A generation ship travels to a star system that has at least one planet that's believed to be potentially habitable and, therefore, a possible location for a colony. After sending some probes that return encouraging data, a manned spacecraft is launched from the generation ship to do a short (2-3 day) recon survey of the planet to scout for potential colonization locations. The recon craft has a crew of four.


What roles and technical/scientific abilities would you want the crew members to have?

The assumption here is that each crew member would have more than one area of expertise. For example, the pilot might also be a mechanical engineer, while another might be an exobiologist and some other kind of scientist. I'd assume that one would be a medical officer in addition to one or more other roles. Would one have computer/IT abilities as one of their roles? Would there be a second member who also could serve as pilot in case of something happening to the main pilot? Would one have hydrology as one of their specializations? How many types of engineers would the crew need to encompass? Would one of them (all of them?) need to be armed and combat trained?

So please state what you think would be the most useful and likely division of labor between the crew members.

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    $\begingroup$ Related: Would humans be able to derive nutrition from foodstuffs found on alien planets? discusses some of the things your people might want to look for on the planet. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ We can determine things like the atmospheric makeup of planetary atmospheres light years alway from Earth today, so the ship should have much better sensors and has been observing the planetary system for generations as it approaches. With the resources of a generation ship, why are you only sending a 4 man team, when you could potentially send hundreds of people and a multitude of scout ships, robot probes etc. (Question asked in the right place this time). $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ @ Thucydides Fair question, although I did mention that robotic probes would be sent first. I said "some" but it could be loads, certainly. As for hundreds of people, yes, I can see how that might be the case. Although wouldn't you want to test the waters, so to speak, with a few people first? But if you did send many right away, would you send one large group in one large ship, or a few medium-sized groups in a few medium-sized ships, or lots of small teams in lots of small ships? The latter two possibilities would still work for me. $\endgroup$
    – Arbutus
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ @ Michael Kjörling Haha, I'd actually bookmarked that one a while back for future reference. It definitely is useful to me. $\endgroup$
    – Arbutus
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 5:48

6 Answers 6


I simply wouldn't think about the problem the way you're thinking about it.

First off, I'm going to hand wave away the "short" part of the trip. If your generation ship is close enough to a star (in both position and velocity) to send a recon ship a mere three days ahead, the generation ship is most likely committed to that planet. Maybe if they sent the recon team 3 years in advance, and had superluminal drives, then it might be effective.

Second, I would base my 4 person crew almost entirely on the data that came back from the probe. If the fate of my entire generation ship, or even the fate of my species, rests on 4 individuals telling me if a planet is hospitable, I'm not going to rely on a canned team structure. If the geology is interesting, I'll send a geologist. If the biology is interesting, I'll send a biologist. If the water table is interesting, I'll send a hydrologist. If the natives look restless, I'll send combat trained individuals. If the planet has an unusual rotation rate (i.e. not 24 hours), I'll probably send the night crew in because they're used to unusual hours. I'll let the probe tell me what I need to do next, rather than blindly trusting that I know best without data. Likewise, the number of engineers or pilots in the crew will be based on the technology I have. If I'm near the end of my road, and all of my recon craft are in poor repair, I'm going to make sure someone on board can repair it. If I think there's a good chance there's going to be injuries, and my craft don't pilot themselves, I may bring two with piloting skills.

I likely would want to send one individual who has some leadership capabilities. Generally speaking that's an important attribute. However, I'll let the probe aid my decisions. If I can't find the right set of individuals for the task and have one of them have leadership, I'll find a way to send the right set without leadership. Or maybe I'll send two leaders carefully pitted against each other, because that's what the situation called for.

  • $\begingroup$ Absolutely agree! The data from the probe will determine how you look at things. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 6, 2016 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ We can determine things like the atmospheric makeup of planetary atmospheres light years alway from Earth today, so the ship should have much better sensors and has been observing the planetary system for generations as it approaches. With the resources of a generation ship, why are you only sending a 4 man team, when you could potentially send hundreds of people and a multitude of scout ships, robot probes etc. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 2:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Thucydides That's a valid question, but I think it's more appropriately asked to the OP, not to Cort Ammon. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 10:31
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling I think he may just be referencing some of the limits of the question that I am alluding to in my answer. I fully agree that those are the kinds of questions which are needed to refine such a concept. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ @ Michael Björling. True, I had somehow forgotten which answer I was commenting on before I clicked. $\endgroup$
    – Thucydides
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 17:40

Keeping the Team Alive

  • As you mentioned, a pilot who can take manual controls.
  • Some limited ability to repair the shuttle. If anything major breaks, just four people with supplies for a few days will be dead ...
  • A skill set somewhat like a combat engineer. Somebody who can dig a rover out of a hole, rig a rope bridge, dynamite a boulder.
  • Medical skills to handle injury or illness to the team.
  • I guess everybody will have to be trained in decontamination procedures, but there might be one who knows more.

Bringing the Data Back

  • If the world has life, you need biologists, physicians, etc. to judge if it is healthy for humans. You need somebody who can make the decision to open the helmet and take a deep breath. (Perhaps after a trial run with rabbits?)
  • You will need skilled fieldwork and lab assistants. Are you going to cross-train scientists and pilots to do that, or should there be specialists?

Given your timeframe, it might be that there are only lab assistants on the first lander. They bring samples back to the mothership.

  • If the world is dead, dump the biologists and take geologists.

As I understand, we have a 4 person team to visit a planet for the first time. I would pick my team as such:

Member 1

Title: primary pilot


  • mechanical engineer


  • safely transport the team to and from the planet
  • make precise measurements of the planet's primary features such as gravity, atmospheric pressure, magnetic field and humidity

Member 2

Title: medic


  • physician and surgeon
  • biochemical engineer


  • assure prime health of all team members
  • perform chemical tests of the soil, atmosphere and water for composition
  • perform initial tests for signals of life (in case no visible macro-organism is seen on the planet)

Member 3

Title: Team Leader


  • combat expert
  • electronics expert


  • assure safety of all team members in case the planet is inhabited by alien beings
  • assure a constant 2-way communication with the base
  • decide when the objectives are achieved and in case of emergency, decide course of future actions

Member 4

Title: Geologist


  • expert in geology and geography
  • meteorologist


  • study the planet's long term climactic patterns from rocks, water samples and terrain
  • build a digital map of the planet as seen from space (at close range)
  • study signs of volcanic activity
  • study the water cycle on the planet and determine the size and type of water bodies present
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    $\begingroup$ I generally agree with this breakdown, except I wouldn't have my leader also be the primary fighter, as that is the guy who will probably be killed defending the rest of the team. At this level of tech, any fighting could probably be done with drones/automated systems (hey, we are back around to Forbidden planet/Lost in Space!!) anyway. In general though, for just a 4 man team every one needs a primary skill and also double for someone else. It is far easier to train a pilot to take geologic samples than to train a geologist to fly. $\endgroup$
    – Jason K
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @ Youstay Igo That's a good mix of skills and duties. I could see that working, although Jason K's answer now has me wondering if a combat-type person would be necessary. Hmm... $\endgroup$
    – Arbutus
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 6:21
  • $\begingroup$ @ Jason K Good points. You really have me wondering if a combat expert would be necessary. If the planet was known to have large predators, would armed drones and automated systems be considered sufficient protection? I could see the crew having those, but would they also have some sort of weapons for themselves, just in case of system malfunctions? My story doesn't require the crew to be armed, so I have no vested interest in the answer to this question, other than I'd like to go with the most plausible answer. $\endgroup$
    – Arbutus
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 6:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Arbutus: I would consider a combat expert (more like a hunter and soldier merged into one person) critical for the survival of the team. Even if there are large predators on the planet and you do have drones, you would not want to indiscriminately spray bullets at the creatures because a) the dead bodies will attract more predators to the region b) a slight malfunction in the drones processing would put the team as a target and c) the team would be susceptible to pathogens contained in the blood of the dead animals. A combat expert is thus necessary. Also weapon training is mandatory for all. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 13:49

It depends a bit on what you are trying to achieve and what sort of technology you are using. For example if you have sensing equipment capable of collecting, logging and transmitting data you don't necessarily need the specialists who will interpret the data to be there in person.

With this in mind you can ask yourself what yobs would need to be done on the ground to maintain the mission which can't easily be automated. It could very well be that the most important job is for technicians who know how to set up and maintain the surveying equipment.

Also what are the physical constraints of the equipment ? For example do you need to land at a known safe landing site and then travel some distance to set up equipment and take samples at an area of interest ? Equally how difficult is it to fly the lander, you you need a specialist pilot or is it more like driving a van ?

Once on the ground what is the terrain like...do you need someone with expertise in traveling and surviving in a particular environment ?

It really comes down to what technical and practical expertise you need to operate the scientific and technical equipment you need to gather the data you need. For an initial reconnaissance sending even the most expert geologist or biologist to 'have a look' isn't really going to tell you much.

One reasonably credible breakdown would be :

  • Pilot : responsible for getting on and off the planet
  • Mission leader : responsible for administration, safety and overall decision making
  • senior technician : responsible for operating the science equipment
  • assistant technician : perhaps also with medical or other specialist training as required

If you are expecting to encounter intelligent life (aliens) then you open up the possibility of a role in attempting to communicate and interact with whoever you find. For obvious reasons what skills this might require are speculative but expertise in general science, art, linguistics and culture are possibilities or you might have a specific package of training for this eventuality.

With a team this small on a 2-3 day mission having a specialist medic seems a bit and if its then who gets injured (a 1 in 4 chance) they are entirely redundant. It would make more sense for all team members to have basic medical training.

Similarly having one 'combat expert' in a 4 man team seems a bit pointless. either send a dedicated military unit or just run away if there is trouble.

  • $\begingroup$ I like your answer very much, as I hadn't considered just sending a pilot along with some technicians to set up and monitor the surveying equipment, and the scientists back on the generation ship just interpreting the data that gets sent to them by this team. I think I also agree with doing away with the combat expert, and having a dedicated military unit instead that would arrive a little beforehand on another ship in order to set up a secure survey location. $\endgroup$
    – Arbutus
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 6:52

I like Sepratrixes answer as it interprets the old style question framework by OP.

As a start the first thing would have been to research what the Mars colonist teams have planned and then make allowance for the fact that that is a long term exploration. Compare this with the moon landing teams and what they got up to. Piloting and sample collection.

There is no real need for military/strong-arm personnel unless they are expecting "stobor" or Klingons and then it is better to move to next planet.

The first explorers are expendable, there will be more sent if these fail. Their value is in exploration and they need to be good at this, basically sample taking and piloting of the scout ship are what they have to be good at. The next batch may have a little more specialisation but strength and skill at deploying and operating sampling and short and long term monitoring equipment are all that is needed.

So piloting, first aid and field sample collecting from all 4. Hopefully one manages to pilot the samples back to the mother ship.

I see the answer by o.m. is also close to mine and I agree with much of it. Sample collection is the key, not deep analysis or interaction with the environment.

This all presupposes a need for sample collection. The correct answer is to have the samples collected and analysed by advance high acceleration robot probes and a robot supported perimeter already in place if the place can support humans, then send in some interesting crew to explore further afield. Tough guys with fast reflexes and survival training would be the requirement there with lots of drones and robot support exploring day and night.

On reflection the forward team does not need to exist. Robot probes have checked if the air is breathable, if so the colonists will land and make the best of it. Generation ships are generally not made to cope with many wishful destinations unless we have FTL probes to make a long string of possible destinations. If there is air then there is some form of photosynthesis and it is somewhere in the Goldilocks band, better than this the colonists cannot hope for.


I'm afraid I must disagree with a fundamental premise of the question. You're asking for a small expeditionary team as part of primary exploration. While this may have been valid for scifi through the 60s-90s, since we started dropping rovers on Mars, it's no longer a valid "future" concept. We're not going to be sending people until all the surveys and decisions that you're thinking of have already been done by probes and the teams reading the data from them.

I'd want probes to have been on the planet for at least a couple of years before the human team show up, at which point I'm sending in a moderate size scout ship with 10-20 people at least, maybe up to 50 if I want to actually get some results, probably with a mission lasting at least (local) full seasonal year. There's no point spotting a perfect landing location and then finding too late that it has a 6 week summer, that you just happened to see, and spends the rest of the year under ice, or that it's on the annual migratory route for a million oversized buffalo.

4 people in a couple of days barely have time to put in a fast orbit and leave again. They're not going to be gathering any meaningful data compared to scattering probes across the surface.

If you genuinely want to send 4 people on an exploratory mission to an inadequately scanned planet then their roles are:

  • Tank
  • Ranged/melee dps (physical)
  • Ranged dps (caster)
  • Healer

What we forget, living on our domesticated planet, is quite how dangerous the large mammals and matching predators that we have mostly killed off on Earth can be. We look at our world's large predators in their fenced in zones, and out in places we never go, and think they're awesome, forgetting that they used to be everywhere and we used to be on the menu. A fresh new wild world is going to be dangerous, very dangerous, especially for people who smell of dinner.

  • $\begingroup$ What is "dps"? I'm fairly sure you aren't referring to any Descent Propulsion System. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling, "Damage per second", it's a reference to the fact that what he needs is a standard role playing game adventuring party rather than a scientific group. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 11:34
  • $\begingroup$ @ Separatrix There was probably a less snarky way to respond, but all right. I take your point about the short mission length. I can adjust my story to accommodate a much longer one. And a larger ship for more people. That's all doable, so I may well do that. I still think a small ship with a small crew is plausible, although in that case, there would likely be multiple ships. That can work for me, too. But I actually like the idea of a moderate-sized scout ship. It has certain advantages for my story. And yes, I agree about the wildlife. That is certainly on my mind. $\endgroup$
    – Arbutus
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 6:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Arbutus, As you say my tone could have been better, and that's even after toning it down (you should see my work emails). I can see the story drive for a small group, parties of 4 and 5 work really well, but even if you use them for "away teams" from a larger ship they're still basically combat groups with a mission and a little scientific training. You could argue that animal traps need to be carefully placed, monitored, and manned rather than dropped from orbit, but that's only when you're trying to find out what's venomous/edible, long after the geological and atmospheric survey. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 8:09

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