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There is a space ship, flying from planet to planet for multiple years. It is a science vessel, so, once they reach a planet, they do research. But what do they do if they are in transit between planets?

If the ship is at a planet, the researchers shall spend all their time researching. So "normal operations" (maintenance, housekeeping) are performed by the non-research crew. I assume that the non-research crew keeps doing their jobs when they are in transit, so, no need to do the cooking, cleaning, repairs or stuff like that (unless you can convince me otherwise).

Researchers on board include chemists, physicists, geologists, biologists and sociologists.

Here are some ideas I already had:

  • They will spend some time analysing the data they collected at their last stop.
  • They could start science projects that could be carried out in any other lab just as well.
  • They could perform maintenance tasks on their lab equipment.
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    $\begingroup$ Given my experience with academics, many have the time management skills of a carrot. I'd argue it's going to take them all the time between planets to actually write up their research even if they weren't busy with other things... $\endgroup$ – Tim B II Feb 13 at 23:21
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    $\begingroup$ @TimBII: As an academic, can confirm, I meant to spend this evening working on a paper to submit next week… $\endgroup$ – Peter LeFanu Lumsdaine Feb 16 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ If the academics have access to ping pong tables they would certainly spend much of their time doing that. $\endgroup$ – dhinson919 Feb 17 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ @dhinson919 By "that", do you mean looking for the ping pong balls? $\endgroup$ – Studoku Feb 17 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ Are any of the scientists astronomers or astrophysicists? Between planets, they are in the field.The difference is when they're "close" enough to a particular star or other object, they can make much better observations. $\endgroup$ – Shawn V. Wilson Feb 18 at 5:20

11 Answers 11

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...once they reach a planet, they do research.

Nope. They're doing research all the time. That's their full-time employment. Aside from the usual time off, it's nonstop research.

Once they reach a planet, they do fieldwork. That means collecting samples, interviewing or observing people, observing animals, taking careful notes and pictures, measuring stuff, maybe running some experiments. Depending on where they land, they might also attend conferences, do guest lectures at universities, workplaces, or for the general public.

Everyone needs vacation time or they burn out, so that's most likely to happen on a planet because, where can you go on a spaceship? You can (and must) have days off, but you can't do a real vacation. So you save it up and go off to some bubble beach and drink margaritas made from something you're going to pretend is agave.

The spaceship is your home base and all your usual work and rest routines happen there. It's where you live. It's where your main lab and office are.

On-planet work is what breaks your routine. In addition to taking a vacation, you're resupplying and getting data and all the other stuff one does with fieldwork. Then you go back home. To the spaceship.

The non-research crew will get some vacation time too and will probably rotate a skeleton crew to watch the ship (if one is needed at all since it will likely get a full maintenance haul-out and a deep clean, though there will be some needed care for plants and animals on board).

Everyone else goes to the planet. Do you really want your cafeteria and janitorial staffs to burn out because they can't get time off from the ship cause they have to stay behind to take care of the scientists? Nope. That's what hotels and dorms are for.

Some but not all of the planets where they stop will have populations. I am inferring that some do because the OP said that some of the crew who did research on planets were sociologists (who study sentient life). Even if none of the planets have other intelligent life (or civilizations) and even if none of them have breathable air, my point about the ship being the primary home and work location holds. Vacations are good for morale, but sometimes they're not possible.

Don't think of planets as places where the "real work" happens. Think of them as the "away" times. The spaceship is home and workplace.

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    $\begingroup$ Considering the trip takes multiple years this looks closer to real space travel than FTL drives. Braking at a planet (assuming there are other planets to stop in transit) is going to take immense amounts of extra fuel and time to slow down and afterwards speed up again, not to mention going out of your way to reach said planet for a vacation. It's not a feasible plan. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Feb 14 at 7:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan The primary and official purpose of visiting planets is doing fieldwork and conferences. The point is that while they are there they will also take vacations and the organizers had better plan for that or they will have a rebellion on their hands. $\endgroup$ – Stig Hemmer Feb 14 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ @stighemmer this assumes that each of these planets has been made habitable (or parts of it with domes and such), has a population before arriving and offers enough space for the crew to take their vacation. Since the colonists would do well to do research BEFORE they colonise, the most likely purpose of this research vessle is hopping from planet to planet to determine how well it could be colonized. This makes the assumption that every planet is colonized and has enough facilities to vacation the crew faulty. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Feb 14 at 11:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan is right that I was perhaps over-assuming that most of the planets had populations. I inferred that because the OP said that some of the crew who did research on planets were sociologists (who study sentient life). Even if none of the planets have other intelligent life (or civilizations) and even if none of them have breathable air, my point about the ship being the primary home and work location holds. Vacations are good for morale, but sometimes they're not possible. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 14 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Alex none of us read minds. If those things were important to your question, you should have included them. My answer takes into account that various things are not always possible, but I didn't dwell on them because it wasn't part of the question. You asked what happens on the ship. To answer that I had to talk about what might be happening during the planetary stops, but that was simply to define what is and is not happening on the ship. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 14 at 20:29
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I am a scientist. Although I mostly do computational/theoretical work, I have a lot of colleagues who are chemists, geologists and biologists. Just like the scientists in your question, these people spend only a small part of the year on location gathering data. For most of the rest of the time, we are in our institute/spaceship engaged in one or other of the following activities:

  • analysing samples in the laboratory (the samples may have been gathered some time ago)
  • analysing data from the lab results
  • formulating hypotheses to explain the results
  • constructing mathematical or computational models of the results
  • giving or attending seminars, discussion groups etc. so that we can understand each other's work
  • writing scientific papers so that our results can be understood by the wider scientific community
  • perhaps doing some media outreach work to present our results to a popular audience as well
  • reading papers to keep up with current research
  • learning new skills
  • supervising PhD students and junior scientists
  • teaching undergraduates
  • writing grant proposals
  • doing administrative paperwork, of which there is a surprisingly huge amount

The last three may or may not be relevant on a spacecraft, since there might not be any students on board, and one would hope (optimistically) that most of the admin stuff would be done elsewhere. But the other things would be relevant parts of your scientist's work. I would expect the spacecraft to have an on-board laboratory, so scientific work doesn't have to stop as soon as you leave the planet.

But the results dissemination and paper writing would also be an important part of any scientists' time on a long-term mission. After all, if you don't tell anyone about your results, there wasn't much point in doing the work in the first place - and who better to write it up than the people who are out there in the universe making the observations first-hand? This is one of the most important parts of a scientist's job, and the travel time between planets would be a welcome opportunity to do it.

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    $\begingroup$ Don't dismiss teaching as irrelevant. I've seen assorted multidisciplinary projects where part of what the research team does is to give informal lectures and presentations to their colleagues in other disciplines and the support staff (or anyone else interested). Among other things, it gives them practice in presenting their work to be comprehensible to a larger audience than just their professional peers. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Feb 14 at 6:31
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    $\begingroup$ @KeithMorrison that's true. I was also thinking, depending on scale, that it might make a lot of sense to have some very bright PhD students or early career postdocs on a spaceship, because they would also be very productive at getting work done, and can you imagine the career someone would have if they cut their teeth doing science on actual alien worlds? You probably wouldn't do that if there were only 5 scientists and this is the only manned science mission in existence, but if you have 20 scientific staff and science missions are a thing, then you almost certainly would. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Feb 14 at 9:59
  • $\begingroup$ Yes to grad students and postdocs. Especially if it's possible for them to join you for a shorter mission. As for teaching, it's not quite the same but astronauts today have all sorts of videos and even Q&A's for school children. I can imagine preparing seminars for university students, or doing an entire online class (with allowances for communication delays). A lot of professors now do distance education. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 14 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Not having to do administrative paperwork? In my experience the more it costs to employee you, the more people want to make you waste time justifying the cost with administrative paperwork, and a spaceship full of scientists is not likely to be cheap. They'd probably need to file a T-011e every time they take an unscheduled bathroom break. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Feb 14 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ This is clearly the future--so your scientists will be transferring their knowledge into formats that can be disseminated by mechanical teachers, a la The Fun They Had. $\endgroup$ – user3067860 Feb 15 at 14:24
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Don't underestimate how long preparing and analysing samples/data can take.

As a paleontologist, I know that for every hour spent collecting a fossil, you spend 20 hours cleaning it, and that is not including actual research. I know microbiologists who spend months trying to create ideal conditions for extremophile bacteria so they can keep a population alive. Geologist can collect drill cores in a day and spend months reconstructing the geology of an area, mapping an entire planet, eugh I'm having sympathetic nightmares. And keep in mind there will be data to analyse about a planet you are approaching, and data to record as you leave. Actually being on the surface will be a haze of collecting everything you can, and hoping you get enough stuff to answer the questions that come up months down the road.

You also have thing like building your own tools, A lot of science involves cobbling together solutions to problems data or environments create. I can't imagine how hard being a biologist would be in this scenario since you not only have to deal with completely new evolutionary trees and drastically different biochemistries, (how do you do genetic analysis on a creature that doesn't have a nucleic acid based genetic code) but also have to worry about interactions with your own biology. They would probably look forward to the occasional sterile planet just for a chance to catch up. Woe is the poor chemist, the biologist is never going to leave them alone.

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If the researchers do their own cooking, maintenance and housekeeping you can cut away several crewmembers, which means you need less food, water, heat-dissipation, fuel/energy and space on your space-ship to get there.

The Researchers are likely best qualified for many of the jobs onboard, if only because flying in a space-ship is something for careful, intelligent people and the basics of the day-to-day living will require a lot of advanced knowledge. Most of the researchers you named would have an easy time being the primary sources for controlling and maintaining the ship.

Lastly these researchers would do good on studying to keep themselves up to date in the latest knowledge to get the best results when they arrive.

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    $\begingroup$ If the researchers have to spend some of their time doing non-research, wouldn't you then need more researchers to perform the same amount of total research? You'd end up with the same amount of crew (or more!), but all of them more highly paid than if you have a mixture of researchers and cooks, janitors and housekeepers. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Feb 14 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ In space, getting rid of waste heat is typically a bigger problem than having too little heat. So I don't think you need to worry about heat. The other points may still be relevant. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 14 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ Agree with @Matthew, this only leads to a reduction in crew if the researchers are normally sitting around doing nothing when they're off-planet, which is rather unlikely. Also, if the basics of day-to-day living require the advanced knowledge of a research professional, then I don't expect the janitors and telephone handset sanitizers to last too long. On top of that, a PhD in xenobiology or chemistry doesn't really give you much of a leg up in piloting or maintaining a spaceship. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Feb 14 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew the researchers wouldnt be using 100% of their time on research, just like they dont do it today. The ugly side of space travel is that every person on board needs to be able to do more tasks to stay alive and keep their environment stable than on a planet. It's like expecting a janitor or Cook on the ISS (or in test-chambers for long-range missions), which right now is doing some of the tasks of the OP's researchers. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Feb 14 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan The ISS also only has 3-6 people on it at a time, so you can't afford to spend >15% of your crew on janitorial services. It sounds like the OP's ship is much larger, given the list of crew specialties and the fact that missions are several years long. With only 5 people, it's reasonable to have everyone take turns cooking dinner, but that gets a lot more complicated when you're trying to feed dozens or hundreds of people. Take oceangoing research vessels as an example - with a larger crew and less of a premium on space, there are plenty of specialized support personnel. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Wang Feb 14 at 16:22
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Unless the ship has artificial gravity (either rotation or magic), they'll spend a lot of time doing vigorous exercise to slow down muscle loss from lack of gravity. Somewhat more than ISS astronauts, because they'll be expected to do field work under gravity after multiple years at zero gravity. That's unprecedented here on Earth, even the cosmonauts who logged over a year in orbit could presumably chill for a while after coming back.

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Pilot studies would probably take up quite a lot of time. Given they are exploring the unknown, they will be doing experiments that have never been done before. They would want to practise their techniques to refine them, and make sure they work in space, using samples they already have to hand, before they risk using up the very rare and expensive off-world samples they will be collecting. Typically, most experiments fail the first few times, until the techniques are debugged, so they will want to try all kinds of different approaches to analysing the samples, before they have the samples themselves.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Jonathan Moore! If you have a moment, please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox useful. Here is a meta post on the culture and style of Worldbuilding.SE, just to help you understand our scope and methods, and how we do things here. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon - Reinstate Monica Feb 15 at 15:33
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they will do all those things. things like cooking would be made by machines. you DON'T want someone forgeting about his cooking meal inside a spaceship (scientists are smart, not perfect) so no risks or unnecessary crew members would be consider for all those daily tasks you mention.

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  • $\begingroup$ If I understand correctly, you're saying "all the menial tasks will be done by machines, not the crew members", in which case this doesn't answer the question. If the scientists are going to be on the ship for multiple years, and the menial tasks are all being done by machines, then what do the scientists have to do in the meantime other than surfing the Internet and playing Jenga? $\endgroup$ – F1Krazy Feb 14 at 12:20
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Some of the members of the ships must be working in the tech-security related task. There are people working in protecting the intranet of the ship. The ones working from their computers keeping the network working without cyber attacks. This squad protects the data in the servers and computers, they protect those scientific research and general information stored in the ship.

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    $\begingroup$ Considering that it's pretty easy to select which people get access to the spaceship in the first place, and that everyone on board would have a self-interest in keeping things running, and that it can be made an appropriately isolated environment (isolated in the sense of network airgapping), why would you need this? You've provided one part to a fuller answer, but no rationale why this would be needed. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Feb 14 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ The same as with any society or nation, the ship itself is a small nation that needs to keep safe all the data and information as well as the communications that are transmitted and received. The security team has a big responsibility in order to keep the information and research made safe. For example, some other ship or planet can make a cyber attack any time and sabotage the course of the ship traveling from planet to planet. $\endgroup$ – Michel Ortega Feb 14 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Michelortega that assumes they know exactly where the ship is going to be after the X time the signal is going to need to travel there, and that they have a program that does not need feedback to hack the target as it probably takes years for the signal to arrive, and that there is a reason for them to do a hacking attempt, and that the ship has its controls and data storage on the same system. Just separating the intranet from the internet would suffice, as all the people on-board would have a self-interest in keeping the ship running smoothly and they cannot run away should they wipe data. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Feb 14 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ Though I'm not sure if this answers the OP at all, it is a good example of why the scientists can't do everything themselves. I can't count the number of times I've seen Engineers, Doctors, etc. factory reset their networking hardware or corrupt their database. They would definitely need an IT specialist on board to undo what all those "just tech savvy enough to be dangerous" scientists are bound to do to that poor ship with that much free time. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Feb 14 at 21:43
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Sending people to space will be expensive. Sending them to a different planet would be even more expensive. To make the journey cost effective you need to cross-train as much as you can.

Scientists can double function as: - Data scientists and software engineers - Farmers - craftsmen - nurses and pharmacists - engineers - baristas - psychologists - yoga teachers

e.g. if you want to bring a geologists and a shoemaker on a 4 year mission than it should be totally worth it to train the geologist in shoe making.

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You should read Ringo's Looking Glass series, which comes fairly close to dealing with exactly this question. The short answer is "see Nathaniel's answer"... but playing around with this will make your story more interesting. For example, Bill Weaver does his best thinking while engaged in intense or even extreme sports (mountain biking, rock climbing). The main female scientist (anthropologist? linguist? socioloigist? all of the above? I forget, also I forget her name) is a genius and hyperactive and, because she has nothing professional to do until they finally encounter another sentient species, spends her time repairing stuff that breaks and also repainting every pipe on the ship (an actual maintenance task, but one that the normal crew absolutely hates).

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This is extremely dependent on technologie levels. What kind of drives do they use? Do they have FTL? Does the crew consist of bioconservative baseline humans, biological immortals or uploaded minds who jump into whatever body or robot is best for the task? Is minduploading a thing? Is cryosleep a thing? What are their ideologies, orders and belive systems? What exactly is the mission? How far is AI technologie? Are there selfreplicating machines? Can they create and desire to set up massive support infrastructure and factories? Do they use no, spin, thrust or handwaveium artificial gravity?

Assuming a very soft sifi setting (insert Star Treck for example) they would most likely sience arround and analyse the data. (offscreen unless it is plot relevant)

Assuming some what harder sifi (insert Revelation Space universe by Alastair Reynolds) they probably go into cryosleep during intersellar travel. While in systems they would do the probing and review the results of data analysis done by low intelligence AI. Due to advanced fabrication and robotics the ship will care for itself with nanotechnologie, robots, e.c.t.. Humans only act in delicate roles were important decision need to be made.

If the setting is hard sifi but very transhumanistic, dataships are a way to go. These are very small vessels with 95+% of their mass serving propulsion. Furthermore they carry a huge computer and enough selfreplicating mashines to start a local industry. The ships travel at low relatevistic speeds and their crews exist as data. They might all hibernate during the trip, with some beeing awake to manage things or on duty to be woken up if the ships AI can't handle a situation, live inside simulations or shorten or lengthen the trip subjectively via frame jacking. Frame jacking is the idea to speed up or slow down minds by changing the computational resources available to them. This will lso change data analysis. Why wat to get back to the lab if you can do a comprehensive 5 year sudy of a new discovery within 5 min of finding it?

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