Cargo in Space
I know, it’s been a while. Summer has been crazy. Lots of work, a surprise vacation to Yellowstone, and lots of work. But I’m back to writing now.
But, for the moment, I’d like to discuss something that’s been on my mind for a while.
Are interstellar space cargo vessels ever going to be realistic or even needed?
To be fair, most of our greatest science fiction is centered around the crew of cargo ships in space. The Millenium Falcon, Serenity, even the Canterbury. But lots of stories revolve around cargo ships in space. A big chunk of the Honor Harrington series is about cargo ships and how protecting them protects the economy of the “empire”. The Light Huggers of Alistair Reynolds Revelation Space are essentially cargo ships.
Think about it. First of all, in all of the stories interstellar travel isn’t cheap. It’s pretty easy, but it isn’t totally cheap in time or cost. The Honor Harrington freighters could carry up to several million tons. Just loading that much cargo into shuttles to get planetside is disturbing concept. By comparison, the largest seagoing freighter in the world currently can carry almost a half a million metric tons of cargo. And it struggles to make a profit. Basically, if it stops moving, it’s going broke.
Here’s the thing though. What are people transporting through interstellar space? Commodities? Toilet paper? Farming gear? Jewels? Food?!?!?
There is nothing, currently known, that could not be found in every single solar system in existence OR built/grown in that solar system for far cheaper than it could built light years away and shipped in. There is no Amazon in space, with next day delivery less than 23 light years.
For example, a ten meter diameter S-type asteroid would contain about 650 metric tons of metals like iron, nickel, cobalt and aluminum. That includes about 50 kilograms of rare metals like gold and platinum.
A one mile diameter M-type asteroid would contain over 2 billion metric tons of just iron. That’s more (just, but more) than the entire Earth used to produce steel in 2018.
And there are hundreds of asteroids out there. That doesn’t touch on the moons either, some of which are full of organic chemicals.
How could it possible be cheaper to build a tractor or hover car or anything else for that matter in one solar system then transport it light years and sell it in another solar system.
MAYBE, exotic jewels… which could likely be made synthetically. Or cultural artifacts or art. But does anyone think there were be enough art made in one place that could then be shipped over interstellar distances?
Cargo ships are useless.
There are three purposes for space travel (given what we know about the universe). Exploration. Colonization. War.
Exploration and science are things I am a great believer in. These are noble purposes to build spacecraft for. Seek out new life, new civilizations… you know the rest.
Colonization. Again, I’m all for that. BUT, not in a English Empire kind of colonization. No, we send colonists out, they are on their own. And they better have sufficient systems to exploit all the resources of the solar system (not just the planet) we send them too.
However, I would submit that it would actually be much, much easier to build giant space stations, O’Neill cylinders, rings, etc than to colonize a planet with potentially it’s own life, climates, etc. Instead of adapting humans and our food and plants to a planet, why not just make our own environment, where we control what is in it. A comet’s worth of water and gases, an asteroid’s worth of metals and it’s a colony.
The other use, of course, is war. Once colonization slows down, this is effectively the only reason for people to go to space in large numbers. To wage war. There is nothing that one solar system has that another couldn’t make themselves. Except for the feeling of control of that other star system and those people.
I would hope that we move beyond that, but history shows us it’s not likely. Not yet.
I would hope that authors consider this when making hard science fiction.