What would be required for a generation space ship to give residents the best possible living situation while still using the least amount of space, given the possibilities to have access to common areas.

  • How little space can a person live on for life, and still be sane.
  • Can people use common areas such as common showers, laundry and kitchen without making unrest?
  • What psychological impact would it have on people to be confined to specific areas during long periods of time (500+ years)
  • How can one prolong the effects ?

ps. this is a fictive world so relate to all the basic physics and almost everything goes except from Wall-E and "Because magic"

  • $\begingroup$ Did the residents undergo any psychological screening (that could include traits related to this) before being accepted, or are we dealing with a broad cross-section of people? Also, should we answer as if the residents were today's humans, or is there other context that applies? (You mentioned being there for 500 years, so that's not today's humans.) $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio Psychological screening could be a possible answer. Residents would start out as todays humans traveling at 0,15c towards a star ~ 40-80 lightyears away making it 230-520 years of travel. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ Many factors to be considered, more than most people would probably presume, are purely cultural issues. What sort of culture are they going to come from? Would a culture amenable to the generation ship be able to be kickstarted for the first generation at the origin? Human history shows vast variety, and our modern culture requires loads of accomodation comparitively. Probably most important regardless would be equality. Poverty is fine, luxury is fine, but both at once is the only reliable predictor of violence we know of. $\endgroup$
    – otakucode
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 1:51

5 Answers 5


Let me start by saying that you should split question up into its components and ask them in separate threads. Second, all this is going to be pretty subjective, because it all comes down to your imagination - the science can be made up to a point.

Personal Space

As far as the space people might need? It's going to come down to the individual. If you screen your candidates psychologically, they might be able to handle cramped space quite well - look at nuclear submarine crews.

Children adapt to pretty much any environment, and if they grow up under those conditions they're not going to question it - it'll just be the way it is. The challenge most pressure is primarily going to be on that first generation. Years down the line people will think that growing up on a spaceship is absolutely normal

As long as you make sure to maintain population control you should be fine.

Sanity & Health

A green space with a mock-sun, etc would probably be a big plus for everyone, especially in the long run. Also, I should note that lack of gravity, and even reduced gravity, negatively impacts our health over time - check out the effects of spending a long time in space on astronauts. This ship should be able to generate Earth-normal gravity if you want people to actually live a full life-span.

Also, radiation out in the universe might eventually cause mutations in the DNA of the passengers, or even cause infertility. You may want to bring embryos from Earth, on ice, to grow into adults and introduce them into the population over time in order to counteract the effects of in-breeding, etc.

Last but not least, spaceships make great breeding grounds for viruses and bacteria - read up on the situation on the ISS. This ship will need a system to disinfect areas, or the passengers will need to have some kind of heavy duty inoculation to disease - maybe nanites or something?

A long journey

If your engineering and manufacturing capabilities are solid, and as long as no cataclysm befalls the ship, you should be able to keep going for generations and generations.

This ship could stop and capture meteor/comets/asteroids in order to replenish its stock of drinking water, mine for minerals, etc. The one danger when doing this is picking up some bacteria or virus from a long-dead world which might sweep through the population and kill everyone, or turn them into mutants, in the best tradition of sci-fi.


A generation seed ship is 100% imaginable. The engineering doesn't even have to be too out-of-this-world.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Note, if you stick with basic physics there's no way to "generate gravity" unless the ship itself have the same mass of earth. You can simulate gravity by 1) The ship keeps constant accelerating at 1G, 2) if the crew live in a rotating tube (like in the 2001 movie) $\endgroup$
    – jean
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ A generation seed ship is 100% imaginable. The engineering doesn't even have to be too out-of-this-world. This author would beg to differ... $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler - generally speaking building a ship, putting life support in it, generating gravity by spinning the helI out of it .. it's all feasible. Not possible with our current tech, but not out-of-this-world impossible - it's something that we can dream of achieving at some point. If we were discussing attaching rocket engines to a dragon and sending it to Alpha Centauri, then it would be a different story, lol $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 19:19
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM: Sure, but... well, just read the article. It's a bit of an eye-opener. Building a ship is one thing. Building one that will keep running for centuries, with no possibility of resupply, and keep a crew/cargo of humans alive (and sane and relatively content so they don't mutiny or kill each other) for all that time... that's a whole other question. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ RE the article @MasonWheeler cites: Interesting, but I think the writer is unduly pessimistic. Like, his comments that living in this small isolated society knowing that there's a big Earth back there would cause psychological and social problems. Maybe. But plenty of people throughout history have lived in isolated communities, monasteries, and so forth, without developing pathological problems. He says it would be like being in prison. Maybe so. Plenty of people have served life sentences without going insane. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Commented Nov 23, 2015 at 21:58

I think with a bit of tech people can manage with very little actual space. If you say you want a comfortable bed, that will use 1.8 m^2 (to comfortably accomodate two people). This can be folded away while not in use. You may want something like a desk, an arm chair and a shelf or two, and you will definitely want that in a room just for you, with a door.
I think some 6m^2 could be a lower limit.

You should be able to counter the occasional feeling of being locked in with virtual reality glasses, which should work wonderfully to allow people the relaxing feeling of open plains, places to wander and whatnot.

Military barracks typically have shared sanitary facilities (or used to have when i was a member), and since you will want to plan for redundancy, i think yes, it should be feasible to have less than one shower per person. Shared kitchens, preferrably more than one, again for redundancy and to allow people to avoid each otehr on occasions, should not cause problems either.

The psychological impact is anyones guess, but as AndreiROM already pointed out the second and following generations should not have too many problems there. And, again, the virtual reality gear should be able to provide quite some relief.

As to prolongued effects: Again AndreiROM already pointed out that you should be able to go on pretty much forever.

In general you should try to keep your population busy, though, and make sure people consider their work as important, and wherever possible as satisfying.

If possible, visit places while you are on the way. Catch asteroids, maybe to expand your ship, see if you can have flybys of interesting solar systems, both to collect solar energy and to provide some variety to their everyday life.


It's not just a matter of having enough room to keep the original passengers sane. Unless you have a strict zero-population growth policy, you'll need room for the larger, future generations. Also, consider that whatever space is available, you'll be breeding a population adapted to living in that space. Once they arrive wherever it is they are going, you may have the opposite problem: a bunch of agoraphobic colonists who can't handle the wide-open spaces of a planetary surface.

  • $\begingroup$ I would imagine for the sake of the gene pool they'd want to start the voyage with the ship close to or at capacity, and then definitely have a zero-growth policy. When you're on a starship for centuries with no means of procuring additional resources the last thing you want is a logistical nightmare like not enough rooms. $\endgroup$
    – ktyldev
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ A zero-growth policy probably also opens up questions about the long-term effect on the "quality" of the gene pool; a fixed-size population reduces the opportunity for selection. $\endgroup$
    – chepner
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ A non-fixed-size population is no better if no new genes are introduced. Both approaches lead to genetic stagnation so it would probably be wise to periodically introduce new genes from frozen embryos, or the like. However, if frozen embryos are allowed then why have a generation ship in the first place? Why not freeze everyone and Grow Your Own Colony when you get there? $\endgroup$
    – ktyldev
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 14:47

People like to have choices and make decisions about their lifestyles. There are many different ways of arranging a fixed number of cubic feet per resident. Have several neighborhoods, each with its own trade-offs and housing configurations.

Ideally, it would be possible to reconfigure spaces to adjust to changing fashions.

  • $\begingroup$ Reconfigurable living spaces I would think are essential for a voyage that long! Also things like art supplies and musical instruments to allow for culture to continue! $\endgroup$
    – ktyldev
    Commented Jul 22, 2016 at 14:30

According to the "Sphere Project Handbook", the minimum standard for living space is 3.5m^2/person. I think we can assume with the sort of technology needed to build a generation starship, we could pack a lot of the support infrastructure hidden into the walls, so to speak, so that people are not finding plumbing, wiring and so on intruding into their space.

So if you really wanted to, you could pack people into the starship much like bees live in a beehive. I'm sure most people are not going to be keen on that sort of an arrangement, though.

If you look at making use of the entire volume of the starship, however, things become more interesting. If we imagine the starship is built inside of a large spinning cylinder (much like an O'Neil colony), we could have the interior volume as green/agricultural space and build apartment "warrens" in the space between the surface and the outer hull/radiation shielding. People would go there to sleep or have privacy, but would otherwise spend most of their time up on the greenspace. Even more can be achieved if we use the zero gravity space in the centre. A long cable running the length of the cylinder cold be compered with a "city" of bubbles, each one having a 3.5m^3 volume. This would seem much bigger than the warren apartments (even though it is the same size) because everyone inside would be in free fall).

As noted, there would have to be provision for changes in population. If the ship was built for a certain maximum population, but left with a much smaller crew, there would be several generations where the ship would have empty spaces for exploring and otherwise moving around in. In fact, the crew might decide during the trip to keep their population fairly static, but occupy different areas each generation.


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