Some thoughts on the economy of space cargo transportation

On today’s episode of really unneccessary iceberg worldbuilding: “What are the shipping fees in space?”

I’ve been thinking recently about how fast I want space travel between star systems to be in my space setting, and that had me pondering the costs for transporting cargo and the prices for buying and operating a space ship. I think I want to go with a setting in which travel between systems takes relatively long. More like taking a steam ship from Europe to Australia than taking a plane. But longer travel times mean greater shipping costs, and to be economical, cargo ships would need greater capacity, or alternatively very high value cargo. At some point, the travel times are either too long or the shpping costs way too high to make any sense.

In the Space Scoundrel genre, one requirement is that an experienced pilot can have the ability to raise the money for a small cargo ship, and generate enough income with cargo delivery jobs to cover both fuel and maintenance costs and pay off the debts. Many Space Scoundrels are in rather different situations that often involve various amounts of violence and crime, but to get away with that, it has to be possible to do with completely legitimate and legal means. There need to be honest bush pilots for the scoundrels to hide among them.

I think to be worth the financial risk, it should be possible to make enough income with a small cargo ship to pay off the loans or investors that made purchasing the ship possible within 10 years. If it would take much longer than that even when having decent business coming your way, I don’t think it would be worth the trouble. To make the calculation easier, let’s say 11 years, which is very close to 4,000 days. You’ll always have some days that you spend waiting for new customers, having repairs done, being stuck in customs, or just taking a break, so I think it’s really more like 3,000 work days doing actual business.

I’ve been looking up prices for old cargo planes and also found the purchase price and daily operating cost for a C-130 military medium cargo plane. Taking those things into account, I came up with the following approximations.

If you buy a cargo ship for 3,000,000c, and want to have it payed off in 3,000 days, you have to make a profit of 1,000c every day. If your ship has a cargo capacity of 2o tons (like a C-130) and you want to take a 5% profit margin, you have to demand a fee of 20,000c per day for your whole cargo hold. That makes 1,000c per ton of cargo, or 1c per kg.

Assuming that 1c is about $1 (and you can get an old plane of decent size for under $3,00,000), paying $10 per kg for a 10 day delivery doesn’t seem that prohibitive. You wouldn’t pay these fees on delivering grain, cement, or paper, but for electronics or medicine $10 in shipping fees could actually be quite cheap. Raising the cost to 20c or 30c for double or tripple the distance could still be acceptable to customers who just can’t get the goods from any more nearby source.

An average of 10 days of travel between inhabited planets would mean at least 20 days to send a message and get a reply just from the nearest neighboring system. If you have to call in help from two or three systems away, it could well take months before it arrives. As space settings go, this would make individual systems quite isolated. But it still would allow a group of PCs to visit different planets quite easily throughout a campaign. And running an independent light freighter cargo business would still look economically plausible as well.

Does any of this matter? No, of course it doesn’t really. But if I now start telling players that a pilot can buy an old ship with room for four people, and make a decent income carrying two shipping containers through space for weeks at a time, I’ll be feeling a lot more comfortable about players asking questions how such a thing might be possible.

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