The Setup

Let's consider that the generation ship leaves Earth for the Wolf system at a speed of 0.01c in the year 2100. This generation ship is created from a hollowed-out asteroid and is piloted by AI. There are 20000 passengers, and they follow a format of 1 year awake, 4 years asleep due to technological constraints in the hibernation technology that cause the mortality rate to increase substantially after that time. It's a near-future, current timeline earth. The only technology that is particularly worth mentioning is nano-robots for medicine, which tie into the hibernation system. Otherwise, continued developments in software intelligence, power generation, etc.

This ship would arrive at the target planet sometime around the year 3270 (neglecting relativistic effects, which I think I'm safe to do at a speed that 'low'). On Earth, research has been continuing apace for those 1370 years, meaning faster space travel and other technological advances.

Now, a second ship leaves Earth at the same time the first ship arrives on the planet in the other system (year 3270), only this ship can travel at 0.1c. This is, once again, modern-day Earth as extrapolated some 1000 years into the future, assuming no cataclysms. It's hard to predict what technology will look like then given that people in the year 1000 wouldn't have predicted smartphones. But perhaps some safe assumptions are that the solar system has been colonized, interplanetary travel is common, and energy is not really a concern within the solar system. Travelers on the second ship are in stasis for the entire trip. When the new travelers arrive in the early 35th century, how backwards are they going to find their fellow travelers?

My Thoughts

Even if the people on the generation ship aren't in some kind of stasis, their technological development curve would likely be significantly slowed down compared to Earth; resources are scarce, so they wouldn't be likely to burn a lot of their energy on a material treatment that requires a temperature of 1000 C, for example. Then when they arrive at the planet, all of their effort will be on establishing a colony and developing the necessary tools to coexist/subdue their new ecosystem and survive. So they won't get back up to an earthen technological curve for quite a while. Because of this, the new arrivals will be significantly more technologically advanced and would be shocked at how 'primitive' the colonists are.

Similar Questions

How might a colony treat the arrival of a new generation ship? - This is from the perspective of the colonists rather than the people arriving on the second ship. The answer implicitly assumes a similar direction to my thoughts, that the people on the second ship would be more technologically advanced, but there's no discussion of this.

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    $\begingroup$ Hello, Aliden. While your question is very interesting, I'm afraid that it is also incredibly broad. We don't know anything about your world's tech level, let alone their advancements in 1000 years. We also don't know about the conditions on the ship, etc. There is no way for us to realistically predict these things. Each answer would be complete guesswork based on each person's personal interpretation and ideas. You would need to describe your universe to us in far more detail for us to be able to answer. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Jun 2, 2016 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ You are correct in ignoring relativistic effects at such a low speed. The graph for the Lorentz Factor (impact of relativistic speeds) looks like this: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Time_dilation.svg Relativistic effects are practically negligible until you pass .2 or .3c. Then it stays below a 2x effect (2x time dilation, mass increase, and Lorentz Contraction) until you approach .9c, after which it increases asymptotically. $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2016 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ For example tell us what the tech level was when the ship left. How did the generation ship crew maintain their ship/knowledge? Is is possible that over the years they actually lost a lot of information or equipment, and that their descendants actually became less tech savvy? Also, once they arrive, just what sort of equipment is available to them? Similarly, tell us about the second ship. Try reading up on WB Risk Factors and editing your question a little bit. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Jun 2, 2016 at 20:03
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    $\begingroup$ @AndreiROM Thanks. I tried to add a few more details. As I mention in the (edited) question, extrapolating 1000 years in the future is tricky; let me know if it still strikes you as too broad or if there are specific places you think would benefit from more details $\endgroup$
    – Aliden
    Jun 2, 2016 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think this question is objectively answerable. The path technology takes is dependent on a combination of need and availability. The two groups of people could be technologically equivalent in that period of time and their technology be entirely different. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Jun 3, 2016 at 3:40

3 Answers 3


If they spend 1 year awake, then four years suspended, they are only awake for around 270 years of the trip, meaning around 10 generations.

Assuming that the ship doesn't have any major problems in flight that would send them back to the stone age, and the planet at the other end doesn't have any major problems that would make it hard to colonize, they might not be that backward when the second ship shows up. The reason is radio.

Radio travels at the speed of light, so it would be possible for Earth to beam data to the ship, including new discoveries and developments.

With an AI working all the time, including while all the humans are suspended, they'd be able to keep up on all of the developments during their trip, and if they have the right equipment they'd be able to manufacture stuff en-route or upon arrival.

One interesting thing is that since the improved tech for suspension is discovered while they are traveling, there is the possibility that it would catch up to them, and they'd be able to implement it during the voyage, so that you could end up with less than 10 generations.

Also, once they land on the planet, they'd be able to continue to catch up on all of the advancement that couldn't work on while they were traveling, so that by the time the second ship actually arrives they might be more advanced than the second crew that's been sleeping for a few hundred years.
While the first colonists would have to do a lot of work to establish the colony, the AI will be able to integrate the advancements as a secondary process.

  • $\begingroup$ That's a good point. I was thinking of this in terms of human timescales, where waiting years for a message response is long, but being some 15 years behind on research isn't as big a deal, though resources may still be an issue as you mentioned $\endgroup$
    – Aliden
    Jun 3, 2016 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Aliden Right. For communication that kind of delay would be useless, but if it was a constant or even yearly data dump of all the new technology and advancements from Earth, combined with advanced recycling, 3d printing, custom chemistry, and on demand fabrication, then they'll be doing pretty good at least with some smaller stuff like electronics. You wouldn't need to do much heavy manufacturing until you landed, at which point hopefully the destination has some raw materials, like metals from asteroids and robotic mining, etc. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Jun 3, 2016 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ This. Due to the overwhelming EM waves coming from the sun, you shouldn't look directly at it. One solution is to launch a relay station in any direction perpendicular to the axis of travel. If you pick the direction correctly, it could support multiple generation ships to other stars as well with only a few months' worth of extra delay. $\endgroup$ Jun 4, 2016 at 2:51

I somewhat doubt that the first generation ship will develop any new technology at all. Space travels are not cheap, so even by 2100 this ship is going to have a bare minimum of everything it will need + closed ecosystem so nothing would go out and nothing would go in.

I'm not going to retell Orphans of the Sky here, but IMHO that scenario (denial of the Earth and everything older generations stand for => degradation to stone age society inside spaceship) is the most likely outcome for Generation ship idea in general. And yes, Heinlein wrote a happy ending, however, I doubt there will be anyone to colonise new planet after 1,1 centuries of travel.

Without stasis for the crew of the first ship there won't be any colony when the second ship finally arrives.

  • $\begingroup$ I clarified the question to include the fact that travelers on the first ship are on a 1 year awake, 4 years stasis schedule, so the effective time is only about 200 years (so the third generation born on the ship would probably still be alive when the planet is reached). Also, can you please clarify why rejection of previous society would lead to degradation to Stone Age society? If there are touchscreens, etc., available, the knowledge of those shouldn't completely vanish. $\endgroup$
    – Aliden
    Jun 2, 2016 at 20:42

In the space shooter game Privateer 2: The Darkening, one of the planets, Bex, has a story very similar to your premise; a sublight sleeper colony ship containing religious pilgrims from another inhabited planet was dispatched to the planet on a 500-year journey, but 30 years after they left, superluminal travel was discovered and another ship made the trip in about 3 months, so by the time the original sleeper ship arrived, their planet was fairly highly developed at a level of technology far beyond anything they'd ever seen. The first people to land ended up welcoming the first people to depart, and the planet thus became an interesting juxtaposition of simple agrarian culture on par with Earth's Rennaissance, and high technology far surpassing anything the real Earth has seen.

While not original, yours is still a very interesting question. Some quick math; your original colonists travel 1,170 years at 0.01c. If we simplify this to ignore relativity, periods of acceleration and deceleration, and orbital dynamics requiring elliptical paths even in interstellar space, the new planet orbits a star roughly 11 light-years away. Of that 1000 years, each human is awake for roughly 20% of it with the one awake, 4 asleep rotation, so assuming a normal human lifespan and that the hibernation freezes the person in time in terms of longevity, the last of the original passengers boarding the ship as a very young child would have died about halfway through the journey, and the original colonist's great-grandchildren are the primary working generation aboard.

I agree with your premises that, despite access to the sum total of scientific knowledge as of 2100, the pace of development of anything but pure research would likely be nil, and the first colonists would take a fairly long time to develop the new world to even 2100-era Earth. The nanobots might make things easier as they could be harnessed for mass construction, but technology is inherently iterative. You couldn't put Werner von Braun in a time machine, send him back 1000 years and expect man to have walked on the moon in the 11th Century. The ability for man to walk on the moon developed as a result of all of mankind's other achievements, including sufficient time for those technologies to be applied to the infrastructure of modern civilization. On a new planet, the amount of infrastructure available would be zero; you'd be starting completely from scratch. Orbital dynamics mean very little when you're trying to get your stock of Earth plant life to grow so you have something to eat.

Even worse, a lot of what you think you know wouldn't apply to a new planet; the basic building blocks of life on this new planet might be silicon-based, totally incompatible with carbon-based life, limiting the ability of your new colony to expand organically into the surrounding environment because the ground has to be slowly terraformed by the Earth plants capturing whatever carbon exists and mixing into the soil. Depending on just how different this new planet is, the first colonists might not even be back to the 2100s technologically before the second ship showed up 117 years after the first one made landfall.

The second ship to be launched, travelling at 0.1c, would take just over a century to get to the new world. Let's assume for simplicity that no amount of technological progress has improved the hibernation limitation; colonists on this new ship still spend 1 awake, 4 asleep. When this second ship shows up, its first advantage will be much simpler than you think; a majority of the people aboard the second ship will have walked on the Earth. Assuming we send between 20 and 30-year olds on this second journey, they'll be in their 40s and 50s when they show up, with one grown generation and the beginnings of a third born in space. Contrast this with the math on the first ship; the very oldest arrivals from the first ship would be, at best, the 90-year-old grandchildren of the very youngest of the original passengers, conceived and raised in space. The most productive people from the ship would be great-great and great-great-great grandchildren, for whom the stories of walking on solid ground would be treated with the same wonder and disbelief as our own passed-down tales of our great-grandparents showing up on the family homestead in a covered wagon. At least two generations, possibly 3, of the colonists aboard the first ship will have lived their entire lives in space. When the first settlers got there, even assuming the ship had artificial gravity, the simple idea of walking on a convex surface of solid ground would be a novelty not afforded to the colonists for 3 generations. For many people on the second ship, it'd be a welcome return to what they'd consider normal.

Additional main advantages will be technological; its colonists will have a millenium of additional knowledge the original settlers do not. However, much of that technological advancement will apply to Earth and the Solar System, not necessarily to any ability to colonize this new planet around a new star any faster.

Or maybe it does; humans may have developed their nanotech to the point where they can quickly terraform the new planet with nanobots, or they may bring reentry-capable "terra-bubbles", self-contained domes containing all the essentials and nanotech to build out additional facilities as needed, so they may not need to terraform at all in order to flourish. In addition, if the original colony ship is transmitting data on its progress, then the second colony ship can listen in and gain important technical knowledge discovered by the first colony, which they won't have to re-learn when they get there.

So, all told, I would expect the second colony ship to be in much better shape in almost every way. How they treat the first colonists, and how they are treated, is up to each group. The first group might look at the new arrivals with the same disdain that a lifelong rancher might view the campers in the RV park down the road, whose idea of "roughing it" is driving around in a miniature version of their actual home and who've never had to pull their own food out of the ground or slice it up on the butcher block a single day in their lives. The new arrivals would at first see the original colonists in much the opposite way; primitive, backwards simpletons with no concept of scientific facts they've taken for granted all their lives, like the existence of three more accessible spacial dimensions allowing shortcuts through classical spacetime with no relativistic effects.


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