Tech as Drama: Entering Orbit

A couple of posts and comments about our ship’s floor plan got me thinking about this. You can separate most scifi ships into two groups: one where the propulsion systems are “aft” of the crew (e.g. the Serenity), and one where they are “down” (e.g. the Rocinante). Whether your engines are aft or down is usually an indicator where your universe sits on the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.

However! There’s reasons to have a fore-and-aft design for a ship in a realistic universe, and that is taking off from a planet. An aerospace craft, that can land on the surface, load up cargo or passengers, reach orbit, and then go do other things. You can have winged shuttlecraft that service the big space-only needles (which have an up-and-down arrangement). So what are some complications to this arrangement that can produce interesting drama?

Shuttles are a monopoly. Most planetary shuttlecraft are owned by the Hegemony or a Guild or some similar organization, and they reserve the right to inspect cargo, refuse transit to certain passengers, and otherwise act like douchebags. People who don’t like this arrangement can either suck it up, do business elsewhere, or spend the extra cred on the (more expensive, more complex) aerospace designs.

Aerospace designs are expensive. Following on that point, it’s easy and cheap to design a ship that’s just a long cylinder with a rocket on one end. There’s so many fewer systems to worry about - avionics, wings with rudder controls, heat shielding for re-entry - and that’s all space and mass you can devote to cargo. So there’s an economic stratification, with the high-end haulers flying their space needles around, and the hardscrabble aerospace pilots taking on the cargo the shuttles won’t lift and the big houses won’t talk to.

How about alternatives? We talked about artificial gravity, and if you can produce antigravity as well, some of this goes away. But there can be political, economic, or cultural reasons for aerospace ships to still exist - for example, any ship equipped with antigravity has to pass inspection by the Hegemony for things like smuggling compartments, weapons, or stealth.

I have thoughts on this!

One: not just needle-shaped ships would wait in orbit. The most cost- and fuel-efficient ships lurking around planets look like this:

Drill some tunnels, mount the necessaries, and use the the rock as reaction mass. (This may be the most gamable thing I got out of reading The Sparrow - certainly the most fun thing.)

Another thought: artificial gravity - I want my cake and shall eat it, too.

My approach here (and someone scream if this is their worst nightmare) is that artificial gravity is a thing, but the tech is not all-powerful, and has limitations; those limitations are quite well-known, and are overcome right about the time your ship starts pushing more Gs out the back end than the artificial gravity can generate on its own.

In other words, if you’re going to to push more than 1G, you’d better strap in, because the back wall is about to become the floor. This probably means engineering has some automated robot arm systems that can be directed from touch- and key-pads mounted into the arm of the gymbaled crash couch back there, and if the mechanic has to get out of her seat, she’s going want some pinky-swears from the pilot that no one’s about to do a 5G Crazy Ivan while she’s spot-welding something back into place.

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I’m pretty okay with that, for a couple reasons. First, it gives us another challenge in combat: pull some high-G maneuvers, and race to see who blacks out first, even without having to shoot each other. Second, it feels like it establishes the same sort of divide between “civilian” craft, and the real spacers. If you get into a ship that’s used to high-speed maneuvers, you’re gonna tell, because of how everything’s arranged to account for two different directions of “down” at any given moment.

The difference would probably be pretty stark, analogous to seeing this:

vs this:

Another comparison is Thunderbirds 1 and 2 because come on, there’s no way I’m not gonna reference this show sooner or later:

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I have to confess that, for as big as an original T’birds geek as I am, I somehow managed not to hook up with the TAG show. It’s fascinating to see how the launch sequences are similar to and different from the Supermarionation originals – more stuff can be automated in CG (like dressing the pilots, rather than “Here, got you on board, and the wardrobe pops out to let you dress yourself”) but I have to say the new ones are also a lot more dangerous the new ones are freaking dangerous (no safety rails, dependent on split-second timing by the pilots during the boarding sequence, etc.)

On the other hand, it’s all worth it to see the deck chairs get blown away during the T1 launch.

What’s missing in the new T1 sequence (I’m assuming it shows up in the show) is the gimbaling to show the ship going from vertical takeoff to horizontal flight without the pilot having to lie on his back during launch.

It’s there, just not part of the stock launch footage.

A surprisingly large amount of the show is practical rather than CG. Here’s Adam Savage nerding out with WETA about it.

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Well, that got me watching the WETA interview, then the first 3-4 eps. Lots of fun, and remarkable integration between miniature sets and CG.

Propellant intermixture or “intermix” is something a ship operator worries about when performance or cost is important. In game terms, intermix is just one more explanation for high Engines and Helm ratings on a ship or pilot.

There’s three catalysts: Red (enhances thrust), Green (improves efficiency and makes long-term burns safer), and Blue (reduces emissions and thermal signature). A Red-only engine would be powerful, but burn itself out quickly without enough Blue to mitigate all the heat, and would waste propellant without Green. All mixes have some level of each catalyst.

There’s a lot of math, and some superstition, that lets a spacer calculate the proper intermix for their vessel. This depends on total mass, distribution within the vessel, mission profile, and other factors. There are advanced AI systems that can dynamically calculate an intermix, but many pilots prefer to do it by feel. Systems that change intermix on the fly, or compute optimal levels, or whatever, can be the objectives of Crafting actions during downtime.

Typical loads

  • Big conventional merchant ships run high Green to save money on propellant.
  • “Rock riders” - pilots of converted asteroids - run Green-Blue because the typical propellant (a cryogenic metal/LOX slurry created by grinding asteroid raw material into powder) is rough on engines and can overheat.
  • Other civilian craft use a manufacturer-recommended intermix.
  • Military interceptors, fighter craft, etc. burn heavy Red mixes. Their engines must be worked on after a few hours’ flight.
  • Stealth ships run heavy Blue to avoid infrared detection, but must burn more or move slower as a result.
  • Smugglers typically switch between Red-Green and Green-Blue intermixes, depending on whether they’re running or skulking.

Ship upgrades

  • Engine rating doesn’t just indicate raw power, but also ability to use different mixes or adjust the mix dynamically.
  • The “Afterburners” option represents a high-Red intermix with extra-tough engines able to handle it.
  • The “Cloaking Device” option includes an engine that can go high-Blue rapidly.

Intermix as drama

  • The people refueling your ship at spacedock messed with your intermix settings, so when you blast off in a hurry, it’s not what you expected. Damage your engine (as you try to apply more thrust than you safely can) or find yourself unable to move fast enough.
  • Someone inspecting your ship notices suspicious intermix settings in your computer or fuel system, and suspects you of criminal activity.
  • Your ship must show evidence of a working “Red limiter”, putting a hard cap on engine performance. The crew must falsify this evidence before docking (with Rig) or bribe someone doing inspections (with Sway).
  • If you don’t run with enough Blue (sacrificing efficiency and power in the process), enemy missiles can lock onto your engine’s exhaust.
  • Use Study on sensor readings to assess a ship’s purpose from its exhaust.

Obviously a lot of what’s going on with Drifter is inspired by “Fast and the Furious”. But it’s a neat franchise for making “skilled vehicle operator” a gameable thing. It’s exciting to watch, but you also get enough details to explain how and why your PC can do these great things.

Here’s Dom racing a Havana big-wig in a really, really shitty car. He’s done some emergency upgrades, but it’s gonna burn itself out before he finishes the race and he knows it. This is what a Desperate position roll looks like.