Lifestyles on Interstellar Space Flights

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright September 2008


This essay is a speculation on what lifestyles will be like on starships when man has developed interstellar commerce.

First, some axioms -- axioms are things which I will take for granted as part of this discussion. What this means is these things must happen before space commerce will happen, but I'm not going to try and explain how they happen.

• Axiom One: Space commerce means routine travel between star systems. This means hundreds-to-thousands of ships are engaged in this travel, and the travel is profitable -- wealth building -- for the humans who engage in it. It will enhance wealth on the ships and on the planets they visit. There may be defectors -- pirates and slavers -- but they will be parasites in a sea of mostly cooperative and highly profitable activity.

• Axiom Two: Mankind will not develop faster-than-light travel (FTL travel). The fastest ships, and the only kind used for space commerce, will be constant acceleration ships which come close to, but never exceed, the speed of light (STL travel). This means no warp speed, subspace drive, hyperdrive, wormhole travel, or any equivalent that is common in “space opera” science fiction. This means real space commerce is not a world of Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon Five, or other story environments where the plot cruises along at FTL speeds, and various star systems act as if they are as close as suburbs on Earth.

Also part of this axiom is that mankind does develop ways to keep the propulsion systems turned on for the entire journey. This is currently not feasible because it takes too much fuel. At this stage in our technological development, constant acceleration travel is as real as using cannon was in 1900.

• Axiom Three: Mankind's travel around the stars will follow "creation" travel. Creations are the advanced robots mankind will make. This means that when a particular journey looks hard, unknown, or dangerous, mankind's creations will go first. Mankind will travel when his creature comforts on the journey and safety on arrival are well cared for. This means people won't take these years-long journeys in a submarine-style environment or even a contemporary airplane-style environment -- they are too cramped.

• Axiom Four: The journeys will be years-to-decades-long affairs when viewed from ship time, and decades-to-centuries-long affairs when viewed from planetary time. Science may discover how to cryosleep people, but I'm not counting on it. My feeling is we will move lots of frozen DNA, but not a lot of frozen “stiffs”. We'll grow things when we arrive, and we may infuse what we grow with memory-carrying cyber enhancements.

• Axiom Five: Even though the journeys take long times, ways will be found to spread the wealth generated by space commerce so that planets will be willing to build spaceships and spaceships will be willing to travel between planets.

Let me point out that this spreading of wealth is not the intuitive result of building a spaceship and sending it off to trade. The intuitive result is that the planet never recovers the cost of building the spaceship because it takes so long for the spaceship to make a round trip. It builds the spaceship, then waves it bye-bye, and that's the last the planet will see of that ship for decades to centuries. Space commerce wealth spreading will have to be built on an extension of the same kind of trust that today powers money and credit cards.

As a down-to-earth example of the problem, consider this situation: A man comes to you and says, “Please build me a house. I will pay you handsomely for it, but I will pay you in ten, make that, twenty ... no ... thirty years."

Would you build the house?

Think about under what circumstances you would build the house?

These are the kinds of issues that must be solved about paying for spaceships before space commerce happens. (Note that on Earth, in developed societies, this house building problem is solved with a mortgage, but how do you mortgage a spaceship? Who's going to make the monthly payments?)

In sum, these axioms set parameters under which the lifestyles of space commerce must exist.

What will traveling in a space ship be like?

Now that the axioms have been established, what will space travel be like? Here are my speculations on distinctive characteristics of spaceships.

These characteristics should be taken into account when writing about "real" science fiction space journeys. For instance, writing a story about a spaceship in peril because the life support systems have been damaged needs to take into account that the spaceship will have massively redundant life support systems. This means the writer needs to figure out how to add a whole lot of damage, or a long string of improbable accidents, before that problem becomes real.

That said, here are the characteristics I have come up with.

City-size ships

Because of the long travel times, spaceships will contain whole communities, not just a small crew. Humans will travel in city-sized ships, not smaller ones. These communities will be self-sustaining in every sense of the word. The starship communities will be like the stereotypical gypsy communities of Europe -- they will move from place to place, and they will not be part of the community in any place they move to.

Redundant structure

Any human-operated or human-designed machinery is going to have failures and accidents, and every spaceship designer knows this. These spaceships must have a lot of redundancy to avoid a catastrophe being caused by any kind of failure. This redundancy can come in the form of having the spaceship actually be a flotilla of ships or in having a lot of empty-but-habitable spaces in the ship itself which can become refuges.

One way to do the redundancy {This expression sounds rather awkward to me. How about “One possible way to create extra habitable spaces…” It’s more than extra space, it’s extra equipment of all sorts.} is to build the ship as a collection of self-contained spheres which are connected together with rod-like travel corridors. The connections will be redundant, so that if the catastrophe affects a corridor, there will be other corridors that can be used. Another is the above mentioned flotilla of independent ships.

Room to grow and change

This is going to be a long journey. People will need to have things to do. One thing they can do is work on improving the ship. To do so, there must be lots of raw materials and open space to use them in. Also, a spaceship will be, in large part, a factory, and that factory will be busy through most of the journey. This will keep people productive while they move from one star to the next.

This is also related to the redundancy. There will be lots of space and lots of duplication or triplication.

Different lifestyles are possible

This aspect of space travel -- the lifestyle while on board -- will be subject to a lot of variation from ship to ship.

Megacasino-like living environment (live for entertainment)

One environment, the megacasino environment, will emphasize comfort and entertainment. It is so named because the closest equivalent I've seen on Earth is the megacasino environments on the Las Vegas Strip -- places such as the MGM Grand or Venetian. In these places, a person goes in, and once inside, they move through large crowds of other people, they have a good time, and they don't interact much with what's going on outside. This is also like the "bread and circuses" lifestyle of ancient Rome.

One constant hazard this environment faces is boredom, leading to destructive riots. Bread and circuses worked to keep people happy in Rome, most of the time.

Neolithic village (cult lifestyle with dictatorial powers)

Another variation of spaceship lifestyle will be living as a person does in a religious cult colony. In such a colony, there is a strong belief in God, a belief which creates a virtual leader for the community and a strong leadership hierarchy to enforce that belief. This is a stable lifestyle on Earth; it should be a stable lifestyle on a ship.

This environment, the Neolithic village lifestyle/cult lifestyle will be instinctively comfortable for many of the ship’s inhabitants. It will rely a lot on doing what the community deems is right. For this reason, it will operate a lot like modern day cults. It is very likely to have a religious foundation. The members will support a strong leadership hierarchy, and that strong leadership will do a lot of meddling in day-to-day affairs of the members.

The cult style can work well. The people of the ship will feel relatively comfortable and won't feel too bored -- instinctive human thinking works like that. The biggest weakness of the cult style as a ship lifestyle is finding a way to deal with dissidents. On Earth, the way to deal with dissidents is to exile them, cast them out and let them fend for themselves. How will that be done on a spaceship? Will there be a megacasino section of the ship where those expelled can seek refuge? Or, more darkly, a reeducation section of some sort?

Another commonality of cult lifestyle is the community devotes lots of its time and effort to raising lots of children. A cult-based ship is going to need lots of room for population expansion.

Another weakness of cult lifestyle is that most members are educated to use instinct to deal with a static environment rather than analysis to deal with a constantly changing environment. This means most community members will be really bad at dealing with strangers, so the ship will be filled with 'babes in the woods' when it comes to dealing with the peoples of the various planets. There will be just a handful of “stranger experts” in the crew.

But, its big advantage is that it builds on deep instinctive thinking, so many people will feel good in this environment.

Science city lifestyle (live for the research)

Another possibility is to live for science and research. This is basically a university campus in space. This lifestyle may be difficult to sustain because interstellar space is pretty monotonous. So, whatever research is done will have to be on topics that can be contained in the spaceship itself. When these topics run out, the lifestyle will run out.

A closely related lifestyle is to live for manufacturing. Basically, the ship organizes itself as a factory which produces the finished goods that will be sold at the next destination. Once again, if raw materials run out, the crew runs out of meaning.


These are some thoughts I have had on what life on interstellar space ships will be like.

If you are doing an interstellar space story you can use these axioms that I have developed here, or you can come up with some of your own. If you aspire to good Technofiction in the stories you produce, come up with your axioms and think them through carefully. In particular, look for surprise applications of your technology or axioms (the Star Trek teleporter problem) and think through their implications, then write your story. These surprises you think of will often become the heart of your interesting story.

These conditions I have outlined here produced my novel “The Honeycomb Comet”.

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