Classic Traveller, and now Cepheus Light, both approach jump drive technology by size rather than distance. That is to say, a spacefaring society can build small fast ships before it can build big fast ships. At TL9 you can’t build any FTL ships larger than 800 displacement tons. It raises some interesting questions for me about the settlement of new worlds, since you can’t just build a ginormous megaship and drop off 10,000 eager colonists.
Now, Omer has already talked about this a little bit for his Hard Space setting, but I was thinking about it from a more traditional RAW Cepheus perspective. If you’re going to settle a world from Earth, then you would need at least Jump-2, based on most 2d hexmap projections of nearby space. If you’re being cheeky, you could argue that Alpha Centauri at 1.4pc rounds to the nearest, which is 1pc. But someone probably already got upset that I even suggested it. So let’s assume 2.
At TL9, you’re limited to 400 tons for a jump-2 ship. Drives, bridge, computer, and crew requirements will take up just about half of that, depending on your choices, leaving you with around 200 dtons worth of people and supplies to drop off. The ship will cost around 110 million credits. And if you assume that 1 credit is ~1USD in 1977, that translates to around 450 million dollars in 2018. I don’t have hard numbers, but some half-assed googling says that’s close to the cost of a smaller-size naval warship. Or about what the US Navy’s new littoral combat ships were supposed to cost. Remember that one time when a project cost what they said it would? Yeah…
Also, here’s the big one: $450 million is about what it cost for a single US space shuttle mission. In terms of government spending, Traveller ships are pretty inexpensive. The magic of contragrav and reactionless drives makes space travel a bargain. Now probably, probably, TL9 prices would be more expensive than the standard prices listed in the books, right? The implied setting is one where space travel has been a thing for a long time. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to bump spaceship costs during the early days of space travel by a factor of two, or even a factor of five. And it would still be pennies compared to current rocketry costs.
What this is all getting to is that pretty much any developed country on Earth could afford to build one of these ships, if not a whole bunch of them. One ship, at twice the listed cost above, would be about 5 percent of NASA’s 2018 budget. It might look like the Age of Discovery all over again, where everyone has a colony someplace.
Who, Where, and Why
If the price range is accommodating for a whole lot of groups, the question remains, who wants to pay to send a bunch of people somewhere? Because we haven’t yet gotten into operational costs. If you just wanted some science, you could send a scout team. But building a permanent settlement is a whole different thing. So why go?
The cynic in me thinks that people are only going to end up on another world if there’s a clearly mapped out return on investment. And you’d think that the decision makers will recall the fate of every colony established in North and South America. You better get that ROI before they demand independence. Or maybe you build independence into the plan so things stay friendly and you have a long-term trading partner. But I’m wandering off topic here a bit.
Any settlement needs to demonstrate a value to the organization that will establish it. It might be a population pressure valve, in which case you’d need to unload a lot of colonists, and that would require a pretty big fleet of 400-ton ships. Keep reading to see some of the numbers. Or, you’d want access to resources. A new place to grow food when climate change takes its toll, maybe? Or a source of rare earth elements? A world with a vibrant ecosystem might present opportunities for pharma research. There are plenty of reasons for a corporate venture, but they wouldn’t necessarily require a massive influx of people.
Let’s assume a shirtsleeve world 3xJump-2 from Earth. On my own map, that would probably be Tau Ceti, 82 Eridani, or 40 Eridani. I haven’t even thought about the cost of refueling outposts on the way, but just for the ship, that’s three weeks out, plus refueling time in between jumps, probably 1-2 weeks unloading and overseeing the settlement setup, then 3+ weeks back. Let’s say for easy math that it’s 8 weeks round trip, for 6 trips a year. Based solely off ship operating costs over a 20 year lifespan, that’s about 40,000 credits per colonist you drop off, or about 12 million credits annually. About 50 million in 2018 dollars, to put ~300 colonists on a world. By the way, I’m doing a lot of rounding here, so don’t get mad if you’re following along at home.
So, 50 million per ship per year. A billion dollars over 20 years, delivering about 6000 colonists to a world. It wouldn’t be a very cost-effective population pressure valve, would it? It’d be better to pack the colonists into coldsleep and provide a very skilled medic. You’d no longer need stewards, so ship costs would drop a bit, and you could carry more than four times as many colonists. Although you’d probably need to balance out cargo-per-colonist to ensure there’s enough supplies. But let’s say you can bring 200 colonists per trip. Now a ship can deliver more than a thousand colonists a year, and the cost per colonist is about 7 thousand credits, for about 175 million credits or $700 million USD over 20 years. Of course with coldsleep rules as they are, you’ll lose at least ten percent of the people you ferry over. Personally I think the coldsleep rules are a little harsh, but that’s another story.
What and How
A corporate venture will probably want to set up a modest workforce, depending on the resource in question. But it’s unlikely that there would be a resource that wouldn’t be available closer to Earth. I think what we’d probably see is a public-private partnership. The government would subsidize the cost of getting the workforce to a world, and the companies would provide infrastructure and employment.
I would expect that the primary cargo costs will be in machinery and tools for production. Seeds, mining drills, smelters, power plants, that sort of thing. Shelters for the colonists would probably be simple prefabs about the size of a stateroom but without most of the amenities. They might even have kits to convert some of the standard 3dt cargo containers into living space. As part of the agreement, a would-be colonist would probably only be allowed a small space to bring personal items.
If it’s the first available offworld colony, the ships can probably expect to see steady service for decades. A single ship flying 50 colonists a trip, six times a year, would generate nearly 40,000 colonists over 50 years (including colonists born on the destination world). A closer world, say on Alpha Centauri, would grow twice as fast and wouldn’t require fueling depots along the way.
At some point, those ships would start to be repurposed. TL10 allows Jump-2 at 1000 tons, which would radically affect colonization efforts. Companies might strip out the coldsleep pods or a good portion of the staterooms and commit to more cargo space, so that they can start hauling back the riches harvested on those new worlds.