On a Generation ship, absolutely everything has its place and everything is in its place; everything is recycled and no waste is permitted. By the way this sounds, it seems near impossible for the ideals of democracy or commercialism; it seems that in a generation ship that it would be impossible for freedom to exist and thus the captain becomes a dictator.

Is it possible for freedom to exist on a generation ship? How do I prevent a generation ship turning into a dictatorship?

When I say Freedom I mean

  1. Freedom of the Press

  2. Freedom of Speech

  3. Freedom of Mobility

  4. Freedom of Expression

  • $\begingroup$ Do you have a specific freedom in mind? $\endgroup$ Sep 20, 2016 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth see edit $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Sep 20, 2016 at 20:21
  • $\begingroup$ Freedom of Mobility is obviously inherently limited. For the others, what would you see as being the forces that made them harder to achieve on a ship, compared with say a planet-bound nation? $\endgroup$ Sep 20, 2016 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth a lot of what makes a generation ship work is doing what you're told, not what you want to do $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Sep 20, 2016 at 20:26
  • $\begingroup$ Apart from mobility, all the freedoms you've listed are about saying things, not doing things. $\endgroup$ Sep 20, 2016 at 20:28

4 Answers 4


The premise behind those concerns is a pretty narrow imagination of what a generation ship is or might be.

It is a generation ship. As the name states, the dictator will die, any initial specialist will die during the journey. It is not a submarine, they all will die, multiple times, generations.

You have to teach new personnel. Is that possible without a replica of structure which made it possible? Not sure about that. Teachers are not equally good, there are better teachers and not so good teachers. Personnel might be better for a job or not so good at the job.

If you do not have an excess of people to choose from, this situation begins to degrade, as you have to use what you have and can not be picky about choosing peoples for a position. In that situation, the whole expedition is under the probability to fail.

In that limited situation, where each one should do what he is being told to do, you have not only have to abandon those freedoms you are concerned about, but all others too. And you have to do so, not only on that ship, but before that ship starts. You have to test whether your system works, for a few generation possibly without the ship flying. Probably even before the ship is built.

You have to clone people, teach them consistently, by some sort of automated teaching system maybe, to ensure a consistency of the results, preventing degradation of personnel quality - making a human machine, which will last for centuries.

And it has to be enforced for a few generations, to ensure that the system works, in a situation where they (people ancestors of the future crew) do not have to live that way - I have a few examples:

  • Prison
  • Amish
  • Sect
  • Army
  • feel free to continue

Dictatorship is the last problem you have to care about on generation ships with limited resources, where survival of the ship and success of the journey depends on all crew members working on that expedition job.

But which problem is that ship intended to solve, if it is survival after supernovae blast dictatorship is probably also not in first places of your problem list to care about and you allow freedoms where you can have them.

If the goal is just to have humans in other systems, without much care about which cultural values they will have, and if you are against just making artificial panspermia, send an artificial womb and a cloning facility - and you are done. (The example is a bit weak, and I could strengthen that situation to be more viable, but it is not the point here.)

So, which problem does a generation ship have to solve?

If it is the relocation of a high amount of peoples - you probably will have a possibility to keep already working systems.
If exporting values, which made that journey possible, is also a goal - you have to have enough people.

So the answer to your question has to be: have enough people.

From your previous question, where you considered the journey of 100 million of peoples - this is big enough to keep any currently known social system.

The exact amount of people needed for the journey - is determined can they develop or not, if they do then it is enough, if they are not able to do so, it is not enough. My personal preference is 20 million and above.

Space habitats could be a good start for a generation ship, as they, in fact, are such ships, which are happy where they are.

A generation ship has to have all social elements you care about, all environmental things:

  • birds
  • fields
  • forests
  • animals
  • everything you enjoy or plan to have in your future terraformed planet if it is the plan.

Because if they do not have all these things the perception of what is normal will change over generations, to accommodate the current ship's environment, and you have to figure out an excuse - a reason, which will force them to do what they do not like. "Bhuye those stinky animals - they piss, they shit, no no no, f@!? them! Gimme delicious nutrient paste and cockroaches and that vodka!"


Have enough people, take more than you need, choose the system you like, live that system for some time, make referendum Brexit, leave those who do not like it, separate habitat, test for a few years if someone will change its mind completely and fly away after that.

Preparation. Planing. Testing.

  • $\begingroup$ How does one deal with the great-grand-children of the original voyagers that "don't like it"? It's not like they had a choice in it... $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2017 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s it is the same way you might complain you weren't born in another country. If your grand grand parents have moved, so you would not have to solve the problem by yourself. Same way to complain why our ancestors didn't build space ships aka pyramids, so we could save ourselves some work and launch satellites cheaper. There are people who complain about such things, but their percentage isn't high, and so is the life. There is no etical problem. You find yourself in the situation you have never expected or imagined and you try the best to make a deal. So was for million years. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 16, 2017 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ Generally speaking I can move to another country on Earth if I don't like where I am. Some places might make it difficult to do so, but there are non-zero instances of people getting out. In a space ship you have two choices: the country you live in... and a vacuum. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2017 at 23:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s it is not about moving in another country, it is about the country you were born to be a different country. your ancestors could make it different than it is now. To fit the needs you think it should have been for now. It is about them not buying a lottery ticket you know now is a winning one, for you to have some benefits you do not have now. Those thoughts are just useless, and you have what you have and try to do the best you can out of it. If it is a good ship why complaint to be born there and if it is not, make it better as much as you can. We do constantly act that way. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jun 17, 2017 at 1:33

Breaking down your questions:

How do I prevent a generation ship turning into a dictatorship? This is easy. The generation ship is going somewhere. That destination is generally outside of the control of the inhabitants, probably pre-programmed by the original ship builders. There's no need of a captain, navigator, and so on. Now you have a colony - that just happens to be on a ship. You can have a council, a republic, a democracy, or generally anything you want. It would have been set up by the original ship builders, so it has tradition and purpose behind it, as well as the best bylaws the builders could put together - not something that would have been built from scratch during transit.

Is it possible for freedom to exist on a generation ship? Yes, within reason. Especially if you set up a more democratic leadership, you will have Press, Speech, and Expression. Mobility might be a little restricted by the fact that there isn't much of anywhere to actually go, and some of the ship workings would be protected or restricted areas - just as you can't just wander into a nuclear powerplant on earth.

What would be interesting is to see the slow degradation of those freedoms and government. One might expect to see power hungry people, where the system is still democratic but the power of those in control increase and freedoms decrease. Or maybe dynasties or castes evolve, and thus privilege or lack thereof becomes a frustration to the lower status people, causing an uprising.

A couple of final points. You could make the ship largely automated, and thus the residents would have very little to do with the ship, and thus more focused on food production, ruling, art, and culture. If you make the ship more manned, you'll tend to have castes - the captain's son will be captain, the cook's son will be a cook, etc. I also suppose if the population is large enough, you could have schools that would give you the option to "spread the wealth" a little more.

  • $\begingroup$ About the full scale automation though, what if that created a scenario like what happened in Wall-e? The people would become so reliant on the automated systems that they wouldn't realize that the AI running everything went rouge. Or they wouldn't have an idea of how to survive on their own once they reached their destination. $\endgroup$
    – Mattias
    Dec 9, 2016 at 22:11

As MolbOrg noted, generation ships naturally overcome any single dictator by a virtue of outliving them.

That being said, democratic free enterprise values aren't the best for running the G-ship as well. Freedom is a good ideology for expansive processes - new lands, new markets, new ideas. None or little of that is actually happening on G-ship while it is on its course.

If you want to ensure G-ship's successful arrival, then stable and conservative ideology is a better pick. I'd chose either Monarchy or Theocracy - with clear undisputed transition of power from ancestors to descendants, loyalty of subjects (crew) not to their own commercial interests, but to the royalty or grand idea.

Westerners are fearful of a despotic rule, but it is not without merits. Look at Asia. Stable societies for thousands of years, with structures of power locking everyone in place. Yes, it makes progress stagnant, but so is regress. And what ruling structure might seem outlandish and insufferable to you personally, many from China or India would judge normal and desirable.


Not so much an answer to your question, but a suggestion that could throw a spanner in the idea of maintaining liberal freedoms on a generation ship...

What if a passenger wants to use their freedom of expression to argue that the ship should be destroyed? Say their argument is that is inhumane to bring a generation of people into the world whose unescapable destiny will be to pilot a ship to a planet they will never reach. What if they argue that the ethical thing to do is to hit self-destruct on the ship now, and avoid any future suffering for the not-yet-born. Should this passenger be allowed to speak their mind, or does this view need to be suppressed for the good of the mission?

Does the answer change if this person is one lone nutcase, or if they start to convince significant numbers of other passengers?

  • $\begingroup$ I guess the problem with freedom on a ship is that you have much narrower margins for mistakes. Here on Earth we can allow every society to live the way they want - plenty of space, plenty of resources. Even if someone fucks himself up and, say, destroys his source of nutrition with reckless exploitive agriculture, rest of us will not suffer for this. Not so on a spaceship. Its too damn fragile to let people run wild with ideas. $\endgroup$ Dec 11, 2016 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ A democracy requires protection of minorities. All modern societies - at least to a degree - accept basic human rights, like the right to live, not to be harmed,... As a result, no majority can ever be allowed to decide that other people should die. So there is no real conflict here. $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Jun 16, 2017 at 7:27

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