an interesting game mechanic, the poor sod would be paid but can't do anything with it, so I imagine he would spend it on bribing some dock worker to include a few special items in his scheduled supply drops, (at exuberant prices of course). things he can't get from the station farms or fabricators. Things like: beef jerky, chocolate, entertainment hardware, illegal software, hemp seeds, coffee beans, ect.

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I think the observation perspective is likely your best bet (@C.Fe.).
In the form of a waypoint beacon (as suggested by @Sobrique), or for some economic or military reason (@dot_Spot, @OnePie, @David162795).
So, here's my suggested scenario:

Observation post is very important for (pick one or more of the following):

  • Scientific discovery X
    -proof of alien life,
    -possible alien artifact,
    -new phenomena which is initially very exciting but is only valuable after a certain amount of observations have been taken...
    -etc...
  • Military purpose y
    -the only least expensive & most effective way to monitor for enemy presence in each system surrounding the home system was with a manned station...
    -an automated production facility is hidden on the moon/planet the station is orbiting
    -the station is some sort of communications relay (or transponder beacon) but the minimal automation wasn't yet up to snuff so they manned it... (new ones are entirely automated)
  • Dangerous Phenomenon Z
    (which requires in-system monitoring for early warnings to allow for enough evacuation of a given near by system...) such as:
    -Super Nova
    -Catastrophic Growth of Black Hole(probably not very scientifically viable but...)
    -Monitoring of space fold nexus which if _______ and ________ line up means it could implode and destroy __________ or cause cataclysm _________

Space Station is:

  • Only partially automated
    external & internal hull repairs are pretty much automatic, most systems recycle everything well, astronaut has to take care of the plant growth for the respiration recycling to work properly, etc...
  • Checked on by automated systems all the time but very rarely by other beings
    Could lead to situations where the astronaut intentionally causes/doesn't prevent problems so they can talk to a real person
  • Physically quite remote
  • large enough to feel empty without someone else in it but small enough to cause some feelings of being caged in

Astronauts Purpose is:

  • Originally of high interest/concern to the astronaut, now an obligation but sometimes hope for release

  • Possibly originally challenging but now very routine

  • Not that easy to automate (@ least @ the time the astronaut was sent)

Last, the astronaut was led to believe they would be shortly done with their isolation and would be a hero/noted person in history.
Now obvious they could be there a very long time
Which fact suggests that the astronaut may not be as important as was originally claimed...

Hope that's helpful

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His home country of Whereeveryouwantistan, who rose to a Superpower in the year 20XX, is currently in a the grips of a civil war that has lasted decades. The few scientists left at mission control are on the 'good' side, and are trying to keep him going while waiting for order to be restored. The 'good' government still has 1 guy who believes that it is important to keep the space station going, but only has limited influence, enough to keep supply drops going, but not enough to keep it up to spec.

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They do not want to be found

You could build a story around their motivation for not wanting to be found. Maybe they are running from some threat. Maybe they want to be left alone, being around people remind them too much of someone they lost. These are classic hermit motivations, I'm sure there are more original ones to be thought of. Maybe they are seen as a hostile alien by the station's owners.

If they do not want to be found, the station also does not necessarily need to be barely functioning or empty. Maybe they are playing space barnacle to an active station, gives them an interesting perspective and challenge to not be detected.

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Another war scenario

Put the story in an alternate timeline where the race to space and the cold war continued for quite some time. As the tension grew up between the superpowers, there were some scientists who believed that scientific cooperation was the golden path to achieve mutual understanding and, ultimately, peace.

There was the Apollo-Soyuz program, and right after that the race to Mars. Space agencies knew that a joint mission was the only viable alternative to send men to Mars. Or hero embarks on the first such mission. It's a four men crew: two astronauts and two cosmonauts, working together to give an example to the World.

The ship is quite large, as it has to house the crew for a few years. In essence a small space station. It is also completely self-sufficient. After reaching Mars orbit, three men embark aboard a lander to explore the surface, leaving our protagonist alone. And that's when the Third World War starts. Our hero witnesses on the intercomm his crewmates fighting each other, as they now consider themselves enemies. “No! Not them!” he thinks. He unsuccessfully tries to talk them out the fight, but they just end up killing each other.

The war was nowhere near the total apocalypse many feared, and most people survived. Yet there were many cities destroyed, and a huge amount of suffering. No one won, and there wasn't even an official peace treaty, but the fight stopped nonetheless, kind of like between our two Coreas. No one on Earth still believes in cooperation between the former super powers, and everyone is busy mourning the loss of beloved ones and struggling to rebuild the civilization from it's ashes. The space agencies do not exist anymore, and basically no one cares about the lost astronaut.

Our hero is an idealist. He really believed in his mission, in scientific progress, and in the spirit of international cooperation. He cannot go back, as that would require carefully calculated flight plans sent from Earth, but he has all he needs for growing his food and wait until one day, maybe, things get better on Earth. He does know it will take a very log time. He can catch glimpses of radio emissions from Earth with his high-gain antenna, but no one would answer his calls.

So he does what he was sent there to do: he collects scientific data and sends it back to Earth. Maybe someone is listening. Maybe a radio amateur built an antenna out of scrap metal, but he cannot afford the electric power needed to send an answer back. Our astronaut also saves to tape the most important data, but he must be selective, as his stock of blank magnetic tape is limited.

One day Earth will know peace again. One day space agencies will resume operations and he will be called back. One day the data he is collecting will be useful. One day... He has hope in a brighter, albeit distant future. Hope is keeping him alive.

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