How to pay for an armed United Nations space fleet

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What started as a throwaway worldbuilding exercise while driving became a Twitter thread, and then got significantly longer.

How to pay for an armed UN space fleet: All it takes is an open-hardware do-gooder attempt at a solar parasol to block global warming, a human extictionist radical environmentalist faction, a rocket, an asteroid or four, and holding the planet to ransom with a permanent eclipse.

Then, it's a simple matter of "no one shall hold the sun ransom" and "we don't trust the US/China/Russia to militarize space." You have successfully created Watsonian reasons for having a supranational space fleet to satisfy the Doylist desire for one. (read: Watsonian vs. Doylist)

Stories told with a Terran space fleet

An Earth with a unified space fleet is a wondrously generic setting. You have a supranational space fleet guarding Earth against something. What happens next? There are so many options!

A new story

Let's do something original. I wrote:

Then, it's a simple matter of "no one shall hold the sun ransom" and "we don't trust the US/China/Russia to militarize space."

Chris Zubak-Skees said, "straightforward from here."

Challenge accepted. What follows is a refinement and expansion of my tweet-thread response to Chris.

First you have the Silicon Valley open-hardware "rockets are cheap" crowd. They build a self-reproducing machine to turn an asteroid into a solar parasol, and do so to cut down global warming. They launch it, and depending on how effective it is, it's either accepted and stays in orbit or it's so reviled that the founders redirect it to Venus to cool off that hellacious planet.

All the best Tom Clancy novels have taught me that there's some faction of the Earth Liberation Front somewhere that thinks it's okay to kill all humans to save the Earth. These terrorists take the open-hardware parasol plans, build their own asteroid-eaters, and launch several. Their multiple parasols block out much more sunlight than the sole benevolent parasol — we're talking 10% shade, not 2%. Earth gets chilly. The shaders announce themselves and demand policy changes, probably along the lines of birth quota maximums, abandonment of fossil fuels, and pollution reduction.

Some nation decides to blow up the parasols, and does so in a poorly-thought-out way. How it does so is an exercise for the reader; the point is that one nation has deployed weapons in space, in violation of many, many treaties.

Once you give one nation space weapons, its neighbor will want some, too. Preempt the space arms race by appropriating a budget and building an International Fleet, or an Earth Federation Space Forces, or a UN Spacy. Its remit: protect Earth from unapproved space-based geoengineering.

The privatization of space launch technology in the middle 21st Century means that anyone with enough money can get a payload into orbit. The old Cold War space-based ICBM launch detection infrastructure, already well suited to tracking generic rocket launches, is cross-referenced with a list of launch manifests approved by the Fleet's inspectors. Unapproved launches are destroyed in the boost phase by orbital lasers. It's the second coming of Star Wars.

Then come the heist films, where criminals swap approved launches' payloads just before launch. Physical security ratchets up at launch pads, and for a while things seem habitable.

Then an amateur radio astronomer trawling Shodan finds an old repair satellite with vulnerable radio libraries, seizes control of the satellite, buys it a new tank of propellant from an on-orbit satellite resupply contractor with an untraceable cryptocoin transfer, and publishes a press release saying that they'll move the oversized satellite to a garbage orbit. Purely in the public benefit, they say. Instead, they send it to the asteroid belts to build a Von-Neumann-as-a-Service platform.

The fleet turns its lasers outward for the first time, beginning to police not just Earth's orbit but also the Solar system at large.

One positive side effect of developing space-based lasers is that the test shots are used to clean up several centuries' worth of orbital detritus. Paint flecks, bolts, and even meter-wide disco balls are ruthlessly vaporized in the name of keeping space safe.

(Meanwhile, just in case they ever need it, a university undergrad uses their own self-reproducing machine as a test payload during the proving stage of a Lunar mass driver. Ten years later, that bot's children finish carving a hockey rink on Europa. No humans ever play there, because of religious and radiological taboo, but imagine ice hockey à la robot-sumo.)

A recurring issue for the Fleet is that the ground-dwelling bad actors coordinate their actions and manufacturing through unbreakable cryptography, and build rocket components with off-the-shelf additive manufacturing techniques. General-purpose computers enable the launches that plague the Fleet's orbital defenders, but no one off Earth can figure out how to wean Earth of its distributed industrial base. Earth doesn't depend on space for computer manufacturing, so the offworlders can't choke off the supply. There's only one real solution to the problem, and that's knocking Earth back to the Industrial Age.

After a hundred years of increasingly crafty launch attempts, the offworld Colonies decide that Earth cannot be trusted with the ability to leave the nest. The Fleet outlaws computers on Earth. Any launchers are destroyed. Any radio transmitter is destroyed. Most communication networks are crippled. It is the age of the space laser, the rod from god, and the mysterious electromagnetic interference.

On Earth, a black-hat conference presentation demos how to suborn Colony surveillance satellites with cornfield QR codes.

Twenty thousand script kiddies try to mow their way into control of an orbital laser; every lawn so mowed is burnt to a crisp. A group of fast-thinking grey-hats patched the satellites before the conference presentation, possibly aided by insiders within the black-hat team that carved the original cornfields.

Faced with the requirement to either eliminate all technological know-how on Earth, or allow Earth access to space, the Colonies split. The Butlerian Jihad attempts to break all high technology on Earth with serial electromagnetic pulses, but accidentally their own base. It is suspected, but never proven, that they provoked an earful of radio astronomers into action.

The Uplifters try to deploy assistance to Earth, to raise Earth back from a pre-wireless silent age. They send landers and drop capsules and scavenging rocket propellant factories and printers that will build the printers that will build new spacecraft. All of it is shot down during reentry, by the space colonies' own technology. The Butlerian Jihad had seized control of the defense platforms before being wiped off the face of the Moon, and they changed the IFF codes. The interdiction lasers see no difference between an unlicensed Earth transmitter and a licensed colony transmitter: all are verboten within the laser's domain.

The anti-launch platforms built by the ancestors were redundant, allegedly hack-proof, and self-defending, and that was before the Butlerians welded shut the maintenance hatches and changed the access codes. The satellites can't be turned off and they can't be shot down. The only way to disable them is, ironically, parasols.

A swarm of micro-parasols are deployed to shade each anti-launch satellite's solar collectors. The satellites' dying act is to carve dank memes into the grain baskets of Earth: a black-hat proof-of-concept that managed to survive the grey-hat patches has destroyed Earth's agriculture.

With Earth now choked by smog, and the launch-destroying lasers offline, the humanitarian-minded colonies send grain and technology. They're met by militant Earth-firsters with stockpiled launchers in concealed launch silos, extensive practice of living under watchful satellites, and some pointy opinions about the proper conduct of war.

Fast forward a few years.

The Earth Sphere is choked with Kessler-syndrome debris as the Inner Colonies fight a defensive war against the ascendant Terran-supremacist fleets. Centuries of oppositional space launcher construction have resulted in cheap, efficient, disposable, and above all else agile launchers. The groundsiders once cowered in their caves, but they have discovered that the space fleets have no caves to hide in. The inner colonies do not want to launch another war of extinction, for the prevailing ethos is now that Earth should be preserved as a common resource for all humankind.

The outer colonies watch with horror as Earth's skies and biosphere fill with the trash of war. Quietly, they slip off into the interstellar deeps. They've arranged a meeting point a thousand years hence, and figure they'll terraform Earth if there's anything worth saving then.

For now, they have the stars.

Commentary

Wow, that ended up being very Gundam. Heavy themes of pollution, purity, irresponsible use of technology and the environment. This setting doesn't mention mobile suits, but it doesn't rule them out.

It fails to explore self-reproducing machines beyond the basic "turn an asteroid into something" idea: what if self-reproducing machines were used inside a habitat or on Earth? Grey goo scenarios are avoided not for Watsonian reasons but for Doylist reasons, and that may be considered a failing.

This setting's approach to technology is perhaps most influenced by the writing of Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross in The Rapture of the Nerds and the idea of an emergent conspiracy. Other influences include Doctorow's Pirate Cinema, Frank Herbert's Dune, the show Planetes, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, the reentry sequence from Macross Plus, the dust storms from Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, the Kessler sequence from Gravity, the first two thirds of Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, the "Humanity Star" space disco ball, and, to be honest, the Universal Century timeline of Gundam stories.

If you'd like to use this setting, feel free to use it under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (or later) International license.