This section is for quasi-military organizations providing services to a colony planet, where the organizations are under control of a federation or empire instead of under control of the colony.

For example the colony service of Colony Education is a Federation service that forces the colony to grow into a good citizen member of the Federation, instead of becoming some raving nut-job cult colony.

On the other hand, the Spacial Customs service is a Colony service that enforces the colony's import/export restrictions and collects the colony-mandated taxes and tariffs.

Medical Service

Medical men are commonly found in a spacecraft's sickbay. Except for the frontier doctors found at colonies and remote space stations.

Frontier doctors try to keep the colonists healthy, heal their illnesses, and fix their injuries. But they will frantically shift into high gear if they hear the "P" word. Planetary pandemics are not just a threat to the colonists, a plague could also spread to other planets.

Medical people have to be hard as tool-steel. Case in point is their skill in "triage". This is a very ugly word. Say there is a disaster in a remote area with a large number of casualties and a limited supply of ambulances (technical term is mass-casualty incident). There is not enough ambulances to carry all the casualties. So the emergency medical team has to do triage. They have to classify all the wounded into one of three categories:

  1. Those for whom immediate care might make a positive difference in outcome.
  2. Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive;
  3. Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive;

Only the first category gets treatment and priority transport in ambulances.

In other words, the triage classifiers do their best to be objective, but they decide who lives and who dies. It can be tricky trying to determine whether a given casualty belongs in the first or the second category. I would never do such a job, but I'm not as hard as tool-steel.

In Alan E. Nourse's novel Star Surgeon (1960), Terra is invited to join the Galactic Confederation of Worlds. By some quirk of fate, it turns out all the other member races had more advanced technology than Terra, but they sadly lagged behind in the life sciences. Specifically in the field of medicine. Terra became Hospital Earth, providing the galaxy with advanced medical care.

In James White's Sector General series the galactic orbital hospital is established by the federated races. The multi-level facility has a full spectrum of atmospheres and environments, ranging from aquatic to oxygen to chlorine, to vacuum with hard radiation. The best doctors of all the races provide non-partisan health care to all member races and any new races just encountered.

In Murray Leinster's Med Service series, the doctors are responsible for periodically visiting all colony planets. They pass on to local doctors the latest medical advances, conduct planetary health surveys, and deal with plagues and other medical emergencies.


Sofia Nikitas was born on the Moon. Her mother was English, her father Creek. She grew up playing in the dormitories and agricultural domes of a base constructed beneath the regolith of the Sea of Tranquility. In early adolescence, she began taking her turn tilling the soil and tending the sewage-recycling plant. Supply packages from Earth were rare and infrequent. The home planet had its own share of troubles, and little to spare for its outposts. What the base lacked, it had to acquire through trade with the other settlements and stations scattered across the lunar surface. Life was hard, but it was possible—at least in the short term.

However, as Sofia completed her first decade and a half of existence, it became apparent to the inhabitants of her home that the human presence on the Moon was doomed. The smaller science stations began to founder as they ran out of the materials necessary to sustain life. When an essential piece of equipment broke and a replacement could be neither obtained nor printed, the inhabitants had little choice but to move elsewhere. And so refugees from failed outposts began to arrive in leaky rovers, having driven hundreds of miles across the unforgiving terrain, their presence putting additional strain on food production and air recycling systems already operating well beyond any margin of safety—systems that simply hadn't been designed to be indefinitely self-sustaining. People slept in corridors. Water was rationed. Nobody had enough to eat.

On Sofia’s fifteenth birthday, her mother wept openly, afraid her daughter wouldn't live to see her sixteenth.

But then, when things were at their lowest ebb, the Multiplicity (alien interstellar federation) came calling.

For a century and a half, humanity had been carelessly leaking radio and television signals into the cosmos. At the height of human civilisation, the planet blazed across the radio frequencies like a miniature sun. And at the bitter end of the doomed twenty-first century, a trading vessel from the Goblet Cluster clipped the edge of this emissions shell and decided to investigate.

What it found was a race on the verge of terminal catastrophe.

The trading ship touched down on the Sea of Tranquility two days after Sofia's birthday. Instead of a limited future of austerity and decline, she now had the chance to grow to maturity in an expanding civilisation. Welcomed into the Multiplicity of Races and provided with aid and succour, the reinvigorated humans quickly blossomed from their home system, spilling out to the surrounding stars.

Sofia travelled widely, first with her parents and then, later, on her own.

Freed from her subterranean existence on the Moon, she couldn’t get over the freedom of being in space. She got a job as a pilot on a ground-to-orbit shuttle, and later spent a few years as an ice miner shepherding comets in the Oort cloud, out on the ragged edge of interstellar space. When she finally left the solar system entirely, she did so as the captain of a freighter, hauling colonists and supplies out to the newly settled worlds of the fledgling Generality (Terran interstellar federation).

En route, she married the ship's first officer, Carlos Konstanz.

After a hundred trips and a dozen years together, they had eamed enough between them to buy the freighter from its owners. By the time Sofia reached her early thirties, they owned a small fleet of merchant ships and had become modestly wealthy. However, her diaries from this time indicate that she struggled with a lack of fulfilment, feeling herself rudderless and devoid of purpose, seeking to dedicate herself to something more meaningful than the simple acquisition of wealth—a sentiment sharpened by the untimely deaths of her parents and, soon afterwards, the unexplained disappearance of her husband during an otherwise routine trading expedition to Hopper space.

For a time, she became depressed. She worked routes alone, preferring the solitude. She became a virtual recluse, operating her business remotely and spending the majority of her time hundreds of thousands of kilometres from the nearest human being, with only the pitiless stars for company. Those who knew her best feared for her sanity.

But then, a year or two after the tragic losses, while browsing an old archive that had been offered as payment by a computer-based civilisation that existed purely for the accretion and cross-referencing of information, she found something that piqued her interest.

According to the trove, a race known as the Hearthers had once existed close to the forward edge of our spiral arm. The Hearthers had hailed from a watery world in an elliptical orbit around its star. Its summers had been brief, heady months of frantic fecundity and gorging, all too swiftly over. For three quarters of its orbit, the planet swung beyond the outer limit of its star’s habitable zone, plunging the surface into a deep and seemingly endless winter. In order to survive, the Hearthers had been forced to cooperate. Their philosophy was one of abnegation and service, dedicating their lives to the survival of others and the furtherance of the greater good. There was, in their culture, no more noble or heroic act than the rescue and adoption of travellers caught far from home in the first freezing blasts of winter.

Small wonder then that when they joined the Multiplicity in their turn, they took their philosophy with them to the stars.

The Hearthers worked tirelessly to knit the differing cultures into a single loose alliance. They brokered treaties and instigated conferences. But their most enduring legacy was one that chimed most closely with their own values.

Until the coming of the Hearthers, individual governments and civilisations had been responsible for the wellbeing of their ships, and vessels and crews that ran into trouble far from home might as well have been at the far side of the galaxy for all the help they could expect. The Hearthers changed that, creating a fleet of ships for the specific aim of rescuing travellers stranded in the unforgiving depths of space. Loosely translated, the fleet’s name could be rendered in English as “The Communal Grouping of Individual Hearths into One, Dedicated to the Preservation and Recovery of Stricken Itinerants”.

For six thousand years, the Hearthers and their fleet served the races of the Multiplicity. They hurried to the aid of floundering starships, and brought food and medical aid to planets blighted by famine and pestilence. Their name became a byword for trust and dependability. The yellow star logos on the hulls of their ships became the universal symbol for emergency rescue. Their crews were afforded a heroic reverence in eight hundred cultures scattered across two hundred thousand light years…

But it didn't last.

Fifty centuries before Sofia's birth, while on Earth woolly mammoths roamed the northerly wastes of Siberia, the rescues stopped. Distress calls went unanswered. The ships of the fleet disappeared and the Hearthers vanished. They abandoned their bases and way stations, and expeditions to their home planet found only a cold and uninhabited world, snowbound and desolate.

When Sofia Nikitas first read the story of the Hearthers, she realised with an electric thrill that she had finally found the purpose that had been eluding her. She resolved to dedicate her wealth and resources to the re-establishment of The Communal Grouping of Individual Hearths into One, Dedicated to the Preservation and Recovery of Stricken Itinerants. Only she would call it the House of Reclamation; and, at first, she would limit its activities to the squabbling factions of the Human Cenerality. In time, when the House had been given the chance to prove itself, she could expand the scope of its operation to include all the races of the Multiplicity.

Within a year, she had retrofitted her entire merchant fleet for its new duties. The expense almost broke her, but after a few high profile recoveries, individual governments agreed to contribute to the upkeep of the House in return for the benefit of its services. Personnel and ships applied to join the organisation; depots and way stations flourished at strategic points throughout human space; and slowly, one calamity at a time, lives were saved.

The Hearthers' yellow star-shaped symbol became the sigil of the House, and their translated motto—Life Above All—became its mantra and mission statement.

Still in her thirties, Sofia Nikitas had grown to be one of the most powerful and respected women in the Generality, able to command an armada larger than could be mustered by most nations. And she did it in the name of her dead mother and father, and her missing husband. Only ever clad in mourning black, she devoted herself to their memories, and to the hope that through her efforts, others would be spared the pain of similar losses.

From EMBERS OF WAR by Gareth L. Powell (2018)

Passing below him were some of the great cities, the hospitals, the research and training centers, the residential zones and supply centers of Hospital Earth, medical center to the powerful Galactic Confederation, physician in charge of the health of a thousand intelligent races on a thousand planets of a thousand distant star systems. Here, he knew, was the ivory tower of galactic medicine, the hub from which the medical care of the confederation arose. From the huge hospitals, research centers, and medical schools here, the physicians of Hospital Earth went out to all corners of the galaxy. In the permanent outpost clinics, in the gigantic hospital ships that served great sectors of the galaxy, and in the General Practice Patrol ships that roved from star system to star system, they answered the calls for medical assistance from a multitude of planets and races, wherever and whenever they were needed.

Of all the medical services on Hospital Earth, none had the power of the Black Service of Pathology. Traditionally in Earth medicine, the pathologists had always occupied a position of power and discipline. The autopsy rooms had always been the "Temples of Truth" where the final, inarguable answers in medicine were ultimately found, and for centuries pathologists had been the judges and inspectors of the profession of medicine.

And when Earth had become Hospital Earth, with status as a probationary member of the Galactic Confederation of Worlds, it was natural that the Black Service of Pathology had become the governors and policy-makers, regimenting every aspect of the medical services provided by Earth physicians.

Dal knew that the medical training council, which would be reviewing his application in just a few hours, was made up of physicians from all the services—the Green Service of Medicine, the Blue Service of Diagnosis, the Red Service of Surgery, as well as the Auxiliary Services—but the Black Doctors who sat on the council would have the final say, the final veto power.

From STAR SURGEON by Alan E. Nourse (1960)

      "Calling ground," said Calhoun's recorded voice. "Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty calling ground to report arrival and ask coordinates for landing. Our mass is fifty standard tons. Repeat, five-oh tons. Purpose of landing, planetary health inspection."…
     …Calhoun's work was conferences with planetary health officials, politely receiving such information as they thought important, and tactfully telling them about the most recent developments in medical science as known to the Interstellar Medical Service.…

     …Certainly for a space-port landing-grid not to respond to calls for twelve hours running seemed ominous.
     "We've been wondering," said the Candida querulously, "if there could be something radically wrong below. Sickness, for example."
       The word "sickness" was a substitute for a more alarming word. But a plague had nearly wiped out the population of Dorset, once upon a time, and the first ships to arrive after it had broken out most incautiously went down to ground, and so carried the plague to their next two ports of call. Nowadays quarantine regulations were enforced very strictly indeed.
     "I'll try to find out what's the matter," said Calhoun.…
     …A word from Calhoun as a Med Service man would protect the space-liner from a claim for damages. But Calhoun didn't like the look of things. He realized, distastefully, that he might find practically anything down below. He might find that he had to quarantine the planet and himself with it. In such a case he'd need the Candida to carry word of the quarantine to other planets and get word to Med Service sector headquarters.

     …He headed the little ship downward and as it gathered velocity he went over the briefing-sheets covering this particular world. He'd never touched ground here before. His occupation, of course, was seeing to the dissemination of medical science as it developed under the Med Service. The Service itself was neither political nor administrative, but it was important. Every human-occupied world was supposed to have a Med Ship visit at least once in four years. Such visits verified the state of public health. Med Ship men like Calhoun offered advice on public-health problems. When something out of the ordinary turned up, the Med Service had a staff of researchers who hadn't been wholly baffled yet. There were great ships which could carry the ultimate in laboratory equipment and specialized personnel to any place where they were needed. Not less than a dozen inhabited worlds in this sector alone owed the survival of their populations to the Med Service, and the number of those which couldn't have been colonized without Med Service help was legion.

     …Calhoun would deliver full details of recent advances in the science of medicine. These might already have reached Maris III in the ordinary course of commerce, but he would make sure. He might—but it was unlikely—learn of some novelty worked out here.…
     …Calhoun raised his eyebrows again. This was not according to routine. Not at all! The Med Service was badly overworked and understaffed. The resources of interplanetary services were always apt to be stretched to their utmost, because there could be no galactic government as such. Many thousands of occupied planets, the closest of them light-years apart, couldn't hold elections or have political parties for the simple reason that travel, even in overdrive, was too slow. They could only have service organizations whose authority depended on the consent of the people served, and whose support had to be gathered when and as it was possible.
     But the Med Service was admittedly important. The local Sector Headquarters was in the Cetis cluster. It was a sort of interstellar clinic, with additions. It gathered and disseminated the results of experience in health and medicine among some thousands of colony-worlds, and from time to time it made contact with other headquarters carrying on the same work elsewhere. It admittedly took fifty years for a new technique in gene selection to cross the occupied part of the galaxy, but it was a three-year voyage in overdrive to cover the same distance direct. And the Med Service was worthwhile. There was no problem of human ecological adjustment it had so far been unable to solve, and there were some dozens of planets whose human colonies owed their existence to it. There was nowhere, nowhere at all, that a Med Ship was not welcomed on its errand from headquarters.

From MED SHIP by Murray Leinster (2002)

      Ole Doc Methuselah arrived on Earth at 19:95 five days after. He arrived and Earth knew it. Ole Doc was mad. Ole Doc was so mad that he by-passed quarantine and control and landed square before the hangar, gouging big chunks of dirt up with the Morgue's landing blast.
     A dispatcher came racing on a scooter to know what and why and he had his mouth open to become a very mad dispatcher when he saw the crossed ray rods. They were on the nose of the golden ship and they meant something. The same insignia was on the gorget at Ole Doc's throat. The ray rods of pharmacy. The ray rods of the Universal Medical Society which, above all others, ruled the universe of medicine, said what it pleased, did what it pleased when it pleased and if it pleased. It owed allegiance to no government because it had been born to take the deadly secrets of medicine out of the hands of governments. The dispatcher shut his mouth.
     Ole Doc swung down. He looked about twenty-five even if he was nine hundred and six, that being the medical privilege and secret of any one of the seven hundred society members, and when the sun struck his gold cloak and flashed from his boots, the dispatcher. again about to protest the actions of this ship, hurriedly drew back. He was looking at a Soldier of Light and it not only awed him, it paralyzed him. He would tell his friends and children about this for the next fifty years.
     Ole Doc got down and went in so fast his cape stood out straight. He found Conway on the ninety-eighth floor in a magnificent office full of communications equipment and space charts.
     Conway was bovine and leaden. He did not have fast reactions. He was a cop. He saw Ole Doc, thought of revolution, grabbed a button to bawl out a receptionist for not announcing and then stared straight into two very angry blue eyes and found that his hand had been swatted hard away from that buzzer.
     "You listen to me!" cried Ole Doc. "You imbecile! You … you— Good Catfish! You haven't the discernment of a two-year-old kid! You … you flatfoot! Do you know what you've done? Do you know what ought to happen to you ? Do you know where you'll wind up when I'm through with this? If you—"
     Conway's bullish ire had risen and was about to detonate. He leaped up to have room for his rage and then, just as he was beginning to level a finger he saw the ray rods on the gold gorget.
     "You … you're the U.M.S.," said Conway, idiotically holding the pose which meant rage but stammering like a schoolkid. Abruptly he collapsed into his chair. Weakly and with great attention he listened to the detailed faults of police and control systems in general, Conway in particular and Conway's children and parents and grandparents. Conway learned some pretty terrible things about himself, including his personal appearance and the slightly sub-quality of his wits. Conway would probably go around being an illegitimate imbecile for days afterwards.
     "... and," said Ole Doc, "if you don"t locate that ship in twenty-four hours I'll yellow ticket this whole system. I'll yellow ticket Mars and Jupiter. I'll yellow ticket the whole condemned galaxy! You won't move a ship. You won't move a cruiser or a battleship or a tramp! You won't even move a lifeboat for more years than I've got patience. And," he concluded illogically, "I've got plenty of that!"
     "What … what—?" begged Conway, the mighty Conway.
     "Find me the Star of Space. Find that ship so whoever is on her can be saved. Find her before she lands and infects an entire planet, a system and a galaxy. Find her before you kill off millions, billions, quadrillions—"
     "Have the Grand Council in here in ten minutes. I don't care if they're in China or digging clams at the North Pole. Have them in here or have trouble!" Ole Doc stamped out, found a seat in a garden looking over New Chicago, and composed himself as well as he could to wait. But his eyes kept straying to the blue heavens and he kept pounding a palm with a fist and swearing sharply.
     Hippocrates (Ole Doc's aide-de-camp) came back in nine minutes. "Grand Council ruling Earth assembled now. You speak. But don't you get so excited. Five days to your next treatment. Very bad."

     Ole Doc went in. His metal boot soles chewed bits out of the rug. Eighteen men sat in that room, eighteen important men whose names meant law on documents, whose whims decided the policies of nations and whose intercession, arbitration or command ruled utterly the two and one half billion people of Earth. The Army officers were imposingly medaled. The Marine commander was grim. The Navy operations chief was hard, staunch, important. The civilians might have appeared to be the most powerful men there, they were so quiet and dignified. But it was actually the naval officer who ranked them all. He commanded, by planetary seniority and the right of Earth's conquests, the combined space navies of the galaxy whenever "the greater good of the majority of the systems" was threatened.
     They were grave and quiet when Ole Doc entered. They blinked a bit uncertainly when he threw his helmet down on Conway's desk. And when he spoke, they came very much to life.
     "You," said Ole Doc, "are a pack of fools!"
     There came an instant protest against this indignity. Loudest was that of Galactic Admiral Garth. He was a black-jowled, cigar-smoking man of six feet five, a powerful if not brilliant fighter, and he objected to being called a fool.
     "You have let hell loose through the systems!" cried Ole Doc above their voices. "You've sent a cargo of death away where it can infect trillions of beings! That may be dramatic but by all that's holy, it's the truth !"
     "Hold on there!" said Admiral Garth, heard because he could shake ports loose with his voice. "No confounded pill roller can come in here and talk to me like that!"
     It stopped the babbling. Most of the people there were frightened for a moment. Those who had been merchants knew the yellow tickets. Those who only nominally governed saw whole nations cut off. The Army saw its strength cut to nothing because it could not be shipped and the Navy in the person of Galactic Admiral Garth saw somebody trying to stop his operations of fleets and he alone stayed mad.
     "The Star of Space was sent away from here," said Ole Doc, spitting every word, "without medical assistance or supplies. She was rotten with disease but she got no cordon, no quarantine. She got dismissal! She went out into space low on supplies and fuel, riddled with disease, hating you and all humanity.
     "Further, even though you were in communication with that ship, you did not find out the details, the exact, priceless details of that disease. You did not discover from whence she thought she received the disease or establish which passenger or crewman from what part of the Universe first grew ill. And you failed, utterly failed to find out where she intended to go!
     "That"s why you are fools! You should have provided her with an escort at least! But no! You, the men who supposedly monopolize all the wits on Earth, the Earth which rules the galaxy, you let the Star of Space go away from here to murder — yes, murder! — possibly millions and millions of human beings. Perhaps billions. Perhaps trillions! I cannot exaggerate the folly of your action. Completely beyond the base-hearted wickedness which refused that ship the help she needed, you will be evil and sinful in the eyes of all men.
     "I am publishing this matter to space. The Universal Medical Society can cure anything but stupidity, and where they find that, in government, they must leave it alone!"

     Galactic Admiral Garth clamped an angry blue jaw on a frayed cigar. Pill roller, his attitude said. He'd never needed a doctor in his life and when he did he'd take a naval surgeon. Disease, bah! Every one knew that disease warfare had almost ruined mankind. The stuff, was deadly. It said so in the texts. Therefore, a diseased ship should be launched as far away from humanity as possible and left to rot. It was good sense. Nobody could fight a disease when science could make new, incurable ones at every rumor of war. It had said so in the texts for a long time, for several hundred years in fact. That made it true.

(ed note: The Star of Space landed on a planet called Skinner's Folley, at a town called Placer. Despite taking precautions, the townspeople become infected. The planetary governor tells The Star of Space to leave, and off it goes. Two days later Navy vessels arrive, assess the situation, and subject the town of Placer to a bombardment that kills all the townspeople and burns the town to the ground. But the location of The Star of Space is still unknown.)

     He (Ole Doc) had to find that ship. He had to find her or the U.M.S. would be slaving on this disease for the next thousand years, for such are the depths of space that unknown systems and backwash towns can harbor something for centuries without notifying anyone else. The method of this notification would be grim.
     Ever since the first adoption of the standard military and naval policy of "sterilization" the U.M.S. had had its grief. When men found they could take a herd of innocent bacteria, treat it with mutatrons and achieve effectively horrible and cure-resistant diseases, the military had had no patience with sick people.
     The specific incident which began the practice was the operation against Holloway by the combined Grand Armies of the Twin Galaxies wherein sown disease germs by the attackers had been re-mutated by the defenders to nullify the vaccine in the troops. The Grand Armies, as first offenders, had gone unsuspectingly into the Holloway Galaxy to be instantly chopped down by the millions by what they comfortably supposed was harmless to them. With an entire galaxy in quarantine, with millions of troops dead—to say nothing of two billion civilians, the Grand Armies had never been able to recover and reassemble for trans-shipment to their own realms but had been relegated to the quarantine space, a hundred percent casualty insofar as their own governments were concerned.
     This had soured the military on disease warfare and not even the most enthusiastic jingoist would ever propose loosing that member of the Apocalypse, PLAGUE, against anybody, no matter the heinous character of the trumped up offenses.
     Now and then some would-be revolutionist would clatter his test lubes and whip up a virus which no one could cure and so disease warfare came to have a dark character and now smelled to the military nose like an anarchy bomb.
     Hence, sterilization. When you had a new disease you probably had a revolt brewing. There was only one thing the military mind could evolve. This solution consisted of shooting every human being or otherwise who was sick with nonstandard symptoms; and should a community become stricken with a mysterious malady, it was better the community die than a planet.
     The Universal Medical Society, operating without charter from anyone, safeguarding the secrets of medicine against destruction or abuse, had been instrumental in solving the original military prolixity for disease warfare. Indeed, this type of fighting was one of the original reasons why the U.M.S. was originated and while there were countless other types of medicines which could be politically used or abused, the germ and the virus still ranked high with the out-of-bounds offenses.

     Ole Doc went back to the chartroom, which lay beyond the main operating room and its myriad bottles, tubes, instruments and bins. He pin-pointed out the courses of the main units of the search fleets and wiped off a large section of the galaxy. He threw a couple of switches on the course comptometer and several thousand cogs, arms and gears made a small whirr as the ship shifted direction and dip. Somewhere in this sphere of thinly mattered space was the Star of Space.

From PLAGUE by René Lafayette (1949)

      Far out on the galactic Rim, where star systems were sparse and the darkness nearly absolute, Sector Twelve General Hospital hung in space. In its three hundred and eighty-four levels were reproduced in the environments of all the intelligent lifeforms known to the Galactic Federation, a biological spectrum ranging from the ultra-frigid methane life forms through the more normal oxygen-and chlorine-breathing types up to the exotic beings who existed by the direct conversion of hard radiation. Its thousands of view ports were constantly ablaze with light—light in the dazzling variety of color and intensity necessary for the visual equipment of its extraterrestrial patients and staff—so that to approaching ships the great hospital looked like a tremendous, cylindrical Christmas tree.
     Sector General represented a two-fold miracle of engineering and psychology. Its supply and maintenance was handled by the Monitor Corps—the Federation’s executive and law enforcement arm—who also saw to its administration, but the traditional friction between the military and civilian members of its staff did not occur. Neither were there any serious squabbles among its ten-thousand-odd medical personnel, who were composed of over sixty different lifeforms with sixty differing sets of mannerisms, body. odors and ways of looking at life. Perhaps their one and only common denominator was the need of all doctors, regardless of size, shape or number of legs, to cure the sick.
     The staff of Sector General was a dedicated, but not always serious, group of beings who were fanatically tolerant of all forms of intelligent life-had this not been so they would not have been there in the first place. And they prided themselves that no case was too big, too small or too hopeless. Their advice or assistance was sought by medical authorities from all over the Galaxy. Pacifists all, they waged a constant, all-out war against suffering and disease whether it was in individuals or whole planetary populations.
     But there were times when the diagnosis and treatment of a diseased interstellar culture, entailing the surgical removal of deeply-rooted prejudice and insane moral values without either the patient’s cooperation or consent could, despite the pacifism of the doctors concerned, lead to the waging of war. Period.

(ed note: The Galactic Federation gets drawn into helping an immortal alien named Lonvellin. He has found a planet named Etla which is outside of the Federation. It is wracked by poverty and a steady series of epidemics. Lonvellin wants to uplift their culture, eliminate the poverty, and stop the epidemics. It is sort of a hobby he has. Dr. Conway from Sector 12 General Hospital accompanies the alien, along with a ship from the Monitor Corps under captain Williamson.

Lonvellin is having a ball, but the more Conway studies the planet, the more he is convinced that something is very wrong. Later they learn that the planet is part of a small empire, one that sends a relief ship every ten years and which is unaware of the existance of the Galactic Federation. Conway is still uneasy.

Then suddenly two things happen: the empire kills Lonvellin with a nuclear strike, and Conway abruptly comprehends the entire sordid set-up. Conway has to convince captain Williamson that they have to lift-off right now)

“In that case,” said Conway in the same low, tense voice, “I have orders for you. Call off the rescue attempts and order everyone back to the ship. Take off before we are bombed, too…
     …and for the added reason that Williamson was not nor ever had been a fool. He was a reasonable, intelligent, highly competent officer. It was just that he had not had the chance to put the facts together properly. He didn’t have any medical training, nor did he have a nasty, suspicious mind like Conway…
     “You have a report on the Empire for me,” he said instead. “Can I read it?”
     Williamson’s eyes flickered toward the battery of view-screens surrounding them. All showed scenes of frantic activity-a helicopter being readied for flight, another staggering off the ground with a load obviously in excess of the safety limit, and a stream of men and decontamination equipment being rushed through the lock of the courier ship. He said, “You want to read it now…
     “Yes,” said Conway, then quickly shook his head as another idea struck him. He had been trying desperately to make Williamson take off immediately and leave the explanations until later when there was time to give them, but it was obvious now that he would have to explain first, and fast. He said, “I’ve a theory which explains what has been going on here and the report should verify it. But if I can tell you what I think is in that report before reading it, will you give my theory enough credence to do what I tell you and take off at once?”
     Outside the ship both ‘copters were climbing into the night sky, the courier boat was sealing her lock and a collection of surface transport, both Etlan and Monitor, was dispersing toward the perimeter. More than half of the ship’s crew were out there, Conway knew, together with all the land-based Corpsmen who could possibly be spared-all heading for the scene of the blow-up and all piling up the distance between themselves and Vespasian with every second which passed.
     Without waiting for Williamson’s reply, Conway rushed on, “My guess is that it is an Empire in the strict sense of the word, not a loose Federation like ours. This means an extensive military organization to hold it together and implement the laws of its Emperor, and the government on individual worlds would also be an essentially military one. All the citizens would be DBDGs (humanoid) like the Etlans and ourselves, and on the whole pretty average people except for their antipathy toward extraterrestrials, who they have had little opportunity of getting to know so far.”
     Conway took a deep breath and went on, “Living conditions and level of technology should be similar to our own. Taxation might be high, but this would be negated by government controlled news channels. My guess is that this Empire has reached the unwieldy stage, say about forty to fifty inhabited systems…
     “Forty-three,” said Williamson in a surprised voice.
     And I would guess that everyone in it knows about Etla and are sympathetic toward its plight. They would consider it a world under constant quarantine, but they do everything they can to help it..
     “They certainly do!” Williamson broke in. “Our man was on one of the outlying planets of the Empire for only two days before he was sent to the Central world for a audience with the Big Chief. But he had time to see what the people thought of Etla. There are pictures of the suffering Etlans practically everywhere he looked. In places they outnumbered commercial advertising, and it is a charity to which the Imperial Government gives full support! These look like being very nice people, Doctor.
     “I’m sure they are, Captain,” Conway said savagely. “But don’t you think it a trifle odd that the combined charity of forty-three inhabited systems can only run to sending one ship every ten years…
     Williamson opened his mouth, closed it, and looked thoughtful. The whole room was silent except for the muted, incoming messages. Then suddenly, from behind Conway, Stillman swore and said thickly, “I see what he’s getting at, sir. We’ve got to take off at once…
     Williamson’s eyes flicked from Conway to Stillman and back again. He murmured, “One could be temporary insanity, but two represents a trend…”
     Three seconds later recall instructions were going out to all personnel, their urgency emphasized by the ear-splitting howl of the General Alarm siren. When every order which had been issued only minutes ago had been reversed, Williamson turned to Conway again.
     “Go on, Doctor,” he said grimly. “I think I’m beginning to see it, too.
     Conway sighed thankfully and began to talk.

     Etla had begun as a normal colony world, with a single space field to land the initial equipment and colonists, then towns had been set up convenient to natural resources and the planetary population had increased nicely. But then they must have been hit by a wave of disease, or a succession of diseases, which had threatened to wipe them out. Hearing of their plight the citizens of the Empire had rallied round, as people do when their friends are in trouble, and soon help began to arrive.
     It must have started in a small way but built up quickly as news of the colony’s distress got around. But so far as the Etlans were concerned the assistance stayed small.
     The odd, un-missed pennies of a whole planetary population added up to a respectable amount, and when scores of worlds were contributing the amount was something which could not be ignored by the Imperial government, or by the Emperor himself. Because even in those days the Empire must have grown too big and the inevitable rot had set in at its core. More and more revenue was needed to maintain the Empire, and/or to maintain the Emperor and his court in the luxury to which they felt entitled. It was natural to assume that they might tell themselves that charity began at home, and appropriate a large part of these funds for their own use. Then gradually, as the Etlan charity was publicized and encouraged, these funds became an essential part of the administration’s income.
     That was how it had begun.
     Etla was placed in strict quarantine, even though nobody in their right mind would have wanted to go there anyway. But then a calamity threatened, the Etlans through their own unaided efforts must have begun to cure themselves. The lucrative source of revenue looked like drying up. Something had to be done, quickly.
     From withholding the aid which would have cured them it was only a small matter ethically, the administration must have told itself, to keep the Etlans sick by introducing a few relatively harmless diseases from time to time. The diseases would have to be photogenic, of course, to have the maximum effect on the kind-hearted citizenry—disfiguring diseases, for the most part, or those which left the sufferer crippled or deformed. And steps had to be taken to ensure that the supply of suffering natives did not fall off, so that the techniques of gynecology and child care on Etla were well advanced.
     At a fairly early stage an Imperial Representative, psychologically tailored to fit his post, was installed to ensure that the level of health on the planet was held at the desired point. Somehow the Etlans had ceased to be people and had become valuable sick animals, which was just how the Imperial Representative seemed to regard them.

     Conway paused at that point. The Captain and Stillman were looking ill, he thought; which was exactly how he had felt since the destruction of Lonvellin’s ship had caused all the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.
     He said, “A native force sufficient to drive off or destroy chance visitors is always at Teltrenn’s (the Imperial Representative) disposal. Because of the quarantine all visitors are likely to be alien, and the natives have been taught to hate aliens regardless of shape, number or intentions.
     “But how could they be so … so cold-blooded?” Williamson said, aghast.
     “It probably started as simple misappropriation of funds,” Conway said tiredly, “then it gradually got out of hand. But now we, by our interference, have threatened to wreck a very profitable Imperial racket. So now the Empire is trying to wreck us.”

     “This is getting dirtier by the minute,” said Stillman suddenly. “You know, I think we are going to be blamed for what happened around Lonvellin’s ship, for all the casualties in the area. Everything we have done here is going to be twisted so that we will be the villains. And I bet a lot of new diseases will be introduced immediately we leave, for which we will be blamed!”
     Stillman swore, then went on, “You know how the people of the Empire think of this planet. Etla is their poor, weak, crippled sister, and we are going to be the dirty aliens who cold-bloodedly assaulted her..
     As the Major had been talking Conway had begun to sweat again. His deductions regarding the Empire’s treatment of Etla had been from medical evidence, and it had been the medical aspect which had most concerned him, so that the larger implications of it all had not yet occurred to him. Suddenly he burst out, “But this could mean a war!”
     “Yes indeed,” said Stillman savagely, “and that is probably just what the Imperial government wants. It has grown too big and fat and rotten at the core, judging by what has been happening here. Within a few decades it would probably fall apart of its own accord, and a good thing, too. But there is nothing like a good war, a Cause that everybody can feel strongly about, to pull a crumbling Empire together again. If they play it right this war could make it stand for another hundred years.”

     He said, “Don’t look so distressed, gentlemen. This situation, this threat of interstellar war, was bound to come about sometime and plans have been devised for dealing with it. Luckily we have plenty of time to put these plans into effect.
     “Spatially the Empire is a small, dense association of worlds,” he went on reassuringly, “otherwise we could not have made contact with them so soon. The Federation, however, is spread thinly across half the Galaxy. We had a star cluster to search where one sun in five possessed an inhabited planet. Their problem is nowhere near as simple. If they were very lucky they might find us in three years, but my own estimate is that it would be nearer twenty. So you can see that we have plenty of time.
     Conway did not feel reassured and he must have shown it, but the Captain was trying to meet his objections before he could make them.
     “The agent who made the report may help them,” Williamson went on quickly. “Willingly, because he doesn’t know the truth about the Empire yet, he may give information regarding the Federation and the organization and strength of its Monitor Corps. But because he is a doctor this information is unlikely to be either complete or accurate, and would be useless anyway unless the Empire knows where we are. They won’t find that out unless they capture an astrogator or a ship with its charts intact, and that is a contingency which we will take very great precautions to guard against from this moment on.
     “Agents are trained in linguistics, medicine or the social sciences,” Williamson ended confidently. “Their knowledge of interstellar navigation is nil. The scout ship which lands them returns to base immediately, this being standard precautionary procedure in operations of this sort. So you can see that we have a serious problem but that it is not an immediate one.
     “Isn’t it?” said Conway…
     …“Speaking personally,” he said quietly, “I don’t have the faintest idea of the coordinates of Traltha, or Illensa or Earth, or even the Earth-seeded planet where I was born. But there is one set of figures which I do know, and any other doctor on space service in this Sector is likely to know them also. They are the coordinates of Sector General (Hospital Station).
     “I don’t think we have any time at all.”

From STAR SURGEON by James White (1963)


The medical service has to go into emergency mode once somebody mentions the "P" word. Plague ships and plague planets will have to be quarantined. Don't shake your head, this is serious. Imagine how hysterical our society would become if, for instance, a mutant form of the HIV virus appeared that could be spread by sneezing. Or 24-hour lethal Ebola. And you thought a Zombie Apocalypse was bad (I wrote the preceeding in those innocent years before the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic).

But the medical service will go to ultraviolet alert if something like Andromeda Strain or Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters crops up. Then we will see the unassuming medical service calling nuclear strikes on the Hot Zone. These things could devour civilization's infrastructure instead of just causing a few megadeaths, the med service is not going to fool around.

SF authors who want to write on the topic should acquaint themselves with Poe's The Masque of the Red Death".


      "So civil war followed? Did your Kidaya have enough of the lords to back her?"

     "She had built well. Three-quarters or more of those making up the inner circle of the court were her men. She need only close her fist to crush them, as they well knew. Yes, she had backing, and there was war. But it would have been an even judgment between us had she not brought mercenaries from the stars. And they had such weapons as beat the loyal houses out into the hills like beasts. Since then all has gone wrong." Shara raised her hand and let it fall. "The mercenaries hold the center of the land. But they have had no further help from off-world since our raiding parties destroyed the call tower at Three Ports two years ago. They have already had to abandon many of their weapons for lack of ammunition or repairs.
     "Also there was the choking death, and they died from it, more of them than us. It is even said that the choking death was one of their weapons that was misused, since it spread out of Zohair after they occupied it."

     "White-skinned, yellow-haired, wearing mustaches." Andas was trying to place the enemy. He translated for Yolyos. The other had a suggestion.
     "Mercenaries are now hired from only two sectors. I have seen men of Njord among the bodyguards of the Svastian overlords who resemble your description. But how can we judge the here with our own world? Mercenaries among us are largely outlawed. It could be for a similar reason that ships have ceased coming here. Your empire (planet) may be under ban by the Patrol."

     Andas had heard of such bans—of planets, even systems, so deeply embroiled in some chaotic war that they were declared off limits for any space contact. Or it might be that the plague Shara had spoken of had isolated this world. There was nothing so feared throughout the galaxy as plague, and nothing that sooner put a whole world into a quarantine that might last for generations.

From ANDROID AT ARMS by Andre Norton (1971)

      The empty grave was a regulation hole, one meter wide, two meters long, two meters deep. I looked up into the sky through the gloomy overcast at the blue-and-white globe that hung there. It was there, on the planet Kennedy, that the tradition of the empty grave had arisen. There, during the Fast Plague, it had been rare to have a body to put in the ground. The corpses had been viciously infectious. The only sure way of sterilizing the remains was to destroy them in the fusion flame of a grounded spacecraft. That was what happened to my parents' bodies—I remember the patches of dim incandescence in the cleansing flame. There was a an empty grave there, on Kennedy, a meter by a meter by two meters; on top of it a granite cover slab that bore their names.

     There have always been a lot of funerals without bodies at the edges of civilization, I suppose. There still were. A ship doesn't come back. Somebody pushes the wrong button and a ship explodes. People get eaten. There are lots of ways.

     Finally, the cover slab with sixty names on it was carefully set down over the grey concrete shell that defined the grave. A few centimeters of dirty water were trapped in a puddle in the bottom.

     When the League came into being, ground rules were set up for the founding of colonies. Folks could still bug out and vanish if they wanted to, but fewer people did so by accident. Fewer people starved. When the Fast Plague came to Kennedy, the Interworld Health Organizations (which is one of the pieces of the League that actually predates it, somehow—like the International Court of Justice at The Hague) came in, and their aid saved us. There is no possible question on that point. That's why the Republic of Kennedy is very pro-League. There are other good things. There are fewer tinhorn dictators taking over small colonies with still-weak governments. Trade is reliable, not for gamblers anymore.

From THE TORCH OF HONOR by Roger MacBride Allen (1985)

(ed note: in James White's Sector General series, there is only one way to make a faster-than-light ship distress beacon. So the same kind of beacon is used by alien species that the Federation has not discovered yet. In the interests of first contact with as many new species as possible, the Federation has created a sort of ambulance spacecraft. Its primary purpose is to go rescue Federation starships in distress. But if perchance a distress beacon from an unknown race is heard, the ambulance tries to make first contact while simultaneously rendering help.

The ambulance ship arrives at the distress beacon of an unknown alien species, and take the sole survivor back to the titanic Sector General hospital. This is a huge space station serving as the most advanced multi-species hospital for the Federation. It also has research facilities to rapidly figure out how to medically treat unknown aliens.

Unfortunately, when the alien wakes up in the treatment room, it is frightened by the sight of all these unknown alien species. It raises its tail, and four doctors from four difference species simultaneously become unconscious and collapse.)

      What happened next was utterly impossible.
     Thornnastor began to sway alarmingly on its six stubby legs, legs which normally gave the Tralthan species such a stable base that they frequently went to sleep standing up; then it toppled onto its side with a crash that overloaded the sound pickup on Conway’s suit. A few yards away from the treatment table the Melfan Edanelt, who had been assisting Thornnastor, collapsed slowly to the floor, its six multijointed legs becoming progressively more limp until the underside of its exoskeletal body hit the floor with a loud click. The Kelgian theater nurse had also slipped to the floor, the silvery fur on its long, cylindrical body undulating and puckering as if being affected by a tiny whirlwind. A member of the transfer team standing beside Conway dropped loosely to his hands and knees, crawled for a short distance along the floor and then rolled onto his side. Too many e-ts began speaking at once, and Earth-humans trying to outshout them, for Conway’s translator to produce anything intelligible.

     “This can’t be happening…” he began incredulously.
     Murchison’s voice sounded in his helmet phones, speaking on the ship frequency. “Three extraterrestrial life-forms and one Earth-human DBDG, with four radically different metabolisms and inherent species-immunity…it’s quadruply impossible! As far as I see, no indications of the other unprotected life-forms being affected.”
     Even when observing the impossible, Murchison remained clinical.

     “…But it is happening,” Conway went on. He turned up the volume of his suit external speaker. “This is Senior Physician Conway. Instructions. All transfer team-members, seal your helmets. Team leader, sound the alarm for Contamination One. Everyone else, move away from the patient…” They were doing so already, Conway could see, with a degree of haste that verged on panic. “Beings already wearing protective suits stand clear, unprotected oxygen-breathers go to the pressure litter and as many as possible seal yourselves inside. Everyone else should use the breathing masks and oxygen supplies for the ward ventilators. We seem to be affected by some kind of airborne infection—

     He broke off as the observation ward’s main screen flicked on to show the features of the irate Chief Psychologist. As O’Mara spoke Conway could hear in the background the repeated long and two short blasts on the emergency siren, which gave added urgency to the words.
     “Conway, why the blazes are you reporting lethal contamination down there? Dammit, there can’t be a lethal contamination of air and water unless the place is flooded and you’re all drowning, and I see no evidence of that!”
     “Wait,” said Conway. He was kneeling by the fallen transfer team-member, his hand inside the open visor, feeling for a pulse at the temporal artery. He found it, a fast, irregular beat that he did not like at all. Then he sealed the man’s visor quickly and went on speaking to the ward: “Remember to close any breathing orifices not covered by your masks, nostrils, Melfan gills, the Kelgian speaking mouth. And you, the protected Illensan doctor, will you check Thornnastor and the Melfan Edanelt, quickly please. Prilicla, how is the original patient?”
     “Friend Conway,” said Prilicla, still trembling violently, “the DBPK patient is feeling much better. It is radiating confusion and worry, but no fear and minimum physical discomfort. The condition of the other four concerns me deeply, but their emotional radiation is too faint to identify because of the high level of emotion pervading the ward.”
     “I understand,” said Conway, who knew that the little empath could never bring itself to criticize, however mildly, another being’s emotional shortcomings. “Attention, everyone. Apart from the four people already affected there is no immediate sign of the condition, infection, whatever it is, spreading. I would say that anyone protected by the pressure litter envelope or breathing through a mask is safe for the time being. And calm yourselves, please. We need Prilicla to help with a quick diagnosis on your colleagues, and it can’t work if the rest of you are emoting all over the place.”
     “No response to physical stimuli,” Gilvesh reported from its examination of Thornnastor. “Temperature normal, breathing labored, cardiac action weak and irregular, eyes still react to light, but… This is strange, Conway. Obviously the lungs have been seriously affected, but the mechanism is unclear, and the curtailed supply of oxygen is affecting the heart and brain. I can find no signs of lung-tissue damage of the kind associated with the inhalation of corrosive or highly toxic material, nor anything to suggest that its immune system has been triggered off. There is no muscular tension or resistance; the voluntary muscles appear to be completely relaxed.”

     Using his scanner without unsealing the lightweight suit, Conway had examined the team-member’s upper respiratory tract, trachea, lungs and heart with exactly similar results. But before he could say anything, Prilicla joined in: “My patient displays similar symptoms, friend Conway,” it said. “Shallow and irregular respiration, cardiac condition close to fibrillation, deepening unconsciousness and all the physical and emotional signs of asphyxiation. Shall I check Edanelt?”
     “I’ll do that,” said Gilvesh quickly. “Prilicla, move clear lest I walk on you. Conway, in my opinion they require intensive-care therapy as soon as possible, and a breathing assist at once.”
     “I agree, friend Gilvesh,” the empath said as it fluttered up to the ceiling again. “The condition of all four beings is extremely grave.”
     “Right,” Conway agreed briskly. “Team Leader! Move your man, the DBLF and the ELNT clear and as far from the patient as possible, but close to an oxygen supply outlet. Doctor Gilvesh will supervise fitting the proper breathing masks, but keep your team-member sealed up, with his suit air supply at fifty percent oxygen. Regarding Thornnastor, you’ll need the rest of your team to move—”
     “Or an anti-gravity sled,” the Team Leader broke in. “There’s one on the next level.”
     “—it even a few yards,” Conway went on. “Considering its worsening condition, it would be better to rig an extension to an oxygen line and assist Thornnastor’s breathing where it is lying. And, Team Leader, do not leave the ward for a sled or anything else until we know exactly what it is that is loose in here. That goes for everyone… Excuse me.”

     O’Mara was refusing to remain silent any longer. “So there is something loose in there, Doctor?” said the Chief Psychologist harshly. “Something much worse, seemingly, than a simple case of atmospheric contamination from an adjacent ward? Have you finally discovered the exception that proves the rule, a bug that attacks across the species’ lines?” (in the Sector General universe, there is no known disease organism capable of crossing between alien species, including human.)
     “I know Earth-human pathogens cannot affect e-ts, and vice versa,” Conway said impatiently, turning to the ward screen to face O’Mara. “It is supposed to be impossible, but the impossible seems to be happening, and we need help to—”
     “Friend Conway,” Prilicla broke in, “Thornnastor’s condition is deteriorating steadily. I detect feelings of constriction, strangulation.”
     “Doctor,” the translated voice of Gilvesh joined in, “the Kelgian’s oxygen mask isn’t doing much good. The DBLF double mouth and lack of muscle control is posing problems. Positive pressure ventilation of the lungs with direct access through the trachea is indicated to avoid a complete respiratory failure.”
     “Can you perform a Kelgian tracheotomy, Doctor Gilvesh?” Conway asked, turning away from the screen. He could not think of anything to do to help Thornnastor.
     “Not without a tape,” Gilvesh replied (educator tapes are speed-learning devices, capable of giving a doctor surgical skills for a given alien species in a matter of minutes).

     “No tape,” said O’Mara firmly, “or anything else.”
     Conway swung round to face the image of the Chief Psychologist to protest, but he already knew what O’Mara was going to say.
     “When you raised the lethal contamination alarm, Doctor,” the Chief Psychologist went on grimly, “you acted instinctively, I should think, but correctly. By so doing you have probably saved the lives of thousands of beings inside the hospital. But a Contamination One alarm means that your area is isolated until the cause of the contamination has been traced and neutralized. In this case it is much more serious. There seems to be a bug loose that could decimate the hospital’s warm-blooded oxygen-breathers. For that reason your ward has been sealed off. Power, light, communication and translation facilities are available, but you are no longer connected to the main air supply system or to the automatic food distribution network, nor will you receive medical consumables of any kind. Neither will any person, mechanism or specimen for analysis be allowed out of your area. In short, Doctor Gilvesh will not be allowed to come to me for a DBLF physiology tape, nor will any Kelgian, Melfan or Tralthan doctor be allowed to volunteer to go to the aid of the affected beings. Do you understand, Doctor?”
     Conway nodded slowly.
     “No doubt you would like to have the life-duration figures based on the residual and tanked air remaining in the ward, and the number and species of the present occupants,” the Major continued. “I’ll have them for you in a few minutes. And, Conway, try to come up with an answer…”

     Suddenly the ward screen lit again, this time to show the faces of O’Mara and the Monitor Corps officer in charge of hospital supply and maintenance, Colonel Skempton. It was the Colonel who finally spoke.
     “We have been calculating the time left to you using the air supply currently available in your ward, Doctor,” he said quietly. “The people on breathing masks, provided the bug doesn’t get to them through one of their other body orifices or they don’t fall asleep and dislodge the masks, have about three days’ supply of air. The reason for this is that the six ventilator systems in that ward each carry a ten-hour supply of oxygen as well as other gases which are of no interest to you in the current situation—nitrogen, CO2 and the like. The transfer team-members each have a four-hour supply in their lightweight suits, providing they conserve their oxygen by resting as much as possible—”
     Quietly but firmly, Conway said, “We need supplies of tanked oxygen and chlorine, a nutrient paint sprayer for the Hudlar, a recharging unit for the TLTU’s vehicle, and low-residue rations complete with feeding tubes, which will enable the food to be taken without it being exposed to the air of the ward. With the exception of the TLTU’s recharger—and I’m sure the team leader would be capable of handling that job if he had step-by-step instructions from one of the maintenance engineers—these items are not bulky. You could move them through the AUGL section and into our lock chamber with probably less trouble than it took getting the DBPK casualty here.”

     Skempton shook his head. Just as quietly and firmly he said, “We considered that method of supplying you, Doctor. But we noticed that your lock chamber was left open after the casualty was taken in, and as a result the chamber has been open to contamination for the same period as the rest of the ward. If the lock was cycled to enable us to load it with the needed supplies, water would be drawn in from the AUGL section. When your people pumped out the water to retrieve those supplies, that water, infected with whatever it is that is loose in there, would be returned to the AUGL section, with results we cannot even guess at. I have been told by a number of your colleagues, Doctor, that airborne bacteria can frequently survive and propagate in water.
     “Your ward must remain in strict quarantine, Doctor,” the Colonel added. “A pathogen that attacks the life-forms not only of its own planet but of four other off-planet species cannot be allowed to get loose. You must realize that as well as I do.

     Conway nodded. “There is a possibility that we are overreacting, frightening ourselves unnecessarily because of—”
     “A Tralthan FGLI, a Kelgian DBLF, a Melfan ELNT and an Earth-human DBDG became ill to the extent of requiring a mechanical assist with their breathing within a matter of minutes,” the Colonel broke in. His expression as he looked at Conway was that of a doctor trying to tell a terminal patient that there was no hope.
     Conway resumed his account of the rescue and retrieval of the injured survivor and the transfer of the cadavers into the Rhabwar’s ward, stressing the fact that once inside the ship none of the crew or medical personnel wore masks while handling or examining the single living and several dead DBPKs. Because the survivor remained unconscious and its condition had been deteriorating steadily, the decision had been taken not to prolong the search for other possible survivors. The survey and Cultural Contact cruiser Descartes was asked to continue searching the area in case—
     “You did what?” Colonel Skempton broke in. His face had turned to a sickly gray color.
     “The Descartes was asked to continue the search of the area for other survivors,” Conway replied, “and to gather and study the alien material, books, pictures, personal possessions and so on among the wreckage that might help them understand the new life-form prior to making formal contact. The Descartes is one of the few vessels possessing the equipment capable of analyzing the movements of widely dispersed wreckage and of deriving a rough approximation of the wrecked ship’s original hyperspatial heading from them. You know the drill, Colonel. The policy in these cases is to backtrack and make contact with the survivor’s world as quickly as possible and, if they have been able to find it, to request assistance of a doctor of its own species—”

     He broke off because the Colonel was no longer listening to him.

     “Priority hypersignal, maximum power,” the Colonel was saying to someone off-screen. “Use hospital standby power to boost the service generator. Tell the Descartes not, repeat not, to take on board any alien artifacts, technical material or organic specimens from the wreckage. If any such material has already been taken on board they are to jettison it forthwith. On no account is the Descartes to seek out and make contact with the wreck’s planet of origin, nor is the ship to make physical contact with any other vessel, base, satellite station or subplanetary or planetary body, inhabited or otherwise. They are to proceed at once to Sector General to await further instructions. Radio contact only is allowed. They are expressly forbidden to enter the hospital docking area, and their crew-members will stay on board and will allow no visitors of any species until further notice. Code the signal Federation Emergency. Move!
     The Colonel turned to look at Conway again, then continued. “This bug, bacterium, virus, whatever it is, affects warm-blooded oxygen-breathers and perhaps other life-forms as well. As you very well know, Doctor, three-quarters of the citizens of the Federation are warm-blooded oxygen-breathers, with the biggest proportion of those made up of the Kelgian, Tralthan, Melfan and Earth-human life-forms. We stand a good chance of containing the infection here, and of discovering something that might enable us to combat it. But if it hits the Descartes it could sweep through the ship so rapidly that they might not be given time to think about the problem, really think it through, before shooting out a distress beacon. Then the ship or ships that go to their aid will carry the infection home—or worse, to other ports of call. An epidemic on such a scale would certainly mean the end of the Federation, and almost certainly the end of civilization on a great many of its worlds.

     “We can only hope that the Descartes gets the message in time,” he added grimly. “With the hospital standby reactor boosting the output of the Corps transmitter, if they don’t hear it they have to be deaf, dumb and blind.”
     “Or very sick,” O’Mara observed quietly.

     A long silence followed and was broken by the respectful voice of Captain Fletcher.
     “If I might make a suggestion, Colonel,” he said, “we know the position of the wreckage and of the Descartes, if it is still at the disaster site and, very approximately, of the sector that is likely to contain the wrecked ship’s home planet. If a distress beacon is released in that area it is almost certain that it will come from the Descartes. The Rhabwar could answer it, not to give assistance but to warn off any other would-be rescuers.”
     Obviously the Colonel had forgotten about the ambulance ship. “Are you still connected to the hospital by boarding tube, Captain?” he asked harshly.
     “Not since the contamination alert,” Fletcher replied. “But if you approve the suggestion we’ll need power and consumables for an extended trip. Normally an ambulance ship is gone only for a couple of days at most.”
     “Approved, and thank you, Captain,” said the Colonel. “Arrange for the material to be placed outside your airlock as soon as possible. Your men can load the stores on board later so as to avoid contact with hospital personnel. The Rhabwar could be instrumental in keeping the Descartes from infecting the warm-blooded oxygen-breathers of dozens of planets. The original order stands. The Rhabwar will refuel and replenish and stand by to answer the expected distress signal from the Descartes…”

     He had a lot more to say on the subject of probable future history, including the strong probability of having to place the DBPK patient’s home planet and off-world colonies in strict quarantine and to refuse all contact with the new species. The Federation would have to enforce this quarantine in its own defense, and the result might well lead to interstellar war.

From QUARANTINE by James White (1979)

It was the first time she had decided to cash in on her own tip and she was there—that was all. Maybe that point weighed with Cliff, maybe he just didn’t care. Anyway the three were together when they sighted the Empress riding, her dead-lights gleaming, a ghost ship in night space.

She must have been an eerie sight because her other lights were on too, in addition to the red warnings at her nose. She seemed alive, a Flying Dutchman of space.

From ALL CATS ARE GRAY by Andre Norton (1953)

But Van Rycke was not just a machine of facts and figures, he was also a superb raconteur, a collector of legends who could keep the whole mess spellbound as he spun one of his tales. No one but he could pay such perfect tribute to the small details of the eerie story of the New Hope, the ship which had blasted off with refugees from the Martian rebellion, never to be sighted until a century later — the New Hope wandering forever in free fall, its dead lights glowing evilly red at its nose, its escape ports ominously sealed — the New Hope never boarded, never salvaged because it was only sighted by ships which were themselves in dire trouble, so that "to sight the New Hope" had become a synonym for the worst of luck.

Then there were the "Whisperers", whose siren voices were heard by those men who had been too long in space, and about whom a whole mythology had developed. Van Rycke could list the human demi-gods of the star lanes, too. Sanford Jones, the first man who had dared Galactic flight, whose lost ship had suddenly flashed out of Hyperspace, over a Sirius world three centuries after it had lifted from Terra, the mummified body of the pilot still at the frozen controls, Sanford Jones who now welcomed on board that misty "Comet" all spacemen who died with their magnetic boots on. Yes, in his way, Van Rycke made his new assistant free of more than one kind of space knowledge.

From SARGASSO OF SPACE by Andre Norton (1955)

"You touched him?" At the other's nod he added an order. "Stay in your quarters until I have a chance to look you over—understand?"

Dane had no chance to answer, the Medic was already on his way. He went to his own cabin, understanding the reason for his imprisonment, but inwardly rebelling against it. Rather than sit idle he snapped on the reader—but, although facts and figures were dunned into his ears—he really heard very little. He couldn't apply himself—not with a new specter leering at him from the bulkhead.

The dangers of the space lanes were not to be numbered, death walked among the stars a familiar companion of all spacemen. And to the Free Trader it was the extra and invisible crewman on every ship that raised. But there were deaths and deaths—And Dane could not forget the gruesome legends Van Rycke collected avidly as his hobby—had recorded in his private library of the folk lore of space.

Stories such as that of the ghostly New Hope carrying refugees from the first Martian Rebellion—the ship which had lifted for the stars but had never arrived, which wandered for a timeless eternity, a derelict in free fall, its port closed but the warning dead lights on at its nose—a ship which through five centuries had been sighted only by a spacer in similar distress. Such stories were numerous. There were other tales of "plague" ships wandering free with their dead crews, or discovered and shot into some sun by a patrol cruiser so that they might not carry their infection farther. Plague—the nebulous "worst" the Traders had to face. Dane screwed his eyes shut, tried to concentrate upon the droning voice in his ears, but he could not control his thoughts nor—his fears.

At a touch on his arm he started so wildly that he jerked the cord loose from the reader and sat up, somewhat shamefaced, to greet Tau. At the Medic's orders he stripped for one of the most complete examinations he had ever undergone outside a quarantine port. It included an almost microscopic inspection of the skin on his neck and shoulders, but when Tau had done he gave a sigh of relief.

"Well, you haven't got it—at least you don't show any signs yet," he amended his first statement almost before the words were out of his mouth.

He glanced over the board before he brought his hand down on a single key set a distance apart from the other controls. "Put some local color into it," was his comment.

Dane understood. Rip had turned on the distress signal at the Queen's nose. When she set down on the Stat field she would be flaming a banner of trouble. Next to the wan dead lights, set only when a ship had no hope of ever reaching port at all, that signal was one every spacer dreaded having to flash. But it was not the dead lights—not yet for the Queen.

From PLAGUE SHIP by Andre Norton (1956)


In the event of irreversible contamination by biological or nanotechnological plagues, and standard quarantine responses are deemed insufficient, either (a) as declared by consensus of the Flight Commander, Environmental Systems Engineer, and Flight Surgeon, or (b) as imposed by order of a duly authorized representative of the Emergency Management Authority, the following actions are to be undertaken:

  1. The Flight Commander is authorized to maintain order aboard by any means necessary, including the use of lethal force in such circumstances where it would not otherwise be permissible.
  2. All airlocks and spacetight doors providing sophont access to the exterior of the vessel are to be placed in the closed and sealed state; their local control systems rendered inert by null-flashing; and secured in the sealed state by welding or other permanent closure.
  3. All other apertures, of whatever purpose, providing access to the exterior of the vessel are to be placed in the closed and sealed state; their local control systems rendered inert by null-flashing; and secured in the sealed state by welding or other permanent closure. This is to include all apertures used for the jettisoning of waste, and all radiator systems in which coolant is exposed directly to space, without exception.
  4. The Flight Commander shall designate the most appropriate compartment within the vessel for the temporary storage of such waste material as can no longer be jettisoned and for known-contaminated material that cannot be properly disposed of, including corpses.
  5. Once a stable orbit which does not take the vessel into the local forbidden zone of planets, moons, habitats, or other bodies (see Quarantine) has been established, the flight control systems of the vessel, including local drive controllers, are to be shut down and rendered inert by null-flashing.
  6. All running lights of the vessel are to be configured to display the “death ship” pattern, as prescribed by the Imperial Navigation Act: a 2p period of yellow-quarantine alternating with a 1p period of crimson-caution.
  7. An EM beacon is to be configured on the local-distress channel, broadcasting the following repeating message: ALERT CASE ICHOR I SAY AGAIN ALERT CASE ICHOR. VESSEL [registered name] IS UNDER SEQUESTRATION. DO NOT APPROACH UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. IGNORE ALL CONTRADICTORY TRANSMISSIONS. MESSAGE REPEATS.
  8. If the vessel possesses a point-defense system, this system is to be configured to fire upon any other vessel attempting to dock with or otherwise close to within the forbidden quarantine zone (see Quarantine) of the irreversibly contaminated vessel, other than a vessel whose transponder is signed with the Emergency Management Authority private key.
  9. At the Flight Commander’s discretion, euthanatoics may be issued to passengers and crew.


Any vessel which

  • docks with; or
  • takes aboard passengers, cargo, flotsam, jetsam, or debris from; or
  • enters any emissions plume, from any source whatsoever, of;

an irreversibly contaminated vessel shall itself be deemed irreversible contaminated, and all the foregoing procedures and warnings shall apply to it in like wise.



      Until he was close to fifty planet years old, he was prime assessor to the Veep Estampha, a sector boss of the Thieves' Guild. My father never tried to hide this association; in fact it was a matter of pride to him. Since he seemed to have an inborn talent, which he fostered by constant study, for the valuing of unusual loot, he was a valuable man, ranking well above the general core of that illegal combine. However, he appeared to have lacked ambition to climb higher, or else he simply had an astute desire to remain alive and not a target of the ambition of others.
     Then Estampha met a rootless Borer plant, which someone with ambition secreted in his private collection of exotic blooms, and came to an abrupt finish. My father withdrew prudently and at once from the resulting scramble for power. Instead he bought out of the Guild and migrated to Angkor.
     For a while, I believe, he lived very quietly. But during that period he was studying both the planet and the openings for a lucrative business. It was a sparsely settled world on the pioneer level, not one which at that time attracted the attention of those with wealth, nor of the Guild. But perhaps my father had already heard rumors of what was to come.
     Within a space of time he paid court to a native woman whose father operated a small hock-lock for pawning, as well as a trading post, near the only space port. Shortly after his marriage the father-in-law died of an off-world fever, a plague ship having made a crash landing before it could be warned off. The fever also decimated most of the port authorities. But Hywel Jern and his wife proved immune and carried on some of the official duties at this time, which entrenched them firmly when the plague had run its course and the government was restored.
     Then, some five years later, the Vultorian star cluster was brought into cross-stellar trade by the Fortuna Combine, and Angkor suddenly came to life as a shipping port of exchange. My father's business prospered, though he did not expand the original hock-lock.

From THE ZERO STONE by Andre Norton (1968)

      “No; a victory.” Heldon drew a tiny silver tube from the folds of his robe and blew into it. “Mayor Amalfi, you may consider yourself a prisoner of war.”
     The little silver tube had made no audible sound, but there were already ten men in the room. The mesotron rifles they carried were of an ancient design, probably pre-Kammerman, like the spindizzies of IMT.
     But, like the spindizzies, they looked as though they would work.

     Karst froze; Amalfi unfroze him by jabbing him surreptitiously in the ribs with a finger, and began to unload the contents of his own small pack into Karst’s.
     “You’ve called the Earth police, I suppose?” he said.
     “Long ago. That way of escape will be cut off by now. Let me say, Mayor Amalfi, that if you expected to find down here any controls that you might disable—and I was quite prepared to allow you to search for them—you expected too much stupidity from me.”
     Amalfi said nothing. He went on methodically repacking the equipment.
     “You are making too many motions, Mayor Amalfi. Put your hands up in the air and turn around very slowly.”

     Amalfi put up his hands and turned. In each hand he held a small black object about the size and shape of an egg. “I expected only as much stupidity as I got,” he said conversationally. “You can see what I’m holding up there. I can and will drop one or both of them if I’m shot. I may drop them anyhow. I’m tired of your back-cluster ghost town.”
     Heldon snorted. “Explosives? Gas? Ridiculous; nothing so small could contain enough energy to destroy the city; and you have no masks. Do you take me for a fool?”
     “Events prove you one,” Amalfi said steadily. “The possibility was quite large that you would try to ambush me, once you had me in IMT. I could have forestalled that by bringing a guard with me. You haven’t met my perimeter police; they’re tough boys, and they’ve been off duty so long that they’d love the chance to tangle with your palace crew. Didn’t it occur to you that I left my city without a bodyguard only because I had less cumbersome ways of protecting myself?”
     “Eggs,” Heldon said scornfully.
     “As a matter of fact, they are eggs; the black color is an analine stain, put on the shells as a warning. They contain chick embryos inoculated with a two-hour alveolytic (means it destroys the lungs) mutated Terrestrial rickettsialpox—a new airborne strain developed in our own BW lab. Free space makes a wonderful laboratory for that kind of trick; an Okie town specializing in agronomy taught us the techniques a couple of centuries back. Just a couple of eggs—but if I were to drop them, you would have to crawl on your belly behind me all the way back to my city to get the antibiotic shot that’s specific for the disease; we developed that ourselves, too.”
     There was a brief silence, made all the more empty by the hoarse breathing of the Proctor. The armed men eyed the black eggs uneasily, and the muzzles of their rifles wavered out of line. Amalfi had chosen his weapon with great care; static feudal societies classically are terrified by the threat of plague—they have seen so much of it.

     “Impasse,” Heldon said at last. “All right, Mayor Amalfi. You and your slave have safe-conduct from this chamber—”
     “From the building. If I hear the slightest sound of pursuit up the stairs, I’ll chuck these down on you. They burst hard, by the way—the virus generates a lot of gas in chick-embryo medium.
     “Very well,” Heldon said, through his teeth. “From the building, then. But you have won nothing, Mayor Amalfi. If you can get back to your city, you’ll be just in time to be an eyewitness of the victory of IMT—the victory you helped make possible. I think you’ll be surprised at how thorough we can be.”
     “No, I won’t,” Amalfi said, in a flat, cold, and quite merciless voice. “I know all about IMT, Heldon. This is the end of the line for the Mad Dogs. When you die, you and your whole crew of Interstellar Master Traders, remember Thor Five.”
     Heldon turned the color of unsized paper, and so, surprisingly, did at least four of his riflemen. Then the color began to rise in the Proctor’s plump, fungoid cheeks. “Get out,” he croaked, almost inaudibly. Then, suddenly, at the top of his voice: “Get out; Get out!”
     Juggling the eggs casually, Amalfi walked toward the lead radiation lock. The lead plug swung to, blocking out Heldon’s furious, frightened face and the glint of the fluorescents on the ancient spindizzies. Amalfi plunged one hand into Karst’s pack, depositing one egg in the silicone foam nest from which he had taken it, and withdrew the hand again grasping an ugly Schmeisser acceleration pistol. This he thrust into the waistband of his breeches.

From EARTHMAN COME HOME by James Blish (1955)

      He found Pressly, as he had expected, in his laboratory.
     “You have some business here?” The biologist held a test tube up to the light, shook it, then replaced it in a rack.
     Skeld smiled unpleasantly and leaned against the wall. The three men with him folded their arms and spread their legs, waiting his orders.
     “Take your time, Director, but not too much time. You’re wanted.”
     Pressly picked up another test tube. “I take it you have come to arrest me.”
     “It’s customary with traitors—didn’t you know?”
     “A question of conscience, Mr. Skeld. A choice between insanity and humanity—which side of the fence are you?”
     Some of Pressly’s assistants laughed and Skeld flushed angrily. “I know you lot are all in this together, you’re all under arrest. The charge is high treason. It is my duty to ask you come quietly but it is my fervent hope I am compelled to take you in by force—which way is it going to be?”

     “Pressly smiled. “Naturally we shall come quietly. Before we do so, however, I would like to draw your attention to the cage-like device in the roof of this laboratory. We call it an inhibitor. You will find similar devices in our living quarters, rest rooms and places of recreation. The purpose of these devices is to keep certain cultures restricted, that is to say, alive but not reproducing themselves by cellular division. Should the culture be removed from the influence of these devices, it will immediately start multiplying in a normal manner.
     “What the hell are you driving at?” Skeld had the uncomfortable feeling that he was not only being mocked but that there was a catch somewhere.
     Pressly smiled. “By an unfortunate mistake, I became infected by a certain streptococci some days ago and it is now in my bloodstream. Thanks to the inhibitor, however, the organism is unable to multiply, but should I be removed from its influence—”
     He paused and did not finish the sentence. “Mr. Skeld, I am a carrier. I bear in my body the seeds of a highly toxic disease. Are you the heroic officer who is not only prepared to lay his repulsive hands on my person but, at the same time, shoulder the responsibility for carrying an incurable infection into the streets?”

     Skeld paled. “You’re bluffing.”
     Pressly turned his back on him. “That could very well be true but dare you call that bluff?”
     “I could blast you to pieces here and now.”
     “True—the characteristic moronic solution—but true. Can you be sure, however, that no fragment of flesh, no drop of infected fluid will not splash back in the explosion?”
     Skeld found himself backing uneasily away, aware that his men were already slipping out of the door behind him. “I shall report this.”
     “By all means, this is out of your field, of course—good day, Mr. Skeld.”

     When he took the news to the Supreme Committee, however, he was shocked at the reaction.
     “Pressly never bluffs,” said someone in a worried voice.

From THESE SAVAGE FUTURIANS by Philip E. High (1967)

Space Family Robinson LOST IN SPACE on Space Station One #43 "Trapped In Space" (1975)

RocketCat sez

The plot is very Andre Norton flavored, with overtones of Galactic Derelict. However, unlike the comic book, Andre Norton's novel does NOT have plot holes big enough to fly a free-trader starship through.

Our heroes in Space Station One run across an alien spaceship. Inside are three unconscious aliens suffering from some disease. Due to sloppy protocols, all the Robinsons are now exposed. The aliens are taken to sickbay for treatment. The Robinsons just have to hope the disease isn't the alien equivalent of Anthrax Leprosy Pi.

The children are bored while the parents are busy helping the sick aliens. The idiot parents allow the idiot children to explore a potentially dangerous unknown alien spacecraft with live power, totally unsupervised. It's a good thing they are light-years away from the nearest Child Protective Services. Father helpfully orders them to "stay away from the controls" which is utterly worthless. For all he knows the ship is controlled by stepping on subtly colored tiles inset into the floor, who knows what alien controls look like?

The children dutifully stay away from the controls, but their brainless fluffy rat-dog didn't get the memo. It manages to push the "activate robot-pilot" button. Well, at least it wasn't the "nuclear self-destruct" button or something. The alien ship slams shut the hatches, boosts into orbit, and makes the jump to lightspeed. The parents cannot rescue the children because the space station only has a slower-than-light drive. The children spend the next week in hyperspace, gingerly tasting the alien food supplies while waiting for the robot-pilot to finish running its program tape. Presumably the parents back on the planet divide their time between caring for the sick aliens and kicking each other in the rump.

The alien ship arrives at its destination, which was the spaceport it originally departed from. For some ominous reason the spaceport is deserted. Like the idiots they are; the children decide it's a good idea to go exploring a totally alien planet, with zero protective gear, in an alien spaceport presumably full of live equipment and toxic chemicals. Oh, and this is the same spaceport from which the alien crew probably caught the alien plague, giving them a second chance to become infected. They do manange to avoid being killed by the alien rhinos who infest the deserted spaceport.

Suddenly they are confronted with an awake alien aiming a blaster right between their eyeballs. Using their supernatural power of wide-eyed cuteness, the children manage to convince the alien (by using sign language) not to shoot them dead and to accept one of their magic universal translators to be inserted into his ear. I mean, for all he knows the gizmo is a brain enslaving device or something.

Now that the alien can speak English, he proceeds to tell them that they are all in hot bubbling doo-doo up to their eyebrows.


As long as there have existed naval vessels and bubonic plague, there has been a fear that arriving ships might bring a cargo of the Black Death.

When the plague ravaged 14th century Europe, the city state of Venice decreed that arriving ships had to anchor away from the city for 40 days before they could unload passengers or cargo. 40 days was considered long enough so that infected people aboard would either have blatantly obvious symptoms or be dead. The Italian term quaranti giorni means '40 days'. The term evolved into the word "Quarantine".

In this case, there may be two medical organizations with authority to impose quarantines. The Federal service can impose a planetary quarantine preventing people from leaving the planet. The Planetary service can prevent people arriving in space ships from entering the planet. The Federal service will establish a military blockade around the planet and shoot down any spacecraft trying to leave, so the plague does not spread to other worlds. The Planetary service will detect and apprehend pandemic-infected passengers and crew from spacecraft landing at the spaceport, and wisk them off to medical quarantine facilities so they can't infect the colony. The only available access will be through decontamination airlocks.

This is why there is a medical service under Federation control, in addition to one under Colony control. A quarantine that is required to protect the other planets in the federation will quite likely wreck the colony's economy by cutting off interstellar trade.

A med service under colony control would be under enormous pressure to cover up the plague in order to spare the economy. Obviously this is a short-term solution that ignores the fact it makes the resulting end-game much worse; what with the mega-deaths, plague raging on multiple planets, and the original planet's economy collapsing anyway. But the corporate powers-that-be have a standard operating procedure of maximizing quarterly profits at all costs, even if it results in the collapse of the corporation. Gotta maximize shareholder value, don't cha know?

A med service under federal control will be much more motivated to prevent the plague from spreading to other planets. They will impose a quarantine in a heartbeat, and the colony's economy will just have to suffer.

Within our solar system currently there does not seem to be any extraterrestrial life, and thus no extraterrestrial plagues. The operative word is seem. Under the Extra-Terrestrial Exposure Law NASA quarantined the astronauts from Apollo 11 through 14 for twenty-one days, just in case they brought back the Andromeda Strain or something. NASA stopped bothering after Apollo 14 since no space germ was ever found.

  • Terrestrial disease germs might become mutated into virulent new strains by the high-radiation space environment
  • There is a chance that life can be found in such places as the oceans of Europa and other icy moons
  • If your science fiction universe has faster-than-light starships capable of traveling to life-bearing extrasolar planets, all bets are off.

You will also need a quarantine if the space station contains a laboratory working on dangerous technology. Things like civilization-destroying biowarfare plagues or planet-eating nanotechnology.


      'Captain, the quarantine boat is coming along side,' Dyn said in his quiet voice beside me.
     'Alright mates, down to the landing stage to get examined, and get your manifests in order for the inspectors. With traffic so reduced, we're going to get first class treatment this time around.'
     Port procedures vary little planet to planet. The Quarantine boat docks first with an assortment of droids to conduct medical exams, sample the ship's environment and clears all trade goods slated for the planet. Procedures are rigorous and inflexible, even though pandemics are rare.

     Once medically cleared, Unity Trade Inspectors arrive with their droids to verify each cargo container is the same, un-tampered, container sent up from the world of its origin. They also inspect and record the crew's Guild goods, usually small, rare or luxury items privately purchased on the planets by spaceers to be either re-sold directly to customers or bartered spaceer to spaceer via the Guild's exchange posts.
     Once the med and trade inspectors had come and gone, we began to off-load the containers to the waiting lighters. Normally in Calissant orbit, we'd wait the better part of a day for the first lighter to arrive, but this time around, with trade so slack, we were treated like an express packet and had four lighters waiting for their boxes by the time the inspectors' boat departed. We discharged our full cargo in a hectic rush of less than two watches.

From THE BRIGHT BLACK SEA by C. Litka (2015)

While still half a day away from the one-time pirate planet, the Venture's communicators signaled a pick-up. They switched on the instruments and found themselves listening to a general broadcast from Uldune, addressed to all ships entering this area of space.

If they were headed for Uldune on business, they were invited to shift to a frequency which would put them in contact with a landing station off-planet. Uldune was anxious to see to it that their visit was made as pleasant and profitable as possible and would facilitate matters to that end in every way. Detailed information would be made available by direct-beam contact from the landing station.

It was the most cordial reception ever extended to the captain on a planetary approach. They switched in the station, were welcomed warmly to Uldune. Business arrangements then began immediately. Before another hour was up Uldune knew in general what they wanted and what they had to offer, had provided a list of qualified shipbuilders, scheduled immediate appointments with identity specialists (who can supply you with a fake identity), official assessors who would place a minimum value on their cargo, and a representative of the Daal's Bank, who would assist them in deciding what other steps to take to achieve their goals to best effect on Uldune.

Helpful as the pirate planet was to its clients, it was also clear that it took no unnecessary chances with them. Visitors arriving with their own spacecraft had the choice of leaving them berthed at the landing stations and using a shuttle to have themselves and their goods transported down to a spaceport, or of allowing foolproof seals to be attached to offensive armament for the duration of the ship's stay on Uldune. A brief, but presumably quite effective, contamination check of the interior of the ship and of its cargo was also carried out at the landing station. Otherwise, aside from an evident but no-comment interest aroused by the nova guns in the armament specialists engaged in securing them, the Daal's officials at the station displayed a careful lack of curiosity about the Venture, her crew, her cargo, and her origin. An escort boat presently guided them down to a spaceport and their interview at the adjoining Office of Identities.

From THE WITCHES OF KARRES by James H. Schmitz (1956)

      He spoke in an even more sardonic tone to Murgatroyd. "This is a first, Murgatroyd! It's the first time a Med Ship man has ever been thrown off a planet because he found out too much!" Then he added with a definite grimness, "It happens that throwing us off the planet verifies what I was only partly guessing and requires what I was hesitating to do."

     "We're going back to headquarters," said Calhoun sourly. "We can take our news there quicker than we can send it. Anyhow they'll need more than you and me on Lanke to handle a plague—especially if it's a bad one. But I don't like it!"

     He was angry. But it wasn't unprecedented for planetary governments to try to cover up things that would be bad for business. There'd been attempts before now to conceal outbreaks of disease. Some had probably succeeded. Those that failed turned out very badly indeed. Minor epidemics had become major plagues when a prompt call for Med Service help would have kept them minor and wiped them out. The Med Service had big ships, half a mile long and longer, with laboratories and equipment and personnel that could handle emergencies of planetary size. But very, very many lives had been lost because of governments subordinating everything but business to business. They'd tried to prevent business crises and financial panics and industrial collapse. They'd only delayed them—at incalculable costs in lives.

     There was another factor, too. If a planetary government once concealed an emergency of this sort, it would never dare admit it later. A certain world in Cygnus had concealed a serious epidemic in order to protect its interstellar trade. Later the fact was learned by Med Service. It made a check of the public health status of that reckless world, in view of its just-learned medical history. It discovered and announced an imminent second epidemic—a perfectly accurate statement of fact. The first epidemic had not been cleaned up properly by the local physicians. The epidemic was cyclic—with a normal period of high incidence after every so many years. So the Med Service quarantined that world—justly—and took stringent measures—wisely—and there was consequently no second plague. But there were many hard-boiled businessmen who fumed that the Med Service had no reason for its action; that it had been punishing the Cygnus world for violating a primary rule for galactic public health. The planet had concealed a disease that might but hadn't been passed on to its customers. Businessmen believed the quarantine a penalty.

     So Calhoun knew grimly that if there'd been a hidden plague on Lanke in the past, it would never be admitted now. Never! And any doctor who revealed the historical fact …  The reason for the silence of Lanke's doctors was abundantly clear.

From QUARANTINE WORLD by Murray Leinster (1966)

      He thumbed down the communicator button and spoke into a microphone. "Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty reporting arrival and asking coordinates for landing," he said matter-of-factly. "Purpose of landing is planetary health inspection. Our mass is fifty tons, standard. We should arrive at a landing position in something under four hours. Repeat. Med Ship Aesclipus Twenty …"
     A voice came out of the communicator, "Aesclipus Twenty, repeat your identification."
     "Aesclipus Twenty," he said patiently, "is a Med Ship, sent by the Interstellar Medical Service to make a planetary health inspection on Weald. Check with your public health authorities. This is the first Med Ship visit in twelve standard years, I believe—which is inexcusable. But your health authorities will know all about it. Check with them."
     The voice said truculently, "What was your last port?"

     Calhoun named it. This was not his home sector, but Sector Twelve had gotten into a very bad situation. Some of its planets had gone unvisited for as long as twenty years, and twelve between inspections was almost commonplace. Other sectors had been called on to help it catch up.
     Calhoun was one of the loaned Med Ship men, and because of the emergency he'd been given a list of half a dozen planets to be inspected one after another, instead of reporting back to sector headquarters after each visit. He'd had minor troubles before with landing-grid operators in Sector Twelve.
     So he was very patient. He named the planet last inspected, the one from which he'd set out for Weald Three. The voice from the communicator said sharply, "What port before that?"
     Calhoun named the one before the last.

     "Don't drive any closer," said the voice harshly, "or you'll be destroyed!"
     Calhoun said coldly, "Listen, my fine feathered friend! I'm from the Interstellar Medical Service. You get in touch with planetary health services immediately. Remind them of the Interstellar Medical Inspection Agreement, signed on Tralee two hundred and forty standard years ago. Remind them that if they do not cooperate in medical inspection that I can put your planet under quarantine and your space commerce will be cut off like that.
     "No ship will be cleared for Weald from any other planet in the galaxy until there has been a health inspection. Things have pretty well gone to pot so far as the Med Service in this sector is concerned, but it's being straightened up. I'm helping straighten it. I give you twenty minutes to clear this. Then I am coming in, and if I'm not landed a quarantine goes on. Tell your health authorities that!"

     Silence. Calhoun clicked off and poured himself another cup of coffee. Murgatroyd held out his cup for a refill. Calhoun gave it to him.
     "I hate to put on an official hat, Murgatroyd," he said, annoyed, "but there are some people who demand it. The rule is, never get official if you can help it, but when you must, out-official the official who's officialing you."
     Murgatroyd said, "Chee!" and sipped at his cup.

     In fifteen minutes a different voice came from the speaker.
     "Med Ship Aesclipus! Med Ship Aesclipus!" 
     Calhoun answered and the voice said anxiously, "Sorry about the challenge, but we have the blueskin problem always with us. We have to be extremely careful. Will you come in, please?"
     "I'm on my way," said Calhoun.
     "The planetary health authorities," said the voice, more anxiously still, "are very anxious to be cooperative. We need Med Service help! We lose a lot of sleep over the blueskin! Could you tell us the name of the last Med Ship to land here, and its inspector, and when that inspection was made? We want to look up the record of the event to be able to assist you in every possible way."
     "He's lying," Calhoun told Murgatroyd, "but he's more scared than hostile."

From PARIAH PLANET by Murray Leinster (1961)

Gerald was an exobiologist, a student of life off the planet Earth. The flaw, of course, was that there wasn’t any life beyond Earth. Except, of course, such Earth-evolved life that continued to evolve even off planet. Every human being, every plant, every animal brought along to the Settlements carried microscopic life-forms by the billions.

Anywhere humans went, viruses, bacteria, and other microbes, disease-causing and benign, traveled as well. Normal medical practice was enough to keep most of the nasties at bay inside the sealed colonies—but some microbes escaped the domes, tunnels, ships and habitats to the outside environments. Virtually all of them died the moment they left the controlled environment. But a few survived. And of those survivors, a very few managed to reproduce, and evolve, often at a ferocious rate.

Earth-derived microbes lurked in the soil around Martian cities, living off dome leakages of air, moisture and organics; lived inside the rock of mining asteroids, dining on a witches’ brew diet of complex hydrocarbons; lived as mildew-like patches in airlocks all over the Solar System, absorbing air, moisture and bits of organic matter whenever the locks were pressurized, encysting when they went into vacuum.

A divine hand that worked in mysterious and sometimes horrifying ways. For a few, a terrifying few, of the outsider organisms came back inside the domes and the spacecraft. Most such Returnees were wiped out by the drastically different environment, but some readapted to life back inside. That was when terror struck. Hardened by their generations outside air, light and pressure, some Returnee organisms bred hellaciously back inside, carrying in their genes the ability to digest unlikely things. Plastics, metal, resin compounds, semiorganic superconductors. And some of them, ancestors of disease organisms, retained the ability to infect the human body.

There were microorganisms that could cause disease in humans and also eat through pressure suits and air domes from the inside. Or dissolve the superconducting wires of power grids. Or jam valves in fusion systems.

From THE RING OF CHARON by Roger MacBride Allen (1990)

Bacterial cells treated with a common antibiotic in the near-weightlessness of the International Space Station (ISS) responded with some clever shapeshifting that likely helped them survive, findings with implications for both astronauts and people on Earth.

Researchers from CU Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies designed an experiment to culture the common E. coli bacteria on ISS and treat it with several different concentrations of the antibiotic gentamicin sulfate, a drug that kills them on Earth. The response of the cultured bacteria included a 13-fold increase in cell numbers and a 73 percent reduction in cell volume size compared to an Earth control group, said BioServe Research Associate Luis Zea, lead study author.

“We knew bacteria behave differently in space and that it takes higher concentrations of antibiotics to kill them,” said Zea. “What’s new is that we conducted a systematic analysis of the changing physical appearance of the bacteria during the experiments.”

A paper on the subject was published in Frontiers in Microbiology. CU Boulder co-authors included BioServe Director Louis Stodieck, aerospace engineering sciences Professor David Klaus and former graduate student Frederico Estante.

Because there are no gravity-driven forces in space like buoyancy and sedimentation, the only way the ISS bacteria can ingest nutrients or drugs is through natural diffusion, said Zea. The large decrease of the bacteria cell surface in space also decreases the rate of molecule-cell interaction, which may have implications for more effectively treating astronauts with bacterial infections in space.

The new study also showed the bacterial cell envelope—essentially its cell wall and outer membrane—became thicker, likely protecting the bacteria even more from the antibiotic, said Zea. The E. coli bacteria grown in space also tended to form in clumps, perhaps a defensive maneuver of sorts that may involve a shell of outer cells protecting the inner cells from antibiotics, said Zea.

In addition, some of the E. coli cells also produced outer membrane vesicles—small capsules that form outside the cell walls and act as messengers for cells to communicate with each other, Zea said. When cells with such vesicles reach a critical mass they can sync up to initiate the infection process.

“Both the increase in cell envelope thickness and in the outer membrane vesicles may be indicative of drug resistance mechanisms being activated in the spaceflight samples,” said Zea. “And this experiment and others like it give us the opportunity to better understand how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics here on Earth.”

The BioServe experiment was launched to ISS in 2014 on a commercial Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft. Astronauts manually initiated and ended the experiments on ISS using BioServe-built hardware—including high-tech incubators and test tubes—over the course of two days. The experiment was returned to Earth for analysis on a commercial SpaceX Dragon spacecraft several months later.

“The low gravity of space provides a unique test bed for developing new techniques, products and processes that can benefit not only astronauts, but also people on Earth,” said Stodieck, a research professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences. “In space, for example, scientists can learn more about biochemical changes in various cells and organisms that the force of gravity on Earth may be masking.”

The clumping of E. coli bacterial cells may be related to biofilm formation—multicellular communities held together by a self-produced matrix. Examples of biofilms on Earth include the scum on vinyl shower curtains, dental plaque and even collections of bacteria that can adhere to silicon in medical devices like catheters. Biofilms also can form on various surfaces of space vehicles, said Zea, making them a potential health threat to space travelers.

Other study co-authors were from University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, Germany and Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande du Sol in Porto Alegre, Brazil.


In the old days, interstellar colonization was pretty simple and straightforward (once you had a starship handy). Heinlein, naturally, provided the real estate pitch:

"Imagine a place like Earth, but sweeter than Terra ever was … forests aching to be cut, game that practically jumps into the stew pot. If you don't like settlements, you move on until you've got no neighbors, poke a seed in the ground, then jump back before it sprouts. No obnoxious insects. Practically no terrestrial diseases and no native diseases that like the flavor of our breed." (Starman Jones, Ballantine pback, p. 68.)

The good news is that the local tigers and local germs won't find us tasty and nutritious. But by the same token we can't eat the local venison or berries, and chances are only slightly better that our cattle can graze on the grass. Plants have a far less demanding diet, and might well grow nicely in any soil that has nitrogen fixed in it. In fact they might grow too well, at least the ones that don't rely on bees or other terrestrial creatures as their dating service.

Terrestrial plants, devoid of natural enemies, might crowd the native stuff out of any remotely suitable environment – wrecking entire ecosystems. But this too could go both ways. To local para-algae we could be walking Petri dishes: warm, moist, and fertile. Our bodies' defenses, if any, are likely to take the form of allergic reactions, not terribly helpful to us.


" To local para-algae we could be walking Petri dishes: warm, moist, and fertile. Our bodies' defenses, if any, are likely to take the form of allergic reactions, not terribly helpful to us."

I find this to be a highly questionable assertion. Without even going into far afield things like amino acid chirality, most earth-born bacteria and virii do a poor job jumping across species. It can't recall the last time I caught a cold from a tree. :)

But beyond that I think you vastly underestimate the sheer hostility of the environment that is the human body. While you may be right about our response being an allergic reaction, our bodies aren't the only factor. Those foreign bacteria will be trying to compete with the fauna you already carry around with you. Fauna that has been selected for ruthless survival in that environment over uncountable generations.

Think like this — a gang wants to move into the city to do their business. You are talking about how they would do against the cops, but completely ignoring the fact that Don Corleone is going to have some very pointed ideas about them moving in on his territory.

From GARDEN WORLDS, PARK WORLDS by Rick Robinson (2009)

No Biochemical Barriers: Averted, mostly.

Cross-Species Diseases: Uncommon, since for one thing, viruses just won’t work, and parasites often need to interact enough with their hosts’ biology to not work either. Bacteria — well, they’re more often a problem since the environment can offer enough of the right stuff to let them grow, the resilient and resourceful little buggers that they are, even if it’s not exactly the same disease when it happens to a different host, and immune responses can vary. (They tend to be much more of an ecological problem than a medical one, which is why they sterilize you — no, not like that — when you go offworld.) And allergen issues are downright common.

But anything cross-species that’s effective, similar, and contagious… that’s bioweapon/nanoweapon sign.

So, where does our Navy Space Force operate? Obviously, in orbital space, of course. This is the perfect place to operate using Patrol Rockets and smaller craft to zip to and fro. It is also where Espatiers get the most use — boarding inspections, SAR, and the classic orbital drop on a planet. But that's just the tip of the iceteroid — what about enforcement of quarantine? This could be an even bigger deal than it is today, since the enclosed system of a space station or rocket pretty much insures that if I got it, you got it.

(ed note: The legendary Gharlane of Eddore had some recommendations for a lab trying to analyze and reverse-engineer captured alien technology)

Since you're dealing with an unknown technology, and artifacts/lifeforms potentially engineered for purposes you're not aware of, you'd have to be REAL danged careful how you handled them. A special-purpose handling lab with a gigaton-nuke auto-destruct and remote-control handling gear would seem to be a minimal safe procedure, and you'd also have to dope out some way of picking up the pieces with no risk, and preferably no physical contact with your own ships and artifacts. Remote-control handling ships that scoop up parts, deliver them to the analysis lab, and then dive into the nearest sun, might be a good approach.

GHARLANE OF EDDORE aka David G. Potter

(ed note: The good ship Rolling Stone is en route to Mars with captain Roger Stone commanding and his wife Dr. Edith Stone as the doctor. The rest of the crew is Roger's canny mother, and the four children. They are following a larger spacecraft named War God.)

     The call was taken by Meade. She hurried aft to the hold where her father was helping the twins spray enamel on reconditioned bicycles. 'Daddy, you're wanted on the phone? War God, master to master — official.'
     'Coming.' He hurried forward and took the call. 'Rolling Stone, Captain Stone speaking.'
     'War God, commanding officer speaking. Captain, can you —'
     'Just a moment. This does not sound like Captain Vandenbergh.'
     'It isn't. This is Rowley, Second Officer. I —'
     'I understand that your captain wanted me, officially. Let me speak with him.'
     'I'm trying to explain, Captain.' The officer sounded strained and irritable. 'I am the commanding officer. Both Captain Vandenbergh and Mr O'Flynn are on the binnacle list.'
     'Eh? Sorry. Nothing serious, I hope?'
     'I'm afraid it is, sir. Thirty-seven cases on the sick list this morning — and four deaths.'
     'Great Scott, man! What is it?'
     'I don't know, sir.'
     'Well, what does your medical officer say it is?'
     'That's it, sir. The Surgeon died during the midwatch.'
     'Captain, can you possibly match with us? Do you have enough maneuvering margin?'
     'What? Why?'
     'You have a medical officer aboard. Haven't you?'
     'Huh? But she's my wife!'
     'She's an M.D., is she not?'
     Roger Stone remained silent for a long moment. Then he said, 'I'll call you back shortly, sir.'

     It was a top level conference, limited to Captain Stone, Dr Stone, and Hazel. First, Dr Stone insisted on calling the War God and getting a full report on symptoms and progress of the disease. When she switched off her husband said, 'Well, Edith, what is it?'
     'I don't know. I'll have to see it.'
     'Now, see here, I'm not going to have you risking —'
     'I'm a doctor, Roger.'
     'You're not in practice, not now. And you are the mother of a family. It's quite out of the ques—'
     'I am a doctor, Roger.'
     He sighed heavily. 'Yes, dear.'
     'The only thing to be determined is whether or not you can match in with the War God. Have you two reached an answer?'
     'We'll start computing.'
     'I'm going aft and check over my supplies.' She frowned. 'I didn't expect to have to cope with an epidemic.'

     When she was gone Roger turned his face, twisted with indecision, to Hazel. 'What do you think, Mother?'
     'Son, you don't stand a chance. She takes her oath seriously. You've known that a long time.'
     'I haven't taken the Hippocratic oath! If I won't move the ship, there's nothing she can do about it.'
     'You're not a doctor, true. But you're a master in space. I guess the "succour & rescue" rule might apply.'
     'The devil with rules! This is Edith.'
     Well,' Hazel said slowly, 'I guess I might stack the Stone family up against the welfare of the entire human race in a pinch, myself. But I can't decide it for you.'
     'I won't let her do it! It's not me. There's Buster — he's no more than a baby still; he needs his mother.'
     'Yes, he does.'
     'That settles it. I'm going aft and tell her.'
     'Wait a minute! If that's your decision, Captain, you won't mind me saying that's the wrong way to do it.'
     'The only way you'll get it past your wife is to get on that computer and come out with the answer you're looking for... an answer that says it's physically impossible for us to match with them and still reach Mars.'
     'Oh. You're right. Look, will you help me fake it?'
     'I suppose so.'
     'Then let's get busy.'
     'As you say, sir. You know, Roger, if the War God comes in with an unidentified and uncontrolled disease aboard, they'll never let her make port at Mars. They'll swing her in a parking orbit, fuel her up again, and send her back at next optimum.'
     'What of it? It's nothing to me if fat tourists and a bunch of immigrants are disappointed.'
     'Check. But I was thinking of something else. With Van and the first officer sick, maybe about to check in, if the second officer comes down with it, too, the War God might not even get as far as a parking orbit.'

     Roger Stone did not have to have the thought elaborated; a ship approaching a planet, unless manoeuvred at the last by a skilled pilot, can do one of only two things — crash, or swing on past and out endlessly into empty space to take up a comet-like orbit which arrives nowhere ever.

     He covered his face with his hands. 'What do I do, Mother?'
     'You are captain, son.'
     He sighed. 'I suppose I knew it all along.'
     'Yes, but you had to struggle with it first.' She kissed him. 'Orders, son?'
     'Let's get to it. It's a good thing we didn't waste any margin in departure.'
     'That it is.'

     Eleven hours from blast time the Rolling Stone hung in space close by the War God. The ships were still plunging toward Mars at some sixteen miles per second; relative to each other they were stationary — except that the liner continued her stately rotation, end over end. Dr Stone, her small figure encumbered not only with space suit, pressure bottles, radio, suit jet, and life lines, but also with a Santa Claus pack of surgical supplies, stood with her husband on the side of the Stone nearest the liner. Not knowing exactly what she might need she had taken all that she believed could be spared from the stock of their own craft — drugs, antibiotics, instruments, supplies.
     The others had been kissed good-by inside and told to stay there. Lowell had cried and tried to keep his mother from entering the lock. He had not been told what was going on, but the emotions of the others were contagious.
     Roger Stone was saying anxiously, 'Now see here, the minute you have this under control, back you come — you hear?'
     She shook her head. 'I'll see you on Mars, dearest.'
     'No indeed! You —'
     'No, Roger. I might act as a carrier. We can't risk it.'
     'You might act as a carrier corning back to us on Mars, too. Don't you ever expect to come back?'
     She ignored the rhetorical question. 'On Mars there will be hospitals. But I can't risk a family epidemic in space.'
     'Edith I've a good mind to refuse to—'
     'They're ready for me, dear. See?'

     Over their heads, two hundred yards away, a passenger lock on the rotation axis of the mighty ship had opened; two small figures spilled silently out, flipped neatly to boot contact, stood on the ship's side, their heads pointing 'down' at Mr and Mrs Stone. Roger Stone called into his microphone, 'War God!'
     'War God aye aye!'
     'Are you ready?'
     'Whenever you are.'
     'Stand by for transfer.'
     Acting Captain Rowley had proposed sending a man over to conduct Dr. Stone across the gap. She had refused, not wishing to have anyone from the infected ship in contact with the Rolling Stone.

     'She thinks she's on the track of something. So far as she can tell from their medical records, nobody has caught it so far who is known to have had measles.'
     Meade said, 'Measles? People don't die of that, do they?'
     'Hardly ever,' agreed her grandmother, 'though it can be fairly serious in an adult.'
     'I didn't say it was measles,' her father answered testily, 'nor did your mother. She thinks it's related to measles, a mutant strain maybe more virulent.'
     'Call it "neomeasles",' suggested Hazel. 'That's a good question-begging tag and it has an impressive scientific sound to it Any more deaths, Roger?'
     'Well, yes.'
     'How many?'
     'She wouldn't say. Van is still alive, though, and she says that he is recovering. She told me,' he added, as if trying to convince himself, 'that she thought she was learning how to treat it.'

     Hazel deliberately waited around for the phone call the next day, determined to get a few words at least with her daughter-in-law. The call came in about the usual time; Roger took it. It was not his wife.
     'Captain Stone? Turner, sir Charlie Turner. I'm the third engineer. Your wife asked me to phone you.'
     'What's the matter? She busy?'
     'Quite busy.'
     'Tell her to call me as soon as she's free. I'll wait by the board.'
     'I'm afraid that's no good, sir. She was quite specific that she would not be calling you today. She won't have time.'
     'Fiddlesticks! It will only take her thirty seconds. In a big ship like yours you can hook her in wherever she is.'
     The man sounded embarrassed. 'I'm sorry, sir. Dr. Stone gave strict orders not to be disturbed'
     'But confound it! I —'
     'I'm very sorry, sir. Good-by.' He left him sputtering into a dead circuit.

     Roger Stone remained quiet for several moments, then turned a stricken face to his mother. 'She's caught it.'
     Hazel answered quietly, 'Don't jump to conclusions, Son.' But in her own heart she had already reached the same conclusion. Edith Stone had contracted the disease she had gone to treat.
     The same barren stall was given Roger Stone on the following day; by the third day they gave up the pretence. Dr. Stone was ill, but her husband was not to worry. She had already, before she gave into it herself, progressed far enough in standardizing a treatment that all the new cases — hers among them — were doing nicely. So they said.
     No, they would not arrange a circuit to her bed. No, he could not talk to Captain Vandenbergh; the Captain was still too ill.
     'I'm coming over!' Roger Stone shouted.
     Turner hesitated. 'That's up to you, Captain. But if you do, we'll have to quarantine you here. Dr. Stone's written orders.'

     Roger Stone switched off. He knew that that settled it; in matters medical Edith was a Roman judge — and he could not abandon his own ship, his family, to get to Mars by themselves. One frail old woman, two cocksure half-trained student pilots — no, he had to take his ship in.

     It was seven endless, Earth-standard days later when the daily call was answered by, 'Roger — hello, darling!'
     'Edith! Are you all right?'
     'Getting that way.'
     'What's your temperature?'
     'Now, darling, I won't have you quack-doctoring me. My temperature is satistactory, as is the rest of my physical being. I've lost a little weight, but I could stand to — don't you think?'
     'No, I don't. Listen — you come home! You hear me?'
     'Roger dearest! I can't and that's settled. This entire ship is under quarantine.'

     At last they reached her (War God in its landing area on Phobos) — to find a temporary barrier of line and posts around her and signs prominently displayed: 'WARNING! — QUARANTINE — no entrance by order of Phobos Port Authority.'
     I can t read,' said Hazel.
     Roger Stone pondered it 'The rest of you stay here, or go for a walk — whatever you please. I'm going in. Mind you stay off the field proper.'

     Roger Stone promptly caught the epidemic disease and had to be nursed through it — and thereby extended the quarantine time.

From THE ROLLING STONES by Robert Heinlein (1952)


In our context, a "marshal" or a "sheriff" is the main law enforcement official at a colony, boomtown or large space industrial operation (mine, etc). Just like the town sheriff in a wild west cowboy movie. Only set in deep space instead of the north american frontier.

Yes, predictably TV Tropes has an entire section devoted to it.

Example: Marshal William T. O'Niel who runs the police force in the mining colony on the moon Io, in the movie Outland. In the Captain Future stories grizzled old Ezra Gurney is a Planet Police frontier marshal.

Several actors would call Space Rangers more "blue collar" than Trek.

Space Rangers would draw from a familiar concept in sci-fi: the blending of historical frontier law enforcement officers with "Wild West" sci-fi angle. These "space rangers" have endured since the early days of science fiction and the overall concept of "space rangers" has been recycled time after time. The term "space rangers" is as bedrock, generic,  and overused as "space marines", laser blasters, faster-than-light travel, and killer robots.

Growing up in the 1980's, I would see the space rangers concept used in the Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers, Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffsand Bravestarr. It was seen in a 1988 comic book by the same name and relativity concepts and there is even a current kid cartoon running under the name Space Ranger Roger along with the short-lived 1954 kid's Black-&-White kid's show called Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.

This means that this 1993 show was well rooted in traditional sci-fi themes and ideas, but that did not seem to matter to the network nor the viewers when Space Rangers premiered on January 13th, 1993.


      I was never military. But for a while I was a cop.

     In her former life, before being reborn in the Human Entelechy, Amelia Apatari had been a soldier-flyer, a volunteer with the United Nation’s standing army, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. As a Peacekeeper, she’d been trained to fight, trained to kill. Of course, all she really wanted to do was to fly, and to see new places, but she’d had the training, if needed. And she’d needed it, on occasion.

     Me, I’d signed on with the Orbital Patrol because I wanted to go into space, and it seemed to offer the best chances. A division of the Department of Outer Space Affairs, the Patrol had been chartered for emergency response and search-and-rescue operations under the original draft of the Outer Space Treaty, before it was revised and ratified in the early 22C. The 1967 draft of the OST was pretty down on the notion of any militarized use of space:

The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations, and fortifications; the testing of any type of weapons; and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden.

     Needless to say, that language got tweaked a bit once extraplanetary colonies started declaring themselves sovereign nations—to say nothing of the growing numbers of “pirate kingdoms” based in the asteroid belt, the Jovian moons, or wherever smugglers and thieves could lay their hands or equivalent cybernetic appendages on a bit of real estate. In short order, the idea that space was solely for peaceful purposes seemed quaint, like steam trains or poodle skirts.

     The Peacekeepers, who to that point had been limited to strictly terrestrial operations, were given expanded operational authority to allow them to deal with brush wars and border skirmishes on the colonies, belts, and elsewhere. That just left crime to contend with.

     So while the Orbital Patrol hadn’t been chartered for law enforcement, by the time I was a kid it’d been given limited jurisdictional authority. But there were still old guards in the General Assembly who weren’t crazy about the notion of an interplanetary police force, and so the UN only granted interdiction authority to a small subset of Orbital Patrol officers.

     When I’d signed on board Cutter 972, I’d been tapped as an Interdiction Detachment. As with most ID officers, I’d had secondary responsibilities as a crewmember, but when circumstances demanded, I was authorized to board other craft. Most every patrolman got trained in Interdiction Negotiation, a multidisciplinary approach incorporating elements of psychology, military strategy, negotiation tactics, and martial arts, even if only ID officers ever used the training, just like all patrolmen were trained marksmen even though ID officers were the only ones authorized to use energetic firearms in the field.

     A few times, after boarding smugglers’ ships or pirate vessels, just me with no backup but my cap gun and the jurisdictional authority of an Interdiction Detachment, I’d found myself taken prisoner—a crook had gotten the drop on me or managed to disarm me, or whatever the case might have been—and a time or two, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it out alive. But I’d never been completely without hope, had never given up on the notion of escape.

     It had taken twelve thousand years, and an exiled group of genetically engineered religious fanatics, but I was coming close to breaking my streak.

     Having been trained in Interdiction Negotiation, I’ve had experience in sizing up the tactical situation of any circumstance and using available resources to my advantage, and I’ve been in more than a few tight spots. I’ve gone ship to ship in complete vacuum wearing nothing more than a T-shirt and a pair of pants, I’ve walked unarmed into a hostile mining ship overrun with out-of-control cyborg mining birds, and once I even refused to smoke a bowl with Laurentien Francisca Marcella, princess of Orange-Nassau, queen of the Netherlands Court in exile on Ceres (a mistake I didn’t make twice). But I found myself thinking twice about the situation I found myself in.

Colony Education

In some science fiction futures, the interstellar government might have a presence on newly founded interstellar colonies. The Colony Educational Service team tries to keep the colonists inside consensus reality instead of straying into delusional truthiness. The goal is to insure they do not turn into a culture of fanatics controlled by evil demagogues. Or worse: fanatics keen to embark on a crusade to cleanse the galaxy of unbelievers or something awful like that.

Such a service could be hastily formed immediately after the first such an incident.

The Education team faces an uphill battle, since they are outsiders and colonies ripe for fanaticism generally have xenophobic commoners. Further: the Education team is trying to keep the commoners in the mainstream, which is in direct conflict with the aims of the evil demagogues.

Science fiction writers can turn this theme on its head, with Terra being the nasty totalitarian regime with a 1984-style Colony Political Educational Service and Political Re-education Camps. In that case the Educational Service are thought police brutally suppressing dissent and dissappearing agitators. Meanwhile the colony is full of underground democratic revolutionaries hungering for freedom. But any devious writer spotted this nifty plot idea already.

If there is no Colony Education team in the colony, it may be wise to have undercover agents or orbital colony monitors around the planet. Ones who can sound the alarm and summon the military if the colony is in any danger of assembling a battlefleet to purge the galaxy of unbelievers. In the novels The Torch of Honor and Rogue Powers a group of militant nut-jobs hijack a colony ship and vanish into deep space to found a militant nut-job colony in an unknown location. The government foolishly figures they all perished. Decades later the government finds itself fighting for its life as the nut-job jack-booted thugs unexpectedly arrive in their battlefleets and try to conquer all the other colonies and Terra.


Ander Nordholm had been a government man. He and his daughter were classed as outsiders and strangers by the colony group, much as were the other representatives of law from off-world—the Ranger Franklyn, Post Officer Kaus and his two guards, the medical officer and his wife. But every colony had to have an education officer. In the past too many frontier-world settlements had split away from the Confederation, following sometimes weird and dangerous paths of development when fanatics took control, warped education, and cut off communications with other worlds.

Yes, the Nordholms had expected a period of adjustment, of even semi-ostracization since this was a Believer colony. But her father had been winning them over—he had! Charis could not have deceived herself about that. Why, she had been invited to one of the women’s “mend” parties. Or had it been a blind even then?

But this—this would never have happened if it had not been for the white death! Charis’s breath came now in a real sob. There were so many shadows of fear on a newly opened planet. No safeguard could keep them all from striking at the fragile life of a newly planted colony. And here had been waiting a death no one could see, could meet with blaster or hunting knife or even the medical knowledge her species had been able to amass during centuries of space travel, experimentation, and information acquired across the galaxy.

And in its striking, the disease had favored the fanatical prejudices of the colonists. For it struck first the resented government men. The ranger, the port captain and his men, her father—Charis’s fist was at her mouth, and she bit hard upon her knuckles. Then it struck the medic—always the men. Later the colonists—oddly enough, those who had been most friendly with the government party—and only the men and boys in those families.

She could return; or she could remain here until the hunt found her—to take her as a slave down to the foul nest they were fast making of the first human settlement on Demeter; or somehow she could reach the mountains and hide out like a wild thing until sooner or later some native peril would finish her.

Her safety depended upon what the settlers would decide. She had no means of concealing her back trail. In the morning it would be found. But whether their temper would be to follow her, or if they would shruggingly write her off to be finished by the wild, Charis could not guess. She was the one remaining symbol of all Tolskegg preached against—the liberal off-world mind, the “un-female,” as he called it. The wild, with every beast Ranger Franklyn had catalogued lined up ready to tear her, was far better than facing again the collection of cabins where Tolskegg now spouted his particular brand of poison, that poison, bred of closed minds, which her father had taught her early to fear. And Visma and her ilk had lapped that poison to grow fat and vigorous on it.

From ORDEAL IN OTHERWHERE by Andre Norton (1964)

Colony Schools

More mundanely, the colony service can actually help with school resources for children. New colonies might be ultra-rural, where the family farms are separated by huge distances and transportation to the schoolhouse might be lacking.

People skeptical about students learning from a TV screen have forgotten about the success of the educational TV show Sesame Street.

The United States got a crash course in setting up remote learning infrastructure when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. This also uncovered lots of problems and inequalities that had previously been swept under the rug.


      Slingshot is built up out of a number of compartments. We add to the ship as we have to—and when we can afford it. I left Jan to finish shutting down and went below to the living quarters. We'd been down fifteen minutes, and the children were loose.
     Papers, games, crayons, toys, kids' clothing, and books had all more or less settled on the "down" side. Raquel, a big bluejay the kids had picked up somewhere, screamed from a cage mounted on one bulkhead. The compartment smelled of bird droppings.

     Two of the kids were watching a TV program beamed out of Marsport. Their technique was to push themselves upward with their arms and float up to the top of the compartment, then float downward again until they caught themselves just before they landed. It took nearly a minute to make a full circuit in (asteroid) Jefferson's weak gravity.
     I went over and switched off the set. The program was a western, some horse opera made in the 1940s.
     Jennifer and Craig wailed in unison. "That's educational, Dad."
     They had a point, but we'd been through this before. For kids who've never seen Earth and may never go there, anything about Terra can probably be educational, but I wasn't in a mood to argue. "Get this place cleaned up."

     "It's Roger's turn. He made the mess." Jennifer, being eight and two years older than Craig, tends to be spokesman and chief petty officer for the Little Ones.
     "Get him to help, then. But get cleaned up."
     "Yes, sir." They worked sullenly, flinging the clothing into corner bins, putting the books into the clips, and the games into lockers. There really is a place for everything in Slingshot, although most of the time you wouldn't know it.

From TINKER by Jerry Pournelle (1975)

      She thought of what she would need if they struck west to found a new settlement. Seeds they would have; and a mare and stallion, and two pairs of oxen; chickens and swine; her grandfather was rich by local standards. There would be her father's blacksmithing tools, which Emil could learn to use.

     They would need a television. Those were rare. A television, and solar cells, and a generator for the windmill; such manufactured goods had to be bought in the city, and that took money. The second crop would be needed this year, and a large one next spring, as well—and they would have to keep all the money they earned. She thrust that thought away, but her hand strayed toward the big sheath knife she wore on her belt.

     We will manage, she thought. We will find the money. Children should not go without education. Television was not for entertainment. The programs relayed by the satellites gave weather reports and taught farming, ecology, engineering, metalwork—all the skills needed to live on Arrarat. They also taught reading and mathematics. Most of Kathryn's neighbors despised television and wouldn't have it in their houses, but their children had to learn from others who watched the screen.

     And yet, Kathryn thought, there is cause for concern. First it is television. Then light industry. Soon there is more. Mines are opened. Larger factories are built, and around them grow cities. She thought of Arrarat covered with cities and concrete, the animals replaced by tractors and automobiles, the small villages grown into cities; people packed together the way they were in Harmony and Garrison; streams dammed and lakes dirty with sewage; and she shuddered. Not in my time, or my grandchildren's. And perhaps we will be smarter than they were on Earth, and it will never happen here. We know better now. We know how to live with the land.

     Her grandfather had been a volunteer colonist, an engineer with enough money to bring tools and equipment to Arrarat, and he was trying to show others how to live with technology. He had a windmill for electricity. It furnished power for the television and the radio. He had radio communications with Denisburg, forty kilometers away, and although the neighbors said they despised all technology, they were not too proud to ask Amos Malcolm to send messages for them.

     The Malcolm farm had running water and an efficient system for converting sewage to fertilizer. To Amos, technology was something to be used so long as it did not use you, and he tried to teach his neighbors that.

From WEST OF HONOR by Jerry Pournelle (1976)

      Margie even wrote about it that night in her diary. On the page headed May 17, 2157, she wrote, “Today Tommy found a real book!”
     It was a very old book. Margie’s grandfather once said that when he was a little boy his grandfather told him that there was a time when all stories were printed on paper.
     They turned the pages, which were yellow and crinkly, and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to—on a screen, you know. And then, when they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had had when they read it the first time.
     “Gee,” said Tommy, “what a waste. When you’re through with the book, you just throw it away, I guess. Our television screen must have had a million books on it and it’s good for plenty more. I wouldn’t throw it away.”
     “Same with mine,” said Margie. She was eleven and hadn’t seen as many telebooks as Tommy had. He was thirteen.
     She said, “Where did you find it?”
     “In my house.” He pointed without looking, because he was busy reading. “In the attic.”
     “What’s it about?”
     Margie was scornful. “School? What’s there to write about school? I hate school.”
     Margie always hated school, but now she hated it more than ever. The mechanical teacher had been giving her test after test in geography and she had been doing worse and worse until her mother had shaken her head sorrowfully and sent for the County Inspector.
     He was a round little man with a red face and a whole box of tools with dials and wires. He smiled at Margie and gave her an apple, then took the teacher apart.
     Margie had hoped he wouldn’t know how to put it together again, but he knew how all right, and, after an hour or so, there it was again, large and black and ugly, with a big screen on which all the lessons were shown and the questions were asked. That wasn’t so bad. The part Margie hated most was the slot where she had to put homework and test papers. She always had to write them out in a punch code they made her leam when she was six years old, and the mechanical teacher calculated the mark in no time.
     The Inspector had smiled after he was finished and patted Margie’s head. He said to her mother, “It’s not the little girl’s fault, Mrs. Jones. I think the geography sector was geared a little too quick. Those things happen sometimes. I’ve slowed it up to an average ten-year level. Actually, the over-all pattern of her progress is quite satisfactory.” And he patted Margie’s head again.
     Margie was disappointed. She had been hoping they would take the teacher away altogether. They had once taken Tommy’s teacher away for nearly a month because the history sector had blanked out completely.
     So she said to Tommy, “Why would anyone write about school?”
     Tommy looked at her with very superior eyes. “Because it’s not our kind of school, stupid. This is the old kind of school that they had hundreds and hundreds of years ago.” He added loftily, pronouncing the word carefully, “Centuries ago.”
     Margie was hurt. “Well, I don’t know what kind of school they had all that time ago.” She read the book over his shoulder for a while, then said, “Anyway, they had a teacher.”
     “Sure they had a teacher, but it wasn’t a regular teacher. It was a man.”
     “A man? How could a man be a teacher?”
     “Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.”
     “A man isn’t smart enough.”
     “Sure he is. My father knows as much as my teacher.”
     “He can’t. A man can’t know as much as a teacher.”
     “He knows almost as much, I betcha.”
     Margie wasn’t prepared to dispute that. She said, “I wouldn’t want a strange man in my house to teach me.”
     Tommy screamed with laughter. “You don’t know much, Margie. The teachers didn’t live in the house. They had a special building and all the kids went there.”
     “And all the kids learned the same thing?”
     “Sure, if they were the same age.”
     “But my mother says a teacher has to be adjusted to fit the mind of each boy and girl it teaches and that each kid has to be taught differently.”
     “Just the same they didn’t do it that way then. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read the book.”
     “I didn’t say I didn’t like it,” Margie said quickly. She wanted to read about those funny schools.

     They weren’t even half-finished when Margie’s mother called, “Margie! School!”
     Margie looked up. “Not yet, Mamma.”
     “Now!” said Mrs. Jones. “And it’s probably time for Tommy, too.”
     Margie said to Tommy, “Can I read the book some more with you after school?”
     “Maybe,” he said nonchalantly. He walked away whistling, the dusty old book tucked beneath his arm.
     Margie went into the schoolroom. It was right next to her bedroom, and the mechanical teacher was on and waiting for her. It was always on at the same time every day except Saturday and Sunday, because her mother said little girls learned better if they learned at regular hours.
     The screen was lit up, and it said: “Today’s arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.”
     Margie did so with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.
     And the teachers were people…
     The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: “When we add the fractions ½ and ¼—”
     Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.

From THE FUN THEY HAD by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Distance education, also called distance learning, is the education of students who may not always be physically present at a school. Traditionally, this usually involved correspondence courses wherein the student corresponded with the school via post. Today, it involves online education. A distance learning program can be completely distance learning, or a combination of distance learning and traditional classroom instruction (called hybrid or blended). Massive open online courses (MOOCs), offering large-scale interactive participation and open access through the World Wide Web or other network technologies, are recent educational modes in distance education. A number of other terms (distributed learning, e-learning, m-learning, online learning, virtual classroom etc.) are used roughly synonymously with distance education.


2019–20 coronavirus pandemic

Further information: Impact of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic on education § Distance learning

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the closure of the vast majority of schools worldwide. Many schools moved to online remote learning via platforms including Zoom, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams,D2L, and Edgenuity. Concerns arose over the impact of this transition on students without access to an internet-enabled device or a stable internet connection.


Internet technology has enabled many forms of distance learning through open educational resources and facilities such as e-learning and MOOCs. Although the expansion of the Internet blurs the boundaries, distance education technologies are divided into two modes of delivery: synchronous learning and asynchronous learning.

In synchronous learning, all participants are "present" at the same time in a virtual classroom, as in traditional classroom teaching. It requires a timetable. Web conferencing, videoconferencing, educational television, instructional television are examples of synchronous technology, as are direct-broadcast satellite (DBS), internet radio, live streaming, telephone, and web-based VoIP.

Web conferencing software helps to facilitate class meetings, and usually contains additional interaction tools such as text chat, polls, hand raising, emoticons etc. These tools also support asynchronous participation by students who can listen to recordings of synchronous sessions. Immersive environments (notably SecondLife) have also been used to enhance participant presence in distance education courses. Another form of synchronous learning using the classroom is the use of robot proxies including those that allow sick students to attend classes.

Some universities have been starting to use robot proxies to enable more engaging synchronous hybrid classes where both remote and in-person students can be present and interact using telerobotics devices such as the Kubi Telepresence robot stand that looks around and the Double Robot that roams around. With these telepresence robots, the remote students have a seat at the table or desk instead of being on a screen on the wall.

In asynchronous learning, participants access course materials flexibly on their own schedules. Students are not required to be together at the same time. Mail correspondence, which is the oldest form of distance education, is an asynchronous delivery technology, as are message board forums, e-mail, video and audio recordings, print materials, voicemail, and fax.

The two methods can be combined. Many courses offered by both open universities and an increasing number of campus-based institutions use periodic sessions of residential or day teaching to supplement the sessions delivered at a distance. This type of mixed distance and campus-based education has recently come to be called "blended learning" or less often "hybrid learning". Many open universities use a blend of technologies and a blend of learning modalities (face-to-face, distance, and hybrid) all under the rubric of "distance learning".

Distance learning can also use interactive radio instruction (IRI), interactive audio instruction (IAI), online virtual worlds, digital games, webinars, and webcasts, all of which are referred to as e-Learning.

Radio and television

The rapid spread of film in the 1920s and radio in the 1930s led to proposals to use it for distance education. By 1938, at least 200 city school systems, 25 state boards of education, and many colleges and universities broadcast educational programs for the public schools. One line of thought was to use radio as a master teacher.

Experts in given fields broadcast lessons for pupils within the many schoolrooms of the public school system, asking questions, suggesting readings, making assignments, and conducting tests. This mechanizes education and leaves the local teacher only the tasks of preparing for the broadcast and keeping order in the classroom.

A typical setup came in Kentucky in 1948 when John Wilkinson Taylor, president of the University of Louisville, teamed up with NBC to use radio as a medium for distance education, The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission endorsed the project and predicted that the "college-by-radio" would put "American education 25  years ahead". The University was owned by the city, and local residents would pay the low tuition rates, receive their study materials in the mail, and listen by radio to live classroom discussions that were held on campus. Physicist Daniel Q. Posin also was a pioneer in the field of distance education when he hosted a televised course through DePaul University.

Charles Wedemeyer of the University of Wisconsin–Madison also promoted new methods. From 1964 to 1968, the Carnegie Foundation funded Wedemeyer's Articulated Instructional Media Project (AIM) which brought in a variety of communications technologies aimed at providing learning to an off-campus population. The radio courses faded away in the 1950s. Many efforts to use television along the same lines proved unsuccessful, despite heavy funding by the Ford Foundation.

From 1970 to 1972 the Coordinating Commission for Higher Education in California funded Project Outreach to study the potential of telecourses. The study included the University of California, California State University, and the community colleges. This study led to coordinated instructional systems legislation allowing the use of public funds for non-classroom instruction and paved the way for the emergence of telecourses as the precursor to the online courses and programs of today. The Coastline Community Colleges, The Dallas County Community College District, and Miami Dade Community College led the way. The Adult Learning Service of the US Public Broadcasting Service came into being and the "wrapped" series, and individually produced telecourse for credit became a significant part of the history of distance education and online learning.


The widespread use of computers and the internet have made distance learning easier and faster, and today virtual schools and virtual universities deliver full curricula online. The capacity of Internet to support voice, video, text and immersion teaching methods made earlier distinct forms of telephone, videoconferencing, radio, television, and text based education somewhat redundant. However, many of the techniques developed and lessons learned with earlier media are used in Internet delivery.

The first completely online course for credit was offered by the University of Toronto in 1984 through the Graduate School of Education (then called OISE: the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). The topic was "Women and Computers in Education", dealing with gender issues and educational computing. The first new and fully online university was founded in 1994 as the Open University of Catalonia, headquartered in Barcelona, Spain. In 1999 Jones International University was launched as the first fully online university accredited by a regional accrediting association in the US.

Between 2000 and 2008, enrollment in distance education courses increased rapidly in almost every country in both developed and developing countries. Many private, public, non-profit and for-profit institutions worldwide now offer distance education courses from the most basic instruction through to the highest levels of degree and doctoral programs. New York University, International University Canada, for example, offers online degrees in engineering and management-related fields through NYU Tandon Online. Levels of accreditation vary: widely respected universities such as Stanford University and Harvard now deliver online courses—but other online schools receive little outside oversight, and some are actually fraudulent, i.e., diploma mills. In the US, the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC) specializes in the accreditation of distance education institutions.

In the United States in 2011, it was found that a third of all the students enrolled in postsecondary education had taken an accredited online course in a postsecondary institution. Growth continued. In 2013 the majority of public and private colleges offered full academic programs online. Programs included training in the mental health, occupational therapy, family therapy, art therapy, physical therapy, and rehabilitation counseling fields.

By 2008, online learning programs were available in the United States in 44 states at the K-12 level.

Internet forums, online discussion group and online learning community can contribute to a distance education experience. Research shows that socialization plays an important role in some forms of distance education.

ECourses are available from websites such as Khan Academy and MasterClass on many topics.

Paced and self-paced models

Most distance education uses a paced format similar to traditional campus-based models in which learners commence and complete a course at the same time. Some institutions offer self-paced programs that allow for continuous enrollment, and the length of time to complete the course is set by the learner's time, skill, and commitment levels. Self-paced courses are almost always offered asynchronously. Each delivery method offers advantages and disadvantages for students, teachers, and institutions.

Kaplan and Haenlein classify distance education into four groups according to "Time dependency" and "Number of participants":

  1. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses): Open-access online course (i.e., without specific participation restrictions) that allows for unlimited (massive) participation;
  2. SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses): Online course that only offers a limited number of places and therefore requires some form of formal enrollment;
  3. SMOCs (Synchronous Massive Online Courses): Open-access online course that allows for unlimited participation but requires students to be "present" at the same time (synchronously);
  4. SSOCs (Synchronous Private Online Courses): Online course that only offers a limited number of places and requires students to be "present" at the same time (synchronously).

Paced models are a familiar mode since they are used almost exclusively in campus-based schools. Institutes that offer both distance and campus programs usually use paced models so that teacher workload, student semester planning, tuition deadlines, exam schedules, and other administrative details can be synchronized with campus delivery. Student familiarity and the pressure of deadlines encourages students to readily adapt to and usually succeed in paced models. However, student freedom is sacrificed as a common pace is often too fast for some students and too slow for others. In addition life events, professional or family responsibilities can interfere with a student's capability to complete tasks to an external schedule. Finally, paced models allow students to readily form communities of inquiry and to engage in collaborative work.

Self-paced courses maximize student freedom, as not only can students commence studies on any date, but they can complete a course in as little time as a few weeks or up to a year or longer. Students often enroll in self-paced study when they are under pressure to complete programs, have not been able to complete a scheduled course, need additional courses, or have pressure which precludes regular study for any length of time. The self-paced nature of the programming, though, is an unfamiliar model for many students and can lead to excessive procrastination, resulting in course incompletion. Assessment of learning can also be challenging as exams can be written on any day, making it possible for students to share examination questions with resulting loss of academic integrity. Finally, it is extremely challenging to organize collaborative work activities, though some schools are developing cooperative models based upon networked and connectivist pedagogies for use in self-paced programs.


Distance learning can expand access to education and training for both general populace and businesses since its flexible scheduling structure lessens the effects of the many time-constraints imposed by personal responsibilities and commitments. Devolving some activities off-site alleviates institutional capacity constraints arising from the traditional demand on institutional buildings and infrastructure. Furthermore, there is the potential for increased access to more experts in the field and to other students from diverse geographical, social, cultural, economic, and experiential backgrounds. As the population at large becomes more involved in lifelong learning beyond the normal schooling age, institutions can benefit financially, and adult learning business courses may be particularly lucrative. Distance education programs can act as a catalyst for institutional innovation and are at least as effective as face-to-face learning programs, especially if the instructor is knowledgeable and skilled.

Distance education can also provide a broader method of communication within the realm of education. With the many tools and programs that technological advancements have to offer, communication appears to increase in distance education amongst students and their professors, as well as students and their classmates. The distance educational increase in communication, particularly communication amongst students and their classmates, is an improvement that has been made to provide distance education students with as many of the opportunities as possible as they would receive in in-person education. The improvement being made in distance education is growing in tandem with the constant technological advancements. Present-day online communication allows students to associate with accredited schools and programs throughout the world that are out of reach for in-person learning. By having the opportunity to be involved in global institutions via distance education, a diverse array of thought is presented to students through communication with their classmates. This is beneficial because students have the opportunity to "combine new opinions with their own, and develop a solid foundation for learning". It has been shown through research that "as learners become aware of the variations in interpretation and construction of meaning among a range of people [they] construct an individual meaning", which can help students become knowledgeable of a wide array of viewpoints in education. To increase the likelihood that students will build effective ties with one another during the course, instructors should use similar assignments for students across different locations to overcome the influence of co-location on relationship building.

The high cost of education affects students in higher education, to which distance education may be an alternative in order to provide some relief. Distance education has been a more cost-effective form of learning, and can sometimes save students a significant amount of money as opposed to traditional education. Distance education may be able to help to save students a considerable amount financially by removing the cost of transportation. In addition, distance education may be able to save students from the economic burden of high-priced course textbooks. Many textbooks are now available as electronic textbooks, known as e-textbooks, which can offer digital textbooks for a reduced price in comparison to traditional textbooks. Also, the increasing improvements in technology have resulted in many school libraries having a partnership with digital publishers that offer course materials for free, which can help students significantly with educational costs.

Within the class, students are able to learn in ways that traditional classrooms would not be able to provide. It is able to promote good learning experiences and therefore, allow students to obtain higher satisfaction with their online learning. For example, students can review their lessons more than once according to their needs. Students can then manipulate the coursework to fit their learning by focusing more on their weaker topics while breezing through concepts that they already have or can easily grasp. When course design and the learning environment are at their optimal conditions, distance education can lead students to higher satisfaction with their learning experiences. Studies have shown that high satisfaction correlates to increased learning. For those in a healthcare or mental health distance learning program, online-based interactions have the potential to foster deeper reflections and discussions of client issues as well as a quicker response to client issues, since supervision happens on a regular basis and is not limited to a weekly supervision meeting.<, ref name="Stebnicki, M. A. 20012" /> This also may contribute to the students feeling a greater sense of support, since they have ongoing and regular access to their instructors and other students.

Distance learning may enable students who are unable to attend a traditional school setting, due to disability or illness such as decreased mobility and immune system suppression, to get a good education. Children who are sick or are unable to attend classes are able to attend them in "person" through the use of robot proxies. This helps the students have experiences of the classroom and social interaction that they are unable to receive at home or the hospital, while still keeping them in a safe learning environment. Over the last few years more students are entering safely back into the classroom thanks to the help of robots. An article from the New York Times, "A Swiveling Proxy Will Even Wear a Tutu", explains the positive impact of virtual learning in the classroom, and another that explains how even a simple, stationary telepresence robot can help. Distance education may provide equal access regardless of socioeconomic status or income, area of residence, gender, race, age, or cost per student. Applying universal design strategies to distance learning courses as they are being developed (rather than instituting accommodations for specific students on an as-needed basis) can increase the accessibility of such courses to students with a range of abilities, disabilities, learning styles, and native languages. Distance education graduates, who would never have been associated with the school under a traditional system, may donate money to the school.

Distance learning may also offer a final opportunity for adolescents that are no longer permitted in the general education population due to behavior disorders. Instead of these students having no other academic opportunities, they may continue their education from their homes and earn their diplomas, offering them another chance to be an integral part of society.

Distance learning offers individuals a unique opportunity to benefit from the expertise and resources of the best universities currently available. Students have the ability to collaborate, share, question, infer, and suggest new methods and techniques for continuous improvement of the content. The ability to complete a course at a pace that is appropriate for each individual is the most effective manner to learn given the personal demands on time and schedule. Self-paced distance learning on a mobile device, such as a smartphone, provides maximum flexibility and capability.

From the Wikipedia entry for DISTANCE EDUCATION

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