Generation ship

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A generation ship, or generation starship, is a hypothetical type of interstellar ark starship that travels at sub-light speed.

Since such a ship might take centuries to thousands of years to reach even nearby stars, the original occupants of a generation ship would grow old and die, leaving their descendants to continue travelling.

In science[edit]

The Enzmann starship is categorised slow boat because of the Astronomy Magazine title “Slow Boat to Centauri” (1977).[1] Gregory Matloffs concept is called colony ship and Alan Bond called his concept world ship.[2] Other than different characteristics and names there are lots of similarities.



Such a ship would have to be almost entirely self-sustaining providing energy, food, air, and water for everyone on board. It must also have extraordinarily reliable systems that could be maintained by the ship's inhabitants over long periods of time. Large, self-sustaining space habitats would be needed. For gaining experience, before sending generation ships to the stars, such a habitat could be effectively isolated from the rest of humanity for a century, or more, but remain close enough to Earth for help. This would test whether thousands of humans can survive on their own before sending them beyond the reach of help. There are also the concerns of immune systems atrophying in the ship's environment. Small artificial closed ecosystems, including Biosphere 2, have been built in an attempt to work out the engineering difficulties in such a system with mixed results.[citation needed]

Biology and society[edit]

Generation ships would also have to solve major biological, social, moral problems[3] and would also need to deal with complex matters of self-worth and purpose for the various crews involved. As an example, a moral quandary exists regarding how intermediate generations, those destined to be born and die in transit without actually seeing tangible results of their efforts, might feel about their forced existence on such a ship.

Estimates of the minimum viable population vary. The results of a 2005 study from Rutgers University theorized that the native population of the Americas are the descendants of only 70 individuals who crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America.[4] Anthropologist Dr. John Moore estimated in 2002 that a population of 150 to 180 would allow normal reproduction for 60 to 80 generations which is equivalent to 2000 years.[5] In 2013 anthropologist Dr. Cameron Smith estimated a minimum viable population, of 14,000 to 44,000, greatly exceeding previous estimates.[6] These numbers take the risk of accidents, disease, etc., into consideration. This had been neglected in previous studies. Dr. Smith's analysis is based on an extensive literature review and modelling of genetic effects in populations over time.

In light of the multiple generations that it could take to reach even our nearest neighboring star systems such as Proxima Centauri, further issues of the viability of such interstellar arks include:

  • the possibility of humans dramatically evolving in directions unacceptable to the sponsors
  • the minimum population required to maintain in isolation a culture acceptable to the sponsors; this could include such aspects as
    • ability to maintain and operate the ship
    • ability to accomplish the purpose (planetary colonization, research, building new interstellar arks) contemplated
    • sharing the values of the sponsors, which are not likely to be empirically demonstrated to be viable beyond the home planet unless once the ship is away from Earth and on its way, survival of one's offspring until the ship reaches the target star is one motivation.

Social breakdown[edit]

Generation ships travelling for long periods of time may see breakdowns in social structures. Changes in society (for example, mutiny) could occur over such periods and may prevent the ship from reaching its destination. Robert A. Heinlein's novel Orphans of the Sky and Brian Aldiss's novel Non-Stop discussed such a society.

Cosmic rays[edit]

The radiation environment of deep space is very different from that on the Earth's surface, or in low earth orbit, due to the much larger flux of high-energy galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) along with radiation from solar proton events and the radiation belts. Like other ionizing radiation high-energy cosmic rays can damage DNA, increase the risk of cancer, cataracts, neurological disorders, and non-cancer mortality risks.[7] The only known practical solution to this problem is surrounding the crewed parts of the ship with a thick enough shielding such as a thick layer of maintained ice as proposed in The Songs of Distant Earth, a science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke.

Technological progress[edit]

Main article: Wait Calculation

If a generation ship is sent to a star system 20 light years away, and is expected to reach its destination in 200 years, a better ship may be later developed that can reach it in 50 years. Thus, the first generation ship may find a century-old human colony after its arrival at its destination.

In fiction[edit]

Generation ships are often found in science fiction stories. Perhaps their earliest description is in the 1929 essay "The World, The Flesh, & The Devil" by J. D. Bernal.[8] The first fiction dealing with one is the 1940 story "The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years" by Don Wilcox.[9]

Beginning with the 1941 stories "Universe" and "Common Sense" by Robert A. Heinlein, combined in 1963 into the novel Orphans of the Sky, a common theme is that inhabitants of a generation ship have forgotten they are on a ship at all and believe their ship to be the entire universe. French writer Léon Groc wrote the first complete novel on this theme in the 1950 book L'Univers Vagabond. In the anglophone world, Brian Aldiss is attributed with the first complete novel dealing exclusively with the theme in the 1958 book Non-Stop. By 1959 Edmund Cooper's Seed of Light was being criticized for dealing with an old-hat subject though it is often accounted the author's best novel.[10] Harry Harrison's novel Captive Universe (1969) and James Follett's Earthsearch radio serials deal with similar themes.

In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" (1968) the Enterprise encounters a computer-controlled generation ship whose inhabitants do not know they are within a ship traveling through space but who believe themselves to be on a solid world and that the artificial sky is real; the David Gerrold tie-in novel The Galactic Whirlpool had the Enterprise encounter another generation ship on a collision course with a black hole whose crew also has the same the-ship-is-the-whole-universe mentality. Harlan Ellison's The Starlost, a 1973 Canadian TV series, is set aboard the giant spaceship called The ARK. Ben Bova's Exiles Trilogy also deals with the flight of a generation ship, the first novel written in 1971 and the trilogy completed in 1975. In the Space: 1999 episode "Mission of the Darians" (1975) the Alphans encounter the heavily damaged but still populated generation ship Daria whose inhabitants bear an evil secret.

Gene Wolfe's tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun (1993) deals directly with the challenges facing the inhabitants of the starcrosser Whorl and the continuing challenges after planetfall in The Book of the Short Sun (1999). The Babylon 5 episode "The Long Dark" (1994) features a generation ship as a major plot element. The 2008 Pixar film WALL-E contains a subplot in which a generation ship containing humans returns to Earth after many centuries. Toby Litt's 2009 novel Journey into Space is about people living on a generation ship and deals with how people cope with the fact that they have never set foot on the Earth and will never set foot on their destination planet. This method of slow interstellar travel is hinted at in Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama (1972) as the spacecraft Rama is analyzed; this theme continues in the book's sequels. The 1999 Star Trek: Voyager episode "The Disease" features a generation ship of a species called the Varro. A 2010 Doctor Who episode, "The Beast Below", centers on a generation ship known as "Starship UK" which contains the entire future population of the United Kingdom, except for Scotland who opted for its own ship, fleeing the deadly solar flares on the Earth in the 29th century.

Rob Grant's Colony (2000) is a science fiction comedy farce which deals with a generation ship in which breeding is strictly controlled and a crew member's offspring automatically inherit their parent's role on the ship. Several generations on, the Captain is struggling with puberty, the Chief Science Officer is a fundamentalist Christian, the security officers have become so inbred as to be barely functional and the ship's chaplain is a pervert who spies on other crewmembers' quarters. The colonists have forgotten how to read and the ship is falling apart because nobody knows how to repair anything.

In Analogue: A Hate Story a generation ship, from the Republic of Korea called the Mugunghwa, is lost hundreds of years after it leaves Earth. Thousands of years later, after FTL travel had been invented, an investigator is sent to find out what happened on the ship. The ship's social structure had changed from 21st-century South Korea into a feudal society with similarities to the Joseon Dynasty of Korean history. All of the people on the ship died hundreds of years before it is found.

The novelization to the movie After Earth and the back story for the TV show Firefly have humanity abandoning Earth for a new home in generation ships.[11] John Kenneth Muir in his review of the film Pandorum pointed out its many elements from previous generation ship stories such as The Ark in Space, The Starlost, Mission of the Darians, and Orphans of The Sky.

The Syfy miniseries Ascension is set aboard a generation ship launched during the John F. Kennedy Administration.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke describes the encounter with an alien ship, which, although its full purpose cannot be investigated, is best characterized as a huge generation ship of an alien race.

Robert Reed's The Greatship is a 2013 novel (ISBN 9780786753666) on the Locus Recommended Reading List, about such a generational ship found by humans: "Since the beginning of the universe, the giant starship wandered the emptiest reaches of space, without crew or course, much less any clear purpose. But humans found the relic outside the Milky Way, and after taking possession, they named their prize the Great Ship and embarked on a bold voyage through the galaxy’s civilized hearts." Larger than worlds, the Great Ship is laced with caverns and oceans, scenes of exalted beauty and corners where no creature has ever stood. Habitats can be created for every intelligent species, provided that the passengers can pay for the honor of a berth, and the human captains make the rules and dispense the justice in what soon becomes thousands of alien species joined a wild, unpredictable journey.

The James P. Hogan novel, Voyage from Yesteryear (ISBN 0-345-29472-6 or ISBN 0-671-57798-0), involves a generation ship that actually makes it to its destination with things under relative control.

Eleuteri Serpieri's graphic novel series Morbus Gravis (1985–2003), featured in the Metal Hurlant magazine, are largely set in a generation ship that lost its course. The heroine of the series, Druuna, dwells in "the City", a sector ruled by a brutal teocratic regime and under constant threat of hordes of mutated humans. Druuna inadvertently tries to destroy the ship, and later save it. The series is famous for merging science fiction and hardcore pornography, as well as for its bleak tone and explicit approach to violence and sex.

David Ramirez's novel The Forever Watch (ISBN 978-1-250-03381-9 or ISBN 978-1-250-03382-6) depicts a civilization fleeing a catastrophe whose nature is not revealed until close to the end of the story.

Kim Stanley Robinson's novel Aurora is set on a generation ship.[12]

The James S. A. Corey novel Leviathan Wakes states on page 8 that the Mormons have been building one in order to escape the procreation restrictions enacted in the Solar System.

John Thornton has three novel series which are all set on colony ships. "The Colony Ship Eschaton" (ten books) and the "Colony Ship Vanguard" (eight books) and the "Colony Ship Conestoga" (three books).

See also[edit]



  1. ^ K.F.Long, A.Crowl, R.Obousy. "The Enzmann Starship: History & Engineering Appraisal" (PDF). Retrieved 7 February 2013. 
  2. ^ Hein, Andreas; et al. "World Ships – Architectures & Feasibility Revisited". Retrieved 7 February 2013. 
  3. ^ Malik, Tariq (27 January 2005). "Sex and Society Aboard the First Starships". Space Adventures. Retrieved 13 February 2015.  [Original reference is dead link:, 19 March 2002.]
  4. ^ "North America Settled by Just 70 People, Study Concludes". LiveScience. 2005-05-25. Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  5. ^ Damian Carrington (15 February 2002). ""Magic number" for space pioneers calculated". NewScientist. 
  6. ^ "Smith, C.M., "Estimation of a genetically viable population for multigenerational interstellar voyaging: Review and data for project Hyperion"". ScienceDirect. 2013-12-13. Retrieved 2013-02-18. 
  7. ^ "NASA Facts: Understanding Space Radiation" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-04-01. 
  8. ^ J. D. Bernal. "The World, the Flesh & the Devil - An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul". Retrieved 20 January 2016. 
  9. ^ Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, Martin H. Greenberg, ed. (1984). Isaac Asimov Presents the Best Science Fiction Firsts. New York: Beaufort Books, Inc. p. 95. ISBN 0-8253-0184-X. 
  10. ^ Gary K. Wolfe: Cooper, Edmund. In: Jay P. Pederson: St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers. 4. edition. St. James Press, New York 1996, p. 206-208; p. 207
  11. ^ Firefly (TV series)#cite note-9
  12. ^ Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson review – ‘the best generation starship novel I have ever read’, Adam Roberts, The Manchester Guardian, July 8, 2015

Further reading[edit]

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