A while ago this question on medieval travel was asked. I looked at it again today and it got me thinking about situations that would mandate travel in other settings, in particular what would force individuals to travel across interstellar distances. Obviously the people furnishing the option to travel those distances must themselves be involved so ships' crews are on the list of those who must travel. Also if there is interstellar colonisation then obviously colonists have to travel between the stars to get to new worlds.

So the question becomes; in a society spread across interstellar space what, if any, professions and/or situations, apart from crewing an interstellar vessel or colonising a new world, would absolutely require individuals to travel between worlds?

Good answers will include, and justify, only professions which can't possibly be practiced in a single solar system and situations that can't be resolved without leaving them lightyears behind.

Context notes, the setting has:

  • completely safe, but quirky, non-instantaneous FTL Travel (average speed is 4 times the speed of light).
  • no independent FTL Communication, the fastest way to get a message anywhere is usually by jumpship. Mailman is a secondary role of all legitimate ships' communication officers.
  • travel for individuals is not free but it is, safe, cheap, and almost unrestricted (getting on or off a planet/habitat/station that has warrants out for your arrest is tricky but otherwise travel is normally easy, interstellar warrants are exceedingly rare; they're too awkward to enforce).
  • humans are spread across hundreds of lightyears but have only densely colonised the star systems with 15-20 lightyears of Sol.
  • large scale [interstellar] conflict is almost unheard of.
  • individual star systems tend toward self-sufficiency but there is an overarching military-industrial command economy that ties all the heavily populated worlds together.
  • trade in raw materials and fully integrated technological artifacts (like spaceships and orbital habitats and factories made to standard patterns) is reasonably common; this is the main reason that travel for individuals is so cheap and available, moving people is easy when you usually ship things the size of O'Neil cylinders.
  • there is still material scarcity, some chemical elements are just too rare to create over supply in the current political-economic climate.
  • while leisure time is generally more available most people still work for a living most places, just not as constantly or intensively as in the modern western world in most cases.

Important notes on Jumpships:

  1. space travel is instantaneous for the ships and those aboard them but time still passes in the universe outside so jumping four lightyears is less than the blink of an eye for the ship but takes an average of a year to the rest of the universe. As far as anyone travelling is concerned they are in one place and then instantly at their destination. Single direct jumps are only possible between the closest of star systems but travelling tens of lightyears takes only days for those travelling while decades can go by in the outside universe.

  2. the energy for making jumps is effectively free. It's not actually free, the equipment is expensive to build, and the energy does have to come from somewhere; a bill will be presented in due course. The point is established jumpships don't have to pay for fuel etc... just system maintenance.

  3. jumpships are huge and because any given jump is relatively cheap they often travel below loading capacity, this leaves a lot of space that can be used for modular passenger accommodation at need.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Oct 2, 2018 at 19:18
  • $\begingroup$ What's the life expectancy in your setting? $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Aug 27, 2021 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @PabloH In areas with the best medical treatments etc... most people expect to be productive members of society into their mid 80s, (subjective time) before a quite rapid decline. Quality years of life have been extended for much of the population but the total span maximum not so much. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Aug 31, 2021 at 4:00

18 Answers 18


Migration is permanent movement to a different place. Migration can be described by push and pull factors - things that push you away from one location and things that pull you toward a new location.

Push factors

Threats to life- A planet wide threat, such as an asteroid heading towards your planet, threatens the life of all of the inhabitants. Physical conflict on the planet, such as a looming war, puts you at risk of death. A specific threat, such as an allergy to the local flora, affects you or a small number of people.

Threats to wellness- An economical problem, like losing your job, requires you to leave for a new one. A health problem, such as lack of medicine, threatens your long-term survival.

Pull factors

Better opportunities- Better economic conditions, such as a better job, will improve your living conditions. New technologies, such as better automated transportation, make life easier.

Better safety- Better prevention technology, such as stronger building materials, makes accidents less likely. Better care technology, such as improved hospitals, make life with an existing condition longer and happier.

All of these factors combine to motivate people to change location. Humans are logical beings [citation not possible], most humans will not go out of their way to do something that is not important to them. Without reasons for people to move from place to place, people will not move, especially if the destination is a long distance away and is a foreign place like another planet.

As for short-term migration:

(Sorry if this part of the answer looks weird or flows together awkwardly. This was a discussion with @Ash in the comments, and I am editing this post in case the comments are deleted.) This section includes some comments which made incorrect assumptions about the question (these were my fault for not reading the question carefully enough), so here is the TLDR: just skip to the last paragraph

Why people would travel for short-term reasons:

People would travel for the same reasons people travel today. Sometimes they have jobs based on travel services (shipping, uber, etc.). Sometimes it is cheaper to live somewhere and commute somewhere else for work. Sometimes people travel because of connections (going to see family, attending a sporting event, going to a meeting of an organization you are in). If interstellar travel is cheap and easy, I don't think you will have problems with travel volume. If your universe isn't homologous (all parts are exactly the same), and most universes are not homologous, people will travel to different places because there are different opportunities and things happening in different places.

@Ash asked why the universe would not be homologous:

Without FTL communication, it's faster for people to meet in person or send a letter instead of an email or text. That alone means people have to meet somewhere. They have to choose a specific place. Then businesses move into the area to provide services for the people meeting there. A positive feedback cycle occurs. People start to meet in a place because of the services there. Now you have an area with more services than other areas, and a core and periphery model forms. Certain services are available because there is more business for them there. Now, opportunity will be different depending on location.

@Ash pointed out I had overlooked the fact that the travel would be much longer for observers due to relativistic speeds. I had glanced at the "instant" in the post and had thought that all travel was instant for people inside and out of the ship. Here is a reason society would abandon the permanent settlements norm that we are used to in favor of nomadism:

I can see two possibilities: Either there are very few people who travel, either as a job, or out of necessity, or society becomes nomadic, not as a necessity, but just to experience other worlds. In the second case, society is remade into a world where almost everyone leaves everything they have known behind and explores the colonized worlds. People take up jobs wherever they go, staying only long enough to see the sights and pay for their next trip, and then they set off for another planet. It isn't important that people will never meet again because everyone else is traveling too. I see it sort of like a city- you interact with people for a very short time, and you will probably never see them again. If society changed in this way, lots of people would travel all the time.

  • $\begingroup$ You have described the reasons that someone might become a colonist without telling me anything new or useful about why people might travel as something other than permanent migrants. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 1, 2018 at 12:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash People would travel for the same reasons people travel today. Sometimes they have jobs based on travel services (shipping, uber, etc.). Sometimes it is cheaper to live somewhere and commute somewhere else for work. Sometimes people travel because of connections (going to see family, attending a sporting event, going to a meeting of an organization you are in). If interstellar travel is cheap and easy, I don't think you will have problems with travel volume. If your universe isn't homologous (all parts are exactly the same), and most universes are not homologous... $\endgroup$
    – John Locke
    Oct 1, 2018 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ ...people will travel to different places because there are different opportunities and things happening in different places. $\endgroup$
    – John Locke
    Oct 1, 2018 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ Mmm maybe but I can't see where there are going to be new, or possibly different would be the better term, opportunities on one space station or class x world than on another of the same lightyears away. More or less opportunities yes but I can't see different. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 1, 2018 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash Without FTL communication, it's faster for people to meet in person or send a letter instead of an email or text. That alone means people have to meet somewhere. They have to choose a specific place. Then businesses move into the area to provide services for the people meeting there. A positive feedback cycle occurs. People start to meet in a place because of the services there. Now you have an area with more services than other areas, and a core and periphery model forms. Certain services are available because there is more business for them there. Now, opportunity is different. $\endgroup$
    – John Locke
    Oct 1, 2018 at 16:13

It Won't

I believe that Post-Colonial Interstellar Travel will be relatively uncommon event for a number of reasons...

  • A great advantage of colonizing worlds is that it finally defeats one of our species' oldest threats: the pandemic-capable fatal infection. Finally, the human race is not facing extinction at the hands of a single organism. Unless that organism joins us on our journey to the stars. If interstellar travel is uncommon, then every colonized planet becomes a quarantined safe zone from the biological threats of the rest of the universe.

  • Secondly, it is possible that the time-dilation issues which complicate fractional light speed travel will continue (or even intensify) in FTL. Anyone choosing to travel between stars will lose their home world to the past. The people and culture which they leave behind will be history should they ever return. All interstellar journeys are likely to remain one-way tickets.

    Additionally, time dilation makes travel between stars dangerous on a political level. At the time of your departure, you may have reasonable proof that the government of your target planet will be amenable to your arrival, but a lot can change during a journey, which from the point of view of your destination may take hundreds of years. To put this in perspective, if an FTL ship arrived today with a subjective time dilation of only 300 years, the world they would be expecting to find would be pre-industrial. If their travel visas had gotten lost during the last 30 decades, they might find themselves welcomed by the business end of our Star Wars defense satellite lasers.

  • Finally and perhaps most importantly, post-colonial interstellar travel is unnecessary. Throughout our history, we have repeatedly built thriving societies which met all of our species needs, using only the resources of a single planet. In the near future, we will start mining our solar system for its riches and there we will likely find that everything our species will ever NEED, is already here in orbit of our single star.

    Every profession which has ever existed is the product of a single planetary society. Every great artwork, great writing or great invention is the product of human minds which never left our planet's orbit. Whatever happiness and fulfillment which humanity has found has all been found right here. And the same will be true of all the other planets we will someday own.

Humans are home(world) bodies. They tend to stay where you plant them.

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    $\begingroup$ While I agree with your conclusion I feel the logic is flaky, in particular the OP suggests travel time in the order of years, with no mention of time distortion. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Oct 1, 2018 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ Your last counterargument is extremely thin. Whatever art we've made and resources we've found and happiness we've attained in one planet is simply not enough for many people. There was a time when "everything you could ever want" was found in a single village - then in a single county - then in a single nation-state. There's no sensible reason to expect a single planet (or a single system, or a single galaxy, or...) to be the level it stops at. $\endgroup$
    – Nij
    Oct 1, 2018 at 8:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Nij With the technology level required for FTL travel, I'd expect the civilization being capable of producing pretty everything without being dependent on rare minerals. Moreover, with only 4c, it takes one year to the next star and hiring an expensive ship and the crew for two years is probable more expensive than any cargo. $\endgroup$
    – maaartinus
    Oct 1, 2018 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ I feel like some of these arguments are exaggerated. Your most sound argument is that time elapsed between interstellar colonies can lead to discontinuity, especially for those traveling between colonies. However, I believe colonies would be aware of their distant and perhaps unannounced travelers and would compensate. Imagine an unannounced ship entering a system wishing for some land to settle on and perhaps a seat in the government. They're thousands of regular humans willing to trade megatons of their valuable cargo for such things. Why deny them? $\endgroup$
    – user44399
    Oct 1, 2018 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ It used to take months just to cross an ocean, and every country boasted their artists/engineers/warriors/leaders were the best. Yet still the people went elsewhere and did more. Again, nothing makes <planet> any better as the last level in the sequence of expansion. $\endgroup$
    – Nij
    Oct 1, 2018 at 10:13
  • Trade: as much as can automate trivial tasks, if you want to be sure that your goods are delivered and paid in proper order and for the right price, it is better if you, merchant, travel with the goods. Along the trip you can also catch information which can help your business or that can be sold for a good price later on.
  • Diplomacy: Waiting years just for having an answer to an "Hello Dimitri" is not the most effective way to settle a quarrel which can escalate, better spend few years once and talk face to face. Also, this would prevent hackers to spoil the communication.
  • Exploration/tourism: The UV shining beaches on Sgombugulus IV are the non plus ultra for rich wannabes who want to boost their social media accounts at the cost of few thousand credits. And don't forget the Methane falls on Niagara VI!
  • Espionage: It might be about knowing accurate information on the industrial strategy of one of your competitor, or about uncovering the secret recipe of that soda drink or even knowing what are the rumors about the foreign politics of Madonius, having a pair of eyes and hears in the right place allows you having information not readily available via official media.
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    $\begingroup$ @RonJohn if you don't like this answer, feel free to downvote it. We do expect answers to be more than one-liners. $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2018 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ It seems to me that all of these options are difficult at the slow speeds described. What are you going to trade that is valuable enough that the absolute minimum of a year in transit doesn't make it more economical to just make it locally. Tourism would be limited to people willing to take on multi-year trips, much of which will be spent in Transit and essentially abandon their lives at home. Even Diplomacy will be limited, as no-one important enough to conduct effective diplomacy can be spared for long enough to make the trip. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2018 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ The protagonist of Ursula K. Leguin's "Left Hand of Darkness' was a diplomat, and had to travel by not-very-fast ship. It's hard to see how diplomacy can be conducted by distance even with no time-lag. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2018 at 18:32
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    $\begingroup$ @ShawnV.Wilson The protagonist also had an ansible, which was an instantaneous interstellar communicator, which is what made diplomacy possible. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2018 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ @JackAidley, prior to the invention of the telegraph, international communication had a similar problem (admittedly, with round-trip times measured in weeks/months rather than years). The profession of "diplomat", and much of modern diplomatic protocol, is based around the fact that a nation's representative can't call home for instructions while negotiating. Diplomats were important people, or at least highly trusted (eg. the king's uncle/brother/cousin). $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Oct 1, 2018 at 23:26

The general answer is going to be some form of gig job. These are short, temporary jobs that require the person (or team) to be on site.

Note: "temporary" could still be measured in earth years

These jobs are not permanent positions. However, the job requires a specialized skill that requires the person to be on site and the job can't come to them.

A few examples

  • Auditors
    • government auditors
    • "new boss" checking out the factory
  • Negotiators ( L.Dutch )
    • Diplomats
    • traders
  • Diagnostic Engineers
    • the specialist team sent to fix a slight misalignment of your Death Star cannon
    • the team sent to investigate a spaceship crash
    • doctors that specialize in outbreaks of space plague.
  • Entertainers
    • Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey would have all sorts of animals to show off.
    • The curator for the traveling exhibit of "The Mummies of Zuban 5"
    • Galactic Cup contenders (sports)
  • Vacationers ( L.Dutch )
  • Explorers ( L.Dutch )
    • xeno-biologists
  • Those that take advantage of poor enforcement of interstellar warrants
    • space pirates ( my first answer )
    • drug lords
  • Those that enforce interstellar warrants
    • Detective Billy Mack from the star system Texas
  • Humanitarian
    • red-cross/red crescent
    • U.N. peace keepers
  • not-so-humanitarian
    • Blackwater Security Consulting
    • really big game hunters (eg T-Rex hunters/Meg fishers)
  • lifestyle choice (edit - added this one)
    • nomads
    • gypsies
  • $\begingroup$ Damn, I came up with auditor too late. They would be ideal though. Any interstellar company will have a billion of them employed, and if I invest half my life earnings in a space dock I want someone from the outside to make sure its ok. $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Oct 1, 2018 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ While this is possible, the travel requiring years makes a significant difference as to the willingness of many people to travel for a "gig". In many cases, this would result in the person taking the gig effectively leaving behind everyone they know, permanently. While some, where the "gig" is in the closest system, would only be gone for what the home system experiences as a few years, others would be gone for decades, if not a century, or more (when there are multiple stops; e.g. a traveling circus). This makes things like vacation travel much less attractive for most people. $\endgroup$
    – Makyen
    Oct 1, 2018 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Makyen - As I reread the OP, the aging of the person after travel is close to 0. Externally would be years to decades. Long term vacations might work. But, only for the Stupid Rich. A variation of "on temporary vacation" would be "on permanent vacation". This can be implemented by a group of people with a culture of "not being a permanent resident anywhere" (thus bypassing your "leave everyone you know behind" problem). I've edited my post to include such groups. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2018 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, with the OP's update, the cost in personal lifespan is nearly zero. However, the cost in being disconnected, potentially permanently and completely, from your entire social network and the society you live in, limits the attractiveness and/or focuses it on specific personality types. E.g. as an entertainer, are you going to take a tour of multiple planets, which removes you completely from your current society for between 15 to 200+ years? In that time, your popularity in your home system is likely to decline dramatically, as you're not releasing new content or staying up with trends. $\endgroup$
    – Makyen
    Oct 1, 2018 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Makyen, you're likely to see a split between a "groundsider" social group (people who stay on one planet their whole lives, or move between planets at most once or twice) and a "spacesider" social group (people who spend their lives moving from planet to planet, never establishing long-term connections with groundsiders). Sure, a spacesider entertainer is going to lose popularity on their home planet (to the limited extent that they have one), but they'll always be the "exotic new thing" on any planet they travel to, in a career spanning hundreds or thousands of groundsider years. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Oct 1, 2018 at 23:38

Almost no one under these conditions will travel

(average speed is 4 times the speed of light)

That means a year of travel from here to Earth's nearest not-the-sun star. Calculating time ship-board is meaningless, as once you've got FTL travel time dilation calculations don't work. Usually in these situations Ship-Time and Universe-Time flow 1:1 (because fiction!), which would mean a year on board for those people making the trip. Not exactly...thrilling stuff. Just keeping the crew fed is going to require a significant amount of cargo space.

At such distances and time scales, the only communication (e.g. letters) are going to be of sporadic personal or scientific in nature ("colony's going well, how have you been?"), albeit expensive (most letters will likely travel as negligible bulk on a cargo ship carrying a few million tons of something else). You won't have an effective "galactic" government that can control and enforce laws: remember the turnaround time on stuff like "help we're being invaded by aliens" is 2 years (even if the crew experiences no time!) and things like "You aren't following our laws, prepare to be invaded" are virtually meaningless. What's central authority going to do, show up in 4 years to put down a rebellion that's been over for three?

You could have trade, but it'd be for either resources you literally can't get (but if a delivery goes missing you'll survive: next one's not coming for a year). Even at 4:1 time dilation it would still be 3 months ship-board journey for every 4 light years traveled, which is almost comparable to current ocean shipping (where are small, often can't even communicate in a single language, and live in comparative squalor; its been compared to living in prison).

but have only densely colonised the star systems with 15-20 lightyears of Sol.

I...hate to tell you this, but that's like 4 potentially habitable star systems in that range. There's about 150 stars within that distance from Earth but most are red or brown dwarfs:

Nearby Celestial Objects by Type, Number, and Mass

Spectral or        Number          Sum of min
Luminosity Type    within 20ly     solar masses

O - Blue Stars                0       0.00
B - Blue White Stars          0       0.00
A - Bluish White Stars        2       3.84
F - Yellowish White Stars     1       1.50
G - Yellow-Orange Stars       7       6.76
K - Orange-Red Stars          15      11.84
M - Red Stars             88-90       21.32
M,L,T, Y - Brown Dwarfs   15-30       <1.20
D - White Dwarfs              7       4.30
Total Objects             > 150       > 51.46

The 8 yellow stars are pretty much your only targets. Using Wikipedia's list of exoplanets we find 5 "potentially habitable" ones within 15 light years and 2 more out to 20 and another 3 ranging out to 30ly. That's pretty sparse with grueling ~8-12 year travel times (one side of inhabited space to the other); even between nearest-neighbors it might be as much as 4 years.

The only fiction I can think of that featured space travel on these kinds of time scales is The Deepness in the Sky where the Qeng Ho (humans of primarily Chinese decent) slow-boat it from system to system, trading where they can, helping inhabited planets rebuild after the collapse of civilization where they can't (because in a few hundred years they will be worth trading with again). And they primarily trade in technology. Not gadgets, but blueprints. Knowledge. They'll buy and transport things too, but those are purchased by the Qeng Ho for use by the Qeng Ho.

They do it as a safety net against humanity nuking itself into oblivion and going extinct, not because its profitable. As a result, they have a massive knowledgebase capable of kick-starting any planet to reasonable levels of technological comfort in decades (instead of millennia). Doesn't matter what you have access to, the Qeng Ho can work out an action plan, give you the right tech, and come back in a hundred years to see what Neat Stuff you invented while they were gone.

  • $\begingroup$ A small correction. It's not Qeng Ho. The correct form of his name is Zheng He in the Pinyin Anglicization of Chines words and names. Alternatively, in the Wade-Giles Anglicization this is given as "Cheng Ho". $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Oct 1, 2018 at 8:55
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android: No, Qeng Ho is the spelling used in the book. Since this is from fiction written in English, the correct spelling is the one the author uses and nothing else. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2018 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ My data has 67 known star systems within 20 lightyears of Sol many of which are multiples. Yellow stars aren't actually great targets; Red Dwarf stars have habitable zones that last much much longer, in fact Red Dwarfs are potentially the most habitable stars in the universe, there's a lot of them, most of them are stable, and they last. We haven't found all of the exoplanets in any part of space, least of all close by. There is also no reason that a civilisation that can travel interstellar distances would only colonise systems with planets, or indeed colonise planets much at all. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 1, 2018 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Ash Placing a colony in a location where there are no planets isn't a colony. It's a space station, which is going to be limited in its resources and growth. Heck, even the Babylon 5 station is considered a megastructure by today's standards. You have a point, but 4x lightspeed isn't going to be fast enough even at 10x the density of planets we do know about. Its still just too far between systems. $\endgroup$ Oct 1, 2018 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s Yes it is, it may not be a planetary colony but if it has a permanent population and grows at least some of it's own food it's still a colony. Also it need not be nearly as artificial as an O'Neil Cylinder, a hollowed asteroid or similar is a common theme for extrasolar habitation, so much so that "asteroid colony" is a stock phrase. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 1, 2018 at 14:41

Because people want to

It has always been a little curious to me why people, whenever this question comes up, assume that since there are few rational reasons to travel between the stars (other than the mentioned one-way colony transports) people won't do it.

I know it's anecdotal, but of all the people I know (including myself) that have traveled recently, not a single person had a rational reason to do so. They traveled for leisure, they traveled to explore, they traveled hoping to find (even if temporary) a better place, they traveled hoping to escape (even if temporary) their current situation. Not one of them had a reason to travel that @HenryTaylor wouldn't be able to argue is unnecessary.

If you have ever met a backpacker you should know that travel is far more than a means to an end. Why would someone leave their family and all the comforts of home for over year, to basically live like a homeless person amidst strangers in a foreign land? Why did the mars one scam get 2700 applicants? Because people don't care about rational arguments, they care about the prospect of adventure and the possibility of simply being in another place. Even if odds are that place is worse than the place they departed from.

Travel is not mandated by circumstances, it is sought after by humans in the same way love is sought after by humans. Not because we need it to survive, but because we need it to feel alive.

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    $\begingroup$ If human history gives any guidance, it's that humans will explore places simply because nobody's been there yet, or because it sounds like fun. If people will free-climb towers or explore active volcanoes just to get a selfie, you can sure bet that you'll have people traveling to that funny-looking star over there simply to see if it really is as purple as it looks from home. $\endgroup$
    – bta
    Oct 1, 2018 at 23:29

Getting Rid of People You Don't Like

Lets say you run a planet whose main industry specializes in ultra-high end technological goods. Fully immersive VR sets, star-ship nav-computers, automated toaster dog walker combos etc etc. Business is good, trade is strong, and your people are happy. Well... most of them. A Luddite cult of anti-tech extremists keep insisting that you revert the planet back to it's natural state and rebuild a new naturalistic society based on smoking space weed and writing stream of consciousness novels. Now, these people haven't started anything violent or anything overtly disruptive yet but you can see it from here. Stock prices are already dropping a few points in anticipation of the violent riots and images on the news of your police force hosing down hippies with space pepper-spray. So, why not find them a new planet, we'll name it neo-nirvana, and we'll even bankroll a ship and colonization effort to get them off our planet and out of our hair. (Or maybe just have the secret police round them up and send them against their will if you wanna go the dystopian route.)

This method is how a significant portion of the planet was colonized by the European powers. Criminals along with political, religious, and racial minorities who were causing problems by existing and not agreeing with whatever the leadership wanted were usually quietly shipped off to new continents. Its a highly effective way to colonize new places and get rid of the people you don't like at the same time.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah I already mentioned interstellar colonists, it doesn't make much difference who pays for them to migrate. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 30, 2018 at 18:09
  • $\begingroup$ Hosing down space hippies. That alone should be enough to start a novel..... $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Sep 30, 2018 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ These aren't colonists, they are transportees. Bit different. $\endgroup$
    – TCAT117
    Sep 30, 2018 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ There's a semantic difference yes but they are still colonists in that they are people who travel (in this case in cuffs) to a new world where they stay and make a life for themselves. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 1, 2018 at 12:06

getting on or off a planet/habitat/station that has warrants out for your arrest is tricky but otherwise travel is normally easy, interstellar warrants are exceedingly rare; they're too awkward to enforce

This screams:

Space Pirates

Your base of operations is in one star system; you raid other star systems as you desire.

You could raid the star system that hosts your base of operation. But, they'll have a warrant out for your arrest ASAP. This conundrum forces you to travel to other star systems to do you job.

Since you don't have a warrant at your base star system, you can come and go as you please. Since warrants are too awkward to enforce, you don't have to worry (too much) about getting one from a different star system. And if your base star system does receive one, bribery works wonders. If that doesn't work, you can easily move your base of operation to a different star system.

  • $\begingroup$ Not sure what space pirates would actually raid in this setting, in fact that's an awkwardness in any setting, but they certainly would need to keep moving. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 1, 2018 at 12:55


Now, it might not be starvation, but to a certain extent there will be better opportunities in some eras of a solar system colonization than there are elsewhere.

With a 40 light year diameter, it is 10 years to go to any other system. It turns out that system X has a great demand for asteroid base construction crews, and 10 years there will earn you a fortune back here.

So you pick up your family (or yourself if single), blink there, work for 10 years in the crappy conditions for great pay, then blink back. You now have a serious nest egg.

It is possible some systems have serious overpopulation issues and others are underpopulated; moving to become a colonist then becomes attractive. Move to planet X and get your own 100 km2 ranch!

Generally, there are serious population flows for economic reasons on Earth when the income on one side reaches 2x the income on the other. With the time gap you may require a bit higher income multiplier, but it probably still exists.

A second possibility is that people can use this to exploit the most powerful force in the universe using the time-skip.

You may have projects that take decades to complete; building asteroid habitats, domes, terraforming bodies, disassembling comets, etc. If they can be done via automation or by low paid workers, the wealthy might want to start those projects off then skip forward in time. Have projects in two solar systems 5 years apart. Spend 6 months in one, jump to the other, spend 6 months, jump back.

After 4 years subjective you'll have 40 years of progress on both projects, done by a mixture of the fast-time underclass and robotics.

Drop it to 1 month each stop and you are living at a 60:1 time ratio. Over 20 years you get to experience 1200 years of profit from your endeavours.

Compound interest of investments and projects can turn you into a hegemon. With a thermodynamic distribution of wealth and no practical limit to their lifespan, these temporal kings and queens will rule over the economies of the settled system from their jump-ship thrones.

Their children, raised by entire cities dedicated to the line, will compete and work towards the success of each petty ruler's economic empire. Those that succeed will in turn be lifted up to the near immortality of jump-time.

Of course, this will take a long time to pull off. Early in the human empire's history there will be a few people starting on it. And many will fail, as economic and political tides shift under their feet while they jump cross the universe.

Short of revolution, eventually capital itself becomes a monopoly of the temporal kings. They can afford a ROI that is tiny compared to anyone else as they accelerate their forward time travel, and they stitch up all of the capital and squeeze out everyone else.

You could imagine something akin to share cropping, but with all money. Like a feudal system where all the land is owned by the nobles and you cannot produce food or survive without their consent, shortly (in terms of the kings) all capital (money) could be owned by the temporal kings.

The temporal kings are unable to actively manage "all money" effectively, much like nobles are unable to farm their own land, so they'd permit share croppers to use their money in exchange for giving (say) 90% of the profits back to the real owners.

The leisure-based world would choke, as more and more resources get claimed for absentee landlords. Those who don't engage in generational savings end up crowded out of the resource marketplace. The temporal kings don't consume anything, so their amassed fortunes just keep on growing. Excess resources pile up, but the kings are willing to wait a few centuries for them to be used.

People who aren't useful to the temporal kings stop being allocated resources. When they want to buy something, like an asteroid or a robot farmer, they find that the temporal kings offer better terms for it. Individual kings start long-term plans to near monopolize commodities, like food/security/oxygen, with a high marginal incentive to purchase. Oligopolies form, and the kings have more in common with each other than they do with the mayflies.

In the end, economic production nearly shuts down. The kings continue to live in relativistic time. Servants come along with them. The mayflies are long gone, their buzzing faded into history. Long term projects, like terraforming mars into a garden, are within the grasp of individual kings. At 1 hour every 40 years, over a year the king can see 1/3 of a million years pass.

Huge automated infrastructures grind away at shooting comets at Mars, warming it with massive solar mirrors, and seeding it with life. When bugs happen, a prince goes into 1 day:40 year time, and his servants go into 1 month:40 year time, and their servants go into 2 year:40 years, all the way down to mayflies created and supervised to fix the problem.

  • $\begingroup$ I love the idea of "temporal kings" but what limit new kings to rise if FTL engines and fuel is pretty common ? $\endgroup$
    – Vokail
    Oct 2, 2018 at 15:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Vokail Initially some potential kings won't have the seed capital. Those that do, some will fail in long-term investments. But, after 100 years of growth, those that did not fail and did not start from 0, and managed 8% growth after inflation, are 2000 times richer than they started. Imagine starting out as a billionaire; you are now a trillionarire. 200 years? 4 million times. 300 years? 8 trillion times richer. More and more of the capital of society is owned by fewer and fewer people. If you start 300 years later you could be a quadrillion times poorer than existing kings. $\endgroup$
    – Yakk
    Oct 2, 2018 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ Ok now is clear, but how temporal kings keep power? Worlds will change a lot in short amount of time, so 300 years will be a huge gap to keep power. Temporal kings will be aliens, or time-traveller, mostly unable to defend themself from future weapons (think about rifle vs nuclear weapons). I also remember a novel where a weapon create spheres that keep zones of a planet of of time and this generate a "time-traveller-war", interesting concept! $\endgroup$
    – Vokail
    Oct 3, 2018 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ I like the Temporal Kings idea, it can't happen in the universe in question, the technological mechanisms exist but they're rarely available to civilians and the militaristic command economy doesn't have any tolerance for attempts at monopolisation, of anything, on any scale, nor in fact for personal wealth accumulation beyond certain limits but it is a very cool idea for later when things become more settled. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Jan 14, 2021 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ I have used the mechanisms behind the Temporal Kings idea for completely different reasons, I found I had a need for people whose worldview and priorities don't change over generations. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 27, 2021 at 7:44

Travel Agent
A friend of mine professionally is required to visit and write about places for her job.
She travels all the time.

A few months at a time of travelling wouldn't be unreasonable when you need to explore and write about entire planets at each destination, you wouldn't return home though, you'd write the articles and send them on with the next ship headed to your employer. I'd imagine you'd travel with at least a couple other people though, cover more ground, look out for one another in strange cultures and frontier worlds.

On that note:

You don't really need to travel to be a writer, but it's not uncommon to use Travel as a way to get away from distractions.
Amtrak have actually provided a special Writer's Residency Program for exactly this purpose. Hypothetically spending a few months aboard a ship would be a great way to complete mid/long term projects without distraction.

Some items simply cannot be trusted to unknown hands. A Parcel going via a starship might pass through the uncaring hands of dozens of deck-hands and dock-workers, postal workers and minions before finally getting to its destination.
Some things are worth paying extra for, and having someone babysit your critically important documentation or prototype technology all the way to its intended recipient might cost a fortune, but for an interstellar corporation paying through the nose for a trusted courier may well be worth it.

In some parts of europe there is an old tradition of travelling and apprenticing to a Master Craftsman. This is typically a single static role, but there's also a travelling variant where the journeyman migrates from town to town to learn many skills from multiple craftsmen.

Borrowed from Wikipedia:

In parts of Europe, as in Late Medieval Germany, spending time as a wandering journeyman (Wandergeselle), moving from one town to another to gain experience of different workshops, was an important part of the training of an aspirant master. Carpenters and other artisans in German speaking countries have retained the tradition of traveling journeymen even today, but only a few still practice it. In France, wandering journeymen were known as compagnons.

The future equivalent might be someone travelling from world to world, experiencing different cultures and learning unique trades of those worlds in order to gain life-experience before settling down to a particular trade and lifestyle.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I like Courier, I find myself working on the bureaucratic apparatus necessary to enable professional shipping security specialists to operate from port to port. As well as the port facilities needed to keep secure shipping well, secure. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 1, 2018 at 13:23

People who want to travel to the future

If the cost of a round trip ticket that takes days of ship time but gets you back home decades later is less than your living expenses for those decades, you could sell everything, invest it all (apart from what you spend on the ticket), and come home rich. Also, you'll be in the future.

  • $\begingroup$ Cool! Also this would open up new avenues for people with currently incurable diseases. $\endgroup$
    – 11684
    Oct 2, 2018 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ You can only get rich that way if you can get an interest rate that outstrips inflation otherwise your bank balance looks huge but your purchasing power has actually fallen significantly. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Jan 14, 2021 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ You'd better REALLY trust your investment manager. $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Apr 22 at 2:47

When Humans are More Useful than Letters

High Courts

If your hypothetical civilization has courts that have jurisdiction over multiple solar systems or indeed the entire civilization, then it would be necessary (due to a lack of real-time FTL communication) to transport individuals important to the trial to the location of the court - or to move the court to them! Either way, motion is necessary.

Absolute secrecy

Imagine that you are an incredibly wealthy trade mogul. Your starships move between systems carrying countless materials, and it is rare that anyone from your company other than crews do so. However, you have extremely important information that requires the utmost secrecy. You don't trust the interstellar mail service, digital files carried by them, or rank and file crew members to carry it. So you or someone very close to you must cross the vast expanse due to this extenuating circumstance.

Interstellar organizations

If your hypothetical civilization has a central government, or really any interstellar organizations, then it may send individuals to investigate questionable practices happening within their organization on a certain planet, or to send human resources to a faltering branch that needs help and management.

Unique Experts

Suppose that on planet X, they mine a particular gas that isn't available anywhere else. Or it wasn't possible. Things have changed; pioneers have discovered planet Y, which has the exact same gas! The problem is that they have no idea how to mine it or how to coordinate their mining or what the best economic policy about it would be. So they might want to ship over an expert from planet Y.


No experts from planet X are willing to come and help out planet Y? No problem! Just send your smartest person to get educated over on planet X and bring their knowledge back.


It is very hard to negotiate treaties and trade deals via letter.


Personal Reasons

Travel to the Future!

Someone would want to. We're curious creatures.

A more compelling reason to do this is for severe medical conditions with no modern cure; you might as well skip ahead and enjoy the presumably more advanced medical science of the farther future.

Some rich person would definitely do this in search of an eventual cure for mortality.

Another reason to travel to the future would be to wait for a more friendly political climate. Cyborg rights may not be quite up to scratch on planet X, so a bunch of sufficiently wealthy cyborgs may arrange to travel back and forth until their home world is more friendly to them.

A criminal may also wait for a more friendly climate for entirely more illicit reasons.

There may also be economic reasons; waiting until an investment or bank account grows very large by artificially traveling to the future. (though some nations may outlaw this for its potentially destabilizing effects.)


There are certain features of Earth so epic and so fascinating that even an interstellar citizen may want to see them, especially since interstellar travel is cheap. Things like the Grand Canyon. It's not unreasonable to assume that we may find similarly amazing natural features on other planets which would draw visitors.

Another reason to engage in tourism is for the sake of history. Some people may wish to go to particular historic sites on other planets, Earth especially.

Religious Pilgrimage

Much as Muslims today embark on the Hajj to Mecca, Muslims of the future may do the same. Yet other religions may have similar convictions about particular places. Followers would be very motivated to engage in interstellar travel.


Individuals ruled over by an unfriendly government will obviously want to leave. Interstellar travel is one way of doing that. Still, they may initially move to another country on the same planet, but the government of the country will not necessarily want to take them in. The easy, relatively humane solution for the government receiving them? Ship the refugees to another planet!

And suppose that a horrific disaster occurs on planet A, and their ecology all but collapses, and almost everyone dies. There's nothing left to support the survivors, but there are a few ships still docked. I can't imagine most of the remaining survivors would wish to stay.


Unsafe on your current planet, for any reason? Leaving it entirely makes it much, much harder for anyone to pursue or even find you.


People who wish to live in a place that matches their ideology may move to a planet where their ideas are well-received.

Economic Opportunity

Planet X has run out of gas! Oh no! Well, good thing the industry is going strong on planet Y. Might as well move there.


Why not?



If there are any interstellar governments they are likely to have space navies and also armies and marines.

Naturally an interstellar government would require that that anyone who is drafted into or voluntarily joins the military and naval forces be shipped to another system to garrison that system. Nobody would be permitted to be part of the garrison of their own system. Thus if their own system starts to revolt they won't be tempted to join the rebellion or be forced to crush the rebellion.

  • $\begingroup$ You are assuming a rather totalitarian approach to interstellar governance. Also force projection times for external fleet elements are going to be years to decades, a navy doesn't make that much sense at these travel speeds. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 30, 2018 at 18:35

Escaping Exploitation

There are always those who scramble in search of a better life, away from the yoke of exploitation, unfair treatment or at least the perception of such. The earliest European settlers to what we now call America come to mind here. Such grievances can based in religion, politics or economics depending on what your story needs.

Planting Flags

Armed conflict on a large scale might be unheard of, but presumably there is still non-violent competition between political blocs. The advent of safe FTL travel would trigger a gold rush of sorts(at least initially) as all the powers seek to claim as much territory as possible, if only because they're afraid of losing out. With a galaxy for the taking, status and prestige can easily become tied to how many planets/systems you've occupied.


There are reasons to travel that aren't specifically economic in nature. Other answers point out that artists may choose to travel to share their work. Others include hands-on type of training such as surgical techniques, new forms of meditation or religion.

Many difficult journeys throughout human history have been made to fulfill religious purposes. Pilgrimages, missionaries visiting remote tribes to evangelize, religious conclaves and such.

With all the new societies created, new branches of knowledge, philosophies, organizational approaches will be developed. Some of them will prove to be far more successful than what exist on other worlds. Things that take decades to learn in-person will not translate well to light-speed communication between star systems light-years apart.

  • $\begingroup$ I hadn't thought of pilgrimage, that's a potentially important factor. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Oct 1, 2018 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't necessarily have to be religious (as we understand it) in nature.The only real requirement is an intensely felt connection somehow. $\endgroup$
    – user53931
    Oct 1, 2018 at 18:44

Professions which can't possibly be practiced in a single solar system

That would be any job that studies a facet of the cosmos, with exo in front of it. E.g., exobiologist, exochemist, exogeologist... etc. If they want to be on the cutting edge, leaving the solar system is literally one of their job requirements.


Permanent Relocation

Travel is quite "cheap" since even though it takes a long time from an outside perspective but takes zero time from the point of view of the traveler.

The time cost must be counted in "lost years." There will be very few travelers who have wage type jobs. Also, don't expect that job to still be around in X years.

So, vacations are only for those who don't have to work for their money. Even then there is a significant risk for the wealthy. What if conditions change and they are not around to react to the changes? Imagine coming back after the real estate crash. So only those with the most stable foundations will likely risk a vacation of that sort.

Most travel will likely be permanent or semi-permanent relocation. If you aren't expecting to come back (or expect to restart from scratch upon return), the time cost is minimal.

Another issue is the risk of innovation. When you get back, everything you know may be outdated.

Look at the filk song "Pushin the Speed of Light" (youtube) for an example of the time cost.

  • $\begingroup$ Innovation is one of the things I've had to take serious pains to cap at virtually zero because of the problems it would otherwise create. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Jan 14, 2021 at 19:00


Let's just be honest, someone's going to want to try it.


As dumb as unobtainium was in Avatar, it's actually grounded in engineering principles. If for some reason a rare material that solves a lot of problems in terms of engineering is discovered in some galaxy that takes 50 years to get to, someone is going to want to travel 50 years to go get it. Keep in mind that these materials could make some very stupid things possible, and that with the human population likely ballooning after being able to fill multiple solar systems - not just planets - statistically speaking, there's probably going to be one rich person dumb enough to try getting it.

Just think about what a large asteroid's worth of anti-matter could do. There might not really be a reason to go get it, but given a large enough population someone's probably going to take the money hole "bait".

  • $\begingroup$ "Just think about what a large asteroid's worth of anti-matter could do." - Nothing good. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Nov 27, 2021 at 7:55

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