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So the background is that a colony ship has arrived in the orbit of a habitable, Earth-like planet. The colonists are in cryosleep and are being woken up in batches. An initial round of scouting the planet through drones and rovers have been done already. Basic habitats on the ground have already been set up by robots. The next step is for the first batch of colonists to head down to the surface.

What I want is some kind of believable disaster or malfunction to the colony ship. Something that happens in orbit that forces a group of colonists to jump on to a landing shuttle and crash land on the planet, stranded in the wild and forced to survive.

Let's say this is a massive colony ship that cannot survive entry through the atmosphere and can only stay in space. What are some plausible things that can happen to it to force people to exit the ship as soon as possible?

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    $\begingroup$ This seems like a story-based question to me. A more reasonable world-building question might be "How likely are ALL the toilets on an interstellar ship to fail after many years of disuse?" or "What protections against on-site tampering should remote-construction robots have?" or "Would interstellar colonists go straight to ground first? Or build orbital habitats first?" $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    May 14, 2020 at 17:17
  • $\begingroup$ How thoroughly were they able to scout the system beforehand? How are the collision-avoidance systems on the colony ship? IOW, would a freak hit by a rogue meteor on some critical system work? $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    May 14, 2020 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ A tried-and-true trope - an in-trip radiation storm glitched the planetary orbital control program, and the ship orbit was uncontrollably decaying to the point where it was inevitably going to crash into the atmosphere. The damage to the memory banks was irreparable. All back-up systems were destroyed. The in-trip system functioned properly because it was shielded, but the long-term memory banks holding the end-of-trip routines were outside the protected area and thus vulnerable. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2020 at 20:24

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Something caused by the passengers waking up.

Since they presumably traveled for years in cryosleep, and the automated systems functioned for weeks or months after arriving at the planet, the problem probably isn't mechanical or it would have happened earlier. This must be a problem that only occurs, or only matters, once passengers are awakened.

Some possibilities:

  • all the stored food spoiled during transit and there's nothing to eat until they get to the surface
  • there's no fresh oxygen so each batch of passengers has to get off the ship within minutes so they don't breathe up all the air before subsequent batches can be awakened and disembarked
  • a passenger with a terrible contagious disease wakes up and is coughing all over the ship
  • all the ship's toilets are broken
  • there's a murderer on the ship
  • alien space babes radio from the surface, and they're lonely
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Damaged heat shield

Landing is a really dangerous time for any spacecraft. The crews of both STS-107 and Soyuz 11 died during reentry, with the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-107) being destroyed. Columbia suffered damage to its heat shield on takeoff. Below is a recreation of the damage (source).

Columbia heat shield damage recreation

It may not look like much, but even a generation ship could be felled by a similar amount of damage. Even though I was only in high school, I'll never forget where I was when I heard that communication had been lost with the Columbia. NASA rethought a lot of parts of the Shuttle program after the disaster. Before returning to Earth, all Shuttles were thoroughly photographed and studied for any signs of damage. If a heat shield were found to be damaged, the crew would either take refuge on the International Space Station or on a backup Shuttle.

Back to your scenario. As an author, the damaged heat shield gives you flexibility. It could happen at any point in the mission. You could have years to prepare or it could be detected as the ship is starting to deorbit. It sounds like you're looking for an urgent situation with no time to prepare. In the case of Columbia, the first sensor malfunction was reported at 8:54:24 AM Eastern Time and the last transmission from the Shuttle was 8:59:32. If you follow a similar timeline and your captain immediately figures out what's going on, that gives the passengers five minutes to get in the escape ship and GTFO.

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How old is your colony ship? Assuming it left earth at slower than light speed travel, decades or centuries of wear and tear alone could have caused enough problems to systems that people cannot live in the ship and need to be quickly brought down to the surface.

Another possibility is that the landing ship is struck by an object or has a malfunction (again, because it's so old) that it cannot land at the settlement site.

One more idea is that the AI that piloted the colony ship to the new system has tired of preserving these weak human forms and is now determined to destroy them. It's only through our wily nature to not die that the humans fight back, overriding parts of the AI and escaping the colony ship, forced to settle on the planet surface and live with rudimentary technology that is void of the influence of the AI.

This is my first response, so apologies if I'm doing anything wrong.

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(Thanks to aesob for indirectly giving me this idea!)

So... your ship arrives in orbit. All is (apparently) well. The initial survey team does everything By The Book. The initial habitats are up. It's time to wake up the first bunch of colonists...

...And that's when it all goes Horribly Wrong. Maybe a cryopod was sabotaged or just defective. Maybe all they did was stir the cryo tanks, per procedure, after that batch was decanted. (Maybe they did this because there was a minor glitch during the process, or worse, because someone came out DOA and the procedure is part of the investigatory process.) Whatever. The point is, suddenly life support is failing fast, and they have to choose between thawing out everyone else right now, or abandoning ship without them. (If the malfunction messed up the ship's orbit, this will be a much easier decision.)

(Okay, I guess this is the same as workerjoe's answer, except unlike those examples, you probably want something that won't be noticed ahead of time. Hence, major systems malfunction triggered by waking the first batch of colonists. Alternatively, one of them is a child that somehow manages to push a wrong button. You really should design your ships to prevent that from happening, but...)

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